April 15th, 2023
Mount Etna had once stood as a stately and quiet mountain in Sicily, a quiet monolith that looked out over the sea and the city of Catania. Most years since antiquity it was a silent behemoth that loomed like a slumbering giant on the island nation. On occasion, it unleashed the odd belch of fire, reminding the populace of the monster that lurked within its core, a beast with a hundred hungry maws full of ash, smoke, and molten rock.
The Mount Etna that stood since the Days of Revelation was a very different beast, a terrible hollow tombstone, a shattered prison and abandoned workshop. The snow at its peak had been replaced with bare scorched rock and the telltale marks of cataclysmic eruption that had ripped the mountain’s peak asunder. Smoke still rose from its peak, but it was not a column of ash, pumice, and fire. It was the wispy transparent ghost of a dying fire, like a candle just recently snuffed out. The beast had escaped its prison and the fire in the forge had gone out.
Catania, the city that reached almost to the mountain’s very slope, had been devastated. Half of it now found itself buried in ash from the initial pyroclastic devastation that had rolled in like a tidal wave. The buildings closest to the peak had been shattered entirely and the rest had been buried like the Pompeii of ancient Rome. Walking through the city was hazardous, and cloth masks were worn over the face as the legs of the Roman expedition shuffled through knee-deep drifts of white-grey ash. The ashfall had ended months ago, but with none around to clean it save the wind it was still piled high in some places, and could be dangerous to breathe in as it was kicked up in clouds around them as they moved. Safety goggles, pilfered from old chemistry labs, had been issued as standard equipment as well.
There was no safer and more direct approach to Etna. The roads of Catania were largely deserted and provided a straight path through the ash rather than struggling half-blind through the wilderness. The Rangers marched in a column through the city, eyes sharp for any sign of movement. Ash or not, this was their territory. They had been trained for months in urban combat, and a city to them was home. Breaths were shallow and eyes darting as they moved in a line through the grey city towards the black mountain.
The preparations and tension were well-warranted. Typhon had long since abandoned his prison, but he had left plenty of his ill-bred progeny behind.
A shadow moved through the air, half-hidden in the low cloud cover. Most of the Rangers, Hanne among them, would have preferred a clear day for the assault, but time was not on their side. Supplies were running low and they would need to return to Rome soon. Crossbows rose into the air, pointed skyward as they slowed their steps, eyes up as they waited for a sign of scaly skin or leathery wings.
There was a shriek that echoed through the air, coming down from the grey clouds before being cut off in a sudden harsh note. A moment later, a great black shape tumbled to the earth, crashing against the side of a building before tumbling down in a hail of dust and brick. The rangers moved forward and found the corpse of a dragon-like beast lying in a pile of rubble, wings torn by its descent and its head cleanly severed from its serpentine neck.
Hanne couldn’t help but smile as she called the Rangers back in line. It felt good to have air support at least.
Overhead, where the clouds gave way to blue sky, Hildegard and Turi, riding astride Pegasus, had been tasked with keeping the skies clear. From Etna’s smoking caldera had emerged all manner of scaly creatures on leathery wings to keep them occupied. These weren’t the cacodaemons of Rome, but to all eyes, flesh and blood creatures born in their draconic shape. Most were beastlike, occasionally venturing to the Rangers in curiosity, but largely leaving them be. Others, hoping for an easy meal, dove on them only to be met by the far swifter Pegasus and Hildegard’s lethal blade.
“Nice shot.” Turi smiled as Hildegard’s blade cut cleanly through the shrieking creature’s neck.
“What do you call these things again?” Hildegard asked, one arm still hooked tightly around his waist.
“We just call them drakes.” Turi shrugged “They’re not really monsters just…big scaly animals, they don’t usually eat people.”
“Is that all there is between us and Etna?” She asked, sharp eyes still scanning the sky.
“I wish.” Turi sighed, and Hildegard joined him. It could never be easy.
Their destination was visible even from miles away, a great gash rent into the base of the volcano, flanked by great statues that looked as if they had been buried for eons. It could be nothing but the entrance to Hephaestus’ forge in the heart of the volcano.
True to Turi’s word, the closer they drew to the volcano, the stronger the resistance became. The drakes were replaced by larger and fiercer draconic monsters, their skin all crackling fire and smoking brimstone. At the mountain’s base giants lurked, waiting to hurl stones wildly at the oncoming Rangers.
“Incoming! Three o’ clock high!” Hildegard shouted, and Pegasus’ wings flared as they banked hard right, just in time for Turi’s longer spear to impale a swooping drake in the chest, the metal spearhead driving deep into its burning heart. Ash and cinder exploded from the wound like blood as the hissing beast tumbled, smoking, to its death on the ground below. With no time to lose, Pegasus dove down towards the earth, two more flaming drakes close behind them, their bodies glowing and hissing as they passed through the wet clouds. Hildegard turned herself, clinging with one hand tight to Turi as the pair of them shot almost straight down. The drakes, black pinions of their batlike wings spread wide, were hurtling towards them. Aim would be everything.
Hildegard drew in her breath, it had been some time since she’d practiced magic like this, but it was just like riding a bike.
From her hand shot a dozen points of bright yellow light, whizzing through the air like firecrackers as they shot towards the closer of the two drakes. Several exploded on its face, tearing through ashen scale and cracked muscle as the rest tore holes in the great batlike wings, shredding them as they exploded in bursts of white light against the relatively thin membrane.
As they dove beneath the clouds, Turi kept Pegasus’ nose pointed firmly towards the ground, his wings folding in as they dropped like a meteor towards the earth. Hildegard had a moment to look down and see the state of the Rangers, pushing their advance towards the entrance to the great workshop as a small band of giants tried to stop them.
As they dived lower, almost coming to the tree line, Pegasus’ wings shot open, and for a moment, it felt as if Hildegard’s stomach was sent hurtling behind her as they pulled up from the steep dive, wind whipping at their faces as they recovered. One of the drakes recovered with them, its heavier body barely managing to avoid being dashed across the earth. The other one, its wings torn apart by Hildegard’s magic, was not so lucky, air whistling through the holes in its wings before it crashed into the ground, rolling into a crumpled heap of shattered bone and wing. One down, Hildegard thought to herself.
“Quick! Towards those giants!” She called to Turi, having to shout over the sound of whistling wind. Hildegard grit her teeth. Her clothes were soaked with a chill that reached her bones, her hand holding tight to Stahlzan with a vice-like grip. Her muscles raged, her teeth wanted to chatter from the cold, and her eyes were almost whipped shut by the wind that tore at her face and hair. Her mind, however, was as sharp as ever; this was her element.
“Towards the giants!?” Turi shouted back, incredulously.
“I have an idea.” Hildegard said, a grin cracking across her face. Turi looked like he was about to object, but held his tongue. If there was one thing he had learned to trust, it was Hildegard’s monster killing instincts.
Pegasus swooped in on the wind towards the giants. These beings truly lived up to the name. Easily seven meters at the shoulder and built like Neanderthals, their skin was covered in patches of volcanic ash and fire just like the drakes. Other parts of their body gave way to patches of scaly skin or horns upon their crown, all clear signs of more monstrous lineage.
Hildegard raised her sword high, turning it in the air until the shining silver blade caught the dim light of the sun. It wasn’t enough, but at just the right angle…
The closest giant turned towards them, distracted from its assault on the rangers by the bright shining light in the sky hurtling rapidly towards them. Hildegard glanced back and saw the drake still directly behind them, trying to close the gap to get in range of its blazing fire breath.
The next few moments happened like frames frozen in Hildegard’s mind. Timing was everything.
Reaching forward, she took hold of Pegasus’ reins with Turi, hands wrapping around his to guide them as she drew herself closer to him. For a moment, she felt both of them in sync, their breathing, muscles, and heartbeats moving together as he felt her plans through the slightest motions of her hands.
The giant reached with one great thick hand to the massive boulders of igneous stone at his feet. He moved slowly, like a massive tree in motion as his great form lifted the rock, weighing at least several tons, up into the air, arm pulling back like a pitcher winding up the throw. Hildegard held steady, flying straight for him, eyes focused on the great muscular arms, waiting for the muscles to release and the throw to release.
At the very last moment, Hildegard and Turi moved at once, pulling Pegasus’ reins hard to the right into a dive, the sudden turn almost throwing them both from his back as gravity roared in their ears. The boulder, released from the giant’s arm with all the force of a cannonball, whistled past with alarming closeness, and Hildegard could feel the whipping wind of its passage against her back.
The drake, however, had been too focused on its quarry. It had only begun to turn when the great stone collided with its form with enough force to tear it apart as it all but exploded on impact into a cloud of ash and blood.
Hildegard looked again to the giant, who was reaching slowly for another stone, failing to notice the small form at his heels.
Hanne, thankful for the distraction, had run ahead of the Ranger column, which was advancing slowly as they took cover from the giants’ assault. As the great giant had stared stupidly at his accidental strike, Hanne had drawn her blade, and by the time the giant noticed, it was far too late as the saber tore through his Achilles tendon, sending the giant to his knees with a crash that shook the earth. Hanne didn’t pause to revel in her victory, however; even on its knees a giant was still a giant. She had maybe seconds before she was caught in a grasp that could crush every bone in her body.
Sword in hand, she rushed forward past the giant’s legs. People tended to aim for the throat so often they forgot another key point of weakness, and considering giants were built like large humans…
Taking her sword in both hands, she plunged the blade into the giant’s inner thigh, and the burst of blood that greeted her told her she had successfully cut the giant’s femoral artery. It wasn’t instantly fatal, but the giant wouldn’t be moving out of this spot. By the time she had finished cutting the other leg, the giant now shaking in its rage and pain, much of Hanne’s jacket had been soaked in giant’s blood. She leaped away as the giant tried in vain to roll over and find her, tracking blood with each step.
Spurred on by Hildegard’s daring and their commander’s own giant-slaying prowess, the other Rangers had surged forth, leaving the giants daunted as they tried in vain to crush the smaller and more nimble humans. One of them swept his great hand over the ground, catching one of the rangers in his powerful grasp, only to drop her moments later as a half dozen crossbow bolts sank themselves into the tender flesh of his hand. Another giant reached for a massive boulder at his feet, only for swords to slash deep into his fingers.
One by one the giants fell and the drakes crashed to earth as the Rangers cut their way into the workshop, Pegasus landing at the entrance to let Hildegard to disembark and regroup with her adoptive mother.
“That was some excellent flying, Salvatore.” Hanne said as Hildegard slid off the horse.
“Thank you.” Turi smiled. “Even if Pegasus did most of the work.”
“And you handled yourself well, Hildegard.” Hanne patted her on the shoulder as they crossed the threshold into the workshop, flanked by a large contingent of Rangers.
“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Hildegard asked as they made their way inside.
“Angel drew us some sketches but that’s about it…” Hanne said.
The entrance hall soon gave way to the body of the forge, a great empty cavity opened up before them as they stepped into what had clearly once been a massive complex. All around them were the remains of workbenches, racks of tools fifty meters long, great cauldrons that had once held gallon upon gallon of molten metal, and anvils twice as tall as a man.
At the center of this divine architecture, the entire complex had been ripped open by Typhon’s release, leaving the already quite open forge hollow and open to the air as rays of light shone down through holes in the caldera, all of it lit by weak sunlight and the omnipresent crimson glow of the molten magma at the heart of the great rupture.
Blessedly, either by divine presence, fear of Typhon’s prison, or simple luck, the forge itself was empty and Hanne sent the Rangers out scouting for their prize as she observed what had become of the forge.
“As close as I can tell,” She said, standing near the ragged edge of the forge floor where it fell into the heart of the mountain. “Typhon’s prison was underneath this place, and when he broke out he took half the forge with him.”
Hildegard, looking around the great cavity, could see the half-ruined remains of rooms, sublevels, and massive equipment scattered across the inside walls of the hollowed out volcano. Below her, where the floor dropped away, was a great sea of magma marked only by the twisted remains of bars and rods of black metal, no doubt what remained of his prison. The cavity blasted into the forge was nearly a mile across, and given the splendor of the remains, the finely wrought divine architecture and the scale of the machinery, Hildegard could only guess what it must have been like in its prime.
“Captain!” One of the Rangers called out as he approached, something tall slung over his shoulder. “We think we found them.”
He presented to the pair of them what looked like a spear, nearly eight feet long, made of silvery metal. Across its surface were etched alien runes and long patterns of flowing wings and lightning bolts.
Hanne looked the spear over before pulling a piece of scrap paper form a pouch at her belt where Hildegard could see a finely rendered sketch of what looked almost precisely like the spear the man carried.
“How many did you find?” Hanne asked.
“Nearly thirty, captain.” The ranger said.
“Good.” Hanne smiled “Get the wagon, load them up, I want to be back on the coast by nightfall.”
The man saluted as the Rangers in the forge all rushed to join in the retrieval. Hanne took a moment to examine the forge a while longer, looking for anything valuable they could scavenge.
All told it wasn’t much. When the god of the forge had evacuated it was clear he took most of his toys with him. There were no magical armaments to speak of save for the spears, and the rest seemed to be mostly odds and ends. Lengths of wire, bars of metal, and a few half-finished projects and schematics. Hanne had all of it loaded up anyway. Knowledge was power, and the chance to clean out a god’s forge was one that didn’t come by often.
A cry from the entrance alerted her attention, and she ran forward just in time to see several Rangers, laden with pilfered equipment, running for the cover of the forge as a large shadow flew over the ground. Hanne swore under her breath as she ran forward, sword drawn. Another drake had come to make easy pickings while they were weighed down with spoils.
“Ready crossbows!” She shouted as she ran into the half-lit light of the clouded morning.
“Hildegard!” She whirled around, looking for the mage.
Her search was answered, however, as a barrage of fireballs erupted from the ground further down the slope, and she saw Hildegard, hand raised, at their source as the whizzing firecrackers of magical energy ripped across the drake’s body.
The creature whirled and screeched angrily, flapping wildly to maintain its altitude. Another moment later, its erratic movements were interrupted as what looked like a shining crystal lance shot from the ground and impaled the monster clean through the chest. As Hanne watched the beast fall, still screaming, toward the earth, she saw the spear catch the light and realized it wasn’t crystal.
It was ice.
Running at a full sprint down the slope for the entrance, Hanne saw Hildegard sitting on a rocky outcrop. Beside her, one arm wrapped around her shoulder, was Catarina.
“Look who I found.” Hildegard smiled as Hanne rushed to meet them, throwing caution to the winds as she pulled Cat into a tight embrace.
“I was only gone a few days.” Cat protested, but she returned the hug, wrapping her arms tightly around her adoptive mother.
“Sorry I missed the party.” Cat said when they finally relinquished one another. “I got held up by some stuff in Syracuse.”
“You’ll have to tell us all about it.” Hildegard smiled.
“It is quite a tale.” The familiar sly voice of Sheh moved between them as the tall light-eyed woman stepped from the shadows. For a moment, Hanne swore she saw something shiny and silver held in her hand before it was hidden in the folds of her dress.
“Then we’ll hear it on the ship ride home.” For the first time since arriving on Sicily, Hanne allowed herself a sigh of relief. Cat was safe and with her again, their mission was finished. All that remained was the journey back to Rome and to home.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa