March 20th, 2023
It was without sound or disturbance that Aurelio Furlan stepped through the forest. The trees seemed to grow thicker each day, the woods broader and the canopy darker. This forest was spreading at an unnatural rate, reclaiming its old grounds as the world was emptied of human occupancy. But Aurelio had not come to try and halt the forest’s spread; to the contrary he enjoyed it on occasion. Today, Aurelio had come to these woods to hunt.
The woods spread across the north of Italy, and at present Aurelio found himself not far from Verona, though there were no signs of civilization to be seen save for the odd ivy-covered remnant of a wall or a barren stretch that suggested where a road once was. He moved around frequently, traveling on horseback wherever he was needed, and he was needed in a great many places these days.
For Aurelio had not come to hunt game or beasts but something far more dangerous. He paused to examine a tree. A portion of its branches withered in a state of complete decay while the rest was healthy and covered with vigorous foliage, another sign of their passing. He checked the ground, the faint outline of footsteps still pressed into the soft earth. A twig here, bent grass there, it was a trail and enough for him to follow.
His quarry was a breed of people. No, he shook his head, they weren’t people any longer. They had allied themselves with dark and destructive powers, a witch goddess of terrible ability and unrivaled cunning, and a collaborator in engineering the end of the world. She was known as Huldra, and her cultists were the Witchbreed. In exchange for their servitude, Huldra had granted them incredible power, and they used it to terrorize the northern forests. They were the most intelligent of the foot soldiers beneath the dark powers, and they were not to be underestimated. Their power, however, made them arrogant and bold, and all it took was one mistake for them to find themselves at the end of a hunter’s arrow.
Aurelio preferred the bow and arrow. Most of his kind did. Guns were rare, ammunition rarer, and stealth was their most valuable weapon against the Witchbreed. He knew there was something of an irony to it. He hunted the Witchbreed as if they weren’t human, when his own kind had the touch of magic to them. His abilities, however, were inborn, not chosen. The Witchbreed had chosen their fate, and they would reap the consequences.
Aurelio was one of the Benandanti, born witch hunters with supernatural perception. Supposedly there was a long and storied tradition of witch hunters in northern Italy, but without witches they had simply been normal people for centuries. Now, however, the Witchbreed ran amok in their old ground, and the Benandanti were needed again.
He could hear them up ahead, talking softly in a clearing amidst the trees. Like a ghost Aurelio moved slowly closer, a footstep every minute, every breath softer than a breeze. Patience and diligence were necessary here. One errant step could send them into alert, and they would either flee or fight back, and in a direct fight Aurelio didn’t like his odds.
He could see them now, two figures hooded and cloaked muttering between each other, faces wreathed in shadow. The moon was full and shining down on them. Easy targets. He knew better than to be hasty though. The Witchbreed were becoming jumpy as rabbits now that the Benandanti were starting to leave a mark in their numbers, and those bold enough to fight would be the most dangerous. He waited, still as the trees, his hands moving ever so steadily to his quiver to draw an arrow. He could hear his steady heartbeat, his relaxed breath. The tenser he was the more likely he would be heard.
It took nearly ten minutes for his hand to take and nock an arrow, but the Witchbreed hadn’t moved as they discussed something in hushed tones. Aurelio could not hear them from this distance, but he was entirely focused on his target. Slowly he drew back the arrow, bowstring tensing as he found his target.
A branch broke at the opposite side of the clearing, suddenly breaking through the quiet noises of the forest. Both of the Witchbreed ceased their talking and turned to look. Before either of them could speak or call out, however, the first one fell, Aurelio’s arrow piercing his spine halfway up his back. The other turned, stunned, as his companion fell, and had loosed the first echo of a scream before another arrow struck him through the chest. Aurelio smiled, the greatest strength of a Benandanta, even greater than their stealth, was the knowledge that they never hunted alone. After waiting to see if any more had been waiting in the brush, Aurelio stepped into the clearing. He was joined by a tall willowy woman, her long hair pulled back into a ponytail much like his own, though hers was braided.
“Nice work with the distraction, Viana.” Aurelio said, checking the Witchbreed’s corpses to ensure they were really dead.
“Good shot on yours.” Viana nodded. “Clean through the spine.”
“Luck of the wind.” Aurelio smiled. He was proud of his accuracy, always had been, but tonight was a victory for the Benandanti and for Italy, not for himself. “Are there more out tonight?”
Viana shook her head. “We’ve not heard reports of any. None within a day’s ride.”
“Then I’ll meet you back at camp.” Aurelio said. “Going to see if I can’t find the group some more dinner and rations for the road.”
“As you like.” Viana said, shouldering her bow. “Be careful out there, don’t engage anyone on your own.”
“You know I’m careful.” Aurelio smiled. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“We’ll be waiting.” Viana waved to him before heading off into the darkness towards their hidden camp.
Aurelio, meanwhile, moved deeper into the woods. He loved traveling the dark forest at this time of night, with moonlight filtering through the canopy, the chorus of frogs and insects all around him. He felt more attuned to the world, more part of it, one of nature’s predators rather than an interloper.
Despite his words, he didn’t put too much effort in hiding himself. He moved quickly and easily through the roots and brambles of the forest floor. He was still quieter than most men, but compared to how he had been hunting the Witchbreed he was making a veritable racket. He stopped short, however, when he saw something shining and silver through the trees. Moving much more quietly he drew closer to investigate.
There, drinking from a small brook in a gap between the trees, was a large stag. This was no normal beast. Its fur seemed to glow, the tips of each hair shining softly in the moonlight, and its antlers seemed made of pure silver. Aurelio nocked another arrow as his slid like a shadow across the ground. The hide of this stag would make him a hunting legend. Nothing like it had been seen since days of myth, and there was a fire in his heart as he lifted his bow finding his mark.
Something gave him pause, however. There was a serenity to this animal, a peacefulness and calm that seemed to spread to him. He had never had difficulty killing game before. Hunting was how he had always lived his life since he was a boy on his father’s farm, but something about this stag stayed his hand. It would have been wrong to kill this thing of moonlight and quicksilver. No, he shook his head, not wrong because it was beautiful alone, but for another reason. He tried to place the feeling in his head until it came to him, and with that same calmness he lowered his bow.
The stag belonged to someone else. It was not his to hunt.
Aurelio returned the arrow to his quiver and gently sat down, watching the silver stag drink from the stream.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
Aurelio nearly jumped in place as a voice came from right beside him, he whirled about and saw a young woman leaning against a tree, watching the stag with the same reverent eyes.
She was oddly dressed, a white tunic and skirt worn loose over the shoulders wasn’t a common fashion. Her hair was a curled light auburn with a crescent-shaped crown of silver placed upon it. Lightly held in her hands was a bow of beauty, carved from horn and golden wood, with lines of silver running across. She carried a quiver over her shoulders and he could see white and silver in the fletching. Though she had spoken first, she did not seem to be paying him much mind.
“S-sorry…”Aurelio backed away slowly. “I believe you have me at a disadvantage, Miss…”
“You may call me Lady Diana.” She turned to face him and the full weight of her presence came to bear.
Her eyes were silver, her face and skin seemed cut from purest marble that seemed to glow with its own light beside the moon.
Aurelio fell to his knees. She was no mortal hunter, and surely no Witchbreed, Aurelio knew in his stomach before his mind could register that he was in the company of a goddess.
“O-of course…Lady Diana.” Aurelio bowed his head deeply, his voice cracking and a few tones higher than he would have preferred. “To what do I owe the…absolute honor?”
“I was watching you hunt.” She said. “Among mortals in Italy, you are almost without peer.”
Aurelio bowed his head again, it seemed the right thing to do.
“Your quarry…these Witchbreed as you call them…they desecrate the forests, bringing death and giving nothing in return. They must be punished for their indiscretion. I would have you be the instrument of my will.”
“Me? Lady Diana?” Aurelio was dumbstruck. “I thought…certainly you would prefer a young woman?” Why was he objecting?
“I would have young virgin girls for my hunting party. You, Aurelio, are to be a weapon in my name, an armed priest, a champion.”
“I see…” He certainly didn’t mind that, though he did feel a little degraded. The weapon of a goddess but a weapon all the same.
“Your companion Viana was my first choice but she is…” Diana paused on the word. “Less chaste than you are.”
Aurelio frowned, he didn’t need reminding.
“So I’m to still hunt the Witchbreed?” Aurelio asked. “But now in your name?”
“You are.” Diana nodded. “And when these forests are secure you shall travel south to Rome.”
“Rome?” Aurelio asked. There was nothing in Rome save for hordes of monsters.
“There are survivors in Rome, the largest group in Italy. When you arrive there you shall spread the word of the accomplishments of you and your Benandanti, and bring glory to them and to me.”
“As you wish.” Aurelio was not about to complain. He was being given a goddess’ blessing to wipe out the Witchbreed. He couldn’t have asked for more.
“Then I name you, Aurelio Furlan, as my champion. Show me your bow.”
Aurelio lifted his bow with both hands and lifted it to her. Gently she placed her pale hand against the wood, and silver lines spread across it from her fingertips, winding themselves into the shapes of leaves and animals over the sleek enameled wood.
“With this bow the wind will always turn with you, and the arrow will always find its mark.”
Once more Aurelio sank to his knee, bowing his head.“Thank you, Lady Diana.”
“Go and hunt, my champion.” She said “And prove to me I was not mistaken in my choice.”
Aurelio shouldered his bow again as the vision of Diana and the stag vanished before his eyes, his bow still covered in silver imagery. He stepped into the forest, new fire in him, as he prepared for the coming hunt. He would not let his goddess down.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=21&sl=15 ))