April 9th, 2024
Something about tonight was very wrong.
It began when Aurelio begrudgingly accepted doing his rounds with Sybilla that night. The Witchbreed had wanted to begin “Contributing to the city that has sheltered me” as she put it in so many diplomatic words, but he felt that another part of the reason had simply been to needle him.
What had once been Elisa and Aurelio alone had now doubled to the pair of them and the new additions of Sybilla and Mary. Simply to put him at ease, they had moved in pairs with one of the newcomers always in the company of the old. Aurelio did not yet trust Sybilla and Mary alone together out in the city.
Even with this unusual arrangement in place, things had gone relatively normally. For the first few hours of the night the city had been quiet. The moon was brilliant and bright overhead, and the starlight had revealed little in the way of resistance…at least at first.
“That’s the third one tonight,” Aurelio said, walking to the body of the fallen cacodaemon as the arrow in its side dissolved in a stream of moonlight. “And this isn’t even a wilder part of the city. There hasn’t been a single one reported in weeks and now we have three in one night.”
“Well you know what they say,” With a flick of her wrist, Sybilla undid the magic binds that had held the beast in place as Aurelio finished it. “Once is an occurrence, twice is coincidence…”
“And three times is evidence of malice.” Aurelio finished for her. “We should get in touch with Mary and Elisa; they’re closer to the frontier.”
“Do you think this area is safe?” Sybilla asked.
“I don’t know,” Aurelio admitted. “But the city guard should be able to handle it. We can’t just leave the outskirts, especially if they have it worse. We’ll need that flying spell of yours.”
“Asking me for favors so freely now?” Sybilla asked with a smirk.
“I’m asking you to help me out.” Aurelio griped.
“Very well, come along then.” Sybilla offered a hand which Aurelio reluctantly took. She had a tendency to treat him like a child whenever she used her magic. It may have been true that he didn’t understand most of it, but he still hated her patronizing tone.
He felt Sybilla’s magic course under his skin as she floated from the edge of the rooftop into the open air. Aurelio felt his stomach drop as he followed her off the edge, expecting to plummet at any moment. As their feet touched the next closest rooftop their speed increased, both of them running or gliding across the rooftop before taking a flying leap across the next street. It was a quick way to move as it let them cross even the widest streets that would have blocked Aurelio’s nightly rooftop jaunts, even if it took some getting used to.
It was when they were crossing the roof of a large estate, Aurelio’s boots hitting the roof hard as Sybilla floated beside him, that he felt a tug on his hand indicating that she had stopped. He almost tripped at the sudden change, and rounded on her to demand what the problem was, only to see her eyes staring upwards into the sky. Following her gaze, Aurelio saw precisely at what she was staring.
The moon, which had been largely full and waxing every night, now appeared as if a fresh new moon. Only the faintest outline of its presence could be seen, and its surface was almost completely black.
“That’s not right…” Sybilla muttered.
“No, it’s not,” Aurelio said. “The moon doesn’t just suddenly switch phases like that.”
“It’s almost like an eclipse,” Sybilla said. “As if something just dropped a shadow on top of it.”
“But lunar eclipses are red,” Aurelio said. “This is just…black.”
“The more I look at this, the less I like it.” Sybilla said. “This isn’t a bit of freak astronomy.”
“It might be causing all these cacodaemons.” Aurelio said. And even as he spoke, the night seemed to erupt with howls. Roars and growls and moans rose form the shadows as a thousand lurking horrors began to tear themselves free from the spirit world of human fear. As the noise rose, Aurelio could almost feel a sense of fear spreading through the city as he had in the nightmare. People cowered in their rooms at the sounds of the multiplying cacodemons, and that fear only gave them more power.
“I’ve never heard of this many in one place…” Sybilla said.
“Not since the Days of Revelations,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow again. “This is too much to just leave for the guards. This is an attack on the city.”
“By whom?” Sybilla asked.
“My guess?” Aurelio asked. “The cult. Unless I’m wrong this is them making their move.”
Sybilla nodded as a new seriousness came over her face, one he had not seen since the dream. “What’s the plan?”
“Elisa and I talked about this,” Aurelio said. “If the city comes under attack from spirits then she heads to the Capitoline Hill and I secure anyone who can help.”
“And who is that in this case?”
“Most notably? The Pontifex and Echo, Hildegard’s family, and then Angel.”
“Understood.” Sybilla nodded, and Aurelio felt a fresh flood of her sorcery pour into him. “Think you can fly on your own, hunter? I’ll need both hands free.”
“So will I,” Aurelio nodded. “Nora’s estate is this way. Follow me.”
Without further words the two of them rushed out over the city of Rome. Without Sybilla’s handholding, Aurelio found himself much quicker to adapt to the newfound flight. He couldn’t levitate like she could, but his leaps were much longer, almost like taking jumps on the moon. He could take his speed and arc into account as he ran and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, which was invaluable as he needed to shoot and run almost the entire way there.
The cacodemons seemed to rise from every dark corner and dim night alley in the city. Every place where shadows lurked seemed to hide a nest of them as they rose and lurched from their home in human nightmares with drooling fang and sharpened claw. A menagerie of horrors in every shape and size came crawling into being across the city of Rome. Where they came their roars soon followed, creating a siren call of terror throughout the city as people woke to find a city filled with nightmares.
Arrow after arrow flew from Aurelio’s bow, and each one found its mark, but for every cacodemon he struck down two more seemed to rise from the shadows that he had to overlook. If he stayed to fight and kill every single one he saw, they would never make it far across the city. Their numbers were overwhelming, and soon Aurelio saw the city guards and the garrisoned legionnaires rushing into the street, half-dressed in armor with swords and spears ready as the spirits attacked on all sides.
Sybilla had not been lying when she said she needed her hands free. Both were occupied with somatic gestures needed for her more advanced spellwork, and between his shots Aurelio would sometimes pause to watch her work. Blue light, dripping with power, lashed like whips from her hands and tore through cacodaemons like paper. With a wave of her hand she flung bolts of magic through the air like missiles, their paths curving like an arcing comet before striking some shadow-born monster that flapped along on leathery bat wings.
Her real specialty, however, was in summoning. From some realm of nightmare she summoned her own monstrous horrors to fight fire with fire. Beasts of black obsidian hide and burning blue eyes built like fierce wolves tore through their weaker and less-defined cacodaemon cousins. Raven-like creatures with flaming wings erupted from portals she opened in the sky to tear through others form above. In the alleys and streets, long clawed tentacles burst from sewer grates, and pulled the helpless and howling cacodaemons down into the depths to meet their fate.
Aurelio had always assumed that if she truly was evil, Sybilla would be no more difficult to hunt down than any other Witchbreed, but tonight he was being rapidly proven wrong.
It took them over an hour to finally reach Nora’s townhouse, and in that time Aurelio had lost count of the spirits he’d killed, not even bothering to keep track of Sybilla’s. As they landed at Nora’s front door, her summoned minions seemed to vanish into the night air and Aurelio felt the power fade from his body. Sybilla took a moment, leaning against the brick wall as her breaths came in ragged pants.
“Give me…a moment.” She breathed, clearly drained.
Aurelio nodded and started slamming his fist on the door.
“Echo!” He shouted “Nora! It’s me! Aure-“
His words were cut short in an instant as he felt the unmistakable feeling of a cold steel blade pressed to his throat. Sybilla was up in an instant, hand pointed over his shoulder as blue lights danced up her arm.
“Release him!” She hissed at his unseen assailant.
“In short order,” Aurelio nearly did a double take when he heard what was unmistakably Nora’s voice in his ear. “When I know who he really is.”
Aurelio shivered as he felt the blade press ever so slightly into his skin, the razor-like edge drawing a few drops of blood. In a moment he was released, and he turned, rubbing his neck with one hand, to face his attacker.
Lenore was standing behind him, idly wiping his blood from her knife.
“What the hell was that!?” He demanded, angered as much by the assault as he was by her candidness.
“Always be sure your allies are who they claim to be.” Lenore said before flashing the blade at him “Silver lined with Zoroastrian runes. Anything in false shape is going to be shifted back to their true form by it.”
“Satisfied then?” Aurelio said, still annoyed.
“Yes.” Lenore said plainly before her eyes traveled to Sybilla, who still had her hands raised threateningly.
Aurelio saw a new kind of intensity in her eyes, and there was something deeply unsettling about the way she regarded Sybilla.
As the intensity in the air grew, Aurelio heard the door open and saw Nora, far less regal than usual in a blue nightgown, regarding the scene.
“Hands down, both of you.” She said, and both Sybilla and Lenore followed her instructions “We don’t need people on the same side killing each other tonight.”
“We came to check on you,” Aurelio said. “To make sure you’re safe.”
“We’re all plenty safe, please come inside.” She said, leading the trio back inside the warm light of her townhouse.
As they stepped into the sitting room, Aurelio saw they weren’t alone. Angel, the winged wolf, seemed to have beaten them there, and she stood next to Echo over a pile of old books that were stacked high on the table.
“We need to get back onto the streets.” Aurelio said.
“I agree,” Nora nodded. “But you need to know what we’re up against first.”
“Do we have any ideas?” Aurelio asked. “We figure it was the Butterfly Shroud making their move.”
“This is not the work of mere mortal spellcasters,” Angel said. “The worst of this has yet to come.”
Aurelio frowned; he had been afraid she would say something like that.
“What is it then?” Sybilla asked.
“This is not a mere lunar event,” Angel said. “I have looked to the dawn and the news becomes much worse. A black sun rises over Rome.”
“Black sun,” Aurelio repeated. “Please tell me that’s not literal.”
“It is,” Angel said. “To your eyes it will appear like an endless solar eclipse.”
“What does it mean?” Sybilla asked
“In general, it is a mark of cosmic instability for the black sun to rise in the daytime world. One hangs over Cairo even as we speak. As for the specifics…” She took a moment to consider her words.
“Something foul has snuck past my shield.”
“How?” Aurelio asked. “Some loophole?”
“If I knew I would have fixed it,” Angel said, with a note of irritation. “But what I do know is that something evil and very powerful is now lurking in Rome. Normally I would trust this task to Miss Jazheil and her sister but…”
“Hildegard is out of commission,” Aurelio nodded.
“And Catarina is outside Rome, along with the Champion of Ares.” Angel said. “I have contacted Salvatore already. You remaining champions are now the best hope for Rome.”
“Where do we start?” Aurelio said. “We need to start looking somewhere.”
“Angel and I are doing all the research we can,” Nora said. “To try and find out what’s causing this.”
“We’ll rendezvous with Elisa and Mary and fill them in.” Sybilla said. “We’ll need to be coordinated.”
As they spoke, a strange soft sound began to waft through the room. It was pleasant, almost mesmerizing as it filled the air without their notice until it filled every corner of the room. All of them looked around for the source, and soon their eyes focused on the small radio set, which had turned itself on and begun playing the unearthly tune.
“To hazard a guess,” Nora said. “Start at the radio station.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=58&sl=813