March 27th, 2023
The sky was clear over Rome. The loss of city lights had allowed the heavens to once more be painted the blacks and deeper blues of true night. A tapestry of stars were visible, more than had been seen over the city in many centuries, and the moon only added to the light, casting the rooftops in silver. There were still some lights down below. The small sanctuary on the Capitoline Hill was brightly lit, at least as much as the city residents could manage, a small bastion of civilization against the night. It also made the hill easy to spot from miles away.
A lone figure moved through the darkness. Human, one of the few in the heart of the city who had not yet come to the sanctuary, but it was her destination as she darted like a bat across the rooftops. Her name was Lenore. At least, that is the one she had been given a long time ago. Her “name” by birth was either a long string of numbers or a complex series of inherited titles, but she didn’t care about either. She had been trained to hunt and her quarry was in the Sanctuary.
Lenore came to the edge of a rooftop. It was seven meters to the next one, an almost impossible leap. She breathed deep, felt a rush of energy burning through her body, and jumped. The wind hit her face hard as solid ground fell away beneath her, but her mind stayed focus on the landing. She rolled as she hit the opposite rooftop with a crash, feeling board and tile splinter under her, but she did not pause, resuming her run as if nothing had happened.
She had been trained for this kind of activity. Trained to move easily across an urban environment at speed, trained to disappear almost at will and, most of all, she had been trained to hunt her targets down, usually with death in mind.
Lenore paused mid-run, almost crashing to a halt as she shook her head. That was what she had been trained to do, but not what she was doing. She was tracking, yes, but not hunting, not this time. Her head ached, it was difficult when she fought her instincts like this. It was unnatural for her to think of an objective without neutralizing it at the end. Finding someone to help her was something she had not been trained to do, but it was what she needed right now.
Lenore had been many things. She had been a tracker, an assassin, a spy, a thief. Now all that mattered was that she was an escapee, a target without refuge or sanctuary.
She looked again across the rooftops towards the Capitoline Hill. They called it the Sanctuary. News of it had spread throughout Italy at this point. It is where she had tracked her target…no, she reminded herself, her salvation not her target. With the world ending she didn’t even know if her pursuers, her former keepers, were still alive or if they cared. The instincts they left behind, however, were still there, and from that she needed sanctuary, the constant urges and thoughts that drove her to be more predator than person.
There was a shift in the air. Before she even knew what she was facing, her hand was on the knife at her hip. She might be trying to quiet her trained instincts most of the time, but they could still be useful.
Something very large was going up the wall onto the rooftop. She could hear claw on brick and a snarling maw before it even came into view. The monsters in this city were large and fierce, but not particularly stealthy. She saw its bulky lion-like shape as it hauled its great weight up over the side of the rooftop. It was a cacodemon and a large one, a mass of black rippling muscle around a large head of oversized teeth and terrible claws on each limb.
Lenore’s ears pricked as she heard another sound behind her, the sound of something almost silently uncoiling and slithering across the roof. To any normal human it would have been impossible to hear over the snarling of the oversized cacodemon before her. She blinked, the closest to a sign of irritation she could manage. They were pack hunting now. Interesting.
The lion-like spirit monster leaped at her. The time for planning was over. She made her move.
Lenore’s greatest asset was her speed. She was superhumanly quick with the reflexes and reaction time to match. Cacodemons were large and intimidating, preferring their prey to freeze in sheer terror from their great leaping charges. Lenore knew what fear was, but cacodemons didn’t inspire it in her, so all the great beast did was leave itself open.
She sidestepped its charge, letting it land with a crash only for it to turn and swipe at her with one of its great overlong arms. She merely had to lean back to avoid it. No need to waste energy. As its arm flew harmlessly past her a sudden flash of silver was the only sign of her knife cutting through its skin. It roared in pain, the open wound burning blue as it bled a stream of thick black blood. Caceodemons could be tough, but silver cut through them like water. The runes on her blade were glowing blue as well. They were Sanskrit, etched in at forging, and while she didn’t know what they said she knew what they did. Right now the Cacodemon would feel as if its blood had been lit on fire.
Pain was good. It made scared opponents terrified and dumb opponents bolder. The cacodemon leaped at her a second time. It wouldn’t get a third.
She ducked low, knife in hand, and rolled forward, dodging beneath the gnashing jaws and between the swiping claws just in time to force her knife upwards into its chest, the blade burying itself to the hilt as the monster roared in pain and fur. She could feel its hot black blood running over her arm, felt the heat of power course through her body, and switched her hold on the knife to a reverse grip and cut a single long line down the monster’s belly, splitting it like a fish before rolling out from under it. She’d learned from experience that cacodemons had no organs, but she had no intention of taking an impromptu bath in its foul-smelling black blood.
Her breathing was heavy. She was burning through her body’s supply of energy quickly, but the monster was dead.
Lenore’s arm arced, blade streaking through the air as she buried her knife in the rooftop, and clear through the head of the viper-like cacodemon that had tried to ambush her in that moment. Her breathing was heavy as she tried to calm her heartbeat. Consciously she hadn’t even known it was there sneaking behind her. Her body had acted on its own, killing before it got too close. Useful, but terrifying all the same. Lenore was many things, but above all else she was dangerous to anyone and anything.
She could hear her heart racing like a drumbeat in her ears, pounding again and again. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm, feeling the energy seep from her body, her blood slowed, the adrenaline ebbed, and the pounding of her heart subsided. There, she was calmer now, she could think more clearly.
Monsters weren’t her specialty. When she’d been trained there were almost no monsters anywhere. Her specialty and most frequent targets were far more dangerous.
Lenore was a mage hunter.
The art of killing a mage was incredibly difficult, and only grew more as the target became older and wiser. Old mages tended to be paranoid and carried all manner of warding charm and safeguard, combined with being particularly resilient, a side-effect of a lifetime spent working closely with magic.
Lenore had no capability for magic. She had once had some, much earlier in life, but the strength and speed she now possessed came at the high price of burning the capability out of her. She might not be a mage anymore, but she knew what they were, how they worked, and of what they were capable. More than anything, however, she knew of their most distinctive qualities, paranoia combined with overwhelming arrogance. Those two clashing opposites tended to leave gaps in their safety, gaps big enough for an assassin’s knife to slip through.
The person she was searching for in Rome was a mage, but a highly unusual one. Luckily for her, Lenore wasn’t coming to end her life. She’d had enough of that for several life times. What Lenore needed was someone to teach her subconscious the same thing. The same hunter’s drives and instincts still powered her, and what the results of that might be kept her up at night.
Lenore left the cacodmeons where they lay. Soon enough their corpses would evaporate. They were not creatures of the real world. Their bodies did not rot and no evidence would be left behind of her passing. She needed to move quickly, dawn was not far off.
The sky was already beginning to turn pink at the eastern horizon when she approached the wall surrounding the sanctuary. It was low enough, less than eight meters high, but it was not their only protection.
Magic might have been burned out of her system, but it still left a few things behind. She could sense its presence, almost like a smell, and it was here in abundance.
Carefully, keeping to the shadows and out of sight of the doubtlessly tired guards, she searched the wall until she found what she was looking for: a tiny rune, less than a finger-length across, etched into the base of the wall. It was a protective sigil to keep intruders out. Lenore reached into a small pouch on her belt next to the knife and covered her thumb with the light dust she kept there. It was a kind of chalk, carefully synthesized and worth more than its weight in gold dust. It had the unique properties of quickly eroding away leaving no mark of its presence and, more valuably, neutralizing magic sigils. She drew a line across the marking with her thumb, cutting a white line of dust across it, and she could all but taste the magic fizzling and seeping away. She had a few minutes before it came back up with no one the wiser.
Moving quickly, Lenore waited for the patrolling guard’s back to be to her before she started climbing, quiet as a shadow, her nimble fingers finding even the smallest holds and pulling herself up. In a few seconds time she was up and over the wall before leaping off again, rolling with her landing into the shadow beside a small shed. She glanced back, the guard was still patrolling normally. It was a flawless infiltration.
Lenore allowed herself a moment to think. She needed to keep thinking to avoid falling back into a hunter’s mindset. Now her task was finding this mage, this person, the only one who could help her. She didn’t have a name; no doubt this person would be using an alias just as Lenore was. All Lenore had was a face. From her pocket Lenore drew a small silver mirror (good for detecting all manner of monsters) and looked at her reflection. That was who she was looking for. Someone in Rome had the exact same face as she did. Another hunter born like her, the first one that had managed to escape.
Lenore hated looking at herself, at the brilliant blue eyes, sharp nose, and mixed features, but she memorized them all. She needed to be able to spot it at a glance, to recognize it instantly. She only hoped that when she did find it, her hand didn’t go instantly to her knife.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=25&sl=248 ))