The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 26

April 13th, 2023

The more Cat saw of Syracuse, the more she thanked the Lord that Rome had Capitolina keeping order and policing it. Vittorio and his men had given her a rather effective tour, so Cat had a good idea the extent of chaos that had befallen Syracuse. People were hardly ever out in the open on the streets, unless they were wearing the markings of one of the various different mages that claimed rule. The most common one that Cat saw was that of the Dragon, a man for whom Brigida and Vittorio seemed to carry an intense hate.

For the most part, however, they tried to keep Cat from being seen too much out in the open. She was a newcomer, an unknown element, and if she was outted as a mage it might be all the worse for her current “hosts” and likely for Cat herself. More than likely the self-styled Mage-Kings like the Dragon would see her as a threat to be eliminated. So for the time being she spent most of the daylight hours in a cramped room with little more than a cot, a cracked opaque window, and a length of exposed pipe near the ceiling.

Growing bored from the lack of conversation or even a book to read, Cat pulled herself up to the pipe to try keeping up her fitness regimen while she was trapped here. Well, partly trapped. Really, she could have already left if she so desired. Vittorio wasn’t keeping her prisoner, and while Brigida the so-called Mage Breaker kept watching her with a wary eye, she had relative freedom to move around the hideout, though there was little else in the sparse and ruined building to occupy her, and everywhere outside were the constant suspicious stares. Still, she couldn’t just bring herself to leave the city entirely. Not when others were here…But the Rangers must be worrying about her.

“Mmm that’s quite a conflict, my dear.” An amused soft voice echoed through the room, causing Cat to fall with a start from the bar, turning just in time to see a familiar dark-haired form coalescing into shape beside the window. “Your rational thoughts are conflicting with your fated role, quite the conundrum indeed.” Sheh, or rather Scheherazade, took form in the room with her. Overcome with the sight of a familiar face in a sea of strangers, Cat rushed in for a hug around her waist, leaving the librarian bemused as she offered Cat a consoling pat on the head before extricating herself from her grasp.

“What do you mean?” Cat asked as she stepped back, flopping her rear down onto the cot. “My fated role?”

“It’s simple, dear Catarina. As I told you before, there are some who are simply born to be heroes. You cannot bring yourself to leave a place that so desperately calls for you, even though you know you should.” Schehera (as Cat had taken to calling her) said, pulling a long golden pipe from the sleeve of her robe and lighting it with a flick of her fingers.

Cat rubbed her hands together. “Vittorio and Brigida seem heroic enough to me. I mean, they’re fighting against psychotic mages to free the city. Do they really need me?”

“What do you think?” Scheherazade’s eyes seem to gleam gold as she smiled gently at Cat. Cat let out a sigh as she tried to think in the odd way of a storyteller. Scheherazade insisted that everything fit in a nice narrative spot, though there might be thousands of narratives going on at one time. Still if one was a skillful enough storyteller, Schehera insisted one could spot the threads as they wove themselves. Cat wasn’t sure she bought that, but with a bit of coaching, she was starting to understand how to play that game.

“Mmm, Vittorio is a bit too much of a general and leader to be the hero. I mean, he can barely compete with me when it comes to swordplay; he only won one of the four matches. Plus, while he leads from the front, Brigida always seems to shuffle him to the back eventually…”

“Ah, yes, the Mage Breaker. And is she a Hero?”

Cat sighed again as she thought about it. “No, I suppose not. She’s really good at fighting, better than I thought she’d be. I didn’t even know you could shut down a mage’s magic using physical attacks!”

Cat rubbed at her ribs. Earlier in the morning in the cover of the secluded yard Brigida had offered to spar with Cat to truly ‘test her mettle’ as she’d put it. Though Cat had recovered most of her strength after being shipwrecked, The Mage Breaker had not only sent the sword they had loaned her flying out of her hands, but a fierce body blow to her torso had somehow briefly stopped the flow of Cat’s mana running through her veins. Cat had managed to fend her off, thanks to her spars with Hildegard, but it had come as a surprise to suddenly find herself without her most reliable tool.

“But she’s not really…heroic. She’s a lot angrier than Vittorio. Sometimes I feel she’s actually trying to hurt me.”

“Well, there you have it!” Scheherazade clapped her hands together. “You have the reason why you feel you must stay. You want to fill the role the Fates have woven…and you will get the practice here, Catarina!”

“But the expedition…!”

Scheherazade drew up her full height, looking down at Catarina sternly. It reminded the young magus of her tutors in the more mundane subjects. “Catarina, would you really leave the people of Syracuse to suffer under the indignity of other magi when you know you can help stop them?”

Cat shrank back a bit. “No…”

“I would hope not!” The spirit said, as if the very idea was wrong to her. “The expedition will certainly need time to regroup. And I will spend my own time searching for Captain Hanne to let her know where you are. I hope that by the time the Rangers arrive, you will have a freed city to show them!”

“Don’t feel afraid to put ALL the responsibility on my shoulders, Schehera…” Cat mumbled to herself, before sighing in resignation. It looked like she had little choice right now.  “But alright. Vittorio seems like a decent enough sort. Kind of bossy though.”

“Who are you talking to?” Vittorio’s voice came from Cat’s side. She looked quickly to him and was about to introduce him to Scheherazade, but when she turned back, the spirit was gone. “Hmph…” Cat could hardly say she was amused by this sort of exit. Nor could she say she was surprised by a drama lover like her spirit advisor.

“Just going over somethings in my head. Magic stuff and all that.” Cat said, turning to face Vittorio. “So what’s the story?”

Vittorio furrowed his brow, looking past Cat to where Scheherazade had stood, as if he could see the traces of her presence lingering, before he shook his head. “I can’t say I will ever understand magic fully. Perhaps it comes from my…unique situation, but anyway, I’ve come to see if you are committed to helping us. I know you’re here on a different mission. While it would be useful to have a mage fighting mages, if you are not committed, you would be a liability.”

Cat gave a big smile as she stretched out her arms, cracking her joints into place. “Oh, I’m down for this fight. You’ve got a Ranger of Rome on your side now, so they’re not going to know what hit them!”

“Very well, come with me.” Vittorio turned and headed back towards the center of the hideout. Cat couldn’t help but wonder if he was always this stiff. Syracuse was a weird place. Still, she followed after him towards the meeting center. Brigida was there of course. She shot Cat a look at her coming in with the commander. Cat would have put money on it that the look she got was coming more out of jealousy than anything else.

Vittorio moved to the center of the room, signaling with his hands for everyone to circle around him. When they were all paying attention, he stepped upon the table that had the map of the city laid out upon it. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, before beginning a speech.

“This is it, friends. This is our last night together before we storm Drago’s Palace. I know it seems like just a few nights ago that Brigida stood in this spot, reminding you all that we have a chance because I was here. Because I was immune to magic. Since then, I’ve tried to lead you the best I could, to victory and to a free Syracuse.”

He paused, letting his eyes scan across the room at the small army that had been assembled. They watched him with intense emotions, each one having come to trust Vittorio heavily over his time as leader. To Cat’s eyes, the mantle seemed to slide easily onto his shoulders.

“Under Brigida’s and my teaching, each one of you knows how to stop a mage while they’re casting. Each one of you knows how to snap your friends out of the mind control that may afflict them. Each one of you knows how to fight these monsters in human skin that run rampant through our city. And we will fight them!”

A cheer filled the room. Cat stayed silent, just standing to the side as the anti-mage sentiment grew stronger and louder among the soldiers. Many of them had lost family and friends to the petty wars of the petty kings. These were the times when Cat felt that she had to stay the most. For if they didn’t have an example of a mage that wasn’t evil, would Vittorio’s regime be any different?

Cat watched as Brigida’s cheering began to drown out everyone else. The hate in her eyes, the anger in her roaring voice, Cat had a feeling that if she had her way, then there would be no place for mages at all in the new city. With Vittorio, she felt his eyes always calculating, watching it all with a cold distance.

He had claimed to be immune to magic. He had allowed her to test it as a show of faith earlier. Her ice, when cast to form over his skin, didn’t form. Any attempt she made to reinforce his bones and muscles just failed as the mana flowed back into her. She had never heard of people like that. He was as far from being a mage as you could come, but Cat intended to prove to him that just because he was fighting mages, didn’t mean they couldn’t be his friends as well.

When the cheering died down completely, Vittorio continued his speech. “So tonight, I want you all to sleep soundly. I want you all to think of the better times this city has seen. To think of the light and the water, not the darkness and the fire.” He hopped off the table, walking through the crowd of soldiers, putting his hand on their shoulders as he walked past, his eyes meeting all of theirs one by one.

“Because we’re going to need those memories to give us strength against Drago. They call him the Dragon, but he is just a man, like you and like me. He has magic…but so do we.” At that, Vittorio turned around and gave a wide gesture towards Cat. “Catarina is going to help us fight. She’ll be enhancing your physical capabilities to match the pawns of the mage-king.”

The crowd was less enthusiastic at this. Their energy slowly started to die. “Tagus…is this wise?” One of them asked. Brigida looked as far from thrilled as she could.

This was it. If she was to win their trust, she’d need to say something now. Taking a deep breath, Cat stepped forward. She could almost feel Scheherazade beside her, feeding her words from old speeches long forgotten.

“I’m an outsider to this group, guys. I’m from Rome, not Syracuse. I’m a mage. I think I’m the only one here with hair quite as cool as mine!” She smiled brightly, trying to be light hearted. She got a few chuckles, which was enough. As her smile fell a bit, her posture became far more serious. “But this isn’t just your fight. This is my fight too. I stand not just for myself, but for Rome, to show that we will help those in need. I stand for all mages, to show that we are not all as bad as these tyrants who have caused so much pain. I stand for the Rangers, who mean the people of this city no harm and only good. But in the end…I stand for the right thing. This is my fight just as much as it is yours. What is happening here is wrong. And I won’t stand for it.”

It was Cat’s turn to stand on the table and she jumped onto the war table with glee. Pointing out towards the soldiers, she swept her hand across in front of her. “So tomorrow, you’ll see me in the front, with all of you. I’m going to break down the palace gates. Nothing is going to stop me!”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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