Árboles Bajo La Tierra

rating: +12+x

Cristina stood over an endless sea of bodies. In the distance, she could admire the massive remains of a dry fallen tree expanding all over the horizon. She lifted her head toward the colorless sky. She realized it was in fact the ceiling of a cavern covered in ashes. She looked down at the bodies under her feet; not alive but not entirely dead, they moaned in agony as a force pulled them over… somewhere. As Cristina struggled to make sense of this imagery, a familiar voice echoed in her mind.

"Enjoying the view, little witch?"

Cristina frowned as she recognized the word-shaped holes in the silence that the Black Moon talked in instead of a voice.

"If it is not the Fascist Beyond Time…" To wage her war, Cristina was forced to make a deal with the Black Moon. Now she had to endure the being's shenanigans from time to time. "What the fuck have you done now, Luna Culera1?"

"Oh, but this is not my doing," snarked the Black Moon. "I'm just showing you a vision of Fate. Your Fate, Cristina."

"And why would you be so kindly?"

"Kindly? No, don't get me wrong. Things have already been set in motion. A chain reaction that can not be stopped. This is your inevitable Fate. Your inescapable Doom. And I only do this because I do really enjoy watching you suffer. The true torture at the Gallows is not the Hang, but the Wait."

Cristina felt a pull on her legs, sinking here into the Sea of Corpses to be carried by the stream of lost souls to an unnamable fate. She tried to free herself, but a horrid metallic sound pierced through her ears.

"What really intrigues me is the true extent of your delusion." The Black Moon's hollow words kept howling in her mind. "Are you really so naive to believe such insignificant ones as you and your allies can make a difference? What have you accomplished? Every step you take makes your burden heavier, yet you are not close to achieving anything. The only thing you will accomplish is to get your people killed. I know that deep inside even you realize this is worthless. Are you afraid to admit all of this has been for nothing?"

As she sank into the abyss the horrid rumbling became louder and more piercing. She was being dragged closer to the wicked machine that was the origin of the torment. "¡Chinga tu madre, Luna Del Demonio!2" She yelled while waking up abruptly in her bed. Through the window, a moonless sky mocked her.

"On the third Saturday of the coming month, come to the Barranca del Muerto metro station in Mexico City at 3 o´clock in the morning. There will be a special train waiting. You will recognize it… Why are you looking at me like that? Don't tell me you have never seen a talking dog before."

Thus had spoken the Xolotl, who appeared to Cristina a month ago at Ireta Sapi. Now, she and her entourage sat nervously at the Barranca del Muerto station, waiting for… something… to happen. The Mexico City metro had undergone heavy militarization in the past months. Citing national security concerns, the National Guard maintained a heavy presence in the tunnels and an everlasting vigilance over the stations.

Cristina La Bruja, Baruch the Jaguar nahual, Lorena the Fire Priest, and Ramírez, defector from the Foundation were all wanted POIs for the Foundation and the Mexican government. The leftwing guerrilla movement Las Viboras had been labeled as terrorists, and they were relentlessly hunted down in all of Mexico. The only exception was their safe haven: the anomalous nexus of Ireta Sapi. Yet Ireta Sapi's status as a free port rested on fragile ground. On top of that, the Sin Nombre drug cartel and the mercenary group Valravn had a vendetta against them. There was a big price on their heads.

Strangely enough, the usually busy metro lines were empty. Not even the National Guard soldiers were present. Cristina wondered about this unusual quietness when a whistling sound suddenly cut through the silence, followed by the rumbling of a locomotive engine. An ancient-looking steam train emerged from the shadows of the tunnel and parked in front of Cristina and her companions. "Caronte Express: The Fastest in the Underworld!", was engraved in big, bright letters in one of the cars.

"All aboard! Rápido!3 The dead may have all the time in eternity, but I don't!", barked the Xolotl from the driver's window. "Why are you looking at me like that? Don't tell me you have never seen a dog driving a train before."

If she peeped her head through the window, Cristina could see the Xolotl sticking out the driver's cabin to let its tongue hang with the wind. The train driver's cap on the canine psychopomp's head miraculously resisted being flown away by the strong currents. "Of course, the goddam dog has a train driver's cap", thought Cristina to herself.

The old-fashioned stateroom was comfortable, yet Cristina could not manage to relax. The fact they were the only passengers on the steam train should have been a relief, but it wasn't. The witch was tired. She hadn't had a good night of sleep for a long time. After many years of hardship, the group finally found rest at Ireta Sapi. Yet the existence of the free port was frail. The Mexican government and the Foundation could declare war against Ireta Sapi at any time. For that reason, Cristina could never truly rest. She always had to be on guard, mentally preparing for the worst.

Lately, she was always on the edge. She could barely hold the tears most of the time. Yet a commander should never despair in front of their troops. Troops that had become her friends through time and hardship. Fighting a war requires sacrifices and everyone knew what they were signing for. And still, Cristina was so terrified of losing them. "If only I could tell them how much they mean to me."

"Here is what I'm not getting," asked Baruch. "If the Pale Lady can teleport anyone to Mictlan whenever she wants, why would she make us take the train this time?"

"Good question," answered Guadalupe Ramírez. "Every time I have seen or read about the Pale Lady bringing a living one to Mictlán, she always brings them there." They pointed outside the window, to the endless field of orange flowers. The train traversed this field, running on tracks on an elevated stone bridge. "Maybe bringing people to the Cempasuchitl fields is easier for her, but we need to take a different route to access the Necropolis. It is just a theory, though."

"I guess I have to stop overthinking this stuff," muttered Baruch, "I'm going back to sleep."

Cristina briefly smiled. Small moments like this help her make it through the days. Depression is never truly gone. There are just better and worse days. And on the worst days, she would sink into a dark place. That was the abyss where the Black Moon awaited, hungry to feast on her doubt and guilt. When the Xolotl called her to fulfill her promise to the Pale Lady, she tried to keep her friends out of this mission. But they would not have it, they would not let her fight alone. And she was both immensely guilty and profoundly thankful for that.

Ramírez looked discretely at Cristina getting lost in her thoughts. They knew she was struggling and wished to help. They also experienced guilt and doubt. Guilt from what they did in their time at the Foundation and doubt about their chances at redemption. But more than anything, they wanted to tell Cristina that they understand, that she did not have to feel alone. Unfortunately, she was not ready to open yet. In their time at the Foundation, Ramirez had witnessed incredible solutions to impossible problems come true. Yet there were still no magical solutions for a broken soul. Patience and empathy were the only resources they could offer.

The ex-Foundation operative gazed over their other two companions. Lorena was playing with fire in her fingers, making animalistic figures rise and dance until they were eventually banished in a smoke screen. Baruch tried to sleep, switching position like a big house cat in an effort to get comfortable in the hard train seats. And there was the other girl, walking towards them from the bottom of the wagon. The other girl? Who was the other girl? Ramírez struggled to remember. They counted the heads. One, two, three, four… five. But they were only four of them. Who was the other girl? Ramírez tried focusing on the girl's face. They could not recognize her, they could not even begin to make sense of her face. Suddenly, their anti-memetic training kicked in and they were clearly aware of the biomechanical horror stalking them.

"Cristina!" they shout, "Shield!"

Cristina barely managed to cast a shield spell over them, just in time to protect them from the sheer impact of the sonic blast. It had blown up all of the windows and seats on the train. Cristina was disoriented and her ears were ringing, yet she had succeeded at protecting herself and her friends. As soon as she heard Ramirez's warning, Cristina's reaction came primal urge: a desperate desire to save what little she had left. "No, please no. I can't lose them."

At this point, the memetic camouflage had dissipated entirely, revealing the mechanical zombie-like body of La Llorona. The synthetic fiend pulled out its claws in an unnatural motion and lunged toward Lorena. Cristina observed in terror as her friend was about to be dismembered but an imposing feral figure stood between the fire priestess and the weaponized spirit. "Begone fiend!" roared Baruch having transformed into his feline nahual. He punched La Llorona with brutal strength, throwing it to the ground. But his victory was short-lived. A fast-moving silhouette entered from the broken window and kicked Baruch in the face. The stunted nahual could barely react to this new enemy drawing a two-handed greatsword from her back and thrusting toward him. Baruch managed to catch the sword just a centimeter before it could pierce his spotted skin. His paws, gripping the blade, bled profusely.

Ramírez drew his pistol and shot at the Valkyrie's face-helmet. While the cyborg armor could resist small calibers, Ramirez's bullets startled it enough for Baruch to throw away the sword. The jaguar-man roared and tackled his opponent away.

The Valkyrie landed on her feet. While she had lost her sword, she quickly drew a long combat knife from her boot. Meanwhile, La Llorona had stood up and was recharging its sonic attack. Cristina knew her crew was in serious danger fighting two cyborgs at close quarters. The cruel words of the Black Moon echoed in her head. "The only thing you will accomplish is to get your people killed."

"No! No! Not again!" She needed to think quickly. With a swift hand gesture, she cast a force-push spell. The Valkyrie plunged her knife into the floor to resist the force wave; La Llorona did the same with its claws. Cristina concentrated to open herself to the Ways, she needed to pull more thaumaturgical energy to strengthen her spell. "I'm so tired. I just want this to end…" She thought as she felt her body failing. If she drew more energy than she could physically handle she would lose consciousness. "I just need to hold a little more." Her nose started bleeding. She was giving everything to keep standing. Every centimeter she managed pushed the mercenaries, it was a centimeter put between her friends and the danger. That was the only thought on her mind. Would it be enough? Screaming and bleeding, she finally managed to shove her enemies into the next wagon.

"Lorena!" She shouted and her voice broke. "The coupling!"

Quickly, Lorena concentrated a combustion explosion on the buffer and chain, the mechanism coupling the trains together. The witch heard a big boom. Yet the wagons were still joined. The Valkyrie managed to take a step toward them. Cristina fell to her knees, her strength almost depleted.

"Again!" It was their last chance.

The second explosion shacked the train. Cristina looked in relief as the rest of the wagons were left behind and derailed, sending their enemies falling to the Cempasuchitl Fields. She clumsily stood and did her best to not cry in front of her soldiers. Should she allow herself to cry in front of friends?

"No mamen!4", shouted the Xolotl from the driver's cabin. "This is going to get cut from my paycheck."

Mictlan's was a lively Necropolis, a place outside of time and space where the shadows and souls of the dead could live until the end of times. Architectures from different time periods and styles coexisted in a coherent incoherence, nothing and no one felt out of place. Mictlán was a place where the opposites met and complemented each other: the city of the Dead was full of Life. At the center of the Tomb city, The Pale Lady's offices stood under an immense inverted Ceiba tree. The roots sprawled from the rocky ceiling-sky above the Undercity, so the tree grew downwards, hanging over the Necropolis. "Pochotl, the Tree of Life," muttered Cristina to herself as she remembered images of the fallen tree of her dream. A chill crawled over her spine. "This is your inevitable Fate."

Two alebrije guards, the oneirozooic servants of the Pale Lady, guarded the entrance. The winged red tiger and the horned green fox, welcomed Cristina's group and opened the gate to their mistress' office. The reception hall was decorated in art deco style, giving a sensation of comforting decadence. "The Lady awaits you upstairs," said the fox alebrije as it gestured with its tail toward the staircase.

"Guadalupe…" Said Cristina, "Do you remember how that wandsman got into Mictlan that one time"?

"He got an invitation from a Miringua. And then, a Xolotl guided him."

"An invitation and psychopomp5. The two keys for the living to enter an Underworld. How did Valravn manage to ambush us here?"

"We were attacked by a Valkyrie and a Llorona. Valkyries are psychopomps…"

"And Lloronas are water spirits. Like Miringuas, they have the right to issue an invitation to Mictlán."

"That means…"

"Valravn has been building an army. An army capable of invading Mictlán."

"No vale nada la vida
la vida no vale nada
comienza siempre llorando
y así llorando se acaba
por eso es que en este mundo
la vida no vale nada."

When Cristina and her friends entered the room, they were met by the sad verses of the old song. And no one could deny it was a perfectly fitting soundtrack for Mictlán. The personality of this place was pretty much the personality of its ruler: Death not as a Reaper but as a Gardener. Contrary to the apocalyptic depictions from Europe, this was the true Triumph of Death: not it's opposite but a sister and companion of Life. Mictlán both mocked and stood in defiance against the cruelties of Life, but also was also a celebration of the good and priceless moments Life offered.

The delicate and perfectly manicured hand of Mictecacíhuatl, the Pale Lady, moved swiftly to stop the dusty and antique phonopgraphs' needle. "I'm glad you are finally here, Cristina." The Pale Lady sat comfortably at her desk, her otherworldly silhouette dimly illuminated by a gaslight chandelier hanging above her. She was dressed in an elegant black dress decorated with a flowery golden pattern. She donned a wide black hat, heavily contrasting with the pure whiteness of her calavera6 makeup. Her usual cheerful personality was ominously absent. An old typewriter and several manuscripts were littered in front of the Lady. Behind her, an elaborate art nouveau balcony led to the stunning view of the sprawling Necropolis of Mictlán.

"We were attacked on our way here." Cristina had no time for formalities. "Baruch has a cut on his hands, he needs a doctor."

"It is nothing." Said the nahual.

"Of Course, Dr. Axol can take a look." The Lady of Mitlán pulled out a tiny silver bell from a drawer and gracefully rang it. After a few seconds, the office door opened and a peculiar creature entered. It was a purple axolotl, dressed in a doctor gown, carrying a medical back in its paws and a stethoscope in its neck. It grabbed Baruch's hand and began tending to his wounds. "Trust me, I'm a doctor." Said the alebrije. "Unlike other charlatans, my cures are most effective."

"Pale Lady," Relieved that Baruch was getting care, Cristina turned her attention to the goddess, "Valravn is planning an invasion of your realm. They have found a way to get invited. That is the only way they could have attacked us. It was only a scouting party, it is a matter of time before all the might of their military machine is at your door."

"They would not even let the dead rest in peace…," sighted the Queen of Mictlán. She looked directly at Cristina's, behind her heavy makeup the Lady's eyes looked almost remorseful. "I'm afraid it is time for me to ask you to honor the promise you made to me. Will you lead the defence of Mictlán?"

Normally Cristina would have answered with her characteristic bravado. Instead, she felt the weight of the world crushing on her. "Why… me?"

"I am officially the ruler of this realm, but in reality, I must admit I'm not a great leader. Mitclán is divided between rival factions. Petty fights and distrust are tearing us apart. We must stand united if we want to survive. Yet I can not bring unity. You, on the other hand, Cristina… people will follow to the end of the world."

"And what if you are mistaken?" Cristina was reaching the breaking point. "What if I'm not this legendary leader you think I am? What if I'm only good to lead people to their end? I'm not a hero: I'm tired, stressed, and fucking terrified. Why are you asking me this?"

The Pale Lady didn't answer. She just kept looking at the witch with a mixture of compassion and sorrow. Cristina avoided the compassionate sight of the Holy Death; instead turning around, eyes tearing, to face her friends. They had been taken off guard by her breakdown. "I'm sorry." She cried. "I should not have dragged you here. We were so happy and safe at Ireta Sapi. After so many years of surviving, you deserve a chance to truly live. I want all of you to live happily." She felt a lump in her throat. "I don't want to lose you."

Lorena was the first to approach her. She didn't say anything, just walked and hugged Cristina. Baruch and Ramirez also followed. Being embraced like this, Cristina felt the abyss inside her slowly retreating. "What am I doing? They can't see me like this.". She tried to regain composure and speak as a commander:

"This is the promise I have to fulfill. It is mine and only mine. You have fought bravely alongside me in the past and I will always be in debt to you. But I can not ask you to stay here. This is not your fight. You still have time to take a train and return to the living world."

"Cristina, stop." answered Baruch, "We have already been through this before. Yes, you are our leader, but you are also our friend. We know you. We know you are struggling. And we decided to come here for you… but also for us. And for Abya Yala7. This is our fight to protect our homes. Whatever darkness is coming, we face it together."

"But why us? Why does it have to be us?" Muttered Cristina.

"Because we are what there is…" Ramirez smiled sadly, "I get you. I know how you feel. In my time with the carceleros I enabled all sorts of injustices. And I tried to kill myself for that. Yet the Pale Lady remind me it was not too late to make things right. We are tired, broken, and remorseful. We may not be the defenders Mictán deserves. But we are the only ones here… even the wrong ones at the right time can still make a difference. Valravn has to be stopped… and I have a score to settle."

"It is so unfair…" She crunched her first. Her guilt and sorrow were beginning to turn into anger.

"You know, Comandanta?" It was Lorena's turn. "When I joined you in Bolivia, you told me that they were never going to stop until they had taken everything… absolutely everything from us. I thought that the last thing they could take from us was our lives… but even that is not enough for them. They will never lead us in peace, not even in death."

The fire priestess sighed and continued, "You say that we should go back to live happily at Ireta Sapi. Do you think they would allow Ireta Sapi to keep existing for too long? If we don't defend it, they will also take it from us. We are not fighters because we want, we are fighters because we are not allowed to be anything else… You are right. We don't ask for nor deserve this life. It is not fair. But we were left with no other option but to revolutionize the world. We fight for a future that will be not ours to live in. Yet I will give everything for it… This time they had gone too far. We are ending this now."

Cristina looked at her companions. War was not a glorious business, but as long as they had each other, Hell may be bearable. She came to realize that, as much as she would egoistically want them to be safe, they were completely serious about their decision to risk their lives for the greater good. "So be it." Said Cristina and suddenly she stopped feeling so lonely and guilty. Instead of the paralyzing fear of losing everything, she was filled with the determination to protect it.

The Lady sat in silence, watching the scene with the utmost respect. "Santa Muerte, we will fight. For Micltán, for Ireta Sapi and for Abya Yala!" Blood rushed Cristina's as she said those last words, overwhelmed with pride and power, "Camaradas, será un honor partirle su madre a estos culeros con ustedes.8"

Hersir Torsten knew that logistics were even more important than tactics at the time of deciding the winner of a battle. For that reason, he always personally checked that every supply chain and communication channel was perfectly set up before a mission. An unglamorous task that most commanders would never bother with. Yet he was not like most commanders. That is why he was entrusted not only with the 13th Armored Division, but now the 25th Infantry as well. He was finishing reviewing the logistic reports when Researcher Ceballos walked in.

"May I interrupt?" Asked Ceballos.

"Feel free, I was just finishing."

"We have received the reports from the scouting party. It seems our friend Cristina Cisneros is involved again."

"Cisneros. She got away from me in Bolivia. It seems that Fate is giving another chance…" He paused for a moment. "I need to check the troops, please come with me."

They took an elevator ride to get to the hangar. Torsten noticed Ceballos fidgeting anxiously.

"Are you nervous, Researcher? Something I should know?"

"I always get nervous before the deployment of my technology, especially on such a large scale. But rest assured that the bridges are ready to cross our troops. We have tested them exhaustively."

"Good. The High Table puts a lot of faith in you. And so do I."

"If you allow me a question, I must ask. Why Mictlán? Why are our investors so interested in securing an underworld?"

"Meh, who knows what the suits are plotting? Maybe they have devised a brilliant commercial idea to privatize the afterlife. Picture it. Selling a funerary plan that already includes a ticket to Heaven… just like in times of Indulgences. Perhaps they want to turn it into an amusement park… "Mictlánland: Just as you watched it in Coco". Or it could be simpler: more real estate."

Ceballos smiled, not sure how seriously should he take the Commander's ramblings.

"But at the end of the day, I don't get paid to think about that. I get paid to wage war. And you get paid to build my war machines. If you want to have a long career at the VC, this is my honest advice: don't ask unnecessary questions."

The elevator door opened and the two men walked into a platform. They were at the top of the hangar, below them the troops of the 13th and 25th finished the last preparations for the operation. Hundreds of men, women and machines worked tirelessly with one purpose: to keep the Engine of War and Profit running smoothly.

"Valravn!" shouted Torsten, "War and Capital are Forces of Nature! Capital is the Engine of this World and War is its Fuel! We will bring Balance! We will fulfill our sacred duty to keep this World running the way it should be! We are the Engine of War and Profit! Óðinn á yðr alla!9"

"Óðinn á yðr alla!" Replied the men of the 13th in unison. One of Valravn's oldest battalions, it was consecrated to Odin. The capitalistic machine had twisted the ancient sacred warrior code to suit its needs. Now the once honorable Ravens of Allfather were nothing more than mere vultures.

"Atl-tlachinolli!10" Answered the 25th. This battalion was newer but eager for blood, for their members had devoted themselves to Huitzilopochtli. No creed or god was safe from being recuperated and appropriated by Capital. In Valravn's distorted creed, the most sacred wars were those fought in name of Profit. The Drug War, a senseless slaughter for the control of a Market, was poetic to them. For this reason, the old Mexica God of War was deemed to be a worthwhile investment.

Even the cold Researcher Ceballos felt uncomfortable with Torsten's Devotion. The face of the Hersir was illuminated by a cruel grin in anticipation of the battle. "He is a true Raven of the Slaughter," thought Ceballos. "Soon, the ravens will feast on the battlefield."

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