The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 31

April 14th, 2023
Cat’s breathing grew shallow as she rushed through the streets. The palace was in sight. She could hear the shouts and the cries growing louder as she pushed herself forward.  The others behind her struggled to keep up. The gates to the palace were thrown open wide, revealing to the latecomers the chaos that was unfolding inside.

The palace’s façade, once the stately home of the wealthy made the center of all Syracuse, was now scorched and stained beyond repair under the weight of the rebel attack. Windows shattered, doors splintered off their hinges, and fires both natural and magical cropping up here and there.
Never before had Cat seen such a display of destructive magic being used so brazenly. Fire sprung from the fingertips of the mages, bouncing off the reinforced shields of the rebels. The mages were greatly outnumbered, but the sheer power they possessed made the battle too crazed for Cat to determine who had the advantage. Her reinforcement could only do so much against such a force, after all.

She rushed forward, mentally focusing herself as she ran. She didn’t know who she had to thank more, her father or Hildegard, for teaching her the multi-tasking techniques that let her still cast her spells while in the heat of battle. Whomever it was she owed the thanks, she was grateful for it. The air around her chilled as she gathered the frozen water droplets into her hand to form ice. She had gotten attention again, standing out from among the crowd of rebels.

Cat didn’t even hesitate as she saw a small fireball heading towards her, slinging her ice forward onto the ground and gliding over it as she leaned backwards. The heat of the blast washed against her face, the smoke catching in her lungs. Her shallow breathing turned into a cough, but Cat didn’t stop moving. This battle wasn’t between two distinct armies. It was a chaotic mob, a frenzy.

She had heard of scenes like this before but had never seen them herself. Locked away in her mansion, with a father who had no interest in owning a television, the tumult that had followed the Days of Revelation was only a story to her. This she could see. She could hear. She could feel the madness and the chaos that hung thick like smoke in the air, seeking to infect her like it had everyone in the courtyard.

Cat grit her teeth and forced the impulse, that primal human reaction, back down within her. She needed to be more than that. Ahead of her, she could see the long ponytail of the Mage Breaker captain whipping about. Brigida was surrounded by a pack of red eyed, slobbering dogs. Cat didn’t need to ask what they were. She was a mage after all. Where Rome had Cacodaemons, Syracuse had hellhounds. These creatures were normal animals, bound to a mage as a familiar. They often served as almost magical batteries for their masters. Sharp teeth were just an extra bonus. Here though, it was everything.

Brigida dug her feet into the dirt as she got into a stance. She was surrounded, but she hadn’t yet seen Cat. Cat’s love of stories told her she should rush in now, as the hellhounds attacked and cover Brigida’s back as if she had seemingly come out of nowhere. Cat remembered saying something similar to Hildegard one time when she got excited, how she would swoop down just in the nick of time!

Hildegard had slapped her. Lightly of course, but enough to get the point across.
“You’re as likely to end up on my sword as any demon if you do that, Cat. If you’re behind me, shout it out so I know and neither of us get hurt. Got it?” She had said.

“Brigida! Behind you!” Cat shouted as she drew her sword from its sheath.

The Mage Breaker turned over her shoulder quickly, her whole body tensed and wild. Cat nearly wondered if she was going to end up on the rebel’s spear anyway, but Brigida gave a very curt nod before turning back around, thrusting her spear forward into a leaping hellhound. Its death cries howled out as the others leapt into action as well.

Cat knew Brigida was fast. She had sparred with her before. Seeing her in the heat of battle, however, was a completely different experience. As Cat raced forward, Brigida squatted down, with one arm swinging her shield to the side, smashing into a hellhound and sending it tumbling back Cat’s way. A thrust into its chest and a slash at its neck saw the dog stop moving, but Cat didn’t. At the same time, Brigida lunged forward with her spear, impaling it through the jaw of one the dogs. Cat had only ever seen Hildegard move with such speed, and Hildegard was a combat mage.

Between the two of them, soon none of the pack of hellhounds was moving. Brigida jumped to her feet, taking her helmet off and throwing her head back as she gasped for air. Her face was red, sweat keeping her hair in the shape the helmet had left.

Without wasting a second, Cat reached onto her belt and took off a bottle of water, dumping the liquid onto Brigida.

“Thanks, mage.” Brigida said brusquely, wiping her brow. “I needed…that.” Her breathing was still quick, gasping for air. Cat just nodded her head before grabbing the Mage Breaker, using her magic to help Brigida’s body repair itself more quickly. They weren’t done yet.

“Where is Vittorio? Or the Dragon?” Cat asked once she was done. It had only taken a few seconds.
Brigida flipped her helmet into the air with her foot, catching it. “This…way. Follow me…” Shaking it free of dust, the rebel put her helmet back on, picked up her shield and spear, and charged forward. Cat chased after.

Their path could hardly have been called clear, but that didn’t stop Brigida. With her shield forward, the force of her adrenaline and Cat’s magic allowed her to bowl over everyone and everything that was in their way. Dogs went rolling to the side, rebels and mages alike were sent face first into the dirt and stone. Cat stayed close behind, using her magic to create a trail of ice behind them. It was thin, but slippery and would prevent any of the hellhounds to charge after them.

“Where have you been, Mage?!” Brigida shouted backwards, not slowing down her charge. Using her momentum to her advantage, she flipped one of the guards onto his back using her spear to get under his legs.

“I was…” Cat stopped herself. Perhaps it was better to tell Brigida after. “Held up!”

It didn’t take long for the two to reach the main hall of the castle, the doors already pushed open. Cat moved out from behind Brigida and let out a gasp as she saw what awaited them there.

The walls of the hall, once finely gilded and painstakingly maintained, were splattered with blood, bodies slumped over on the ground, unmoving. They wore the armor of the rebel soldiers, their swords stained with blood. Their own blood. The magical reinforcement she had given them hadn’t been enough for them to resist the full strength of the Dragon’s magic. And for a moment she felt a pang of guilt, of frustration at her own lack of power be focused again on the action in front of her. Some were still standing, locked into a murderous frenzy that kept them from telling their friends from their enemies.

Vittorio was standing in the center of the room, trying to push past his own men to get to the Mage King who had caused all of this. Cat recognized the movements of a man who was holding back in a fight. Hildegard had often done that during their earliest training sessions.

“Brigida! You take left, I take right. We make him a path.” Cat shouted as she shot to the right.

“…Fine. But don’t hurt them mage! They’re still on our side!”

“Right.”

Cat ran beside Vittorio, sheathing her sword. She wouldn’t need it here. The crazed rebels were moving sloppily, unable to control their actions. One of them swung wildly towards her head, his slowed actions giving her the chance to duck under his blow and take hold of his arm. As she did, however, what felt like icy pain burned across the skin of her gloved hand.

“Go, Vittorio!” She shouted as she pulled the possessed man out his way.

Cat could feel the magical tendrils crawling through her body into her mind. The mage was trying to turn her too. He was strong, much stronger than the other mages she had fought recently. She had dueled more powerful mages before, but a duel was much different than this. A duel had rules. This mage wasn’t holding back.

She saw Brigida freeze where she had begun to run, legs locking in place as her body was frozen where it stood, even with all of her willpower it was not enough to push past his magic.

Cat could feel her knees shaking as she tried to cleanse herself of the foreign magic. The others all grabbed their heads as they screamed out. Except Vittorio. Cat watched as he stood strong, the spell seeming to wash around him like a river around a rock. It was unlike anything she had ever encountered before. He wasn’t just resisting, he was entirely immune.

Cat, however, was sapped of strength. Between the physical toll of her exertion and spell casting, even resisting this spell was incredibly taxing, weighing down her arms and legs. Her breathing grew labored, her mind hazy as she worked to keep the Mage King’s magic from infesting her mind. It was like a sickness, a numbness in her blood she had to concentrate to keep at bay lest ti overwhelm her entirely, choking the magic from her body as she fought it.

Vittorio came to her side, noticing her shivering stance as she continued to resist, her mind still her own. He reached down, under her shoulder and lifted her to her feet. “Come on. We’re not done yet. We still need you, Catarina.”

She stumbled forward, still fighting against the mental assault, but even standing next to Vittorio seemed to empart some of his resistance on her. She could feel the Mage King’s vicelike hold weaken on her with each step. The Mage King himself was moving sluggishly now; the strain from influencing so many minds at once was obviously taking its toll on him. Still, Cat could see the glimmering tell-tale signs of magic over his armor. No mundane sword would pierce it as it was now.

“I can’t hurt him. I need you to break his protection.” Vittorio said, more calmly than anyone in his position should be.

Cat nodded, as she pulled herself forward from his grip under her own power. Each step was laborious, but Cat grit her teeth and bore through it. This was what she had stayed in this city to do first. Everything that would come after…No. Right now that was not important.

“You are just children, traitors.” Drago said, his voice sounding steady even as his body shook under the effort. “None of you will leave this place alive. Then I will stomp this rebellion! I am the King of this city! I am the Dragon!”

“You’re nothing but a cruel tyrant!” A girl’s voice echoed through the hall. Cat recognized it as the voice of Lana. Apparently so did Drago. The Mage King’s face was locked in shock, before it broke into a cold rage.

“What are you doing here, Lana. You were sent off with Cornelia.”

Cat could feel the strain pushing her back lighten some. This was the best opportunity she was going to get to strip Drago of his enchantments. Cat closed her eyes. Working with other people’s spells was always harder than working with her own. It always felt different, familiar but off.

Tearing through magical armor like this was tricky business. She pushed back against his influence, reaching out as she attacked the web of magic over his armor with her own power. She had to concentrate, feel for it before creating an image in her mind, a sword sundering armor to cut through his supernatural protection.

“What?! You…Absolutely not!” Cat heard his voice shout as she continued to attack his protection. He was aware of it now. He was fighting back. The armor attempting to knit itself together even as Cat’s magic cleaved through it.

“What happened…?” Brigida’s voice rang out, but Cat’s vision was growing hazy, her focus entirely spent on penetrating his armor. If Brigida could speak it meant he was spending all of his focus to fight her, she almost had him now.

With one last surge of power she tore apart a segment of his armor. She had created a breach in his defenses. He was using all his power to fight her. Cat fell to her knee again as she tried to protect her work against his onslaught.

Cat could feel heat encasing her body, but it didn’t burn. Magical flames seemed to surround her mind, creating a shield that kept the full power of the Dragon at bay. It was…another mage? Then it had to be…

“You ungrateful brat!”

Cat could feel Drago’s attention turn away from her in an instant. All of his anger and rage switched from Cat to his daughter. Lana let out a gasp as he grabbed her by the throat, lifting her in the air. His protection spells were quickly weaving themselves back up, even as Vittorio tried to attack him from behind, his sword simply bouncing aside mere inches from his skin as his fingers tightened around Lana’s throat.

The world was blurry as Cat stared out through her watering. Another rebel, one she didn’t recognize, had rushed forward to try and free Lana from the Dragon’s grip. Vittorio had been knocked back by a wild punch from Drago, but was stumbling to his feet. With his attention free, Drago put all of his focus on his all but defenseless daughter.

Cat took a deep breath. Time seemed to slow as it always did under this kind of pressure. The memory of her with Hildegard fluttered back into her mind. The conversation that had led to the light smack and stern words. It had started so innocently…

“I’m going to be a hero like you, Hilde! When people are in trouble, I’ll be there in the nick of time. They’ll turn around and then I’ll just be there, guarding their back…Heroes always show up right when they’re needed!”

Heroes always show up right when they’re needed. Right in the nick of time. She could run over and end this threat by herself, with her sword and magic. She would be the hero, saving Lana and stopping all this chaos. But she didn’t have a nick left to spare. Besides…Vittorio was closer.

“Vittorio! Left side of stomach! Now!” Cat shouted as she poured all of her power into a final, overwhelming attack into the Dragon’s defenses. The protection wards split open in the spot she targeted, leaving him vulnerable to mundane means there…but already she could see the spell starting to repair itself.

Lana was turning blue, her breath coming short. Vittorio was running over, but Cat wasn’t sure if he would even make it in time. Brigida pushed past Cat as she tried to rush the Mage before their opportunity was gone as well. Cat fell backwards. She lacked the strength to hold herself up.

“E-Emidio!” The raspy voice of Lana called out hoarsely. The other rebel, the one who had come with her, was stabbing into the Dragon’s side wildly. He didn’t seem to be aiming, just trying to do as much damage as he could. The wards couldn’t repair under this barrage.

The Dragon howled in pain and rage as he turned on the rebel, his sword being much more accurate, much sharper, than the rebel’s low quality blade. The rebel, Emidio, fell back, but his work was done.

Cat’s head hit the ground and everything went fuzzy. She saw Vittorio’s boots walking towards the Dragon. “It’s over. I’m ending your tyranny right now.” Cat sat up as her head spun. Through the double vision, she watched Vittorio thrust his sword into the Dragon’s side. She could hear the unforgettable howl of pain.

Vittorio twisted his blade inside the Mage King. Cat couldn’t tell if it was to make sure the mage was dead or just to see him suffer. It didn’t matter. The Dragon tried to cast a spell, but Vittorio just pushed his sword in deeper. The Dragon struggled, this big man being held by a much smaller teenager, but Vittorio’s grip stayed firm.

Soon the Dragon stopped moving all together.

Vittorio withdrew his sword from the Dragon’s body. Brigida rushed to his side as she raised his sword hand into the air.

“We have done it! We have freed our city from the tyranny of the mages! Long live our general! Long live Tagus Vittorio!”

Cat slowly drew herself to her feet. Their mission was done, the evil king beaten, all should be well. Still, something didn’t feel quite right about it all. As Vittorio’s men rushed to him, cheering his name, Cat turned and saw the rebel Emidio standing beside Lana. The girl looked exhausted, and definitely far from victorious. For all the evil he had been she had just lost a father.

“Thanks” Cat said, moving to her side, her movements still a bit sluggish. “You really helped me back there.”

“Mmm…” Lana nodded to her wearily, her eyes watching Vittorio.

“Things will get better.” Cat said hopefully.

“Will they?” Lana asked “The people will remember their oppression under mages for a lot longer than they’ll remember the fact that mages helped them.”

Cat’s heart sank a little. She knew it was true. With Vittorio’s abilities and Brigida’s battle fervor, balance might never be found. Instead the scales might simply tip the other way. One tyrant to replace another, and Cat couldn’t stay here forever.

“Then I guess they’ll need you.” She said, hope back in her voice as Lana turned to look at her, perplexed.

“Me? I’m his daughter and a mage.”

“Yes you.” Cat smiled “You’re magical royalty who turned against all of that in order to fight your father, not for power but because it was right.”

“Because it was right…” Lana repeated.

“It makes you the perfect person! Vittorio and Brigida can’t pretend you weren’t there. You’re on their side and no one can say otherwise, but you’re also going to protect all the innocent magic-users in this city.”

“I…I am?”

“Uh huh.” Cat nodded assuredly.

“And what about you?” Lana asked suspiciously “You’re a mage, you could help.”

“Oh no” Cat shook her head “I need to make a like a hero and vanish into the sunset. I have other days to save, after all.” She added with a cheery grin.

“It’s Catarina, right?” Lana asked.

“Yep”

“Well…alright” she nodded, a new force seeming to enter her voice. “I’d like to see you again someday, Catarina.”

With one last smile, Catarina made her way from the palace towards Aetna, and from there to home.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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