The Snake and the Mirror

Nighttime Guardians

September 24th, 2024

 

It almost seemed as if the city grew brighter with each passing evening. Every night the safe boundaries of the city would expand, the soft streetlights pushing a little further out into the reclaimed city. When the sun set each night, Rome grew a little less wild. For the people who kept it safe, however, the work never seemed to end.

Aurelio had been on a scouting mission outside the strict city limits chasing down a rogue cacodaemon. After a swift silver arrow had ended its cursed existence he had made a leisurely stroll back towards the city center, taking the time to enjoy the quiet nights outside the bustling city, stopping occasionally to view the overgrown remains of old Rome, his blessed eyes able to pick out the finest details even in the absence of moonlight. He paused idly at the gates of a large estate, reading the name carved into the gatepost.

“Aldobrandini, huh? Wonder if Cat’s related…”

He was pulled from his thoughts by what sounded like a mix of leathery bat wings and flapping fabric. Appearing out of the shadows on the streets was a tall willowy woman with long dark hair, wrapped in the long cloak of a sorceress that stood out against her pale skin.

“You’re out a ways,” She said, gliding over the street pavement to stand beside him, and Aurelio felt her thin arm wrap around his own. “It seemed as if you’d be out till dawn.”

“Just taking my time,” Aurelio shrugged with a smile, not pulling away.

The woman was Sybilla, another member of the Roman “Night Guard” and Aurelio’s…well they hadn’t quite settled into a name for their dynamic, at least Aurelio hadn’t, though his friend Turi was more than eager to refer to her as his girlfriend. Aurelio insisted the truth was more complicated, but Sybilla had never tried to contest it. He knew in the back of his mind that he would have to admit to himself soon that he had at some point gone from hunting Witchbreed to dating one.

“How are the others doing?” Aurelio asked, setting off the street with Sybilla at his side.

“Oh, the usual,” Sybilla said. “Elisa is all business and Mary is there to balance her out.”

“And the new ones?” Aurelio asked. “Cade and… what was her name?”

Sybilla scoffed before shooting him a sly grin. “As if you don’t know. We both know you’re eyes keep going to those fox hips.”

“It’s the tail, honestly,” Said Aurelio, deadpan. “No other reason.”

“A likely story,” Sybilla said. “A shame too, she said she wanted to go on a long patrol with you one night. But if you can’t even recall her name…”

“I highly doubt Hachi said that.”

“So you DO know her name!”

“You know I did.”

“Only because you have a very obvious lustful gaze; it’s unseemly really.”

“And how do you know my ‘lustful gaze’?”

“Oh, I know it very well.”

The banter was frequent between them on patrols. But there was more which attracted Aurelio to her. She was beautiful, but he believed it went deeper than that. She was Witchbreed, a kind of demi-human empowered by the Witch Goddess Huldra. Simply being around her put Aurelio on edge. It heightened his senses and made the world itself seem more vivid. It was like he was a predator and she was prey. When she was near everything seemed that much more intense and lucid. And Aurelio had to admit to himself that not only did he recognize the effect she had on him, he enjoyed it.

To call Sybilla prey though was woefully underestimating her. She had the words ‘dangerous’ practically stamped across her forehead. She was a witch with a fiery tongue and a short fuse, but that happened to work well for both of them.

As the pair of them wandered back towards the city, contemplating where to spend the night as they shot barbs back and forth, both of them paused mid-stride as something hit the edges of their senses.

“You feel that?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course I do.”

In an instant, they had released each other’s’ arms and moved to get ready. Aurelio drew his bow and violet light flashed at the ends of Sybilla’s fingertips. The preparations were unnecessary, however, as another familiar face appeared form the darkness.

Mary. Another member of the Night Guard and another of Aurelio’s former quarries floated down from the trees where she had evidently been searching for them.

“Mary?” Aurelio asked. “You’re supposed to be with Elisa.”

“We have a situation,” Mary said. “All active hands on deck I believe is the phrasing…”

“A bit nautical but close enough,” Sybilla shrugged. “What’s the issue that needs four of us?”

“A creature, we’re not entirely sure what, seems to have absconded with a young woman.”

“A creature?” Aurelio asked. “Not a spirit or monster?”

“We didn’t have many details,” Mary said hurriedly. “It was reported by a bystander who reported a large…well…a large wolf on two legs.”

Sybilla and Aurelio glanced at one another. They were used to spirits like Mary, ghosts like Aelia and Bernadette, intelligent animals like Hachi and the Wolves of Rome, even vampires in the form of their recent benefactor. But this would be a first.

“Mary,” Sybill said slowly. “Is it a werewolf?”

“Elisa suggested that is a possibility,” Mary nodded. “Though she seemed skeptical…is that an odd thing for it to be?”

Mary looked between the two of them, a curious expression on her face.

“Honestly, at this point it really shouldn’t be,” Sybilla sighed. “Come on, we need to move quickly. She held out an arm for Aurelio who took it gingerly. He hated it when Sybilla needed to move quickly.

Sybilla and Mary couldn’t exactly fly like a classic superhero; it was more like a mix between super-jumping and gliding, cloaks spread like the wings of a bat. They weren’t flying that quickly but it was much faster than running on foot.

And Aurelio hated every minute of it.

He was a hunter, he was used to being on the ground and keeping himself balanced. But at times like this, all he could do was cling tightly to Sybilla’s arm as she supported him with magic.

“Oh, come on,” She chastised him as they landed inside the city proper, Aurelio bending over as he put his hands to his knees to support himself. “Don’t be such a child, hunter.”

“Urgh…alright, where are we going?” Aurelio asked. “I need a trail to follow.”

“Elisa followed them north, east of the Vatican and not far from here.”

“Good, I can pick up Elisa’s trail easily enough,” Aurelio said before turning to Sybilla. “And before you say anything, you’re even easier to track.”

Sybilla blinked before shooting him a wry smile, clearly satisfied with that response.

“You seem quite calm,” Mary said as they set off at speed over the city’s rooftops.

“Panic never solved problems,” Aurelio said. “Besides, if the creature kidnapped someone, then it probably doesn’t want to kill and eat them. That means we might have some time, and something to negotiate with.”

“I’m surprised, Hunter,” Sybilla said. “Negotiate? Six months ago you would have shot a beast on sight.”

“And aren’t you happy I changed?” Aurelio asked.

“Oh, very,” Sybilla nodded with a smile. “Though you haven’t changed where it counts.”

Both of them, however, eased on the banter as the chase began in earnest. Aurelio’s heightened senses could find Elisa’s trail made from her footprints, scattered debris, and her distinct scent (Homunculi had a unique but not unpleasant aroma if you were sensitive enough to smell it). Not long after finding her trail, however, Aurelio began seeing the signs of their quarry, and it was unmistakably the scent of a wolf.

“Seems Elisa was on to something but…hold on,” Aurelio quieted as he ran, trying to read the signs of the trail properly. The odd angles of footprints, and the lack of direction in the path all pointed to the wolf-beast fleeing rather than retreating. It wasn’t going to a lair or a hideout, but was running from something, and that something wasn’t Elisa.

“There might be more to this than we thought,” Aurelio said. “Quicken the pace!”

The three of them alighted across rooftops at speed, Sybilla and Mary helping him leap over the wider roads with magic as they kept on the trail. The tracks led them to a more disused part of the city, still inhabited but closer to the border than many found secure. It was more perception than reality, as Cacodaemon attacks within Rome had fallen to almost zero. Now, however, there was a very real monster among them. They tracked the quickening footsteps of the beast and Elisa towards a dark street and into an alley, and there Aurelio confirmed what he had suspected, that Elisa was not the only one hunting the thing.

The sight that greeted them in the alley was almost surreal. It was a dead end, one side still blocked by crumbled debris that littered these parts of the city. The only way out was through the alley entrance or up a fire escape that was five meters off the ground. At the end of the alley, hunkered down low but standing on its hind legs was what could only be described as a massive wolf-man. Its body was covered in matted brown fur, face twisted into a lupine muzzle and snout, and fingers extended into sharp claws. Half-hidden behind the snarling wolf beast was a young woman, maybe fourteen or fifteen, with only a simple cloak pulled around her nightgown and…Aurelio needed to do a double-take, rosey… almost pink hair.

Closer to the entrance of the alley, blocking off the escape of the werewolf, was what could only be described as a medieval knight, dressed in metal plates of armor pulled over a padded gambeson with a longsword and shield tightly in hand. The knight’s head was visible, and while Aurelio couldn’t tell from the angle, she seemed to be not much older than the girl herself. Given her thick armor and short hair, Aurelio could have mistaken her for a young man if it weren’t for her voice.

Between them, sword drawn and standing ready, was Elisa.

“Unhand her, beast!” The knight shouted past Elisa at the werewolf.

“He hasn’t handed me at all!” The girl shouted back. “I’m here by choice!”

“Then get away from it!” She shouted. “That thing could cut your throat in a second!”

“Except he won’t, you idiot!” The girl shouted. “He’s not a monster! He’s just sick.”

“Will you two,” Elisa said, her voice raised even as she kept her usual level tone. “Shut up for just one second while we figure this out?”

“I didn’t know you Romans let monsters walk freely in the streets!” The knight shouted, but before she could react long tendrilous shadows wrapped around her arms and legs, binding her tightly in place as Sybilla came up behind her.

“Just a few,” She said coldly in her ear. “And we don’t take well to being called monsters.”

“What the-…witch!” She shouted.

“Wrong again, only my boyfriend gets to call me that,” Aurelio rolled his eyes, now she was saying it.

Stepping forward, Aurelio drew his bow and aimed an arrow for the werewolf’s chest, addressing the girl this time.

“If he’s not dangerous,” Aurelio said. “Step away from him.”

“Of course he’s dangerous, he’s a mons-“ The knight tried to shout over him but was cut off as another tendril wrapped around her mouth, gagging her.

“Do shut up,” Sybilla said. “We’re talking now. Try to interrupt again and it goes down your throat.”

The girl with the werewolf looked torn, not leaving the beast’s shadow. “If I do…will you hurt him?”

“Not unless he tries to hurt someone else,” Aurelio said. Slowly, hesitantly, the girl stepped away, leaving the beast alone in Aurelio’s sights.

All of his old instincts were still there. He felt his fingers tremble, compelling him to release the arrow and kill the monster then and there. It would be quick and painless, a merciful death.

But Aurelio wasn’t just a hunter anymore. Part of being in the Night Guard and the champion of Diana was knowing what not to hunt.

The werewolf, even as the girl pulled away, did not move, eyeing them all fiercely, claws raised.

“Explain,” Elisa said to the girl. “Who are you and what is happening?”

“My name’s Serlida,” she said. “Part of a group of new arrivals, I’m a mage from Germany. This…” she gestured to the werewolf. “…is Leon, we picked him up a month or two ago.”

“And you knew he was a werewolf and didn’t tell anyone when you entered the city?”

“We thought we could just chain him up or something…” Serlida admitted. “It didn’t really work.”

“Clearly,” Elisa said before turning to the group. “Thanks for coming when you did, Mary, can you look into the werewolf’s mind, see how much of that is true?”

“It’s a bit harder on waking people…” Mary said, stepping into the alley. “But I’ll see what I can do.”

She moved slowly towards the werewolf, all of them watching nervously as she approached. Even as she came within an arm’s reach, however, the werewolf made no move to attack.

“I mean no harm,” Mary said slowly and softly. “I simply need to see that you don’t either.”

Very slowly Mary reached out and placed a hand on the werewolf’s shoulder.

“What are you getting?” Elisa asked

“It’s easier than I expected,” Mary said quietly. “The man sleeps while the wolf is waking…the man is innocent…the wolf is a predator, but it knows it’s in a trap. It’s smart enough not to strike.”

“Good,” said Elisa. “Then we bind him and bring him in.”

“Bring him where?” The girl, Serlida asked. “Who are you people?”

“We’re the Roman Night Guard,” Elisa said. “And we won’t harm Leon, but we’ll need to bring you all in to find out just what is going on.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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