April 9th, 2024
“Charge the radio station,” Aurelio said.
The others didn’t object, all of them charging forward to where the dark-haired woman was waiting for them. Another black arrow shot through the sky, only for one of Sybilla’s crow-like minions to fly down and intercept the shot. The others ran too, Mary using her magic bolts to tear through the closest star demons, disarming some and destroying others to clear their way.
Gisela jumped down from the roof of the building, standing between them and the door as she drew another arrow. Aurelio did the same, trying to keep pace even as he drew back his next arrow, his only hope was that he was a better shot than she was. With his champion’s vision, he could track the movement of her eyes, see where she was looking as she pulled back the arrow, her eyes squaring on Sybilla. They were both fully-drawn, ready to fire. Aurelio knew he could make this shot, that he could put an arrow through her heart, but if he released his arrow at the intended target, then Gisela’s would strike just as true.
Aurelio made his decision, at the last moment he threw himself to the side, slamming into Sybilla to throw her to the ground as the black arrow screamed through the air where her heart had been mere moments before. His own arrow flew off course, embedding itself into the wall a meter from Gisela.
Sybilla stared up in Aurelio in surprise, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. Aurelio, however, frowned as he pulled her quickly back to her feet. He had missed his shot, missed it in order to save a Witchbreed. He didn’t want to talk about it.
Elisa had closed the distance between their group and Gisela, moving in to engage the champion head on. Her sword flashed as Gisela swung her bow like a curved sword, using the flat edge to deftly parry Elisa.
“Keep going!” Elisa shouted. “Stop the signal! I’ll hold her off!”
Aurelio knew she was right; they had to keep moving. Together, they threw open the double doors of the radio station and ran inside. He slammed the doors shut behind them, but as the doors closed he caught Gisela’s eye for the briefest, and saw the power behind her dark violet eyes.
Elisa wasn’t going to last long.
As he slammed the doors shut, Sybilla and Mary summoned magical chains and barriers over the doors to slow down any pursuers. Evangeline was rapidly disassembling the marionette, the armored soldier coming apart into a number of small insect-like constructs that wrapped themselves around her body like thick bands of jewelry and two on her hands like armored gloves.
“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked, flexing her fingers, more of the constructs wrapping around her leg like a brace.
“Afraid not,” Aurelio said. “Guess we’ll just have to find-“
“Thank goodness you’re here!” A voice cut through them, all of them ready for a fight as they saw a woman running down the hall towards them. He didn’t recognize the woman, but there was something oddly familiar about her voice.
“Who are you?” Aurelio asked.
“I’m umm…well I’m Siren on the radio.” She said.
“Y-You’re Siren?” Aurelio asked in surprise. He had to admit, the woman was pretty but from -the- Siren, he was expecting someone more…voluptuous.
“That’s right,” She nodded quickly.
“What are you doing here?” Sybilla asked. “This place is the center of a cult invasion!”
“Well I couldn’t go outside!” She said. “So I just…hid in the closet.”
“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked.
“Of course,” Siren nodded quickly. “It’s just…”
“Just what?” Aurelio asked.
“It’s Mariposa, one of the new singers. She’s locked in the broadcast room and…” She trailed off.
“Is she the source of this?” Aurelio asked.
“I think so,” Siren nodded. “But I don’t think…she’s herself. I believe she’s been brainwashed.”
“Take us there,” Aurelio said. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Siren nodded and led them deeper into the facility, guiding them towards the broadcast room. It was a large room, divided in half by a large glass screen, one side filled with recording and broadcast equipment, the other with several chairs and microphones. The only other figure in there now was a young olive-skinned woman who was singing into the microphone, the machines seeming to work of their own accord as they captured her voice. Though she was singing in that same steady haunting tune, Aurelio could see shivers running down her body, her eyes tearstained and glowing with unnatural power.
“I’ll try to shut down the broadcast,” Evangeline said, moving to the machines and setting to work.
“Good. Mary, Sybilla, do you think you can break that trance on her?”
“We can try,” Sybilla said. “What about you?”
“I’m going to help Elisa,” Aurelio said, and he ran back out the way they had come.
By the time he burst through the doors back outside, Elisa was on her last legs. Her arms, chest, and face were covered in cuts and bruises form blows. Gisela wasn’t untouched, but she was in far better shape than the homunculus.
“I’ll take this, Elisa,” Aurelio said, readying his bow. “You join the others inside.”
For a moment it looked as if she was about to protest, but Elisa relented. “Fine,” she said “Don’t get yourself killed.”
Aurelio had an arrow nocked to the string, keeping his distance as he carefully eyed Gisela.
“Why did you come here?” He asked. “Why are you doing this?”
“I only came here looking for someone,” Gisela said. “And it isn’t you.”
“Well you sure know how to make an entrance,” Aurelio growled. “How many people are going to die today because of you?”
“This city would have come under siege whether I came here or not,” Gisela said. “If it can’t survive now then perhaps it was never meant to.”
“And who made you the judge of that!?” Aurelio demanded. “Your patron!?”
“Make no mistake,” Gisela said. “I despise Itzpapalotl as much as you do, perhaps more.”
“Then why!?” Aurelio demanded. “Why have you helped her!? Why are you willing to destroy this city for her!?”
“Because the threads of fate don’t always pull us in the direction we choose.” Gisela said, an arrow appearing in her hands as she nocked it against the bowstring.
“I don’t accept that” Aurelio said. “You can’t just blame fate and refuse to take responsibility!”
“Oh, I will take the responsibility,” Gisela glared at him. “I do this because it is the only thing I can do, the only hope I have, and I will bear that burden.”
“And it’s my duty to stop you,” Aurelio said. “At any cost.”
“Then you may try, Champion of Diana.”
Aurelio drew and fired his arrow with incredible speed. If it had been a cacodaemon or a monster he would have caught it right in the eye faster than it could move. But she was no cacodaemon; Aurelio was fighting another champion, and he knew the fight wouldn’t be that easy.
Gisela leaned out of range, the silver arrow missing her by inches as it streamed through her hair, her arm pulling back as her own black arrow shot through the air. Her bow arm was as quick as his, but her precision was lacking as Aurelio quickly moved out of the arrow’s path. She was a champion but not a hunter; her bow didn’t respond to her like Aurelio’s did to him. Here, at least, he had the advantage.
Aurelio leapt back, putting more space between them, knowing that the more distance he got, the greater his advantage would be. As he moved he drew and fired another arrow, almost striking Gisela if she hadn’t struck back at the last second, her black bow whipping through the air as it deflected the arrow and sent it spinning into the air.
“Is that all you have?” Gisela said, drawing and firing another arrow that came dangerously close to his neck. She might lack his precision, but she was no amateur. He couldn’t afford to lower his guard.
“How long have you been a champion?” She asked as she pulled back another arrow, ducking her head at the last moment as another silver shaft missed her by centimeters. Aurelio had to admit her reflexes were top notch, f that was all it was letting her dodge his arrows.
“More than a year,” Aurelio said proudly. “All in service to Lady Diana.”
Aurelio hadn’t even seen her move. She didn’t run at him so much as she seemed to fade out of one spot and appear much closer, as if the shadows cast over the street had delivered her there without need to walk. In less than the blink of an eye the distance between them was halved, and Aurelio had to all but throw himself out of the way as another black arrow flew at him with renewed speed.
By the time he recovered Gisela was upon him again, another arrow drawn as the distance between them evaporated. She fired at almost point-blank range and only his reflexes saved him from catching the arrow full in the chest. Still, he wasn’t fast enough, and he felt the black arrowhead cut his left arm.
Aurelio swore under his breath as Gisela changed tact, the string vanishing from her bow as the strange black wood seemed to reshape itself into a bladed edge. With no way out, Aurelio brought his own bow to meet hers like clashing swords, the divine wood holding against Gisela’s attack.
She didn’t stop at one attack, however, unleashing one ferocious swing after another. Aurelio knew what she was doing, exploiting the inherent weakness of his bow to take her advantage. At close range he didn’t like his odds, at least not while she was armed. She was fierce but also rather short, only around Catarina’s height and more than a head shorter than him. She had eliminated his reach, so he needed to eliminate hers.
Still holding his bow like a club, he made his attack, forcing her to raise her bow to defend herself as his left hand pulled an arrow from his quiver. Holding it just below the tip, he made a sudden jab at her arm, the arrow scratching against her skin, but delivering enough pain to make her drop her bow.
Aurelio knew his chance wouldn’t last long. If she recovered she could summon the bow back to her hand and all of this gained ground would be lost. So the moment it left her fingers, he made his attack.
Aurelio dropped his bow, bringing up his fists as he struck for her stomach with a fast jab form his right hand. The speed caught her off-guard, and he knocked the air from her lungs as she staggered back. When he brought his fists back around again, however, she was ready for him, and Aurelio saw her foot swing around like a whip far too fast to prevent it slamming hard against the side of his face, sending him reeling. He saw her hold out a hand, trying to bring her bow back between her fingers, but he threw himself at her, tackling her to the ground before she could regain the focus.
Soon any thought of their bows were abandoned as they broke into a close-range fist-fight. At this distance, Aurelio had some advantage from size and reach, but Gisela had a champion’s strength, and he could feel each brutal blow as she delivered it, strong enough to shatter bones on an ordinary man. A single dizzying kick to his side almost audibly cracked several of his ribs. And another blow to the head sent his vision spinning.
Aurelio gave as good as he got though. Striking wherever he could find an opening to throw her off-balance. He knew this wasn’t going to last forever, and that he was probably at a disadvantage, but he didn’t need to beat her, he just needed to stall her. He could only hope the others had found a way to stop her.
Before long both of them were tired and ragged, worn to the edge by their fight. Aurelio could feel his breath coming in heavy pants, body aching with each new breath. He didn’t know how much fight was left in him, but he was going to make sure it was enough. Steadying himself, he hunched his shoulders and charged Gisela, expecting her to strike back as he threw his full weight against her.
He felt her fist slam into the side of his head, color flashing behind his eyes as he tackled her to the ground, arms wrapping around her chest to try and pin her arms behind her. After a few moments of struggle he managed to pin her on her stomach, face to the ground with her arms held behind her.
“I might not be who you’re looking for,” Aurelio panted. “But I guess I’m enough.”
Just as he subdued her, light seemed to fill the air around them. At first Aurelio thought it must have been a spotlight or a meteor, blocking his eyes with his hands, but as he looked up he could see that the sun had revealed itself in full, the black miasma that had blocked it vanishing. With a last waning scream, the star demons vanished in the sunlight and the monsters and cacodaemons retreated or were destroyed entirely.
All around him the tune that wafted through the air had changed. It was no longer Mariposa’s haunting song, but instead another, brighter, and more intoxicating melody that sang through the air. With a start, Aurelio realized that Siren’s voice had replaced Mariposa’s, freeing the minds of the city from its grasp.
“Strong enough to protect your city,” Gisela said, face still pressed against the ground. “I will admit…Rome has impressed me.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=64&sl=398