April 2nd, 2023
“Are they gone yet?” Vittorio leaned back against the ruins of a school to rest, the young man’s breath coming in quick heavy pants.
“Not yet…” Brigida peeked around the corner, the older girl keeping watch as Vittorio caught his breath again. She tossed him a water bottle without looking away from the main road. “Mages are still patrolling. They must have saw us.”
Vittorio moaned as his head fell forward. He could barely remember the days before the city of Syracuse had collapsed. One night, he had gone to bed, and the next, it had been like a wave of chaos had overridden the ancient capital city. Buildings that had been standing the day before now looked as if years of decay had overcome them. People had disappeared, dragged away by monsters from the sea and the hills around the city. To Vittorio, however, the monsters inside the city where the larger threat. The self-styled mage kings who had decided to create their own fiefdoms within the walls, again, as if overnight.
What was strange was that he was the only one who seemed to remember the fall quite that way. Brigida swore that the mage kings had been around for months before the monsters had come. In her memory, the civil government had disappeared around three years prior. She so firmly believed her version that at times, Vittorio doubted his own.
“Come on, Vittorio, they’ve gone around the corner. Let’s make a run for it.” Brigida said, yanking Vittorio to his feet by his arm and pulling him along behind her.
“Gah! Alright!” Vittorio said, running to keep up with her, lest his arm be yanked from its socket.
He spared a glance down the road, his mind dreading the possibility of being caught. The mages were merciless when it came to catching children. Brigida had told him a little of what she went through as a slave to one of the kings. Every time she spoke of it, her fingers clenched her long spear, shaking as they turned white. She’d hug him tight and tell him she’d never let it happen to him.
So when they were spotted during a scouting mission for Brigida’s rebel militia, she had grabbed him and started running like a bat out of hell for a place to hide. They hadn’t gotten far before the mage soldiers of the current king, Roberto Napoli, arrived. They were like dogs, relentless in their pursuit, though it seemed the two had finally lost their vicious tail.
Brigida kept running and Vittorio did his best to catch up. It never failed to amaze him how fast the older girl could move in that heavy armor. “Are you sure you’re not a mage, Brigida? I can barely keep up with you!”
“Don’t even joke about that!” She spat on the ground. “I’m no mage. I’ll break any mage I see in two! This city would be better off without them.” They were finally at the secret hatch to their hideout. Vittorio remembered when this place was a theater of the arts. Now the top portion of the building had collapsed in on itself and the basement was almost inaccessible except for a well-hidden trap door.
Vittorio slowly closed the hatch door behind him as he climbed the ladder down to Brigida’s rebel base. It wasn’t much to speak of, a large converted basement with only a few rooms for the ‘soldiers’ to find room to sleep and a practice gym or two, but so far, it hadn’t been discovered by the mage kings. Vittorio hopped off the last few steps, making his landing with a thud.
Brigida took off her helmet, untying her long hair to let it hang down her back freely. “Streets seemed…unusually empty today. Not a single caged mundane being dragged off to the castle…”
“Is that a bad thing?” Vittorio asked.
“I’m not sure,” Brigida said. “It might be. The last time that happened, there was a civil war in the streets.”
Vittorio wracked his memories for such an event. At the corners of his mind, he could sense that such an event did happen, right before Napoli took power. His predecessor, Brigida’s tormenter, had been ruling then. There had been something of a power struggle among the mages…but the more he chased the memory, the vaguer it became. What he remembered was his mother handing him his lunch box and walking down the road to school.
He sighed, before Brigida pointed her spear at him. “You. We’re going to do more training. We’re going to have to get you in a lot better shape if we’re to take over this city from the mages. Everyone else, run your drills.”
“How are we supposed to have any shot against the mages, Brigida? They have magic, we don’t.” One of the newer soldiers asked. Vittorio stared at him up and down. Skinny, overly whiny, and older than even Brigida. This particular soldier would never be a great warrior, but perhaps he would do well as an archer. They didn’t have many of those. Brigida seemed to think quick moving melee fighters were the better bet. He’d talk to her about that later.
“Because they’ve gone crazy with their own power. They are killable, I know. I’ve killed two myself!” Brigida said, to the whole room, not just the one soldier. “And what’s more, I’ve found someone who can stand up to them!”
She began twirling her spear around in her hand. Vittorio barely flinched when she pointed its tip at him. “Many of you have been wondering just why I’ve been spending so much time to train Vittorio when he’s the youngest of us here. Well, I’ll tell you why! I’ve seen magic just bounce off of him! He’s walked off fireballs, he’s shrugged off suggestion spells! He can take the fight right to them!”
Vittorio hung his head forward a little bit and let out a sigh. While she wasn’t outright lying and magic didn’t seem to affect him, it wasn’t exactly pleasant to be hit by a fireball. It still made the air quite toasty around him. Still, there had been many times when he had saved Brigida’s butt by dragging her out of battle after she had been knocked out by some spell.
“So keep practicing, men, and know WE HAVE A CHANCE!”
Alexander Drago watched, invisible, as the two rebels scampered off to their secret base. His orders were to follow them and slaughter every last one of them, by command of the ‘illustrious’ King Napoli. That was what he was ordered to do. Instead, he turned and walked to join the three other ‘dogs’ of the Mage King.
“Is everything ready?” He asked, in a low whisper. The other three nodded.
“Most of the cattle are locked up, as planned. Only ones in the street are our footsoldiers.” Said one, closing his eyes and touching his forehead. By command, a company of ensorcelled mortals stepped out from the alleys, their eyes dull and cloudy, carrying swords and spears.
Alexander smiled. “Very good, Michael.” He said. “Send word to the others, we march on the castle in an hour. Napoli will be…preoccupied.” The mage king was well known to indulge his pleasure and curiosity on the many mortal slaves that were housed in the castle. Sometimes, if he was having a good day, the screams could be heard all the way to the bay.
“Where will you be, sir?”
“Visiting my daughter. I promised to bring her a present home today. One of those puppies, I think.”
“The ones from the lady we splattered?” Michael asked.
“Why not? They need a home too, don’t they?”
“Suppose so, Dragon. We’ll be waiting for your arrival then.”
“Of course. By sundown tonight, this city will have a new king. A Dragon King.” His smile twisted up, fire springing from his fingertips. “Ooh, yes, and we’ll see that this city bends to our will, not like our current ‘glorious’ ruler.”
“Still have work to do.” A second mage said, looking around to make sure there were no spies.
“Then let’s get to it, boys.” Alexander said, snapping his fingers. All the footmen in the street raised their weapons to the sky. “See to it that everyone is ready to march. I’m going to go visit my little princess.”
Each mage turned and went their separate ways, the dominated mortals knowing whom to follow by unspoken mental commands. Alexander smiled as he watched his will being enacted by these tools of his. One of them was carrying the very puppy he had chosen for his daughter, Lana.
Alexander’s house was one of the nicer ones still standing in the city, though it paled in comparison to the castle. With a longing glance towards the royal palace, Alexander turned to his servant.
“Stay out here.” He ordered the mortal, taking the dog from his hands. That was all he needed to say; he needed no reason but that it was what he willed.
Inside, his little girl sat practicing her magic. She was getting older now, smarter too, and beautiful, at least in his eyes. She reminded him of her mother, a woman he gave little thought to after she had provided him the one thing he truly wanted: an heir.
“Welcome home, Father.” Lana said. Alexander could see the fear in her eyes, the wariness as she judged his mood. For a moment, his own joy wavered. How could she look at him like that? When everything he did, he did for her?
A simple reminder of what was happening tonight brought the smile back to his face. She would understand when she was princess of this city. He would make her powerful beyond belief, second only to himself in authority and potential.
“I brought you a gift, Lana. You’ve been progressing very well in your lessons.”
“A-A puppy? Really, Father?” She seemed more in disbelief than pleased, but when she saw a frown on his face, her own eyes lit up fast enough. “Oh thank you! You’re so kind, Father.” She walked over and gave him a hug and a kiss. He smiled, pleased.
“Yes, I…found it while I was guarding the streets tonight. I thought it would make up for the…loss…of your cat, Patches.” He didn’t understand why his daughter had been so attached to that cat. It had been a dirty stray, whose blood had been quite useful a reagent in one of his spells. She should understand how important that was and how a single cat hardly mattered compared to the advancement of magical research.
He placed the puppy on the floor. Lana sunk down to her knees and called to it, smiling as it trotted over to her curiously. She petted its ears and scratched under its chin as her smile shook on her face. Tears of joy appeared in her eyes.
“Now what do you say, princess?”
“…Thank you, Father.”
“You’re welcome. Now I have business to attend to tonight, so I’ll be gone. You will need to continue your lessons on your own. Alright?”
“Of course, Father.” Lana nodded her head, holding the dog tightly.
“Good girl. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Alexander smiled and gave her another kiss on the top of her head as he headed towards the front door. Lana continued to pet her new dog. As he shut the door, he hardly noticed her crying.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=39&sl=844 ))