The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 51

 

The battle against the ghostly Vikings had been short, far shorter than Noemi had expected.

With their sail raised, their cries of the Naglfar carried across the sea, the Vikings had looked ready to commandeer the Dutchman for their black fleet. Noemi was not sure how one ghost ship could truly conquer another, yet Jonah seemed to take it seriously enough, sharing the captain’s orders to the two corporeal crewmates.

Cannon balls and fiery arrows lit up the foggy sea, the flames reflected on the tranquil water below. Loki’s men sailed beside the Dutchman, throwing down planks as they charged across to board the man-o-war. Clad in furs, wielding rusted blades that glowed with a spectral aura around them, the Norse dead were merciless in their assault, shouting in their ancient tongue at Noemi and Ronny.

A machete in one hand, her pistol in another, Noemi had stood on the deck, fighting the Vikings as they came, but it wasn’t long before the three of them were surrounded.

“Looks like this might be the end,” Jonah said with an almost calm fatalism.

“Easy for you to say!” Noemi shouted, parrying a longsword with her machete, before firing an enchanted bullet into the chest of a ghost. “You’re already dead!”

“What even happens if they take the ship, cabin boy?” Ronny asked, ducking beneath a high swinging strike.

“We will probably be compelled to serve Loki as we now serve Davy Jones,” Jonah said.

“I survived too much against Tess to let a god like Loki be my end!” Noemi said, trying to appear bold. Even so, the situation looked bad. While the ghosts of the Dutchman were fighting unseen, there were so many Vikings, more than could fit on a normal longboat.

The waves began to rise higher and higher as the din of the battle echoed through the ocean. The white foam crashed down, spraying all over the deck. Noemi hardly heard the rumbling until she noticed a shadow moving beneath the water.

From beneath the waves, Jormungandr raised its head above the water, its teeth long, sharp, and dripping with venom as it roared. It rolled and tightened its coils beneath the Viking ships, reducing them to splinters floating on the merciless ocean, the souls of their crews weighed down to sink to the Locker below.

Those Northmen ghosts aboard the Dutchman could only watch in awe and terror as the storm clouds rolled back to reveal the Feathered Serpent descending upon them, her form far more monstrous than when Noemi had seen her last. It felt like years to human since she had laid eyes upon her patron. Ophidia let out a screeching call as she crashed upon the deck of the Dutchman, her presence condemning the unwanted ghosts to the sea and Jormungandr’s waiting, ravenous maw.

Noemi blinked twice as she lowered her weapon. Ophidia stood before her, though the term ‘hovered’ seemed more appropriate. Her long white hair appeared more as a cowl of feathers; scales ran along her limbs and a pair of wide downy wings were displayed proudly. Ophidia stared down at Noemi through red, slitted eyes.

“It seems you had fun while I was away, Noemi.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘fun’! But your timing was pretty good,” Noemi said, stepping forward. Her nerves started to calm. After all, it was still Ophidia who stood before her. “You look…ah, different?”

“Mm, yes. One moment,” The goddess spoke, as her feathers began to fall from her hair and wings. They were caught in the wind swirling around Ophidia, as they quickly took the form of her cloak once more, her skin becoming smooth as satin as her scales disappeared. Soon, she looked exactly the same as she had before she departed with the World Serpent. “Does that make you feel more at ease?”

“Yeah, that’s much less intimidating,” Noemi said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Of course.”

Human Noemi.

The entire ship rocked violently as the voice of the World Serpent blew across the ocean like a storm. Noemi put her hands over her ears as she turned to stare up at Jormungandr, the sea snake looking down at the Dutchman with gem-like eyes.

“Y-yes? No need to be quite so loud. I can hear you better when you’re smaller, you know!”

The World Serpent blinked, letting out a low hiss. The waters began to churn beneath the ship. Ronny grabbed onto a rope to avoid being knocked about.

“What are you doing, Red?” She whispered under her breath, looking nervously up at Jormungandr. “Don’t piss her off when she’s that big!”

“That’s my point. If you want to talk, Jormungandr, then give us the respect of not having to cover our ears just to hear you speak!”

Jormungandr snorted, though it didn’t lash out at the Dutchman. Slowly, the great wyrm began to shrink, down to the size of the ship itself. Though still far larger than any of the people aboard the man-o-war, the ship rocked more peacefully beside it. The serpent’s tail flicked, spraying water back and forth, splashing the elf and Noemi with the salty fishy taste of the sea.

Noemi thought it petty, but decided it best to keep that thought to herself.

“Now…what is it you wish to say, Jormungandr?”

Who are they who sail against the Dutchman?

“Not sure honestly. Well, I can tell they’re Vikings, but I don’t know their names. They came out of the mist, screaming for the Naglfar.”

“I already tried to tell ‘em how this was a sign of Ragnarok, Jor!” Ronny shouted up, her hands cupped around her lips to amplify. “Looks like I was right!”

It is not yet time!

The World Serpent rumbled in fury as the earth began to shake again, the water turning as the storm clouds gathered around the great wyrm’s head. Venom splashed like giant drops, causing the sea to boil where they fell, before washing away. The snake’s jeweled eyes burned with a rage. It flicked its tongue out, hissing furiously.

The Naglfar should not yet be built. It is ahead of the schedule. It is not time for this world to come to an end.

“Yeah, but you know who is probably to blame for that, right, Jormungandr?” Ronny said with an amused grin, her fear having fallen away quickly. “The one who spits at fate, and I’m not talking about Odin.”

It can only be my father’s hand behind this.

“Bingo. I mean, it’s Loki’s ship after all!”

“I don’t know what game your father is playing, great serpent,” Jonah said, stepping forward, looking up at the snake with the same exasperated frustration that he often spared Ronny. “But the Dutchman won’t serve him.”

No. That cannot pass. The Naglfar must be destroyed before it sails proper.

“You know where it is?” Noemi asked.

I do not. My father has hidden it from my sight, constructing it in a secret dock or else I would sense it. If the souls from Helheim are sailing into Midgard, then it must be close to completion.

“So…what, we follow the ghosts? I don’t think they are going to tell us where they’re sailing,” Noemi said.

“No, but I believe it may be possible for us to follow the same channels as them. This ship is one of the wayward dead, even if it’s not in service to the same forces.”

“We don’t really have a pilot who can track spirits or ghosts. It’s not like just because I’m a ghost, I know the way, and the ship won’t sail off its course unless I manually do it,” Jonah said.

“Mm, is this what you want to do, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“It is important, not only for my debt to Jormungandr, but to all. After all, this is a threat greater than even Aztlan.”

Noemi nodded, as she turned to Jonah. “So are you willing to let the ship be commandeered for this?”

Jonah’s lips pursed as he thought for a moment, before sighing. “Putting aside the problem I just mentioned, yes. I can’t imagine Davy Jones wants the world to end.”

Sail the Dutchman to the North. Find the Naglfar. It will be at the center of this spectral fleet.

“What will you be doing, Scaly One?” Ronny asked.

I will be preparing for the inevitable engagement. Gathering the forces of the great wyrms and serpents. We will be there to stop my father’s madness.

“Am I to go with you? Or stay aboard the Dutchman.”

You shall stay, Feathered One. You will hear my voice as I prepare.

“What can I do, Jor?” Noemi asked, looking at her cutlass and pistol. She wasn’t an elf like Ronny, able to slip in and out of a story to play whatever role was most apt. Nor was she a ghost like Jonah, a face to an entire crew of souls manning one of the most powerful ship of the damned in the world. Even with her divine powers, she was still Noemi. She was one person, and never had she really felt more out of her league than here.

Jormungandr lowered her head, her eyes piercing through the mortal. Noemi didn’t shy away or turn her head, but staring into Jormungandr’s gaze always reminded Noemi of how small she was.

I have no task for you, champion. There is little one mortal can do in the plans of Fate, yet at times…I have found them deserving of my notice.

Noemi frowned at that, looking away as her cheeks flushed red. She knew Jormungandr was simply stating the truth, yet the serpent’s words were…blunt. It seemed even the world serpent took notice now, as it slowly rose its head back, speaking in a warmer tone.

Yet you work to stop Ragnarok, and in that task, even a single hand is invaluable. Take pride in that.

“R-right, well…I do want to help. Because like everyone’s saying, this affects us all. Not just the Dutchman, Ophidia’s cult, or the people oppressed by Aztlan, but all of us.”

Noemi turned to Jonah, a smile on her face as she holstered her gun. Even if she felt small, it was all about putting on a show. Sometimes, that’s all others needed.

“You need a pilot? Well, I can take you to a place where I think we can find someone able to track down the trail of spirits. It will just be a quick pit stop to get an extra set of hands.”

 

 

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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

Chapter 18

October 5th, 2024

Noemi wasn’t quite sure how many days passed beneath the thick canopy of the rainforest before the trees started to thin out, the stars peeking through the leaves above. She counted days by meals and breaks from their trekking. When they came to rest, Noemi would try to have Junko teach her what she knew. Sometimes this took the form of combat training. Though she still favored her guns, often starting every morning with practice drawing them with ever increasing celerity, Noemi was getting better at close combat, especially with her ability to duck and roll out of the way of Junko’s strikes.

Other times, particularly after very strenuous patches of terrain, the lessons would take the form of guided meditation, where Noemi was expected to yield control to the spirits all around her. These lessons were more difficult. As she followed Junko’s instructions, Noemi could feel the spirits flittering about her, pushing against her consciousness, her ego. Try as she might, Noemi still struggled opening herself. In fact, the more she tried to open herself to the spirits, the more it seemed to drive them away.

The only spirit she found herself able to open to was, naturally, Ophidia. In fact, Noemi had noticed the snake goddess had been spending an increasing amount of time manifested beside them during their journey through the wilderness, her white dress staying immaculately clean as she seemed to glide over the brush beneath her feet. Noemi took it as a sign that Ophidia had grown stronger just through the act of having a champion. She still envied the winged serpent for looking so put together, so composed, so…beautiful in the hot, sticky, sweaty jungle. It’s not fair, she thought to herself as she pulled the strands of red hair that clung to her forehead.

As the forest started to thin, Noemi could feel her nerves jittering. The rainforest had provided thick cover for the three of them. While it wasn’t impossible for Aztlaners to track them, it was possible to be only a few yards away from an Aztlan patrol and neither group would be the wiser. Approaching the coast, that thick cover would be lost.

“Ophidia,” Noemi said, during one of their lunch breaks, as she turned a lizard over a small spit she had put together. The food pickings had been lean, which had been another sign, Junko had said, that they were approaching civilization once again. “Do you think you can send a snake or two ahead to scout for us? Find out what we’re walking into first?”

“I believe that to be a sensible precaution.” The goddess nodded slowly, stroking the head of one of her tiny feathered serpents, its wings fluttering as it hissed, pleased. She spoke in her serpentine tongue, a series of hisses that Noemi could only vaguely catch if she put her mind to it. She hadn’t asked Ophidia why she was able to understand it, figuring it was part of the benefits of being the goddess’ champion.

The snake slithered down Ophidia’s arm as the goddess knelt down, touching one finger to the earth as the white snake crawled down, its wings folding in to blend with the white feathery scales. As the light danced across its body, it started to turn from green to white.

“Now we wait,” Noemi said, pulling the lizard out of the fire.

“Heh, if I didn’t know better, boss, I’d say you’re just trying to extend our rest time,” Junko teased. Noemi had gotten better at telling when the ninja was smiling even underneath her mask.

“It’s not my fault both of you have insane stamina! Back when it was just me and Gisela, I was the one who had to slow my pace!”

“As my champion, Noemi, you should have stamina to rival any mortal,” Ophidia said. Noemi couldn’t tell if it was just a statement or an admonishment.

“Yeah, well, we are making progress every day. I might be able to push my muscles more, but it’s still not an easy trek. And Junko is hardly ‘mortal’!”

“Hey, I’m as human as you, boss,” Junko said. “But it’s fine, just admit we’re taking a longer rest today.”

“Hmph,” Noemi grunted, taking a big bite of the lizard as she chewed its tough flesh. It had the texture of the driest jerky she had ever eaten. The saddest thing, she felt, was that it wasn’t the worst thing she had eaten over the last few weeks. She had grown accustomed to it. “Trust me, with the prospect of a good meal ahead of us, I’d be whipping you two to get you moving.”

“Oh, how tyrannical, boss,” Junko laughed.

“Shut up and eat your lizard,” Noemi grumbled, smiling.

Lunch was over quick. Rather than sit and do nothing, the trio continued to walk in the direction the snake had slithered off to, as it would have little trouble finding its way back to its goddess. Sure enough, mid-afternoon, Ophidia stopped walking, standing straight and tall.

“Are you alright, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“I am fine, Noemi,” the goddess said, reaching her long arms up to a branch hanging down under the weight of vines. “Our scout has returned.”

The snake, still mimicking the colors of the leaves and vines, quickly slid around her wrist, making its way up her arm, its tongue flicking out its message to Ophidia. Noemi could hear nothing but one word: Aztlan.

“Eh?! Aztlan?! What did he say?” Noemi said, her hand falling to the gun at her side.

Ophidia frowned, but ignored Noemi, asking the snake several questions in their secret language. The snake bobbed and weave its head as its wings fluttered agitatedly. Ophidia ran a finger down its spine, soothing it, before turning back to her two companions.

“It seems that the closest inhabited has fallen to Aztlan occupation. Their flags were flying over the harbor.”

“They’re here already? But…but…we should be on the other side of the jungle!”

“Don’t forget, we were traveling on foot, boss,” Junko chimed in. “They have ships. They’ve probably got all the Gulf and most of the Caribbean coast under their patrol.”

“If that’s the case,” Noemi said, rubbing her temples as she thought. “Then we’re going to need a plan to get into the city. If they’re already here, then you’re probably right, Junko. I doubt we’ll have much luck with other cities along the coast. But I can’t just waltz in there. Even if they don’t recognize me, I’m sure they have their priests there to sniff out Ophidia. We need a plan.”

As Noemi fell silent, the only sounds were the noises of the rainforest. Junko and Noemi both seemed deep in thought, while Ophidia merely watched with an almost passive expression on her face.

Junko was the first to speak. “There are some spirits that we could use to…obfuscate our entrance. It would require us to enter the city under the cover of darkness, but we could move unseen.”

“Won’t that draw the attention of the priests though?” Noemi asked.

“Not necessarily. Their priests may sense the spirits themselves, but their magical aura would be masking our own. But…it will require you to let yourself become one with the darkness. Consider it your final test, boss.”

Noemi felt a shiver go down her spine. This was it. “I guess there is not much of a choice, is there? I either do this or it ends here.”

Junko nodded. Ophidia just gave one of her impossible smiles. Noemi sighed. “Alright…then we wait for darkness. Let’s scout ourselves in the meantime. If you hear ANYONE, hide, understand?”

“You don’t need to tell me twice, boss.”

“Good.” Noemi said, as she watched Junko meld into the shadows of the tree. It was as if the other girl had just vanished right before her eyes. Noemi sighed again. “It’s probably best if you dematerialize as well, Ophidia…”

It has already been done, Noemi.

“Alright. Let’s go see how bad the situation really is…”

 

It turned out, Noemi decided, that the situation was far worse than she had originally imagined. As she had approached the forest line, she had seen the port down below. A wall had been erected around the city, partly woven from the trees themselves by various jungle spirits. The road led to a single gate, which was well patrolled.

Worse, from her position above the valley, she could see a few ships sitting in the harbor, their cannons turned inward. Noemi had not been able to make out their flags, but Ophidia had confirmed they bore the symbols of the Jaguar. It seemed that the harbor truly was under occupation, which meant that it was unlikely any ships would be allowed to leave without an Aztlan search.

As the sun set behind the trees, Junko caught up with Noemi. The ninja appeared out of thin air, as if the shadows themselves pulled back like a cloak to reveal her presence. “It’s not going to be easy to get you onto a ship, boss.”

“I sort of figured that from the Aztlan warships in the harbor,” Noemi grumbled, not even jumping as Junko materialized next to her.

“It’s more than that. All the ships in the harbor have been ‘claimed’ by Aztlan as their property. I managed to find a sailor angry enough to spill the beans. If any of them try to leave, Aztlan will kill them.”

Noemi didn’t even try to hold back her frustration as she groaned loudly. “Well, let’s just get into the city first, then we’ll worry about how to get a ship out.”

“As you wish, boss. Do you need help with the spirits?”

“I think I’ve got this. Be like the shadows, right? Wear them like a second skin.”

Junko chuckled. “Something like that.”

“Well, it’s now or never,” Noemi said. Junko nodded and started doing her katas. Noemi followed suit. The practice they had done meant she no longer had to watch the shorter girl as she went through the motions. Even though Junko was silent, Noemi could hear her voice echoing in her head from their previous lessons.

See the spirits around you. The space between you and them is in your mind. There is no space. There is no you, no them. Let your mind expand out, let the spirits envelop you.

Noemi could feel the spirits around her, swirling like an eddy around her form. There is no form. She could feel them washing over her, curious about this creature that called out to them. They were spirits of darkness, shadows, not real things in their own right. Certainly not real like Ophidia was. Noemi could see the white fire of her patron burning brightly in the distance. It helped give shape to the shadows that circled her, drawing ever closer.

They flew through her. They were inside her, their feelings hers. She was one of them. She could feel her form losing its weight, her skin losing its solidity.

Noemi walked forward through the air, carried by the spirits of wind. The ground whizzed beneath her as she raced across the sky, a shadowy wisp in the dark night. She could feel Junko beside her.

The guards were below her, the gate sealed shut. With the spirits help, it seemed so simply a task to jump over the walls, the spirits of the ground pushing her up as she kicked off the earth. She thought she saw Junko’s shadow merge with the shadow of an owl as it flew across the wall, carrying the ninja into the city proper.

It was exhilarating. Noemi had never felt such power. Nothing could hurt her in this state. The shadows surrounded her, making her insubstantial. She could go anywhere without being seen, run without being caught. The shadows swirled ever faster as her mind raced with the possibilities. Noemi hardly even noticed as her shadow started to lose its shape, unraveling into the darkness from which the spirits came.

Noemi thought she heard Junko calling out to her, but the other girl’s voice was far away. It was probably unimportant. Being a shadow was so freeing. She was having too much fun for such things.

She could see the light of Ophidia’s flame approaching her. Noemi raised her hand to her eyes as the fire blazed around her. Her translucent hand started to get its color back as the flames washed over her, the darkness forced back. Noemi couldn’t hold onto the shadows as they fled her, falling to the ground as her body was given its shape back. She shuttered, pulling herself to her knees. She suddenly felt truly nauseous.

“Boss, are you okay?! I thought we had lost you!” Junko said, helping Noemi to her feet slowly.

“I-I’m fine…What happened?”

“You were losing yourself to the spirits, becoming one of them. I tried calling you back but you were already so far away. If Oph…the goddess hadn’t been there, you might have been gone forever.”

Noemi groaned as her head spun. “She was so bright…I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had-“

She didn’t get to finish her statement, as the bells in the city started to ring. Her stomach fell as her skin turned white. The alarm was sounding, the guards were going to come for them and arrest them. They had come so far only for it to end now.

“Junko, get your sword ready,” she hissed, pulling out her gun. “If we’re going down, we’re going down fighting.”

“Boss, I don’t think it’s us!” Junko said, covering her ears as the shouts and bells were drowned out by the sound of a cannon firing. “The town is under attack!”

Noemi pulled herself up, her gun still drawn as she looked down the streets. The people were running for cover, slamming the doors to their houses shut behind them. Guards were moving through the streets, shouting to one another orders and warnings. Turning down to the harbor, Noemi could see several corsair ships darting between the larger Aztlan warships. Two were moving towards the docks so their crew could begin looting the city.

The merchants that had been kept in the bay by the warships were taking advantage of the confusion to run for it while Aztlan was unable to enforce their claims. They were starting to scuttle out to the open sea, heading for the Caribbean. More and more were pulling up anchors and pushing off, making it even harder for the large Aztlan ships to successfully engage the smaller corsairs.

“I need to get on one of those ships!” Noemi shouted to Junko over the confusion. She turned and started running, grabbing Junko by the hand and pulling her after her. “Come on, let’s get on board!”

“Sorry, boss, but this is where I say my goodbyes,” Junko said, letting her hand fall limply from Noemi’s grasp.

“What?” Noemi said, spinning on her heels.

“I’ve got business on the mainland still. I was just helping you get to the port and to the boats. I’m not leaving.”

“But Junko, Ophidia and I could use your help!”

“Sorry, boss…” Junko said sadly. “But I’ve got to stay. Maybe when you come back, Aztlan will have already fallen if the resistance can get their act together. But if we don’t see each other again…”

Noemi shook her head, cutting Junko off. “No, stop. We will. There are too many people I owe a bullet to the head to not come back.” Noemi threw her arms around Junko and pulled her in for a hug. “You stay safe, ninja. You better believe I’m going to look you up when I return.”

“Ah…heh…I wouldn’t think anything else, boss. But I think you have a ship to catch.”

“Yeah…” Noemi said, pulling herself off Junko. She gave the ninja a quick nod before turning back towards the sea and running headfirst into the chaos of the pirate attack. As she watched Noemi run, Junko could almost see the spirits clearing a path for the red head champion.

Junko sheathed her sword only once Noemi was lost to her sight, before disappearing into the shadows. “See ya later, boss.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 15

September 17th, 2024

The jungle seemed to go on forever. Every time Noemi felt that they must be nearing its end, that they must be almost out or that the river would finally let out into a delta, it would take another bend or the trees would grow thick and dark once more. Junko did seem to be an amazing tracker and hunter though, keeping the three of them from encountering any other Aztlan forces as well as always managing to have food for Noemi to prepare and cook when the sun set and they made camp.

“How do you do it, anyway?” Noemi asked, as she carefully sliced the scales off a fish Junko had snatched out of the water.

“Do what?”

“Get us something new to eat every day, keep us from getting lost…or have we really been going in circles this whole time!?”

“We’re just following the river, boss,” Junko said, her eyes smiling even as her mouth was hidden behind her mask. “It’s hard to get lost along that.”

“You say that, but we’d be fighting a lot more Azzies if that were the case,” Noemi argued, holding her knife out, flicking her wrist as she sent scales into the fire to sizzle. “Speaking of which, I want to learn how to fight like you do.”

The ninja girl’s eyes went wide as she didn’t say anything right away, just looking to the river then back to Noemi.

“Come on, Junko,” Noemi continued. “You took out an entire squadron of the Aztec Jaguar Warriors and they even had a spirit with them! I mean, yes, they were chasing me not you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone move that fast.”

“Well, the thing is, boss, I’ve been training since I was little. It’s not something you can just pick up overnight.”

“I know how to handle myself in a fight, so it’s not like I’m completely hopeless! I’m not like…Well, doesn’t matter, point is, I’ve been in my fair share of fights, but I feel like I need to stop relying so much on luck to get out alive!”

“I’ll say,” A soft voice said, drawing out the s as the sound escaped from her teeth. Ophidia stepped into the clearing, her feathery cloak draped around her shoulders as she stared down at the two girls. “If I recall correctly, champion, you had lost the fight when I had found you.”

“That wasn’t a fi-!” Noemi started, before shaking her head. “Okay, fine, but that just proves my point! I wouldn’t have gotten out of that one if it weren’t for you, but maybe if I was able to fight as well as Junko, I would have!”

“As I said, boss, I can give you some basic training in self-defense…”

“Sure, but how do I do the neat spirit tricks, like running faster than the wind?” Noemi asked, before turning back to the Winged Serpent Goddess. “You could have at least provided me wings!”

The only response the redhead got from her patron was an audible, yet somehow dignified, snort of disapproval.

“I can’t even get my patron to help me! How do you get the spirits to give you those powers, Junko?”

“I don’t,” Junko said, simply, rising to her feet. She stretched her neck to the side, rolling her head in a circle around it, though keeping her eyes on the other two at all times.

“What do you mean you don’t? You said the spirits make you super fast, blend into the shadows, all of that.” Noemi said, throwing a few jabs rapidly in the air in front of her. Junko winced a little, though Noemi thought she could see the hint of a smile.

“I mean, I don’t ‘get’ them to give me their powers. It’s more than a simple matter of asking them. Spirits are not merely batteries from which you can draw your power,” Junko said. She started to go through various forms that Noemi had seen her perform a few times, usually in the morning before they started on their long hikes.

“These are those…what did you call them, the katas?”

“Mmm, more or less. Do you know why I do these every morning?”

“I figured so you could stretch and get warmed up for the trekking we had to do.”

“No. There are spirits all around us, boss. Their power is there, but most don’t even see it. They feel the breeze on their face and say that they stopped the wind. The spirit of that breeze has no power to move them,” Junko said, closing her eyes, her voice growing steadier. “But that’s not true. They believe it will break against them, that the wind cannot lift them from the ground. Their minds are cluttered, heavy.”

Noemi watched, her eyes widening as Junko started to take steps up into the air, as if she were climbing invisible stairs. Beneath her shoes, Noemi could only just see the air move a bit, carrying detritus from the ground as it passed by.

“Empty your mind, let go of your shape as you know it. Become like the air, light and unseen, everywhere at once. Or become like water,” Junko said as she fell backwards, from her spot floating above the ground, into the river behind them. Noemi bolted forward to try to catch her. The river was too shallow; there was a chance Junko could hit a rock and hurt herself! But even as Noemi stretched out her arm to catch the other girl though, Junko’s body hit the water. Noemi could only gasp as the girl seemed to melt away into the water itself.

Noemi could still hear her voice though, babbling out from the river, distorted by the water. “Become the spirit, let it guide your form, changing you into whatever shape it takes.” Her voice said, as the water started to rise, taking the shape of Junko, before she stepped out looking none the worse for wear.

Noemi just looked the girl up and down eyes wide. While she had seen Junko do some impressive things, melting into water only to reform was new. “I want to learn how to do that!”

“Do you plan to continue to engage with the forces of Aztlan, Noemi?” Ophidia asked, folding one arm beneath her breasts as she rested her head upon her hand, watching the two humans. Her lips pursed together into a frown as her voice carried with it an air of concern.

Noemi shook her head, sliding her knife back into her belt. “I just want to be able to fight better. I can’t fight a war all by myself. Even with you and Junko, that’s just three of us. Besides, there’s…somethings I need to see to first. At the coast.”

“You haven’t actually said what it is you need to do, come to think of it,” Junko said, grabbing some of her hair and wringing it out as the water to fell to the ground.

“Mmm, well, it doesn’t matter too much. I just made a promise to someone that if I survived, I’d head to the coast. Anyway, don’t think I’m going to forgive Aztlan for all this. They’ve caused too much pain, too much suffering to too many people. They’ve brought so much death to this land in the name of their order…Bunch of liars and murderers!”

“You know, boss, you don’t need to be fighting this war alone…” Junko said.

“We are not fighting a war, we are trying to build a cult,” Ophidia said, with some firmness behind her voice. “I did not save you so you could throw your life away.”

“Oh, come on, Ophidia, you must be just as furious with Aztlan as I am. And isn’t part of building your cult to get you more power? Hey, Junko, can you become one with Ophidia? What would happen if you tried that?”

Junko looked down, her face a bit pale as she fidgeted uncomfortably. “Well, ah, the stories say that gods are just more powerful spirits so it might be possible but…It comes down to a matter of ego. Ophidia has…too much of a presence. I’m able to easily pull myself back from the water by focusing, because the water has very simple thoughts. Ophidia…if I were to try to flow into her, well, I can only imagine the noise that would fill my head. I don’t think I’m good enough to do that.”

“I would suggest you not try it,” The goddess said, a smile playing at her lips as she seemed amused for the first time since the conversation started. “Though I don’t forbid it. You are forbidden, champion. I have the most need of you.”

“Hmph, I’d start with the air first, unless merging with you allowed me to fly or something. Anyway, what were you talking about not fighting this war alone, Junko?”

“Ah, well, there are a number of…I suppose they’d be resistance groups now, but they were originally the rivals to Aztlan. Quite a large number of them.”

“Oh? If they’re so many of them, why is Aztlan so powerful?” Noemi asked.

“For one thing, they’re very disorganized,” Junko said. “And so most keep their head down to the ground. I helped one out for a bit, in return for some food.”

“Well, what if they worked together? I bet they could probably at least halt Aztlan!”

“It’s not as simple as that, boss,” Junko said, her tone getting quiet. “Don’t forget, Aztlan has spies everywhere. It’s hard to run a resistance group, let alone five, when you’re never sure who you can trust.”

“I’m sure they hate Aztlan more than they mistrust each other!”

“Mmm, actually, more often than not, the resistance groups will set each other up to take the fall for Aztlan expansion…”

“What?!”

“Many of my missions were sabotage not on Aztlan, but on other groups.”

“Why would you possibly attack anti-Aztlaner forces?” Noemi’s voice was rising to the point where she was very nearly screaming. She felt a hand on her shoulder and a wave of patience wash over her. Her muscles went very still, as if they had been suddenly numbed. “Mrr…Ophidia!”

“You were getting agitated, champion.”

“It’s like this, boss,” Junko said calmly, putting her mask back over her face, tying her wet hair back into a pony tail. “The Aztlan spirit corp runs on the blood of its enemies. Heartblood, if you want to be fancy. Now no one wants to be the one to end up on the chopping block, so when you hear the army coming, you run. And if you’re with others that Aztlan wants dead, well, you make sure Aztlan catches them first. It’s not pretty…it’s why I stopped working for them, in fact.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Ah, I see…” Ophidia said quietly. “If it is for the heartblood, then it must be ritualized. It is likely the groups do not even know they are playing into the desires of Aztlan when they think of their own desires.”

Junko nodded. “The Aztlaners call it their Flower Wars, cause it’s not about conquest, it’s just about getting the hearts still beating to their altars.”

Noemi stood up, her eyes alight with anger. “I don’t care what their reason is, they’re never going to stop Aztlan that way!” She reached down, picking up a large rock, before tossing it into a tree trunk so hard the bark splintered a little. Her breathing came faster, but as she took a few heavy breaths, her eyes dulled. “…Damn it, I’m just one person. I don’t know if I can help the resistance groups anyway. But they have to see that that’s just a losing way to fight, right?”

“Does the mouse see it’s already dead when the cat bats it between its paws, keeping it in a corner?” Ophidia asked. “A snake is far kinder. We merely snap its neck immediately, rather than letting it draw itself out in misery.”

Noemi sighed, putting her hand over her eyes as she took a few steadying deep breaths. “It’s not my problem. Right now, we need to get to the coast. Maybe one day, when your cult is strong enough, we’ll knock some sense into the so called resistance. But we’ve spent enough time here already. Let’s get moving.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 12

September 12th, 2024

“Well, since you seem to have an idea of where we’re going. Where to, boss?” The girl asked Noemi.

“Boss?” Noemi repeated back to the smaller girl, looking her up and down. Athletically built for speed rather than for power, Noemi could understand why it had been so difficult to track her movements. The girl looked Chinese or…Japanese…Korean? Noemi blushed as she stammered out several attempts at asking the other girl where exactly she hailed from. “So where are you…like….from?”

“From, boss?” Junko said, sizing Noemi in return. She took a step forward, holding out her hand, before she caught sight of Ophidia glaring at her in suspicion. Junko frowned but didn’t say anything about it as she took a step back. “I’m Brazilian.”

“Wait, seriously?” Noemi said, keeping her eyes locked on Junko even as she leaned against a tree and crossed her arms. At this point, if Junko tried anything, Noemi was certain that Ophidia would have been able to halt the (probably) Japanese girl long enough for Noemi to draw her weapons, if not just stopping her outright.

“It’s called being a second generation immigrant, boss,” Junko said, her frown lightly playing up the sides of her face as her eyes lit up with amusement. “My parents came to Brazil before I was even born. I’ve never been to Japan in my life.”

“Eh?! You’re not from Japan, but then…what is…” Noemi gestured up and down at Junko’s clothing. The girl looked straight out of a kung fu movie or B-list action flicks as one of the bad guys, the ninjas that the action star would fight off as they came for him in hordes. The dark clothes, the mask, the sword on her back. It was actually a real sword too, not like the machete that Noemi wielded, still hanging off her belt. Noemi had no doubt that if it weren’t for the fact that she traveled with a bona fide goddess, she would have probably been sliced down in the middle of the fight. That thought made her scowl at Junko. “What are you, some kind of ninja?!”

“Bingo!” Junko said, her smile growing as her eyes opened wide. “I mean, it’s amazing that I don’t have to really hide it anymore. What’s a ninja when there are spirits walking around, right?”

“No, not right…” Noemi muttered. “Okay, so just because there are spirits returning, that doesn’t explain what a ninja is doing in the middle of the rainforest!”

“I told you before, boss, I think we’re hunting the same people,” Junko said, her eyes darkening a little as she pointed at one of the corpses with the blade of her knife. “I don’t like Aztlan. And neither do you it seems.”

“No,” Noemi said slowly, not sure how much to trust this girl with. “But that doesn’t answer the question really either! Start at the beginning!”

“What my birth? That’s a bit personal, boss.” Junko said, seeming far more relaxed now than she had only moments before when Ophidia had been coming down upon her. Noemi threw a rock at her, which the ninja effortlessly dodged.

“How did you become a ninja in the first place, jeez!”

“Mmm…fine,” Junko said with a sigh, sliding down the trunk of her tree and taking a seat upon the ground, her legs crossed over one another. Noemi paused for a moment, before sliding down to sit as well. “My dad made me do it.”

“Your dad made you train to be a ninja?”

“More or less…it’s complicated,” Junko said, looking away, her cheeks flushing red.

“Hey, you can’t start a story like this and then not tell it,” Noemi said. “Spill it!”

Junko sighed as she looked down, fidgeting with her hands in her lap. “I guess it doesn’t matter now, given who is in charge of the land but…my father was…let’s say he was a prosperous businessman…a very prosperous businessman.

“Ah huh…” Noemi nodded, catching her clear attempts to be subtle “The kind of prosperous businessman who’s so prosperous that people like the police can make things uncomfortable?”

“Yes, that kind of businessman.” Junko nodded “The kind who had many associates who were similarly…prosperous.”

“You mean like the Triads?”

“Those are Chinese, boss.”

“Oh, right, like the umm…the Yakuza, right?”

“That’s ridiculous boss.” Junko waved a hand as if to brush the thought away “The Yakuza aren’t real.”

“Just like ninjas aren’t real.” Noemi raised an eyebrow.

“Just like” Junko said “And Yakuza ninjas? That would be ridiculous.”

“Riiiiight” Noemi said “So does your father continue to associate with his…prosperous friends after moving to Brazil for reasons?”

“No, he does not” Junko said plainly.

“An ex-yakuza,” she muttered to herself, tossing the word about on her tongue. It sounded cool to say, even though she knew what it meant. It didn’t make it any less fun to let slip off her tongue. “I didn’t know the yakuza used ninjas.”

I am here, Champion. The voice of Ophida said inside her mind. But I feel you are better suited for this task than I, so I have withdrawn to recover what strength we used.

What task is that? Noemi though loudly to herself.

We need a guide. She is able to get around on her own. She will be good for this role.

Noemi nodded before she noticed Junko was staring at her. It had never occurred to Noemi what it must look like when she was meeting with the snake goddess. She liked to think it just made her look as if she were day dreaming.

“Aaaanyway…thing about being a prosperous businessman is that other prosperous businessmen you associate with don’t want you to leave, since it makes them less prosperous and you could share that prosperity with other less deserving people.”

“Right” Noemi said, seeing through the pretty obvious metaphor. “Yeah, can’t imagine what it must have been like,” Noemi said, nodding her head slowly. “I’ve been on the run for Aztlan and it’s exhausting. It must be hard to be on the run all the time for years.”

Junko mirrored Noemi’s nod, folding her hands together as she squirmed a bit in her seat. “A-anyway, he was rather big into the idea of personal safety, so I’ve been studying martial arts for a long time.”

“They have teachers for ninjas?”

“It’s called modern day ninjutsu,” Junko said with a huff, crossing her arms over her rather flat chest.  “And it’s not like I didn’t learn other forms of personal protection. I learned a lot of different ways how to fight…some just involved a lot more stealth and hiding than others.

“How much use did you ever get out of your ninja training before, I really want to know.”

“Actually,” Junko started to say, before she hopped to her feet. Once more she was moving faster than Noemi could track, though she could feel the wind rushing by her as Junko leaped over her, pushing off against the trunk of the tree, before swinging on its branch and somersaulting through the air and landing on her feet like a cat. “I’ve always gotten a lot of use out of my ninjutsu. The personal defense is certainly helpful, but with all the spirits around here, I’m able to combine my speed and sneaking techniques with their own abilities.”

“Kind of like you did against those Aztlan soldiers, huh?”

“Indeed. I made a pact with an air spirit to make sure the wind was always at my feet,” Junko said. Noemi could see the air swirling around her sneakers as Junko pointed to them, tiny eddies cycling around her shoes. “There are some others here and there that will help me out. Most of them do it for my aid in getting them away from Aztlan and its cult.”

“That’s kind of my situation, except I have to actually get Ophidia out before we both get caught.” Noemi said.

“Ophidia, so that’s the name of the spirit following you? It doesn’t sound native.”

“Well…it’s what I call her and she doesn’t seem t mind, she said she forgot her own.” Noemi said.

“Odd for a nature spirit. You sure you know what you’re traveling with, boss?”

“I do. Because she’s not just any nature spirit, Ophidia’s a full-fledged goddess in her own right, just a bit of a…small one right now.”

“I was taught all spirits are just spirits” Junko said “Whether they’re big ro small, but I take it you’re trying to make your little goddess big again?”

“That’s right” Noemi smiled “It’s why we’re heading to the coast, but the way seems completely filled with those sna—With Aztlan soldiers.” Noemi didn’t want Junko getting any ideas that Ophidia’s feathered serpents were allied with Aztlan. She still needed a guide and the more she talked to this girl, the more Noemi grew to like her. There was something that felt comfortable talking to another human being. Even the out of place conversation they were having was the most normal experience Noemi had had in weeks.

“To the coast?” Junko asked.

“Yeah, but…well, I don’t know this jungle as well as I thought,” Noemi said, faking a cough to cover the awkward silence, filling the void with any sound. “You seem to have a better knowledge of the area, so I’ve got to ask, would you like to travel with us?”

“You and your goddess?”

“Ophidia’s not too bad, and she’s already given her blessing,” Noemi said, pulling herself to her feet and stretching her arms. “What do you say? We’re trying to get a ship to take us away from this place. Surely you don’t want to stay here any longer either, right?”

Junko stared at Noemi for a few seconds before nodding her head slowly. “Very well,” Junko said. “I can take you to the coast. I had my own business there anyway. I see no reason not to travel with you.”

“Business? What sort of business does a ninja have anyway? Isn’t that basically assassination?”

“I couldn’t tell you, boss.”

“My name’s Noemi, by the way, Noemi Valente.” Noemi said, holding out her hand. Junko took it, looking up into the taller girl’s face.

“Pleasure to meet you, boss.”

“Err, you don’t have to call me that. I figured you were just calling me that since I hadn’t given you my name.”

“Right now, this is your team, boss. So that’s what I’m calling you. Now come on, get your goddess and let’s get a move on.”

“Right!” Noemi said, as she picked up all the stuff that had been scattered in the fight, the various weapons and charms that the Aztlan soldiers had dropped. Given the dangers that faced them, Noemi knew every tool was necessary to survive. “To the shore!”

It looks like we’ve got ourselves another companion, Ophidia. You’ve already doubled your cult in size!

Noemi could almost swear she heard a strange, almost hissing laughter, in her ears.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 9

September 12th, 2024

Noemi’s machete cut a swathe through the jungle brush as the two pressed on through the thick foliage. The goddess, Ophidia, walked silently behind her, her steps almost seeming to slide over the rocks and branches that made hiking uncomfortable. Whereas Noemi spent her nights stitching the tears and rips in her clothes, Ophidia seemed utterly untouched by the jungle. It made sense, but it was still irritating to Noemi, who spent much of her time picking twigs, leaves, and bugs out of her red hair.

As the sun rose and set, the two seemed to make less and less progress. Noemi refused to take the main roads, weary of encountering more opposition from Aztlan. On the upside, this meant that they hadn’t encountered any slaver band or Jaguar Warrior unit. On the downside, there was more than one occasion that it felt as if they were wandering in circles. Even Ophidia seemed to notice as they passed by what seemed to be a familiar clearing for the third time.

“Noemi, it seems we are lost.”

“Well, it’s hard to tell where we’ve been when it all looks the same!” Noemi said, leaning up against the trunk of a tree to rest. Her arm had grown tired from swinging. “I’m from the cities, okay? I don’t know this area.”

“Clearly,” Ophidia said, her voice steady. Despite the fact that it lacked much tone, Noemi couldn’t help but hear the disapproval…disappointment?…One of those two emotions in the word.

She scowled. “Well, it’s not like you’re helping too much either, Ophidia!”

“I am not a god of this area. It is as unfamiliar to me as it is to you.”

Noemi frowned as she reached up into the tree, pulling down a fruit she didn’t recognize. Ophidia might not know the region, but she had a knack for identifying things that were poisonous or venomous. It had made meals a lot easier, as Ophidia could easily tell Noemi if a piece of fruit was safe to eat or would leave her convulsing on the jungle floor. Noemi held the fruit out in front of her.

“Safe?”

“No,” Ophidia said, wrinkling her nose. She often did this when Noemi held out food. Apparently, the goddess considered these akin to “sacrifices” and “offerings”. The only thing that seemed to please her was the rare nights Noemi caught something with a bit of meat on its bones. The smell of the charred rodents never failed to rouse Ophidia’s interest.  “You should dispose of it.”

“Well, guess I’m skipping lunch for now then,” Noemi grumbled, tossing the fruit to the ground. If there was any bright side to this trek, she had never felt more in shape in her life. “But we can’t keep wandering like this. I think we need a guide.”

“Indeed. Though as we are avoiding the roads, it may prove difficult to find such a person, Noemi.”

“Well, yeah! But do you really want to fight more Aztlan soldiers? I know I don’t!”

“They would at least know the way to the coast.”

There were many times that Noemi felt sure Ophidia had a sense of humor, it was simply the driest humor she had ever encountered. The goddess rarely smiled, but at times her suggestions were so patently ridiculous or impossible, that Noemi could only assume Ophidia was attempting to make her laugh. Depending on her mood, and how hungry she was, Noemi would either respond with laughter or with an eye roll.

This time it was an eye roll.

“Great idea, Ophidia. I’m sure the Aztlan soldiers will be so accommodating too,” Noemi said. “Excuse me, Mr. Spirit Hunter, would you mind telling me which way to the coast? I’m trying to smuggle this obvious goddess out of the country.”

“I would expect they are also being told to look for a human matching your description, if you are as wanted as you claim to be,” Ophidia said, continuing to walk just ever so far behind Noemi.

“Yeah, let’s add that to the list of reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean sure, an Aztlaner would probably know the way, but how would we ever get them to help us? Kidnap them?” Noemi asked with a dry laugh. As the words left her lips however, her eyes went wide. “Of course! They’d know the area, and it would help the local spirits anyway! Why not do that?”

“It would be difficult, but it could work. It would make us more progress than we have currently accomplished as well.”

“Well, then at least we have a plan,” Noemi said, drawing her machete from her belt again. “The next patrol we see, rather than run and hide, we’re going to pull off an ambush of our own!”

“Very well,” Ophidia said. Her eyes started to glow as her feathery hair began to ruffle as if there was a strong wind blowing. Her body began to sway side to side, moving as if to some invisible music. Noemi tried not to stare, but her eyes were drawn to the dancing form of the goddess, drawn in by the magic. She could hear the hissing of many snakes around them.

“We will not be without our own forces,” Ophidia said, as her aura started to dim. “And I have perhaps shortened the time between now and our…discovery.”

“Eh?” Noemi grunted. Instinctively, her muscles started to tighten. Her eyes darted around them, but all she saw were the shadowy movements of snakes along the trees. Noemi had long since gotten accustomed to the ever-present presence of snakes around them. “Why is that?”

“Because any spirits loyal to Aztlan surely noticed the flaring of my aura there. If there are any Aztlan bands in the area, they will be moving towards us now.”

“Y-you could have warned me that’s what you were doing! Now I hardly have enough time to plan!”

“And less now for pointing this out,” Ophidia said, her eyes twinkling a little. Noemi grumbled, but the goddess was right. There was hardly time to stand here quarreling.

Noemi started hacking her way forward again, keeping an ear out for the sound of soldiers and an eye out looking for a place where they could truly ambush the Aztlan warband.

Eventually, the pair came across an area where the canopy was thicker, casting a heavy shadow on the jungle below. Noemi pulled herself up branch by branch until she was satisfied that nothing but a jaguar itself was going to spot her. If there was a jaguar, Ophidia’s ‘agents’ would know far in advance. The snakes seemed to have an almost instinctual hatred for the big cats. It had saved Noemi on more than one occasion. Now, however, she wanted Aztlan to find them. Or at least, find Ophidia.

She pulled herself further into the shadows as a small white snake crawled along the bark onto her shoulder, hissing in her ear. Though she didn’t speak snake, when the Goddess wished to speak to her, she often used these smaller snakes to whisper into her ear, or her mind. Noemi still wasn’t exactly sure.

Noemi lost track of how long she stayed in the tree, possibly for hours, her body relaxed but her senses on high attention. The jungle was noisy. This was a good sign, usually. It meant that everything was normal. When the jungle was silent, that always meant that danger was near. Sometimes it was just a simple predator, prowling through the brush. Sometimes it meant an Aztlan column. Noemi never knew until the danger revealed itself. Usually, she’d be praying to whomever she could that it was just a predator. This time she was hoping it would be Aztlan.

She didn’t know how long she sat in the tree, Ophidia hidden in the brush below in her feathered serpent form. Noemi stopped thinking, just listening to the sounds around her. All at once, the noises stopped and Noemi’s muscles tensed.

Her eyes darted to the white scales flashing in the brush. Ophidia wasn’t hiding as well as she normally would. The goal was to draw the column into this tight and densely forested stretch of jungle, where they could then be separated.

Noemi heard the drums before she saw the column. The sound itself sent a shiver down her back. Shadowy figures moved in the dark jungle, but she could tell they were humans. An entire column had come after the rogue goddess. Noemi took a few deep breaths to keep her heart from pounding. This is what they needed. They needed only one alive. She gripped the handle of her machete.

Ophidia was moving in the brush, making noise to draw their attention. The column leader barked out a command and the drums continued to keep the tempo as the column approached. Noemi watched them pass beneath her in groups of twos and threes. Her mind raced as she tried to think of how to approach this.

She almost missed the shouting ahead of her.

The Aztlan soldiers in the rear of the column were shouting out something about downed men. Noemi frowned. The snakes were supposed to wait for her order, not go in on their own!

Her branch shook as a shadow blew in front of her, launching itself down from above into the middle of the column, right on top of an Aztlan soldier. Noemi watched as the soldier screamed in pain and fright, before the shadow moved back into the darkness. The man fell to the ground, clutching at his throat as he choked on his own blood.

There were more shouts now. Noemi’s eyes darted around, looking for the shadow, but every time she caught it, it was gone, leaving another dead soldier on the ground. One by one, the soldiers fell, the column forgotten as they started to move into a ring, their weapons at the ready. They seemed to have as much trouble tracking the shadow as Noemi.

“What is going on?” Noemi hissed to the snake on her shoulder.

It seems we are not alone in seeking to create an ambush. Another has stolen our…operation.

The ring formation served the soldiers no better. Those who were still standing broke, running back the way they came, screaming in the jungle. The shadow followed them for a bit, bouncing from tree to tree before it disappeared into the darkness.

“Damn it!” Noemi said, staring at the carnage below her. While she had long stopped feeling bad about killing soldiers, as they often were trying to kill her, all their patience went unrewarded. “Now where are we going to get a guide!”

“We could try again I suppose,” Ophidia said, stepping out of the brush in her human form. She looked around at the dead bodies with little pity. To her, these humans were just as dangerous a monster as the jaguar was to Noemi.

“Yeah, I guess we’ll have to-oooo…” Noemi dragged out the last syllable as she felt the cold touch of a metal blade to her throat. Slowly she raised her hands up in the air, not daring to turn her head behind her. “H-hello there…”

“Do not move,” an unfamiliar voice said in her ear. “There is…”

“Step away from my champion!”

Ophidia’s voice echoed through the jungle as the branches and leaves on the trees started to move, hundreds of snakes slithering along their limbs towards Noemi and her assailant. The unknown attacker pulled Noemi with her as she slowly backed away from the snakes.

“What, a champion?” The voice said, sounding shaky, almost frightened. Noemi would have been a lot more understanding if it weren’t for the knife at her throat.

“That’s right, I’m her champion, so I’d think twice before you slit my throat, Aztlan assassin,” Noemi hissed through clenched teeth.

“I am not with Aztlan!” The voice said, sounding decidedly feminine. “Look, I-I think this might be a misunderstanding. I thought you were with them. The column was c-coming this way. Please call off the snakes.”

“Take your blade from my neck, first.”

“Right…” The girl said, removing the knife. Noemi quickly spun away, dropping to the ground below. She heard her attacker do the same thing. Ophidia was glowing as she called on her divine power, so for the first time, Noemi got a good look at her assailant.

It was indeed a girl, a rather short one at that, certainly shorter than Noemi which meant Ophidia would tower over her. Her dark hair was tied back in a long pony tail, and she wore a mask over the lower half of her face. By her eyes Noemi could tell she was East Asian,. Her clothes were all dark. Purple, black, blue, Noemi didn’t know. It was just dark.

“Who are you? And what are you doing out here?”

“Probably the same thing as you,” the girl said, pulling off her mask. “My name is Junko. I think we share a common enemy.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 6

September 9th, 2024

 

Noemi rubbed at her chafed wrists as the ropes fell to the dirt below, her knife securely tucked away on her belt. She could hardly believe that she was standing here, alive, after everything that had happened. The little white snake still stared at her expectantly, have taken its perch upon the piece of rubble. It looked to have once been a pillar, but who could know for sure.

Your prayers have been answered, Noemi Valente. Now it’s time for you to answer mine.

That’s what it had told her. The two stood in the crumbling ruins, half-consumed by time and the jungle around them. “Who are you?” Noemi asked, barely above a whisper. She scolded herself at hearing the fear in her own voice. By all rights, she should have been dead. The fact that she wasn’t meant that she shouldn’t have anything to fear.

I am the Feathered Serpent.

The snake’s voice still sounded in her head, its sibilant tones having a slight echo inside her skull. Noemi blinked twice, her eyes staring down at the tiny white snake. “A feathered serpent? Like Quetzalcoatl?”

The snake flicked its tongue out, as Noemi felt more than heard the hiss of irritation.

I am THE Feathered Serpent. More ancient than Quetzalcoatl, older than Kukulkan. It is from me they arose, from me they were derived.

“But…you’re so tiny,” Noemi said, wondering if she was about to be torn apart for saying so. If snakes could glare, this one was certainly doing so, but it stretched out its wings and fluttered them briefly.

Hold out your hand, Noemi Valente.

Noemi didn’t question her, extending her arm. The white snake slithered across the chipped stone of the pillar, coiling up her arm. She could feel it tightening its muscle, but it didn’t hurt. It almost felt comforting in a way. The snake made its way up to her shoulders, its tongue flicking beside her ear.

This was my temple. When I awoke, I found myself here…diminished. My worship has stopped. My cult has been killed. I have saved your life as your prayers requested. You will rebuild my cult.

“Ehh?! Rebuild your cult?! What do you mean I have to rebuild your cult?!”

You will gather worshippers for me so that I may grow stronger as a divine spirit.

Noemi blinked again before shaking her head, waving her hands emphatically in front of her. “No, no, no, you have the wrong girl, I can’t do something like that. They want me dead, I can’t even show my face in Aztlan territory without jaguar soldiers hunting me!”

You are the one I have chosen.

The snake coiled tightly around her arm, as if to stake claim over Noemi. The red-headed girl groaned, her fingers lightly massaging her forehead. “Okay. Look, I’ll make a deal with you. You saved me here and I’m certainly not ungrateful, but I still need to get out of Brazil, away from Aztlan. If you use your powers to help me get away, I’ll work on building you a cult. Deal?”

The snake raised its head, flicking its tongue out as its wings spread. My power is weak. The serpents you have seen are all that I can call upon. With more worship, I will grow stronger.

“Yeah, I get that, and I’ll keep my end of the bargain, don’t worry,” Noemi said, her voice dropping as she started walking. She didn’t want to stay in one place too long, not with the chance of Aztlan scouts coming to check on their fellow warriors. She moved into the shadows, her eyes watching every movement carefully. “What’s your name anyway?”

I am the Feathered Serpent.

“Featherina? Nah, I don’t like that. It sounds…too European,” Noemi muttered, sounding out different syllables on her tongue. “Oph…Ophidia. Do you like that name?”

It does not matter. You may call me as you wish, so long as it is me to whom you refer.

“Right, well, Ophidia, it’s going to look odd if I’m walking around talking to a feathered serpent all the time. Do you have a human form you could take?

The snake said nothing at first, though it loosened its grip around her arm. It took to the air, its wings fluttering to keep it aloft before it began to shift. Feathers started to fall and gather around the spirit as it grew in size, taking the form of a very tall woman, with long legs that looked suited to a dancer. Her white hair looked layered, like the feathers in a bird’s wings, soft with short strands lying one on top of another. Her red eyes were still slitted like a snake’s. Her wings folded gently, before turning into cloth before Noemi’s eyes, creating a cape around the goddess’s shoulders. “I am not so weak that I cannot manage such a transformation.”

“Ah, of course…” Noemi said, her eyes looking the goddess up and down, half in disbelief. She didn’t know why she was surprised. It was not as if Ophidia was the first spirit she had encountered. Still, she could never quite get used to the way they radiated an aura of sheer power. It did not take long, however, for Noemi to recover from her shock.

“Well, looks like we’re partners now then, Ophidia!” Noemi said, holding out her hand to the goddess to shake. The serpent looked at her hand and tilted her head, raising one eyebrow.

“Partners? I do not think you understand, Noemi Valente. You are my first worshipper. I am your new goddess.”

“Well, right now, you need me and I need you, and you said it yourself, your power isn’t what it used to be right? Sure, you could tear me apart with your serpents but then who’d build your cult for you?”

The goddess didn’t reply, just staring at Noemi before turning away without any true response. Noemi nodded her head, knowing that her point had been received. “Right, so partners. So I want to get to know more about the goddess I’m working with.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for instance, what exactly do you expect from worship? I know lots of different spirits have their own tastes. Like the Sunless cult wants blood sacrifice…”

Ophidia’s nose scrunched up at the mention of the practice of human sacrifice, her face contorting into a scowl. “I have no taste for blood. I know not of this “Sunless” you speak, but my successors’ tastes for blood are a reflection more of their worshippers than of me.”

“Good…I don’t know if I could have built a cult for blood sacrifice,” Noemi said, before her eyes went wide. “Wait a minute, you said it’s because of their worshippers they desired blood?”

“Indeed. The humans believed that it was the proper way to show their worship, as the blood is a powerful substance. As more blood was given, the other spirits grew thirstier.”

“So does that mean you could start developing a taste for blood?” Noemi questioned, warily, watching the goddess cautiously.

“In theory, should a cult develop. I find the idea abhorrent, however, and would not be pleased for you to try to influence your goddess in such a way.” Ophidia said, looking down haughtily, her arms crossed.

“No, that’s good, I don’t like it either,” Noemi said, letting out a sigh of relief. “The Sunless cult is one of the more blood thirsty cults. They worship the god called Tezcatlipoca.”

“Ah, the Jaguar,” Ophidia said, letting out a noise of disgust.

“Y-yeah, they’ve been taking over a large part of the jungle, leading the other Aztec cults throughout South America, so we can’t stay here. If we do, and word gets out that there’s a cult to you, she’ll stop at nothing to destroy you.”

Noemi tilted her head, a hand under her chin as thoughts swirled inside her head. “Actually, I’m not sure it would even matter. If they finds out I’m anywhere near here, they’ll send more people to kill me.”

Ophidia nodded her head, mimicking Noemi’s gesture, rubbing gently under her chin. “I have a question of my own. What did you do to so offend this Sunless Cult and the being known as Tezcatlipoca?”

“That…That’s a long story,” Noemi said, her eyes looking around the jungle, as if she suddenly remembered the danger she was in. The spies and agents of the Sunless were everywhere these days. She’d dare not tell the story so openly, without protection. “I’ll tell you when we’re not in the jungle, maybe. The point is, Central America, Brazil, it’s not safe right now. We need to flee.”

“Flee? To where?”

“We could go north to whatever remains of the United States and Canada,” Noemi said. The spirit’s face didn’t change, as if the names meant nothing to her. “…Or we could go even further south, trying to outrun the Cult of the Sunless.”

She grabbed a stick and started drawing a rough map in the dirt. Ophidia watched in silence. “Going north is bad, because it takes us right by Mexico City, which is the heart of the cult,” Noemi drew an arrow in the dirt pointing north, before marking it off with a big ‘X’. “We’re not taking that way. The south isn’t great because the rainforest is full of dangerous spirits that would love nothing more than to eat us both to consume power. I’m sure at your strongest, you would have no trouble dealing with them but right now, we don’t have the luxury.”

“If we can’t go north,” Ophidia said slowly, her voice carefully measuring out each syllable. Noemi shivered at the hint of a threat laced into every word. “And we can’t go south, then where exactly are we to go, Noemi Valente?”

Noemi dragged the stick across the ground, drawing an arrow to the west before curving it north once more. “To the sea. We get a boat and go to the Caribbean.”

“The Caribbean?”

“Yes,” Noemi said, more emphatically than before. “We go to the coast and get a boat and…and we should be able to find people there, maybe, who can help us fight against Tess. At the very least, we’ll be able to build your cult.”

“But we will be leaving our home.”

“Yes, but we’ll be able to find…we’ll be able to find people to worship you more easily out there than here.”

Ophidia stared down at the drawings in the dirt, her face frowning slightly. Noemi waited for any sign of thought on the goddess’s face. After what seemed to be a very long minute, the goddess looked up. “Very well. To the sea.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa