Aprill 11th, 2023
“Hey, Cat, want to play?” Alicia asked, holding up the small ball they liked to toss around. With her chores done, she had sought out her lady to play.
“Mrr, I can’t.” Cat said, pouting as she looked out the window of the Aldobrandini mansion to the grounds. It was a beautiful day outside. “Father said I have to study.”
Alicia frowned. Seeing the young lady of the house so despondent just wouldn’t do. As Cat continued to stare wistfully out the window, Alicia’s frown turned to a crafty smile. “Are you sure…” She started to ask as she walked toward Cat.
“I tooooold you, Father said I have to study, ‘cause I have a bunch of tests coming up. Can’t play ball…”
“Well, that’s too bad…” Alicia said, sympathetically, putting her arms around Catarina. “Because you’re about to fall prey to… the ten fingered tickle monster!” Quick as a flash, her fingers were attacking the young mage’s side. Catarina’s eyes went wide before she started to burst out in laughter.
“H-hey! Quiiiiit it!” She whined, in between laughs. “N-no fair!”
“Do you want me to stop?” Alicia asked, her assault relentless. Cat couldn’t even sit in her chair, falling onto the floor. The maid girl didn’t let up, though.
“Then you’re gonna have to wake up.” Alicia said with a smile, her fingers moving faster as Cat’s breath started to catch in her throat.
“What doooo you meaaan?” It was getting harder and harder to breath for Catarina. She was rolling on the floor, her sweat causing her hair to cling to her body.
“Waaaaaake up, Lady Aldobrandini!” Alicia said, pouring water down Cat’s throat as she laughed uncontrollably.
Cat’s eyes shot opened as she sat up on the beach, coughing up the salty water that had been washing over her, tickling her sides with its foam. The last thing she had remembered before passing out was an attack on the ships by a sea dragon and other serpents. Hanne had ordered every hand to the decks to drive off the monsters, and Cat had been one of the first to leap into battle, using her magic to try to freeze the sea around the dragon. Then the tail had swung around, sending her into the water and… Everything went black.
Her clothes and body were sopping wet. She was covered with grainy sand. It was everywhere. Rubbing only got more grains of sand in her eyes. Through her blurry vision, Cat could see where the rocky shore seemed to end. Where the rock and sand became dirt and mud, there was a road that had seen better days. In the distance, following the coast, there seemed to be walls of a city on an island.
“Syracuse? But…” Cat groaned as the maps she had been told to memorize came to mind. If she could see Syracuse then she had been sent far off course. Her entire body felt sore and tired. The water around her felt slightly chilled. Before losing consciousness, she must have created a small ice block to use as a flotation device, her body spending magical energy to keep it frozen while she was passed out. Cat tried to cast a simple ice bolt.
“Gah! Ooh…T-too tired…” Cat said as her knees started to shake. She was dangerously low, unable to cast any magic without risking injury. Cat took a few deep breaths to steady herself. “Think, Cat. You’re far off course, in potential enemy territory, low onmagicwithoutyourgear…” Cat took a deeper breath to calm her nerves as the reality of the situation started to sink in.
The first thing she needed to do was find a way to defend herself. Without her magic or her sword, she was going to be in trouble if she came across any monsters. Even a regular highwayman would give her a hard time without a weapon. If she could see the old walled city of Syracuse, then her best bet was to head south towards the city proper. Maybe she could find something there before starting her trek north to rejoin the rest of the army.
“Would have been nice to have a change of clothes…” Cat muttered to herself, wringing out her shirt as she started walking south towards Syracuse.
Having gotten used to the noise of Rome, both in the Sanctuary and in the monster held streets, the quiet and stillness on the road made Cat uneasy. Every sound from the woods made her jump and reach for her sword, which wasn’t there. Her eyes kept darting back and forth, no matter how much she tried to calm her nerves.
She didn’t know how long she walked down the road. She only had the position of the sun to go by. It had started high, approaching noon. By the time she reached the first signs of civilization, it was late afternoon. The abandoned towns and villages gave way to a more expansive urban sprawl, wrestling with the ravages of nature reclaiming its land. There was still no sign of life except the disquieting growls and screeches from the dark trees.
The road was taking her into the heart of the city, where it seemed people still lived. She could feel eyes on her from the barricaded windows. Cat kept a wary eye on the buildings. Suspicious and scared people could lead to a dangerous situation for the weaponless mage. At least she knew there were survivors. The closer she drew to the ancient island, the more people seemed to fill out the abandoned houses and buildings, but hardly the amount of survivors in Rome. They seemed more like refugees, holding on to what they had.
The last light of the sun was shining on the world when Cat reached the old walls of the city. It seemed that they were standing far taller and stronger than they ever had in her trips to Sicily before. Four people stood guard at the gate. Cat weighed her options. If she was going to have any hope of making it back to the main army, she’d need help. If they had walls, it was likely there was some sort of organization here like in Rome. Perhaps they’d even be willing to offer aid to the expedition in return for supplies. On the other hand, the scared people didn’t inspire her with much confidence.
“Well…I came all this way. I might as well try.” Cat said. She had recovered a little bit of her energy if this turned bad, though she needed a good night’s sleep before she’d be slinging spells with any reliability. She approached the checkpoint.
“Gates are closed.” One of the guards said as she reached them.
“Please, sir, I’ve been walking for hours. I’m just trying to get to any safe place for the night.”
The guards lowered their spears. Cat took a step back, keeping her hands out for them to see. It was what she feared. “No one is allowed into the city at night. By orders of Lord Drago, the city is closed.”
One of the other guards gave a cruel smile. “I don’t know, Enea, maybe we can have a bit of sport first. Give her a chance.”
Enea, the first guard, rolled his eyes. “This again…”
“Bet she’d hardly get four blocks before we caught her. Lord Drago won’t mind us being thorough with our jobs.” The cruel guard said, pushing his spear further towards Cat. For her part, Cat kept a calm face even as she took slow steps back. If they chased her, she’d try to lose them in the woods. She did her best to resist looking in that direction, to avoid alerting them to her plan.
“Ah, look, she’s already trying to run.” Enea said, his smile growing as well. “You can have your fun outside the gates. You want a wager? Fine, I bet she won’t get two meters before she’s lying face down in the dirt with a spear in her back.”
“I’ll take that! She won’t even get one meter!”
Cat bit her tongue. This was very very bad. They wanted her to run down the road. She’d have no chance in outpacing them, as tired as she was. A patch of ice could slow them down though, giving her time to get to the trees. From there, she could lose them or try to take them out one by one. They were coming towards her, so whatever she was going to do, she needed to do it n—
From behind the guards, Cat saw a man in a hood pulling himself up to the bridge. “Hey now…”
Cat said, trying to buy herself as much time as possible, inching herself towards the woods. “I’m just trying to find a place to sleep. I don’t mean any trouble…” The new arrival was drawing a sword.
“Oh, but we so want you to cause…” The cruel guard started to say, before he was interrupted with the choked gurgles of one of his fellows. The three other guards all turned to see what had happened. This was Cat’s chance!
The man with the sword had stabbed one of the guards in the back, his blade sticking out through the ribs of the impaled guard. Cat quickly rushed forward towards the second guard and grabbed him. She locked her legs with his and grabbed his arm and, in one motion, threw him over her shoulder onto the ground. The spear went flying from his hands as he let out a shout of his own. Cat ran to where the weapon fell. It may not be a sword but it was better than her fists.
Picking it up, she raised her eyes back to the battle. The cruel guard was sitting back up, having caught his breath. Enea had engaged the hooded man in combat. Two were now bleeding out from their chests. Cat ran back over, putting her foot on the second guard’s hand and stomping hard enough that she heard a crack of his fingers. “I’d just lay there and wait.” She said, holding the tip of the spear against his throat.
There was another scream as the swordman quickly dispatched Enea, tossing his body into the water. “Just kill him. He’s a creature of the Dragon.” The man said. His voice betrayed his young age.
“He’s defeated. I’m not going to just execute him.” Cat said, pulling the spear back. As the man started to get up, she twirled the spear around in her hand, hitting him in the head with the butt of the spear. With a dull grunt, his body went still as he passed into the land of heavy sleep.
