It was with some trepidation that Hanne took her place at Hildegard’s bedside. The young woman had become almost comatose over the past few days, lucid enough to speak only for a few minutes each day and even then, she mostly spoke in gibberish. They still had almost no lead on what was causing this illness or curse. It almost certainly wasn’t any kind of mundane sickness, and there were no other cases quite like it reported anywhere else in Rome. It was, by all appearances, a unique and very potent sickness that was quickly burning down one of Rome’s greatest champions from the inside out.
Hanne sat slightly hunched over, elbows resting on her knees as she clasped her hands together. She wasn’t praying, she had stopped praying long ago, she was merely deep in thought, trying to work out what was happening to her daughter.
There was nothing she could think of. There had been no magic source that Hildegard had been exposed to that other mages hadn’t been close to as well. There was nothing on Sicily they knew of that could have caused this, and that had been almost a year ago. Even if she could do nothing about it, Hanne needed to know the source of the illness ravaging her daughter.
She took a long deep breath. It had been a few years since she had formally adopted Hildegard. She was a bit old for an orphan, sixteen specifically, and it hadn’t been strictly necessary for Hanne to do so. Hildegard was old enough to have run her own life by that point, but Hanne knew that while Hildegard was mature in many ways, she was hopelessly naïve in others.
More than a few nights had passed when she quietly cursed Hildegard’s birth family. As much as Hildegard revered them, there was a callousness to the way she was raised, a sinister level of conditioning almost to the level of brainwashing. Hildegard had never been trained how to balance finances, buy a car, care for herself beyond physical training, or even how to interact with others on an operating level. She had seen similar qualities in Catarina, both girls being fairly immature for their age, but it was much more pronounced in Hildegard. She had not been raised as a girl, but as a weapon to slay monsters. Hanne had done all she could, but much of the damage was done.
“Mother, please.” Hildegard said as the pair of them ate breakfast around their small kitchen table. It had been four years ago, before the Days of Revelation, when they had both been living in Hanne’s small apartment in Berlin.
“Why are we spending the day looking at scrawls?”
“The Berggruen Museum is hardly scrawls, Hildegard. You need to learn a little about culture.”
“And what good has culture ever done anyone?” Hildegard crossed her arms stubbornly, and Hanne gave her a rap on the head with her fork.
“Culture is what makes us human, Hildegard, and you’ve been lacking a good deal of it. What good is defending humanity if you don’t even know what humanity is?”
Hildegard didn’t respond, just grumbled slightly into her fork.
“Besides, what would you rather do on a lovely day like this? Train? You train every day and there will be time after the museum.”
“Maybe if I went to school…” Hildegard groused. “I would have more to do.”
“We’ve been over this.” Hanne sighed. “There’d be little point attending High School at your age, and you’re not ready for University.”
“Of course I’m ready!” Hildegard said. Hanne could not help but smile inwardly, for her many faults, Hildegard never could back down from a challenge.
“Oh are you?” Hanne asked. “How well-versed in history are you? What year did the Berlin Wall fall?”
“Year of German Unification? Napoleonic Wars? American Revolution? Crusades? Roman Empire? Are these ringing any bells for you?”
“No?” Hanne asked sarcastically. “Mathematics then, how skilled are you?”
“I can do long division” Hildegard said proudly.
“So can most sixth-graders.” Hanne replied flatly. “I won’t even touch science. From what you’ve told me a mage can’t tell a light bulb from a manual transmission, not even getting into biology and chemistry.”
“So I’m a little behind…” Hildegard admitted.
Hanne sighed again, but when she spoke it was with affection “Hildegard you are very behind. You’re almost like…a time traveler to be honest. You have no idea how to exist in a twenty-first century world.”
“But I can try!” Hildegard said.
“And you will.” Hanne nodded. “And today’s lesson will be at the Berggruen.”
Hildegard groaned and hung her head, knowing she’d been beaten.
It was those memories Hanne found she missed the most. Both of them had lived for several years in Hanne’s somewhat cramped apartment. Pay with the SEK wasn’t particularly good, certainly not enough for her to move into a bigger apartment the moment she adopted Hildegard. In a way though, it was better for them. Hanne got the distinct impression that Hildegard had very little affectionate contact with adults through her childhood. Hanne was not a particularly huggable person, but the first few times she had tried to embrace Hildegard she’d felt her physically recoil.
Now, however, Hildegard felt in many ways like a lost puppy, responding to the new idea of affection by desiring constant close contact. She had little of the teenage drive to go off on her own, and instead spent every moment she could with Hanne.
Many at work who had met her joked that Hildegard would be well-suited to join them in a few years in the Commandos, but Hanne was worried about just how true that was. Hildegard would have made a terrifyingly effective SEK commando, but for all of her physical prowess Hanne had many concerns about Hildegard’s perceived morality. She still did.
The Days of Revelation had not been good for Hildegard’s development. For her, of course, the end of the world had been like Christmas. She could finally do what she did best out in the open. She could be the knight in shining armor she always wanted to be and save hundreds by killing monsters. While Hanne had to admit Hildegard had been a truly invaluable asset, she was worried that all of the work she had done making Hildegard less of a weapon and more of a person may have been proven to be all for naught. She feared that for the sake of the city, Hildegard’s humanity would slowly be eroded away.
Hildegard’s saving grace did not come in the form of a transcendent piece of art or in some philosophical spark enlightenment. To Hanne’s surprise, Catarina had done more to turn Hildegard around in months than Hanne had done in a year.
As if reading her mind, Basil the cat leaped into Hanne’s lap as she continued her reverie, idly petting him with one head as she watched over Hildegard.
Catarina had given a human face to Hildegard’s desire to protect others. She found herself responsible for Cat’s safety and wellbeing as much as Hanne did. When Catarina asked Hildegard to train her, it had forced her to examine herself and her own training. That introspection had been the key to Hildegard’s re-awakening as a person. Until this illness had set in, the three of them had started making time to spend together as a family in Rome, seeing various sites and generally acting like normal people rather than a Centurion General and Rome’s two most effective combat mages.
Hanne realized too late that those had been the good times that were doomed to end. Something was threatening to take her daughter from her, something which she could not fight herself nor deploy her legions against. She was helpless to do anything as something entirely beyond her power slowly killed Hildegard.
A knock at the door slowly brought her attention back, and she saw Hildegard’s doctor, Abigail White, standing in the doorway.
Abigail White was decent as mages went. Hanne found her much more personable and kind than most of that ilk, so she didn’t mind that she was now acting as Hildegard’s sole physician. After all, no mundane doctor had found anything to do for her. She gestured for the doctor to enter, and she stepped lightly inside to take a seat across from her.
“Afternoon, Doctor.” Hanne said, and Abigail smiled in reply.
“Good afternoon, General. How long have you been with her.”
“Only a few minutes.” Hanne said, still idly stroking Basil. “Salvatore was watching until then.”
She took on a slightly strained expression as she thought of Salvatore. It was well-established now that Hildegard had been dating the young Sicilian when this illness set in. While Hanne was more protective than most when it came to Hildegard and boys, she knew that the young woman could more than handle herself against the unwelcome advances of those seeking to take advantage of her kindness and naiveté. What she had not expected was for the romance to be from Hildegard’s end, but it was clear almost from the day that they returned from Sicily that Hildegard was quite taken with him. Hanne had vetted him severely as she could without Hildegard’s knowing, and Turi would later remark that gaining her approval had been akin to “Walking through fire”. Still, he had proven himself to be a decent enough young man to warrant her approval.
“Anything to report?” Doctor White asked as she set to work, using her tools to check Hildegard’s pulse, pupil dilation, and other factors she kept careful note of.
“Nothing out of the usual.” Hanne said. “She was lucid for about a half hour this morning apparently. But nothing else.”
“Hmmm…” Abigail said with concern. “They’re becoming further apart.”
“I’ve noticed.” Hanne nodded. “You took blood samples a few days ago, have you noticed anything?”
“That’s what I came to talk to you about.” Abigail said, putting her stethoscope around her neck after checking her heartbeat. “I’ve been comparing Hildegard’s blood samples over the past few weeks and I’ve noticed…a trend.”
“Yes.” Abigail nodded. “I’ve found something in her blood that doesn’t show up under a traditional microscope.”
Alarm and apprehension rose in Hanne’s chest. Was this what they had been looking for?
“Specifically I found a kind of particulate matter that I’m not familiar with in her bloodstream.”
“In her blood?” Hanne asked. “But other doctors took blood samples, how did they fail to notice?”
“That’s the strange part.” Abigail said. “There’s no way they could have found it because…it disguises itself almost on the molecular level.”
“Disguises itself? How?”
“In a word? Magic.” Abigail said. “I only uncovered it by accident. I attempted to induce necrosis in Hildegard’s red blood cells using my own magic. When that magic hit the blood cells they briefly altered their morphology in order to initiate self-repair. In a way it was like…setting fire to a costume. It needs to be pulled off to be put out and then stitched back together, and for that brief period you can see the actor underneath.”
“And it only reacts to magic?”
“Under normal circumstances yes.” Abigail nodded “I managed to repeat the process using intense heat and cold. It takes significant cell damage to induce their appearance, more than other doctors would have done. Such experiments would have been needless.”
“Alright, so it’s a lead.” Hanne said. “What can those molecules tell us?”
“Well it tells us for certain that while it is magical, it is nothing like any curse I have seen. This is a potent mix of the magical and the biological, and it is pumping this metamorphic matter through her veins at increasing quantities.”
Slowly, Abigail reached into her coat and carefully removed a test tube. Inside, she showed Hanne a small amount of tar-like black material.
“I managed to remove some and render it semi-inert. None of my processes are enough to make a viable cure, but it’s a start in understanding the affliction.
“What is it?” Hanne asked, studying it closely.
“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Abigail said, “There is only one thing for certain. It acts like blood. It’s not present in any of Hildegard’s tissue or fluid samples, only in her circulatory system. The multiplication rate for it seems exponential, meaning it could have been laying relatively dormant for years before it finally accumulated enough presence to kick-start a cascading effect.”
“Where did it come from though?” Hanne asked, “Has anyone seen anything like this?”
“I’m running samples to both Renard Aestling and Albion Nassar,” Abigail said, “But like I said I’ve never even heard of anything like this. This is powerful magic, General. So I need to ask, even before Sicily, maybe even before the Days of Revelation, was Hildegard exposed to any potent magical artifacts? Particularly anything that came in contact with her blood?”
“Nothing between when I adopted her and the Days of Revelation…” Hanne said, “And nothing after that. But I don’t know very well what she did before I found her.”
“Found her?” Abigail asked, “Where exactly did you find her? What had she been doing?”
“She was unconscious and near dead,” Hanne said, “I found her in a burning castle way out in the country, most people didn’t even know it existed.”
“Was she bleeding?” Abigail asked, concern growing on her face.
“Yes…” Hanne said slowly, the alarm rising in her chest. “Doctor White…Hildegard said she had been fighting a very potent vampire mage in that castle, but I never found a body.”
“Vampire mage?” Abigail asked, rapidly scrawling notes.
“Yes…” Hanne said “She didn’t speak of it much but…Doctor White…that vampire had an artifact.”
“It carried an artifact?” Abigail asked.
“No, it was inside it.” Hanne’s stomach dropped. This wasn’t some new disease brought on by monsters or spirits. This was Hildegard’s old life, a legacy of the days before Hanne knew her, and it was killing her.
“This artifact…I never knew much about it, but Hildegard always called it the same thing.”
“The Heart of Darkness.”