February 24th, 2023
Cat ran her hands along the polished sandstone walls that lined the hallway in which she found herself. Someone was playing music up ahead, calling her forward. The clanking steps from her armored shoes moved in time with the soft rhythms and hypnotizing drumbeats. Her eyes were drawn to the seemingly endless painted stories that moved along the walls with her, playing out their tales to the young mage. The air was perfumed with the scent of jasmine, cinnamon, and rose oil, creating a fragrant fog that hid the secrets at the end of the hallway from the young hero.
“The footsteps of the hero echo through the halls of gold. Lost, but not afraid, she pressed onward, forever onward.” A voice called out to her, smooth and seductive. Cat saw a sparrow, small and shining light, appear through the fog, leaving a trail of golden dust behind its fluttering wings. It flew inside of her body. It felt like her own magic. It felt…pleasant. Cat instantly wanted another. Her footsteps picked up speed as the heroes on the walls fought onyx dragons and serpents. Empires were built and fell on these walls. They were Cat’s only measure of time. Had she been there for days? Weeks? …Minutes? She could not say.
“The Three pluck the strings of their harp…” Cat could hear three twanging notes from the harp ahead as the voice lulled into a pause. “…and the chords meet into the melody of a great hero. One who will need help. A golden string produces the sweetest noise.” Cat couldn’t help but admit that the voice saying those words was among the sweetest she had ever heard in her life. She felt shivers down her back and for a moment, her mind drifted to the alluring voice that would call to her in her more lurid dreams.
The hallway started to widen, though it was still hard to see through the perfume haze. Cat could make out a sedan sofa and a figure reclining, a long thin pipe held between her fingers. Long black hair cascaded besides her face and over her shoulders. The only part of her face that Cat could make out were her golden eyes. “Your story is just beginning.”
Cat woke with a start as she felt a hand shaking her shoulder. Her hands shot up, grabbing the assailant’s wrist.
“H-Hey, easy there, Cat.” Hildegard said, releasing the other girl. “Sun’s up, it’s time to go train.”
“Train?” Cat sat up in the cot, stretching her muscles to get the blood flowing again.
“Yeah, you said you were interesting in fighting, right? Well, if you’re serious about that, then you need to get up and train with the rest of us. That means no more sleeping in, Cat, and I’m serious about that. You get up before the sun and head to the training field. We’re already late actually, but the commander gave me leave to train you personally today.” Hilde said, as she tossed a pack to the groggy Catarina. Cat opened the pack and saw it had bits and pieces of armor. It seemed to be comprised of whatever could be scrounged up.
Cat looked up at the older girl. “What about breakfast?”
“You slept through it. Now come on, let’s go. You’re going to need to be an early riser next time if you want to eat.”
Cat grumbled but got out of bed, quickly getting dressed in the freshest pair of clothes she had. A prime reason for her grogginess had been her attempted summoning the day before. The spell seemed to have worked, but the light it created had petered out and revealed nothing. Lord Nassar had declared the attempt a failure much to Cat’s embarrassment, and she had stayed up late trying to figure out what had gone wrong, but to no avail.
When it came time to put on the armor, she had a bit more difficult. “How do these straps work, sis?” The younger girl had taken to calling Hildegard her sister, especially after the knight had agreed to train her. While Hildegard had yet to reciprocate, Catarina thought she saw the older girl smile when she called her “Sis”.
“Come on, come on. Just because we’re going to be practicing one on one doesn’t mean we should waste time!” Hildegard said, a bit impatiently as she went over to help Cat with the armor. “Through this loop, then around like this, see?” Cat watched carefully so as to not annoy her trainer again. The armor was simple and inelegant, comprised mostly of reinforced leather and a mail shirt. Not exactly the shining silver plate of a medieval knight or Hildegard’s own modern take on the concept, but Cat supposed she needed to earn that.
Once she was ready, Hildegard led Cat out from the shelter and onto the wall of scavenged boards and rubble that marked the perimeter of the sanctuary. “Be alert, we’re in monster territory now.” Hildegard jumped down from the top of the heap, cushioning her fall with a quick spell to push the air up to meet her, slowing her descent before impact. “Your turn!”
Cat took a deep breath and closed her eyes as she let the magic flow through her. What Hildegard had done was a simple spell that was taught to any apprentice. She could do it easily, which was why it wasn’t the spell she was going to use. The air around Cat started to cool as her fingertips were lined with frost. She touched the edge of the rubble where she was standing and it turned to ice. She traced a small path down the side of the wall and adjusted her footing. If she slipped, it was likely she’d land on her head. Cat started to slide, her feet locked onto the ice with her magic as she skated down the steep drop. She could feel the air pushing her hair back as she pushed past it. As she drew closer to the bottom, she traced a ramp of ice and dismounted from her stylish fall.
“Hmm. Not bad.” Hildegard said, a bit begrudgingly. Cat had heard enough stories about the Rangers’ favorite to know that sort of showboating and stylish behavior was right up her alley, but it seemed the girl was trying to act like her mother for the purpose of training now. Cat did her best not to smile behind Hildegard’s back. “Of course, in a real fight, you won’t have that much time to get down. If I was pinned down, I’d be dead by the time you reached the bottom.”
“Sorry, sis” Cat smiled, giggling slightly. Hildegard sighed, but she wouldn’t turn around so Cat could only guess she was smiling too. The two walked in silence for a bit. Hilde seemed to know her way around, so Cat just followed behind her. The city was eerily quiet in the morning, as the sounds of the Sanctuary faded into the distance. These areas were regularly patrolled, and so any survivors that found their way into the section were usually escorted quickly to the Sanctuary.
Eventually, they came to a secluded piazza. At first glance, Cat thought the square was abandoned but she realized quickly that the debris had been arranged in a very deliberate way. The once open courtyard had now been refitted to a training field. Barbed wire and been placed around its perimeter. On the inside, tires had been used to make walls, and the frames of cars that had been torn apart or salvaged for parts made an obstacle course. There were ropes and ditches and it was clear when Cat took the time to look that a lot of care and effort had gone into this.
“It took me a while to get it set up, but I think I did a good job. Mother actually used some of these ideas in the Rangers’ training field, since this one is a bit too small for more than four or five trainees at a time.” Hildegard lifted open the makeshift gate and stepped inside. “Come on.”
Cat hurried in before Hildegard dropped the gate down again. She looked around the field with excitement and curiosity. She only turned around when she heard a loud thud behind her. Cat turned just in time to catch the training sword Hildegard had thrown at her. “Right, so let’s go over the basic stances with a sword. You’ve got to learn these before you can do any really cool tricks.”
“When do I get to learn how to fight a cacodemon like you?!” Cat says, swinging her sword in front of her excitedly. She had held a sword before but mostly for show. The only real time she ever got to swordfight was with her maid’s daughter, Alicia, when they were kids back at the estate but her father quickly put a stop to that. They had loved playing knight and squire, with the noble and glorious Catarina taking Alicia as her brave and loyal squire. Now, Cat was the squire to a real knight, or as real a knight as could be found in the city. Alicia had gone with her parents, and Cat hadn’t seen them in months.
Right now, however, that same knight was grabbing her by the wrist again and stopping her swinging. “Easy there. Don’t swing it like that, you’re more likely to cut your own nose off than the enemy. Your stance is unbalanced, you want it more like this.” With each piece of advice, Hildegard repositioned Cat’s body in the way she wanted it. She made Cat do the same form over and over again. It was annoying, but it was no different than learning magic, so Cat gritted her teeth and bore with it. She watched Hildegard go through the forms with an elegant fluidity, her sword seeming to cut through the air perfectly.
“Where did you learn all of this?” Cat asked, still holding her form as Hildegard guided her. “Did your mother teach you?”
“No,” Hildegard said simply. “Mother did not adopt me until I was sixteen. My father by birth taught me how to use a sword, just as his father taught him, and his father before him.”
“So it’s a family tradition?” Cat asked eagerly “You’re the heir to a family of knights?”
“Not just knights.” Hildegard smiled. “We are monster hunters. Professionally trained in the ancient and esteemed art of killing monsters that would make prey of men.”
“That’s so cool!” Cat giggled. “But…there weren’t any monsters until just recently.”
“Many believed there were not mages either.” Hildegard gave her a sly smile. “Oh sure they are more common now than ever. But I assure you, vampires, werewolves, and evil shades were very real.”
Cat had to deliberately keep herself from staring in wide-eyed awe. Hildegard just seemed to get cooler by the minute. A knight, an expert swordswoman, and a real-life monster hunter! It didn’t get any better. In that instant she knew that she had been exceedingly wise in her choice of adoptive older sister.
“What about your sword?” Cat glanced at Hildegard’s blade. It was no reclaimed collector’s piece or refurbished museum artifact. It was made of shining steel that almost seemed to glimmer in the light. Across the flat of the blade Old Norse runes had been etched into its surface, and the crossguard was embellished to appear like a pair of outward facing dragon heads. In its pommel was a ruby bigger than her eye that seemed to sparkle with an inner light. It gave her a distinct tingling in the base of her skull, one she had learned to trust as something of a sixth sense. The blade wasn’t merely fine, it was magic.
“You have a good eye.” Hildegard lifted her sword, holding the blade flat in her free hand. “It is called Stahlzahn, it is the sword of House Jazheil and has been passed down as the mark of knighthood from Lord to heir for over seven centuries, ever since my ancestor Odrig Jazheil slew the dread vampire Alastor Al-Sonara. It is an enchanted blade, a natural conduit for my family’s magic, and the years have only made it stronger. The finest machined edge of modern steel cannot put a dent in it, and it will cut through almost anything like a hot knife through cheese.”
“Wow…” Cat gawked, staring at the beautifully crafted blade. She wanted to be as cool a knight as Hildegard. She wanted to have a magic sword as well, one that she could pass on as an heirloom to her own line of monster hunters. “I guess magic swords are hard to find huh…”
“Indeed they are.” Hildegard said. “Most of the time, you need to have them forged by someone with the skill in such a craft. There used to be more mages who studied the art of swordsmithing but it became less popular over time. Though gods and spirits often still retain it.”
Cat nodded as Hildegard continued her lesson. One day she would have a sword made for her, even if she had to barge into the forge of Hephestus or someone themselves and get it. Still, she’d need to know how to make a magic sword, or at least the materials needed to create it. She would talk to Lord Nassar about that.
“I’m going to have my own magic sword one day, sis, but only when I’m as cool and as good a fighter as you!” Cat said, picking up her training sword again.
Hildegard smile as she did the same. “That’s the spirit, though if you’re looking for the best in combat, that’s actually my mother, not me. She’s the better overall fighter between the two of us, I’m just the better fencer. But I can get you whipped into shape. Now let’s run through those basic forms again!”
Cat quickly hopped into action, going through the same stances and movements she had before their small break. She had a big smile on her face, for in her mind it was not a dull training sword with which she was practicing. In her mind, she saw her magic sword clear as day.
She hardly even noticed when they trained right through lunch. When the sun started to get low, Hilde lowered her training sword and started to pack up the gear. “Come on, it’s time to head back. You look like you’re about to pass out, so we’ll take the easier way back.”
Cat’s stomach rumbled. “Oooh…I didn’t even notice…”
Hilde smiled and tossed her a rations bar. “You did well out there, Cat. Practice your forms in the camp, and remember, tomorrow you wake up before the sun.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=16&sl=898 ))