Cat sighed as she stared out of the window of her ‘study’. Really, the room was just her simple bedroom with a sheet hung between the two sides. One side had her bed, where Basil was presently napping peacefully. The other had her desk and books, or more precisely, Lord Albion’s books. He had lent her quite a few from his own collection with the obvious desire for them to be returned in as good condition as he had leant them.
It had been three weeks since she had last met with him at his manor. The last two lessons she was supposed to have with him had been postponed. He was, in his own words, too busy with his campaign for the soon-to-be vacant office of consul. In place of lessons, he had given her a book written entirely in ancient Greek.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” She had asked, staring at the incomprehensible script. She might know what the letters were, but how to read them? She had a hard enough time with classical Latin!
“Study it, of course.” He had said, with a sigh. “That should be more than enough information to help you achieve the next level of mastery in your arts.”
“But I don’t know how to read Greek!”
“Then learn. Now, I’m off to the guild chambers. Every second I am away is a critical moment where all of my research can go wrong.”
She hadn’t even seen him in person since. Cat scowled at her book. Even after three weeks, and a lot of help from Sheh, these letters and words made no sense to her. This was not what she had been expecting when she had apprenticed herself to Albion! Cat had wanted a teacher, someone who would be her mentor even if he had…questionable…motivations behind everything he did. Without being able to talk to him, studying and learning had become a very lonely exercise.
In fact, that word applied to most of her life ever since the expedition had returned home from Sicily. Cat hardly had any opportunity to leave the city save for the occasional monster hunt. Hanne wanted her to focus on her magical studies rather than patrol the borders of Italy. With the artifacts that they had recovered and Angel’s barrier, monsters had become few and far between in the streets of Rome itself. Now most of the monsters were in the countryside to the north and south, sometimes even days away on foot.
The first line of defense for the newly formed Roman legion was now Hildegard and Salvatore. With Pegasus, the two could travel faster and scout farther than any legion patrol. Hanne had overseen the construction of several forts and waypoints through Italy where legionnaires could be garrisoned to respond quickly in the case of any hostile incursion from the north or south.
Cat only ever saw them both together on the weekends. For much of the week, she ate dinner alone in her room. Sometimes, Hildegard would stop by for a rushed meal, having a drink and grabbing a sandwich before rushing to meet Turi to head out once more.
There was only one person who still made time for Cat, but she…
“Catarina, my dear, you can’t give up that easily on this book!” Cat heard the comforting voice before she saw the golden familiar appear in the room amidst the sounds of flutes. Cat let out a small smile. Sheh, also known as Scheherazade, looked as impeccable as ever. Though not even a ghost of a real person, she kept the regal bearing of the Queen of Storytellers, resplendent in robes of white and gold beneath a crown of well-kept dark hair.
In contrast to her beauty Catarina felt almost plain. She had been called pretty before but it largely ended at a round face and bright blue eyes. Her training meant she was sturdily built, though still more lithe than a lot of fighters her age. Her hair was the real standout feature, magic having twisted it to an almost vivid blue shade which most assumed she simply dyed. Still, it was hard not to feel a bit inadequate next to one of history’s top ten most beautiful women, up there with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy.
“Ah, Sheh…I’m just so tired of looking at Greek!” Cat whined, looking over her shoulder at her. Scheherazade was reclining on Cat’s bead, stroking Basil’s head much to the cat’s content.
“Come now, it isn’t so bad.” The woman sat up, pulling the cat into her lap and disturbing his slumber. She patted the spot that had been warmed by the feline ball of fur. “Let me help you. We were making good progress.”
“Mm, can we do something else? I really don’t want to think about that book anymore.” Cat said, as she plopped down on her bed next to Scheherazade.
“Like what, dear Catarina?” The servant said, sweetly and with a smile.
“I don’t know…Can we go play in the Arabian Night’s again?”
Scheherazade frowned as Cat made her request. Cat had thought she had been nonchalant, but maybe she had been a little too eager.
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, Catarina.” Scheherazade said slowly. “While I don’t mind your company in my stories, they are still, at the end of the day, simply stories. You need to be creating your own in the world, not just living adventures in a fantasy.”
