The Hand of War
Hildegard was still sick, and in a dying comatose state from what she had heard. Catarina, concerned for her sister, had been largely avoiding the field as well. That meant Rosa was left alone with mostly fresh recruits. She had been denied any position in the legions for some time and frankly didn’t want one. She wasn’t good in a team and didn’t want to be part of a unit. Sure, she could be described as having “violent and aggressive tendencies” but that was everyone else’s fault for simply falling far behind.
She had beaten her fifth recruit into near-unconsciousness. She’d relented enough not to break any bones, but he would have a number of welts and bruises growing by the time he was dragged off the field. Rosa cracked her neck as she picked up her spear, facing the crowd of greedy spectators with a ferocious grin and fiery red eyes.
“Who’s next?” She asked. “Come on, I’ll even do it one-handed.”
There was a murmur and worried looks from those closest to her, as if they were terrified she would simply grab one of them and beat them into submission. Rosa’s expression fell into a scowl. The crowds that watched her fight were like buzzards, willing to view the carnage but always waiting until she’d left to take any part in it. Cowards all of them.
“Fine!” She shouted, getting a sliver of pleasure seeing them recoil from her raised voice. “To hell with all of you!”
She didn’t need to waste her time with cowards and weaklings. If no one was going to give her a proper challenge then there was no point in staying. Her spear and armor disappearing in a flash of red light, she stalked off, the other trainees parting to give her a wide berth as she headed to the showers.
Even under a cold shower she seemed to give off steam, quietly seething as the water poured around her, only the distracting voices of several other female trainees drew her thoughts from her festering anger.
“Another monster slaying mission already?”
“But who’s taking it? Hildegard’s out of commission. Cat maybe?”
“Not with Hildegard the way she is. I hear it’s to the first squad who requests it.”
“Manticores though…those things are nasty….”
Rosa had listened all the while as the group chatted, her curiosity growing into an eager fervor as a plan formed in her mind. After leaving the shower she had marched to the Captioline Hill and seen the notice posted there. A den of manticores had been found in the Apennine Mountains to the east, and a team would soon be established to get rid of them. It requested that any who were interested could inquire with the Military board, but Rosa didn’t bother. The competition just made it that much sweeter.
And so it was that Rosa found herself alone in the foothills of the Apennines several days later. Being a champion of the God of War meant she was almost tireless, and she had traveled on twenty-hour days to reach as far as she had. Horses were still rare so if she had any competition they were likely far behind her. Still, Rosa was not the kind of person to remain idle. She wasn’t a hunter like Aurelio, but she wanted challenge and the rush of blood in pitched combat to the death. If Rome couldn’t provide that then maybe a monster would.
Of course there was the issue of tracking the manticores. Rosa had some survival skills, but when it came to tracking animals (or monsters) she didn’t have all that much experience. The notice had given a rough location, but beyond that it was on her. Still, being a champion provided her a few advantages over the average mortal man.
She sniffed the air, taking a long breath in through her nose like a hound searching for prey. Her senses were highly specialized for a warrior, but in those narrow confines she was positively superhuman. Even from this distance she could taste and smell the unmistakable coppery scent of fresh spilled blood. It was traveling downwind, several kilometers distant, but when it came to sniffing out blood, Rosa had the senses of a shark.
As she started to follow the scent, her mind moved back to that same feeling of somewhat empty dissatisfaction. She hated these long lulls between combat. When the blood had cooled and the mind was allowed to fill with the smoke and haze of memory. Rosa was not a person for introspection and reflection. The past is something that resists all change, and she would gain nothing but misery carrying it with her. But when she was alone, when she had nothing but time and the space between her and her quarries, then forcefully buried memories were never far behind, trailing her like dim shadows.
It was not long before she managed to focus herself again. The scent of blood and torn flesh was thick in the air now, and as she drew closer to a rocky outcropping, she could hear the sounds of flapping wings and sharp teeth tearing through flesh.
Carefully, Rosa drew closer, picking her way through the tall rocks, trees, and boulders until she got a clear look. The manticore was hunched over in the center of a large open clearing ringed by trees and rocks like the ones Rosa now hid behind. It was clearly eating something that, on closer inspection, appeared to be a large deer. There was only the one, meaning the nest was elsewhere, but it would do for now. Rosa was sure this was the point where a hunter like Aurelio would stealthily take a shot at it. But she was no hunter.
With a single great push, she leaped to the top of one of the taller boulders, kicking off of it to fly into the clearing, an intense nebula of crimson light bursting around her as her god-forged armor appeared across her body and her spear materialized in hand before she crashed to earth, sending out a shockwave which shook the dust from the stones.
“What’s up, ugly!?” She shouted. “Hope you’re ready to die!”
The manticore rounded on her, a mass of scaled and furred flesh wheeling around to face the new attacker. Rosa felt a brief pause in her heartbeat as the thing faced her. It was enormous to start with, over eight meters in length from head to tail, and much taller at the shoulders than she was.
It had seemed smaller when hunched over, but now that it all but loomed over her she realized how large of a challenger it was. Its entire body was covered in dusty dark red scales save for its head and back, which were covered in a mane of dark brown hair. It had the body of an enormous muscular lion, including the massive paws revealing oversized iron-colored claws. From its back spread a pair of great bat wings that darkened the clearing, furling and unfurling to kick up dust and make it appear even larger. Its tail was overly long, longer than the entire rest of its body, and it whipped and coiled with impressive mobility. The tail was covered entirely in spiny-looking scales and tipped with a great serrated lance for a tip.
It’s most terrifying feature, however, was its face. The manticore had the face of a wizened man, broad and flat and covered in wrinkled lines, the dark mane growing into a beard and moustache. Its nose was squashed almost flat and broad enough to resemble something more feline, and the mouth was entirely too large, opening and closing to reveal a long slobbering tongue and multiple rows of shark-like cutting teeth. Its eyes, however, were shining gold, simultaneously cunning and entirely bestial. It was too close to human to be comfortable, something familiar but entirely alien, and it made a feeling like ice grow in Rosa’s stomach.
Still, she was a champion, and the Champion of War did not show fear in battle.
Rosa charged, spear raised as red light danced around her. The Manticore roared, a terrible howling noise that Rosa’s spear cut through. It sidestepped her blow with surprising speed, using its massive wings to propel it with speed along the ground. Rosa flipped her spear in her hand, recovering from the miss and striking again. She had learned fighting Catarina how to strike and recover quickly, even if it meant sacrificing a little strength along the way. Again she made several jabbing and sweeping strikes to the Manticore. It was quick, but not as quick as she was as she learned to adjust to its movements, and she got several slashes in along its shoulders, drawing thick black blood as the beast growled at her.
“Like that, ugly?” Rosa sneered. “Come and get me, I’ve got more.”
The manticore struck next, sweeping its massive claws at her. Any of those strikes could have taken Rosa’s head clean off of her shoulders, but she was much quicker now. She had to give some credit to Catarina; as much of a whiny brat as she could be, she was good enough to keep Rosa on her toes.
The manticore’s next attack, however, was much harder to dodge. Rosa barely had time to react as the massive muscular tail curved over its back and struck down like a meteor, the barbed lance impaling the ground where she had been standing a split second before. Like a massive scorpion, it struck repeatedly with its tail as the massive front claws tried to keep her in a more confined area, sweeping to keep her from rolling out of the way.
Rosa could feel herself being boxed in as she slowly lost ground. She didn’t have room to roll, and with every other second came another massive strike by the tail. Once more it came down, two feet of metal-sharp stinger driving towards her head, only the last second swing of her spear shaft managed to deflect it, but the force of it was enough to send her stumbling backwards a few steps until her back was against the stone.
“Shit…” Rosa swore as she braced herself against the stone, the raised wings of the manticore boxing her in until she had nowhere to go, raising its massive tail for one last strike.
At the precise moment the tail came down, something hit the manticore’s side with the force of a freight train. It staggered hard to its left as the tail’s strike went askew, missing Rosa by inches and burying itself in the ground.
Rosa wasn’t about to be caught off guard again, and she took tight hold of the flared scales near the base of the barbed lance, ignoring the pain of the sharp scales cutting into her palm as the monstrous strength of the manticore whipping its tail away launched her into the air with it. Her spear swung through the air in a great arc, it flashed red along the cutting edge as it severed the end of the tail cleanly near the end, sending the lance-like stinger spinning away in a fountain of black manticore blood to embed itself in a nearby tree.
The monster screamed at the loss of its strongest weapon, and turned to face not only Rosa, but a second attacker. Rosa frowned to see a hooded and cloaked figure standing beside her, a simple roman short sword in hand and a shield on the other. She had hoped to take the monster herself, but it seemed she’d have to share the credit.
“Seems I’ve got your back.” The newcomer said in a somewhat gruffer feminine voice. “You got mine?”
“Just don’t get in my way!” Rosa growled. “I was here first.”
“It’s a hunt not a race, and to the winners go the spoils.” The newcomer said with a smirk.
“Less talk, more kill.” Rosa said before charging forward again, the newcomer right behind her.
The pair of them made short work of the manticore. Without its terrible tail, Rosa had only its claws and teeth to fear, and she was much faster and stronger than both. She ducked and weaved between its attacks, spear striking again and again like a serpent as it left parts of itself entirely undefended. The newcomer was impressively strong and incredibly ferocious, attacking whenever a side or flank was exposed and hacking away with her sword. Between them, the manticore was quick to fall, and while Rosa was still bitter over having to share the glory, she still felt the familiar rush of victory.
“Not bad, pup.” The newcomer said, turning to face Rosa. Under the hood it was hard to see much of her face save for a bit of ginger hair framing it.
“Name’s Rosa.” She growled in reply “Who are you?”
“Call me Rey, Rey Forester” She said. “Just another warrior out on the hunt like you.”
“Well hunt’s done now.” Rosa said.
“Not quite.” Rey said. “There should be a nest of these things around somewhere.”
Rosa cursed inwardly, having hoped Rey didn’t know about the nests so she could wipe it out herself. “Well, if you insist.”
“Come on,” Rey smiled. “I helped you a little back there.”
“Fine” Rosa said. “You helped. Did you want a trophy?”
“No I’m not too big into trophies.” Rey said. “Some thanks would be nice”
Rosa scoffed. “Keep dreaming” She said, and started walking from the clearing, but not before ripping off one of the Manticore’s massive claws for proof and a trophy.
“Heading off already?” Rey asked.
“Manticores don’t kill themselves.” Rosa said “If you’re quicker this time you might just be there for the whole fight..
Rey grinned and hurried to catch up to her. “How about we split the guts and split the glory, all that Greek bravado is making you look more ridiculous than intimidating?”
“Do what you like” Rosa shrugged “I’m just here to kill monsters.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=45&sl=235