The man, boy really, pulled his hood back, staring at Cat and trying to size her up. “Where are you from…?”
“I’m from Rome. My name’s Cat.”
“Vittorio. You’re a long way from Rome.” He whistled, looking towards the top of the walls. Cat followed his gaze. She could see figures moving at the top as a ladder was rolled down the side. There seemed to be about two people at the top. She looked back to Vittorio, just in time to see him cutting the throat of the guard she had knocked unconscious.
“Why did you do that!?” Cat said. “He was knocked out!”
Vittorio gave her an odd look. “As soon as we won the battle, his life was forfeit. When he woke up, the Dragon would have killed him. The Dragon doesn’t tolerate failure. I gave him more than he deserved or would have gotten from his boss.”
Cat took another deep breath. She had to remember that this wasn’t Rome and she wasn’t in any position to fight. She needed more information. “Who is this dragon?”
Vittorio gestured for her to follow him as he rushed to the ladder. “Alexander Drago…the mage-king of Syracuse. The most recent one anyway.”
“Mage-kings…?” Cat said. She hadn’t heard anything about that in the intelligence reports. “This city is ruled by mages?”
“You could say that. I would say tyrannized.” Vittorio said. He started climbing up to the top of the walls. “Come on, if you want into the city, you’d better stick with us.”
“And who are you, huh?”
“We’re the Mage-Breakers.” Vittorio said. “We’re the people sick and tired of the mages doing whatever they please, taking over the minds of our friends and families, making us slaves and killing us in the streets.” His voice grew increasingly bitter as he spoke. He pulled himself over the edge of the wall, turning to give Cat a hand up.
Cat took it without a word, a frown on her face. This was a complication she hadn’t expected. “I was trying to get to Catania, but I got blown off course…” She tried to explain, without revealing too much of her reasons for being there.
“Well, you’ve been blown into a war zone. Drago’s putting down an attempted coup. The streets aren’t safe and if you want a boat, you’re in even worse luck. You might as well come with us.”
Cat looked out across the city behind the walls. This looked nothing like what she expected to find. There were fires burning in small pockets throughout the city. People marched through the streets in military formation, meeting other gangs and breaking out into fighting. At the center, the people seemed to have erected a mansion that encompassed an entire block. Flashes of magic sparked every now and then.
“This…this is crazy. This is nothing like Rome…” Cat said, her eyes wide with shock. In Rome, the craziness was outside the city walls. Here, it seemed all the insanity was focused inside.
Vittorio gave her a grim smile as he sheathed his sword. “Welcome to Syracuse.”
“General. We need to go.” A woman’s voice caught Cat’s attention. Wearing armor and carrying a true war spear, one of Vittorio’s soldiers approached them. She looked at Cat, sizing her up. “…Vittorio, you can’t bring her with us.”
Vittorio frowned. “And why not, Brigida?”
“Because she’s a mage!”
Cat let out a small curse under her breath. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here. I just washed up on shore. But whatever is happening here, it has to stop. I’m not your enemy, I want to help.” Cat said, dropping her spear to let them know she meant no harm.
Brigida didn’t seem swayed. With a furious cry, she lunged forward, her spear aimed at Cat’s chest. Cat closed her eyes, quickly saying a prayer to the Lord, before she heard the sound of metal clinking with metal. She opened one of her eyes.
Vittorio had deflected her spear, his bloodied blade protecting Cat from Brigida’s rage. “While I appreciate the information, Brigida…You gave control of this group to me, and we will do it my way. This lady hasn’t done anything against us. In fact…” He slowly lowered his sword, keeping his eyes on Brigida the whole time. “I’m inclined to take her up on her offer to help.”
“What??” Brigida said, trying not to shout. “But…Vittorio…”
“Fight fire with fire, or in this case, magic with magic.” He gently pushed her weapon down, before putting his hand on her shoulder. “This is a war, Brigida. You taught me that. You put me in charge for a reason, remember? So trust me.”
Brigida said nothing, her face still hard, but she gave a nod of assent. She turned away, putting her spear over her back.
Vittorio turned to Cat. “So tell me more about what kind of mage you are…”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=46&sl=956 ))