Where All Roads Lead

The Cities Eternal: Barcelona Monster Hunter

May 21st, 2024

Some places in the world were safer than others. While most had fled to the countryside, others had held valiantly to the old cities and stood their ground against the hordes of undead and monsters that had come to usurp them. Few were as lucky as Rome as to have supernatural protection. Others lacked even the patronage of ancient gods, and fought with nothing more than human determination and the endless overpowering will to survive against overwhelming odds.

In the city of Barcelona, one such group of holdouts had fought tooth and nail to secure a small portion of a once-enormous city. Fewer than two hundred in number, it was still a small settlement, but it sold what it had dearly to the monsters that came each night. They controlled several city blocks of buildings around the famed Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. This holy place was protected by fiercely pious warriors, all of whom would sooner die than see the cathedral fall. One such warrior was Wilhelmina Koenig,

Wilhelmina was not born in Barcelona, but she came here with her mentor and surrogate father Abraham. It had been Abraham who had helped the people secure the Cathedral from outward threat, carrying a seemingly uncanny knack for knowing how a monster could be killed. Despite his eccentricities and questionable faith, he was seen as a hero by many and beloved in the community.

It had struck them hard when they learned that Abraham, already an old man when he had arrives, was of failing health and Wilhelmina had become his caretaker.

Her patrol of the thin palisade wall finished, Wilhelmina returned to his workshop, and found him once again tinkering at his workbench rather than resting in bed.

“Master” She chided him as she stepped inside “You should be resting.”

“I should be dead, but I’m not.” Abraham snorted “I’ll be getting plenty of rest soon enough.”

“Too right.” Wilhelmina frowned. “But let’s try and push that day off, shall we?”

Thankfully he had little choice, as he had become bound to a wheelchair over the last two months, and she could simply take hold of it and wheel him away from his tinkering (Some manner of overly-complex crossbow by the look of it).

“I told you I don’t need the blasted chair!” He spat, struggling to rise out of it.

Abraham was a frail man, though he had once been much less so. The same disease that made his skin pale and thinned his hair had atrophied her master to a shadow of his former self. Even if he hadn’t been “muscular” in decades, he had once moved with vitality and vigor. He was an old man now, and looked it. His hair beneath his broad hat was silver, wispy, and thin. His face was covered in lines with deeply set eyes, a beak-like nose sat perched over an unkempt beard and mustache coupled with broad sideburns. He was wizened in every sense of the word, and dressed in a faded old trench coat that was patched and battle-worn. Less than a year ago he had moved with the energy of a man half his age, and he often bemoaned the fact that he was born five decades too early to be of any real help. Wilhelmina could not help but quietly agree, even as an old man he had saved the lives of every person left in Barcelona on multiple occasions. He was their finest protector, and now he was dying.

She had never understood why he had chosen her. She was reasonably fit for her age, but he had been quick to whip her into excellent shape and, more importantly, make a magnificent swordswoman out of her. On that last part he had made at least partial progress. Wilhelmina was, to his credit, the fastest blade in Barcelona, though he often claimed if he was fifty years younger he would have wiped the floor with her. Now all he could do was thwack her with his cane when she was out of form when he wasn’t doting on her like a daughter.

She was twenty-five now, and taller than average. Her long golden-blonde hair was held in a braided ponytail and she dressed in the reforged armor they could salvage for her, though she had sacrificed a lot of it for mobility over protection.

“You need rest, Master.” She insisted again, leading him towards his bedroom.

“The devil take that bed!” Abraham resisted, trying to dig his feet into the ground “Or better yet God, I don’t want to see that thing again in Hell.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Wilhelmina frowned.

“What I need is fresh air.” He said grumpily, crossing his arms “Take me outside, this damn workshop never did have any good ventilation.”

On that, at least, Wilhelmina could agree. So she relented and turned his chair around, wheeling him out into the street under the blanket of featureless grey clouds that covered the sky. At the sight of the sky and smell of fresh air, Abraham seemed to calm down a bit, resting in his chair and his tone softening when he spoke next, Wilhelmina guiding him down their usual path.

“Hey Wil,” he said, using his usual and exclusive nickname (as he had often said “Wilhelmina” was far too much of a mouthful to say in a fight.) “Have you given thought to running the old workshop?”

“Stop it” she said “And no, you know I have no mind for your contraptions. Just your library maybe.”

“Isn’t that the truth” Abraham chortled “You’ve got no mind for machines, Wil. At least you’re handy with a sword.”

“All thanks to you, Master.” She said.

“Speaking of which, about my sword…” he began, but something caught his attention as his eyes turned skyward, suddenly alert.

Another person would have written it off as the easy distraction of an older man; Wilhelmina knew Abraham better than that. She bent down, her eyes moving to his level as she scanned the same vista.

“What is it?” She asked, looking for some detail in the distant building or against the sky.

“Stop looking with your eyes, Wil” he said. “You’ve got about seventeen senses despite popular belief, start using them.

Wilhelmina took a deep breath, smelling and tasting the air as her eyes continued to work, her ears pricked both for sound and any sudden differences in temperature. The tells of monsters were numerous, and a skilled hunter knew them long before the creature revealed itself.

A slightly acrid burning smell came to her nose.

“The forge?” She asked.

“Do you see smoke rising from the forge?” Abraham asked sarcastically “I know I’m an old man and my vision’s going, but I don’t. Besides, that’s not burning wood and coal or molten metal.”

“What is it?” She asked, it smelled almost chemical.

“Combustive reaction from a sulfurous source” He said, before turning back to give her a concerned eye “Or in more poetic terms ‘Fire and brimstone’.”

“…We should raise the alarm then?” She asked.

“Yes we should raise the alarm, you halfwit!” Abraham roared, and Wilhelmina broke out into a jog, still pushing his chair. She didn’t mind the insult, she knew better than to try and reprimand him when he was like this. That was his tone and expression of crisis. Whatever was coming was more than just a strong monster, it was a city-ending threat.

“Master, what is it?” She asked hurriedly as she made her way towards the cathedral. Abraham, however, was silent for a moment as he listened and watched intently.

“I need to be sure” he said, his tone now far more serious, his voice quiet. “We need to be absolutely sure in this case.”

“Is it like nothing we’ve fought before?” she asked, his worry only increasing her own anxiety. She had never known Abraham as a man who knew fear.

“It’s not like anything anyone has ever fought in centuries.” He said “Get that bell rung! Leave me here you daft girl!”

Loathe to leave him like baggage, Wilhelmina finally released his chair and broke out in a sprint towards the cathedral doors. Most people in the sanctuary spent their days working out of the cathedral, and the watchman there snapped to attention as he saw Wilhelmina running to him.

“Sound the alarm!” She panted, bending over to catch her breath. Damn old man was still heavy.

“What is it?” The man asked, clearly concerned, but now wasting their time.

“Ring the damn bell!” She roared at him, and he skittered inside like a frightened rabbit at her command as she went to retrieve Abraham.

Before she could take more than a few footsteps, however, an ear-splitting roar unlike anything she had ever heard echoed across the entire city. Wilhelmina threw her hands over her ears, the deep bellowing noise echoing through the streets as people started running for cover.

Abraham, still down in the square below the cathedral, seemed not to have reacted, his eyes locked on the sky. Wilhelmina followed his gaze, there had been something in that roar, something powerful that resonated deeply in her bones. There was a familiarity to it, a horrible recognition almost like Déjà vu.

The sound of its wings came next, the great beating of leather wings on the sky, a second roar through hungry maw, and the smell of fire rising from its throat. Some part of Wilhelmina, a deep instinctual facet passed down from a long gone era recognized those cues. A realization that chilled her to her bones as surely as her knowledge of their inevitability. With the rise of monsters across the world, it was only a manner of time until the mightiest of them began to awaken from centuries of slumber.

She saw it in the sky next, the great looming shape, covered in crimson scales, swoop down upon the city overhead. It took another moment, frozen in fear, to recognize the reality of the beast that was upon them. Man’s greatest monster, a dragon.

This was no wyvern or petty drake, it was everything terrible about dragons given form. Immense in size, four legs with a pair of mighty beating wings  as it shot low in the sky over the city, bellowing again as people dove for cover. A streak of fire shot from its opened mouth, consuming several buildings in dancing red flames. The dragon wheeled in the sky, turning now towards the cathedral, the tallest point for miles around.

“Master!” Wilhelmina broke into a flat run, leaping down the stairs as she made her way towards him, but it was far too late. The dragon smashed against one of the cathedral spires, scattering stone across the plaza and square before it. Wilhelmian instinctively rolled and covered her head with her hands as debris rained down around her, larger sections of stone landing with a crash around her.

When it had ended, she rose to her feet and saw the square in ruin, toppled stone and architecture littering the shattered brick, a thin mist of dust hanging over everything. Hurrying down the steps, she picked through the rubble until she found Abraham, toppled from his ruined wheelchair and lying amidst a pile of broken stone, gagging and wheezing as blood dripped from his lips.
“Master…” She said, “Please, I need to get you out of here. Let me help you up.”

“No…” he managed to say through a tightened throat. “Listen…Wil. That dragon’ll…ah…kill’s all. Need to…challenge it.” He managed to speak through coughs and pained breaths.

“Challenge it?” Wilhelmina said in disbelief. “How?”

“The old way.” He said, and his good hand reached out to his ruined chair, pulling from it the sheathed sword he kept strapped to the back. “Just you and it.”

Wilhelmina stared at the sword.

“Master” she said, pleading “Let me get you to the cathedral.”

“Now!” he roared, thrusting the sword into her hands “Don’t make a dying man wait.”

Wilhelmina’s grip tightened on the sword. “Of course, Master.” She said, rising to her feet.
The dragon was still circling the city as she moved to a clear area of the square, calling out into the sky as the beast rained fire down onto another building.

“Heed me dragon!” She didn’t know what words to use, she was running on adrenaline now, and the sheer audacity of challenging a fire-breathing monster to a duel. “I, Wilhelmina Koenig of Barcelona, challenge you to single combat!”

At first she thought it did nothing, and she had wasted her breath shouting at a dumb lizard in the sky, but as she watched the dragon came about again, slowing in its descent as it came down towards her.

She braced herself, drawing the sword from its scabbard as the massive creature landed on the ground before her. It was easily over fifteen meters from horned snout to diamond tail, and it looked like it had risen from the pages of a fairy tale. Spikes ran down its spine and great leather wings rose from its back, its scales were crimson save for its golden underbelly, and it watched her with eyes that shone with power and intelligence.

The monster spoke.

“So the men of this era have not all become meek.” The dragon’s voice echoed in its depth, seeming to surround her. “But this is all they could muster? A single woman, playing at being a warrior, challenging a dragon to single combat?”

Wilhelmina grinded her teeth together, her fury rising as her fear ebbed.

“I challenged you, dragon!” She roared back at the monster before her. “So accept it or prove yourself a craven worm!” Somehow older-sounding words felt better. Likely Abraham would have chastised her for it.

“Craven!?” The dragon roared again, and Wilhelmina could feel the heat from its lungs like a blast furnace over her face. “Bold indeed for a pretend knight. Very well, then die with your honor intact.”

Fire followed burning air as Wilhelmina dove to the side just in time to dodge the jet of fire that flew over where she had been. Her hand tightened around her sword as she tumbled back to her feet.

Something in her body was changing, her muscles tightened as she moved almost unconsciously into position. It was as if a new set of instincts had come to bear, a second set of training long buried in memory. Her vision sharpened, mind clearing as she stared down her opponent. She wasn’t afraid anymore, and the madness of that alone shook her. Why wasn’t she afraid of this dragon?

The dragon charged at her, snapping with its massive jaw as Wilhelmina stepped to the side out of its reach, just in time for its razor-sharp claws to come swinging at her body. She dove again, rolling into a crouched position beneath the beast and thrust her sword upwards, directly between the armored plates of its underbelly.

The sword couldn’t cut deep, the dragon’s hide was too thick on its belly, but it could cut deep enough to cause it pain. The dragon roar and flapped its wings, sending her tumbling in a gust of wind as it moved back, blood pouring from its wound and now covering her blade.

“Crafty girl” It spat at her “But you won’t get so lucky again!”

Once more the dragon opened its great jaws, hot air rising from its bowels as it prepared its burning breath. Wilhelmina hardly even needed to think, she bent low and scooped up a fist-sized stone from the ground and, in one swift motion, hurtled it into the dragon’s throat.

It coughed and gagged as the stone lodged itself in the beast’s trachea, long enough of a distraction to halt its breath save for a few ragged licks of flame, and giving her time to speedily close the distance between them.

She took hold of one of the great horns that rose from above the monster’s brow, not to try and grapple it but to brace herself. The dragon reared back its serpentine neck, pulling her clear off of her feet and into the air, but her arm remained firmly wrapped around its horn, even as it tried vainly to snap at her with its jaws.

For a moment their eyes met and, as Wilhelmina brought her sword to the small undefended portion of the dragon’s throat, she knew she saw fear in its eyes. She didn’t know where to strike, but that same overpowering instinct guided her hand, and she was rewarded as she felt the sharp metal cut through soft flesh.

Blood sprayed across the plaza as the dragon crashed to the ground, twitching in its last death throes as Wilhelmina rose to her feet, arm and sword now soaked in hot dragon blood, still stunned and quivering as the adrenaline and possessed feeling began to fade away.

Another moment of disbelief and her mind filled with noise again. She rushed back to Abraham, lifting him into a sitting position as she cradled his head with one hand.

“Heh…not bad, Wil” Abraham breathed, clearly on his last breath.

Wilhelmina couldn’t find the right words to ask what she was feeling “But…why? How?”

“I chose you…Wil” He managed a crooked smile, his eyes dimming. “I knew you had it in ya, that old blood they fear.”

“What do you mean?” Wilhelmina asked desperately “What old blood? Abraham stay with me!”
Despite her pleas she could feel him going limp in her arms.

“Think I’ll take that rest now…he managed, he nodded groggily towards the cathedral, and Wilhelmina turned to see people beginning to come out of it, hesitantly moving towards the dead dragon.

“They’re under your protection now, dragonslayer.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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