Elisa was, as usual, primly dressed, this time in a sharp pantsuit. Unlike Aurelio she was always armed, seeming not to pay any attention to the sword slung over her shoulder. He greeted her with a warm wave when she crossed the top of the stairs leading up the hill, and she nodded in reply as she walked to meet him.
“So” Aurelio started “Going to tell me what this is all about?”
“Yes” Elisa nodded “Forgive the theatrics, but this was definitely news I needed to give you in person.”
A worrying feeling settled in Aurelio’s stomach “What news?”
“I have a lead on our Mara.” Elisa said.
“Well, that’s excellent, isn’t it?” Aurelio asked, curious as to why she still had a very serious expression on her face.
“On paper it is very good, yes.” She nodded. “In practice…things are slightly more complicated than that.”
“Well complications are better than nothing, which is what we had.” Aurelio said “Now what do we know?”
“Still very little” Elisa said “In fact it is not so much a lead on our Mara as an alternative way to track it, rather than simply blundering from victim to victim long after the attack has occurred.”
Aurelio could not entirely explain the growing sinking feeling in his stomach, but he kew something bad was coming.
“And what do we have then?” He asked.
“There is a woman, recently arrived in the city, who says she can track it.”
“We’ve interviewed all the city’s mages.” Aurelio said “None of them said they could do it.”
“She is…” For the first time he saw a nervous expression cross Elisa’s face “Very non-traditional.”
“What does that mean, Elisa?” He was starting to get annoyed with her dancing around the subject.
She let out a sigh “Aurelio…she claims to be former Witchbreed.”
Diana’s silver bow was on his back in an instant, summoned from the aether as he gained a hardened expression on his face.Elisa moved as if to intercept him, placing a hand on his chest as she stopped him in his tracks.
“Aurelio, listen to me.” She said “This woman might be our only shot, we have no other leads.”
“She’s Witchbreed, Elisa.” Aurelio said “There’s nothing ‘former’ about them, and do you think one of them wouldn’t say anything just to get a chance to prey on the people in this city? Where is she? Where is she being hidden?”
“She’s currently in holding” Elisa said “Underneath the capital, which is why I called you here.”
“How did they know she was Witchbreed? What did she do?”
“She outed herself, Aurelio” Elisa said “As a show of good faith, it’s why she’s being held rather than imprisoned.”
“It’s a ruse.” Aurelio said, “A trick.”
“That may be.” Elisa nodded trying to placate him. “But we should speak to her first, see what she knows.”
“…fine” Aurelio eventually settled “We’ll listen to her speak, but she’s not to be judged like a normal human, she’s not.”
“What makes these Witchbreed so monstrous?” Elisa asked, before quickly adding “I’m not doubting you, Aurelio, but I need all of the facts and you can be rather reticent when it comes to the Witchbreed.”
“Well first of all it should be clear on their faces.” Aurelio said “The witch magic deforms them, gives them monstrous features and guttural speech. It’s why they all wear long robes. I’m surprised it could even pass for human to get so far as Rome.”
“So, show me to this holding cell.” Aurelio said “Let’s have it out and done with.”
“Of course.” Elisa nodded in agreement “Follow me.”
She led him out of the sunlight and into the Captioline Administrative building, what had once been the beating heart of Rome was now its center of bureaucracy as the other vital functions of the state had spread out into the reclaimed city. While most kept their offices on the upper floors, Elisa led him into a back hall and from there down an old and musty flight of concrete stairs into the building’s dark underbelly.
Holding cells were rarely used, and their conditions were not well-known or regulated. With manpower so short imprisonment was usually a last resort, with hard labor being the punitive measure of choice for the state, and so it was rare for someone to wind up in one of these holding cells. Usually, as it was in this case, someone being held was considered a potential danger to the state and in need of investigation.
Most of the cells lining the walls were empty. They were as one would imagine, relatively bare rooms of brick and concrete without windows and the wall leading into the hall being replaced with a grate of iron bars. The one that was occupied was Elisa’s destination, and she stood next to it and gestured inside as Aurelio moved behind her, standing well back as he surveyed the so-called “Ex-Witchbreed”.
His first thought was that she wasn’t Witchbreed at all. Not only did she look perfectly human, but a fairly lovely one as well. Pale skinned with deep black hair and dark eyes, narrow faced with a fine figure beneath. His next thought was the possibility of enchantment.
“How are her powers being kept in check?” Aurelio asked Elisa.
“The anti-magic runes on the doorframe there.” It was not Elisa but the silky voice of the Witchbreed that spoke, one lazy finger pointing to the wall surrounding the iron bars where strange markings had been etched into the stone. There’s not a single spell I can perform in here.
She was seated cross-legged on the small cot she’d been provided, an open book lying beside her and a cape of deep navy slung over her shoulders. She wore a relatively modest gold headpiece matched by bangles around her wrists and ankles. She was nothing like the Witchbreed he had known, male or female, instead she appeared to be the very image of a “dark sorceresss”. Aurelio couldn’t say that made him feel any more comfortable.
“Do you know who I am, Witchbreed?” He asked.
“Oh yes” she replied, a smirk growing at the corners of her lips “Aurelio Furlan, the Witch Hunter.”
“Is that what they’re calling me up north now?” He asked derisively.
“Oh no they call you much worse things than that.” She smiled “I was simply trying to be diplomatic.”
“I’m in no mood for your games, Witchbreed” He said “Just tell us what we want to know and you might live.”
The Witchbreed stood, and Aurelio noticed she was surprisingly tall, matching his eye-level.
“Come now, Hunter, let us have a little back and forth. I’m sure it’s pierced that thick skull of yous that I’m no ordinary Witchbreed, just take a look.”
“Placing a glamour on yourself won’t make your spirit any less monstrous.” Aurelio sneered.
“Oh no glamour here.” Her hands moved up her sides, tracing the outline of her hips and waist “All natural human. No enchantments allowed in here, after all.”
“So I’m just supposed to take that at face value that you’re not a monster?” Aurelio asked.
“No” the woman frowned “You’re supposed to listen to what I have to say, and if I’m right you can release me as a sign of mutual good faith.
Aurelio snorted. He doubted both the veracity of her information and her intentions once she was released. If Aurelio had his way she would never see the light of day again.
“I would like to hear it, at the very least.” Elisa said, stepping forward. “It’s not like she can hex us or anything in that cell.”
“I am quite powerless here” The Witchbreed raised her empty hands as if in defeat. “Ask away.”
“Can you really track this Mara we’ve been hunting, If that is indeed what it is?”
“Oh yes I can.” Her smile grew “And it is indeed a Mara that you seek.”
“How do you know that?” Aurelio asked “Where’s your evidence?”
“I tracked it here, using my own rituals of divination. I can feel my former Master’s strength in it.”
“Your former Master” Aurelio repeated “The Witch Goddess?”
“Alas so.” A downcast expression over came her “She gave me a measure of her power…but I refuse to use it at the behest of the dragon monster she serves.”
“And you can do that?” Aurelio asks “Use your powers in defiance of her will? As a champion of Diana I have difficulty believing that.”
“Not all of us were simply given power” her smirk returned “believe it or not, Witch Hunter, I was born with more than this lovely form. Lady Huldra merely enhanced what was already present. She cannot take away the powers I was born with.”
“So why would Huldra send a Mara to Rome?” Elisa asked, trying to move between them.
“She wouldn’t” The Witchbreed said “I’m tracking a rogue. I’m not sure how it got away from her but it did, and now it’s simply…well I suppose you could say following its programming.”
Even though half of him still didn’t believe her, the other felt a slight sigh of relief at the thought that the Witch Goddess had not come to plague Rome.
“Then how do we track a rogue Mara?” Elisa asked “How do we put a stop to this.”
“I’m afraid that part is easier said than done.” The Wtichbreed said “Without a Master to command it, its movements and attacks are purely random.”
“Then you have nothing” Aurelio frowned.
“Patience, Witch Hunter” she smiled “We cannot track it in our world, but we can hunt it in its territory.”
“Its territory?” Elisa asked.
“The Dreaming” The Withbreed nodded “The world of dreams through which this Mara moves. Oneiromancy is not my forte exactly, but I have enough know-how to get us in.”
“There is no ‘us’” Aurelio said “Elisa and I can do the hunting.”
“Oh by all means” She shrugged “And when you’ve spent three decades in a coma as your minds attempt to navigate the roiling dreamscape, perhaps you’ll have come up with a Plan B.” She gave them both a suddenly serious expression. “You need an actual Oneiromancer to navigate and track the Mara, and there are no others in the city, I know.”
“I don’t have to listen to this” Aurelio turned to leave, but Elisa’s hand on his wrist stopped him.
“Yes,” she said “we do.”
The homunculus turned to the Witchbreed. “We will need your assistance in tracking this Mara and destroying it. If we feel you’ve served the state to satisfaction, we’ll look into advocating your release.”
“We’ll what!?” Aurelio asked.
“Quiet” It almost felt as if Elisa had bitten him.
“We’re out of options and running low on time.”
“But Elisa…” He began to object and she silenced him with a raised hand, her eyes kept on the Witchbreed.
“Do not mistake” she said “This offer for an act of charity. If I detect one whiff of betrayal, one particle of underhandedness in your actions…” She drew her sword from her back, pointing it at the Witchbreed through the bars “This sword was made for more potent things than you, and my hands are a lot faster than yours.
The Witchbreed responded with a smile.
“I like you, homunculus.” She said.
“My name is Elisa.”
“And you can call me Sybilla.” The Witchbreed called Sybilla slid an open hand through the bars. “Shall we?”
Slowly, as Aurelio felt the hatred rise in his throat, Elisa took hold of Sybilla’s hand and shook.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=22&sl=939