The sun had begun to set over the dark Roman skyline. Night was fast approaching, and the stars were already beginning to flicker into being overhead. With the streetlamps darkened and all the city empty save for their small sanctuary on the hill, it had doubtless been centuries since the sky overhead had been so clear.
Ranger Captain Hanne Anchesi stood atop their makeshift palisade at the northern end of the Piazza Venezia, watching the sun set to her left, dyeing the sky a deep red as it sank beneath the buildings. Her hand was on the sword at her hip, a longsword she had confiscated from the stores of an arms collector, as many of the others had done. The survivors had quickly learned that, while guns were still good for killing men, they had little effect on the monsters that wandered the city come nightfall.
Below her were gathered the rangers, a collection of men and women, all armed for the purpose of retaking the city, block by block, building by building. They seemed an army lost in time, garbed in piecemeal leather armor worn over a mix of ragged modern and homemade clothing. In their hands, they carried torches and what few flashlights still had power left. Slung over their backs were bows and quivers, with swords and iron maces at their hips. Some had dug up crossbows meant for hunting game, while others scavenged antique swords. Still, though they were less than fifty in number, they were the best soldiers that could be found. The best trained, the most disciplined, and most of all possessing a fearlessness in the face of the unknown.
“Everyone’s gathered.” The familiar voice of her adoptive daughter, Hildegard, caught Hanne’s attention as she turned to face her. Though young, Hildegard was easily one of the rangers’ finest. She was one of the few with training in swordsmanship, making her a peerless combatant with her sword. She had helped train most of the rangers gathered below them. Beyond that, Hildegard was a mage, and no mere scholar or student of the arcane but a full-fledged combat mage, one of the city’s only such examples. Hanne had been chosen by Capitolina to lead the rangers given her experience as an army officer in the past. Hildegard, however, was her most dangerous weapon against the creatures outside their brittle wall, and she would be a necessity tonight.
“Rangers of Rome!” Hanne called out to them, heads turning towards her as she slid down the ladder to the street, the gathered warriors parting for her. “This is the night we’ve been preparing for.” Slowly she walked among them, the men and women making way for her passage. All of them had the same resolute look on their faces, expressions of determination against the mythical things that awaited them outside the gates.
When they had first been gathered, scarcely a month after the Days of Revelation, they had numbered barely twelve. There had been no leaders, no rank, only a dozen or so beleaguered survivors. Their faces had been different then, hardened by despair and loss. They had been almost without hope then but the sanctuary had changed everything. So long as they had it, so long as they had the wolves, Hildegard, and the rangers, there was hope.
“Tonight is the night we’ve been preparing for.” She repeated, her voice echoed among the small and silent crowd, her boots scraping the ground with each step. “For three months we’ve held this sanctuary, and today the expansion begins. Our goal?”
She pointed towards the northwest, half towards the setting sun. “Four kilometers in that direction is Vatican City. That is our destination. Our numbers have grown, and though we may follow different creeds and look to different gods, that is human land that is still held. They’ve been keeping their own sanctuary safe just as long as we have, if not longer. Are you about to be outdone by a bunch of bookish nuns and monks tossing books at monsters?”
There was a small ripple of laughter among the men. Hanne smiled. “We’ve been given new orders to relieve them of duty. Sorry to say there’s basket full of nightmares outside this wall, and they’re directly in our way. So I kindly offered to take our rangers out to clean house a little, are they ready!?”
A shouting cry of assent rose among them as Hanne moved to the door. “Good! Same plan as always. Keep your heads, move in pairs, and never assume it’s just a shadow. Now, torches lit!”
A dozen flashlights lit up as twice as many more torches were ignited, illuminating the rangers harshly against the palisade. With a groan the fortified gate began to open, wood grinding against the ground as the cold and empty street was revealed before them, a soft creeping mist flowing across the ground. They silenced almost instantly as Hanne took the first steps out past the gate. The temperature seemed to drop in an instant, her breath a mist before her eyes. Slowly she drew her sword from its sheath, her hand reaching out for a torch as one of the rangers behind her passed it to her.
Her voice was low when she spoke next, the rangers moving quietly behind her as they poured out into the street. “Donovan, take first brigade forward and secure Bonaparte Palace, the first through third floors should be clear, but make sure nothing’s lurking on the fourth and fifth. They like to hide in the second hall. Amanda, take the second and move further down the Corso while Lorenzo secures our right flank with the third. Hildegard, you’re with me as we take the left as vanguard. Everyone else keep fifty meters behind us. Remember everyone, flicker torches to signal you’re secure, wave them to signal you need backup. Keep calm, and remember your training. Now move.”
The gate groaned against the ground as it was pulled closed behind them, the gathered rangers splitting up expertly as they moved to secure their positions. This was how it had to be, street by street, building by building.
Hanne’s training told her to hold behind. After all, it shouldn’t be the commander’s place to move in the vanguard. But after Hildegard, she was the best fighter in the rangers, and all of the other captains leading the other divisions were trained to lead as sure as she was.
Hildegard stepped lightly at her side as they moved slowly down the Via del Plebiscito. The buildings on either side of them were tall, narrowing their field of view and presenting numerous opportunities for an ambush. Hanne hated urban combat, but it’s what she was trained for and it was all that they would be getting. At the very least, their quarry was much easier to lure.
The rangers moved silently, allowing them to move into advantageous positions, anywhere where their quarry could be cornered or bottlenecked to their advantage. The risen dead were the easiest to handle. Even raised by foul magic, they were a simple matter to destroy so long as you took care not to be overwhelmed by numbers. At night, however, there were darker things that prowled the shadows.
Capitolina had tried to explain it to her. They were spirits by nature. Not ghosts, but powerful beings from a more ancient and primal part of the world, entities who had always lived in mankind’s shadow. The most potent and intelligent could be reasoned with, taking more defined and often humanoid form, such as the nymph that cared for the garden. More powerful and bestial specimens became monsters straight out of legend, manticores and chimeras and other terrible things spawned from human fears. Even without a mythic heritage, a common spirit was not to be underestimated. The rangers might number fifty now, but they had lost many to carelessness, poor luck, or a particularly cunning spirit in the past.
They had been quick to learn from their mistakes, and knowledge brought a great deal of power over the monsters outside the sanctuary. If you wished to lure out the risen dead, noise was a sufficient motivator to get them moving towards you. Other spirits required more arcane procedures. Most hostile spirits would come running at the smell of spilled blood. Spirits of battle, death, or simple unformed monsters were eager to find their way to it, and a bottle full of pig blood was now standard issue among the rangers.
Others, however, needed no invitation. Something growled in the deep night shadows ahead of them. Something large that moved on soft pads just out of sight. Hanne lifted her torch, spreading the light. At its very edge she saw what appeared to be a monstrous wolf, its gnarled mangy fur formed out of the shadow itself. Its teeth, overlong and wickedly sharp, reflected the light, as did its staring yellow eyes.
It was a loose and shadowy thing, undefined yet fearsome. It was, without a doubt, a predator before all else, one that fed on the fear and flesh of men. A Cacodemon.
“Your show, Hildegard.” Hanne readied her sword but held back as Hildegard stepped forward.
“With pleasure, Mother.” She smiled, drawing her own sword that seemed to flicker in the torchlight. The blade itself was magic, Hildegard claimed, and Hanne had never seen it dull or tarnish. When she had held it herself there was an impossible lightness to it.
The smarter strategy would have been to hold back and slay the thing with spell and arrow, but Hildegard had been raised on tales of knights and monster hunters, and she always took to battle sword first. Hanne complained, but not as much as perhaps she should have. Hildegard was not only competent, but magnificent to watch.
The Cacodemon struck first, lunging at her with its terrible jaws bared. Hildegard dodged deftly to the side, sword whirling in her hand. She could have made the counterblow but didn’t, restraining herself. Hanne frowned. What was she waiting for?
