April 11th, 2023
Analita Rhode moved quickly and quietly through the long beach grass and small stunted trees that grew near the shore. She was bent over, her arms almost dragging across the ground as she shuffled across the sandy ground, silently wincing every time she heard the dry reeds beneath her feet snap and buckle. Still, she made impressive effort at stealth, though her unusual height meant she had to bend over much more than her sister would have to.
Carmen was no doubt out on the water by now. She was to bring in what fish she could further west along the coastline while Analita investigated the recent activity on the eastern shore about two miles from their isolated village. At her family’s insistence she had an old unused shotgun slung over her back, more an antique than a weapon, and Analita doubted it could even fire. More than anything it was for intimidation rather than actual firing, and Analita hoped she wouldn’t have to unsling it from her back.
The village had become tenser in the past few weeks. The conflict that overran the cities to the south was beginning to spread their way, and everyone was on edge that they would soon be enlisted by force into one side or another, or simply become caught in the inevitable crossfire. So when one of the early morning fishing boats had spread the news saying that a contingent of armed soldiers was on the beach only two miles away it had raised no small amount of alarm.
The rest of them had decided to hide and hope they were missed. They had over the past week and a half done their best to disguise any of the remaining roads leading into their village, and they hoped it would be enough to remain overlooked. Analita, however, had decided to sneak out to find out who they were, maybe learn their intentions and what side they were on.
Still she had decided to sneak. If they were mages and wanted to forcibly recruit her village, then no doubt they could easily entrance her and use some magic power to give up the village’s location. Analita shivered at the thought. Magic wasn’t supposed to be real, it all still seemed so fanciful. But monsters weren’t real either, and she had seen more of them than she would like to remember.
Analita heard them before she saw them, several voices carried along the water from further up the beach. One in particular, powerful and female, cut through the air. The wind carried away specific words and meanings, but it grew more intelligible as she slowly crept closer until the band came into view.
There were about forty of them, maybe fewer, scattered across the beach. They didn’t look like straight-backed conquering soldiers, rather they looked utterly miserable. Most were hunched over from exhaustion, and a few limped or carried wounded arms in slings. Had there been a battle?
Through the reeds, Analita saw two fifteen-meter sailboats moored a little ways offshore, and three smaller rowboats dragged onto the shore. The mass of people seemed to be sorting through supplies while a few others tended a new fire. Quite a few had stripped off shirts to dry in the sun. They were clearly disordered, but by the looks of it had only just arrived.
“Johansen! Tide’s rising, get those boats further up the beach! Lorenzo! Two is enough on the fire, help Johansen!”
Analita caught sight of the woman barking orders. She was tall, strongly built, and her strawberry blonde hair was done up in a crude bun with quite a bit of it coming loose. While her hair and clothes were disheveled, she didn’t appear to have lost an ounce of authority in her posture or her voice. Analita eyed the sword at her hip with apprehension.
Taking another look for weapons, she saw that many of them were…archaically armed. Swords and spears and bows mostly. A few oddities here and there like hatchets and crossbows, but she couldn’t see a rifle among them. People armed themselves like this? At the very least it gave her a bit more confidence in her rusty old shotgun.
Although…they didn’t match the rumors of the Sicilian armies that were marching around. They could have been rebels, but they wouldn’t be organizing a raid this size out in the open, at least Analita didn’t think they did. All the rumors said they were secretive and traveled in small numbers. Besides, there was no way to this beach by sea that was quicker than a land march would be, particularly bringing the dangers of sea serpents into consideration.
After another minute’s pause to think it finally hit her. They weren’t parts of the warring factions because they might not be from Sicily at all! An armed contingent making a crash land on Sicily? Where had they come from and where were they going?
Analita bit her lip. She wasn’t going to learn much more from sitting and watching, and if they were new here they would have sent out scouts which meant she could be discovered at any moment. She breathed deeply, sliding the shotgun slowly from her shoulder and mentally steeling herself before rising to her full height, shouting across the beach in the most intimidating voice she could muster.
“Who are you trespassers!?”
She hoped they couldn’t see the barrel of the shotgun quivering from this range. Analita had never even fired the thing before, but she pointed it threateningly at them. “Identify yourselves!”
The gathering had gone completely silent, the only sound was the lingering echo of her voice and the gentle lapping of the waves against the beach. A few moved to their weapons, but a hurried jerk of the shotgun in their direction made them rethink it.
The tall rose-haired woman stared as well, and rather than speak she began to stride calmly towards Analita.
“Don’t move!’ Analita shouted, pointing the gun at her “not until you tell me who you are!”
The woman paused, but didn’t seem particularly troubled by it. She lifted her hands, palms facing Analita, to show she wasn’t reaching for her sword. She was a lot closer than Analita would have liked, only a couple of meters of beach between them. If the woman charged her.
“We don’t mean any harm.” The woman said calmly. Her voice had dropped the harshness, and now that Analita could get a closer look at her, she could see the exhaustion on her face.
“Why are you armed?” Analita demanded, not lowering her gun.
“Because if we weren’t we all would have been killed by monsters long ago. We don’t have any interest in hurting people.”
“Fine, but who are you!?” Analita wasn’t sure if she believed her. There weren’t many monsters in Sicily, particularly as one moved further from Aetna, and to bring so many people…
“We call ourselves the Rangers. We hail from Rome.”
The barrel of Analita’s gun finally lowered towards the ground as an expression of shear shock and disbelief spread across her face.
“R-Rome?” She said. “Like…across the sea? THE Rome?”
“Yes. That Rome.” The woman answered in a deadpan. “My name is Hanne, I’m their captain. As you can see, we Rangers have had some hardships coming in.”
“I see…” Analita nodded, her brain still processing this information.
They were from Rome, a full group of some forty people from Rome! At the very least she knew now that the world hadn’t ended entirely outside of Sicily. There was still civilization elsewhere in the world. Somewhere beneath the shock and adrenaline, Analita felt a bit more hope.
“Ah, my name is Analita.” She nodded politely “Analita Rhode, I live…around.” She shut her mouth before her politeness got the better of her. She still didn’t know if they truly were peaceful.
“Miss Rhode, alright.” The woman Hanne nodded, and Analita felt a flush of pride at being referred to as such by an obviously older and more tempered woman. “We came here on a specific mission.” She continued “all of us are going to Mount Aetna, but we were…blown a little off course.”
Analita blinked in surprise. “I-I should think so.” Her eyes instinctively glances south towards the mountain. “It would take you two days at least on foot. What happe…hmmm…” She was going to ask what happened, but by the shape of all of them and the look of exhaustion and receding shock on Hanne’s face, it was clear that more than the wind had blown them off course.
“Sea Serpents then? “ She asked, and Hanne nodded.
“it sank one of our ships, thankfully not far from the shore, but a lot of our rangers were carried away by the current.” Something was straining just under her firm expression. Hanne took a few steps closer, and Rhode didn’t feel the need to raise her gun again.
“Miss Rhode.” She said, more quietly but also more seriously so that the others likely couldn’t hear. “I’m looking for two girls, likely around your age, one a little younger. They’re…well you couldn’t miss either of them.”
“Er..no, I’m sorry.” Rhode shook her head.
Hanne took a deep breath and ran a hand nervously through her hair. By the many loose strands she could see, it was likely the thousandth time she had done it that morning.
“I see…more of ours are still coming in every hour…i-if you see either of them…”
“Right…” Analita nodded. And somehow it felt like more than just a captain asking after her missing troops.
“But…what are you doing going to Aetna?” Rhode asked, trying to change the subject.
“There is something there our city needs.” Hanne said, her voice suddenly becoming cagey.
“You shouldn’t go.” Analita’s own face became stony as she spoke.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.” Hanne said.
“There are monsters…”
“Miss Rhode.” Analita heard the iron in her voice again, Hanne’s arms held stiffly at her side. “If there is one thing of which I can assure you, it is that every person you see on this beach is a seasoned monster killer.”
Analita couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Every person here had not only seen a monster, but killed one? With things like swords and arrows? Suddenly her shotgun felt a good deal less comforting. There was something both terrifying and awe-inspiring about the thought of a brigade of monster killers.
But even more terrible had been the monstrous thing that had ripped itself free of Aetna those months ago.
“You’ve come to Sicily at a bad time.” She said. She didn’t want to talk about what she’d seen, but there were plenty of things other than Typhon to worry about between this beach and Aetna.
“I suppose it has something to do why you approached a group of strangers with a gun…after scouting us out, I assume.” Hanne said, with the hints of a smirk tugging at her lips.
“Er…yes.” Analita said abashedly, slinging the gun back over her shoulder. “But it is merited, and not just because of monsters.”
“I should hope so.” Hanne visibly relaxed as Analita put the gun away. “Guns can’t kill monsters.”
“It’s true.” Hanne said. “Something about them being ‘too new’ or not ‘heroic’ enough or something.”
“But…” Analita struggled to put her confusion into words “What about werewolves? Aren’t those only killed by silver bullets?”
“Beats me” Hanne shrugged nonchalantly “I’ve never met a werewolf. Silver bullet won’t stop a cacodaemon though.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa