Return to Rome
April 10th, 2024
The journey home had been a quiet one. Rosa had spoken little for most of the ride and it took no small amount of cajoling from Cat to bring her around again.
“You alright, Rosa?”
“Whaddya mean?” Rosa pulled her eyes from the horizon to look at her.
“I mean…you lost your-“
“I didn’t lose anything.” Rosa cut her off. “I lost my sister a long time ago. This was…well I guess…this was a chance to say goodbye.”
“I see…” Catarina fell into sheepish silence for a moment, but it was not long before she couldn’t take the silence anymore.
“You ever think about joining me and Hildegard?” Catarina asked the reticent redhead.
“Join you for what?” Rosa eyed her somewhat suspiciously.
“Well, Hilde and Turi tend to go out and slay monsters the legion can’t deal with easily. I wanted to join them, but I think we can make a stronger case if we volunteer together.”
“Seriously?” Rosa asked. “You want us working together?”
“Did you see us back there at the fort!?” Cat said. “We couldn’t be stopped! We make a great team!”
“You’re delusional,” Rosa waved her off.
“I’m right,” Cat said stubbornly. “You and I did really well together, and I think we could make a good team.”
Rosa let out a long sigh. “We wouldn’t be part of the legions?”
“Not officially, no,” Cat said. “We mostly answer to Hanne, the Senate, and Capitolina.”
At this Rosa’s interest seemed to perk up as she glanced at Cat. “Really?”
“Well, sure,” Cat nodded. “Capitolina and the other wolves put the security of Rome as their primary focus, so they want to know where the monsters are and be sure the best people are getting rid of them.”
Cat could tell Rosa was becoming more interested, even if it wasn’t showing on her face; she just needed a bit more of a push.
“Come ooooon,” Cat said. “You, me, Hilde, Turi, some of the best fighters in Rome going out to hunt monsters. How does that not sound awesome? You don’t have to walk in formations or go on long patrols with the legion or anything, just us and the hunt.”
“Jeez, you’re pushy,” Rosa said. “Fine, I’ll join Hilde and Turi on one of their hunts and see if it’s my thing. You can come along too if you have to, so long as you don’t talk this much.”
“No promises,” Cat grinned. “But I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“We’ll see about that…” Rosa muttered, looking out over the edge of the carpet. “Is…that Rome?”
“Hmm…” Cat looked out over the horizon and the rich green Italian countryside as well. “Looks like Rome to me though…I don’t remember that much smoke.”
Rosa’s eyes narrowed. “Something’s gone wrong.”
Cat felt a lump in her throat, her thoughts instantly going to Hilde, vulnerable and bedridden. “I-I’m sure everything is fine.”
“Can this thing go faster?” Rosa asked, feet rubbing against the fabric of the flying carpet.
“It’s not like it has an accelerator or brakes or anything,” Cat grumbled, fingers hooking around the forward edge of the carpet as she tried to urge it forward. She wanted to get to the ground as much as Rosa did, but a magic carpet wasn’t exactly intuitive to fly.
As they flew in closer, it became clear that something disastrous had happened during their brief excursion. Numerous streets were in disrepair, with stones shattered and the fronts of buildings torn open. There was evidence of fires and other smaller-scale damage, and the legions were out in force along with the city guard to repair damage and protect the populace.
“I need to check in with Capitlina,” Rosa said. “See what went wrong.” Rosa said, surveying the damage from above.
“I need to get home…” Cat said, her anxiety slowly rising in her chest.
“Drop me off near the Hill,” Rosa said. “It’s on the way.”
“R-right…” Cat maneuvered the carpet a little to bring them low over the Capitoline Hill. She didn’t even touch the ground before Rosa leapt off the side of the carpet and started off running, leaving Cat to shoot back off into the air and fly straight for home.
She touched down a few minutes later, jumping off the carpet which vanished into a mist of golden light behind her as she threw the door open. The house itself seemed unharmed, the windows and door were still intact and there were no signs of exterior damage, but Cat’s heart was in her throat as she ran inside.
“Mrowr,” The familiar meow of Basil greeted her as the cat sat up from where he had been curled on the couch, hopping softly down to receive his usual attention. Cat ignored him as she ran upstairs.
“Hilde!” She shouted up. “I’m home!”
Cat ran up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door to Hilde’s room, only to find it already crowded with a number of people. Hilde was still in bed, seemingly asleep, while Salvatore and Aurelio were there as well. Both of them seemed much worse for wear. Turi had a number of bandages over his arms and one on his face. Aurelio was leaning against the wall, one arm in a sling and similarly scratched up with dark rings around his eyes from lack of sleep.
“Cat, you’re back,” Turi smiled as she ran into the room.
“What happened?” Cat demanded before he could say more. “Did Rome come under attack?”
“Ya,” Turi nodded. “The cult decided to make their move while you and Rosa were away.”
Cat’s heart sank. She had gone on this mission purely to save Asha. While the girl was a close friend, not being in Rome might have endangered a lot of people, and she’d taken Rosa as well, one of the best monster hunters in the city.
Turi apparently saw her fears on her face, as he was quick to respond.
“It’s not your fault, Cat. No one saw this coming, there was no way any of us could have known and I doubt they were waiting for you to leave, more likely they were waiting for the Legions to depart again so they only had the guard to defend Rome.”
“But we repelled the attack, right?” Cat asked. “Is the cult still out there?”
“Not anymore,” Aurelio shook his head. “We cut off the head, rounded up most of the remaining members as well as its most influential leaders. Whatever dregs of the cult remain will be gone soon enough as people start to name names.”
“And Hilde’s fine,” Turi said. “I defended this area personally to make sure of it.”
Though pangs of guilt still cut at her, Catarina did feel some relief at that note. “Alright…what about Hildegard? Has she improved?”
There was a brief silence as Turi looked towards the floor, and Cat knew that the situation had no doubt become worse. Cat may have solved Asha’s problems on the other side of the sea, but she was still powerless to help Hildegard now.
There came a knock at the door, and it was opened to reveal a young woman Cat didn’t recognize. She had short dark hair, black but with a touch of blue, and bright turquoise eyes.
“Aurelio?” She asked, looking around before spotting him in the crowded room, “I wanted to make sure you were still here.”
“Still here, Mary,” Aurelio nodded. “How’s everyone else?”
‘Aiding in the rebuilding efforts,” Mary said. “Sybilla asked after you so I came looking.”
“I’ll be out to join them soon,” Aurelio said, arms folded over his chest. “Just needed to check on Hilde and Turi here.”
“Of course I…” Mary had glanced at Hildegard while speaking, but as she did the short woman did a brief double-take before staring at her in earnest, words trailing off.
“Something wrong, Mary?” Aurelio asked.
“I’ve seen this before…” The woman called Mary said quietly, and both Cat and Turi turned to face her.
“Before?” Cat asked. “This sickness? Where!? Where have you seen it before?”
Before she had even realized it, Cat had grabbed Mary by the shoulders. The young woman seemed surprised, though her expression was still slightly muted.
“Well I haven’t seen it personally but…I have some of my creator’s knowledge, and she was familiar with all manner of vicious curses.”
“So it is a curse…” Turi said. “We had thought as much.”
“What can we do?” Cat asked. “How is the curse lifted?”
“Breaking a curse is deceptive in its simplicity,” Mary said. “One must be the person who laid the curse in the first place, or more powerful than said person.”
“We don’t know who it was…” Cat said. “At least I don’t.”
Mary spent another moment looking over Hildegard “It is…a very powerful curse. Beyond the grasp of mortal spellcasters.”
Cat’s heart sank. If that was true, then she didn’t have the power to break the curse; Scheherazade likely didn’t either, perhaps not even Albion Nassar.
“Though I know someone who would be easily capable of tearing this curse away,” Mary concluded as she drew back from Hildegard.
“Who!?” Caat all but demanded, fists shaking.
“My creator and former master,” Mary said. “The Witch Goddess Huldra.”
“Then we’re sunk,” Aurelio said. “Not only is Huldra who-knows-where, there’s the small problem of her being evil.”
“Argh!” Cat shouted in frustration, hands still on Mary’s shoulders, a nonplussed expression on her face. “Why would even suggest that if there was no hope?”
“Because the Hunter is not telling the full story,” Mary said. “Lady Huldra is not by her nature evil. She is possessed by a piece of Nidhoggr’s spirit. It consumes her thoughts and guides her actions. She is a slave to it, not a willing servant.”
“But we’re still at square one,” Cat said. “With no one to turn to.”
Mary looked past Cat to Aurelio. “Now is the time,” she said firmly.
“No,” Aurelio said. “Too much has happened, we need to recover.”
“We made a bargain, I am upholding my end.” Mary’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“How can we even hope to find Huldra?” Aurelio asked. “Or get her to agree to some kind of exorcism?”
“By doing for her what you did to me,” Mary said. “We must kill this piece of Nidhoggr where it resides within her mind, in the Dreaming.”
“You can find her in the Dreaming?” Aurelio asked.
“Of course,” Mary nodded. “She is my creator, I can always track her presence.”
“Why didn’t you say so earlier!?” Aurelio demanded, but Cat cut him off.
“Wait, wait. wait, you both lost me,” she said, hands raised. “Explain what’s going on.”
Mary spoke before Aurelio could come up with the words.
“My creator, Huldra, is also a goddess of dreams,” Mary said. “All dreams can be reached in the Dreaming, the gestalt world from in which all dreams are formed, if one knows the way. Aurelio has been there before, and it is the place where I once existed.”
“So you’re saying,” Cat said, parsing things out. “Is that someone can go into the Dreaming, find your master, and kill the piece of Nidhoggr that’s enslaving her?”
“It can be done, hypothetically,” Mary said. “Though the journey will be difficult. I can take one person at most. Aurelio’s injuries would follow him into the dreaming alogn with his mental fatigue, and Hildegard is obviously incapable…”
“I’ll do it,” Turi said. “I am a Champion of Minerva, I think I stand a better chance than most.”
“No,” Cat said. “Let me do it.”
Turi turned to her. “Hilde would never have let me put you at risk to save her. Besides, you’re not as skilled a monster-slayer as she is, and you’re not a champion.”
Cat stood stubbornly against him. “She wouldn’t want you to risk your life either, and I might not be a champion but if this IS a primordial we’re dealing with, then I have an advantage.”
“Advantage?” Mary asked, curious.
Cat lifted the sword from her belt and showed it to Mary. “Caeruleamor, my sword.”
Mary stepped closer, tilting her head as she examined the sword, a curious expression on her face. “This steel…what has been worked into it?”
“Mmm…something potent.” Cat said, recalling her promise to Angel. “Something that can cancel out the power of a Primordial.”
Mary looked from Cat’s sword to Turi. “She has a point,” she said. “Nidhoggr, even a fragment of it, is no mortal monster or cacodaemon. The Dragon of Yggdrassil is mightier than the power of a god, save perhaps for the likes of Zeus or Thor, and a fragment is more than enough to overcome most mortals unless they have an advantage such as this.”
“It’s still not a safe journey,” Turi said hesitantly.
“I never asked for a safe journey,” Cat said. “But if I can help save Hilde, if there’s anything I can do to make a difference, then I’ll do it.”
Cat turned to look at Mary. “I want to do it.”
“Very well,” Mary said. “I’ll begin the preparations.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=67&sl=912