Where All Roads Lead

Battle of the Black Sun

April 9th, 2024

Trouble had exploded into chaos. The great city of Rome had become nothing short of a battlefield beneath the lightless gaze of a black sun. Even with the passing of the night, the cacodaemons were out in force, running boldly through the streets to reclaim their old hunting grounds, many of them already grown into full-fledged monsters. Those, however, were now the least of Aurelio’s problems. Here and there the cultists of the Butterfly Shroud raced into the streets, shouting their victory as they attacked anyone caught outside. The hypnotic tune of the radio had begun to draw people into the streets, be it by curiosity or some malevolent spell, but more and more of the city was soon at the mercy of the cultists and monsters, even as Aurelio shouted for them to retreat indoors and barricade their doors.

Worst of all, however, were the demons that descended from the sky.

It had started with a roar on the air, a howling shriek that echoed through the sky from all directions. Aurelio had looked for the source, unable to find it until Sybilla had pointed his eyes upwards. There, falling from the skies, were dozens of winged monstrosities unlike anything he had ever seen.

They had the bodies of human skeletons, more than three meters tall and flying on great black bat wings. Their bones were covered in what appeared to be fine jewels but, with his enhanced sight, Aurelio could see they were made of hissing gnashing serpents covered in jeweled scales. The eyes of the demons burned with pale starlight, and their horrid screech rose from their skeletal chests to escape through maws filled with pointed teeth.

“What in the gods’ name…” Aurelio said quietly. “Are those?”

“Not invincible, I hope.” Sybilla said, magic crackling at her fingertips.

“This is too much for the two of us; we’re too disorganized.” Aurelio said.

“We need to get to the radio tower,” said Sybilla.

“I agree,” he nodded. “But we can’t break through a force like this on our own. Can you use magic to get in touch with Mary?”

“Can do,” Sybilla nodded. “We’ll rendezvous with her. Follow me.”

With that, she leapt from the rooftop with Aurelio close behind, the pair of them moving as fast as they could as they cut through the cacodaemons and monsters. They made it down several streets before the first of the star demons began to land, the closest one smashing into the roof before them.

Aurelio wished he could say it looked better up close, but standing before them only made the thing appear more monstrous. It towered both of them, long skeletal arms ending in wicked-looking claws as jeweled serpents wound their way through its bones, hanging from its chest, hips, and shoulders, great bat wings spreading out to either side.

Aurelio took a step back as he drew his bow and Sybilla moved between him and the monster. It roared, lurching forward to attack, only for Sybilla to bind its long arms with tendril-like shadows rising from the roof under their feet.

Aurelio pulled back an arrow on his bow, releasing the silver shaft of moonlight to strike the skeletal demon in the crown, the shining arrow bursting its skull as shadows and specks of starlight were scattered behind it. The beast roared, wounded but not dead as it tore itself free of Sybilla’s bindings, sweeping its arm to throw her bodily to the side as Aurelio nocked another arrow, drew, and released.

The next arrow smashed into the humerus, causing its arm to fall away as the bone burst where it was struck like shattering glass. Still the monster kept coming, and Aurelio had to roll out of the way to avoid the great claw of the monster smashing down on him, shattering the roof where he had landed. As he got back to his feet, monster turning to bear down on him, a lance of violet light tore through its chest cavity, incinerating several ribs and leaving nothing but smoke behind.

Sybilla, back on her feet, stood behind the creature, hands glowing from where she had launched the magic bolt. Aurelio used the brief distraction to get off another arrow, smashing yet more of the skull of the demon as it began to fall apart. Though it didn’t seem to have a solid weakness, the damage it had sustained proved too much for it to keep going, and its body began to disintegrate. Both of them waited until it had vanished entirely before moving on, Sybilla clearly more tired than before.

“Tougher than they look,” She muttered. “This is starting to take its toll.”

“We’ll get reinforcements,” Aurelio said. “How much further away is Mary?”

“Not far,” Sybilla said.

The pair of them made their way through the crowded streets, pushing the enchanted or the curious to safety as they cut down what monsters they could without slowing down. The massive star demons seemed to be growing more numerous by the minute, their great skeletal forms slamming into buildings and sending a spray of debris into the streets before they emerged, wings spread, to terrorize the vulnerable populace.

They were thankfully not too far from the radio station when they found Mary and Elisa. The two homunculi had been just as busy tearing through ranks of cacodaemons as Aurelio and Sybilla, Mary calling on the same destructive magic as Sybilla while Elisa had her sword drawn, slicing through cacodaemons with astonishing speed, blade running like silver through the air.

Aurelio was surprised, however, to see two more figures with them. One of them was a tall young woman with long blonde hair and a lovely face. She was leaning on a cane and had one hand raised, the hand itself wrapped in what looked like an ornate golden gauntlet. She seemed to be conducting the fourth figure who, Aurelio realized, wasn’t a person at all but a tall marionette-like automaton made of metal plates and clockwork, forged form brass and gold, moving with weapons drawn against the gathering crowds of monsters at its master’s command.

“Aurelio!” Elisa called, the first to spot them. “Thank goodness. We weren’t far from being overrun.”

“You and the whole city,” Aurelio said before glancing at the strange woman. “Who’s this?”

The woman turned to face him properly, still leaning on her cane as she smiled his way. “Evangeline Metaxes,” She said, bowing gracefully. “Champion of Hephaestus, at your service.”

Aurelio felt relief wash over him. Here at last was some good news. “You have a good sense of timing,” he said. “We need all the help we can get.”

“So I see,” Evangeline nodded, looking at the chaos around them.

Aurelio turned to Mary. “Any idea what we’re dealing with?”

Mary shook her head. “None yet.”

“Where is everyone else?” Aurelio asked Elisa. “We need to get to the radio tower.”

“Capitolina and Angel are organizing the city guard,” Elisa said. “They can’t spare the manpower. Turi is keeping the territory around Hildegard safe, but he refuses to go much further out.”

Aurelio swore. He really could have used both of them right now.

“There’s us too!” An oddly familiar voice reached Aurelio’s ears, and he turned to see the women he had met on a previous patrol facing him, Aelia and Bernadette, the ones Mary had called ghosts.

Now that he knew it, he could almost see it on them. Where the sun touched them he could almost see through, and they were dressed in the same archaic clothes he had seen them in before.

“Miss Aelia, Please!” Bernadette protested. “It’s not safe out here! We need to get inside!”

“The monsters are ignoring us,” Aelia ignored her in turn as she spoke to Aurelio. “Either they just can’t see us or they think we’re with them. We can help too!”

Elisa stepped forward. “Can you get people inside their houses?” She asked, “They’re being lured out by the music and we need to focus on killing monsters enough without people putting themselves in danger.”

“We can do that!” Aelia nodded eagerly. “Right Bernadette?”

“I suppose…”

“Why are you helping us,” Aurelio asked. “If they’re not attacking you or other spirits?”

“This is our city too.” Aelia said firmly. “I was born Roman and I’m still Roman. This is my city so I’m going to defend it!”

Aurelio could almost feel Mary smiling behind him.

“Alright,” he nodded. “And…thanks for the help.”

Aelia nodded again as she turned away with Bernadette, the pair of them almost vanishing into thin air as they left.

“So we have two champions, a Witchbreed, a homunculus, and an embodied Mara against an army of monsters between us and the radio tower?” Aurelio asked, looking around.

“I’ve heard of worse odds,” Sybilla smiled as they watched the cacodaemons mass to make a second charge.

“I almost feel sorry for them,” Evangeline smiled, directing her marionette into a defensive position, long blades appearing from within its golden wrists.

“Then let’s not keep them waiting,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow and leveling an arrow at the closest cacodaemon.

Aurelio had never liked working in a large team. When he had hunted with the benandante, he had done so largely alone, only regrouping with them after a hunt. As a champion, he had thought he would live a life apart, in solitude from the other warriors of Italy. As the five of them went on the offensive, however, he couldn’t help but feel exhilarated.

Evangeline’s marionette and Elisa led the charge, both of them with swords drawn to cut through anything that got too close. The marionette had size, reach, and what was clearly immense physical strength, lifting cacodaemons into the air with its great golden arms before flinging them into buildings. Elisa, however, had speed, closing the gaps in the marionette’s defenses as her blade moved like a blur through any monster that dared get too close.

Sybilla and Mary worked in tandem, their magic similar enough to benefit from one another. Mary, still not as artful and experienced as Sybilla, but brimming with raw power, kept to the destructive side, creating beams of light that scythed through even the large star demons that had begun to swarm them. Sybilla, meanwhile, used her remaining strength to summon monsters of her own, massive hounds built from shadow, tentacle horrors that reached from shadowed alleys to grab cacodaemons and pull them howling into the darkness, and great dark birds that kept the skies clear.

With all of them working together, Aurelio was free to aim and fire as fast as his hands could manage. Arrows made of moonlight shot through the dark air like comets, tearing through any cacodaemon or star monster that drew too close and keeping their flanks clear as they moved together through the streets.

The more they fought, the more they worked in tandem together. Elisa was quickly learning the limits of the marionette, keeping it safe from any attack that would get through its slower movements, not to mention defending its master.

“Thanks for the cover!” Evangeline shouted as Elisa’s sword cut through a cacodaemon that had made a lunge for her.

“I should be thanking you,” Elisa said. “That construct is taking the brunt of this.”

With a wave of her hand, one of Sybilla’s horrors launched a cacodaemon high into the air, the creature tumbling end over end only for a silver arrow to cut clean through it, sending its shadowy body trailing across the sky.

“Fine shot, Hunter!” Sybilla smiled at him. “But it seems like you might be showing off.”

“Maybe a little,” Aurelio admitted. “Come on! We’re almost there!”

As the four of them approached the radio tower, more and more of the star demons came down upon them, several never making it to the ground as Sybilla and Aurelio tore them apart with arrows and bursts of magic. The rest, however, crashed around them and pushed forward, the sky darkening as the battle grew more desperate.

Evangeline’s marionette charged the closest one as Aurelio shot arrow after arrow at the ones that had landed around them, Sybilla’s familiars leaping to clamp jaws, claws, and talons around their skeletal bodies.

As they inched closer to the doors of the radio station, the tower looming high above them, a cold laugh seemed to waft in on the music, the lyrics ceasing as a chilling voice spoke to them through the tune.

So this is the bold resistance Rome can offer?” Aurelio felt his blood run cold. The remaining star demons pulled back, mouths agape as the dark voice spoke through them. As the cruel feminine voice spoke, the sky itself seemed to grow darker.

I will say I am impressed.

“Reveal yourself!” Aurelio shouted, bow ready. “Are you the master of the Butterfly Shroud!?”

That I am.” The voice said. “I am the stars behind the sun, the Unseen Hand, Lady of Tamoanchan and She Who Blossomed in the White. I am Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly, young hunter, and I have come to claim this city.

Aurelio did not know if it was through sheer power, or something else in her voice, but he knew that they were facing down a deity. The five of them could kill cacodaemons, even her skeletal monsters, but he doubted they could stop a god.

But a god needed a conduit or a shrine, and she couldn’t attack on her own, something was binding her to this place.

“Ignore her!” Aurelio shouted. “We need to stop the music!”

How perceptive, hunter of hunters.” He could hear the laughter in her voice. “But your moon goddess is not the only one with a champion.

The marionette shattered, its chest bursting into a spray of metal as gears and wiring were scattered behind it like shimmering blood.

Aurelio saw the black shaft of an arrow embed itself in the ground behind it, having cut clean through the marionette.

Aurelio’s eyes followed its path and saw a young woman standing atop the gate, a long black bow in hand as she stared down at them, brushing the dark hair from her face.

“Who is she…?” Evangeline asked, staring at the ruined remains of her marionette.

“A champion,” Elisa said. “One that’s standing in our way.”

“She’s an anchor,” Aurelio said. “As sure as the song. Which means we take her down.”

The girl, the champion of Itzpapalotl, hopped down from the roof, bow still in hand as she stood between them and the roof.

“I’m afraid that whatever you’ve brought, it won’t be enough,” she said. “My name is Gisela Silva, and today is the day this city dies.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=63&sl=824

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One thought on “Where All Roads Lead

  1. Pingback: Where All Roads Lead | The Cities Eternal

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