Champion of the Forge
Not every town in Italy had prospered as Rome did. Some still existed at the edges of the new frontier, near the border of the great shield that kept Nidhoggr’s influence at bay, but where the fears of the people and the wild country met to create a menagerie of monsters that became the scourge of smaller settlements.
The small village of Goido was one such settlement. Numbering fewer than fifty people, it was located several miles west of Milan. For almost two years it had existed in secrecy, hiding in their homes and scavenging for survival. With the recession of the roaming dead that formed the bulk of Nidhoggr’s army, they had made their tentative way into the light to sustain themselves on farming and hunting. These good times, however, were not to last. And they had attracted the hungry eyes of Italy’s resident cacodaemon swarms.
“If we do not do something then we won’t last the night!” Adam Blackwood, a greater European refugee and known firebrand was the first to speak out at their ‘town meeting’, hardly more than a gathering of their two score residents.
“The monsters grow bolder every night and the moon won’t be out tonight to keep watch. We’ve buried enough of our friends and family, I won’t bury my daughter too!”
“We understand how you feel, Adam.” Ermes, the present town leader, kept his voice as diplomatic as he could. “And we know the risks, but what can we do? All we have are spears and a few bows and arrows. We don’t even know where these creatures make their nest, if they even do. We’ve only ever seen them at night.”
“If we do nothing” Adam clenched his fists “Then there will be no one left within a month!”
“The legions will help us!” Flavio, a good friend of Adam’s but lacking his zeal, spoke out from the crowd. Several people nodded in agreement, but several others balked.
The Roman legions had visited the town several months prior, before their monster problem had reached its current level of terror. It had been with awe that the people of Goido had seen a column of several hundred men and women, all armed and armored with a banner rising from the front of their ranks, red and bearing the image of a golden wolf. It was as if they had marched out of the pages of a history book, a true Roman legion securing the roads of Italy. Despite their intimidating entrance they met the people of Goido with open arms. They exchanged information, asking after lost or missing loved ones. They both shared their meager supplies, and the former scavengers of Goido had their first taste of fish, salt, and bread in months.
The legion were, as they appeared, from the city of Rome, which apparently boasted a population of several thousand now, a number that shocked many when they had been so soundly reduced. They announced that they were marching across Italy to unify it under a single Roman banner, not for conquest but out of mutual survivor. Rome had technology, manpower, and according to them the strength of the gods on their side.
“Have we sent word to them?” Flavio asked, and Ermes nodded.
“I had Martina run a message to them at dawn, taking her fastest horse. Likely, though, it will still take them at least a week to arrive.”
“That’s a week many of us don’t have!” Adam said “And we can’t keep relying on these Romans for help! The more we ask for their protection the more they’ll ask of us. I thought we didn’t want to be Romans!”
“I think you didn’t want to be Roman.” Flavio’s wife Ilda spoke up. “Remember that deal they offered? Garrisoning and agricultural supplies in exchange for support? That garrison is something we could do with right about now.”
Adam gritted his teeth, but he was not about to back down now. “It’s the principle of the thing, we survived this long without Romans, we don’t need to join their fake empire.”
“Now is not the time.” Once more Ermes quieted the floor without raising his voice. “The matter of Rome can be discussed. But you are correct in thinking without action or protection we will not last a month, and while the legion might be several days away, we will likely lose people tonight if we do not act.”
“What action can we take?” Flavio asked “Say it and we’ll do it…but other than barring our doors and praying for dawn, what can we do?”
“We fight them!” Adam said “With spear and arrow if we have to, but If we hide in our homes, then we’ll just rise again in the morning to see some of our houses were emptied. I don’t plan to take the chance that one of them will be mine.”
No one could blame Adam. He was the father of an eleven-year old girl, Mara, and her only parent. Her protection was always at the forefront of his thoughts.
As the debate continued without ground made in any direction, they were interrupted by Flavio, who had glanced nervously down the road, only for something to catch his eye.
“Everyone!” He shouted to the mass of people to get their attention, pointing down the road.
“Probably Martina” one person said “Back from talking to the Romans.
“She won’t be back until tomorrow, and where’s her horse? That person’s on foot.”
“Could be someone from the legions?”
All of them turned nervously towards the approaching figure, waiting for the details of their appearance to emerge from the midday haze. None of them were quite sure what to expect, but it certainly was not what arrived.
The woman walked into their small village with a quick but irregular pace. Upon closer inspection they saw she kept a cane in one hand and walked with a pronounced limp, the cane supporting a lame leg. She was otherwise astonishingly beautiful, bright blue eyes under a curtain of straight blonde hair, she had a lovely round face with a cunning smile that seemed almost lopsided by the uneven way she carried herself. She was built like a statue from antiquity, all fine curves and beauty in the prime of life, and a number of more irritated wives saw their husbands passing more than observatory glances.
“Afternoon” She addressed the townspeople with a weary smile as she drew within speaking distance. She glanced up at the blue sky “Lovely day, shame I think the weather is going to turn, pressure’s dropping by the hour.”
“And who might you be, traveler?” Ermes was the first to speak.
“Evangeline Metaxes” The woman smiled, giving them a casual wave. “It’s pleasure to meet you all. I was wondering if I might rent a place to stay. I can’t pay you in money or much food, but if you need maybe an old tractor fix or some rewiring done I can offer my expertise.”
“I’m afraid you’ve come at a bad time, Miss Metaxes.” Adam said “This town is under nightly siege by monsters. If you stayed here we can’t promise you’ll survive the night.”
“Adam” Flavio rushed forward, bowing his head in apology “Forgive him, he’s a bit…blunt.”
Evangeline’s smile hadn’t faded from her face. “Oh no that’s fine. In fact it makes it even better.”
The entire crowd seemed to turn towards the woman, all with the same expression of curiosity marked on their faces.
“Normally I get by on selling my engineering expertise. This is even better though. Put me up for the night and I will kill your monsters.”
Some people laughed nervously, some nodded, most stared in silence. If it was a joke, it was not particularly funny.
“Hmm?” Evangeline looked around, optimism never leaving her face. “I’m quite serious. I will kill your monsters, well, the leader at least, and you put me up for the night. Seems a fair trade.”
“Pardon us, Miss Metaxes.” Ermes said “We simply find it hard to believe. Capable as you no doubt are, these are particularly foul beasts that are raiding our village, and you are but one woman, not even armed as far as I can see.”
“I will need a bit of scrap metal, true.” Evangeline nodded. “But that’s it. Of course, if you have your own solution, I can be on my way.”
The discussion continued into the early afternoon. They decided that while her solution did not seem likely, there was no harm in letting the strange woman try as they formulated their own plans. They allowed her to stay in Goido for the night, and they would spend the time she was working securing their own ad-hoc fortifications.
Between boarding up windows and finding the most secure homes to hide in, many watched with curiosity as the woman worked. She was using pieces of salvaged metal from throughout town to make what appeared to be a lightning rod, a thin piece of metal rebar standing upright, affixed to the tallest building in town (Which was to say only two stories). Some taking a closer look, however, saw that she was not working entirely alone.
What had appeared to be fine golden jewelry around her neck and wrists had come to life, reforming themselves into insect-like skittering automatons that moved with her, making minor alterations to her odd machines independently of her. No one got too close or asked questions. They had heard rumors of magic, but none of them had ever seen it. Besides, if this woman was magic, maybe her plan, whatever it was, would work.
As night drew closer, the sky began to darken with clouds. A storm was rapidly brewing, and no doubt the monsters would come under cover of darkness. As the people of Goido hid themselves in their homes, barring as much as they could, Evangeline stayed atop her roost, planted securely beside her strange machine. Adam, however, had decided to join her.
He was carrying his spear, and his eyes were ever on the fields of the horizon, waiting for the moment when some dark and terrible shape would come into view.
“You can stay with the others, you know.” Evangeline said “I hardly need protection.”
“Not my intention.” Adam said “I’m not here to protect you. Just someone I care about.”
“Ah, of course.” Evangeline smiled. “Then you’re in for quite a show.”
“What exactly does this machine do?” Adam said.
“You’ll see” Evangeline said coyly. “Rest assured though, it will kill the pack leader.”
She nodded “When monsters start doing raids like this, it’s usually a band of cacodameons being led by a real monster, acting as their leader. These monsters are tougher and smarter than your average cacodaemon, but if you kill it the rest will disperse into the countryside, and from there we can hunt them down at our leisure.”
“You sound like you intend to stay.”
Evangelien shrugged “For a few days to help clean up maybe.” She said “But after that I have business in Rome.”
“Seems everyone’s heading to Rome these days.” Adam said.
“It’s the place to be” She said, smile not fading.
Thunder began to roll across the countryside as the darkness in the town became almost absolute. A chill wind announced the rain minutes before it came down in sheets, quickly soaking both Adam and Evangeline to the bone, even in the early summer the rain was freezing, and Adam saw their breath form in clouds before their lips.
Through the rain and darkness of the storm, Adam could barely see, and every shadow looked like a monster lurking in the alleys. They could be anywhere in this darkness, scouting them out, sniffing for the houses that had the people, the house that had his daughter. His hands tightened around his spear.
“Easy now.” Evangeline said “A few minutes yet, she gestured with her cane to the machine. “This thing needs a charge.”
“Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“Something my boss lent me the plans for.” Evangeline said. “It’ll be obvious soon enough…might want some distance though.”
Lightning flashed nearby, accompanied soon after by the boom of teeth-rattlign thunder as the storm grew in intensity. In the stark blue-white flash Adam saw the hulking shape of some monstrous behemoth coming down the main road.
“There it is!” He shouted, pointing with his spear to where he could still see the monstrous form in the darkness.
“I see it.” Evangeline said. “A lesser hydra, small and only two heads thankfully.”
“A hydra!?” Adam had to shout to be heard over the pouring rain and distant thunder “the myth kind!? Like what Hercules killed!?”
“Thankfully nothing so terrible.” Evangeline said “This isn’t the Lernaean breed and it’s still young. That spear might actually kill it if you got lucky.”
Adam looked at his spear, made of polished wood and crudely sharpened scrap metal. This was practically a cave man’s tool. How on earth could it kill a mythical hydra?
“Look out!” He was pulled from his thoughts as Evangeline pushed him away from the machine, just in time for his vision to fill with blinding white light. His ears felt like they had been smashed as an intense roar of thunder surrounded and consumed him. His mind went blank as he was blinded and deafened, his nose and mouth filling with the taste and smell of ozone.
As his senses began to clear, he looked back towards Evangeline and the machine. She was still standing, seemingly unphased by the lightning strike that had crashed against the lightning rod. The serious expression on her face had been replaced by one of excitement. Her scuttling automatons had abandoned her neck and wrists to wrap around her leg, expanding into an ornate leg brace that held her in place as she dropped her cane to the roof. She reached out towards the lightning rod, still humming with energy, hand wet with rain.
“Stop!” Adam shouted “What are you doing!?”
She ignored him, he saw her hand slide around the metal shaft. Rather than electrocute her, sending its held charge lethally into her body, it seemed to glow as she pulled the rod from its holding, hefting it like a spear.
The glow on the iron rod began to strengthen, from a faint light it grew brighter and brighter until it had all the blinding white-blue light of lightning scattered across its form. The rooftop was filled with light and sparking energy, and for a moment it seemed as if Evangeline held a solid bolt of lightning in her hand.
With a single mighty heave, she hurled the rod, launching it like a missile through the air with extraordinary strength, straight into the chest of the hydra.
There was a burst of light, smaller bolts of lightning scattering as thunder rattled the entire village. The hydra unleashed a hideous death scream as most of its body was instantly reduced to ash, the divine lightning coursing through its foul body until it collapsed in heap of charred and cindered gore.
Darkness again settled over the town, the smaller cacodaemons fleeing from where their monstrous leader had fell. Adam, still standing in stark astonishment, turned to see Evangeline had fallen forward onto the roof. Panicking. He hurriedly rolled her over, only to see her laughing in the rain.
“Lost my balance” she chuckled as she pulled herself with difficulty into a sitting position. “Hardly dramatic when you fall on your face.”
“Who the hell is your boss?” Adam could only look in awe from the rain-soaked woman to the scorched remains of the hydra.
“Ah, about that.” Evangeline smiled. “I’m a champion of Olympos. My boss and patron is Hephaestus, God of the Forge, probably known better as Vulcan around these parts.”
Adam could still only stare, jaw hanging slack in what he knew was a stupid expression.
“I was on my way to Rome and though I could help.” She smiled “Seems I was right.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=9&sl=375