The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 45

 

It took far less time for Noemi to readjust to being aboard the Dutchman than she expected. At first this scared her. After all, it was a ship of the dead. What place did she have aboard it to feel so comfortable? Still, she had spent so much time aboard ships while fleeing Aztlan, that there was something almost comforting about returning to the sea.

What she hadn’t gotten used to quite yet was the bitter cold. The ship was still of the damned as it were, and the dead didn’t mind the cold. All the blankets they had were thin and scratchy, and so Noemi spent most nights curled up against Ophidia trying to keep herself as warm as she could. The goddess didn’t seem to mind, and despite being a serpent, Noemi found her surprisingly warm.

It didn’t get any warmer as they sailed to the north. True to Jonah’s words, there were far more ghost ships sailing than Noemi remembered from her last voyage. Their pace was slow for the Dutchman as they made their way to the frozen north again, fighting the drowned dead that had risen from the sea floor. Noemi had run out of bullets for her guns long before they reached the North Sea and had taken to using a sword to fight back the skeletal sailors.

Still, they had persisted, as the waters had turned dark and frigid, the air icy on the deck as Noemi bundled herself in a coat made of Ophidia’s feathers. The goddess had presented it to her as they had sailed further north, and it was quite effective of keeping Noemi’s heat trapped.

“Yo, Red, help me out with the sails!”

Ronny was hanging off the mast, a rope tied her belt as she sewed up the fabric of the Dutchman’s sails where holes had cut into the sheet. Noemi looked up, frowning, had over her eyes to block out the glare of the sun.

“Why are you bothering? It’s not like this ship will be slowed by holes in the sail. As far as I can tell, it’s all magic.”

“Yah, but it looks ugly. Who wants to sail on an ugly ship?”

“…Pass. If I fall from that height, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to leave this boat.”

“What a whiner!” Ronny grumbled, as she started lowering herself by the rope. “So why are we going north anyway? Cabin boy said it was your request.”

“Mm,” Noemi paused for a moment, looking at the elf, before shrugging her shoulders. There wasn’t really any harm in being honest when they were already on the ship. “I’m going to try to summon Jormungandr.”

“The World Serpent? Why?”

“Because don’t you remember the last time? I want to…take her up on her offer. And Ophidia could really benefit from the cosmic power.”

“If I remember last time, it was considering eating us last time we saw it…You’re weird, wanting to see it again.”

“I guess I am,” Noemi said with a grin. “But she said ghosts aren’t tasty, and think how bad ghost wood must taste. To a giant snake, it must taste like moldy dirt or something!”

Ronny laughed, untying herself from the rope as she dropped down to the deck, but furrowed her brow and scrunched her face again as she remembered just who they were talking about. “Still don’t trust it, her, whatever! They always say she’s a sign of the end, after all.”

“Well, I think we’re already in the end of days, Ronny,” Noemi said. “After all, the dead are rising, people are following old gods and rituals. I guess I’m one of those too, but…”

“If you get us eaten, Red, I’m going to haunt you forever on this ship.”

Noemi sighed as Ronny brushed by to go about her other tasks. The elf was certainly lively, a welcome change of pace compared to all the ghosts and even Ophidia and Jonah, who still came off with a certain distance, but that liveliness sometimes left Ronny storming off in a huff.

“I would not worry, Noemi,” Ophidia said, her voice coming from behind. Noemi felt the goddess’s hands on her shoulders, squeezing them with reassurance. “I did not feel any ill-intent or duplicity from the World Serpent when we last spoke. She seemed an…earnest creature. I do not see why she would have cause to deceive.”

“Yeah, though she’s so…big…I just hope it doesn’t turn you into some weird alien dragon monster, Ophidia…”

Ophidia smiles and gives Noemi’s shoulders another squeeze. “I would not allow such a thing. Especially with a cult that is growing. I am better now to resist such an influence than before.”

“So what you’re saying is that…It was the right call to make the cult first?” Noemi teased, leaning back into her arms.

“I don’t know if I would say that necessarily,” Ophidia said, ending her words with a small huff, before continuing, albeit reluctantly. “However, there are…advantages to the order we chose.”

“Well, I think we’re getting close. Those mountains have been in the distance, just over the horizon, for like three days now…That’s ‘her’ right?”

“It is…a part of her. But we are close to where her essence is at its strongest, to draw her forth into this world.”

“Yeah, they kind of look like those images you see on the maps, where they’ll draw a sea serpent with links like arches in the water. We don’t seem to get any closer or farther away.”

“We are close, as I said. I will summon her in the morning, Noemi, should the stars and signs be right.”

Noemi didn’t get much sleep that night, even curled up in Ophidia’s protective arms. She was warm, the ship trying to gently rock her to bed, but every time she closed her eyes, she could only see the massive jaws of the World Serpent, swallowing the boat as the light goes dark. It had been one of the most terrifying moments of her life, even more than the jungle. In the jungle, she had to run faster. Staring down the jaws of the giant snake into the void…there was no where to run from that.

Eventually, though, sleep had finally claimed her. The sun had yet to rise as she stumbled onto the deck, still weary from the poor rest she had gotten. Ophidia was already there, along with Jonah, as a representative of the Dutchman. He was frowning, clearly as unsure as Ronny about this entire endeavor.

“Are we really sure we want to catch her eye? I mean, what if she changed her mind about not wanting to eat this ship? I don’t want to see if the Dutchman can dive into stomach acid to escape.”

“We’ll be fine, Jonah,” Noemi said, with more confidence than she actually felt. She turned to Ophidia, who stood at the prow, staring out at the ‘mountains’ in the distance. “Ready when you are, Ophidia!”

The feathered serpent nodded. Before the pair’s eyes, Ophidia’s cape transformed, attaching to her arms, becoming a set of feathered wings. Her body started to sway back and forth, as a tail sprouted from behind her, tipped with the same white feathers. Noemi just watched her movements, like those of a snake charming a vole.

At first, there was nothing. No response at all. Yet the tension fell over them like a blanket, as Noemi’s breaths grew shorter and quieter, feeling it building in her chest. Ophidia rose from the deck, hovering in the air, using her wings to twirl like a cyclone as she danced, communicating in a language without words. Noemi had seen her do such things with other spirits, often times she would dance to make the ghosts sluggish and slow. Now, however, she moved with an ancient grace, like a priestess before an altar.

There was a low rumbling, as the mountains started to shift. The moved like a wave, dipping into the ocean before rising up once more, water crashing down around them as the ocean churned. Noemi gripped the side of the ship as it thrashed over the tumbling waves. In the water, there was a large crest of water, coming towards the Dutchman, the height as tall as the mast aboard the man-o-war.

“Here it comes…” Jonah said, his face white.

“I think it should be…’Thar she blows’!” Ronny said, giggling, though Noemi knew it was more out of fear than humor.

Noemi said nothing, as the wave drew closer. It blotted out the sun, casting a shadow over the Dutchman, rising like a pillar towards the sky, before the water fell away, revealing the form of the Midgard Serpent. Salt water came down like a deluge upon the Dutchman, as the giant snake stared with its jeweled eyes.

“You have returned, Feathered One.”

“I have,” Ophidia said, still hovering in the air, moving in a figure eight before the larger being. “I have come to learn and grow more powerful, as you offered before.”

“Already you have become not so small as when I last spoke. You are becoming big, big enough to stand among us.”

“I am, World Serpent, if you would have me.”

Jormungandr stared down at her, ignoring the ship, the “not food” as she had once declared them. Noemi felt like an ant before her eyes, small, insignificant. Not even the Dutchman had firepower enough to stand against the serpent.

“I have gathered to me a storm of dragons, wyrms, and serpents, assembling them and learning what has become of many,”

Jormungandr said, her words causing the waves to rise and fall, rocking the boat beneath. She paused, to allow the sea to calm itself before speaking again.

“Something broods beyond the walls. Rumors stir in the waters of the world. Ragnarok is coming to pass.”

“I thought Ragnarok already happened!” Noemi shouted up, though she didn’t know if the World Serpent could hear her. “Ophidia, ask her that!”

“Has not Ragnarok already passed? The world has changed, Great One, and it is a new age, is it not?”

“It is not. The Norns are silent. The hammers of the shipwrights of the Naglfar clamor in the depths. The Black Ship may soon sail.”

“And that is the end of the world?”

The serpent nodded her head, and Noemi could feel her feet giving out from under her, as if the water of the ocean was sinking away. Jormungandr stopped, and the world stabilized around her once more.

“If you wish to stop the ending of the world, we will need a ship to sail against the Black. This ship. Among many more.”

“Err, I’m sorry…” Jonah said, shouting up as well. He shook his head, his face white. “You want the Dutchman? But…That’s…It doesn’t work that way. Only Davy Jones can command it!”

“Has your lord spoken to you in recent time, ghost?”

Jonah shut up, not having an answer. The serpent focused her intense glare down at him, all but crushing him beneath the weight of it. Ronny looked at Jonah, then to Jormungandr. She took a gulp and stepped forward.

“I don’t get it! You’re Jormungandr, right? So aren’t you on the side that wants to end the world? All the stories we’ve ever told have said that you fight with the giants and end the world!”

Jormungandr laughed, and it was as if a great wind came from the north, pushing the Dutchman back, the sea turning choppy and rough. Spray blanketed the crew, including Noemi, her hand turning white from grabbing onto the railing.

“I seek only the death of the Thunderer. My enemies are not humans, nor the world. For the world is me. Fate must go as planned. Time is not ready for our battle. It is a wrong thing.”

“A wrong thing, World Serpent?” Ophidia asked.

“It may yet come to pass, but there is a hand behind this that I do not like. Join my army of wyrms, Feathered One, and fight against the wrong thing. Do so, and I will make you big.”

Noemi looked up at Ophidia, trying to catch her breath from the excitement that came with every motion of the large snake. Ophidia turned to catch her eye, and in that moment, Noemi saw hesitation in the goddess. A sense that there would be no going back. Noemi took a deep breath, before nodding her head. It was okay. They would do this together.

Ophidia turned back to the world serpent, staring up at her large shining eyes.

“I accept.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The End of the Road

 

“All aboard!” The ship captain’s voice rang out over the small docks as the last of the sailors brought their cargo aboard. It was a decent-sized sailboat, much of the cabin emptied out to make room for cargo and supplies, one of countless ships like it that ran much needed goods from island to island throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

“Excuse me?” A small voice caught the captain’s attention, and he turned to see a frail-looking young woman standing on the docks. She was in a pitiful state, half-starved, bruised, and clothes that looked like they’d been dragged through jungle mud for ten miles or more. Her black hair was barely restrained in a ragged braid and one of the lenses of her glasses was missing, leaving an empty frame.

“We’re casting off now, Miss,” the captain said. “Nothing left to trade. We’ll be back in three weeks’ time if the weather’s good.”

“Ah, that’s just it…I was hoping to buy some space on your boat,” She was shaking almost like a leaf, but her voice remained somewhat steady.

“Ah, a passenger then. I think we might make a little room if the price is right.”

The girl fumbled through her pack and at her pockets for a brief moment, clearly not the type to have much. Eventually, she unhooked her belt and offered up a thin rapier kept on a sheath to him.

“Even if it’s not much for monster-killing,” the girl said. “It’s made of high-quality steel. I’m sure someone can find a good use for it.”

The captain looked them over, first the sword, then the girl.

“It’ll do. Climb aboard then we set sail within the hour.”

Relief broke across the girl’s face as she bowed her head. “Thank you, sir.”

The captain took the blade from her, carrying it over his shoulder. “Just try not to get underfoot, Miss…what’s your name then anyway?”

“Gisela,” She said. “Gisela Silva.”

 

As a ghost in her memory, Cat watched as the younger Gisela climbed quickly aboard the ship, trying to keep a low profile as she scurried to the stuffed cabin below. Always trying to keep from getting in the way of the sailors as they began preparations to cast off.

“So, this is how you left the mainland?” Cat asked the apparition of the older Gisela beside her. “Got on a boat and sailed off?”

“It is what we had agreed on,” Gisela said.

“You could have tried going back for her,” Cat said. “I would have tried…”

“What would that have gotten me, Catarina?” Gisela asked. “Noemi sacrificed herself so I could escape. Trying to rescue her would have been insulting everything she tried to give me.”

“You don’t know she died,” Cat said. “You might have been able to-“

“Look at what I was, Catarina,” Gisela cut her off, gesturing to the girl on the boat. “I could barely keep myself standing. I hadn’t had any real food in days and I’d been on the run for weeks. All I could have done was get myself captured and killed. Sometimes staying alive is all you can afford to do.”

Cat fell silent as she continued to watch the ship being readied, sails unfurling as they cast off from the dock, carrying their cargo out towards the sea.

“So where are you going?” Cat asked.

“The ship was sailing for Cuba,” Gisela said. “I would have taken it anywhere, so long as it was far away.”

They stood on the dock, watching the ship move out of the harbor under a clear sky.

“You know…” Cat said, watching the ship leave. “I’ve been wondering about a few of these memories.”

“Hmm?” Gisela gave her a questioning glance.

“There seems to be a lot of things you couldn’t have seen or been a part of like…you’re below decks on the ship right now, right? How do we know what the sky looked like, or the view from the docks?”

Gisela remained still, but Cat could have sworn she saw a smile tug at the edges of her lips.

“Smart. I’m glad you’ve started noticing that.”

“Well, I noticed it for a while,” Cat said. “I just assumed you were embellishing a little.”

“I wish it was as plain as that,” Gisela said. “This is the last memory I have for you, and soon it will all be made clear.”

“Seriously, the last?” Cat asked in surprise.

“One more,” Gisela said. “On the ship.”

Once more the memory began to change, the white fog rolled around before clearing again. Cat found herself standing on the deck of the boat, almost feeling the cool ocean breeze as it rolled over them, carrying swiftly across the sparkling blue Caribbean waters.

“It’s pretty at least,” Cat said, looking out towards the horizon.

“It is,” Gisela nodded. “This is a beautiful part of the world…I’d like to see it again.”

“Get away from all us annoying Europeans,” Cat grinned. “I can see the appeal.”

Looking out towards the horizon, Cat watched the distant clouds rolling over the western sky, dyed gold and crimson by the lowering sun. Cat narrowed her eyes a little, watching what seemed like tiny spikes on the water, black against the red sky. As she watched, they began to grow larger, rising higher slowly into the sky like the fins of approaching sharks.

“Are those…”

“Sails off stern!” The call went off across the ship as people rose to the alert. One lanky shirtless sailor brought his binoculars to his face, looking out towards the horizon.

Cat looked at Gisela, whose face was once more fallen into stony silence.

“Red sails!” The man cried out, voice cracking slightly.

Cat saw the color drain from the captain’s face. The younger Gisela slowly crawled up from the hold, her eyes haggard as terror began to grip her face.

“Full sail!” The captain roared. “We have the wind with us! “

“Those ships are far away…” Cat said. “It’ll take a while for them to catch you, right?”

“Under normal circumstance it might take days,” Gisela said, her expression hardening. “But these are not normal waters, and those are Aztlan blood pirates.”

She glanced at the horizon, watching the sun begin to set. “Something darker than sails propels those ships, and wherever they appear the Night Wind rolls in across the waves.”

Even as she spoke, the sails of their boat seemed to collapse, caving in as the wind turned in an instant, slowing them as the ship began to lose its cutting momentum. The sails of the ships behind them, however, still seemed full, and they were gaining rapidly.”

“Pirates?” Cat asked. “They’re here to loot the ship?”

“It’s not just the cargo,” Gisela said. “Aztlan blood pirates are…efficient. They’ll take the cargo for bounty, they’ll take the supplies to keep raiding, they’ll take the ship to join their fleet, and they’ll take the crew for the blood that flows through their veins.”

Cat swallowed as she watched the sails, bright red against the sky, cut through the wind to bear down on them.

“So, what do you do against pirates like that?”

The ship’s captain rallied the men. Those who weren’t busy navigating or working the sails drew knives, guns, and sharpened boathooks into their hands. Even Gisela was pulled forward, the captain thrusting her sword into her hands.

The clouds had followed the Aztlan ships, rolling overhead like a massive stone-grey wave across the sky. Both of the pirate vessels outsized the small cargo ship, and Cat could see magic fires burning on their decks in vivid blues and greens as they drew closer, casting the silhouettes of their crews into strange dark light.

The young Gisela braced herself on the lines of the ship, sword in one hand as she watched in terror as the twin ships overtook their own, one on either side.

For a moment there was silence as the crews traded hateful glance, before it was broken by a shrieking war cry. Dozens of raiders and soldiers leapt or swung across the gap between ships and the deck erupted into melee. The young Gisela tried to run where she could, ducking, rolling, and clawing away from the swinging weapons and shrieks of fury and pain as combat broke across the length of the ship.

“I think I knew this was it,” Gisela said, watching her younger self struggle. “Nowhere to run or hide, no one left to save me, and I didn’t even have the strength or courage to fight.”

The younger Gisela moved towards the bow, only to be grabbed forcefully by the collar by one of the Aztlan soldiers. As she struggled weakly to break free, hitting his arm with the pommel of her sword, both of them were thrown off balance as the warrior was tackled by one of the sailors, sending him to the deck as Gisela stumbled off the boat and into the cool darkening waters.

Gisela gasped and spluttered, choking on the rush of salt water as her arms thrashed. Her arms began pulling her through the water as her feet kicked furiously, carrying her away from the dueling ships as fire was launched from the deck of the Aztlan raiders, burning through the sailors of the small trading ship.

Barely managing to tread water, limbs still weak, Gisela watched as the fires burned through the sails and cargo was hauled up from the captured ship.

“Nowhere to go, no one to help,” Gisela said as they watched from the water. “What can anyone do but sink?”

Cat watched with growing pity, like something was squeezing her heart as the young Gisela thrashed at the water as long as she could. Whether it was exhaustion or simple despair she couldn’t tell, but the fire left Gisela’s eyes and without even a splash of water she sank beneath the waves.

Cat’s ghostly form sank beneath the waves with her, watching Gisela sink into the darkening clear water. Suddenly, in the quiet water, another shift seemed to occur. She saw the front of Gisela’s shirt pull suddenly upwards, as if an invisible hand had taken tight hold of it and yanked upwards.

The young Gisela’s eyes opened in surprise, bright and surprised, her glasses having been knocked off her face as something began to tug her back towards the surface.

“Rise, child.”

Cat shivered, a cold voice echoing through the water as she saw the ghostly shape of something move around Gisela, a shimmer in the light like a heatwave under water.

“The cold lord of the ocean depths will have many souls this night, I would not give him yours.”

Gisela was still rising slowly, too slowly, as the force pulling her upwards seemed to weaken with her weight. It seemed almost as if Gisela wanted herself to sink. The forms in the water grew more solid, tendrils of air that slithered like serpents, weaving and binding until they coalesced into the shape of a skeletal clawed hand. Once more the voice echoed through the water, a sharp hissing voice that echoed from behind sharp teeth.

“All the ocean can give you is death, child. Take my hand, bind your soul to mien and I can give you a future. Power, strength, and the knowledge fit to reshape the world as you always wished it to be. All you must do is take my hand.”

Gisela’s mouth opened, bubbles rising through the water as she coughed and gagged in panic. Cat saw the despair in her eyes, the terror coursing through her before with a slow grasp she took tight hold of the ghostly hand and let herself be pulled upwards once again before she finally broke the surface. Cat rose with her, seeing her gasping for breath as she was kept afloat.

The choppy water had grown still, the clouds had cleared and all sign of the ships had vanished leaving only the mirror-calm sea and the stars overhead. A shape moved in the darkness, the night sky shifting and warping as a new dark form came into being.

For an instant it seemed human, Cat swear she saw the silhouette of a tall woman appear before that was wrapped in layer after layer of rippling feathered cloth. Within the cloth, pale bones took form, assembling into the shape of a great robe-dressed skeleton. Its body was bedecked with jewels and gold which, upon closer inspection, was comprised of slithering hissing serpents with glimmering scales. Massive wings, dark wings of an obsidian butterfly, filled the sky and blotted out the stars. The great skull-head, filled with needle-like teeth and covered in wiry hair, stared at her with empty eyes that burned with starlight.

“Do you accept my gift, child?” The terrible goddess asked. “I have watched you from afar for some time. I have seen you run, struggle, and crawl. Your will is strong, the will to live stronger than all. Will you take life before death?”

“I-I do!” Gisela gasped. “Please!”

“Then take my many gifts child,” It reached out and placed a bony sharpened fingerbone against her forehead. “And do what you must to save this world with the power of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly.”

Cat watched Gisela’s eyes go wide, her body stiffening before beginning to shudder, her pupils dilating before beginning to shiver.

The older Gisela moved to Cat. “This is how I learned what I know now,” Gisela said. “It was delivered to me in pure form at the hands of a goddess. But few of the gods here are kind.”

Gisela screamed, eyes wide as Itzpapalotl kept her finger pressed against her skull, unable to escape or seek relief or do anything but scream in pain as ancient knowledge was decanted into her mind. With nothing around save for the water, Gisela’s screams seemed to echo for miles around.

“It was like having my mind rewritten with a dagger,” Gisela said. “New knowledge roughly hewn over the old. A million words in a thousand tongues, all with dozens of meanings all of which I was made to know.”

Eventually the screaming of the younger Gisela began to fade, still floating in the cold water. Cat leaned in, and could see a change had come over the young girl. She still didn’t look quite like the Gisela she knew, Still a bit too young, too unhealthy, and too afraid. But she now saw the familiar glimmer of violet in her eyes.

A piece of wooden flotsam floated by which Gisela swiftly and desperately took hold of, fingers curling around the damp wood.

“Now then, Champion,” Itzpapalotl said. “Do you know what you must do?”

Gisela looked up at the goddess, and now for the first time Cat saw the familiar hard-eyed expression on her face.

“I do.”

If the terrible skull face of the goddess could smile, it did.

“Good. Then start moving, the world awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 39

 

It seemed it didn’t matter where she went these days, Noemi was getting used to being either aboard a rocking creaky ship or running through the underbrush of a jungle. After running off from Nicolas, Noemi had followed the bare markings that made up the trail of a human, doing the best she could with what little she had before her. A footstep in some dried mud, fabrics caught on thorns and bark, or the remains of a campfire here and there kept her going deeper into the jungle.

It seems odd that your sidekick, from what you’ve told me, would go this deep alone, Noemi.

“Well, maybe she found a spirit of her own. I don’t know how she got here but…look, even if it’s not her, we’ve come this far. We should see it through!”

I suppose. Though what will you do if it is not her?

“I don’t know…probably talk to whoever is leaving this trail, I guess. They must be good at surviving. Maybe they’d be willing to travel with us, or at least get us in contact with spirits…”

Yes. The local spirits here feel…oddly tranquil.

“They probably haven’t had much happen to stir them up as of late.”

Noemi hadn’t been paying much attention to the spirits as she ran through the jungle. Most seemed to just shuffle out of her way, scurrying beneath the leaves and vines to hide. Others watched with curious but passive interest as she charged forward, ignoring them. They were certainly less aggressive than the spirits in Tess’s jungle had been, though there she had no idea which ones were spies for the jaguar.

Perhaps she should have paid them a little more attention, though. Noemi’s foot caught on a vine and sent her tumbling to the ground, right beside a number of spirits who swiftly took the form of birds, flocking away together, chattering and calling to one another. She could feel the hair on her arms and neck rising as she pushed herself off the ground, spitting out mud.

In Tess’ jungle, that would have been a death sentence. Here, it was just carelessness. Still, carelessness was unacceptable. Noemi cursed herself silently under her breath, as she started to run again. She could feel Ophidia’s presence pushing her forward, as the previously quiet jungle started to fill with sounds.

All the animals, large and small, joined in the cacophony around her as Noemi winced. That…didn’t seem to be a good sign.

Now they are no longer tranquil.

“Is that…sarcasm?”

An observation.

“It is!”

I would be careful, Noemi. With everything so…active, it is hard to get a sense of what is ahead of us.

“Yeah…can barely hear anything over these screeches. Stupid birds!”

Pay attention, Noemi. You are getting careless…

“Right…Sorry…”

Noemi shut up and stopped running, moving slowly through the brush. It might have been late, but her instincts and her habits from surviving in the rainforest were starting to return to her as she took a moment to recover. The spirits were active now, sure, but she could use that to her advantage. It means that it would be as hard for others to hear her as for her to hear them.

She drew her machete from her belt. The weight of it felt familiar in her hands, and helped her slide easily back into the cunning survivalist mindset she had before. She pushed her red hair out of her eyes, the strands sticking to her skin, sweaty from the humidity. Noemi swung the blade, clearing a path as quietly as she could, even as the jungle made noise all around her.

The feeling in the back of her mind, that they were being followed and stalked, never went away though, even as she continued along the trail. Eventually, the jungle gave way to a small clearing around a pond. Noemi looked around, but there was no one. No black-haired girl…

Stepping out from the foliage, her machete raised, Noemi slowly approached the pond. The water was flowing into it from a small creek, it seemed to have some fish swimming beneath its surface. Noemi wondered if perhaps the water spirit had seen any other human, if she could tell her where Gisela might have gone.

“Guess we should see if someone’s home…”

I do sense a spirit nearby but…Noemi. We’re not alone!

“What do you—” She didn’t even finish the sentence before she heard the soft twang of a bowstring. Actually, she felt it before she heard it, her instincts warning her of the danger before the arrow had left the bow. Falling to the ground, she rolled forward, raising her machete in front of her as she took a knee.

Men started to step out of the forest, wearing dark greens and blacks, though decorating themselves with the feathers and fur of animals. Most were carrying bows, though some held swords in their hands. They all bore the symbol of the jaguar on their cloak. Servants of Tezcatlipoca, an Aztlan raiding party…they had reached even here.

Noemi swore under her breath, her eyes darting around like a cornered beast. They were all around her, and there was nowhere close enough to take cover from their arrows.

She could hear the sound of a woman laughing. Stepping from the shadows came what seemed to be a priest, dressed in the raiment of the Jaguar, the black skin of the beast draped over her head. The priestess continued to laugh, though there was a deeper, louder chortle underneath her haughty airy one.

You’ve made it far too easy,” she said, the strange echo on her voice. Noemi’s face blanched.

“Tess…”

“That and a thousand other names.”

“How…How did you…?”

“You think my influence so meager, my power so thin, that I cannot reach this far? I told you before that there was nowhere you could go that I could not find you, no shadow dark enough for you to hide from me. Aztlan has no boundaries, -I- have no boundaries. The village was already under my control, before you set your feet upon the sands.”

“How!?”

The priestess grinned, and for a second, Noemi thought she could see the face of the young girl who had once traveled beside her in the priestess’ dark smile.

“Fate, I suppose. The spirits know to keep an eye out for you or your ‘sidekick’. When you washed ashore, it was not long before my priestess was informed. I knew you would not think before rushing off after your precious Gisela.”

“Gisela…”

“Is not here, girl, and you will never find her. Your search has ended, and I plan to make good on that promise I made you.” The priestess sauntered over and Noemi could almost feel Tezcatlipoca’s power coursing through her body. She ran her finger down Noemi’s chest, eyes dark and burning with divine light. “Your heart will make a fine meal for…what’s this now?”

The skin over Noemi’s heart started to glow a faint white, the color of Ophida’s feathers. The priestess’…no…Tezcatlipoca’s face split into an even wider grin.

“Oh ho, what a treat. So this is how you escaped my forces in the jungle before. You found yourself a patron, just like poor Anton. An imitation god for an imitation hero,” Tezcatlipoca said, wrapping her fingers around Noemi’s throat, cutting off her air. “An ancient shadow of my fallen brother. You’re not even a goddess anymore, little snake. I would hardly deign to give you the honor of sacrifice but…I suppose you’ll make good fodder.”

The long, soft, fingers of the priestess loosened their grip on Noemi’s throat. Noemi sucked back in air, rubbing her throat gingerly.

“Bind her and prepare her as a proper sacrifice. I’ve waited too long to simply devour her here. I want to savor the last beats of her heart.”

Noemi was still gasping for breath as the soldiers started to grab her, throwing her to the ground as they pinned her arms behind her back. They didn’t bother being gentle as they tied her arms together, tightly so that she could barely move them, before slipping a collar and chain around her neck.

Noemi pulled against the collar but as they yanked on the chain, she found herself unable to breathe again and was forced to stumble forward. She glared at them all, even as they led her through the island jungle towards their camp.

“Ophida,” She said silently, thinking it rather than speaking. “Do you think you can get us out of here again?”

I cannot. I’m afraid I’ve grown too diminished, and there are none of my winged serpents here upon which I can call.

Noemi grimaced. Ophida didn’t say it, but Noemi was blaming herself anyway. After all, she had made the choice to come here over helping Jormungandr or even staying behind to build a cult for Ophida and make the spirit stronger. She had bet it all on finding Gisela and now…Well, it had gotten them here. Captured and with no power between them to break free.

“I’m sorry, Ophida…”

I understand, Noemi. It is…unfortunate. But know, that I did enjoy our time together.

“Thanks. I…I haven’t been a good champion for you, but…I really am sorry. I wish I had been able to see it more clearly before now.”

There is nothing we can do now, Noemi.

“Yeah…”

She felt the tug of the chain on her neck, bringing her out of her inner thoughts. Noemi let out a groan as the metal dug into her neck, glaring at the Aztlan soldier who held her chain.

“No escape for you, not even into your own thoughts, prisoner,” he grinned at her, looking pleased with her capture and degradation. “We’ve got to get you prepared for your sacrifice.”

“Oh, please, don’t let me stop you there,” Noemi said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

They pulled her forward, dumping a bucket of water on her head, scented with some sort of flower she didn’t know. Noemi grimaced from the shock of it. “…You are such a princess, Tess! Perfumed water, really?”

“That’s Tezcatlipoca, slave! He has demanded very specific preparations for you.”

Noemi spit on the ground in front of her, some of the perfumed water leaving her now scented lips. “Thought I was a sacrifice. So just slit my neck already, cut out my heart, and be done with it.”

The guard glared at her, but he continued to prepare her, stripping her out of her worn, raggedy, clothes and giving her a fresh dress. Noemi rolled her eyes, but didn’t struggle as they slipped the dress over her, briefly untying her bonds. She considered throwing a punch and making a run for it, but that was just likely to lead to more torture before they had the grace to kill her.

“There, just as the Jaguar demanded.”

Noemi was dragged towards the altar in the center of the camp, where the priestess stood, a knife in her hand as she voiced the words of prayer to the Jaguar. Noemi sighed as she marched, the crowd parting for her.

As she started to climb the steps up the altar, a loud screech came from the jungle, followed by hundreds of weaker shrieks. Noemi looked up, as dozens, if not hundreds of bird spirits took to the skies above the canopy of the trees, flying above the clearing where the Aztlan hunters had made their camp. She could hear the grunting and snorting of angry boars in the trees, the cracking of snapped bark.

“The spirits, they’ve been disturbed!” The priestess shouted, her voice human again. “Oh, great and mighty Jaguar, pacify these unruly, urgh!”

The priestess’ hands went to her throat, blood pouring through her fingers as her voice failed her. The animal spirits charged out from the trees into the camp in a rush of claws and talons, stampeding over the Aztlan soldiers. People went flying towards the branches, which grabbed those unfortunate few, pulling them into the shadow of the leaves.

Noemi’s jaw dropped open as she watched, her hands still bound together. The soldiers drew their swords and grabbed their bows, trying to fight off the forces of the jungle itself.

“Boss!”

Her head whipped around as she heard her name being called. There was Junko, riding on the back of a giant boar spirit, throwing knives at any who sought to block her path. The Asian girl reached down with one hand and grabbed the redhead, pulling her onto the back of the spirit as they continued to barrel into the jungle, leaving the sounds of the chaos behind them.

“…I thought the cavalry was supposed to be horseback. This is one strange looking horse,” Noemi joked, though her voice came out forced.

“Thank god I wasn’t too late. When I heard Nicholas say he sent you into the jungle…”

“What are you doing here, Junko?”

“I told you I had my own business, boss. But…I needed to get out too, hid away on a ship to Cuba. Been here a couple of months.

“…the Dutchman…It must have…”

“Come on, we’ll get you to a port, get you out of here before Aztlan can recover.”

“…No,” Noemi said, with confidence in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere. I said I was going to stop running but…I haven’t been doing that, I’ve still been letting Tess run me through a maze like a rat. We’re freeing this island from Aztlan.”

“Ehh?! Boss…That’s not going to be easy, they’re already here!”

What of Gisela, Noemi?

“I made a mistake! I let my desires get in the way of my responsibility. Things only got worse when I went off searching for Gisela. They’ll only keep getting worse if I don’t do anything and then it will be too late to stop them.”

“So…what are you going to do, boss?”

“We’re going back to the village, Junko. I’ve got a new cult to sell to the people.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 36

 

Noemi blinked as she looked over the railing of the ship. The air felt warmer than it had for weeks, the sun basking against the blue water, its reflections and rays shimmering out to reach the Dutchman’s sides. In the distance, she could see trees and sandy beaches, where the white waves lapped against them gently.

The navigational charts confirmed their position with the help of a sextant and some quick calculations, though it only told Noemi they were in the right general latitude for the Caribbean. Still, the Dutchman could drop them anywhere in the world, it would only make sense for her to drop them where they were going.

“I think that’s it. We made it! Can you bring us ashore, Jonah?”

The cabin boy shook his head. “’Fraid not, Noemi. The Dutchman can’t touch shore. We can get you close enough that you can get there on your own but it’s not my call.”

“Right…I guess ghost ships have all their own strange rules. Well, anything you can do for us is appreciated! Ophidia, you don’t mind swimming, right?” Noemi said with a grin. It was a silly question, and she knew it. After all, the spirit could just travel invisible above the water; she did not need to physically exert herself to reach the shore.

“I suppose,” Ophidia said, without much enthusiasm. She had been a bit distant ever since the meeting with Jormungandr. Noemi couldn’t help but frown. She really did want to help Ophidia get stronger but…She couldn’t just give up. Not now, not when she had come so far.

“Don’t worry, Ophidia,” Noemi said, forcing a smile to cover her own feelings. “We’ll both get stronger here, and from there, kick Tess’s butt!”

“We would have a far greater chance of that had we accepted the World Serpent’s offer, Noemi. But it is done. We shall go ashore.”

“Mmm…” Noemi fell silent. She couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t come across as patronizing and if there was one thing she did not wish to do, it was patronize her spirit, her own patron, the goddess to whom she owed so much…Her smile wilted as she looked away, unable to face Ophidia. She had made a promise to Ophidia, it was true, but she had made a promise to others as well.

The ship lurched to a stop in the water, the sails still blowing but the hull not traveling any further.

“Looks like we’ve hit our stop, Red!” Ronny shouted down from the lookout, before swinging down to the deck below. “Think ya can swim the rest of the way?”

“I was always a good swimmer, Ronny, and I’ve got stronger legs now. I’ll be fine,” Noemi said, hugging the elf farewell. “Guess this is goodbye. As much as I like you both, I don’t mean any offense when I say…I don’t hope to see this ship for a long time!”

Jonah grinned as he shook her hand, before finding himself pulled into a hug as well. “The feeling is mutual, Noemi. Though given the rate of piracy in the seas these days, well…Just keep safe.”

“Hey!” Ronny said, folding her arms across her chest as she glared at Jonah. “There’s nothing wrong with being a pirate!”

“Please,” Jonah said. “Even the devil himself would call pirates scum.”

“Better a pirate than having to serve the devil, like you do, Cabin Boy!”

“Says the elf serving aboard the Dutchman.”

“Yeah, by choice.”

“Alright, alright,” Noemi said, cutting them off before they could get into the debate for what felt like the thousandth time. “I don’t think you have to worry about me, Jonah. I don’t have any intention of becoming a pirate any time soon, and I’m looking forward to having dry land under my feet again.”

“You’ll miss your sea legs eventually, Red. Happens to us all,” Ronny said with a smile. “Now get going, I’m not through with making Cabin Boy take back his words!”

Jonah shook his head, pushing the shorter elf woman to the side gently, his hand pressing against her forehead as he stepped forward.

“Hey!”

“Farewell then, Noemi,” he said, “You too, Ophidia. It was a pleasure having you both aboard.”

Noemi flashed him a smile as she placed one foot on the railing, before taking a deep breath and diving into the sea below. The water felt cool and refreshing on her skin, already recovering from the stale air that hung around the Dutchman at all times. While she had gotten used to it, she had never truly forgotten it was a ship for the dead.

As she started to swim towards the island, she could feel the power of Ophidia flowing through her arms, legs, her entire body really, making the travel over the waves far quicker and easier than it would have been had she not been so blessed. Before too long, she could feel the wet sand beneath her feet, her toes sinking into the soft sand as she stumbled her way upon the beach.

The rainforest seemed to begin almost where the beach ended, sand turning into grass almost before her eyes. She wasn’t sure if that was the work of spirits or natural, but compared to the sandy well-lit beach, the jungle looked dark and uninviting. She remembered the last time she had been running through a rainforest. Noemi was sure that Gisela would have remembered as well.

“Most likely she would have come in on a ship, right? A normal ship. One that could dock at a port. Let’s walk along the beach and see what we can find.”

“Mm, Noemi, I do not wish to…distress you…but the odds of your friend having come to this very island by chance are…low,” Ophidia said, softly, her hands gently resting on Noemi’s shoulders.

“Yeah…but…still! There’s maybe a town or village somewhere, right? It’s not like Jormungandr would send us to a place where we were going to be stranded! …Would she?”

“I cannot say I fully knows the mind of the World Serpent, Noemi. Still,” Ophidia said, her eyes glowing. “The whispers of the snakes on this island say there is a settlement of humans. Apparently, it is a good source for mice.”

“Great! Let’s head that way!”

They walked along the beach, as the sun started its lazy descent towards the horizon, turning the blue water dark with reds and purples. Before night had come upon them completely, however, Ophidia’s ears perked up.

“Ahead of us is the village, Noemi. It seems to…be a fishing village, by the smell.”

“Mm, makes sense if it’s this close to the coast! Though it makes me wonder if there is something wrong with the rainforest.”

“I do not know. The snakes seem to think the rainforest is quite perfect the way it is, but what is safe for a snake may not be safe for you.”

“Right…”

The village was just that, a small collection of houses made from the reeds and woods, built on stilts to avoid the seasonal flooding. Noemi approached the settlement cautiously, keeping guard for any sign of the Jaguar about. It would be just perfect for her to have finally reached her destination, only to have to start running again immediately.

No. We’re done with running, remember?

Noemi clenched her fist as she nodded to herself. That’s right. They were going to find Gisela! …And work on Ophidia’s cult. That was important and she couldn’t forget about doing that. If Gisela wasn’t here, then…Well, Noemi figured she would just have to give up hope. She would have no lead and searching the entire Caribbean seemed an almost futile quest.

Her bare feet crunched against the shells and dried seaweed upon the beach as she made her way to the more grassy and rocky village. The islanders looked at her with curiosity as she stumbled forward, her legs still forgetting the ground beneath them was solid at times.

“Ah…hello?” Noemi said, she didn’t know what language they spoke here, but she figured between the three she knew, she had a good chance of at least being somewhat understood. “I’m looking for an inn…”

“Follow the path,” one of them said, pointing down the dirt path that led to the center of the village. “Travelers often stay at Nicolas’ home. It’s the largest in the village.”

“Thanks!” Noemi said, with a smile, as she continued her trek through the village. The people all watched her, their eyes following her as she stumbled forward.

“Err…Ophidia, do I look different or something?”

“Indeed. I have taken the liberty of manifesting partly through your form. You look human but it is clear you are a chosen champion.”

“O-oh, what if they are in service to Tess?!”

“They are not. If they were, I would have sensed the scent of the Jaguar. But it will serve you well to be known as a champion to establish a cult among the people.”

“Mrrr…I will, but I want to at least rest first. I don’t know the last time I had a proper bed. Between the jungles and the ships, I’ve been sleeping on cots at best!”

Noemi was speaking quietly, under her breath, as she pushed open the door to what she presumed was Nicolas’ inn. It was certainly the largest house and had a door with a sign saying “Welcome”. There was nobody there.

Noemi looked around for a bell or something, but before she could find it, she heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Ah…more visitors? It is rare for Nicolas to get so many in such short time!”

“Err, do you not get a lot of traffic to this island?” Noemi asked.

“Not much, no, but a boat arrived a few days before. Most times, they simply come to trade and sail off again. We have little to raid…I often host the officers aboard their ships, as a sign of hospitality!” He puffed up with pride as he spoke. “…But then another ship arrived not long after, and one of their people stayed behind. A black haired girl…”

Noemi’s ears picked up immediately. It couldn’t possibly be…

“Where was this girl from?”

“Ah, she said she was from Brazil. Said she was running away from the trouble that had come to them,” he shook his head. “That’s what happens when you have too many people living in one place. I remember reading about it, before the jungle pushed back against us. Swallowed whole cities…I can only imagine what it did on the mainland!”

“This girl…Where did she go!?”

“Mm? Ah…into the jungle. I warned her of the dangers but…she insisted. Anyway, I still have a room available! You’d be sharing with some of the first ship’s crew of…Ah! Miss?”

Noemi didn’t even wait before she had turned and ran out the door, towards the dark jungle.

I had thought you wanted a bed, Noemi.

“I did but…You heard what he said!”

Noemi…the jungle is full of many powerful spirits. They lurk in the shadows and the danger is great. This is…Foolish.

“I don’t care! …I’m not running away this time, Ophidia. I’m running towards something. I don’t care how good she’s gotten, I’ll be able to find her trail. I’m not leaving my sidekick behind again.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Hunted

 

The spreading jungle of central America seemed to be made of endless teeth, claws, and hungry maws as branches and weeds and vines whipped at Gisela and Noemi. Cat watched, a spectral figure in the memory with the Gisela she knew at her side as the younger one fled with Noemi through the dense foliage.

“Every day the jungle spread,” Gisela said. “The influence of spirits growing stronger every day, it made our going harder and gave speed to our enemies.”

“How long did you run for?” Cat asked, watching as they barely paused to catch their breath, even as it was clear both were being run ragged, Gisela especially so.

“I do not remember. Days, weeks, the nights and days blurred together.”

Even as the pair stopped briefly, catching their breaths, the echoing shriek of a jaguar’s roar echoed through the foliage around them and they set off again as fast as they could.

“This wasn’t a chase,” Gisela continued. “We were being hunted like animals. To be captured and sacrificed upon that same bloodstained altar.”

Cat moved closer to the past Gisela. The girl was a mess. Even beyond her torn clothes, gasping breath, and emaciated looks, there was a strangeness in her eyes. Her gaze was long, piercing while staring at nothing in particular.

“It’s what they call a thousand-yard stare,” Gisela said.

Cat saw Noemi help Gisela along, putting a hand on her shoulder as she urged her forwards. The younger Gisela shuddered, but kept moving.

“Noemi kept you going,” Cat said. “Through all of it.”

“I was broken, Catarina,” Gisela said. “Noemi was the only thing keeping those ragged pieces together before they broke apart entirely.”

“Was there anyone willing to help you?” Cat asked. “They can’t all have been…in league with Tess.”

“We tried.”

Gisela waved her hand and the memory shifted. The sky turned black as day turned to night then lit up as it became day again. With each passing day the toll on the fugitives became greater. Gisela showed Cats snippets of visions, of moving through isolated villages and farms, looking for a place to stay or someone to give them sanctuary.

Most of them turned the pair away, offering food or drink but no shelter, giving offerings through barely-opened doors before the doors were swiftly slammed shut again. Many of them gave nothing.

Noemi slammed her fist against the door, wood shaking under her mingled desperation and rage.

“Open up dammit!” She called into the locked and shuttered house. “We just need…somewhere to sleep…”

“Noemi…” Gisela put a tired hand on her shoulder. “Come on…we need to keep moving. We’ll find something…the next town is further away from the city.”

Noemi let out a long, ragged sigh, leaning her head and arm against the doorframe.

“Right,” She said, picking herself back up. “We need to keep moving forward. No matter what. Think you can keep up, sidekick?”

“Yeah…” Gisela managed a tired smile. “I…I’ll manage somehow.”

The two of them set off back towards the edge of the jungle.

“You both kept each other going,” Cat said, watching them leave the isolated farm behind. “I guess Anton was right. Noemi needed you as much as you needed her.”

“I didn’t believe it at the time,” Gisela said. “But looking back…the more obvious it became.”

“But there’s still a lot more to this story,” Cat said. “Show me more.”

Gisela let out a weary sigh. “Very well. Not much point dwelling here, I suppose.”

Once more the sky darkened and the scene shifted again. The pair of them were deep in the thick trees and underbrush of a dense subtropical jungle, Noemi taking the lead and trying to move through it with a scavenged machete in hand.

“Get off the road…” She panted between swings. “And they’ll be less likely to follow. Come on, Gisela,” She helped Gisela over a fallen log carefully, maneuvering around plants where they could so as to not risk leaving a trail.

The going was slow, and they were clearly exhausted. The burden seemed to lift from them, however, as they came across a vast open clearing. An area of low soft ferns that opened to the bright sky with a small creek running through the center.

Noemi hurried forward with Gisela close behind and the pair of them eagerly drank their fill in the crystal water running through the clearing. Gasping between mouthfuls of sweet water as they fell to their knees.

“What is this place?” Gisela finally asked, glancing around at the openness of the clearing, the tree line appearing to have simply stopped there for no apparent reason.

“Not sure…” Noemi said, joining her in glancing around as she looked for some answer. Her eyes went wide, and at the same time Cat realized why.

The clearing was silent. No birds, no insects, no hollering animal calls or any sound at all save the soft rustling of the wind.

“There’s a spirit here…” Noemi’s voice fell low. “Stay still and quiet…maybe we can convince it to help us.”

“You think that’s possible?” Gisela asked, but Noemi gave her a worried look.

“I’m not sure but…be prepared to run.”

Noemi’s eyes glanced this way and that, searching for any sign of the spirit. Her eyes caught a flicker of movement, a ruffling of feathers, and that’s when she saw the vast hawk that loomed at the edge of the clearing, so large it could easily have been mistaken for part of the tree, and its perch upon the branches seemed almost comical.

Noemi kept to her knees, gesturing to Gisela which direction to face as she bent herself low before the massive hawk spirit.

“Great spirit!” Noemi said. “We apologize for the intrusion into this clearing. We were lost and thirsty and wished only to survive.

“Impudent lesser creatures,” The voice of the hawk boomed across the clearing, it spread its enormous wings and swooped down to the ground, standing far taller than a man and looking enormous, even on the ground. “Give me reason I should not skin you alive.”

Cat saw the sword-like talons of the great hawk, easily big enough to eviscerate a horse, let alone a human. It was clearly no idle threat.

“Oh, great spirit,” Noemi bowed her head lower and Gisela did the same. “We did not seek to offend or to intrude. Let us pass by, and we will speak nothing of this place or this encounter.”

The hawk regarded them, staring down its long sharp beak at them before bending closer.

“I smell the hunt on you,” The hawk said. “I will spare your lives only because the jaws of another predator seek you.”

The hawk stood up tall again. “I will tell the great Jaguar of your presence here, and then perhaps I shall be rewarded.”

Once more the hawk spread its wings as the eyes of Noemi and Gisela went wide with fear.

“Run fast little mortals, your flight continues.”

With a great flap of its wings, kicking up dust and fern leaves the hawk took to the skies and Noemi was instantly on her feet.

“Dammit!” Noemi kicked at the closest fern, uprooting it entirely. “Just once! Just once, can’t we get a goddamn break?!”

“Noemi…” Gisela said quietly. “We need to start running…”

Noemi let out a long groan. “I know Gisela just…ugh five goddamn minutes!”

“Once we get far enough…” Gisela said, her voice still meek. “Far enough to be out of its influence…”

“Is there anywhere far enough!?” Noemi shouted, Gisela visibly shrinking. “You heard Tess on that temple! Where can we run? Where is there she won’t hunt us!?”

“I umm…err…” Gisela was visibly shaking, withering under Noemi’s anger. “What if we…left the continent?”

“Eh?” Noemi’s anger had begun to simmer as she calmed down.

“Take a boat,” Gisela said more hurriedly. “Sail somewhere far away. To America, or Argentina, or even Europe! Somewhere not even Tess can reach us…”

“That’s a long way to go, Gisela…” Noemi said. “Do you think we can…”

“We need to try!” Gisela said, grabbing Noemi’s arm. “More than that, more than anything…we can’t give up now!”

Noemi hesitated for a moment before nodded, the weary smile returning to her face. “You’re right. Once we run far enough we won’t have to run anymore.”

Together the two of them set off into the jungle again as the sky turned black once more.

“So that was our plan,” The older Gisela spoke to Cat. “Reach the shore, charter a ship, and sail somewhere. Anywhere that Tezcatlipoca could not follow.”

“Is that how you got to Europe?” Cat asked. “…wait, that doesn’t explain how you met Itzpapalotl.”

“There is a little more to the story,” Gisela said. “Two more scenes yet to show you.”

 

The jungle appeared once more, and Cat watched as Gisela and Noemi ran through it, hurrying through the underbrush with all the speed they could manage. Behind them, the shouts of hunters as they were pursued relentlessly, both of them clearly on the ragged edge of their stamina.

Noemi paused briefly, turning as she drew her pistol from her belt and fired at the closest hunter, who fell backwards as the shot drove through his chest and Noemi took off again.

As they ran past the trunk of a massive tree, Noemi pulled Gisela behind it as they waited, quiet, as the other hunters came to their fallen companion.

“Gisela, sidekick,” Noemi’s voice was a whisper as she put her hands on Gisela’s shoulders. “We’re not going to get much farther.”

“No. Nonono…” Gisela said desperately. “Noemi we’re so close…”

Noemi pointed to the east, away from the setting sun. “That way, on the south road, is a smaller fishing village. They might be able to get you further down the coast where you can charter a bigger ship.”

“Wait…” Gisela said. “Just me? No…Noemi no…”

“I’m heading north,” Noemi said. “There’s a bigger port there, the hunters will think I’m heading there. I can lead most of them off of you.”

“Noemi…” Gisela said quietly, but she could tell arguing wouldn’t get her anywhere.

The time had come for them to part.

Gisela leaned forward and embraced Noemi, who quietly stroked her hair before kissing the top of her head.

“Keep running, Gisela,” She said. “Until you don’t need to run anymore.”

Noemi pulled away from her and rushed out from their cover, firing wildly at the hunters to draw them as she ran in the opposite direction, leading them on in pursuit until she disappeared into the foliage.

Gisela stood still for one long horrible moment before ducking low and rushing away from the tree towards the southeast. The jungle seemed to consume her as she disappeared, moving quickly and quietly, and the memory faded away.

“What could I have done,” Gisela said to Cat as the memory ended. “What other choice did I have but to do as she’d asked and run?”

“She saved your life,” Cat said.

“At the price of her own.”

“Well…do you know that or…?”

“It’s been years, Catarina,” Gisela said. “Long years, and I don’t trust that kind of hope anymore. I have my mission. Defeat the Primordials and kill Tezcatlipoca.”

“Well…” Cat tried to think of something comforting to say. “At least…at least you’ll never forget her.”

“No, I won’t.” Gisela said. “And I did as she asked. I ran. I ran across oceans and continents. But now I’m not running anymore.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 33

 

“Are we there yet?” Noemi sighed, looking out over the rails of the ship. Jonah was busy as usual, and the elf Rhonwen, or as they had taken to calling her, Ronny, seemed to be unusually hard at work, moving about the ship with the natural grace of a veteran sailor. It had been a few days since they had picked up Ronny and Noemi had requested to be let off in the Caribbean. Since then they had seen a number of ports but none even close to the Caribbean Sea. A number of souls had been gathered floating above the water, their spirits quickly vanishing to join the rest of the invisible crew.

“How come they don’t become cabin boys like you?” She had asked Jonah on night, after discovering they had arrived with the fog in the South China Sea. They had discovered a group of six sailors sitting on their floating planks of wood, what remained of their ship. They had said something in their native tongue, but Noemi couldn’t piece it together, and then they vanished, fading out of her sight.

“Mm, probably because you and Ronny are anchoring me?” Jonah had said. “I’m not too sure myself. Not that I mind. It’s nice being…me.”

After the South China Sea they had sailed around the Horn of Africa, only to arrive in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tripoli. Noemi had started using an old set of star maps just to get a sense of where the ship was taking them. When she had last checked the sky, it had placed her somewhere in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway. Quite a ways away from the Caribbean.

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you,” Jonah said, handing her a broom to sweep the deck clear of dust. It seemed that no matter how often it was swept, the Dutchman had a perpetual layer of dust and dirt clinging to her. Noemi figured it was part of the atmosphere. “It’s really hard to predict where we are heading next.”

“Yeah, but there has to be someone in the Caribbean that is dying at sea, right? I mean, how come we can’t go to them first!”

“I don’t think we actually operate on a linear timeline…” Jonah had said, giving her a shrug. “If we did, then I imagine there’d be a lot of ghosts we just don’t get. But if we just appear a couple of hours after their death, it gives them enough time to start to realize their situation.”

“Wait…if time’s not linear, then could we go back to the past!?”

“In theory,” Jonah said, very slowly. “But we have no way of knowing what time it is exactly, just by the stars. Besides, how would you even know if it would apply to you? Even if I’m right, I don’t know what happens to living people when they leave the Dutchman. Maybe you just rejoin time in the point you’re supposed to.”

“Mm, I guess that’s true. It’s not a safe bet…”

“Not at all.”

“Hey, you two, stop talking, the water is getting rough!” Ronny shouted from her perch up above. The elf grabbed the rope and slid down to the deck to join them, her tricorn hat staying on her hair despite the strong winds. “Saw something big moving beneath the water. We may have trouble.”

“Big? How big?” Noemi asked. Was it possible there was another sunken man of war ghost ship sailing around? “Is it a ship?”

“Bigger!” Ronny exclaimed, pointing up excitedly. “Get the guns ready!”

“Why, what did you se—” Jonah started to ask, before there was the sound of breaking water, the soft light of twilight going dark as something large reared itself above the ocean. “…Oh. To the guns!”

Noemi ran as quickly as she could across the decks, throwing the broom to the ground as she started shoving gunpowder into the cannons. The boat was raised high into the air by the force of the waves, tipping dangerously to both sides. Looking over her shoulder, Noemi could see that the creature was a large serpent, easily five times the size of the Dutchman.

Her face went white, the powder she was scooping with her hands falling like sand between her fingertips. She stared wide eyes at the serpent as it pushed itself out of the water, passing over the ship with seeming no end as it crashed beneath the waves on the other side. It was wider than the ship, blocking out the stars above her as its dark shape flew above.

The water splashed aboard the deck with enough force to send Noemi flying backwards. She scrambled to catch her footing as the ship was bumped fiercely from beneath.

“I have you, Noemi,” the soft yet firm voice of Ophidia said, as Noemi felt herself being wrapped up in the Feathered Serpent’s arms. Ophidia was staring down towards the bottom of the ship with a worried look on her face.

“What, what is that!?”

“It is the World Serpent…”

“The what?!”

Ophidia didn’t answer, instead just wrapping herself around Noemi even tighter, her arms looking more like a bird’s wings than a human’s arms as she cocooned the red head. Noemi didn’t resist, her heart racing.

“It’s coming from below!” Ronny shouted, over the rush of the wind. Noemi couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move. She felt the ship begin to…sink? No…that wasn’t right…

It was like the ship was falling. She heard the rushing of water pouring down a hole in the world itself, as if the ocean had simply parted over a great abyss. They were falling and the stars were getting farther away above the. Noemi screamed, her cries of terror muffled by Ophidia’s chest as the Goddess buried the mortal’s face in her bosom, like a mother would a child.

The world was dark as the stars went out. It took Noemi a second to process why that was. The giant snake had swallowed them whole, gulping down the sea water with them. They were in the belly of the beast, or more accurately, the mouth of it.

Jonah said nothing, though Noemi could see there was enough life left in the ghost that even he was uncertain of what would await him. Ronny was screaming at him to do something, get the Dutchman to sail away, but they had no “jump”, not that Noemi had seen.

“Is…Is this where it ends? After all that, I get swallowed by a monster?”

“…Do not despair, Noemi. We have not reached our end yet. I am here with you. Though even at the height of my power, I do not know if I had the strength to fight the World Serpent.”

“So that’s it. We’re going to die here?”

“We are still here. Have faith, Noemi.”

The words were said in a calming tone, but that was hardly enough to overcome the fear that washed over Noemi as the ship was bounced and jostled inside the monster’s mouth. She waited with baited breath for the next drop down, when the serpent would throw its head back and send them to its endless gullet.

“There’s light!” Ronny shouted, pointing franticly. “Ah! Cabin boy! Make your ghosts push us or something!”

“This is a man of war, Ronny, you know damn well there are no sails!”

“Do something, cabin boy!”

“It appears that there is not much that is needed of us,” Ophidia said calmly, raising her voice to catch the attention of the other two. “It seems that the World Serpent is doing it for us.”

Indeed, it was. The boat began to slide towards the light. Noemi briefly wondered if that was the end, whatever fate awaited those who died. It would be fitting, dying aboard the ship of the dead, skipping right to the end. Maybe she had actually been dead the whole time. Maybe Tess had won and this was all in her head.

There was a grumble as the ship sailed out of the largest cave Noemi had ever seen, the stalactites were sharp and dripped with venom that hit the deck with the force of a wave. As the ship pulled outside of the cave, Noemi realized with a sinking stomach that it wasn’t a cave at all.

It was the mouth of the World Serpent.

Slowly, the giant beast began to shrink as it circled the ship, its body coiling out of the water, every movement causing giant waves that rocked the ship. After a while, it was merely twice the size of the Dutchman…Or around there anyway. Noemi could not see all of its body at once.

It swayed its head from side to side, eying them with slit jewel-like eyes. A forked tongue flicked itself in the air.

You are bad food.

“Err…Yes! Very bad!” Ronny shouted up, cowering behind a box. “Elves don’t taste good, I promise.”

“I think it means because of all the ghosts, actually,” Noemi said, still shaking. Ophidia had relaxed her grip around her, but the Feathered Serpent still held the champion in her arms.

The snake turned her face a few degrees, to look directly at Noemi, the great yellow eye looming large over her, the tongue flicking again in her direction.

Red headed…

Noemi could swear the snake said something else, but it was lost in a hiss, as the force of the sound caused the wind to nearly send Noemi flying out to see in the gusts. Ophidia strengthened her grip on the girl’s shoulders.

She is my chosen one, World Serpent. You will not hurt her so long as I am here.

“Y-yeah, what she said. Don’t hurt Ophidia though!”

The World Serpent dove back beneath the water, before breaching on the other side of the ship, its tail pushing the Dutchman out of the water into the air. The World Serpent, Jormungandr, stared intently at it with a worrying concentration. After a while, they heard it speak again in a rumbling hiss that shook the ship.

Feathered One, you are far from home. But beneath the feathers I can see you’re like me… but much too small. I can make you bigger.

“Bigger? Like…Like you can make Ophidia stronger?” Noemi said, her voice rising to be heard above the winds.

Yes. Serpents and dragons, I seek. You will come with me, and I will make you bigger. I know the seas the skies and the ancient places. Where gods grow wise and serpents grow large.

Go with the Jormungandr? Noemi wasn’t so sure she liked that. After all, the World Serpent was probably like the Dutchman in that they couldn’t tell it where to go. It would go where it pleased. But it could offer Ophidia power, making the goddess stronger. Or would it just make the goddess more like…itself? Noemi wasn’t sure.

“What is this deal?”

You will come with me, I will make the Feathered One more than she has ever been.

“It would be of great use to us both, Noemi, if I were to gain power. To grow “bigger” as the World Serpent speaks,” Ophidia said. “In the end the choice is yours, as my champion, but I would not mind to accept this offer.”

Noemi frowned as she rubbed her temples. This wasn’t what she had planned or imagined at all when she had set out on this journey. Then again, how many times had she almost died already, just from being out at sea? And before that, while running from the cult? She wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Ophidia, who knows how many times over. She owed the Feathered Serpent.

But when she closed her eyes, she saw the chubby face of her sidekick, of Gisela, waiting with worry in some jail cell, or lost and not knowing where to go in the world. They had said they were going to meet in the Caribbean. She had to at least make it there. Besides, while Jormungandr offered them quick power, wasn’t the World Serpent usually an enemy of humanity or something? Noemi was sure she had read that Jormungandr was a monster, not a hero. A cult in the Caribbean would be stable and closer to Ophidia’s home. It would be a solid place to start.

“Sorry, Ophidia, but I think we should stick with the plan and head to the Caribbean. It’s closer to Aztlan, and so it will be easier to get a cult going there then…well, here. The whole point is to go home eventually after all.”

Disappointing, yet there are things you can do while you are still small. If you wish to be bigger, the World Serpent will hear it. I am always listening.

Jormungandr turned on its side, crashing back into the water as it started to swim away from the Dutchman, its coils porpoising across the ocean surface. The four sailors aboard the Dutchman watched her go.

“Haaa, that was too close!” Ronny said, clinging to Jonah’s arm. “Never take us that close to her again, cabin boy!”

Jonah pushed the elf off of him in annoyance. “It wasn’t like I had a choice, pirate. Now get off me! We have work to do.”

Ophidia looked at Noemi with a questioning glance, and for a second, Noemi felt guilt and regret. She considered calling out to the retreating serpent to say she changed her mind. “There will be time to take her upon her offer, Ophidia. But like she said, there are things we can still do while we’re ‘small’.”

“It is as you think is best, champion,” Ophidia said, but her voice lacked much enthusiasm. Still, as she looked out at the sun rising across the ocean, her eyes started to light up. “I do believe the World Serpent has yet still aided us. Perhaps unintentionally. I would check the maps while there is still time to see the stars…but I believe we may be where we sought to go.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Obsidian Mirror

 

The lights were on in the Aldobrandini manor as Cat waited with dwindling patience in her family’s study, slumped in a chair as the enticing demon of sleep called to her. It was nearly midnight, meaning she’d be spending the night there anyway, but Gisela had told her that they would be going on another trip into Gisela’s memories…once she had prepared.

That had been four hours ago.

Cat placed the book she’d been reading back off to the side to look at Gisela again. The dark-haired woman was staring out the window into the moonless night. She always had a relatively neutral expression, but there was an… intensity to her tonight that Cat couldn’t place.

“Is it bad?” Cat asked the silence. “The memory?”

“It is the second worst memory of my life,” Gisela said. “And the most…vivid. You know me well enough by now, Catarina, to know that I’m not…fond of who and what I was. But this memory…is the kind of horror that anyone who feels it should be spared.”

“Well…when you’re ready,” Cat said nervously. “Whenever you want to start.”

Gisela took a long deep breath. “Now, I think, is as good a time as ever.”

She turned from the window and moved towards Cat, sitting beside her on the couch. “I will show you, Catarina, just what we found waiting for us in Mexico City.”

 

There was an odd sound in the air as the four of them made it through the edges of the tree cover. The rainforest had given way to more temperate trees and ferns as the climate grew more arid, but the foliage was still thick as the spirits of the world went wild. They had avoided roads as they moved northward, the patrolling bandits and slavers had grown more numerous, and they had grown more anxious about what they might find in Mexico City.

They moved up a tall tree-covered ridge that cut down sharply in a short cliff at the edge, giving a broad look down on the road in the valley below. It would give them a decent view and keep them covered, but Anton and Noemi moved with quiet grace at the front as they scouted it out, Gisela and Tess taking up the slower rear, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be tracking them. The forest and underbrush was so thick, however, that it was impossible to see far.

As they moved to the edge of the rift, they could see that the valley below expanded outwards to the large city itself. Much of what had been Mexico City was underwater, as the waters of the ancient Lake Texcoco had rushed up from the earth to reclaim its ancient beds. But numerous islands covered in a mix of old architecture and new constructions rose all across its surface, connected by a latticework of bridge roads and ferry lines. The road below them was one of the main thoroughfares, leading from the edge of the lake to the city’s heart.

It was more people than Gisela had seen in months. Hundreds were walking towards the city with only a few traveling in other directions. Some were laden with food or supplies to sell or deliver, many more simply walked on their own, urged on by the movements of the road’s patrolling guards, all of whom carried marks of leopard skin somewhere on their uniforms. A number of people, however, were being carried. Their arms strapped to a wooden rod over their shoulders as they were forced by guards to march into the city.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Noemi said. “Whatever’s happening, it can’t be good.”

“Agreed,” said Anton. “We need to-“

There was a sound of snapping twigs behind them, and all of them turned, readying themselves as they looked around for whatever might be behind them. Even Cat, silent in the memory, had to strain to see it but as she did it sent a shiver down her spine. A pair of eyes from an enormous cat, gleaming in the darkness.

There was a roar that echoed across the ridge, and from the underbrush burst a dozen of the city guard, all of them wielding spears and nets as they rushed forward. The first one fell to one of Anton’s arrows, white-feathered shaft rising from his throat. The next was brought down by a bullet from Noemi, but with it came the alarm. Soon the entire city would descend on them.

“Run!” Noemi shouted, and they broke off back into the jungle, Gisela struggling to keep pace with Noemi as Cat and her future Gisela glided silently behind them like ghosts.

It was a brutal, panting run through the thick vegetation as they leaped over fallen trees and ducked beneath low-hanging branches, all the while the sound of the city’s hunters on their trail. Gisela and Noemi stuck close together, occasionally grabbing each others’ sleeve as they took a running jump, both of them panting heavily as they ran with all the speed they could muster.

“Wait!” Anton shouted through deep breaths. “Tess! Where’s Tess!?”

All of them swiveled their heads, but the forest was thick and they couldn’t afford to stop running. Anton, however, stopped midstride, arrow nocked on his bow as he shouted into the jungle.

“Tess!”

Noemi and Gisela broke to a stop, but Anton turned to them.

“No!” he shouted. “Keep going!”

But before he even had time to turn back a net had been thrown over him as the hunters descended on them. Noemi and Gisela turned to run again, only for more armed men and women to emerge from the trees, spears and a few remaining guns readied as they cornered them. Tentatively, both of them dropped their weapons, raising their hands in surrender.

Before long they were bound like the others they had seen, forced to march by the guards along the great road towards the city. No one else around them would look them in the eye, turning away as if to ignore them at all costs. The three of them moved together, but Tess was still missing.

“As far as we hoped, Tess had gotten away,” The phantasmal Gisela said to Cat. “We didn’t say anything, for fear of tipping off the guards to her presence.”

“Did she get away?” Cat asked, Gisela remained silent.

They were marched across the bridge that spanned the dark waters of the lake to the largest city island, over which a massive step pyramid rose from the dense complex of buildings. Even Cat marveled at the scope of it. It wasn’t an occupied ruin like Rome, but a true massive city, with a population that no doubt rivaled theirs, and this had been months ago. How had people built something like this so quickly?

The sun had begun to set as they entered the city. People moved off in different directions as the roads spread out like a spiderweb. Many of the captured victims were pushed in different directions, but the three of them were kept forward on a march, heading towards the base of the pyramid. As the darkness grew, torches were lit all across the city, and people began to gather towards the pyramid. At the bottom of the stairs they were untied, though the guards pressed in close and gave them a single firm command.

“Climb.”

“Eighty steps,” Gisela said as she and Catarina watched the trio climb. “I counted them.”

“What is this?” Cat asked.

“A temple, of course,” Gisela said. “Rome was lucky. Your wolf spirits demanded nothing and gave you protection. Other gods are not so generous.”

Eighty steep steps lead them high above the rest of the low-built city, the pyramid itself having been built to be a commanding structure on the lake, unchallenged by any other building. At the top, it leveled off into a great open space that looked out over the city, now shining with firelight, and the dark lake beyond.

The space at the top of the pyramid was covered by a stone roof supported by a pillar at each corner. Hanging suspended vertically from the roof was a massive stone disc of pure black obsidian polished to a shine fine enough to clearly see their reflections. Once more they were bound by the guards, this time with their arms clasped tight behind their backs as they were made to stand. Rising from the floor at the pyramid’s center was a large ornate stone altar, covered in what was unmistakably dried blood.

A man walked to the center of the temple, standing on the opposite side of the altar from them, dressed in a blending of old-style fine clothes, in this case a black tailored suit, mixed with odd religious elements such as white feathers and a carved staff in his hand, his face covered in a number of black markings. A medley of music began to rise from the city below, beating drums mixed with the chiming of clay flutes and seashell horns blowing in the night air as the man, the priest, began to speak.

“Oh Lord, Oh Master, Oh Night and Wind, you who are high above us all for we are base before you. You who offer us safety in exchange for our devotion, you who offer strength in return for our sacrifice, you who have made us more than any spirit or weapon or man. We call upon you, Lord of the Night Wind and Keeper of this city and its people. We call upon you, honored lord Tezcatlipoca, to partake in this power and this feast.”

He chanted proudly, reverently as the crowd below began to cheer. The sound of soft footsteps climbing the pyramid steps behind them caused them to turn their heads, even as the guards kept tight hold on them, and Cat saw the shock and terror rise in their eyes as two figures cleared the top of the pyramid.

The first was Tess, unharmed and unbound, dressed in a long dress of black feathers and leopard skin, and behind her was an enormous jaguar.

“Tess!” Gisela was the first to speak. “You’re alive, you’re…” her voice fell to a whisper.

Something had changed in Tess. Her expression was deathly serious, a stripe of blue paint running across her eyes that seemed to give them a supernatural quality, and she paid no mind to the rhinoceros-sized jaguar in her shadow.

Looking more closely, Cat’s own eyes grew wide. The jaguar truly was in her shadow, the feet and claws of the enormous cat blending into the shadow cast by Tess.

The high priest moved away from the altar and Tess moved to take his place. As she moved before the mirrored obsidian, however, it wasn’t her back that they saw. Something enormous, monstrous, and only barely human in shape moved in the reflection, and Cat shivered again as she saw the blood drain from the faces of the three bound prisoners.

“This was a trap,” Noemi hissed. “You lead us here, to this…why, Tess? Why!?”

Anton remained silent, his expression a mix of stunned anguish and resignation.

Tess raised her hands to eye level, looking at her small childlike palms.

“Look at these,” she said, and it was not with Tess’ voice that she spoke. It was as if something much larger, much deeper, and much older was lurking in her lungs, adding its voice to hers. “Paltry, young, weak, feminine. Truly these are dire times when I require this…thing to be my vessel.”

“Vessel…” Anton replied quietly. “This whole time? What are you?”

The creature wearing Tess’ face smiled.

“I am the Lord of the Night Wind, the Bringer of calamity and the Maker of Change. I am He by whom you live and in whose service you belong. I am Tezcatlipoca, the Keeper of this City.”

The being, the deity cast in the reflection shivered, and the jaguar in her shadow bellowed a deep echoing roar.

“Why lie to us?” Gisela asked, still bound, and Cat could hear the desperation in her voice. “What do you want with us?”

“With you two?” Tess, or rather Tezcatlipoca, gestured at Gisela and Noemi. “I want nothing. For you are nothing, save for my entertainment. With him, however…”

She turned her yellow cat’s eyes on Anton, and they shone with an almost predatory gleam.

“For months I was forced to toil, restricting myself in this puerile form purely to evoke your natural chivalry and pity. My power had to be restrained, hidden away in my Nagual so as not to arouse the suspicion of my brother that you served with such devotion.”

“Nagual?” Catarina asked, looking at her Gisela.

Gisela nodded towards the massive jaguar. “A complicated concept. A deity’s nagual is their animal counterpart. Somewhere between a soulmate and a second form.”

“But I needed you, and I needed Quetzacoatl’s influence,” Tezcatlipoca continued. “I needed that power to grow and fester within you, until you carried most of the feathered serpent’s influence on earth.”

Tezcatlipoca spread his arms, and for a moment Cat could almost see him beyond the reflection, as if the night air had shifted.

“I refuse to restrict myself to paltry spiritual form. What these people, what this world needs is a god who rules as a king. But a mortal body, particularly one like this is…weak, needy. It will fall apart in a few months’ time unless certain measures are taken. “

From her belt she drew a long jeweled knife, and gestured to the priest, who called the guards binding Anton forward. He struggled, pushing back against them, but the four guards over powered him and forced him onto his back on the altar.

“Call out to your god, Anton,” The pleasure in Tezcatlipoca’s voice was clear as she cleanly cut open his shirt with the knife. “There is only one god in this city, and I intend to rule it forever. But for that, I need a strong heart, one rich with divine energy. And if it happens to rob power from my hated brother…all the better.”

“Tess…” Anton said quietly. “Don’t do this.”

“There never was a Tess,” Tezcatlipoca said. “There is only the Night Wind, and soon it shall cover the world.”

As Tezcatlipoca raised the knife, Gisela raised her ghostly hand to Cat’s eyes, blocking the view.

“Gisela I-“

“There is no lesson here. There is nothing you can learn by watching this.”

Gisela may have blocked out sight, but she couldn’t stop the sounds. Cat felt her blood run cold and her breath knot up in her throat as the knife plunged into flesh. The sound of the chanting and cheering crowd intermingling with the high-pitched scream of the past Gisela as she was forced to watch, even louder as it filled the memory until it was almost ringing in her ears. Cat didn’t know if being spared the sight but not the sound was mercy or not, she could hear every horrific noise of the dagger through flesh, the sound of rushing blood and mixing screams just as Gisela had heard it. And the nausea in her throat grew as it went on.

Cat was not a stranger to death. She had seen people die, both in combat and innocent. But this ritualized murder was on an entirely different level.

Eventually Gisela lifted her hand to let Cat see. Tezcatlipoca had moved past the altar to face Noemi and Gisela. Her lips, chin and the front of her dress were now covered in blood as she regarded them. The past Gisela was a wreck, hanging limply as she was held up by the guards, sobbing openly with her eyes still wide in horror. Noemi simply stared at Tezcatlipoca with a dead-eyed look, shivering slightly even as she tried to stay standing.

“As I said I want nothing from you two, save for entertainment,” She said. And as she spoke Cat could feel power in her words. Everything about her divine aura had grown, her eyes almost glowing in the night as divine energy coursed through her.

“And your hearts will grant me little compared to his. Besides, I’d like a little time to grow accustomed to it, perhaps find a finer vessel.”

She gestured to the priest, who again gestured to the guards. In a few moments both Gisela and Noemi were cut free.

“Run,” Tezcatlipoca said. “Run wherever you can, as fast as you can. Run knowing that I have eyes in every shadow. Run knowing that wherever you flee and wherever you hide I will find you. Run knowing that when you are captured you will be brought here to die on this slab at my hands. Tell everyone you meet, show everyone you see that the Night Wind is coming. Now run.”

Gisela and Noemi broke down the stairs, running into the night to leave the city and flee into the world beyond.

The memory ended, and once more they were in cat’s study. Though now it seemed much darker than it had before.

“Is she still out there?” Cat asked. “Tezcatli…”

“Tezcatlipoca, and as far as I know,” Gisela said. “Despite her claims her influence does not spread far beyond Central America, but there her power is absolute. She is a God-King, though I wonder if she found a stronger vessel more fitting of a masculine god, or if she is still wearing Tess’ face to mock me.”

“That was…” Cat struggled to find words, still hearing the sounds of Anton’s sacrifice in her ears.

“Horrific,” Gisela said.

“But that’s not the end,” Cat said. “I still don’t know what happened to Noemi, or how you met Itzpapalotl but I…” she trailed off, checking her words.

“You what?”

“I think I understand you a little better now,” Cat said. “At least why you don’t get close to anyone. After seeing that…”

“You know more than that,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr is my mission now, and after that I intend to remove Itzpapalotl from the board as well. But after that…”

“You want to go back,” Cat said. “Right? You…want to go back there.”

“Assuming by some miracle I survive,” Gisela said. “Yes. Someday I plan to return to the New World, to Mexico City, and I will kill Tezcatlipoca.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 27

 

Noemi shivered from the chill of the sea air cutting through her wet clothes to the bone. Jonah had fetched her a blanket once she had been pulled aboard, a thin brown scratchy piece of cloth that did little to stop the wind. There was not a man about the deck, as it sailed onward through the night ocean, rocking gently on the waves. In fact, Noemi had yet to meet the captain aboard the Dutchman, or even another being besides Jonah. She could hear them though. Not words, or anything clear, but Noemi could hear the creaking of wood beneath feet, the shuttering of doors as they swung open and closed between the decks.

As she huddled there beneath her itchy blanket, one set of footsteps seemed louder. Noemi looked up to see Jonah approaching with a tin mug in his hand. Steam was wafting over his face, making his features seem shadowed, gaunt and almost translucent.

“Here,” he said, as he handed her the mug. She took it, holding it between her still chilled hands. She could feel the heat radiating from the mug to her hands, filled with a dark looking liquid. “We have some stores for passengers, found some coffee. Don’t know when it’s from but I thought you’d want it for warmth more than taste anyway.”

“Thanks,” Noemi said as she took a sip. It tasted…metallic and weak, water with only the barest hint of coffee beans. Still, the warm liquid did give her a pleasant feeling as she sat up. “So…The Dutchman. Like the famous one?”

“Indeed!” Jonah said, with an eager smile as he quickly squatted down on an empty crate across from her. Noemi got the feeling that he spent a lot of time talking to the air and didn’t get much opportunity to talk with a person face to face, as it were. Normally, she might have questioned his…reliability as a conversational partner, if it were not for her own tendency to talk to a goddess in her head.

“I had a hard time believing it myself when I was pulled aboard, with nobody in sight! I guess I first started realizing what had happened when I realized I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, and wasn’t feeling hungry at all. You hear a lot about the hunger of the grave, but, well, yeah!”

Noemi didn’t say anything, letting his fast-paced words wash over her. She was talking to a ghost. The man in front of her looked as solid as any in the moonlight, but here he was freely admitting to his undead state of being. She sipped her coffee as she looked at him.

“So, uh, if there’s nobody but you on the ship, Jonah, how does it sail?”

“Oh, they’re here. They just…well, I’ve learned to hear them. And see them. I think it has something to do with just being dead long enough. I mean, this is a ghost ship, right? But…yeah.”

“Well, I mean, I can see you. How come I can’t see the captain?”

“Captain Van der Decken? Ah! Well, I’m not even sure if the ghost that’s the captain is even him anymore…but…I don’t know if it matters. I think at this point, the story is stronger than the spirit!”

“What do you mean, ‘stronger than the spirit’?”

“Well, there are many legends about the Dutchman, of course,” Jonah smiled. “But the one I was told was something like this…Once, many years ago, the master of the ship was Van der Decken himself, who sailed for the Dutch Crown. The seas in that day were filled with competition between England, the Netherlands, Spain, France…all the nations sought to race to find new lands, new markets.”

“Bet I knew a few people who would be mad you mentioned Spain but left out Portugal,” Noemi said. Right as she was starting to feel warm, she felt the cool air chill her to her bones again. The fog was starting to roll in, making it hard to see across the ocean. The stars were dimming through the haze. Noemi brought her legs up into her chest.

“Well, I wasn’t ever the best at geography, but anyway Captain Van der Decken sought glory on the seas, but how could he ever insure he was to be the first to find a new place? Some of the crew say he was a sorcerer, though the Captain hasn’t told me anything of the sort, but either way, one fateful night, aboard the deck of the ship, Davy Jones appeared to the Dutchman’s master.”

Noemi could swear she felt a hand brush along the back of her neck and it made her jump. Jonah just chuckled, earning him a glare from the redhead. “Go on. What did the devil want?”

“Don’t know if he’s the actual devil but it wouldn’t surprise me. Davy Jones promised Van der Decken fair winds for the rest of his days, safe sailing along all his routes, so long as he swore to never sail around the Cape,” Jonah said. “Ah, that’s Cape Horn, by the way.”

“Lemme guess,” Noemi said, her eyes growing heavy. She started to see shadows moving in the fog as it rolled lazily across the deck. Human figures that seemed to appear in the trick of the moonlight, in the corner of her eye, before vanishing when the clouds rolled over the moon. “He didn’t keep his end of the deal?”

“Ah, well, no. Captain Van der Decker sailed in defiance of Davy Jones around the Cape…Or he tried anyway! The winds turned against him as fog blocked his vision. By the time it cleared, he found his ship had been turned around! He tried again, only for the fog to send him back once more,” Jonah grinned, leaning forward, the moonlight making him glow a little as it pierced the fog. His features became lost in the gray haze as Noemi fought to stay awake. “The crew didn’t think too much of it until they tried to pull into a safe harbor to restock, only for the fog to pull them away once again!”

“Mmm, so that explains the fog, I guess,” Noemi said, readjusting herself as she finished off the thin coffee. “So you just…sail around?”

“Mmm,” At that question, Jonah’s smile wilted just a bit. “Well, I haven’t been here from that time, I came aboard after the end of the world and all that. But from what I understand, things that used to be trapped on the sea floor…aren’t.”

“What does that mean, aren’t?”

“It means they’re free, swimming about on the open waters, duh!” Jonah said, rolling his eyes.
“Anyway, being dead, us ghosts don’t have much to fear from things like sea monsters or storms or spirits.”

“Or Aztlan blood gods,” Noemi said slowly, her mind working through the possibilities.

“Exactly! But we are at the mercy of Davy Jones, who wasn’t too pleased with this jailbreak of all the monsters. So now, we’re basically his hatchet men. We get sent in to send anything that shouldn’t be sailing back to the sea floor…if we do it well enough, we can earn our freedom. I’ve seen…well, felt, some of the older spirits pass on and leave.”

“You get to leave the ship? Where do you go?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never heard from those who leave. They just sort of vanish.”

“Speaking of the crew,” Noemi asked. “How come I can talk to you and see you, but I can’t see them?”

“Ah, well! I’m actually a recent addition to the crew. The newest member! It’s why I’m the cabin boy, you see,” he said, perking back up again. “I was sailing off the coast of Massachusetts at the time when my ship went down.”

“Heh, you don’t sound like an American, at least not what I thought they sounded like!”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. I used to travel around a lot as a kid, so I probably picked up a strange accent. Anyway, I was drifting out at sea when I see this ship coming at me. I thought for sure I was saved but…well, it was empty! I heard the voices and they told me I was there to serve aboard the ship. All of us who are stuck aboard need to work.”

Noemi frowned. “It’s a magic ship, though. And does that mean I’m…”

“Hehe, no, you’re not dead. We don’t usually take passengers, you might be the first I’ve ever heard of! But I was told I was there to replace some of the crew that had been lost, gaining their freedom.”

“I see,” Noemi said. As they talked, the temperature dropped again, cutting right through the blanket. It wasn’t even the cool night air that she had felt off the coast of Brazil. This was bitter, freezing air. Her entire body started to shiver. “H-hey, why is it so cold all of a sudden?! And where is the fog going?”

“Ah, right…We’re at our next destination, the next sinking ship. Welcome to the coast of Scotland.”

“Scotland?!” Noemi jumped to her feet, running to the edge of the ship. The fog was starting to lift and she could see rocky shores and grassy hills in the distance. Not that she knew what Scotland looked like, but by all her accounts they shouldn’t have been anywhere near land for at least a week or two. “This ship can just teleport!?”

“I told you the fog kept us from finding safe port, right? Well…it also helps us travel to where we need to go.”

“We were just in Brazil!”

“And now we’re in Scotland,” Jonah said with a smile. “Magic ship, magic fog, I wasn’t just making it all up!”

He is not lying, Noemi.

She could hear the voice of Ophidia in her head, though it sounded much quieter, even for the usually stoic goddess.

“Ophidia?”

We’ve traveled very far from the center of my worship. There is little of my essence here, I do not even think I can manifest properly beside you, only as the small serpent.

“We were trying to get you more power, not less!”

At the moment, only your belief in me lets me exist at all. So please, champion. Noemi thought she could almost hear a chuckle inside her head, though it was rather dry. Don’t let your faith end, or I may be gone forever.

“It’s alright, I’ll get you stronger here, somehow. I just…I don’t like the idea of being on a ship with a bunch of ghosts without you here to keep them away from me.”

I feared that too, but I did not see many options available, so I did not wish to worry you. But as they have yet to try to possess you or affect your mind at all, I would be cautious but not overly worried.

“Gee, thanks…”

“There, do you see it Noemi?”

Jonah’s voice pulled her out of her own thoughts as he pointed across the deck, towards the dark night-time waters. The sea looked almost black as the starry night sky shone down upon it. Clouds rolled in front of the moon, hiding its light from the world.

The waves were rippling towards the Dutchman, which kept its course with its tattered sails down, rocking back and forth in the darkness as the fog rolled away from it. There was a single-person vessel darting through the waves, catching the wind and bouncing over the crests. Noemi heard splashing oars as her eyes were drawn away from the small vessel.

Behind the skiff were several longboats made of dark wood. Their prows were carved and shaped in the heads of dragons.

Ghostly hands propelled the ship forward, the strength of their arms pushing the oars through the sea.

Vikings. Ghost Vikings.

“What are we going to do?” Noemi said, looking over her shoulder to Jonah.

The cabin boy just shrugged. “The Dutchman does its job. Davy Jones is going to get his payment, one way or the other.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

 

Chapter 21

October 6th, 2024

 

Noemi rested her arms over the railing of the ship, staring out across the sea. It had been a few days out on the open sea, aboard the sleek merchant vessel that had carried her away from the Aztlan port. As the pirates raided the port, Noemi had swum through the water, grabbing hold of the ropes on the side of this boat and pulled herself aboard. Met at sword point, the only reason they hadn’t tossed her overboard was because Ophida had manifested and promised to provide them as much good wind as her meager powers could provide.

That had been just under a week ago. Since then, Noemi had been working to earn her keep on board the ship, tying knots and cleaning the deck more often than not. The work was hard and boring, but Noemi didn’t complain. At least here, she didn’t have to fear having her heart cut out by a crazed priest of that damn girl. Noemi grimaced as her mind turned to the face of her betrayer, her nails digging into the wood of the railing.

“Captain on deck!” One of the sailors hollered. At once, all the crew hustled to their feet, to greet the captain properly.

He was an older gentleman, his skin ruined by the harsh rays of the sun, tan and the texture of old leather. His beard was scraggly and thin, though Noemi had quickly noticed the clear patch on the right side of his face, a dark discolored patch of flesh showing instead. She hadn’t needed Ophidia’s voice in her head telling her that it would have been a poor idea to ask him what had happened to his beard.

His eyes scanned the deck, trying to see if there was anything out of place or poorly done. Noemi stood straight and tall, her eyes following his. After a while, he smiled a little, indicating his approval.

“Alright, men, get back to work. This ship isn’t going to sail itself,” he said, and like that, everyone sprung back to their tasks. Noemi didn’t move, having already done her tasks to help pay her passage.

She heard the captain coming up behind her, felt him slide beside her and puts his hands on the railing, looking across the horizon as well. “Miss Valente,” he said, his voice more jovial than it usually sounded, barking orders across the ship. “I don’t think we have ever had such easy sailing from this port. I must thank you and the Feathered Serpent again for the winds.”

“Mmm, it’s all her, really. If I have any power over the winds, I haven’t discovered it,” Noemi said. It wasn’t quite true. Her training with Junko had left her with the ability to travel on the wind, running across its gusts as if it were a field of grass, but she had no ability to summon it forward like Ophidia. Noemi didn’t think she ever would. Noemi stretched her back as she turned to face the captain. Though she’d already been on the ship for a couple of days, there hadn’t been any time to speak with the man in charge.

He’s in a good mood. Might as well ruin it with talk of Aztlan.

“Is it always that difficult to set off these days?” She asked.

The captain chuckled with a dry bitter laugh. “It is from an Aztlan occupied port, if you don’t fly their colors. The number of free ports are dwindling every month it seems.”

“Mmm, I had been sure that the coast would still be free, but there are so many Aztlan flags flying…”

“Aye,” the captain said with a nod. “And it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. If it were not for those pirates, well…I would not have given much to our chances.”

“While I was swimming, I noticed a red flag on their ship. Do you know whose colors they were flying?” Noemi couldn’t help but think of the old saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friends. While pirates might not be the best company, they might not be bad friends to make if they hated Aztlan as much as she did.

“One of the more famous scoundrels, though given who he fights, I think I’d like seeing his flag more than most,” the captain grinned. “His name is Solomon Redd, Captain of the Crimson Dagger. He’s one of the most wanted men on the sea, but no good-natured sailor is going to turn him in.”

“…They won’t?” Noemi asked, incredulous. She had too many bad experiences with people stabbing her in the back to have much faith in something like honor among thieves. “Why not?”

“’Cause the Crimson Dagger chases only one kind of prey,” the captain said. “Aztlaner ships! Any ship not running for Aztlan need not fear Captain Redd. I’ve heard stories of him coming in the heat of battles to cover for ships being bullied by Aztlan. I never met the man personally, but anyone that will stand up for me is a good man in my book!”

Noemi nodded as she listened. She could feel Ophidia beside her, the divine presence feeling like a wind rushing against her skin. What do you think?

I do not think we should be planning for war. Perhaps this Redd will be useful one day, but for now, we must find a way to increase our own power.

Noemi just bobbed her head up and down as she faked listening to the captain talk more about Solomon Redd. It seemed that the pirate had quite a name for himself on the seas, but Ophidia was right. They didn’t have enough to bring down Aztlan. She needed to just get away.

Hold that thought…

“Say, Captain,” Noemi waited until the captain reached a break in his story about how Redd made off with the Aztlan warship Crimson Dagger and claimed it as his own, using it to fight its former masters. “If Aztlan is up and down the coast, where are we sailing, anyway?”

“Now that’s a tricky question,” the captain said, grinning widely again, though it had a bit of a harsh edge to it. “The short answer is wherever we can make port that Aztlan can’t reach.”

“Not really a destination…” Noemi said, though trying to not sound too curious. This captain seemed to hate and fear Aztlan perhaps even more than she did, and if that was the case, she didn’t want to know why. Though if the captain had as much reason to hate and fear Aztlan as Noemi did, he might hold his talk a little more.

“This region isn’t safe for free ships like mine. We’re going to outfit it to cross the ocean, but we’ll need a safe harbor to prepare.

“Across the Atlantic?” Noemi asked, her eyebrows raising in surprise. “That’s…quite a journey by ship.”

“Well, it’s not like there are many planes to take us there these days!” the captain laughed. “But it’s become too dangerous to sail in these waters, and north and south don’t seem much better from what reports I’ve heard.”

“Has everything really gotten that bad?” Noemi looked back across the water. It looked so calm, with them being the only ship in sight. She thought she saw a whale splashing in the water in the distance.

“Indeed it has,” the captain said. “Aztlan patrols the Gulf waters, looking for ships like mine to seize for their goods and their crew. Those who don’t end up impressed end up on the altar.” His eyes grew dark as he talked, his voice growing harder and quieter. “Follow the coast south and you find yourself at the mercy of the wild spirit courts. While they’re not as bad as Aztlan, it’s not safe for humans. They don’t have anything to trade and they’re more likely to tear this ship to pieces than grant us passage.”

Noemi frowned as she thought back to her early days surviving the apocalypse, trying to get by the best she could with only her two guns and a knife by her side. She knew how scary a wrathful spirit could be to those without the power to fight them. Her fingers wrapped around her guns as she felt them spark with energy at her touch. Snapping out of her reverie quickly, she let go of the grip, though the captain was giving her an odd look.

She crossed her arms back on the railing. “Bad experience with wild spirits s’all,” she said. “Haven’t met many spirits I liked besides Ophidia. Anyway, what about the north?”

“Ah, well,” the captain said, his eyes studying her with a bit more care now than he had before. “To the north of the Gulf, you have Louisiana.”

He said that as if it explained everything. Noemi waited for him to continue for a few long seconds, wondering what was so scary about a place like Louisiana. From what little she knew, it had a lot of swampland. It wasn’t like the Amazon. Or Australia.

“…And?”

“We don’t sail near Louisiana…At least not without an escort. Many a free slaver will sail through there. Aztlan seems to trying to push to take it as well. Not friendly waters, even without the Loa.”

“The Loa?”

“It’s what they call themselves, the rulers of the city. I don’t know if they’re spirits or not…but from what I’ve heard, they’re all crazy.”

“Mmm…”

“Putting aside politics, this region of the ocean has just become too much trouble for a single ship like ours to sail. The dangers are just too large for a single boat to bear.”

“I mean, smugglers have existed forever,” Noemi pointed out. The captain seemed to have a flair for overstatement and stories. “Don’t see why the flags would drive you across the ocean.”

“It’s not just the south that has the wild spirits. Sea serpents, blood gods, cursed pirates of the damned and wretched haunt these waters now. Perhaps the other side of the ocean is the same…but we’ve all had about as much as we can take here.

“Hmmm…” Noemi said. She looked out to where she saw the whale breaking the water before. Looking at the splashes, she could see a series of three appearing at any time. Was it a pod, or perhaps a serpent bouncing in the water?

“But we will take you to the nearest port, as promised. Have no fear,” the captain said, his smile still hanging on his face as he turned, back to shouting at his crew as Ophidia formed out of the wind in his place.

Noemi looked to the goddess, tilting her head towards the captain. “Were you listening to all of that?”

“Most.” Ophidia said, her feathery hair catching the sea spray whenever it was carried by the wind.

“A lot of stories. But I’m worried about what he said about Aztlan.”

“You already knew that Aztlan had begun to encroach on its neighbors, Noemi. It is why we agreed it was best to flee by ship.”

“Yeah, I get that. But I thought we were going to go to like Florida or something. Maybe to the Caribbean. What if the only place to escape is an entire ocean away?”

“It very well may be.” Ophidia said, resting her head in the palm of her hand as she thought. “But I do not like the way you use the word ‘escape’”

“Eh? What’s wrong with it?”

“We are not here merely to leave, Noemi. You are my champion, and I will have my rightful place as the Feathered Serpent restored. This…abomination that is Aztlan will be overturned. To do that, you must build my cult.”

“Well, yeah, but I can’t very well do that anywhere Aztlan controls! They’ll kill your worshippers!”

“People will die. It is inevitable in any resistance, Noemi,” Ophidia said, with surprising calmness. “But the farther we are from the land, the harder it will be to establish a cult. Perhaps…We should look to creating a foothold in the islands here.”

“A foothold?” Noemi furrowed her brow. This was a lot more complicated than just surviving had been. She hadn’t need to think more than two or three days ahead. Ophidia seemed to be thinking in years.

“Yes, a foothold. A safe harbor from which we can establish my cult before heading farther from Aztlan. That way, it will spread behind us, and when we return, it will be a useful tool.”

“While I’m all for creating friends to fight Aztlan, where exactly are we going, Ophidia?”

“Why, did you not hear the captain?” The goddess asked with surprised. “We are going across the Atlantic.”

“Wait, what?! They’re dropping us off at the nearest port!”

“Indeed.” Ophidia said with a smile. “And it is in that port that we will prepare for our own journey across the sea. But we will need some place out of easy reach of Aztlan. His talk of the Loa and Louisiana gave me an idea. I think the winds will guide this ship to the east.” Ophidia started to vanish before Noemi’s eyes as the wind carried her away like feathers.

Wait! You can’t leave me hanging just like that! Where the hell are you sending us?

I told you, my champion, to the islands farther to the east. You will start my cult in safer waters, where Aztlan has more competitions. We will be going to Hispaniola.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The White Serpent

October 6th, 2024

“So you’re a…champion was it?” Noemi asked as the small group worked slowly to cut a trail through the overgrown jungle. “A champion to a god?”

“That’s right,” Anton said, leading them with his bow slung over his shoulder and machete in hand. He and Noemi were at the front, while Tess and Gisela followed in the rear. As they walked, the four of them were followed by the invisible spirits of Catarina and the older Gisela, watching the memories pass.

“So I guess there are champions everywhere, huh?” Cat said, walking a bit behind them.

“As far as I have seen, though to varying degrees,” Gisela said. “Not all pantheons embrace such a system, or they do so differently.”

Cat watched as Anton helped the younger Gisela over a large fallen log. “He seems nice.”

“Anton was a good man,” Gisela said simply.

Noemi spoke up again as silence descended on the group.

“So how does someone go about becoming a god’s champion?” She asked.

“Well it’s not like I applied for it,” Anton smiled. “I was chosen, for my skill and for my character, so I was told.”

“That’s amazing…” The younger Gisela said quietly, reverence and admiration in her eyes. “You actually spoke to a god. Did it come in person? Or through visions and stuff like that?”

“Oh, it was in person,” Anton chuckled. “And let me tell you I have never been more terrified in all my life. A great white-scaled serpent with massive wings that filled the sky. It was as big as a mountain and spoke with a voice that shook the trees.”

“Wow…” Gisela said, trembling at the mere thought of it. “Did you see it too, Tess?”

“No,” The younger girl shook her head. “It was a little before we met.”

“Anyway,” Anton continued, pausing as he made another slash through the brush. “The Feathered Serpent came to me and he said that the world was out of balance. Chaos reigned over order and with every passing day things would grow worse if a balance was not restored.”

“And humans are supposed to be able to help with that?” Noemi asked. “Seems a bit optimistic, most of us are just trying to survive.”

“I thought the same way,” said Anton. “But it only takes something small, a little action, for the consequences to ripple outwards. That’s how he explained it to me at least.”

“So what do you do?” Noemi asked. “Just go around doing good deeds and helping people?”

“More or less,” Anton grinned. “Like umm…like Batman I guess.”

“No way, Batman doesn’t use a bow,” said Noemi. “You’re more like umm…”

“Like Green Arrow,” Gisela spoke up. “He used a bow!”

“Sure, Green Arrow then,” Noemi grinned.

Tess gave Gisela a confused look, but Gisela just turned a bit red and went quiet. Outside of their perception, Cat grinned slyly at the older Gisela.

“I didn’t know you read comic books.”

“I used to in my spare time. I had a lot of spare time,” Gisela said flatly.

“You nerd,” Cat teased her.

 

“So when did you meet Tess?” The younger Gisela asked, suddenly self-conscious of her reference.

“Oh, a few days later,” He said. “I saved her from the claws of a monstrous jaguar spirit.”

“I just wish you had killed it…” Tess said quietly.

Gisela shivered. “Y-you didn’t?”

Anton shook his head gravely. “No, only wounded the damn thing. Cowardly cat has been stalking us ever since.”

Gisela paled as she whirled her head around, as if expecting to see the face of an enormous jaguar watching her through the trees.

“I wouldn’t worry right now,” Anton said. “It doesn’t attack during the day, and the damn thing’s too frightened to make a direct attack. But when night comes we’ll need to be on our guard.”

Noemi paused to let Gisela catch up before giving her a comforting pat on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” she said quietly. “I’m not about to let some big dumb jungle cat scare my sidekick.”

Though still clearly frightened, Gisela nodded, somewhat reassured.

“The thing is evil…” Tess said, her hands folding over her chest defensively. “Just wish it would go away n’ die already.”

“I don’t think it’s evil,” Anton said. “It’s a spirit, but it’s still an animal. It’s just doing what feels natural to it.”

“Well, what’s natural to it is evil to me,” Tess grumbled.

“I don’t think we humans ever cared all that much about the natural order,” Noemi said. “Seems to me, if we’ve got a giant jaguar following us, safest thing to do is bring it down.”

“Well I’m not about to object,” said Anton. “No sense letting yourself be hunted for any kind of greater good, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. I doubt anything out there in the dark actually thinks of itself as evil.”

“Not about to debate philosophy,” Noemi said. “But I’m a pretty straightforward girl. If it wants you dead for any reason other than food or self-defense, it’s evil.”

“Well, let us hope the lines remain that clear,” Anton said. “The definitions of right and wrong seem to change quickly around here these days.”

 

As the memory sped ahead, the day began to darken into night and the group decided to start setting up camp. They had two tents and Anton and Noemi decided to take turns standing watch. Noemi took the first shift as the sun began to set, walking a distant perimeter around the camp as the shadows grew longer and darker with the setting sun.

Tess worked to make their meal (Canned beans salvaged from a town along with whatever small darting mammals and lizards were unlucky enough to cross their path) as Anton sat beside Gisela to check his enchanted bow for any damage.

“Noemi seems very protective of you,” Anton said idly as he worked. “Reminds me of Tess and myself.”

“She is…” Gisela nodded. “But I worry I’m just…slowing her down I guess.”

“Ah…” Anton went quiet for a moment before putting his bow to the side. “I wouldn’t worry too hard about it.”

Gisela looked at him. “But I’m dragging her down, she could do so much more without me.”

“Do so much more what?” Anton asked. “She could maybe walk a bit further each day, maybe forage less…but to what end. According to the both of you, you weren’t traveling anywhere in particular, just looking for somewhere safe.”

“Well, yes, but…” Gisela began to say before Anton interjected.

“Yes, but nothing, Gisela. I know Noemi’s type. She was out there looking for a cause, a goal, and she found you. I’ve seen the way she looks at you, the kindness in her voice and her eyes. She’s a woman with an objective now, to protect you. She may not need you in order to survive, like you need her. But Noemi needed someone like you to keep going, to have something to fight for and protect.”

“Is that why you travel with Tess?” Gisela asked quietly, trying to to raise her voice enough for Tess to hear.

“Eh, not quite,” Anton said. “Like I said I try to restore order where I can. But when I found Tess and that jaguar got away…well I couldn’t just leave her behind, could I? The thing is hunting her, and until it dies, Tess travels with me.”

“I see…” Gisela said. “So I’m Noemi’s…her what, objective?”

“No, no,” Anton chuckled slightly. “You’re her friend, Gisela. And by the look of things she didn’t have many.”

“You know…” Gisela almost leaped out of her seat as Noemi’s voice came from right behind her. “It’s rude to talk about people behind their back.”

“Eep!” Gisela squirmed as she turned to face Noemi “W-we were just…umm…”

Noemi, however, was just grinning, and with a gentle hand she took Gisela’s head and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re overthinking things, Gisela,” she said. “I stick with you because you’re my sidekick. Got it?”

“Umm…ya.” Gisela nodded a bit sheepishly.

“Good,” Noemi ruffled her hair before wandering back to patrol the camp, calling over her shoulder. “And bring me some of those beans when you’re done!”

Gisela nodded before turning back to Anton. “So do we have a destination now?” She asked.

“We do,” Anton said. “We’re heading to Mexico City. Tess says she had family there, and the rumor on the wind is that it’s one of the few safe refuges left.”

“That’s…quite far,” Said Gisela.

“No where’s too far if it can be reached on foot,” Anton said. “Besides, we’re getting farther each day.”

“We are?” Gisela asked.

“Of course, “Anton smiled. “I can see you improve with each passing day. You’re going farther without resting, eating better, and you look healthier too.”

Gisela reddened at the flattery. “Th-thanks. I just do it so I don’t weigh Gisela down too much.”

“You know she feels the same way?” Anton said. “She does her best to make sure she doesn’t let you down.”

“I doubt that…” Gisela said. “She just seems to be able to…do things so easily.”

“That means she’s just good at hiding it,” Anton grinned. “Though we should hush up if we don’t want to feel her boot against our heads.”

“Right,” Gisela smiled.

Before long their meager was ready and Noemi was called in to join them for eating. As they chatted and laughed the sun finally sank entirely below the horizon. When their dinner was finished, Anton took over on watch as Noemi and Gisela prepared their tents for the night. Gisela watched curiously as Noemi laid out a small cloth to begin cleaning her revolver.

“Hey Noemi,” Gisela said. “Do you think these things will protect us from things like spirits?”

“I dunno,” Noemi shrugged. “I wish I could say things like the bullets are tipped with silver and filled with holy water, or that the grip is made from sacred holly…but it’s just an antique I picked up.”

“So, it might not work at all against spirits…” Gisela said quietly. “It barely worked on that frog.”

“You know,” Noemi worked nimbly as she cleaned each part. “I’ve been thinking about it. And Anton’s bow is just wood and string, right? The shafts are just wood and feather too, with obsidian arrowheads I think.”

“But it’s magic,” Gisela said. “It was given to him by a god.”

Noemi started re-assembling her revolver. “And that’s the important part, isn’t it? That it was made by a god. Did it have to be a bow? An old weapon? Could it have just given him a gun if the blessing was the same?”

“I’m not sure if it works like that…” Gisela said.

“Maybe not,” Noemi said. “But at the end of the day, his magic bow works because Quetzacoatl said it would. And the only reason that matters is because people believe in Quetzacoatl.”

“Well…yes I get that,” Gisela nodded. “But what does that mean for your gun?”

“It means that while it might not amount to much,” Noemi said. “I believe my gun will work. I have that faith in my weapon and in myself against spirits. Now I’m not much compared to a god. But I like to think it will help that little bit.”

“Mmm…” Gisela watched in silence as Noemi reassembled the revolver, spun the chamber and made sure everything was in place, and then reloaded it.

“Do you believe in me?” Noemi asked.

“…I do,” Gisela nodded after a brief moment’s pause. “I’m not sure I would if it was anyone else but…I believe in you.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa