The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 14

March 30th, 2023
Catarina was growing happy with her new routine. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she practiced magecraft with Lord Nassar. On Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturdays she trained with Hildegard, and that gave her Sundays to herself. Every day if she could manage it, but Sunday in particular, she would go to the strange library she had found. She never saw anyone else there besides the library’s owner (the librarian?), and as Cat began to learn the layout the more impossible it seemed to be that this huge place could fit so snugly inside of the shabby and crumbling exterior.

The librarian, who had asked Cat to call her Sheh, had begun teaching Cat her rather baroque and unintuitive sorting method for cataloguing the seemingly endless supply of books. It was still a mystery to her most of the time, but Sheh was always around to give her a helping hand. She was still quite enigmatic, she didn’t directly answer questions of where she came from or what she did, though Cat didn’t often press her in the hopes she wouldn’t do too much digging herself. She had, however, learned a few things.

Sheh was a mage like Cat was, and a rather non-chalant one at that. Cat had first realized it when Sheh had made their tea pour itself while they were chatting about their favorite Arthurian legends (Cat liked Gawain and the Green Knight, Sheh liked Percival and the Fisher King). Cat had been so engrossed she almost didn’t notice as the teapot lifted itself into the air at the whim of the small gestures of Sheh’s long elegant fingers. By her own admission, however, Sheh was in no way a combat mage or even much of a skilled practitioner, merely someone who had a knack for it and picked up a great deal of knowledge in her career. Still, Cat was surprised, she was sure Lord Nassar had said that he’d found every mage in Rome.

Sheh was also clearly incredibly intelligent, enough that Cat wondered if she knew more about stories, history, and even more arcane subjects like mathematics and chemistry than Lord Nassar. She had started helping Cat with the copious amounts of homework Lord Nassar seemed to enjoy giving her, always having a book on hand that could help her. Though Sheh always made Cat do the bulk of the thinking work herself, which frustrated her at times.

“Come ooooon.” Cat had complained once, stuck on a particularly difficult Trigonometry problem, working on the floor with the book open in front of her and papers with scratched out solutions all around her. “I know you know the answer!”

“Of course I do.” Sheh scoffed over her cup of tea, eyes remaining on the small book held open in her free hand. “But the point is that you don’t and you need to learn how to do it. Now try again using the method I showed you.”

“Ugh…” Cat hung her head in defeat as she once again tried to work out Sheh’s solution.

Still it had taken her over a week to muster up the courage to ask Sheh what she really wanted to know. She had asked while Sheh was sorting through the large pile of books they tended to gather in the reading room.

“Hey Sheh.” Cat said, hoping she didn’t betray her apprehension. “Do you have any books on making magic swords?”

“Hmm…” Sheh paused, one hand holding a book that still rested atop the pile. “I have any number of books about magic swords themselves, but as for making them…well I suppose it depends on what kind of sword you wanted.”

“What kind of sword?” Cat asked, sliding one of the books onto the shelf before moving closer to her.

“That’s right.” Sheh went back to sorting, light amber eyes scanning the spines. “Some swords are gifted from gods or other entities, like Excalibur. Some are found in the bodies of monsters like the Kusanagi-no-tsurugi. Others are forged, but not by mortal hands, like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir which was made by dwarves, and I doubt the whole city could produce wealth enough to pay the dwarves for a sword unless Capitolina decided to give away her secret treasure trove.”

“Treasure trove…” Cat said, before bringing her mind back on to the topic at hand. “I mean…the kind of sword like Hildegard has.”

“Ah, the young ranger.” Sheh slid a book back onto its spot on the shelf. “What was the name again?”

“Hildegard, Hildegard Jazheil.”

“No, dear Catarina, what was the name of the sword?”

“Oh ummmm Stahlzahn, I think.” Cat said, trying to remember her conversation with Hildegard.

“Hmm very well, come this way.” Sheh said before promptly bustling off deeper into the library. Cat followed her on a winding circuitous path through the shelves, Sheh occasionally glancing at a title before shaking her head and moving on. Not sure what she was looking for, Cat could only follow behind her as she worked.

“Aha!” Sheh said suddenly with a triumphant tone that caused Cat to jump a little. “Here it is, ‘Prominent Magical Artifacts of the region of Bavaria in the Holy Roman Empire’ by Armin Greizhban, a fine reference with excellent citations. Second edition, so a touch more accurate thankfully.”

“Ahuh…” Cat looked down at the book, its thin vellum pages, covered in almost illegibly small printed font in what was probably exceedingly archaic German.

Sheh’s quick and practiced fingers flitted across the pages from where she opened the book.

“Hmmm let us see, let us see…aha! Here it is, just a paragraph, but an entry on Stahlzahn, purported blade of the venerable Jazheil Dynasty dating according to record to year 1373.”

Cat felt her heartbeat quicken, staring at the words as if she could get them to speak to her. “What does it say about building it?” She asked eagerly, eyes glancing up to Sheh.

“Hmmm…ah! It does indeed, ‘made by standard artefactual procedure as put down in Miller’s Contemporary Artifact Production, 1523AD’.

“Oh…” Cat’s heart sank “So it’s in another book.”

“Another book I’ve read.” Sheh smiled as she closed the book and placed it back on the shelf. “And a process I remember.”

“You do!?” Cat practically bounced with excitement. “How do I make it?”

“Mmm settle down, dear Catarina, it is not an easy undertaking.” Sheh said. “It requires not only difficult ingredients to find, but a number of skilled participants in its construction.”

“Well, what do I need?” Cat asked, not put out for a second.

“A number of things” Sheh put her hand to her mouth as she considered. “There is the base metal, obviously. Simple steel might be sufficient but it isn’t recommended. Generally it needs to be harvested from a dangerous place, or be composed of thunderbolt iron.”

“Thunderbolt iron?” Cat asked.

“Meteoric iron that has a chemical composition not found on earth, with higher concentrations of cobalt, nickel, and iridium.” Sheh said “However its significance is in its storied strength not material composition. Machined steel is of higher quality, but meteoric iron’s prevalence in past cultures means it carries a great number of magical properties, plenty of monsters react to it as if it were silver or cold iron.”

“Oooh then that, ya!” Cat said eagerly. “What else?”

“Well, you will need a master artificer to construct the blade, of course. An enchanter to bind its magical potential into the structure of the blade itself, a drop of blood to bind the blade to you and…usually the most diverse and difficult component, a magical focus, an object of great power worked into the blade itself.”

“What kind of focus?” Cat asked, checking everything she would need down in her mind
“Well as I said it varies.” Sheh replied. “Stahlzahn uses the ichor derived from an ancient and powerful dark artifact developed from the…Al-Sonara family if this citation is correct. Other common examples include dragon scales, unicorn hair, roc eggshells, and what have you. Animal parts are preferred as they tend to retain a great deal of power from their source.”
Cat fronwed “That really does sound hard to get…”

Sheh smiled comfortingly at her. “Don’t fret too much. You already have an enchantress after all.”
“Who…wait you!?” Cat looked at her in surprise. “I know a thing or two.” Sheh smiled. “Leave that bit to me. The rest, I’m afraid, is yours to find.”

“Guess I’d better start thinking of what might make a good focus…” Cat sighed.

“Best you think of it on the way home.” Sheh glanced at a clock built into a nearby wall. “It is getting quite late.”

“Oh wow, ya it is.” Cat blinked in surprise. Six in the afternoon already? “I gotta get going. See you tomorrow, Sheh!”

“Hurry back.” Sheh waved her goodby as Cat hurried up the steps of the library towards home.
The small flat she shared with Hildegard and Hanne was cramped even for only three people. Space was beginning to come at a premium in the city, and the Rangers could barely reclaim ground fast enough to keep up with demand. Still Cat loved it. It was home, in some ways more than her Father’s empty manor had been. Sure she had to share a bed with Hildegard, and their showers were still rationed along with water for washing leading to something of an odor, but it was still…homey. Just sometimes more homey than it needed to be.

Their food was rationed too, and unfortunately the smell of smoke combined with harsh German swearing meant that Hildegard had probably burned their week’s chicken ration. Rushing to the kitchen, Cat took the pan from the still-muttering redhead and got to work salvaging what she could. Cat liked cooking, another hobby she was reveling in with her newfound freedom. Hanne, a military woman who was strict but lacking in house sense had no idea how to make anything other than frozen food, and Hildegard might have been trained like a super soldier, but at the cost of basic home skills. Cat, at least, had received cooking lessons from her friend Alicia, the Maids’ daughter, when her Father wasn’t around.

Thankfully the chicken wasn’t beyond her skill to salvage and they managed to have something of a nice dinner ready when Hanne arrived home. Soon all three were seated at the table, with Cat having to restrain herself in front of Hanne not to get into an eating contest with Hildegard. It was, however, oddly quiet. While never overly talkative Hanne was clearly deep in though as she ate, to the point even Hildegard seemed to think something was off, communicating it via a sidelong glance at Cat.

When Hanne did speak, she did so with her usual air of authority to it.
“I have something of an announcement.” She said, and Hildegard and Cat silenced their chewing to listen.

“The Senate has decided that in order to gain materials that could safeguard the city, they are to launch a small expeditionary force of rangers to Sicily on a retrieval mission.”

“Sicily!?” Hildegard was quicker in swallowing her food to speak first. “So far? Is what’s there really worth the journey?”

“The senate believes so, yes.” Hanne nods. “And of course you and I are to lead, Hildegard.”

“I wanna come!” Cat had finally managed to choke down her chicken in time to speak.

“You’re not ready.” Hildegard spoke first, folding her arms. “You’re still barely a recruit.”

“I’m way better than the recruits! I’m better than most of the rangers.” She complained, but Hildegard remained stone-faced. “You’re un-disciplined and you haven’t been trained to work in a group.”

“I work great in a group.” Cat said, folding her own arms in defiance. “I’d be even better if you trained me with the rest, plus I can use magic!”

“It’s too risky!” Hildegard matched her volume. “You don’t know enough to-“

“Enough!” Hanne’s harsh voice silenced them both. “Catarina” She said, leveling her gaze at her, and Cat felt herself shrink in her seat. “You are talented, skilled, and have a great deal of potential. But I will absolutely not risk you on a mission like this if I did not have utmost faith in your abilities.”

Cat felt her heart sink as her eyes followed suit.

“That said.” Cat’s eyes snapped back up at her words “I am willing to give you a chance to prove yourself. At the end of the week I will be the one to test your merit as a ranger. If you pass, you can come.”

Cat didn’t pause to think as she rushed form her chair to hug Hanne. “Thank you! Thank you thank you thank yooooou!” She said.

Even Hanne couldn’t help but smile and offer her a small hug back. “Now be ready, I will be pushing you a lot harder than most of my rangers. You might very well not make it.”

“Of course I will!” Cat grinned before retaking her seat, her face like sunshine as Hildegard and Hanne discussed the expedition more in depth.

“Where will we get the boats for it?” Hildegard asked.

“Angel is searching for more downriver, we managed to grab a few, though it looks like we’ll be sailing. What little diesel we have left is too valuable for the boats.”

Angel…Cat’s mind began working as the others talked, letting it wander away from the dinner table. Sheh had said that animal parts tended to work best as a magical focus. A winged wolf like Angel was definitely magic, maybe even more so than Capitolina herself! She made up her mind almost an instant later. She would go to Angel and ask for a feather to make into a magic sword. Then, if she was lucky, that sword would come with her to Sicily!

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=28&sl=248 ))

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