The pair circled each other, Hanne all but ignored by the Cacodemon as it tried to stare down Hildegard. The young ranger, however, never lost her eager smile. Again the monster lunged and again she dodged with practiced ease, this time leaving a keepsake in the form of a long gash across its flank, deep crimson blood spraying across the pavement.
The beast howled in mixed fury and agony, and Hanne realized what game Hildegard was playing. Hildegard loved a challenge, and a single cacodemon was hardly difficult for her. Why waste the blood, however, when she could use a Cacodemon to bring more?
Her bait set, Hildegard lowered her stance, blade still in her hands as she set about her task. This was more like the warrior Hanne knew, a fierce and unstoppable monster slayer. Hanne had not believed her at first when Hildegard claimed to have killed her first vampire at the age of fourteen. Over the past few months, however, she had demonstrated an uncanny skill for destroying evil, one that had earned her popularity and recognition throughout the sanctuary.
It was Hildegard that struck first now, shooting towards the beast like an arrow loosed from a bow. The Cacodemon lunged in kind, jaws opened unnaturally wide to reveal a maw of crooked overlong teeth and a long lashing tongue. It was met, however, not with warm flesh but the sharp metal tip of Hildegard’s sword as it buried itself in the monster’s upper jaw, the blade piercing its skull and running clean through the back of its head. The Cacodemon fell limp as Hildegard smoothly drew her sword from its body, swinging the blade to let the blood slide from the metal and splatter in an arc across the ground.
Hanna moved beside Hildegard as howls and moans began to echo through the city, the rest of the vanguard forming up behind them. She frowned, Hildegard did have a habit of getting ahead of herself.
“Form up here, I want archers covering our flanks, now!” She shouted the last orders as the rangers moved into position. The time for subtlety was passed, and they had at most a minute before more of the undead and Cacodemons arrived.
Several rangers filed into the buildings on either side of them, having been cleared on earlier patrols. Windows were smashed as they leveled their crossbows on the windowsills. Several more rangers formed up in front of them, clutching their spears tightly to create a boundary against the coming onrush.
They would come one by one. Without order or organization, they emerged. The first was another cacodemon, this one long and slimy, like a snake with half a hundred legs as it slithered across the ground towards them, unnaturally long fangs bared beneath shining yellow eyes.
Hanne raised her hand, waiting as the fiend drew closer, as if looking for a weakness in the thin wall of spears before it. She could see the shivering of the rangers on the front line. They were all terrified, but none of them dared turn to flee and put such a creature at their backs. As it drew closer Hanne kept her hand raised, waiting until it reared its ugly round head to strike before swiftly bringing her arm forward. There was the almost silent strum of a crossbow string as a bolt found itself buried in the Cacodemon’s eye. Its screech echoed down the street as it lashed and snapped at the air. The rangers with spears lunged forward, burying their spears in its exposed belly until its blood pooled on the streets below. As the creature fell, its long body undulating and coiling wildly, the rangers fell upon it with sword and machetes, hacking at the beast until it finally fell still.
“Form back up!” Hanne called, pulling back the rangers into a defensive wall. “And forward!”
Slowly they began to march forward down the street, those behind the spear-carriers bearing torches to light their path. The archers moved further behind them, all of them ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
As they moved, the darkness continued to unveil its horrors. Skeletons wrapped in dark magic lunged into waiting swords, shattered to pieces until they finally fell still. Cacodemons were hunted like beasts, stuck until they died, and for a moment it seemed they might make it halfway to the Vatican in one night.
Then a roar, unlike any they had heard before, echoed across half the city.
“Form up tight!” Hanne ordered as she saw all of the rangers reflexively shudder at the sound. She turned to Hildegard “Any idea what it is?”
Hildegard shook her head. “No, but it’s big. Very big. And it’s not a Cacodemon.”
“Then it’s a monster.” Hanne cursed. “I’ll sound a retreat.”
“No.” Hildegard shook her head, hand tightening on her sword. “We kill it here.”
“Hildegard, we don’t know what we’re up against. Now’s not the time for bravado, we need more men and more equipment.” Hanne gave her an icy glare, but Hildegard threw it right back at her.
“I’m a monster hunter. Killing these things is what I do.”
Hanne put her hand to her forehead in exasperation. Hildegard was a kind and sweet girl, but stubborn as a mule. “This isn’t the time for heroics.”
“Monster slaying is all about heroics.” Hildegard’s face broke into a confident smile. “It’s not just about men and equipment. The difference between a man and a monster slayer is the resolve to look a monster in the eye and let it know you can’t be scared.”
Hanne put a forceful hand on her shoulder. “Hildegard, we’re retreating, now!”
Just as she said the word, however, there came a loud crash as half of the building along the street came down, its plaster walls crumbling on broken beams as fire whipped and roared out of its shattered windows. With another crash, something enormous leapt free of the flames and turned to face them.
For a moment it was still half-hidden in the dark, but within moments it was illuminated enough for them to see it. Not only was it lit by the fires still burning in the demolished building, but by the glowing heat venting from all three of its mouths and its six burning eyes.
It was taller than a man at the shoulder and moved like a lion, soundlessly padding across the pavement as it moved slowly towards them. It had a face like a lion’s as well, save for the burned and scarred flesh covering every inch of its face, its mane a blackened ruff of short spiny hairs and its teeth long as butcher knives. A second head rose midway down its back, built like the head of a ram with coarse and blackened fur, long curling horns framing the head as it wildly spat fire into the sky. The last head was that of a snake, its eyes glowing at the end of its tail that turned on its own to face them, mouth opening in a hiss to reveal unnaturally long fangs and a broiling heat rising from its throat.
This was no half-formed Cacodemon, this was a true monster, a beast from legend come to life, and no doubt one of Rome’s new apex predators. A chimera.
Hanne was frozen, only managing to pull herself free of her transfixion when the monster took another step towards them. It was only then that she realized that Hildegard had used the distraction to escape her grasp and had already moved past the front line, sword in hand.
“Hildegard, get back here!” Hanne shouted, halfway between a reprimanding officer and a scolding mother. Hildegard ignored her.
“Rangers!” The girl called behind her to the terrified rangers. Even nerves of steel would quiver before a true monster. “Let me show you how to kill a monster!”
Hildegard stepped fearlessly, her sword lightly glowing in her hand. Even as she spoke Hanne could hear a slight muttering under her breath, a light pre-incantation to get her mind in the right state to cast a spell. The Chimera growled, all three mouths bearing sharp and shining fangs, but Hildegard did not so much as shiver.
“Stare it in the eye!” She shouted back at them. “Steady your footsteps! Watch its movements!”
With a roar that could be heard halfway across Rome, the Chimera’s lion head unleashed a torrent of fire at Hildegard, but she did not so much as step aside as the flames engulfed her.
“Hildegard!” Hanne felt her heart freeze in her chest as several other rangers cried out in panic, several beginning to step backwards towards a hasty retreat.
As they stared at the pillar of fire where Hildegard had stood, however, it began to shake and deform, whirling like water down a drain as it was drawn inwards. Hildegard was still standing there, the crackling orange light illuminating her face, untouched by fire, as the Chimera’s flames were drawn into the sword that she had raised before her face. The blade ate at the flames hungrily, glowing steadily brighter as it developed its own fiery corona.
“And never let it know you are afraid!”
There was a cheer from the rangers as Hildegard shot forward, flaming sword in hand as the distance between hunter and quarry evaporated. Even Hanne felt herself caught up in the excitement, though she reminded herself that the advice would do little good for a ranger lacking a magical fire-eating sword. It would not hurt to remind them all of that perspective, but now was not such a time. The Chimera screeched and lifted a great paw, long black claws extended as it swiped at Hildegard.
Hildegard’s momentum never broke as she lithely bent out of the path of the massive claw, her sword whistling as it swung through the air to meet it instead. A chimera’s arm was as thick around as a small tree trunk, but Hildegard’s sword was an ancient thing that had been drinking in her magic all night, and when it met the flesh of the chimera it found it particularly yielding. The beast’s great forelimb fell to the ground with a thud, geysers of blood issuing from the stump of a leg that remained. There was a brief pause of shock before the terrible three-toned roar of pain and rage. That pause, however, was all Hildegard needed.
The snake head dived for her with the speed of an arrow loosed from a bow. Hildegard was not just ready for it, she was waiting, and a horizontal slash from her blade caught the striking serpent in between its jaws and kept going, splitting the horrible head for three feet down its tail neck, cutting short one of the notes of its roar as she rolled easily away from its next wounded strike.
Losing its balance and gallons of blood, the Chimera made a final desperate leap at her, mouths aglow with fire. Hildegard spun to meet it, but the swift movement across blood spattered ground caught her heel on a slick patch and she fell to the ground, sword spinning from her hand as the Chimera bared down on her. Hildegard raised her hands over her face, but the four-ton beast would not be stopped. Before the lion’s teeth could close upon the hunter, Hanne slammed sideways against it, burying her sword almost to the hilt into its neck. She was not heavy enough to stop the beast, but she had hoped her intervention could throw the lopsided creature off course. The beast fell on its side, unable to support itself on three legs, and Hanne turned to see Hildegard, still alive, but with her left arm caught bleeding in the beast’s jaws.
“Hildegard!” Panic filled her, but Hildegard, still running on adrenaline and clearly trying to swallow most of her pain merely gave her a pained smile. “Never show them you’re afraid.” She said before turning to lock eyes with the fallen monster, who stared back with defiant glowing eyes as another burst of flame grew in its throat, refusing to let go until it cooked Hildegard to a crisp.
Hildegard narrowed her eyes as she drew in a deep rasping breath. “Let’s see if you’re fireproof on the inside!”
Some mages needed long incantations for their spells. With time and practice, Hanne had learned, they could reduce simpler spells to just a single word.
Fire coursed along Hildegard’s arm as it poured like a flamethrower into the Chimera’s mouth. The flames coursed through it like napalm, Hildegard’s own flames supplanting the Chimera’s as she burned through its more tender organs, unrelenting until it was nothing but immolated bones and fur. Fire poured from its mouth, nose and, eyes before it finally collapsed, the heavy muscles of its jaw relaxing on Hildegard’s bloody and scorched arm as she pulled it free.
The rangers gathered around them, mixing whoops and cries of excitement with words of concern as Hanne looked over Hildegard’s left arm.
“Second degree burns almost to your elbow, those tooth gashes will need to be stitched up, it’s a miracle it didn’t take your hand off.”
“Mmm…” Hildegard bit her lip from the mix of pain and embarrassment, twisting slightly as she spoke. “Chimera’s…ah…have a worse bark than bite I guess.”
Hanne glared at her. “You’re confined to quarters for three days the insubordination, and you’re grounded for ignoring me for the same, and I’ll add a fourth day for that little joke.”
Hildegard’s brave façade broke as some of the rangers sniggered, and for a moment she was a seventeen-year old girl again. “Four days!? Moooom…”
“Too bad, and quit squirming.” Hanne frowned. “Lewis and Sven, take her back to the city and get her patched up. Quickly now!”
As Hildegard was lifted to her feet, her sword retrieved as she was carried back towards the gate, Hanne turned to the rangers, who had once more fallen into their almost signature silence.
“Listen all of you.” She said harshly. “Hildegard is a brash, foolhardy, and arrogant teenage girl. She is also the best monster-slayer in the city which is the only reason she’s not been sidelined permanently for this little misadventure…still…” She looked at the corpse of the Chimera. “This is a great victory for Rome, and a blow against the monsters in our fair city. So while I don’t want you emulating her foolhardiness and -certainly- not her tactics…there is one thing you should take to heart…”
Hanne stepped forward and retrieved her sword from the Chimera’s neck, wiping the blood clean from her blade. “This is a dead monster. They can bleed, they can be injured, and they can die. They are not nightmares, they are not invulnerable and intangible. We are the Rangers of the Roman Sanctuary. We do not meet them with fear, we meet them head on with sword, spear, and arrow. Now form up and get ready. We’ve a long night ahead.”