Blood and Steel
March 28th, 2023
The new recruits that had wandered into the first training session were a motley assortment, as they always were. Hildegard could see the weariness in their limbs and faces. Many of them had been malnourished before arriving at the sanctuary and their strength wouldn’t return so easily. Unfortunately, it was Hildegard’s job to get them in shape for their own sake.
“Welcome to day one of training, potential rangers!” She called down the line, pacing before them as Hanne often did. Hildegard doubted she had her adoptive mother’s presence or force of will, but hopefully they’d be smart enough to listen. “You’re here because you want to defend what we hold in our fair city! An honorable ideal but not one to be taken lightly!” Her voice was harsh, her hands were clasped behind her back and her sword was at her waist. “Most of you know what monsters are lurking just outside our walls. You ran from them, hid from them, now it will be your duty to fight against them!”
She could see the enthusiasm in their eyes, recognized that same fierce burning pride. It had been the same desire to fight she had felt ever since she was a young girl being raised to hunt monsters. Most of them had no idea what they were in for. Most of them saw themselves as brave knights fighting off the darkness or valiant reclaimers of their city. They were garbed in the security of idealism. Most of the people who actually had something to defend, whether that be family or friends, wouldn’t go near the wall. This group, these idealists and dreamers, didn’t have Hildegard’s decade and a half of hard physical and mental training, her magic arsenal, or a seven hundred year-old magic sword. The odds were pretty far out of their favor, but it was her job to try and balance them at least a little.
“First things first!” She announced. “We need to make sure all of you have what it takes physically. A Ranger’s life is not a cushy one, so I’m going to run you ragged until I know where your limits are!” After which, she noted privately, she’d push them harder still, but they didn’t need to know that yet.
“Now get moving! Follow the wall until you’ve done a full lap of the sanctuary! Go, go, go!” She shouted as the mess of recruits stumbled into a jog, waiting for all of them to fall in before she took up the rear.
Most of them were, she decided, in better shape than she could hope for. One didn’t survive this long into the end of the world without having decent cardio. She kept pace with them all the while, moving up and down the line to keep them from slowing down. The sanctuary was about three kilometers in circumference. It was child’s play, particularly for someone like her, but she wanted to see which ones could last.
She remembered the daily five-kilometer runs being used as a warm-up when she was barely a teenager. Followed by an intense regimen of weight-training, gymnastics, and hand-to-hand combat, coupled with her compressed but comprehensive schooling and magic tutelage meant Hildegard was very aware she had little time for a childhood. But it had never been about her, it had been about preparing to fight the creatures that lurked in the shadows. Being born into the Jazheil family meant you didn’t get to be normal; you got to be a weapon, because somebody had to.
She was barely out of breath when they had finished their lap, though more than half of the recruits sounded like they were about to cough up their own lungs. Hildegard frowned, she would have her work cut out for her as usual.
“I’ve seen worse recruits.” She said, looking primarily at those still standing up straight. “But I’ve seen a damn sight better too! You think a Cacodemon gets tired after only three kilometers? You think running that far is going to make a werewolf lose your scent? Let me get something through your skulls right now, recruits! You are not fighting people. You are fighting monsters, and you should never expect a monster to tire or give up! We hunt the things that do not sleep, do not feel fear, and many that simply will not die!”
“A-and what do you know about it?” One voice rose, mixed with scorn and exhaustion. Hildegard frowned. Hanne had told her to nip out the first sign of insubordination quickly. Hildegard spotted the man from his voice and the awkward concerned glances of the other. He was easily twice her age and bent over in exhaustion. Hildegard grabbed his collar and pulled him up, forcing him to look her in the eye.
“My name is Hildegard Jazheil and I’m the most experienced monster hunter in the city.” She said, keeping her almost wolfish yellow eyes locked on his. She lifted her free hand, letting the sleeve fall to show off the remains of her earlier wounds. Except for a few scars, it had almost fully healed thanks to her magic. “These were given to me courtesy of a chimera’s jaws before I put my sword through its brains. I’ve killed more Cacodemons than I know how to keep track of, I was at the vanguard to retake the Vatican from a force of the dead numbering over two hundred! I killed a seven-hundred year old vampire when I was sixteen years old! I faced down a dragon in single combat and lived to tell the tale! That is who I am, recruit!” She spat. “And I’ve seen more good people die trying to be a hero than I know how to count. So listen to me and you might not be one of them!”
Not all of it was true, strictly speaking. She knew how many Cacodemons she had killed (forty-seven on her own). She had never faced a dragon in single combat (though she had always really wanted to, the thought appealed to something deep within her). And the seven-hundred year old vampire was not technically dead (Well technically she was, she was a vampire after all, but not ‘really’ dead).
Hildegard had really been sixteen, but she could remember that crisp autumn night like it had been yesterday.
The man was sufficiently cowed to fall back into line. Hildegard gave them all five minutes to drink a little water and recover themselves before she called them all to start running again. Endurance was key, possibly more so than pure physical strength, and she needed to push hard to prove herself. As she took up the rear again, she began to think back on that fateful day when she had faced her family’s eternal enemy.
Hildegard had been told since she was a young girl to never face an Al-Sonara vampire in combat. They were, she had been told, not simply monsters but something far more dangerous. Their bloodline had once been a line of mages just like hers, but they had been corrupted by their desire for perfection and immortality, their evil condensed into a terrible singular presence, bloodthirsty and corrupting, the Al-Sonara family’s Heart of Darkness. It was passed down the line like an heirloom, turning the human mage into a terrible blood-hungry beast. A vampire mage was every monster hunter’s worst nightmare. They were all of the terrible power, immortality, and nigh-invulnerability of a vampire mixed with a mage’s craftiness, resourcefulness, resilience, and raw magical talent. The only silver lining was the need for an Al-Sonara to destroy their predecessor to gain their power, as it had been all those years ago when her ancestors had first faced the vampiric progenitor Alastor Al-Sonara.
In a way, the creature Hildegard had fought had only been about thirty-five, not seven hundred. She was the newest heir to their family’s power, a cunning and powerful mage-turned-monster named Jezerette Al-Sonara. And when she was sixteen Hildegard had been young, foolish, and hell-bent enough on revenge to challenge her to single combat.
With the flat of her sheathed sword she gave one of the lagging recruits, a young woman, a slap on the back to keep moving.
“Come on.” She said, more encouragingly than harshly. “You’ve run this far, we’d all be disappointed if you stopped now.”
“Can’t…keep running…” She wheezed.
“You’re done after this lap.” Hildegard said, even as they both know she had just over a kilometer to go.
“Not…good enough…” She managed through ragged breaths. “Terrified of…monsters…why…even here.”
“Because you’re a brave and bold recruit.” Hildegard smiled, “And I’m going to make you a ranger whether you like it or not. Now run!” She shouted, getting the woman to spur her pace onwards. “Run all of you!” Hildegard called “Run like the devil’s own hounds are behind you! Because believe me there’s worse out there!!”
These recruits didn’t know what fear was. Fear was seeing a monster from your childhood stories slaughter your family in front of you. Fear was walking the steps to the creature’s castle, the seat of its power hidden deep in the wilderness with no reinforcements or escape plan. Fear was looking into its eyes and knowing beyond all doubt that you were not going to survive. But still, she had always told herself back then and she still told herself now that courage, true courage, was looking into the face of evil and drawing your sword anyway.
She had fought well that day. Looking back Hildegard knew there had been simply no better way to fight. She had been quick and ferocious, utterly unrelenting in her attacks. If you let a vampire go on the offensive even once they would not need to do it again. A good monster hunter ensured that if her quarry didn’t make a move first then they wouldn’t get the chance at all. The creature, Jezerette, had been an unnaturally skilled fencer, indulging Hildegard’s challenge to meet her on equal ground, but she could recognize the farce behind it. Even with her own magical enhancement, Jezerette had simply been stronger, faster, and with limitless endurance. Hildegard was losing before she even started.
Sometimes a stalwart heart and a thirst for vengeance wasn’t enough. Sometimes sixteen years of hard training still could not prepare you. There would always come a time when you were simply out of your league. When that happened, your only salvation was luck. You didn’t tell recruits that. They wouldn’t listen to you if you did. You told them that hard work, training, and dedication would protect them even when you knew it was a lie. You never said that most of them would be killed by simply bad luck, and you didn’t tell them that a single lucky blow could cut the head off of a seven-hundred year old vampire.
By the end of their duel Hildegard was at the very limits of her strength. Her spirit spent on so much magic half the castle was aflame. Jezerette’s toying had left cuts across her legs and arm, and a particularly deep gash across her back, the scar of which still ran an ugly path from waist to shoulder. But she had won, or at least come close. Her legs had given out from under her, the sword usually so light like lead in her hands, and her lungs full of smoke and ash instead of air.
She had fallen unconscious rather than fulfill her mission to drive Stahlzahn through the monster’s heart. When she awoke, she was in the backseat of a police car being driven to the hospital. The officer who had found her, seeing the smoke from the distant road, was a former military officer by the name of Hanne, and she had adopted Hildegard less than a year later.
That sounded like the happy ending of a story, Hildegard smiled. But it still haunted her. She’d collapsed mere inches from Jezerette’s body, but Hanne always said she had found her alone.
She shook her head as if to shake the thoughts from her mind as she turned her attention back to the recruits. She thought of Catarina, and at that she could only crack a smile. Cat reminded her so much of herself when she was young, all the enthusiasm and the desire to prove herself. She had potential too, the drive to succeed simply lacking in experience and skill that she was quickly accumulating. Hildegard knew Hanne loved her as well, though she had still stopped her from joining these recruits. Hildegard had worried Hanne was trying to prevent her from joining the rangers, but looking at the quality of the recruits they had now, it might have merely been to stop Cat from showing them up. She was improving rapidly, and was magically adept on top of that. Another year or two and she might even be a challenge for Hildegard. She allowed herself a smile at the thought. It was more than having family again that left something in her satisfied. It was being able to see herself in her younger days and know that maybe there had been something to it all.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=27&sl=43 ))