The Rangers were greeted at the gates of the Roman Sanctuary like conquering heroes. All but the most essential citizens of Rome had been given the afternoon off to cheer the brave Rangers as they entered the city. General Hanne led the way, a cart filled with the artifacts that were to be the city’s salvation trailing behind her. Though not all who had left had returned, the journey home had been easier. No ships had been sunk by ferocious sea serpents, and the cacaodaemons that lurked in the shadows of southern Italy seemed far less bold than they had been on the first journey south.
Another surprising addition that had caught the people of Rome with awe was a new face that had returned with the Rangers. With peace reigning in Syracuse, and at the word of his patron goddess, Salvatore had ridden to Rome astride Pegasus, trotting alongside Hildegard and Catarina, a development that many, Hildegard in particular, had been grateful for.
They were met by the Wolves of Rome and the Senate, who proclaimed the news of their victory publically to the cheering crowd and declared it a National Holiday. With the proclamation, the evening had burst into a night of drink and celebration as the Rangers told their tales of travel and monster-slaying, of dangerous lands and the amazing things they had seen. Wine flowed freely through the night and it soon became clear that none would be coming in to work bright and early in the morning the next day. Though the party ran long into the night, most knew that the work had only just begun, and the shakers and movers in Rome began to see to its safety.
Angel had been the first to leave in the morning, carrying the lance-like artifacts that the Rangers had retrieved to Northern Italy. What magic she performed, or what principle these rods worked under, was inscrutable to all but her, and it took nearly three days to set them up in the appropriate position. When it was activated, however, the effects were immediate. Every spirit and mage in Rome, in all of Italy, felt like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, the oppressive burden of Typhon and Nidhoggr lifted away, leaving only peace behind. Even for the most mundane of mortals the effects were clear within days. The risen dead, Nidhoggr’s minions and the most numerous threat in Rome seemed to have evaporated like mist, the Primordial’s magic cleansed from their forms so thoroughly not even bones remained. The Cacodaemons, while not eliminated outright, were so massively reduced in number that their predations became more a nuisance than a threat. According to Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White, their presence would likely never cease entirely so long as humans existed, but without the omnipresent dread inspired by the Primordials, their population was massively reduced. Still, even with the occasional threat of danger, all of Rome knew the shift when it happened. In all of Italy, humanity once more had the upper hand.
“Reclamation has begun!” Capitolina spoke before the gathered Rangers and recruits a day after the peninsula had been shielded. She stood without podium, standing like a statue in her battle armor before the gathered army, for it truly was an army now. Tales of the success of the Rangers had rallied the public behind them and recruitment numbers had exploded over the past few days, likely only to grow with time. What once had been twenty now numbered nearly one hundred. And it was with that, Capi had decided, that change must come to.
“We have banished the Primordial’s presence from Italy!” She said. “We have proven time and time again that this land is not at the mercy of tyrant gods and cruel spirits. It is humanity and Rome’s defenders that will decide its future! The shadow has been washed from our fair lands, and it is time that we took them back! Our homes and our fields! Our temples and our churches! Our forests and our shores! This is not a new Italy! It is not a new Rome! This is and always shall be our Eternal City! Across the Mediterranean, humanity has defied the Primordials, and Rome shall lead the way!”
She looked down at the recruits, seeing so many fresh and eager faces. Reclamation came first, and all of them were eager to help. More would be found in the city and beyond, enclaves of isolated survivors. Their ranks would swell with time, and what had once been survival would become flourishing existence. It would not last forever, however. Nidhoggr and Typhon would not easily take this slight. The fight for survival had ended, but war would follow soon. Rangers would not be enough.
“And you shall be the arm of this city!” Capitolina continued. “Its hand and its voice across Europe and beyond. You shall be the shield against the darkness, the tip of humanity’s spear! It is with this in mind that I, Lupa Capitolina, name you Rangers no longer. From this day onward you are Legio I Capitolina, Rome’s First and finest! And it shall be you, Legionnaires, who shall make our land safe and whole again!”
There was no salute yet among them, no military discipline, but they cheered in their own way across the field before her. Rangers no more, Capitolina smiled to see, but men and women of the Legions, the first of many.
“I suppose you heard the speech?”
The next day, Lord Albion Nassar and Senator Patricia Bellos walked side-by-side through the capital. It had been Nassar who had quickened his step to reach her, much to her dissatisfaction.
“I did.” Patricia nodded politely. “She certainly knows how to rile the people. A legion, is it? It is rather catchy.”
“It’s dangerous.” Albion said. “The Rangers were always quasi-military, half-rescue half-warriors. To call them something as aggressive as a Legion…well, it paints her intentions.”
“And what do you suppose her intentions are?” Patricia asked.
“Capitolina is ancient Rome in lupine form, and what has ever been Rome’s intent?” Albion replied, gesturing with a wry smile at his lips. “She is a conqueror, Senator Bellos, and a soldier.”
“We knew an organized military would come eventually.” Patricia shrugged. “Besides, it’s clear she plans on Reclamation first. She has all of Italy to conquer before we need bother with concern.”
“Do you truly think it will stop there?” Albion said. “We know now we’re not the only political power in the world. We will need to deal with Syracuse somehow in the future.”
“Syracuse is an island far from here.” Patricia said. “Besides, they have no reason to dislike Rome. I heard your apprentice was instrumental in the regime change.”
She noticed a subtle smirk appear on his lips, slightly…yet noticeably…different than the one he had before. “Yes she is…quite interesting. Still, they are hardly our only potential rivals.”
Patricia gave him a curious look.
“These Primordials will not take well to being ejected from the country, and they will be far fiercer than any rival nation. I cannot help but wonder if Capitolina plans to go to war against monsters of seemingly infinite power who cannot truly die.”
“That won’t be hers to decide.” Patricia said. “Her term as interim Consul ends in three months.”
“Ah yes” Albion was definitely smiling now. “Word is you plan to run, Senator Bellos.”
“It would hardly be prudent or polite to bring it up.” She replied with her own enigmatic smile. “Particularly while the same has been said of you.”
“No reason to give voice to rumor so far from the end of Capitolina’s term.” Albion said, smile never wavering. “Though it shall be an interesting election.”
“Oh of that I have no doubt.”
The days had become strange to Catarina. They were busy, her constant studying and training saw to that, and she collapsed into bed each night with scarcely enough energy to pet Basil as he curled up beside her.
Yet it somehow felt emptier after the Sicily Expedition. The adrenaline had died down and it seemed more business as usual, though there was hardly anything usual about it. For their unusual talents and abilities, Catarina, Hildegard, and Salvatore as well had been moved from the Legion proper into…well Hanne had described it more of a “Special Forces Unit.” With the standardization of their training, those with impressive ability needed a separate program to better fulfill their potential. Not to mention Cat’s magical training from both Lord Nassar and Scheherazade meant she hardly had the time to be a full-time legionnaire. Still, the whole thing made her feel less like Special Forces and more like a Superhero…not that she was complaining.
Scheherazade had made herself somewhat scarce on the return journey. Catarina doubted she liked being away from the library for long, but even taking that into consideration she was oddly reticent. The curious behavior persisted for more than a week before Cat finally received her answer.
She was on the training field, running through her forms in the hour she had before she needed to return to Lord Nassar’s estate. She’d gotten used to the weight of the training sword, and many of the movements were becoming natural now. Maybe she might even be able to take on Hildegard soon! The thought made her smile even as the reality still overshadowed her. She’d never seen Hildegard go all out in a duel; she still doubted how much of a chance she could stand.
Her reverie was interrupted by Scheherazade’s arrival in a brief shower of golden light. What made today peculiar, however, was that she was not alone. She was joined moments later by Angel, who flapped down beside her from the air, a long bundle wrapped in blue cloth held in her arms.
“I am glad to see you ever dedicated to improvement, my dear Catarina.” Scheherazade smiled warmly. “We have something of a gift for you.”
“A gift?” Catarina glanced from Scheherazade to Angel, and her breath caught in her throat.
Sensing her anticipation, Scheherazade smiled as she spoke again in her usual grandiose manner.
“Indeed, fair Catarina. Your actions alone, with every intent, helped a people escape the oppression of their tyrant rulers and establish a new fairer regime in its place. You have made allies out of those who could have been your enemies, and left power in the hands of those who could use it most responsibly. Certainly you had some urging and some help along the way…” She smiled somewhat self-indulgently. “But Miss Angel and I both agree it is the first step on what is likely to be a bright future, so we did a little work for you.” She gestured with the long pipe she carried to Angel, who dropped Scheherazade’s eloquence in favor of her usual deadpan.
“Your spirit, Scheherazade, managed to retrieve particularly fine meteoric iron from the forge of Vulcan.” The slender wolf said. “Along with the services the Rangers rendered in clearing it of monsters, Vulcan offered to use the metal to forge a weapon of prodigious strength, with your spirit naturally providing the necessary enchantments.”
Her expression softened somewhat, and Catarina could have sworn she saw a smile creeping at the edges of Angel’s lips.
“I was quite impressed by what I saw in Syracuse, Catarina. Your initiative and courage, while occasionally foolhardy, were nonetheless impressive.”
Catarina winced a little at the slight, but didn’t speak out.
“I said before that I would not entrust a gift of great power to someone incapable of handling it. You raised the valid point that true heroes rarely received their gifts at the end of their journey. For your actions and for the promise and potential that you carry, I offered a single feather to Vulcan in the forging of this…”
Angel held out her hands, the blue cloth falling away to reveal a sheathed blade. Shakily, Catarina reached out and took it into her hands. The craftsmanship was unparalleled, the pommel made of flawless silver in the pattern of feathered wings from the base to the crossguard. Where the blade met the hilt was a perfectly smooth oval gem the same color blue as Angel’s eyes that seemed to shine with its own light. The scabbard was made of rich brown leather embroidered as well with the images of wings in silver.
Unsheathing the blade revealed white metal that shimmered in the light, the sound of its unsheathing like a music note to Cat’s ears. There were no letters on the blade, no runes or inscriptions like Stahlzahn, but the blade seemed to speak for itself. Catarina weighed it in her hand, felt the lightness of it, but also the power it held in its potential. It felt like a channel for her magic, like a wand, in a way it almost seemed to communicate.
Catarina was stunned into silence for almost a minute, simply taking in the marvel and the beauty of the blade.
“Th-thank you!” She finally remembered to blurt out inelegantly, bowing at the waist to both of them. She struggled for words, eyes still on the sword. “I don’t know how I can…thank you so much.”
“Does it have a name?” Cat asked, after admiring it for a little longer.
“Not yet.” Scheherazade smiled. “You still need to give it one.”
“Ah…” Catarina needed to think. She had given imaginary swords names since she’d been old enough to swing a stick at imaginary dragons. But actually holding something like this, feeling the reality, it made the task all the more daunting.
“Ummm…” Darn, it she needed a name! Something fierce but not scary! Something meaningful but not cliché. All the best magic swords had good names to go along with it.
“Caeruleamor…” She said finally. “Blue Amor.”
Scheherazade smiled “A lovely name.” She said. Angel, at least, also seemed somewhat amused at the choice of name.
“And I think this sword and its wielder has a long road ahead of it.” Scheherazade smiled. “I look forward to writing it.”
Catarina smiled back at her. “Come on then, let’s go find Hildegard so I can show off! Thanks again, Miss Angel!”
Angel smiled truly this time, before taking off again as the other two left the field.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa