February 17th, 2023
The Aldobrandini manor was a large estate outside of the crowded interior of Rome. It was owned by a family that preferred its isolation, while being simultaneously unafraid of flaunting their obvious wealth. Though visible through the iron gate of its high walls, the gate itself almost never opened. No car had ever been seen driving in or out, and it was often said that the Aldobrandinis lived in an almost Luddite state of existence.
As such, the manor remained safe and silent behind its walls as Rome fell like so many cities around the world. They had heard the first reports of the dead rising in October. In mid-December, the Lord and Lady Aldobrandini had left to try and book safe passage out of the country. In early January, Rome burned, and the few remaining houseservants fled to find their families or what little safety might be found. By today, only one person remained in the Aldobrandini manor.
Well, two, if you had asked.
“Basil!” Catarina hissed under her breath. The gate of the manor creaked and squeaked as it was slowly pushed open, and the young daughter of the Aldobrandini house slipped outside, head darting from side to side.
Basil, a smallish grey cat, had darted ahead of her, sliding through the bars of the gate and hurrying down the street. Catarina, or Cat as she preferred to be known, hurried down the street after him, finally snatching the cat into her arms as it stopped to sniff at a piece of trash along the ground.
“We were supposed to make a smooth, quiet exit.” She frowned at the cat, which looked up at her with a mix of disinterest and irritation, as cats tended to do.
Cat sighed as she started walking again, head on a swivel for any sign of movement. “I guess we’re outside anyway…and that’s what matters, right?”
Basil, being an actual cat, did not respond, save to yawn very noticeably. Cat spoke mostly to reassure herself, as she often had over the past week and a half. Being alone in a large manor house with only Basil for company was lonely business. When food had started to run low, Cat had decided to make her own way outside, deciding that neither her parents nor the servants were likely coming back.
The street was utterly silent, distressingly so for Cat. She was so used to imagining the world outside the manor as bustling that to find it as quiet as her family’s library was deeply unsettling. Even with what little news she had received before it all went dark, she expected the streets to be full of rampaging monsters. But there were no monsters, and no people, only silence.
There were walls on either side of the narrow brick street, with trees rising above them. They lived in an affluent area, and the Aldobrandinis were hardly alone in owning walled estates. She turned back and forth, unsure of where to go before shaking her head.
No, she thought to herself, You had a plan. Go into Rome. That’s where supplies would be.
She turned in the direction of the street that led into the city. Still, she paused.
Rome. That was where there might be people. Or monsters. She gulped, glad no one could see how nervous she was. Her Father would have scolded her for being so hesitant. She shook her head again before forcing her feet forward in the direction of Rome.
Her footsteps and the chirping of a few birds were the only company she received. Still, she was thankful for the breaking of the almost omnipresent silence. Basil’s eyes followed the birds from his comfortable position in Cat’s arms, but he only made a few attempts to escape.
He was not the only burden she was carrying. She had a backpack on her shoulders that was filled to almost bursting with the items a sixteen-year old with no survival training and a few skewed priorities might have. There was the remaining food from the house she could scrounge for Basil and herself, a large water bottle, several maps of Italy (dated 1933), a number of very heavy books, a blanket, and a flashlight (The batteries of which were dead, though she did not know it).
She was confident enough in her scrounging skills to believe she could find plenty of food and fresh water in Rome. She had, after all, finally found all seven hiding spots the house servants had used to hide sweets from her.
She stopped to rest after an hour of walking. She wasn’t out of shape, as her homeschooling demanded a fair amount of exercise, but the pack was heavy and she was getting discouraged by her lack of progress. She had thought that an hour’s walk would have brought her as far as the Tiber if she had kept a steady pace, but she was still in the city’s outskirts by the look of the buildings around her.
She set Basil down, keeping one eye on him though he seemed to be satisfied sitting for the time being, particularly when Cat retrieved some of his rations for him. She, meanwhile, checked her maps. Unfortunately, none of the maps she had possessed detail down to the level she needed and she sighed as she stored them back in her pack, taking a drink from her water as she gently stroked basil’s fur.
Cat, at least, was well aware she had almost no clue what she was doing, which softened the blow of discovering how ill-prepared she was.
“Socrates thought he was smart for not knowing anything, but that won’t help me find food.” She said quietly. She looked at some of the buildings around her. She had been staying on residential streets, and all of the houses she had passed looked abandoned and now severely overgrown. Curiously so, as it had only been a month or so since their abandonment, yet in most of them ivy was crawling widely across their surfaces, and grass was past her knees in many places. A number of buildings had even collapsed.
She considered grabbing a rock from one of the ruined buildings and hurling it through a window to get inside, finding food that might have been left behind. Something in her, however, stopped her.
There wasn’t something right about looting, even in an abandoned home. It didn’t seem… Well… Heroic. She felt a little immature for thinking about it that way, even as she knew it was the right way to describe it. Cat lived and breathed stories of heroes, knights, and legends, and they were the subjects of many of the books she carried. She had always tried to do the moral thing, always tried to be chivalrous and generous, as much as a sixteen-year old could be, and she had even tried to convince her parents to let her learn fencing. They had refused adamantly, of course, but that didn’t stop her playing with heavy sticks in the woods of her estate when she had time for herself, debarking and polishing them, and naming many of her favorites.
“I’ll wait until I find a grocers or something.” She decided. Her growing hunger telling her that looting an abandoned store was somehow nobler than looting an abandoned home. Basil, content with the cat food he had been given, did not seem to mind.
Movement caught her eye down the street. Quietly, she pulled on her pack and picked up Basil as she squinted, trying to get a better look at the source in the mid-afternoon light. As she looked and the moving shaped drew closer, her heart sped up in her chest. What was moving down the street towards her looked human, but it did not move like one.
Hurriedly Cat darted towards the nearest house. Testing the front door (locked) before trying to run behind the house (Gated and also locked).Her heart hammering in her chest, she spotted a tree with several low branches at the street corner. Rushing to it, she hoisted Basil up onto one of the branches, to which he thankfully clung, before hauling herself up and climbing higher into the leaves, picking up Basil as she went. The cat, either tired or sensing her urgency, thankfully did not run away.
She watched the figure move down the street in her direction, but it seemed to be wandering aimlessly. It moved with an unsteady gait, as if dragging one leg in front of the other.
It was a skeleton, withered to its bones, without any muscle or tissue to bind them together, and naked save for the scraps of old clothing that clung to it. It was animated by some malevolent force that let it hobble down the street like a monster from a movie or a book. She looked closely, and saw a sort of tangible darkness clinging to its body, tying it together like black threads of muscle. In its eye sockets she could see twin lights of pale blue. She held her breath as it moved close to their tree, and felt basil’s hair stand up on end at its approach. It did not seem to have spotted them, however, and it moved past their tree without pause in its shuffling gait.
She exhaled as it wandered out of sight, but stayed in the tree with Basil until she was finally sure it was really gone. Now more cautious than ever, she continued her nervous path into Rome.
As she drew closer to the city, the buildings around her fell steadily further into disrepair. Unlike the homes being retaken by nature, however, these buildings seemed to have fallen at human or near-human hands. Signs of uncontained fires were everywhere. Ash and burned debris littered streets and sidewalks. Many multi-story buildings stood as hollowed-out shells if they had not collapsed completely, creating impassable blocks in the roads that forced her to go around. Windows had been shattered and doors forced in, and any hopes of finding food were quickly dashed as she found that almost everything had been taken from every shop and home long before she had arrived. What did not change, however, was the silence. There were almost no birds here, and the crushing silence returned to fill the air around her. Now, however, she did not feel like talking to Basil.
The living dead were growing more common as well. She ducked and hid amid the ruins and the few remaining buildings as they passed in greater numbers. They seemed to move in packs of five or six, and she would have to find a new hiding spot almost every half an hour, slowing her down even further.
Cat glanced upwards at the sky. Night was coming soon, and she’d need somewhere safe to sleep. She picked the closest building with shattered windows, an apartment complex by the looks of it, and started trying doors to see if any were unlocked. All of the doorknobs resisted her attempts until she found one room on the second floor where the lock had been broken completely, letting the door swing open.
It was a small apartment, a kitchen, sitting room, and an empty bedroom. Everything had been emptied and tossed about, and it was clear that whoever was here last had left in a hurry. It was as empty and quiet as every other place she had seen, but it had a bed she could use, and that was enough. Still, that open door worried her. The only furniture she could move was a chair that wasn’t particularly heavy, and wouldn’t stop a person or a skeleton determined to get in. She decided to pile up some of her cans of food in front of the closed door. If it opened while she was asleep, she’d at least hear it and have a few moments warning.
Cat settled into a dinner of a sandwich and an apple she’d packed earlier while Basil ate more of his cat food before mewling at her for more. She scratched him behind his ears, watching the sun setting behind the buildings from the small window facing out into the street. She had tested the faucets but found none of them were working, so she had to settle for a few more sips from her water bottle, which was beginning to run distressingly low.
As night settled, she decided to do some reading in bed before falling asleep. She went through the books by feel, the light in the apartment already too dark to see much inside her pack. There were several heavily-leafed books of myths and legends, as well as one very heavy tome she’d taken from her Father’s study. She pulled out one of her favorite books, a collection of Arthurian Legends, the feel of its spine as familiar to her as the words on its pages, before flicking on her flashlight, only for it to sputter once and dim as the batteries died.
“Stupid thing!” Cat shouted, more loudly than she had meant to, and enough to disturb Basil from his sleep.
“Sorry…” She said, flustered, as Basil shot her that dispassionate look of irritation all cats have mastered. She shoved the flashlight angrily into her pack, adding batteries to the list of things she would need to find more of before she pulled the sheets over herself.
Maybe it’s for the better she thought idly to herself as she closed her eyes I need to be up early tomorrow anyway.
Slowly, as the night deepened, sleep began to overtake her.
She wasn’t sure if she’d truly fallen asleep or not when the sound of clattering cans caused her eyes to shoot open as she scrambled out of the sheets. Basil dashed off into the darkness, but Cat had no time to search for him as she ran to see what had pushed the door open.
Her breath froze in her lungs as she saw one of the skeletons halfway through the door, trying to push its way clumsily past the chair in its path, its eyes burning with unnatural light that stared hungrily at Cat. Another one was already behind it, pushing it forward, a terrible rattling call on their breaths.
Her options raced through her mind. The only ways out were the hall currently filled with skeletons, or the window. They weren’t too high up. She’d probably be alright if she dropped down carefully, but the skeletons were upon her NOW, and they needed to be slowed down at the very least.
She took a deep breath as she called upon the power welling up inside her. She remembered her Father’s lessons. Find the channel of mana within your body, make it flow in a constant cycle, and recite the incantation.
“Form. Water. Cold. Snap. Freeze. Spread.”
With each word the spell took hold, the mana pouring from her hands before manifesting itself as frost. Ice rapidly spread from the skeleton’s hands and feet, locking its hand to the door frame and causing their slow footfalls to stumble and slip on the glassy iced floor.
Cat might have never learned to fence. But there had been plenty more her Father had taught her.
Cat took a deep breath, the outpouring of her mana reserves leaving her drained. But she didn’t have time to recover. Hurriedly she searched for Basil as the skeletons struggled to free and right themselves. She found him cowering beneath the bed, and snatched him swiftly into her arms. She ran to the window, not pausing to think as she kicked through the old glass, shattering it and wincing with pain as she felt the glass cut into her leg.
“Ow ow ow…” She muttered as she cleared the last of the glass shards from the bottom of the frame. The opening wasn’t very big, but it was big enough. There was a small ledge on the building outside, and she managed to step out onto it, basil clutched under one arm as she glanced back to see the skeletons pushing themselves into the apartment.
She looked down. It was about a four meter drop from the ledge to the sidewalk below. She sat on the ledge, holding Basil tightly to her chest before hopping off.
She’d read that you should always roll with a long fall, but her attempts to tuck into a rolling position only caused her to land painfully on her side on the sidewalk below. Basil yowled and leaped from her arms as Cat pulled herself into a sitting position, feeling her upper arm and side where she’d landed on them. She winced as pain shot through her with each touch. She’d be heavily bruised at the very least, and maybe one of her ribs was broken? She’d never broken a rib before, and wasn’t sure how much it was supposed to hurt. She placed a hand on her side, once more calling on the now more-depleted stores of energy in her body, once more causing it to flow within her.
“Hand. Cool. Skin.” She recited, and she felt a chill spread from the hand on her side, numbing the pain running through her as she rose unsteadily to her feet.
A noise from the alley beside the apartment building brought her back to full attention. “Basil?” She said tentatively to the darkness, not sure where the cat had run. What answered her, however, was not the familiar meow of her cat. Five more of the skeletons lurched from out of the alley onto the sidewalk to face her, ghastly faces and skeletal smiles staring as they continued their gasping wraithlike moan.
Cat froze. Should she run? Basil had run off somewhere and all of her supplies were still in the apartment. She had her magic, but she didn’t have much mana left, and she didn’t know any way to destroy them. Her magic had never been used to harm anything, and she didn’t have the time to think of how to weaponize it.
She could hear her heart racing in her ears, sweat beading on her brow as she was frozen with fear. She never should have come to Rome.
Frozen with fear, unable to so much as utter a whisper, eyes stuck on the approaching undead. She almost didn’t notice the dark shape coming from behind them.
Something behind the small horde burst into flames, a brilliant light that seemed to fill the street as it swung through the air. Cat fell inelegantly onto her rear as she stared. There was a figure among the skeletons now, and they were holding the fire.
Cat shook her head in shock, they weren’t holding a fire. It was a sword, a sword with a circuit of brilliant white flame running along its edge. The light from the fire was so fierce she could barely make out the figure themselves as the flaming sword whipped through the air in long beautiful arcs, trailing a line of fire as it cleaved through the withered bones of the skeletons, the unnatural shadows fleeting from their hollow eyes as they fell into a heap.
Cat stared in awe as the last of them fell, the figure turning to Cat as their sword fell to their side, the brilliant fire still burning bright. Cat looked up into the face of a young woman, only a few years her senior by the look of her, her face framed in red hair, with a thin nose and eyes like a bird of prey. Her mouth was set in a smile of mixed gratitude and triumph, and as she offered a hand to her, Cat saw the strange manner of her dress. She wore a knee-length black cloak that was open in the front over a buttoned shirt and dark leather pants. But covering her arms and shoulders were a series of metal plates. Pauldrons and gauntlets that clutched her sword in one hand as she reached for Cat with the second.
“Are you alright?” her voice rang clear in the alley, as if vanishing the terrible noise the skeletons had filled it with before.
“Y-yes…” Cat said before taking her hand, feeling the strength in her arms as she pulled her to her feet. “Umm…thank you.”
The woman’s smile grew kinder. “Think nothing of it.” She said. “But we should get to safety.”
“Right…oh! Basil!” Cat realized he was still missing, and began searching for him, leaving the woman in mixed confusion and concern.
“Sorry!” Cat said as she finally pulled him from his stubborn vigil under a short set of stairs. “But I can’t leave him behind.”
She returned to the warm glow cast by the woman’s flaming sword.
“My name’s Catarina” she said “You can call me Cat.”
“I’m Hildegard.” The woman smiled “Dame Hildegard Jazheil.” When she spoke, Cat noticed a distinct German accent behind her words, but it was hard to pin down, as if she couldn’t tell what words she was mispronouncing, but that she simply knew they were wrong.
“Dame? Like a knight?” Cat could only smile. She was a bit non-traditional for a knight, but she had come to her rescue with a flaming sword. That had to count for something!
“Just like.” She smiled back at her. “Now let’s get moving before more of those things show up.”
“Ah! But my things are still inside…” Cat began, even as Hildegard started walking. “Don’t worry, we can come back for them in the morning.” Hildegard said. “First thing we need to do is get you to somewhere safe for the night.”
“Where’s that?” Cat asked.
“A number of survivors have managed to make a safe zone on the Capitoline Hill.” She said “It’s about a half hour’s walk.”
“It’s safe?” Cat asked, wondering how anything could be made safe from all this ruin and the hordes of skeletons. “Who’s running it?”
Hildegard’s face broke into a rather enigmatic smile.
“That…” she began slowly. “Is something of an odd story…”
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=2&sl=69 ))