“Mmm…” Cat grunted noncommittally. She hated having this talk. “Yeah, but there’s hardly anything to do here. Lord Albion won’t meet with me, and Hilde is off all the time with her boyfriend…”
Scheherazade sighed and pulled Cat’s head into her lap, starting to stroke her hair. Cat made a muffled groan, but didn’t pull back. “Mm, I understand how you feel Catarina. You need a friend.”
“You’re my friend, Schehera!” Cat said.
“I appreciate the sentiment, dear, but while I certainly consider us friends, it’s more than that. At the end of the day, you are my Master and I am your servant. You need a peer and an equal. That role, I cannot fulfill.”
“I don’t know what to do…” Cat flopped over onto the bed. “Everyone at the mage guild is older than I am. The soldiers treat me special because of Hanne. It’s hard to find a ‘peer’ anywhere.”
Scheherazade thought for a moment, tapping her pipe against the bedpost, before breaking out into a smile. “Very well, Catarina. I’ll look for someone who can fill that role. A friend, peer, and confidante. Though such a person might not be found in Rome.” Her smile grew as her eyes twinkled.
Cat raised her eyebrow. “Not in Rome? Then in Syracuse?”
“From where is a surprise, dear Catarina, but I have taken it upon myself to find you a friend, so do not worry.” She said, pulling Cat into a hug. For a moment, Cat struggled half-heartedly to break free, before settling into the embrace. “For now, all I ask is that you continue making the best of things, alright?”
“Fine…” Cat said.
“Why don’t you go down to the training field, while I begin my search? You never know when you may be called upon for a monster hunting, after all.”
“Can I take the magic carpet at least?”
Scheherazade laughed. It was more than a simple giggle, and soon even Cat couldn’t help but laugh as well. The two just laughed together for a bit, until Basil meowed at them imperiously and walked out of the room.
“Mm, I guess I should get going.” Cat said, watching her own cat strut out. “Alright, I’ll just walk.”
“Probably for the best.” Scheherazade said, as Cat rose from the bed and headed out the door.
Walking through the streets of Rome towards the training field, Cat didn’t think much about the route she had to take. By now, it was a common trip. Often she would wake up in the mornings, run with Hildegard (if she was home) to the training field and spend a good part of the early day sparring with her sister. Even when Hildegard was away, Cat often woke up with the sun and headed to the field, unless she had magic lessons. If that were the case, she often didn’t get to the field until close to noon.
The sun had just reached its zenith, so Cat wasn’t surprised to find the training field full of novices trying to learn how to use a spear, sword, or bow. They were crowding the entrance though, standing in a circle around the main fighting pit. Cat pushed her way past, as politely as she could, to see what was going on.
The people were all whispering to one another, muttering something about a foreigner who had come, causing trouble. They were talking about this girl and how nobody seemed to be able to challenge her.
“Heard that even the veteran Rangers couldn’t beat her.”
“Well, she’s been away, but wouldn’t surprise me, the way this girl is going!”
Cat frowned as she stepped forward. Hildegard was without a doubt the best. If people were saying things like that, it had to just be hyperbole right?
In the center of the ring stood a girl, probably around Cat’s age at a glance, holding a spear over her shoulder with a distinct scowl on her face. Her dark red hair was tied back in a pony-tail, her faded old jeans patted with dust and dirt of the field. She had a few tears and patches in her green jacket, but she wasn’t wearing any armor. Weapons were scattered on the field around her after she had knocked them out of their wielders’ hands. Though about the same age as Cat she was notably bigger, a bit taller and broader in the shoulders not to mention more notably curved in other areas.
“Who’s next!?” She yelled to the crowd with a self-confident smirk. “Come on, don’t bore me now! I thought Rome was supposed to be tough. I’m sooooo far from impressed right now; it’d be funny if it weren’t so damn sad! Well? Nobody?!”
The crowd murmured, but nobody seemed ready to step up.
“Heh…Bunch of scared puppies with their tails between their legs. I could take you all on without breaking a sweat.”
“I’ll fight you, if it will get you to stop talking!” Cat said, stepping forward. She picked up one of the training swords from the ground, only to find it was sharp. “…You’re fighting with real weapons?”
“Real blades get the blood rushing.” She said with an almost fiendish grin. “I guess it’s enough for you lousy Romans but the fake stuff just doesn’t do it for me anymore. What’s the matter? You scared, little Roman?”
“Not in the slightest.” Cat shot back, eyes narrowed.
“Good. Then come at me!” The other girl swung her spear off her shoulders into a readied stance, with one quick motion. Cat ran towards her, scanning her for any chinks in her defenses. Her body was moving, bringing the spear back; she was going to thrust; it was going to come from the right and…
Cat quickly rolled out of the way as the girl swept her leg out to trip her. Ducking and rolling out of reach of the spear, Cat quickly rose to her knees, sword in front of her to block the spear she knew was coming.
And coming it was, faster than she was used to. Swinging her sword up to catch the spear, Cat barely had enough time to use the girl’s own momentum against her. Grabbing the girl’s shoulder, Cat pushed herself off the ground, spinning to face the stranger again.
The red head stumbled but caught herself quickly, getting control of her spear. Cat charged forward, trying to close the distance before the new girl could get her defense back up. She didn’t want to stab the girl, so she had to be careful. It was more important just to disarm her and get the spear out of her hands.
Cat didn’t know how long the fight went. The crowd gave them a huge berth as they fought. Cat blocked everything out but the movements of the girl. She couldn’t afford to break her concentration. They moved around the ring, Cat dodging the wide range of the girl’s spear but the girl always staying just out of reach.
She could see how this girl had trounced the other recruits. She fought like nothing Cat had ever seen before. Hildegard in a fight was terrifyingly methodical and precise, breaking through the weaknesses in her defenses before she even knew they were there. This girl though, whoever she was, fought almost liek a caged beast. Her blows were fast and strong, excessively so. Any normal person fighting like this would have quickly exhausted themselves, but she just kept coming.
Eventually, a loose rock caused Cat to stumble and the red head was fast in taking advantage. Moving behind Catarina, the girl used her spear to throw Cat completely off balance and she went falling to the ground, her sword falling from her hands.
Spitting out the dirt and rolling over onto her back, Cat saw the red head grinning at her with a smug satisfaction. “Had enough already?” She taunted. “That was barely a warm-up.”
Cat grabbed the hilt of the sword. “Best two out of three!”
“Hah! A sucker’s bet. But if you want to waste the time getting up I’ll knock you back down again, no problem at all!”
The two moved to their starting positions again. The second fight was a little faster than the first. Cat kept out of her reach, but never stopped moving. Rather than push every advantage she saw, Cat just focused on her defense while waiting for the strongest opportunities.
The girl continued her taunting, but Cat said nothing as she circled around. When the girl started to spin her spear around in a flashy show, Cat made her strike. She started to charge, but rolled to the side as the girl brought her spear forward. Grabbing onto the shaft, Cat yanked it down, pulling its wielder into the dirt with a grunt.
It was the red head’s turn to spit out the dirt. She gave Cat a glare but said nothing as she got up, preparing to settle the match. The third match was the longest, as the crowd watched with baited breath. The red head switched to a very aggressive stance as she tried to back Cat into a corner against the crowd. Cat kept her distance, still keeping herself mobile. The red head chased her all across the field, as the crowd tried to follow the strikes and parries.
Cat could feel her arms getting tired as her sword swings grew heavier. In her duels with Hildegard, they both used magic to keep themselves going longer. Against mundane opponents, no matter how skilled, Cat saw it as bad form and refrained. This time…
She watched as her sword went flying from her hand, as she rubbed her wrist, swallowing the yelp of pain. The red head had whacked her arm hard enough that Cat was almost sure her wrist had broken. Slowly, it started to feel better as she used her magic to soothe it. She had lost her sword though, which meant the challenger was the winner, as the crowd let out a gasp. The whispers soon followed.
“Yer holding back!” The red head spat on the ground as she leaned on her spear. “Fight me for real or don’t fight at all! I don’t got time for the weak!”
“Oh shut up.” Cat yelled back. Her cheeks burned red with the humiliation of this loss.
“You first, you whiny brat!”
“You really want to see what I can do?!” Cat said, spinning on her heels as she extended her hand. She gathered the magical energies that bonded her sword to her, summoning it into her empty hand. The sidereal sword glowed with a dark blue aura, as a web of ice covered the blade. “Let me show you!”
Cat took off with a burst, releasing the magic from inside of her to create a ramp made out of ice. As she charged up the ramp, her feet keeping to the ice better than any mundane ever could, she brought her sword back. Everyone looked on in a fearful paralysis as Cat launched herself off the ice into the air at the girl.
There was a flash of red light that came from the girl, as she there unfazed. The crowd turned their eyes for a second as Cat was sent flying over the girl’s head. Cat had barely had enough time to process what had happened. A shield had appeared out of nowhere, and the girl had used it intercept Cat’s flying jump, pushing her up in the air again.
Cat quickly cast her reinforcement spells right before she hit the earth with a loud thud. Getting to her feet, still a bit shakenly, she nearly dropped her jaw right then and there.
The red head’s arms and chest were covered in an ornate armor of polished bronze that looked more at place on a statue than from an ancient battlefield. Inscriptions of dogs, spears, and the scarlet lambda decorated the ornate armor. Her jeans had been replaced by a white skirt trimmed with red. In fact, all the clothes that could be seen beneath the armor were the same deep red.
But it was her spear that caught everyone’s attention. Its shaft, which previously had been wood, was now a sturdy gleaming bronze forged into a single piece of polished metal. Images of arrows winded up its gleaming surface, etched into the metal with a careful hand before it reached a broad diamond-shaped head of steel. Lines of red ran across the silvery steel from the tip, seeming to glow with their own fire. The changes went beyond her weapons and armor, her whole figure seemed to shine, even her eyes burned with a new crimson glow.
“That’s more like it!” The girl laughed, pointing her spear at Catarina. “Caught me by surprise there, brat, but there’s tougher things out there than magic. My name’s Rosaria Kokinos, Champion of Ares!”
Cat gripped her sword tightly as she tried to regain her composure. She had never seen anything quite like this, not even with Hildegard. The closest had been…Turi! He had called himself a champion too!
“Don’t get too cocky!” Cat said, as she recalled the image of Hildegard teaching Turi how to use a non-magical weapon. The boy was an excellent rider, but he clearly hadn’t been chosen for his skill with hitting a target. Even champions were still human, from what Cat had seen. “My name’s Catarina Aldobrandini, a mage-knight of Rome! And I’ll beat you like this just to shut you up!”
Rosaria’s eyes burned with challenge. “Bring it!”
The crowd gave the two a wide berth as ice clashed with fire, magic with divine. The two were no longer holding back and with every strike from Cat, shards of ice went flying over the battlefield. Her weapon was knocked out of her hands, she called it back. She lost her footing, she created a patch of ice under Rosaria. The spear came straight for her chest, a shield of ice appeared to block it. Cat didn’t feel tired as she used her magic to keep her body going, but it didn’t look as if the champion was getting tired either.
Cat finally saw her opening to end this and shut the girl’s boasting up. Rosaria had been on the aggressive the entire time, so Cat had used that to trap the silvery head of the spear in thick ice. No one had the strength to pull it out of the ice.
As she moved to freeze Rosaria’s hands, Cat watched in stunned amazement as the red head, with a scream of fury, pulled the spear from the earth itself, still covered in the ice. With two hands she swung the spear like a staff right into Cat’s stomach and sent the mage flying backwards, hitting the dirt. Even her magic wasn’t enough to make the landing not hurt. Strength like that wasn’t human, how strong had Ares made this girl!?
“This…This isn’t over…” Cat said as she spat the taste of iron out of her mouth. She had bit her tongue. “I want a rematch!”
“Any time, any place!”
“Right here! And now!”
“Hah! You want to be beat up some more? Didn’t know I’d meet a masochist here in Rome!”
“I must be because you’re making my ears bleed. If you won’t shut up, I’ll make you!”
“Try it, brat!”
They fought again. And then again. And then again. It wasn’t until well after the sun had set that the guards of the training fields finally escorted them both away, exhausted and barely standing, both convinced that the next bout would bring final victory.