The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 24

 

The sea seemed to be never ending to Noemi. It reached out to endless horizons that curved off into limitless expanse. Having spent so much time running through the jungle, with its low branches and overgrown vines, where you could never see further than a few feet ahead before the view was blocked off or the light grew dark, the sea seemed a lot more…open. She had come to be known for standing on the deck, just letting the fresh ocean air breeze across her face and hair.

Sometimes the blue skies turned grey, dark clouds rolling across them and blocking the sun. Other times, they turned black, flashing lightning across the sky. At night, they lit up with the red and orange of the setting sun. The merchants always seemed happy when the sun went down, as the day’s work came to a close. The morning sun was treated with a lot less joy, especially compared to the joy Ophidia showed for it.

The goddess would often whisper in Noemi’s thoughts, far more than she did when she had Junko by her side. It seemed Ophidia felt just as cooped up on the sea as Noemi did, reaching out through their connection to talk and question Noemi about her plans.

As my champion, you should be working to increase my power, Noemi, by increasing the number of worshippers I have. For instance, there are a number of people aboard this ship…

“I’m not going to recruit a bunch of pirates to a cult, Ophidia,” Noemi hissed through her teeth, trying not to attract too much attention as she pulled the ropes to the sails, trying to catch the winds Ophidia was providing.

And why will you not?

“Because they’re pirates! Yeah, I know they said they’re honest traders, but I looked at the maps, we’ve been avoiding ‘safe’ ports in favor of heading to smaller, harder to get to docks. They’re pirates!”

They are still potential worshippers.

“Look, when we get to Hispaniola, I will set about getting us a permanent spot to build a shrine, and we’ll go from there. Though I don’t know how pious people will see me. I guess I can be a salesman easily enough…”

“CAPTAIN!” A voice shouted from above. Noemi looked up at the crow’s nest, a feature on ships that had come back into style as radar and global positioning systems became…less reliable. Noemi had been talking with the sailors about it. Many of them just scratched their heads, seeming to have forgotten the big metal behemoths that had sailed the seas just a few years prior. For many, the only way to sail the sea seemed to be with…well…sails.

“Land ho!” The lookout screamed, pointing somewhere off in the direction. The crew cheered, and Noemi could not blame them. After all, while she certainly preferred the sea to being cooped up in an Aztlan cage, it had been some time since they had seen land, and that had been a small island, barely even a waystation. To hit true, solid land, with actual ports and cities would be a relief after so much time spent on this ship.

“That’s funny,” the captain said, staring out through his spyglass towards where the lookout was gesturing. “Looks like there’s some fog rolling out from the coast.”

“Fog?” Noemi asked, leaning against the edge of the railing. It was still too far off to see anything but water on the horizon. The blue skies were a bit grayer than normal, considering there didn’t seem to be a storm coming. The wind Ophidia had created was still pushing them along at a good pace.

“We’ll just need to be careful as we approach, to avoid hitting a reef or getting stuck in the shallows,” the captain said, folding his spyglass and slipping it away. “In the meantime, boys, half-sails, we don’t want to come upon the beach too quickly, now.”

“Aye, captain!” a dozen voices called out in response, Noemi’s among them.

“Ophidia, can you slow the winds down a bit?” Noemi whispered under her breath.

It is not as if I am simply adjusting a dial, Noemi. But I will pull back my efforts and conserve my power. We do not know if this is truly Hispaniola.

“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” Noemi said, as she started to pull the sails shut. She could barely feel the ship slowing beneath her feet. It was hard to tell at times if they were truly moving or simply drifting in place.

All the crew were bustling on board the deck, preparing for the promised land they were approaching. Crates needed to be fastened once more, sails tied, ropes secured. No one wanted to find themselves crashed upon the rocky shores.

As the sun began its descent from the zenith towards the western horizon, land could be seen from the deck of the ship by the naked eye. More accurately, the fog could be seen rolling across the sea, slowly crawling out to greet the ship. Noemi heard more than a little murmuring from the crew as they sailed towards the low gray cloud.

“Don’t like the feel of this,” one pirate said. “They say monsters lurk in the fog. Even fire don’t do much good inside of it.”

“Fire does alright,” another replied. “The problem ain’t the fire, it’s that you stand out like, well, a beacon if you’re carryin’ a torch. They’ll see you before you see them.”

“Enough chatter, men,” the captain said, silencing them all with a quick word. “Pilot says this is where Hispaniola should be. We might have been workin’ against the winds all this trip, but we should be coming up to a port soon enough, so eyes sharp.”

“Even through the fog, cap’n?”

“Aye, through the fog,” the captain said.  “There won’t be any Aztlan here, but for all we know, them stories of New Orleans and their Loa might have spread to here. Or even worse things. Get the guns ready for anything.”

Noemi continued at her post, watching the others prepare the ship for any hazards they might face. She prayed silently in her heart that it would turn out to be just fog. She had had enough to do with spirits and magic for a while. It would be refreshing to just have a weather phenomenon that wasn’t cause for magical alarm. Her hands pulled at the ropes, even as she heard the hissing of Ophidia’s tongue in her ears.

You should keep your wits about, Noemi. I do not like the way this looks.

“Well, fog does make sailing harder,” Noemi said, light heartedly.

The crew moved with relative silence, talking to one another, but the celebration that had come when they had heard of land had died down quickly. Noemi could feel it too, that slight tingle in the back of her neck that told her they were sailing into trouble. Still, their supplies were running low and the pilot assured them all, this was Hispaniola.

They sailed on, the wind dying down as the afternoon turned into evening. The fog rolled over them as they rocked along the waves, carried into the cloud. The air turned cold and wet and dark. Shadows seemed to be moving about the ship. Noemi held her hand in front of her face, moving it far away to see just how thick the fog was. Her hand grew shadowed as she moved it out, clear as she moved it in. The other people on the deck moved like grey silhouettes, those bearing torches standing out among the darkness.

“Captain!” The lookout cried again, from his perch up above. “Incoming vessels…Can’t make out who they are! Towards the bow!”

Noemi squinted as she looked out into the fog. She could just make out two large shadowy shapes moving towards them along the water, in no real hurry. The ships were smaller than the pirate vessel, though sleeker. Noemi could tell they weren’t meant to carry much storage, which mean they were unlikely to be pirates. Unfortunately, that only narrowed out one threat.

The men moved to the bow to stare, even as the captain barked orders for them to stay at their posts. The ships, a pair of sloops with gray sails to better meld with the fog, appeared from the haze. The figures on the deck were hard to make out, with ashen skin and drab clothing. It was as if the mist had given shape to people made of the same gray cloud.

The captain stepped beside Noemi as she stared down. One of the sloops sailed close to the pirate ship. As it drew near, Noemi could see the people aboard the ship were not…human. They looked human, in many ways, but their skin was a pallid white; their eyes were dark and empty. Gaunt figured, their hair clung to their skin like slimy leeches.

One of the figures spoke up to the deck of the ship, its voice sounding at once both faraway and right beside Noemi’s ear.

“Yo ho, children of day,” the voice said. Noemi’s spine stiffened involuntarily, but she felt Ophidia’s presence fill her heart, keeping her from freezing. Most of the crew were not so lucky. “Welcome to the waters of the night. The Lost Fleet welcomes you to your new service.”

Noemi’s hand fell to her machete as she drew it. The men were staring down, almost as if in a trance. She didn’t know what this Lost Fleet was, but it didn’t sound like anything she wanted to do. No, if the ship was going to be commandeered by some ghost pirate or naval fleet, she would find her own way to the shore, if it came to that. The other sailors looked to each other, muttering and asking one another what should be done. The ghostly captain’s voice drifted along the wind up to the ship once again.

“Of course, for those who choose to resist their fate…the ocean will welcome you, to the lands where the sun reaches not. Your worldly goods belong to the Fleet, with or without you.”

“Come on, men!” The captain bellowed. “If’n both options be death, then let us at least sink their ships before they can sink ours!”

“But captain…how do you shoot a ghost?”

“They may be ghosts but their ships are still wood! Guns at the ready!”

“Yes, captain!”

Noemi joined the chorus, even as she subtly made her way to the rowboat. She knew she wasn’t the only one who would have thought of such a plan, and there were only so many boats aboard the ship. She saw the crew move through the fog, many heading below the decks to pack gunpowder into the cannons.

“Captain…” The lookout’s voice rang out once again. “There’s another ship coming, port side.”

Noemi looked over the edge of the railing. Sure enough, there was a third ship sailing through the fog, though this one seemed far away. She heard movement on the sloop below them. The ghosts were rushing about, pulling their ghastly sails away, loading their cannons.

“I don’t think it’s a friend of theirs, captain,” Noemi said, with a grin.

“It might not be a friend of ghosts, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friend of ours! Raise the sails, men, we’re making a run for it!”

Noemi could barely tell what was happening in the confusion that followed. People rushed to and fro, pulling on ropes and adjusting the rudder, heading down below the decks. The sloops seemed to be preparing to flee as well, though their sailors were still brandishing their swords and pistols at the pirates.

“Captain, I don’t think…”

She heard the sound of the cannons before she got the sentence out. The sloops might have been running, but if they couldn’t have the ship, they would make sure their rival didn’t. Noemi gripped the railing as the cannonballs tore through the hull, rocking the ship.

“Return fire!” the captain ordered, firing their own broadsides back at the sloops. Noemi’s struggled to keep her feet as the ship moved back and forth from the force of the cannons. She could fight in the streets, in the jungle. There was always a place to run or jump, a solid piece of ground to land on. Here, there was nothing as she nearly slipped.

The second volley was too much for her. As the wood splintered in the explosion, Noemi found herself flying backwards off the ship, the railing snapping behind her.

“Caaaaptaaaain!” She cried out as she grabbed fruitlessly at the air, the pirates’ growing smaller and smaller until they were barely larger than toy soldiers to her eyes. Noemi crashed into the water back first. The first thing she noticed was the cold as the ocean water chilled her to her bone. The second thing was the pain the impact had upon her spine. Had she not been blessed by Ophidia, Noemi would have probably died, joining countless others on the ocean floor.

She pushed the water back, swimming furiously for the light of the surface. With her first gasp of breath, she screamed in pain. The second breath she called out to the pirates.

“Captaaain! Come back! Don’t leave me like that!”

They are not coming, Noemi.

“Well someone has to! Ghosts! Hey! I want to join your fleet!” Noemi waved her arms, trying to get the ghosts attentions. It failed. The sloops were sailing away just as her ride was. “Someone, please! Anyone! Come back!”

Noemi.

“Please, I don’t want to die here, in the water! Someone help me!”

Noemi. The ship is coming closer.

“The ship, what shi-“ Noemi said as she spun around in the cold salty water, her face going pale. The ship that had scared the ghosts was sailing towards her. Even from a distance, she could tell it was big. Bigger than the pirate ship she had been sailing with. Its hull was made of black wood, covered with slimy green rime. The water around it seemed to glow from an unseen light source. Its sails were tatters, holes letting the last light of the sun shine through, though it didn’t seem to affect its movement. In fact, it was traveling with far greater speed than Noemi expected.

She treaded water for a bit as the large vessel sailed towards her. Noemi was about to call up, waving her arms when a rope ladder was dropped down the side. Thankful just to get out of the icy water, Noemi grabbed hold of the ladder and started climbing her way up, shivering the whole time. The rope was slimy and slippery, though she could feel Ophidia curling around her shoulder and neck beneath her shirt as she pulled herself up, giving her the balance needed to keep from falling.

After the longest climb of her life, Noemi finally pulled herself aboard the ship, gasping for breath as she collapsed into a shivering soaking pile upon the deck. She looked up to see a pair of boots. Slowly, she raised her eyes. A man was standing above her, looking down at her with a smirk upon his face.

“Well, now, isn’t this a surprise. You made the climb still living,” the man said, laughing. Noemi just collapsed again, exhausted from the effort. The last thing she remembered hearing before drifting off was his laughing voice telling her one more thing, something that chilled her more than the water did.

“The name’s Jonah. Welcome aboard The Flying Dutchman.”

 

 

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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