The Wolves of Rome

Lords of Creation

April 20th, 2023
Olympos, the seat of the Greek Gods.

Any mortal who climbs the peak would not find the grand palaces of the Olympians there, for the divine Olympos exists outside of space as most mortals understand it. It is a mountain peak that cannot be reached by mortals unless the gods decree it, and it is there that they hold their council.
It is a place of unparalleled beauty, grand palaces of gold, ivory, and cloud that are shaped into grand architecture beyond even the wisest mortal hands. It is a mountain beyond the “real mountain” in the same way a god is beyond a man.

It sits atop the highest peak, the Pantheon, where Lord of the Sky Zeus holds his power and his thoughts, above all other gods in the way the heaven is above the earth, incomparable and unquestionable in his authority.

At least in regards to the Greeks.

The image of Zeus is well known, yet it cannot be truly captured in image or likeness of stone or pen. He is powerfully built, more perfectly formed than any mortal born man. His body is built of vitality and virility, while his face displays wisdom in its creased brow and trimmed beard of grey beneath a tumbling head of silver hair. He sits on his throne, deep in thought, as the clouds of the heavens whirl around him, a monument to his own magnificence and power. From this throne he can hurl a lightning bolt across the Earth, and in ages past he did so often to let his will be known.
Zeus Olympios, King of the Gods, Master of the world.

His authority is unquestionable among the Olympians and thus there are few things more difficult for an incomparable being than to recognize an equal. Just as the sky is host to more than azure atmosphere, so did Zeus now wait in silence and in thought for the arrival of the Sun.

She is Isis Panbasilea, the All-Ruling Goddess, but she is also Ra.

With the death of Amon-Ra at the hands of Apep the Destroyer, the mantle of Ra and the crown of the sun had been left empty for another to take. Sobek had offered his strength and her son, Horus, had offered his power. Both were needed on the field in the battles to come. The mantle had to go to a ruler, a sovereign, and a Uniter. Thus it went to the Queen of Heaven. Isis.

As Isis, she had been a figure to respect in Olympos, a treasured and honored guest among the Olympians along with her brother-husband Osiris. Now she comes as Isis-Ra, the unquestioned ruler of their pantheon, and that made her an equal to Zeus in authority and in strength.

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“I greet you, Zeus Olympios, Lord of this Land, with Honor and respect.” Isis-Ra’s voice was a curtain of soft demure elegance held over an iron core of power. Even before her ascension as Ra, she had been a figure to respect and, at times, to fear.

“You are greeted, Lady Isis-Ra Aigyptus, Queen of Egypt, as honored guest and ally in this court.” Zeus’ voice was stern and powerful, carrying with it an absolute authoritative note.
The formalities in their greetings were long and specific. Each acknowledged the sovereignty of the other in their lands. Isis-Ra offered deference to Zeus as lord of the venue, while Zeus did the same for Isis-Ra’s privilege as guest. Inter-Pantheon relations varied wildly in their forms, but the Greeks and Egyptians had long established theirs, and the meeting of two Pantheon lords was too delicate a matter to be treated lightly.

“You’ve been quiet these past few days, Zeus.” Isis-Ra was the first to drop formalities, as was her right as guest. Zeus, at least, was grateful for the opportunity. Their titles could be dropped for sake of ease, though Zeus knew better than most not to neglect the “Ra” in Isis’ name.

“The news grows no better the further outward we look for it.” Zeus said, hands gripping the arms of his throne. “All the pantheons we have heard from are in varying degrees of disarray. Of them, only we Olympians remain strong and steadfast.”

Isis frowned.

“Grim news indeed, but hardly surprising. If my people can be thrown from their lands so easily, I hardly imagine anyone is prospering. What of the northerners? These…Norsemen and women?”

At this, Zeus gained a look of decided disdain.

“I have spoken only briefly to Odin, their All-Father, when my eagles met his ravens in the skies to the north. The man has little grace in his authority. He seems to revel in speaking in riddles and tricks.”

“And what did you glean from him, Zeus?” Isis asked. Perhaps in better times she would indulge her host with platitudes and assurances, but these were not better times. She had little patience for his complaints.

“The Aesir are managing as they always have. Their realms are in complete disarray but it is almost as if they are reveling in it. They have always been hungrier for battle than us. I suppose now is their time.”

“One should never underestimate the Olympians thirst for blood, Zeus.” Isis-Ra smiled wickedly. “The records of your deeds and actions do not paint a pretty picture. Even mortals need not look far into the works of Homer to see what it is like when the Hellenic Gods wage war.”

“A squabble and a trifle.” Zeus shook off the comment with a wave of his great hand. “Regardless, the Aesir seek no allies and want for no help, at least so long as that pride holds.”

“Perhaps I should speak with them.” Isis-Ra said idly.“I have a penchant for wordplay and a cleverer tongue than most. Perhaps this Odin would enjoy my company.”

“There are few who wouldn’t.” Zeus smirked, and indulged his eyes in a long trek across Isis-Ra’s body.

The power of Isis-Ra could be compared only to her beauty. Her skin was a deep reddish tan, smooth like glass and accentuated by a river of long black hair crowned by a the radiant solar disk. Her eyes shined with a brilliant gold lined in elegant black above a narrow nose and long full lips. Her body, his eyes travelling down, was in the primacy of fertility, long flowing curves that accentuated her wide hips and full breasts, her silhouette only enhanced by the long slimming dress of red and white she wore. Beneath each arm waited the furled wings of a rainbow-feathered kite.

She was, even as Isis alone, a beauty on par with any goddess, and certainly, in Zeus’ eyes, past that of his own wife and queen. Had she been in his pantheon, Zeus would have bedded Isis long ago given even a modicum of a chance.

Isis-Ra could be indulgent to Zeus’ lingering eyes, but only for so long before her voice once more demanded his attention.

“While you may hold firm, Zeus, your stronghold is not so impregnable as to be negligent to its defense.” She said, irritation creeping into her voice. Trapped as her husband might be beyond the pale of death and in the sealed afterlife of Duat, Isis-Ra was still very much devoted wife and lover. “Do not be so quick to judge our strength while Typhon marches at your doorstep.”

At this, Zeus rose from his throne. For all her power, as lord of the Sky Zeus was still a head taller than Isis-Ra. The sun, even at its brightest, had always been a guest in the Halls of Heaven; it was even truer now.

“Typhon is merely a nuisance, and one I have dealt with before.” He said, his voice thundering even as he kept a level tone. “He offers no real threat to Olympos, especially as his mate Echidna still lies truly dead. His offspring are ill-bred and fragile now.”

Isis-Ra, however, remained undaunted. She raised her eyes to his, demanding him to treat with her as an equal, not a subject. Still, she kept her voice calm and respectful. She was, at the end of the day, still his guest. “You defeated him because that was the way the wind had turned in that time. Order was meant to usurp chaos and so the chaotic Primordials were defeated. Tiamat, Typhon, Apep, all of them and others were felled. But Zeus I should not have to remind you that the balance can always tip the other way. It is level now, but an ill-made choice can tip it once more in Chaos’ favor.”

“Do not be quick to lecture, Isis-Ra. We are your hosts after you failed to hold your own gates.”

“Proof enough as any that I know of what I speak.”She said, not rising to his bait. “Typhon is enraged but he is no fool. None of the Primordials are. All of us have every reason to believe he is seeking out a new mate fit to sire a new generation of monstrous offspring.”

“And they will be destroyed, regardless of their number or supposed strength.” Once more Zeus waved off the worry.

Isis-Ra, however, saw past the bravado in his voice. Zeus was self-assured, but not foolhardy.
“Something else is troubling you, Lord of the Sky.”She said, her tone shifting as she stepped closer to the throne. She was no longer playing the guest, but a confidante. “We are allies in this war. Share with me.”

“The fates are beyond reason.” Zeus spat. “Since time immemorial, they have obeyed me and now they spurn my word.”

The worry must have been clear on Isis-Ra’s face. The Moirai, the Fates, were the direct line between the gods and destiny. If they were ignoring Zeus, then terrible and truly unpredictable times were ahead. Few things were as dreadful to the gods as the thought of something completely and truly unknown.

“I suppose then,” Isis-Ra said carefully. “That this is out of our hands. We will fight for what is ours, but I am starting to doubt that this war will be won or lost by gods.”

Once more Zeus scoffed, but credibly so at the mere insinuation. “You would trust mortal hands with the fate of all creation?”

“I would not trust anything to mortal hands.” Isis-Ra corrected him. “But it seems likely that in this case our own hands might be tied.”

Zeus’ face fell into a mask of displeasure. “You have proof of this as well, I suppose?”
“I do.” Isis-Ra nodded, and before her, warped from the space between herself and Zeus, came the image of a city. It was one Zeus knew well, but not as Zues Olympios. It was a city built on seven hills, the Eternal City.

“Rome…” He said the name quietly. “Everyone has spoken much of Rome these days. My Queen was there just a few days ago on her own trivial business.”

“And it is where my Pharaoh is as well.” Isis-Ra said.“These people, these Romans, scarcely past recovery, have already done extraordinary things. They have defended their city time and again against the forces of the Primordials. They have broken into the former prison of Typhon, repelled the invasion of the Wolf and Sun Eater, and proven time and again that mortals, while reeling, have not fallen.”

“I suppose there is some pride to have in them.”Zeus said. “These mortal heroes have ever proven themselves tenacious, with nerve beyond their standing.”  

Zeus sat back down upon his throne, his brow furrowed in thought, but his grip not as tight on the arms. “My children have already taken an interest in the mortals. I did not condone…but I did not refuse my daughters this course either. Perhaps in time we will once more see the likes of the great men of antiquity, Achilles and Hectors of a new era.”

“A good deal to ask of them.” Isis-Ra smiled. “They are still young and vulnerable, they have much to rediscover, and I believe the Fates have much in store for them. Until then, at least, they have some form of protection.”

Once more the image shifted, replaced now with the lifelike picture of four wolves. “The people of Rome are still weak and prone to failure and corruption, but I think the Fates drew these wolves together for a reason.”

“Perhaps it is so.” Zeus nodded. “The wolves become the shepherds of a new and powerful flock…yes I could see the hand of Fate in this.”

“And why is that, Zeus?” Isis-Ra asked.

“Because an act of Fate is always identifiable by the clear hand of irony.” A great chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Yes, I suppose we should look more to these Romans, perhaps they are merely the first of many.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Mount Etna

April 15th, 2023
Mount Etna had once stood as a stately and quiet mountain in Sicily, a quiet monolith that looked out over the sea and the city of Catania. Most years since antiquity it was a silent behemoth that loomed like a slumbering giant on the island nation. On occasion, it unleashed the odd belch of fire, reminding the populace of the monster that lurked within its core, a beast with a hundred hungry maws full of ash, smoke, and molten rock.

The Mount Etna that stood since the Days of Revelation was a very different beast, a terrible hollow tombstone, a shattered prison and abandoned workshop. The snow at its peak had been replaced with bare scorched rock and the telltale marks of cataclysmic eruption that had ripped the mountain’s peak asunder. Smoke still rose from its peak, but it was not a column of ash, pumice, and fire. It was the wispy transparent ghost of a dying fire, like a candle just recently snuffed out. The beast had escaped its prison and the fire in the forge had gone out.

Catania, the city that reached almost to the mountain’s very slope, had been devastated. Half of it now found itself buried in ash from the initial pyroclastic devastation that had rolled in like a tidal wave. The buildings closest to the peak had been shattered entirely and the rest had been buried like the Pompeii of ancient Rome. Walking through the city was hazardous, and cloth masks were worn over the face as the legs of the Roman expedition shuffled through knee-deep drifts of white-grey ash. The ashfall had ended months ago, but with none around to clean it save the wind it was still piled high in some places, and could be dangerous to breathe in as it was kicked up in clouds around them as they moved. Safety goggles, pilfered from old chemistry labs, had been issued as standard equipment as well.

There was no safer and more direct approach to Etna. The roads of Catania were largely deserted and provided a straight path through the ash rather than struggling half-blind through the wilderness. The Rangers marched in a column through the city, eyes sharp for any sign of movement. Ash or not, this was their territory. They had been trained for months in urban combat, and a city to them was home. Breaths were shallow and eyes darting as they moved in a line through the grey city towards the black mountain.

The preparations and tension were well-warranted. Typhon had long since abandoned his prison, but he had left plenty of his ill-bred progeny behind.

A shadow moved through the air, half-hidden in the low cloud cover. Most of the Rangers, Hanne among them, would have preferred a clear day for the assault, but time was not on their side. Supplies were running low and they would need to return to Rome soon. Crossbows rose into the air, pointed skyward as they slowed their steps, eyes up as they waited for a sign of scaly skin or leathery wings.

There was a shriek that echoed through the air, coming down from the grey clouds before being cut off in a sudden harsh note. A moment later, a great black shape tumbled to the earth, crashing against the side of a building before tumbling down in a hail of dust and brick. The rangers moved forward and found the corpse of a dragon-like beast lying in a pile of rubble, wings torn by its descent and its head cleanly severed from its serpentine neck.

Hanne couldn’t help but smile as she called the Rangers back in line. It felt good to have air support at least.

Overhead, where the clouds gave way to blue sky, Hildegard and Turi, riding astride Pegasus, had been tasked with keeping the skies clear. From Etna’s smoking caldera had emerged all manner of scaly creatures on leathery wings to keep them occupied. These weren’t the cacodaemons of Rome, but to all eyes, flesh and blood creatures born in their draconic shape. Most were beastlike, occasionally venturing to the Rangers in curiosity, but largely leaving them be. Others, hoping for an easy meal, dove on them only to be met by the far swifter Pegasus and Hildegard’s lethal blade.

“Nice shot.” Turi smiled as Hildegard’s blade cut cleanly through the shrieking creature’s neck.

“What do you call these things again?” Hildegard asked, one arm still hooked tightly around his waist.

“We just call them drakes.” Turi shrugged “They’re not really monsters just…big scaly animals, they don’t usually eat people.”

“Is that all there is between us and Etna?” She asked, sharp eyes still scanning the sky.

“I wish.” Turi sighed, and Hildegard joined him. It could never be easy.

Their destination was visible even from miles away, a great gash rent into the base of the volcano, flanked by great statues that looked as if they had been buried for eons. It could be nothing but the entrance to Hephaestus’ forge in the heart of the volcano.

True to Turi’s word, the closer they drew to the volcano, the stronger the resistance became. The drakes were replaced by larger and fiercer draconic monsters, their skin all crackling fire and smoking brimstone. At the mountain’s base giants lurked, waiting to hurl stones wildly at the oncoming Rangers.

“Incoming! Three o’ clock high!” Hildegard shouted, and Pegasus’ wings flared as they banked hard right, just in time for Turi’s longer spear to impale a swooping drake in the chest, the metal spearhead driving deep into its burning heart. Ash and cinder exploded from the wound like blood as the hissing beast tumbled, smoking, to its death on the ground below. With no time to lose, Pegasus dove down towards the earth, two more flaming drakes close behind them, their bodies glowing and hissing as they passed through the wet clouds. Hildegard turned herself, clinging with one hand tight to Turi as the pair of them shot almost straight down. The drakes, black pinions of their batlike wings spread wide, were hurtling towards them. Aim would be everything.

Hildegard drew in her breath, it had been some time since she’d practiced magic like this, but it was just like riding a bike.

From her hand shot a dozen points of bright yellow light, whizzing through the air like firecrackers as they shot towards the closer of the two drakes. Several exploded on its face, tearing through ashen scale and cracked muscle as the rest tore holes in the great batlike wings, shredding them as they exploded in bursts of white light against the relatively thin membrane.

As they dove beneath the clouds, Turi kept Pegasus’ nose pointed firmly towards the ground, his wings folding in as they dropped like a meteor towards the earth. Hildegard had a moment to look down and see the state of the Rangers, pushing their advance towards the entrance to the great workshop as a small band of giants tried to stop them.

As they dived lower, almost coming to the tree line, Pegasus’ wings shot open, and for a moment, it felt as if Hildegard’s stomach was sent hurtling behind her as they pulled up from the steep dive, wind whipping at their faces as they recovered. One of the drakes recovered with them, its heavier body barely managing to avoid being dashed across the earth. The other one, its wings torn apart by Hildegard’s magic, was not so lucky, air whistling through the holes in its wings before it crashed into the ground, rolling into a crumpled heap of shattered bone and wing. One down, Hildegard thought to herself.

“Quick! Towards those giants!” She called to Turi, having to shout over the sound of whistling wind. Hildegard grit her teeth. Her clothes were soaked with a chill that reached her bones, her hand holding tight to Stahlzan with a vice-like grip. Her muscles raged, her teeth wanted to chatter from the cold, and her eyes were almost whipped shut by the wind that tore at her face and hair. Her mind, however, was as sharp as ever; this was her element.

“Towards the giants!?” Turi shouted back, incredulously.

“I have an idea.” Hildegard said, a grin cracking across her face. Turi looked like he was about to object, but held his tongue. If there was one thing he had learned to trust, it was Hildegard’s monster killing instincts.

Pegasus swooped in on the wind towards the giants. These beings truly lived up to the name. Easily seven meters at the shoulder and built like Neanderthals, their skin was covered in patches of volcanic ash and fire just like the drakes. Other parts of their body gave way to patches of scaly skin or horns upon their crown, all clear signs of more monstrous lineage.

Hildegard raised her sword high, turning it in the air until the shining silver blade caught the dim light of the sun. It wasn’t enough, but at just the right angle…

The closest giant turned towards them, distracted from its assault on the rangers by the bright shining light in the sky hurtling rapidly towards them. Hildegard glanced back and saw the drake still directly behind them, trying to close the gap to get in range of its blazing fire breath.
The next few moments happened like frames frozen in Hildegard’s mind. Timing was everything.

Reaching forward, she took hold of Pegasus’ reins with Turi, hands wrapping around his to guide them as she drew herself closer to him. For a moment, she felt both of them in sync, their breathing, muscles, and heartbeats moving together as he felt her plans through the slightest motions of her hands.

The giant reached with one great thick hand to the massive boulders of igneous stone at his feet. He moved slowly, like a massive tree in motion as his great form lifted the rock, weighing at least several tons, up into the air, arm pulling back like a pitcher winding up the throw. Hildegard held steady, flying straight for him, eyes focused on the great muscular arms, waiting for the muscles to release and the throw to release.

At the very last moment, Hildegard and Turi moved at once, pulling Pegasus’ reins hard to the right into a dive, the sudden turn almost throwing them both from his back as gravity roared in their ears. The boulder, released from the giant’s arm with all the force of a cannonball, whistled past with alarming closeness, and Hildegard could feel the whipping wind of its passage against her back.

The drake, however, had been too focused on its quarry. It had only begun to turn when the great stone collided with its form with enough force to tear it apart as it all but exploded on impact into a cloud of ash and blood.

Hildegard looked again to the giant, who was reaching slowly for another stone, failing to notice the small form at his heels.

Hanne, thankful for the distraction, had run ahead of the Ranger column, which was advancing slowly as they took cover from the giants’ assault. As the great giant had stared stupidly at his accidental strike, Hanne had drawn her blade, and by the time the giant noticed, it was far too late as the saber tore through his Achilles tendon, sending the giant to his knees with a crash that shook the earth. Hanne didn’t pause to revel in her victory, however; even on its knees a giant was still a giant. She had maybe seconds before she was caught in a grasp that could crush every bone in her body.

Sword in hand, she rushed forward past the giant’s legs. People tended to aim for the throat so often they forgot another key point of weakness, and considering giants were built like large humans…

Taking her sword in both hands, she plunged the blade into the giant’s inner thigh, and the burst of blood that greeted her told her she had successfully cut the giant’s femoral artery. It wasn’t instantly fatal, but the giant wouldn’t be moving out of this spot. By the time she had finished cutting the other leg, the giant now shaking in its rage and pain, much of Hanne’s jacket had been soaked in giant’s blood. She leaped away as the giant tried in vain to roll over and find her, tracking blood with each step.

Spurred on by Hildegard’s daring and their commander’s own giant-slaying prowess, the other Rangers had surged forth, leaving the giants daunted as they tried in vain to crush the smaller and more nimble humans. One of them swept his great hand over the ground, catching one of the rangers in his powerful grasp, only to drop her moments later as a half dozen crossbow bolts sank themselves into the tender flesh of his hand. Another giant reached for a massive boulder at his feet, only for swords to slash deep into his fingers.

One by one the giants fell and the drakes crashed to earth as the Rangers cut their way into the workshop, Pegasus landing at the entrance to let Hildegard to disembark and regroup with her adoptive mother.

“That was some excellent flying, Salvatore.” Hanne said as Hildegard slid off the horse.

“Thank you.” Turi smiled. “Even if Pegasus did most of the work.”

“And you handled yourself well, Hildegard.” Hanne patted her on the shoulder as they crossed the threshold into the workshop, flanked by a large contingent of Rangers.

“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Hildegard asked as they made their way inside.

“Angel drew us some sketches but that’s about it…” Hanne said.

The entrance hall soon gave way to the body of the forge, a great empty cavity opened up before them as they stepped into what had clearly once been a massive complex. All around them were the remains of workbenches, racks of tools fifty meters long, great cauldrons that had once held gallon upon gallon of molten metal, and anvils twice as tall as a man.

At the center of this divine architecture, the entire complex had been ripped open by Typhon’s release, leaving the already quite open forge hollow and open to the air as rays of light shone down through holes in the caldera, all of it lit by weak sunlight and the omnipresent crimson glow of the molten magma at the heart of the great rupture.

Blessedly, either by divine presence, fear of Typhon’s prison, or simple luck, the forge itself was empty and Hanne sent the Rangers out scouting for their prize as she observed what had become of the forge.

“As close as I can tell,” She said, standing near the ragged edge of the forge floor where it fell into the heart of the mountain. “Typhon’s prison was underneath this place, and when he broke out he took half the forge with him.”

Hildegard, looking around the great cavity, could see the half-ruined remains of rooms, sublevels, and massive equipment scattered across the inside walls of the hollowed out volcano. Below her, where the floor dropped away, was a great sea of magma marked only by the twisted remains of bars and rods of black metal, no doubt what remained of his prison. The cavity blasted into the forge was nearly a mile across, and given the splendor of the remains, the finely wrought divine architecture and the scale of the machinery, Hildegard could only guess what it must have been like in its prime.

“Captain!” One of the Rangers called out as he approached, something tall slung over his shoulder. “We think we found them.”

He presented to the pair of them what looked like a spear, nearly eight feet long, made of silvery metal. Across its surface were etched alien runes and long patterns of flowing wings and lightning bolts.

Hanne looked the spear over before pulling a piece of scrap paper form a pouch at her belt where Hildegard could see a finely rendered sketch of what looked almost precisely like the spear the man carried.

“How many did you find?” Hanne asked.

“Nearly thirty, captain.” The ranger said.

“Good.” Hanne smiled “Get the wagon, load them up, I want to be back on the coast by nightfall.”

The man saluted as the Rangers in the forge all rushed to join in the retrieval. Hanne took a moment to examine the forge a while longer, looking for anything valuable they could scavenge.
All told it wasn’t much. When the god of the forge had evacuated it was clear he took most of his toys with him. There were no magical armaments to speak of save for the spears, and the rest seemed to be mostly odds and ends. Lengths of wire, bars of metal, and a few half-finished projects and schematics. Hanne had all of it loaded up anyway. Knowledge was power, and the chance to clean out a god’s forge was one that didn’t come by often.

A cry from the entrance alerted her attention, and she ran forward just in time to see several Rangers, laden with pilfered equipment, running for the cover of the forge as a large shadow flew over the ground. Hanne swore under her breath as she ran forward, sword drawn. Another drake had come to make easy pickings while they were weighed down with spoils.

“Ready crossbows!” She shouted as she ran into the half-lit light of the clouded morning.

“Hildegard!” She whirled around, looking for the mage.

Her search was answered, however, as a barrage of fireballs erupted from the ground further down the slope, and she saw Hildegard, hand raised, at their source as the whizzing firecrackers of magical energy ripped across the drake’s body.

The creature whirled and screeched angrily, flapping wildly to maintain its altitude. Another moment later, its erratic movements were interrupted as what looked like a shining crystal lance shot from the ground and impaled the monster clean through the chest. As Hanne watched the beast fall, still screaming, toward the earth, she saw the spear catch the light and realized it wasn’t crystal.

It was ice.

Running at a full sprint down the slope for the entrance, Hanne saw Hildegard sitting on a rocky outcrop. Beside her, one arm wrapped around her shoulder, was Catarina.

“Look who I found.” Hildegard smiled as Hanne rushed to meet them, throwing caution to the winds as she pulled Cat into a tight embrace.

“I was only gone a few days.” Cat protested, but she returned the hug, wrapping her arms tightly around her adoptive mother.

“Sorry I missed the party.” Cat said when they finally relinquished one another. “I got held up by some stuff in Syracuse.”

“You’ll have to tell us all about it.” Hildegard smiled.

“It is quite a tale.” The familiar sly voice of Sheh moved between them as the tall light-eyed woman stepped from the shadows. For a moment, Hanne swore she saw something shiny and silver held in her hand before it was hidden in the folds of her dress.

“Then we’ll hear it on the ship ride home.” For the first time since arriving on Sicily, Hanne allowed herself a sigh of relief. Cat was safe and with her again, their mission was finished. All that remained was the journey back to Rome and to home.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

The Laughing Mask

April 15th, 2023
“And with that, I’m sorry to say our show is coming to a close.” Thalia spoke into the microphone as she checked the clock on the wall. “The time is seven o’ clock and the sun is just about down. That means it’s time for a few hours of music to lull all you sleepy hard workers off to bed. Today is Saturday meaning its classical aaaaall night, and thanks to the generous donation of Mister Antoni Caruso we have an entire evening of Holst lined up for you. I have a soft spot for the Jupiter piece in his Planets Suite, but there’s something for everybody there. So until tomorrow, this is your hostess Thalia signing off.”

With a flick of the switch Thalia turned off the microphone, giving a thumbs-up to one of her radio DJs to take over and flip through their records. She was a sweet girl but not much of a voice. Thalia had only just begun the search for new talent.

She stretched her neck and arms, the radio booth being a rather stifling place to sit for a few hours each day. As she stood up, she picked up tomorrow’s script that she had flipped through during their musical segments and prepared herself for another round of editing. Writers, that was another thing she needed, good writers. Her red pen flipped through the pages with an almost ferocious assault on the script. Some people simply did not get comedy. Timing, subject, clarity, and poise, good humor was more than a simply knock-knock joke. Why didn’t people seem to get that? Thankfully they had an expert in the field of comedy to see to their needs.

“Miss Thalia?”

Thalia glanced up to see her DJ speaking to her through the booth microphone. She must have announced and put on the music already.

“You um… have a visitor.”

Thalia perked up. A visitor? Most of their applicants went through a screening process, and interviews weren’t until tomorrow. Who was stopping by at this time? Curious, she grabbed the mic and flipped it to the channel to speak to her assistant.

“Who is it, Jodie?”

“Umm…Miss…Kebechet? Yes, you know…one of the wolves.”

Thalia’s face split into a grin running from ear to ear as she almost shouted over the mic. “Send her in! Honestly, silly girl, keeping an important guest like that waiting.” She added teasingly, spinning her chair (she had specifically asked for one with wheels) towards the door to face her guest.

Kebechet stepped in slowly, regarding the recently-assembled amalgam of scavenged machinery that Ilmarinen, bless his divine lovesick heart, had helped set up. There was a look of obvious apprehension on her face that Thalia expected from the start. Still, she had the result she had always hoped for: Kebechet had come to her rather than the reverse.

“Miss Thalia…” She began her greeting, but Thalia cut her off.

“Oh come now, Kebe, you can just call me Thalia.” She smiled before speaking into the microphone again. “Jodie I’ll be taking this into my office.”

She stood up from her chair, stepping towards Kebechet and leading her casually to her office with an arm around her waist and a carefree “Right this way.”

Kebechet, clearly caught off her guard, quietly complied.

Thalia’s office was precisely how she liked it, which was to say “meticulous chaos”. She could find precisely what she was looking for in a second from within her pile of papers, notes, and file upon file of sheet music. Her eldest sister hated it, and Thalia’s boyfriend did as well. Which meant no doubt Kebechet would cringe at the sight as well. Sure enough, even stepping into the somewhat cramped office was clearly uncomfortable for her, but she reluctantly took the seat Thalia offered to her after clearing it of loose Mozart.

“So how can I help you, Kebe?” Thalia smiled, taking a seat in her own rolling chair across from her.

“I…” Kebechet’s face grew flustered at the nickname; Thalia’s smile only grew. “…I wanted to be sure it was really…you who was running this station.”

“Great, isn’t it?” Thalia asked, gesturing to the building around her.

“Well um…yes.” Kebechet glanced around. “It is widely acclaimed.”

“Did you come for a job?” Thalia asked teasingly.

“N-no!” Kebechet objected before blushing again. “Er…I mean…no thank you.”

“Really? You have a lovely voice, Kebe. Your father agrees with me.”

“A-about my father…”

Thalia made something of a spectacle of making a drawn-out weary sigh. “Kebeee…” She said, stretching the vowel to its breaking point “You and Anubis need to clear the air already. You both know I’m not the problem between you two, especially since I’ve done nothing but try and bring you two back together.”

Kebechet’s eyes moved towards the floor “I know…”

Thalia gave her a comforting smile, reaching out to lift her face up towards her. “Look, I know it’s hard. I know we don’t…agree all the time, and it’s hard when your parent starts dating again. Your father and I make each other happy…but you’re part of his family too and I can’t just leave you out. I want us all to be happy together.”

“It’s not exactly easy…” Kebechet said, still trying hard to break eye contact. “We have our differences.”

“It’s true.” Thalia grinned. “But diversity is the spice of life. I mean, none of my sisters are alike and we get along…mostly. And Anubis and I are almost opposites but that’s really what works for us.”

Clearly struggling for an objection, Kebechet tried to change the subject as Thalia let her hand fall away. “Do any of the people here…”

“Know who I am?” Thalia smiled, finishing her sentence.

“…yes.”

“Nope” Thalia said. “Well…Ilmarinen does, but that hardly counts since no one knows who he is.”
“So no one…”

Thalia’s grin grew into her usual mischievous smile. She reached up with her fingers towards her face, and with a single motion pulled away a mask that simply appeared over her visage, a pale mask of alabaster carved with the exaggerated face of a laughing man. As she pulled the mask away, Kebechet could feel the rush of divine energy filling the room. It was not as overwhelming as her grandmother’s had been. It was much lower in intensity, warmer, and almost more human.

“No one knows that their radio station is run by the Muse of Comedy.” Thalia grinned. She was still dressed in her casual clothes, but her face and skin had the grace of a goddess in them. Her whole body seemed to glow with warm light, her eyes a sparkling blue-green that caught the light and glittered. Perched upon her sleek black hair was a crown of ivy leaves.

“Though if Ilmarinen is to be believed, word has gotten out that I’m dating your father.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet simply made a noise. “How long have you been here?” She asked.

“The whole time really.” Thalia shrugged. “I was working on another project first, but that’s largely taken care of itself.”

“Another project?” Kebechet asked.

Thalia’s smile grew.

“I must hand it to your pharaoh; she knows her way around a nymph.” She said. “I knew I could help Echo if I brought her to Rome, but really it’s all exceeded expectations. Do pass along my regards.”

Kebechet blinked in surprise. “W-wait…you were the goddess who brought Echo here?”

Thalia laughed. Here the goddess truly revealed herself, as Thalia’s laugh was nothing short of divine. It was enticing and enchanting, like the ringing of bells and the chirping of morning songbirds. At the sound of it, even Kebechet could not help but smile.

“Well it was a group effort really.” Thalia said, still giggling. “It was an idea my sisters and I hatched. Calliope thought it up, Clio and Urania tracked her down, and Erato was the one who suggested Rome…guess I see why now.” She added with a sly smirk.

“So why did you go?” Kebechet asked.

Because I love a happy ending.” Thalia said, her voice still almost giggling with every word. “It’s kind of my thing.”

“It’s hardly over yet.” Kebechet said, doing her best to force levity to the situation. It was very hard to keep any sort of somberness around the revealed Muse of Comedy. “They plan to confront Hera.”

“I’m sure it will work out.” Shrugged Thalia. “Your Pharaoh is strong, and Echo is a lot tougher than she looks.”

“That’s still quite optimistic of you.” Kebechet said.

“Huh,” Thalia picked up the mask, placing the caricature of the laughing face in front of her own. “If that’s surprising to you I must have switched my mask with Mels. Does this look like a frown to you?” She said, waving the mask in front of her face.

Kebechet could not help but giggle at the joke, keenly aware of Thalia smiling at her through the mask.

“Kebechet…” Thalia said, placing the mask on her desk as she spoke “Your father misses you. He wants to see you again.”

Kebechet sighed. “I…have my duties here. I am in the service of the Pharaoh and…to Rome.”
Thalia’s smile never wavered. “Well, we all have our work to do.”

“I can’t leave now.”

“Well, I’m hardly asking you to pack your bags.”Thalia said. “I tend to flit between Rome and Mount Olympus a few times a week, no reason you couldn’t join me.”

“I suppose” Kebechet said slowly.

“Come on, my Sisters are all dying to meet you, and I know you want to see Anubis just as badly as he wants to see you.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet remained quiet, but the subtle swishing of her tail betrayed her.

“Why did you stay in Rome, Thalia? Was it for me?” Kebechet asked.

“Partially.” Thalia admitted, with a small nod. “But it’s a bit more complicated than that. I didn’t need to start a radio station to check in on you.”

“Then why?”

“I’m Thalia, the Laughing Muse with the face of sunshine.” She said. “It’s my job to make people laugh, to make them happy, and to make them feel fulfilled at the end of the day. Comedy is a lot more than just telling a good joke after all.”

Thalia smiled knowingly at Kebechet. “Of course, you’re just as important as they are, and I think it’s my job to try and make you happy as well.”

“I see…” Kebechet said slowly, before looking back at Thalia, rewarding her with her own subdued smile. “I suppose…I can only be grateful for all you’ve done for this city.”

“I do my best.” Thalia tried to act somewhat humble, even as her grin remained.

“There is certainly no fault I can find in bringing happiness to the people” Kebechet said. “And given the popularity of the radio show…you are doing great work.”

“Awww thanks, Kebe!” Thalia smiled.

“And I suppose…” Kebechet began, her voice more hesitant. “It is not too much for me to come back to see my father…now and then.”

Thalia’s smile only grew wider. “I don’t think it will be too much of anything either.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Rare and Radiant

April 15th, 2023
Beneath Nora’s home, lying on a bed beyond the reach of the waking world, Lenore slept. Freed from the drowning of her thoughts by the coma-inducing solution Nora had worked into her, her mind began its slow crawl from the abstraction of the subconscious and into something more vivid. In that quiet twilight world between waking and true unconsciousness, Lenore dreamed.

So many people in Rome dreamed fitfully. They dreamed of the chaos and terror of the Days of Revelation, losing family and friends to monsters from myth and legend. Many were relieved upon waking, knowing that they had at last found a modicum of safety in the waking world.

Lenore, however, dreamt peacefully of another time. When one’s life was a nightmare of foreign thoughts, death, and the constant adrenaline ride of the hunt, only in dreams could she find refuge, and now at last she could truly dream again.

She was young, truly young in mind and body, surely no more than six. None of the conditioning training had begun, and she had no idea of the course that had been set for her. She was merely a child, one of three, living happily in the URIEL compound somewhere in Central Asia far from prying eyes. It had been unusual, though she hardly knew that at the time. She knew now they were being raised as test subjects rather than children, but it had still been her childhood. They might have called it “Recreational Stimulation” and “Necessary Pre-Conditioned Education”, but it had simply been playing and learning to them. Things all children did.

They knew their names from the start. The three of them were merely days apart in age, but they knew that she, Eleanor-1, was the oldest and treated her as such. Eleanor-2 was the middle child, often overlooked and a troublemaker for attention. Eleanor-3 was the youngest and most childish, the loudest when she laughed and cried.

They had parents as well, just like other children. They had their Father, Dr. Joachim, the mastermind of their creation, a harsh and often terrifying presence who was thankfully absent for much of their early lives. Even trying to remember his face, Lenore could only summon the shadowed face of a thin man with cruel eyes.

Their “Mother” had been much more active in their early development. She had always been a mother to them, even if her nametag had read “Project Lead Dr. Varia Archeille”. She called herself their mother, and they did the same in turn. It had been she who had given them the names that they grew up with. Eleanor-3 had been called Ellen. Eleanor-2 had been named Nora. And she, Eleanor-1, was called Lenore.

Lenore.

She sounded the word out in her mind. It was so familiar, yet the images she summoned were so unlike her life as it was that it almost felt to her as if it had been the name of an entirely different person. “Lenore” Nora had called her when she tried to plot her thousandth escape attempt, jealous of the affection Ellen received from Mother and with her eyes forever on the distant horizon. “Lenore” Ellen had called for her when she scraped her knee, always running faster than her legs were able to carry. “Lenore” Mother had named her, and spoke with authority when she failed to keep her younger sisters in line.

Lenore, the strongest and fastest, the most reasonable and most responsible, the eldest and the wisest. She had been the counter to bold Nora and youthful Ellen. So much they had asked of her, and she had delivered all she could. They had been a family, after all, how could she do less?

When she was thirteen is when they had begun their work on all of them, the end of their childhood and the beginning of the waking nightmare. Lenore’s mind clouded as memories of reality mixed with her own suppressed nightmares. Again she pushed back the clock to a younger time, when they were hardly seven, a happier time, away from all of them. A sweet memory that could not be invaded or encroached upon.

At their Mother’s insistence, they were allowed to play in the grassy courtyard of the compound, a square space barely fifty meters across. But it had sun, grass, and the smell of earth, and the three of them loved their daily hour in the open, even when it rained or grew unbearably hot.

“Lenooooore!” Ellen’s voice called across the space. Lenore was pulled into her dream’s reality, young again with fresh eyes as she relived the memory, and watching Ellen, all bright-eyed and short-haired, running to her as her eyes strained with coming tears. Oh no, she thought, what happened this time.

“Nora…Nora jumped all over my flowers!” She cried out to her, struggling for breath from her combined crying and running.

“I did not!” Nora was right behind her, trying to subvert Ellen’s case before the two of them could round on her in full.

“You did so!” Ellen objected, pointing to where they had run from. Lenore’s sharp eyes could see the crushed stems of an uneven patch of dandelions. “See! They’re right there all crushed!”

“Okay I did…” Nora said, backpedaling, arms crossed over her chest. “But it was an accident. I was trying to climb the wall.”

Lenore looked from one to the other. To any person, their Mother included, the three of them were virtually identical. All of them, however, could instantly tell one from the other. It was minor details that coalesced into a whole, so unfailing they could be differentiated at a distance. Nora held herself much more firmly, straight-backed and balanced on the balls of her feet as if to look taller than she was. Her arms always moved aggressively or defensively, but never passively, and she had a distinct stubbornness that was always present on her face. Ellen, meanwhile, was much more passive and loose in her motions, occasionally erratic but always exaggerated. She never did things by half. If something was funny she would laugh until she was all but choking herself; if something was sad she would cry for hours; if she was angered she would be in a fuming mood for days. Lenore had no idea what her tells were, but the other two insisted they could always tell her apart, and Ellen insisted she was tallest, despite Nora’s accusations otherwise.

This memory, however, still had shades of the dream. In all of them she could still see the ghosts of the people they were to become. Lenore would indeed become the tallest. The muscular therapy and metabolic treatments saw to a painful growth spurt that gave her an entire two inches on Nora’s height. Nora’s stubbornness would gain the character of a sickness on her face. Her skin would pale from an olive-tan to almost snow-white from a combination of stress, skin damage, and lack of sun. Her eyes would sink into her skull as shadows of weariness would grow prematurely around them. Ellen would remain small, the experiments done upon her stunting her physical growth as well as mental. Her bright eyes would become crazed and maddened, her erratic movements growing into a series of pained twitches that would keep her from sleeping.

“Nora.” Lenore’s own authoritative voice drew back her mind. “Why were you jumping up and down over there?”

“The wall’s short over there.” Nora said, trying to look as innocent as possible, though she could never beat Ellen at that game. “I just wanted to see if I could climb onto the roof. It’s not my fault Ellen’s stupid flowers grow there.”

“They’re not stupid!” Ellen shouted. “They’re mine and you ruined them!”

Lenore sighed, but could still feel the bite of nostalgia. This had ben her childhood, and for so briefly sweet a time this had been the greatest of hardships for them, and the greatest divisions between them.

“Nora” Lenore said in her most authoritative voice. “Apologize to Ellen.”

“But-“ Nora began to protest but Lenore cut her off “Whether you meant to or not, Ellen really loves her flowers and you hurt them.”

“Mmm…”Nora grumbled. “M’sorry…”

“Say it better.” Lenore said. “Say it like you were saying it to Mother.”

“Sorry Ellen…” Nora groaned. “I didn’t mean to hurt your flowers.”

Lenore turned next to Ellen. “Now Ellen, Nora did something dumb but she apologized.”

“But my flowers!”

Lenore sighed. “Remember last winter? When it snowed and you were really happy, but then saw all the flowers died and you cried until your face hurt?” She asked.

“Uh huh…” Ellen said, already threatening tears again.

“Remember what Mother said?” Lenore asked, but Ellen shook her head.

“Mother said that they would grow back in the spring. And they did! Now winter is a lot harder on plants then Nora stomping on them, right?”

“So they’ll come back?” Ellen’s eyes filled with hope.

“Yes they will.” Lenore said emphatically. “Now, Nora’s apologized and she said she won’t jump on them again. Go take care of your flowers, I’m sure she didn’t smash all of them with her big stupid feet.”

“Okay!” Ellen said, rushing back to her makeshift garden as Nora scowled.

“My feet aren’t stupid…”

“I’m trying to help, okay?” Lenore sighed.

“You’re not Mother.”

“No, but Mother said I was in charge when she’s not around.” Lenore said. “Why were you trying to get on the roof?”

“No reason…” Nora said, once more trying to lie before a glare from Lenore pulled her back. “Fine I was…”

“Trying to run away again.” Lenore finished it for her. “Why?”

“Because you don’t need me here and I don’t want to be here.” Nora said stubbornly. “I want to go outside.”

“We are outside.”

“Shut up! You know what I mean!”

Lenore frowned. “Do you know how upset Mother would be if you ran away? Or how angry Father would get?”

“I don’t care about Mother!” Nora all but shouted, and Lenore glanced worriedly towards Ellen, but saw she was entirely consumed by picking up the pieces of her dandelions. “And Father doesn’t care about us!”

“And what about Ellen?” Lenore asked “She’d cry for days and days if you ran away.”

“So?”

Lenore frowned. “Don’t lie to me, I know you hate making Ellen sad. That’s why you said sorry even though I wasn’t Mother.”

“Hmph.” Nora simply made a stubborn noise.

“Mother’s really busy with work, Father too.” Lenore said, more quietly to try and make Nora lower her voice. “That doesn’t mean they don’t care.”

“They might as well” Nora huffed.

“But I care.” Lenore said, and Nora turned away, not wanting to look at her. Grabbing her shoulders, Lenore turned her around again. “When Mother’s not around that’s when I’m in charge. She told me I shouldn’t boss you around because that’s my job. My job is to take care of both of you.”

“Then why don’t you help me?” Nora asked.

“Mother said it would be bad if we ran away.” Lenore said. “And I can’t help you if you’re not here. So I’m going to take care of you.”

Somewhere outside the dream, outside of the safety of the memory crafted for herself, Lenore slept quietly on a bed in a basement in Rome. Beside her, hands folded and elbows resting on her knees, was her younger sister, watching her sleep peacefully and with no appearance of stopping. Gently, perhaps for the hundredth time, Nora did all she could allow herself to do, brushing a few loose and stubborn hairs out of Lenore’s face as she watched her. To all the world Lenore was asleep, and perhaps beneath that façade she truly was dreaming, of happier times when the two had been three, when they had been children together in ignorance.

It would be cruel, Nora knew, to wake Lenore from such a dream. But she needed her to, she wanted her to, if only because Nora couldn’t bear to live much longer being the only one left. But she would not let Lenore keep living in a nightmare outside the dream. She had failed Ellen, failed to protect her sisters, and she would not do so again.

“I’m going to take care of you, Lenore.” She said quietly into the darkness. “But please, I need you to wake up.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Dragon’s Daughter

April 14th, 2023

Lana had run after the rebel mage before the soldiers and her guardian, but it hadn’t taken them long to catch up and overtake her. The rebel soldiers had run ahead of her, while Cornelia had slowed her down with a hand on her shoulder. “Lana, have you thought about what you are about to do?”

The young ‘princess’ of Syracuse yanked her shoulder forward out of Cornelia’s grip. “Of course I have!” She refused to face the older mage. Cornelia had a way of making her feel small without saying a word. Lana was sure it was the way her eyes glowed, as if Cornelia could see right through Lana’s façade into her heart. She didn’t want to feel small right now. She wanted to feel big!

“Oh? Then tell me what your thoughts were.” Her voice was soft and gentle, but Lana knew what Cornelia was doing. That was a command, even if her tone wasn’t imperious. Lana balled her fist up and for a moment considered refusing, the feelings of defiance still swelling in her chest, but if she did that then it would be taken as if she was acting without thinking! If she explained her thinking, then Cornelia would be able to tear it apart…

Lana started walking faster as she answered. “Mm, I owe that girl and so do you! And my father is crazy. He’s killed more of my pets than I want to think about…If we run now, we’ll be on the run forever. I don’t trust the rebellion, so I want to keep an eye on them…” The reasons spilled out of her mouth, one after another, giving Cornelia no strong opening to rebut. Lana could still see those eyes in her mind, looking at her with that curious smile that revealed nothing. Lana closed her eyes tightly to try to block that image. It helped a little.

“I see.” Cornelia said. Lana could hear her sigh. “Then I suppose there’s no helping it.”

“Helping what…? HEY!” Lana felt Cornelia grab her arms and pin them behind her.

“I’m sorry, Lana.” Cornelia said. Lana fumed as she turned her head around to look at her guardian. The older girl really did seem to be apologetic. Her eyes were normal, imploring her charge to forgive her. Lana glared back.

“What are you doing?!”

“I’m keeping you safe. You can’t go to the palace, it’s too dangerous. They’ll kill you in the chaos…” Cornelia said softly as she slowly and carefully used her magic to bind Lana’s arms and legs. The more Lana struggled, the tighter the bonds became.

“I don’t care! Gah!”

“Mmm, I do. But I’ll make it up to you, Lana.” Cornelia said, rising to her feet when she was satisfied Lana was going nowhere. Lana twisted her head around to see Cornelia heading down the road to the palace.

“Wait! What are you going to do!?”

“I’m going to show the rebels the back way into the palace. Even with a mage, they’re not going to get through the walls if they charge right for it. If I die, then at least I know you’re safe…”

“Cornelia…!”

“I’m sorry, Lana…” She said again. “But your life is more important to me right now.”

Lana shouted after her, even as the older mage disappeared from sight. She pulled at the ropes that coiled around her limbs like snakes. “Damn it…” This was so undignified! She’d never forgive Cornelia for this. This was supposed to be her moment to stand up for herself and now here she was, wriggling on the ground like some prisoner. Her puppy was not being helpful either, just taking the opportunity to lick her face to comfort her. Great.

If any rebels were to come on her like this, she would be in serious trouble. Cornelia had at least had the good sense to leave her in an alley off the main road, not that Lana was going to thank her for that either! Her anger and frustration gave her the strength to keep fighting against her bonds, grunting as she forced herself to scoot across the dirt. She would kill Cornelia the next time she saw her!

Lana struggled to get herself onto her feet, with her limbs tied together like they were. She tried pushing herself up with the help of a wall, but the first step she took without its help caused her to fall right back down. Lana groaned to herself.

She couldn’t cast spells efficiently like this. The channels in her body were blocked. Maybe she could find a sharp rock or a piece of glass or anything to cut herself free. She needed to be at the palace!

Lana heard the sound of a person coming around the corner. Immediately, she went stiff, freezing in the alley, not making a noise. Her puppy, however…

“Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip!”

Lana shot her puppy a glare, trying to use her mind to shut it up.

A boy with a sword and shield walked into the alley, cautiously. It didn’t take long for him to spot her, tied up as she was. Lana stared wide eyed at him. This could be it. If this rebel recognized her, she was dead for sure!”

“Y-you’re…” The boy stammered, raising his shield. This wasn’t good. Lana started to struggle again, even more fiercely than before. If she could only break free!

The boy stood there hiding behind his shield for a bit, as if expecting a fireball to hit his face at any moment. The fireball never came. He opened his eyes, surprised. The child of the Mage-King was still just writhing on the ground. Like this, she hardly seemed a threat, but a mage was still a mage…

With a shaky hand, the boy approached her, raising his sword. Lana’s eyes went wide with fear before clamping shut as she curled up into herself. An undignified squeal escaped her lips in her panic. This was it. This was the end! She could feel him kneeling beside her, probably to get a better angle.

It was her turn to look confused as she felt the sword cutting the magical ropes at her feet and arms. He was behind her, using his sword like a knife to cut through the binds.

“There…” The boy said as the ropes fell to the ground. “I, I probably shouldn’t have done that, but…You’re free.”

Lana didn’t waste a second to jump to her feet, rubbing at where the ropes had chafed her skin. Her dog bounced around her feet. “Hmph. You got us caught, I’m hardly happy with you!” She scolded the puppy, who whimpered up at her. His tail drooped between his legs until Lana finally sighed and scooped the dog up into her arms.

She turned to the boy. “I guess today is just my day to be rescued by rebels. I’m Lana.”

“I know. Sorry, it’s just…you’re not that low profile of a figure in this city.” As he finished saying that, his eyes went wide with fear again as he raised his shield up slowly.

Lana just stared at him, incredulously. “I’m not going to attack you!” She huffed as she turned her head to the side. They all thought she was some kind of monster just because of her father!
“S-sorry…” He said again. “My name’s Emidio. I need to get going. You should probably hide.”
“No!”
The force of her exclamation caused Emidio to take a few steps back, reflexively jerking his shield back up before he caught himself. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not running. I’m not hiding. You’re going to take me to the palace!”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Emidio said. His eyes narrowed as he watched her suspiciously. He was looking at her like she was a threat again. That was why she had to be there.

“I’m not going to stop the rebellion. But you aren’t the only ones who have problems with my father!” She stepped forward, poking Emidio in the chest. “There are mages who have as much grievance as you do. We’re people too, so stop looking at me like I’m some kind of monster!”

Emidio blinked at her as he processed what she said. “I suppose you have a point.”

“Now I’m going to the palace. You can escort me there or not, but I’m going.” For the second time this day, Lana started walking towards the looming castle in the distance. She could hear the din of battle even from here.

Emidio jogged after her. “Lana, are you sure about this?”

“I’ve already been chased through half of the city by your friends, who wanted to kill me just because I was a mage! I’ve been left behind ‘for my safety’! You think your rebellion has a monopoly on anger!?” Each step she took grew faster as the fury filled her body. The aura of anger around her grew hotter.

“I don’t fight because I’m angry…” Emidio said, though he sounded a bit unsure of his answer.
“No? Then why do you fight? Mmm?!”

Emidio didn’t immediately respond. Perhaps he knew better than to argue with someone ready to snap like she was. Maybe it was because she was a mage. Lana didn’t know, but right now he was the least of her concerns. He didn’t seem like he was about to stab a blade in her back.
“I’m the daughter of the Dragon. Do you think I wasn’t forced to learn how the process of rebellion works?!” Lana asked.

As she thought, he didn’t say anything. That was fine. She wasn’t looking for an actual answer right now. She needed to get this off her chest. Whenever she talked to Cornelia about things like this, the older girl just took it as an excuse to start giving her a lesson. “The rebellion takes power and then starts pushing everyone else down, just like the old order. So when you kill my father and seat your leader on his throne, he’s going to start doing terrible things to mages to ensure his throne is safe.”

“Vittorio wouldn’t do that. He is fighting for the good of the city.” Emidio said with a strong confidence. His voice was no longer shaking, nor was he watching her with the same suspicion.
“Hah! A regular hero.” Lana rolled her eyes. “My father is the worst. That doesn’t mean your guy is better. Probably try to have me killed…”

“Then why are you walking right to him?”

Lana looked right at the boy, her voice serious. “Because if your Vittorio wants to rule this city and sit on the throne, he’ll need to deal with the mages. And I won’t let him keep us silent.”

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The Wolves of Rome

Hunter’s Dawn

 

April 15th, 2023
A hushed silence had fallen over the gathering of the Hour of the Wolf. Around thirty cultists, hardly even a crowd, all collected in this small hall. It was one of their “temples”; it was, in truth, a glorified basement in the city outskirts large enough to hold them all. The walls were brick, decorated with banners covered in artful images of wolves consuming circles. At the head of this hall was an altar where the cult leader usually stood. Everyone present was hooded, either through a simple hooded coat or sweatshirt. There were those that went the full distance to cover themselves in long elaborate cloaks with shadowy cowls. The hall was lit with several lanterns, adding a flickering shadow presence to the place that aided in its foreboding nature. There was a strong smell of dampness and earth that pervaded it at all times. If there truly was an underworld, Aurelio imagined it would be something like this.

This was the third such meeting that he had attended. Others had been smaller congregations of only a dozen or so scattered throughout Rome. Aurelio never knew when they would meet next until mere hours before the meeting itself, and that had stopped him from tracking them down sooner.

The Cult’s Leader, who had adopted the name Lord Mani, was as enigmatic a figure as the cult itself. Aurelio had only managed to track him after the last such meeting, following him back to the small apartment he kept. It would have been enough to bring him in, he knew. No doubt if he told the Senate what he had found they would demand it. Aurelio, however, had decided to continue hunting. Someone else was pulling Lord Mani’s strings.

It was this messenger that sent Aurelio’s mind stirring. This figure mentioned only in whispers that Aurelio had never even seen. Lord Mani took orders directly from him, but even after tracking him for half a day Aurelio had never seen him interact with anyone else. It was possible of course that the Messenger simply didn’t exist. Aurelio had entertained the notion for a few days. This meeting, however, had all of the gathered cultists abuzz with excitement.

The Messenger would arrive and speak to them.

“Isn’t this exciting, Kenneth?” A woman beside him asked, and Aurelio turned to look at Corella, or at least she called herself that. Most cultists took second identities, but Aurelio knew Corella from the start to be the earnest type, and figured she might use her actual name. Kenneth, of course, was Aurelio’s own false identity.

He had been kind and outgoing to Corella, who in turn had offered him a great deal of information on the cult. She was kind and motherly, being somewhere in her late-forties, but Aurelio knew that no matter how kindly they seemed, he was alone in a true den of wolves, and his disguise could falter at any moment.

“Absolutely” Aurelio nodded with feigned interest. “The Messenger herself? How exciting.”
“The Promised Time is soon at hand! I’m sure of it!” She squealed, hands clasped in excitement.
Aurelio smiled with a nod as his insides curled in disgust.

The Promised Time. That was the crux of this entire cult. It was in the Old Norse legends that Skoll and Hati would consume the sun and moon, casting the world into darkness as their father Fenrir ate Odin whole. This was all to be part of Ragnarok, the almost ritualistic death of the world. Nidhoggr, the dragon of Yggdrassil, was the herald of this apocalypse, and these people…these cultists…had themselves deluded in the belief that their Ragnarok was ongoing, that the world would end and one needed to ‘go with the winning side’ as it were in order to survive into the next.

Aurelio had tried to empathize with them. Most of the people gathered, if Lord Mani’s rhetoric was to be believed, had lost everything in the Days of Revelation, and were afraid of what awaited them in the world beyond at the hands of fickle and newly-risen gods. Some were convinced that unless they rapidly earned the favor of another god, the Catholic Hell was all that awaited them.

They had, however, chosen the most cowardly way out. They chose life, at the price of the death of everyone else on Earth. It was a core part of their doctrine that most of the world must be purged so that they might survive. It was cowardly, and earned them none of Aurelio’s sympathy. They were at best only one step better than the Witchbreed, even Corella.

“Brothers and sisters!” Lord Mani’s voice cut the light chatter that had filled the chamber as he took his place before the altar, and old wooden table covered in carved runes, raw meat placed as offerings upon it.

“You have waited. You have been patient. And now our moment is at hand! I have received direct word from the Messenger!”

A twinge ran up Aurelio’s spine. It had become almost routine for him now, every time Lord Mani or whoever was speaking said “the Messenger” something like a minor jolt of electricity ran through his body. At first he had thought it was nerves, now however he knew it was something supernatural at work. As he glanced around, at the sound of the word everyone drew almost simultaneous breaths of exaltation.

“Tonight the Messenger…” There it was again, the same twinge of electricity, the same deep breath “…will stand before us! They will speak to us and announce the Promised Time is soon to be at hand! And we will cavort in the shadows cast by the twin Lords Skoll and Hati! Then we shall know it for the Hour of the Wolf!”

At this, the gathered cultists threw back their heads and howled, the sound bouncing into a cacophony off the thick walls of the chamber until the noise vibrated throughout his body. Aurelio reluctantly following suit.

Lord Mani continued to speak, more a rant than sermon, of the coming darkness and the death of all those who failed to believe, their souls at the mercy of the pitiless gods they had cowered to.
Aurelio could not help but feel a twinge of anger, though he didn’t let it show on his face. Part of it may have been his nature as a champion reviling a man who could speak so low of Lady Diana.
But he had seen Diana himself, had spoken to her and accepted her charge. She was aloof and distant, as was appropriate for a goddess, but she was generous with her rewards and far from what he would call cruel. She was beautiful, radiant, and a true goddess in every respect. Hearing her so disrespected made him want to launch an arrow clear through Mani’s tainted heart.

He kept his breath calm and his face stony, however. Tonight was too important to waste on urges. A hunter had patience.

“I shall not make you wait any longer!” Lord Mani finally said, to the hushed excitement of his gathered congregation. Aurelio drew in a deep breath, preparing himself.

“I present to you now, the messenger!” He raised his hand, pointing it past the crowd to the entrance behind them. The gathered cultists turned, Aurelio among them, and saw a figure, wrapped and shrouded in a voluminous cloak and robe, a long hood casting their face in shadow. Rather than the rough cloaks and street clothes of the cultists, the messenger wore ornate robes of deep violet silk that wrapped around their body, flowing like draped wings.

The crowd parted as they passed, and Aurelio could smell an unusual scent coming off of them, almost like flowers. They stepped lightly and silently forward, unimpeded by the crowd as they moved to take the space over the altar as Lord Mani stepped aside.

There was a moment in silence, and then the Messenger spoke.

Instantly Aurelio felt a powerful surge of energy run through his body. The Messenger spoke with command, a woman’s voice, as she addressed the gathered crowd before her. Something was wrong, however. Aurelio struggled to keep himself still as what felt like electricity coursed through every fiber of his body. It was the same feeling as one Lord Mani spoke of the messenger, but magnified by a thousand as it made him want to twitch and spasm where he stood, only sheer force of will keeping his body still.

What on Earth was happening to him?

“Hour of the Wolf,” she addressed them. Her voice. It had to be her voice. Everyone else in the room was staring at her, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

“You have done much and waited patiently. You have seen past the false comforts of fickle gods and known that only fire awaited this world, so you made preparations for the next.”

The room was completely silent save for her voice. For a moment, Aurelio wondered if anyone else was even breathing.

“Your faith is strong and your cause is righteous. Each of you have given to the wolves. You have given your faith, your time, your sweat and your tears.”

There was a long pause, and the silence so absolute Aurelio could feel his heartbeat drumming in his ears.

“Save for one.”

There was a simultaneous gasp, a truly unnerving sound as if the air had been sucked from the room.

“You have been infiltrated. Deceived. A lamb now walks boldly among the wolves.”

Crap.

Aurelio stood his ground, if he moved now…

“It matters not.”

Aurelio could not help but stare I surprise, an expression mirrored as the cultists seemed to break from their trance for the first time, glancing in confusion at one another.

“For the true rites shall be performed, and the lamb shall be sacrificed along with the wolves.”

The hairs on the back of Aurelio’s neck stood on end. He turned, risking his position, and stared as he saw that others had come in behind the Messenger, all of them wrapped in long concealing robes, though none as ornate as hers. His instincts told him what it was before his rational mind had time. The secluded basement with one entrance. The secret meeting place. A crowd of people without family or loved ones.

This wasn’t a trap for Aurelio. It was a trap for the entire cult.

“There is no promised time for you. Only endless night beneath a Black Sun.”

He took a deep breath, steadying his heart in those last few moments he had before all hell broke loose. They had caught a hunter in their wolf trap, and he would not be taken lightly.

A scream behind him, Corella’s, he turned and saw a sight that made his blood run cold. The Messenger’s hand had come free of her sleeve, revealing fingers sharpened into blackened claws. Without a moment to react, she plunged her hand up to the wrist into Lord Mani’s chest, blood spattering across her robes as he stared down in shock at the hand plunged inside of him.

Aurelio’s next movements could not be timed even in seconds. He turned once more to the new robed figures that blocked the exit. He raised his arm to shoulder-height, hand outstretched as the silverwood bow Diana had enchanted appeared in his hand, an arrow that glowed like moonlight already drawn. He exhaled and fired.

The bow was noiseless as the arrow was released, the shaft striking the figure closest to the door square in the chest. Aurelio didn’t have to look to know he was dead before he hit the ground, such were the arrows delivered from a bow blessed by Diana. He knew he had perhaps another two seconds before all hell broke loose, and used the time to draw another arrow and release it at a second figure. Already they were beginning to act, hands going into folds of robes to draw knives of shining black. There were at least a dozen, and Aurelio needed to get past them all.

He thought of the cultists, nearly thirty people no doubt about to be butchered like sheep. A cruel death and a pointless one, but if he stayed to fight in quarters like these then he would simply die with the rest of them, a pointless end.

Still, to simply leave them all to die, cowardly as they were.

“Everyone! Run!” He shouted, his contribution to the rising crescendo of screams and shouts as the robed figures moved forward. A few, at least, seemed to take him at his word as a throng of cultists surged forward to the door, Aurelio at their head.

One robed figure rushed to meet him, knife ready, dark eyes hungry. He stabbed, Aurelio lowered his bow and grabbed the man’s wrist with his free hand, stopping his knife and twisting it away with a spine-tingling crack. Weapons were not the only gift’s given to a champion.

The man screamed in pain, causing a few of his hooded fellows to hold back, which gave the hour of the Wolf cultists the momentum they needed to push through to the door. Aurelio ran with them, his feet rushing to the stairs and beyond them the crisp night air.

“Help” He stopped and turned. Corella, last of the group to run, had been grabbed by two of the hooded figures. She stared at him, eyes pleading, and behind her Aurelio could see the crowd of remaining terrified cultists being encircled by the figures. The bulk of their number still remained behind fresh for a sacrifice, the messenger standing above them, clutching in her hand something bleeding red.

A month ago, had he been in that dark forest in North Italy alone, he would have turned back to the door and run for freedom. There was nothing for him here, no reason to stay and every reason to leave. Even now he knew he had to run if he wanted to make it out alive. Now, however, in this damp basement in Rome, he was not alone, and the Champion of Diana had one last shot to make.

He raised his bow, drawing in his breath as another shaft of silver moonlight flowed from his fingertips. He held his breath steady, muscles flexing as he drew back the taught bowstring. He released his breath as he took aim, his heartbeat steady and calm.

The arrow flew, noiselessly, like a shaft of pure light. It whipped through Corella’s hair harmlessly, flying past the robed figures who promptly dropped her in surprise, giving her time to scramble into another run. It flew over the heads of the terrified cultists and instead ran itself clean through the heart of the Messenger.

Once more there was silence, but now Aurelio felt that electricity that had coursed through him fade, replaced only with grim satisfaction as he turned and ran to the exit, escaping into the triumphant moonlight over Rome.

The Hunter had made his kill.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

The Storyteller

April 13th, 2023

There was something liberating in being a spirit. One could remove themselves from material form and fly across the wind if they so choose. Some more potent spirits were shapeshifters, able to take one or many more shapes beyond their natural form. However, even without such skills a spirit could still move through the world, an intangible and invisible specter in the aether, bound only by magic and the laws which bound all spirits.

Scheherazade was not particularly potent as spirits went. She wasn’t even a ghost of a real person, merely an archetype with some form of her memories and personality imprinted to give her form. She was a mere shadow of a phantom, a falsehood, and yet she was untroubled simply because she felt so free.

When Vittorio had entered Cat’s chamber, she had taken the opportunity to vanish once more into her ethereal form. She observed Cat for a while longer, smiling as she made her speech to the disenfranchised Sicilians. She truly was proud of Catarina; even at her relatively tender age, she showed a great deal of promise. She was a mage and warrior, and had the potential to be so much more.

After that, she had taken the initiative to leave Syracuse behind. Like a bird, she had moved through the air out over the city and from there traveled northwards. She followed an intuition she possessed, a keen sense for stories that had never failed her. It was the same sense that had drawn her to Catarina when she had first been summoned. From some unknown place beyond reality she had felt the call like an anchor on her spirit. She had formed from the infinite aether not for a mage in need of a servant, but for a hero in need of a storyteller, a new prospect for both of them.

She retook her physical form on a beach overlooking the clear blue waters of the Strait of Messina. Something about the cold blue waters had enraptured her memory and called her to stay a moment.

Memory was an odd thing for a spirit like Scheherazade. She closed her eyes and could see in her mind’s eye the city of Ctesiphon, see its high spires and the twinkling blue of the Tigris River. It was a city in its prime, all white stone and gilded domes, the envy of the world, and she had been its queen.

It all felt so real, the smells of the spice market, the heat of the sun, the sound of the river. She could recall all of them and yet she knew none of it was real. None of these memories were hers, and in truth they might not even be real, in fact likely weren’t real, false memories for a false ghost, altered by human perception.

Yet somehow…she was still at ease. Scheherazade smiled as she indulged in these memories, this phantasmagoria she made for herself. They might not have been true memories, but for her they were real, and she could be content with that. For while they might not have been memories, they were stories, stories of the woman Scheherazade as they may or may not have been. Hers was now the tale of the greatest storyteller in history.

That part she knew was hers, the love of stories. She was, before anything else, a storyteller to her core. Even removed from her identity as Scheherazade, that one truth still prevailed. It was the very core of her being to find and tell stories and it guided everything she did. Everything else may have been simply so much dross.

Of course she was quite fond of this identity as the storyteller Scheherazade. It was the form she chose to take after all. The woman, as she portrayed her, was witty, elegant, and wise; a laugher and a crier and a dreamer; brave to her core, well-read and well-bred. Calling this identity a part to play like an actor was dishonest. She had no other self, no alter ego by which she could be known. This spirit was Scheherazade alone.

With a flick of her fingers she summoned her golden sparrow into being. It was a small creature of light and gold, flitting about her fingers with all the semblance of life. It could be called a lesser spirit or familiar, but it had no substance of its own. Scheherazade was a storyteller; she could make almost anything she desired, though none of it was any realer than a story. The bird that she could feel jumping about her fingers was made of nothing more than dreams.

Of course, the power of dreams and stories was not to be underestimated. Dreams and stories might very well be the most important things in the universe. At least that’s what a storyteller might say.

With another thought she shed her physical form and rushed down the coast like a wind, her golden sparrow flapping in her wake. She had work to do, after all. Catarina might make for a personable master, but Scheherazade was still hers to command and she had made a promise.

The Rangers had thankfully not moved far from the coast. Scheherazade stepped lightly among them as they set up their camp, still invisible as she observed their meager establishment. Their ships were no doubt anchored in a lagoon somewhere, and they were setting up tents and fire pits before beginning their move towards Aetna. No doubt it would have been exciting to sit and watch, chronicling their stalwart march towards the volcano, but Scheherazade had other stories to occupy her time, and she had reassurance to give.

She felt a spot of relief as she saw Hildegard among the rangers working there. That was one person for whom Catarina feared would not be accounted. She was speaking with a young man Scheherazade didn’t recognize. A local perhaps? Her curiosity drew her closer briefly, and she saw the winged horse tethered nearby. Her heart leapt at the beautiful creature. A real breathing Pegasus right here before her! If that stallion did belong to the young man, then there was certainly a story to be told…

No. Were she visible, she would have shaken her head to refocus herself. She had a job to do. She would see that finished first and then she could try to discern more about the Pegasus and its mysterious rider.

Hanne was easy enough to find. The largest tent had been set up as a command area, used to block the sun and wind as Hanne deliberated over a map of Sicily. Scheherazade, however, could see the worry on her face extended further than their expedition.

Scheherazade extended her power into the world, a single well-placed gust of wind to close the tent flap behind her, leaving them alone and casting the room in semi-darkness.

“Captain Hanne.” A smile passed over her newly-formed lips as she stepped once more into physical shape “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last.”

Scheherazade had to hand it to the woman, she was fast. She hadn’t finished speaking by the time Hanne’s hand had drawn her sword and leveled it to Scheherazade’s throat.

“Who are you!?” She demanded. “How did you get here?”

“Walked.” Scheherazade said, raising her hands innocently. “And my name as you might know it best is Sheh.”

“Sheh?” Hanne’s scowl soon mixed freely with confusion. “Wait…Catarina’s tutor, Sheh?”

“The very same.” Scheherazade smiled. “Now about that sword-“

“How are you here?” Hanne’s blade wasn’t going anywhere, keeping it leveled distressingly close to her throat.

“There is more to me than perhaps Catarina let you know.” She said. “I am not human, as you can tell. I am a spirit, summoned by Catarina. A familiar of sorts.”

“Familiar…you’re Catarina’s spirit?” Hanne’s face once more shifted from confusion into alarm. “Catarina! Where is she!? Is she alright!?”

“Calm yourself, Captain.” Scheherazade smiled. “Catarina is quite safe, though she is rather far from here.”

“Where.” It was not so much a question as a demand. “Tell me and I’ll go.”

“Captain, you have Rangers to lead here.” Scheherazade said. “Presently she is caught up in a…situation in Syracuse.”

“The Mage War…” Word seemed to have moved ahead of Scheherazade as Hanne grit her teeth in anger.

“I’m afraid so, though thankfully she has made a few powerful allies.” Scheherazade tried to keep her voice optimistic as Hanne thankfully dropped her sword.

“She’s in over her head…” Hanne muttered. “I need to get her out of there.”

“With all due respect, captain.” Scheherazade said, stepping towards her. “I believe Catarina is quite aware of what she’s involved in, and is resolved to see it through.”

“She could be hurt!” Hanne shot back. “She could be killed!”

“Just as she could with you.” Scheherazade said.

“This doesn’t involve her.” Hanne said. “Why doesn’t she just come back to us? We could use her help.”

“Because that is not who she is.” Scheherazade said, seating herself in an ornate wooden armchair summoned from nothing but her own descriptive mind. “She saw people in need and resolved to help them any way she could.”

“There are people in Rome who are relying on her.” Hanne said. “They’re relying on all of us.”

“That is why you need to keep moving towards Aetna.” Scheherazade replied. “For them.”

“And Catarina needs to be here with us, not off helping Sicilians we’ve never even met in their own civil war.”

“As I said, that is who she is. Like it or not, it is in her character to help those she finds in need.”

Hanne narrowed her eyes as she looked again at Scheherazade. The spirit held her ground.

“You’re not willing to bring her back.”

“I could not if I wanted to.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Scheherazade was half-tempted to smile. She rather liked the Captain. “Catarina could do great things, given time. This could be merely the first step of her journey.”

“That’s not a burden that needs to be forced on her.”

“It is who she is; she would never refuse that task given the choice.”

“…” Hanne’s eyes once more grew wide, though now the alarm had been abandoned for fury. “You put her there.”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

Hanne almost growled as she spoke. “There’s a reason Catarina washed so far down the coast. You were behind it.”

Scheherazade’s face twisted into an ugly frown, so unlike her usual personality. “Careful now, Captain.”

“You could have gotten her killed!”

“I saved her life!”

“So you could put her in danger again!”

“I can make her a hero!” The air in the tent rumbled as Scheherazade drew herself up to her full height.

“You could make her a martyr.” Hanne’s hand went for her sword again.

Instantly Scheherazade quieted herself. “I would never allow it…”

“Take me to her.” Hanne demanded again.

“I can’t…truly I cannot. She’s too far away and it’s beyond my power. The journey would take days.”

“Which we don’t have…We could send Hildegard and Salvatore, the one with Pegasus.”

“That would only make the situation in Syracuse worse, Captain.” Scheherazade’s face fell. “When all of it is done, I can bring her back to you, and I swear I will bring her back safe.”

Hanne took a long sigh, and Scheherazade could see the weariness come over her face. There were few things more painful than knowing someone you were responsible for was taking risks, with you powerless to help them. Scheherazade had meant every word of what she had said, however. Her powers as a storyteller were far from phenomenal, but she would do all she could to keep Catarina safe, so long as she had the chance to prove herself.

“I swear Catarina will be brought back to you safe.” Scheherazade said, merely earning another tired sigh from Hanne.

“Is it worth her safety to you for her to become a hero in your eyes?”

“No.” Scheherazade admitted. “I suppose that I would rather see her safely mundane than a wounded hero. There are other stories that could be told, after all…”

“Then why-” Hanne began, but Scheherazade interrupted her.

“Because it’s not about what I desire. It’s what Catarina wishes to be.”

 

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The Wolves of Rome

Clear Skies

April 12th, 2023
It was after a long day with Echo that Kebechet made her way back to the capital. She loved her grandmother Nephthys dearly, but time did tend to run while she was around, and Kebechet had her father’s preference for studiousness and scheduling. As such her day had fallen irreparably behind schedule and she’d been forced to call the day a wash to be picked up again tomorrow. So it was with trepidation that Kebechet walked through the early-night streets of Rome.

The streets themselves were largely deserted. Most after dark activities were focused in specific gathering halls and pubs and other places, with only the odd stranger like Kebechet stalking the night alone. She moved purposefully but in almost total silence, telling of either her divine or canine nature, her footsteps never echoing across the ground. As she stepped up to the Plaza del Campidoglio, planning to retire to her usual quarters for the night, something caught the corner of her keen vision. A glance upwards and she saw a lone figure on the roof of the new capital building. Though a small dark figure, likely invisible to human eyes, Kebechet could see the distinct winged outline of Angel even from across the square.

It was rare to see Angel on her own, as she seemed to have rented space permanently in Capitolina’s shadow. Kebechet could likely count the time she had seen Angel on her own on both hands, and seeing her alone on the rooftop like that had a distinct air of ominousness to it. Her day complete and her work going unfinished until the next day, Kebechet decided she might as well do some investigating on her own.

It was a quick and quiet route up the stairs of the building to the roof. All of the officials and the small gathering of senators had dispersed with the sunset. At night the capital building belonged almost exclusively to the wolves. Kebechet wasn’t sure where Capitolina was at present, though she knew Giovanni almost always returned to the Vatican by nightfall if business had dragged him away to the Capitoline Hill. Capi could be in any number of places, and it was possible that Kebechet and Angel were the only living souls in the building. Despite this, it was with her signature silence that she stepped free of the last doorway and out onto the roof.

The last rays of the sun were almost gone, merely painting the Western horizon a slight purple with their final passage. The rest of the sky belonged to the night, and Kebechet took a moment to look up at the vault of stars above them. If there was one thing to be said for the end of the world, it was that it had certainly opened up the skies again. Rome had not seen a night like this for centuries before the Days of Revelation, and with the outpouring of divine and spiritual energy into the world, the constellations seemed almost alive again. Though the stars held certain beauty, Kebechet could not help but feel unease at the thought of nightfall. She couldn’t help but imagine Egypt, her homeland, trapped for the last six months beneath an eternal night sky, Amon-Ra’s sun barge lost beyond the horizon and the terrible serpent Apep reigning supreme.

Kebechet approached Angel from behind, but she had no illusions of sneaking up on the other wolf. Angel’s vision far surpassed her physical eyes. Even Kebechet had a sense of awareness far beyond the mortal ken. Giovanni and Capitolina still relied on their (admittedly enhanced) senses for detection, but Kebechet was a goddess and Angel was something else entirely.

“It is a lovely night.” Kebechet said, breaking the ice as she took a spot standing next to Angel.

“All the stars are out.” Angel replied in her usual monotone. Kebechet was not sure if her words were casual or carried implication of some more troubling fundamental truth about stars, and she didn’t press for it. Glancing at Angel now that she stood beside her, Kebechet could see the stars reflected in her large blue eyes. Though she realized “reflected” might be the wrong word for it. She didn’t see any familiar constellations in Angel’s eyes. They were foreign stars, certainly foreign to the Mediterranean and possibly foreign to Earth entirely. There had always been something about Angel that put Kebechet into a sense of unease.

There were beings higher on the divine hierarchy than divinities like Isis-Ra, Zeus, or Odin. They were more ancient and more powerful but far less human, most unable to express thought or feeling or take any physical form. These were beings like Gaia, Nun, and Nyx, that brought the world into shape. Angel, like the other Primordials, was about halfway there. She was a cosmological constant, an anchored point of the universe, or at least she had been once. Though she possessed an odd and almost human form, from Kebechet’s perspective, merely looking at her was like seeing the whole of a ruined civilization.

“Just out stargazing?” Kebechet asked when the silence became too uncomfortable to stand.

“I am simply observing.” Angel said.

“The Sicilian operation?” Kebechet glanced at her again. Surely Angel could see that far if she could glance across the world at a moment’s notice.

“Once every few hours.” Angel said. “It has had a few problems but it is progressing.”

“Have you been keeping Capitolina updated?” Kebechet said, pleased with the small talk.

“No.” Angel said plainly.

This earned a look of surprise from Kebechet. Angel not disclosing something to Capitolina was something she had scarcely imagined before. Before she could ask why, however, Angel decided to cut her off.

“For the same reason I tell you nothing of your homeland. What good is it to know that which you cannot change? All it would bring is worry.”

Kebechet knew she had a point. They lacked the time, materials, and manpower to launch a second operation to rescue the first. If there were problems then nothing could be done at all, and they would have to live with the outcome whether they knew it beforehand or not. No doubt if total defeat had befallen them, Angel would let them know. But without that assurance of total loss, then there was no point wasting effort over the wringing of hands.

As for learning more about her homeland, Kebechet was actually thankful of her relative ignorance. She wanted to know as little as possible of the hell on earth that Egypt had likely become under Apep’s terrible reign.

“But that is not, I suppose, why I came out here tonight.” It was Angel’s voice now that cut the silence.

“You said you were observing.”

“And I am” Angel said “But I am not observing the world, merely the limit of my own power.”

“I don’t follow.” Kebechet said, her eyes moving back and forth from Angel’s face to the stars, as if hoping to find some connection.

“I told you when we first met that I am just a shadow of my former power.” Angel said. Kebechet remembered it distinctly. She had been the first of them to sniff out what Angel truly was. Neither Capitolina nor Giovanni had the senses for it, but Angel’s presence had sent every mental alarm of hers blaring in her head.

“That was not entirely the truth.” Angel said “The truth is…I believe I’m growing weaker.”

Kebechet was staring at her now.

“My strength left me long ago, and I grow tired more easily now. Even now…the length of my vision is beginning to recede. Events are blurrier and more difficult to track. I lose precision and accuracy in my sight almost every week.”

“Why?” Kebechet asked, even though she could guess the answer.

“Too little of me is Eagle now” Angel said. “Too much wolf, too much machine. Perhaps even a little too much human now.”

When a god was forced into a new role they could adapt to it, even thrive. Her Grandfather Set was a prime example of that, for better or worse. But with a being like Angel…she didn’t exist on human faith, and any alteration in her being was unwilling at best, dangerous at worst. It only made things worse that Kebechet knew nothing could be done. No matter the healing done or repairs made, nothing could make Angel truly whole again.

As Kebechet watched her, something unusual seemed to overcome Angel. Her hand moved to grasp her other arm, the false mechanical one she kept hidden under a jacket. She held it tightly as the rest of her started to shake, not heavily, but with a distinct series of trembles running through her body.

“I am…” Angel’s voice was quiet, and for once she seemed to have lost her monotone. “…frightened.”

Wordlessly, Kebechet reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. Though she was far from qualified to handle a Primordial in emotional distress, Kebechet knew that the last thing Angel should be at that moment was alone. No doubt Angel felt as much terror at the mere thought of feeling fear as she did from losing her powers.

“I think we are all a little afraid, Angel.” Kebechet said. “I fear for my homeland and my own future. Giovanni fears for the survival of his church. Even Capitolina I am sure fears for the future of her city.”

Angel did not reply, but Kebechet could feel that she had stopped trembling.

“I suppose one reason Capitolina made us a pack was so that if we’re scared, we can at least be scared together.”

At the sound of Capitolina’s name Kebechet could feel Angel growing calmer, and she could have sworn she saw her tail give a single contented wag.

Kebechet had always believed Capi had drawn them together simply for their proximity and their identities as wolves, but holding tight to Angel and looking out over the city that was slowly rebuilding itself, perhaps there was more to it than simply that. Though they were a disparate and mismatched group in almost all respects, they had helped the people of Rome begin to claw their way out of the shadows that had fallen on it. She could see the scattered lights of the city, the movements of people in their ever-growing sanctuary. If the mission succeeded, then the entire city, perhaps the entire country, might be like this again someday.

“Besides” She continued, keeping her hand on Angel’s shoulder “We can’t let the humans see we’re scared. We’re supposed to be their protectors, after all.”

“How long do you think that will hold?” Angel asked, and it took a moment to think before Kebechet responded.

“We’ll keep doing it until they can protect themselves. Whenever that is.”

“That may be sooner than we think.” Angel said. “Though they’ve had setbacks, the Rangers are availing themselves quite handily, and…” She seemed to trail off, her eyes flickering with movement.

“And…?”

“There is one I am watching with…particular interest.” Angel said. “I suppose she…piqued my curiosity.”

“Coming from you that’s praise indeed.” Kebechet couldn’t help but smirk. She’d never known Angel take an interest in anything other than Capitolina.

“Time will tell if she’s anything more than bravado, however.” Angel said “I shall wait and watch.”

“That’s about all any of us can do.” Kebechet said. “But if humans are good at anything, it’s holding surprises.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Wings over Sicily

April 11th,2023
Hildegard walked along the shore, shielding herself from the rays of the sun with her cape. People always told her that a cape was bad in a combat situation because it could result in her enemy grabbing it. Her answer was always the same. A Ranger was out in the hot sun and the pouring rain. During times like that, having a piece of cloth above your head, especially one reinforced to repel water, was useful.

She had awoken by herself, with only her sword and clothes in terms of gear. A quick assessment had told her that quite a lot had changed from the initial invasion plan. She was alone, without another soul in sight. Out at sea, she thought she could make out a ship of some shape, but it was too far away to say if it was one of theirs. More than likely, it was a pirate ship or a ship of the dead.

Hilde had smiled and rubbed her hands together. This might not have been the plan, but oh was she going to have a story to tell to the other Rangers when she got back. Doubt flickered in her mind for only a moment; the creeping concern that she was the only one to have made it from the boats, before she quickly dismissed it. If she had survived, than surely most of the others did as well. Cat had fallen off first and Hilde had dived after her. The other rangers were surely fine. Cat though…

As Hilde’s footsteps sank into the sea, her thoughts turned back to the younger girl. A small frown crossed her face. She had held onto Cat as the blue haired mage had slipped under the water, but the force of the waves had knocked her unconscious and her grip had slipped. If something had happened to Cat, Hilde wasn’t sure what she would do.

“No.” She told herself, with as much force as she could. “You won’t think like that. Cat is a tough girl, just like you are. She’ll be fine.” After a moment, Hilde gave herself a wry smile. “After all, Mother would kill her double if Cat died after all that begging to come!”

Hilde continued to walk on the beach until the sun reached its zenith. Wiping at her brow and letting her cape fall down, she let out a heavy breath. “Mm, need to find some water.” She said, looking at the rows of empty abandoned houses that had once been part of a seaside town. She had never been to Sicily before this. Even studying the maps didn’t help her when she had no landmarks with which to go by.

It was a small town, and Hilde could tell it had been abandoned for some time. There were still scenes of people’s final moments playing out behind the windows. It seems that most of the residents had fled from something in a hurry, most likely during the Days of Revelation.

While peeking through one of the windows into a home, seeing a bottle of water just lying on the kitchen table, Hildegard heard a sound. Wings flapping meant there was something approaching from the air. Her hand moved over the hilt of her sword. Pretending to keep staring through the window, Hilde waited until the creature was drawing in close. The flapping grew louder. She could feel the wind pushing against her. There was the thump of a landing.

She spun around, drawing her sword, and found herself looking up at…a flying horse?
It was hard to see against the light of the sun behind it. Hilde staggered back, squinting as a spear wielding figure in armor descended from the skies on the back of a shadowed horse. Hildegard dug her feet into the dirt, making sure her footing was steady.

The horse and rider landed on the road, creating a cloud of dirt and gravel. Hilde closed her eyes against the cloud of debris. When she opened them again, she let out a gasp.

The ranger found herself staring into the eyes of a Pegasus straight from ancient myth. Its pure white coat seemed to shine in the sunlight as the horse observed her with intelligent, aware eyes. The gentle flapping of its broad wings caused her hair to blow back as if it were a windy day.

Hildegard slowly took a step forward, cautiously, as her eyes travelled up to see the Pegasus’s rider.
It was a boy about her own age, clad in riding leathers with an ancient-looking breastplate over his chest. His sandy brown hair clung to his skin from the sweat and it was clear that if the Pegasus’s wings were causing her hair to blow every which way, the winds he was enduring were worse. He carried a spear which gave Hildegard cause for concern.

“You’re not one of the villagers from this region.” He said, looking down on her.

“I don’t even know where this region is!” Hilde said. She kept her weapon out, not dropping her guard for a moment.

“You’re in Messina. Nobody here has armor like that…or a magical sword. Are you from the south?”
Hildegard groaned at hearing that she was in Messina. That meant she was far north of the landing point. Her disappointment didn’t last long as she picked up on the rest of what he said. “Hey! You have armor and a flying horse! Even if my sword was magical, how can you say something like that?”

Dropping the reins, the boy started stroking Pegasus’s mane. “The Goddess granted me these gifts to help me protect the region from monsters. But trust me, they work just as well against more human threats!”

“Monsters?” Hilde said, with a frown. “Like Cacodaemons?”

The boy tilted his head. “Don’t know what those are. If we have them, we call them something different.”

“They’re just a general term for the monsters. Look, I got washed up on shore after a sea serpent attacked our ship. My sister fell in the water, so she’s probably somewhere nearby. My name is Hildegard, I’m from Rome. We came here because…” Hilde started to explain her reason for being there, before stopping. Revealing the location of a hidden cache of magical weapons to a stranger did not seem wise. “Because we wanted to find out if there were any other survivors.”

The boy didn’t seem to believe her, but he did lower his spear a little as Pegasus snorted. “Hmm, well, I don’t entirely believe your story…But Pegasus seems to think you’re not a bandit. My name is Salvatore Messana. People call me Turi though.”

“Well, tell your horse that I appreciate his vote of confidence.” While her words sounded ludicrous to her ears, Hildegard meant them sincerely. She was, after all, standing before an undeniable Pegasus. Was it so hard to believe that the creature was able to make a good judge of character?
“So how does someone just get a Pegasus?” Hildegard asked. Seeing him sitting on its back, she couldn’t help but get a little jealous. If there were more of them, she wanted one.

“It’s not A Pegasus, it’s just Pegasus.” Turi said. “As for why, you’d have to ask the Goddess. But I’ve trained and ridden horses all my life. When the mountain shook, the Goddess appeared to me at my Ranch and told me she had chosen me to be her champion.”

“Mmm…” Hilde did her best to hide her disappointment. I want a flying horse…

“I’ve been keeping monsters from attacking the villages in this region. With Pegasus, I can travel faster than just about anyone. It’s how I know you’re not from around here.” Turi said, leaning forward and resting his arms against Pegasus’s head. He seemed to relax fairly quickly. Hildegard smiled confidently. He was just a rancher pretending to be a monster hunter, not a trained professional like her!

“I can tell you’re not a soldier. So how do you manage to kill anything with that spear?” She asked, looking him over. He was decently built, but Hildegard knew enough about combat to know he was a trained rider, not a trained fighter.

Turi bristled at her words. “I may not be a soldier, but I can kill monsters just fine. The spear guides itself toward their hearts.”

Hildegard frowned. She wouldn’t say out loud it was cheating to have the spear do all the work, but the expression on her face made her feelings perfectly clear.

Turi could tell what she was thinking anyway, and he matched her frown. “It takes a lot of effort to direct Pegasus in the air already. The Goddess is just helping me do my job.”

“I suppose. I think it would be better to take someone who already knew how to fight with a spear and teach them how to ride a flying horse.”

Leaning back, Turi folded his arms. “Are you going to argue with the Goddess of Wisd—“

Before he could get her full title out, the entire ground shook. The birds took off from the trees, cawing in distress. Something was moving in the trees, causing the branches to shake. Turi quickly grabbed Pegasus’s reins, his guard back up. “A giant! Get out of its way!”

With a tug on the reins, Pegasus took off for the air, rising high above the trees. Looking up, Hildegard could see the head of the giant well above the tree line as it carved a path through the forest. It was larger than any cacodaemon she had seen in Rome. It was humanoid, but its body seemed to be made out of stone and dirt, its hair out of plants. Her head could barely reach its knee.

Drawing her sword, Hildegard just smiled as her eyes began to take in everything they could, anything that would give her an advantage. If she could bring down this giant, then there’d be no question that she was one of the greatest monster hunters that had ever lived! If she could get in the trees, she could in theory pull herself up his arm to his neck. With her sword’s fire and her magic, she could possibly set his hair alight.

She started to run towards the trees, her sword already burning brightly with magical fire. The giant didn’t seem to notice her. Instead, his eyes were trained on…Turi and Pegasus. Hildegard slid to a stop as she watched the two dive like a hawk from the sky. One hand on the reins, the other holding the spear, Turi seemed to be using the weapon like a compass, matching his course based on where it pointed.
The giant grabbed a tree and ripped it from the ground, swinging it as a club. Turi pulled back on the reins, causing Pegasus to go off course but avoid the giant’s swing. Hilde waved her arms to try to get his attention. If she could get in the air, she’d be able to kill this monster!

“Hey! Turi! Listen to me!” She screamed as he flew above. She chased after the horse, until finally, finally, she managed to get his attention. She pointed to the giant, then her sword, then made a slashing motion across her neck.

Turi quickly headed back down for the ground, letting go of Pegasus’s reins as he held out his arm, grabbing Hildegard around her waist and pulling her up, the momentum of his flight sweeping her off the ground. Hildegard made a face that she was happy he couldn’t see at the sudden and unfamiliar sensation of being off the ground as he pulled her onto the horse.

“Al-alright, now get me up…AAAH!” Hildegard started to scream for a moment as Pegasus began to climb through the air again. She quickly bit her tongue to get herself to stop, wrapping her arms around the horse’s neck and closing her eyes. Turi’s arm stayed around her to keep her from falling as Pegasus moved freely, his rider’s hand no longer holding the reins.

Pegasus rose rapidly into the air. As Hilde opened her eyes, she took a look below. She had been on planes, very rarely, but this was different. The only thing keeping her from falling was the arm of this rancher.

“Get ready to jump!” Turi said as they approached the giant’s head. Hilde gripped her blade. This was what she was trained to do. She felt Turi’s arm pull away as she willingly slipped off the horse, falling quickly towards the giant’s shoulder. She crashed into it with a thud, starting to bounce and slip until she dug her sword into the caked mud that made the creature’s body. “Haaa…” She let out a sigh of relief as she pulled herself to her feet. This wasn’t the most stable of ground, but she’d make it work.

The giant hadn’t even really noticed her, focused as it was on the flying horse with the pointy spear that seemed to always go for its chest. Hilde charged around the shoulder, her sword ablaze as she swung it up, catching the grassy hair. The magic flames eagerly lapped at the giant, and soon a bonfire had started on the monster’s head, helped along by Hildegard’s own spells. Chanting in German, the Ranger Knight used all the offensive spells she knew against the creature.

It howled in pain as it clawed at its own hair. Hildegard grabbed onto the rocky surface as best as she could. She could hear Turi screaming something as she saw Pegasus fly like a dart towards the giant’s now undefended heart. She could hear its death cry as it started to fall, the magical spear piercing through its skin, the divine enchantment breaking through its hard hide.

The giant began to tumble, with Hildegard still on it. If she held her grip and it landed the right way, perhaps she’d still be able to come out of this alright. Gripping on for dear life in the most literal sense, Hildegard grit her teeth as she focused on reinforcing her body. No matter what, this was going to hurt.

She heard the fluttering of wings and felt Turi’s hand grabbing her by the collar of her armor. She was lifted off the giant and pulled onto the back of the flying horse. Hilde hadn’t even realized she’d stopped breathing until she let out a big breath. The giant collapsed with a thud that shook the earth even more than its footsteps.

Turi was sweating, his breathing shallow. Hilde wasn’t faring much better as they both flew on the back of Pegasus, recovering their breaths. Neither had the energy to say anything, but it was Hilde who recovered first. With a big smile, she looked down at the dead monster.

“Can’t wait to tell Cat I took down a giant! The look on her face will be priceless.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Lee Shore

April 11th, 2023
Analita Rhode moved quickly and quietly through the long beach grass and small stunted trees that grew near the shore. She was bent over, her arms almost dragging across the ground as she shuffled across the sandy ground, silently wincing every time she heard the dry reeds beneath her feet snap and buckle. Still, she made impressive effort at stealth, though her unusual height meant she had to bend over much more than her sister would have to.

Carmen was no doubt out on the water by now. She was to bring in what fish she could further west along the coastline while Analita investigated the recent activity on the eastern shore about two miles from their isolated village. At her family’s insistence she had an old unused shotgun slung over her back, more an antique than a weapon, and Analita doubted it could even fire. More than anything it was for intimidation rather than actual firing, and Analita hoped she wouldn’t have to unsling it from her back.

The village had become tenser in the past few weeks. The conflict that overran the cities to the south was beginning to spread their way, and everyone was on edge that they would soon be enlisted by force into one side or another, or simply become caught in the inevitable crossfire. So when one of the early morning fishing boats had spread the news saying that a contingent of armed soldiers was on the beach only two miles away it had raised no small amount of alarm.
The rest of them had decided to hide and hope they were missed. They had over the past week and a half done their best to disguise any of the remaining roads leading into their village, and they hoped it would be enough to remain overlooked. Analita, however, had decided to sneak out to find out who they were, maybe learn their intentions and what side they were on.

Still she had decided to sneak. If they were mages and wanted to forcibly recruit her village, then no doubt they could easily entrance her and use some magic power to give up the village’s location. Analita shivered at the thought. Magic wasn’t supposed to be real, it all still seemed so fanciful. But monsters weren’t real either, and she had seen more of them than she would like to remember.

Analita heard them before she saw them, several voices carried along the water from further up the beach. One in particular, powerful and female, cut through the air. The wind carried away specific words and meanings, but it grew more intelligible as she slowly crept closer until the band came into view.

There were about forty of them, maybe fewer, scattered across the beach. They didn’t look like straight-backed conquering soldiers, rather they looked utterly miserable. Most were hunched over from exhaustion, and a few limped or carried wounded arms in slings. Had there been a battle?
Through the reeds, Analita saw two fifteen-meter sailboats moored a little ways offshore, and three smaller rowboats dragged onto the shore. The mass of people seemed to be sorting through supplies while a few others tended a new fire. Quite a few had stripped off shirts to dry in the sun. They were clearly disordered, but by the looks of it had only just arrived.

“Johansen! Tide’s rising, get those boats further up the beach! Lorenzo! Two is enough on the fire, help Johansen!”

Analita caught sight of the woman barking orders. She was tall, strongly built, and her strawberry blonde hair was done up in a crude bun with quite a bit of it coming loose. While her hair and clothes were disheveled, she didn’t appear to have lost an ounce of authority in her posture or her voice. Analita eyed the sword at her hip with apprehension.

Taking another look for weapons, she saw that many of them were…archaically armed. Swords and spears and bows mostly. A few oddities here and there like hatchets and crossbows, but she couldn’t see a rifle among them. People armed themselves like this? At the very least it gave her a bit more confidence in her rusty old shotgun.

Although…they didn’t match the rumors of the Sicilian armies that were marching around. They could have been rebels, but they wouldn’t be organizing a raid this size out in the open, at least Analita didn’t think they did. All the rumors said they were secretive and traveled in small numbers. Besides, there was no way to this beach by sea that was quicker than a land march would be, particularly bringing the dangers of sea serpents into consideration.

After another minute’s pause to think it finally hit her. They weren’t parts of the warring factions because they might not be from Sicily at all! An armed contingent making a crash land on Sicily? Where had they come from and where were they going?

Analita bit her lip. She wasn’t going to learn much more from sitting and watching, and if they were new here they would have sent out scouts which meant she could be discovered at any moment. She breathed deeply, sliding the shotgun slowly from her shoulder and mentally steeling herself before rising to her full height, shouting across the beach in the most intimidating voice she could muster.

“Who are you trespassers!?”

She hoped they couldn’t see the barrel of the shotgun quivering from this range. Analita had never even fired the thing before, but she pointed it threateningly at them. “Identify yourselves!”
The gathering had gone completely silent, the only sound was the lingering echo of her voice and the gentle lapping of the waves against the beach. A few moved to their weapons, but a hurried jerk of the shotgun in their direction made them rethink it.

The tall rose-haired woman stared as well, and rather than speak she began to stride calmly towards Analita.

Shit.

“Don’t move!’ Analita shouted, pointing the gun at her “not until you tell me who you are!”

The woman paused, but didn’t seem particularly troubled by it. She  lifted her hands, palms facing Analita, to show she wasn’t reaching for her sword. She was a lot closer than Analita would have liked, only a couple of meters of beach between them. If the woman charged her.

“We don’t mean any harm.” The woman said calmly. Her voice had dropped the harshness, and now that Analita could get a closer look at her, she could see the exhaustion on her face.

“Why are you armed?” Analita demanded, not lowering her gun.

“Because if we weren’t we all would have been killed by monsters long ago. We don’t have any interest in hurting people.”

“Fine, but who are you!?” Analita wasn’t sure if she believed her. There weren’t many monsters in Sicily, particularly as one moved further from Aetna, and to bring so many people…

“We call ourselves the Rangers. We hail from Rome.”

The barrel of Analita’s gun finally lowered towards the ground as an expression of shear shock and disbelief spread across her face.

“R-Rome?” She said. “Like…across the sea? THE Rome?”

“Yes. That Rome.” The woman answered in a deadpan. “My name is Hanne, I’m their captain. As you can see, we Rangers have had some hardships coming in.”

“I see…” Analita nodded, her brain still processing this information.

They were from Rome, a full group of some forty people from Rome! At the very least she knew now that the world hadn’t ended entirely outside of Sicily. There was still civilization elsewhere in the world. Somewhere beneath the shock and adrenaline, Analita felt a bit more hope.

“Ah, my name is Analita.” She nodded politely “Analita Rhode, I live…around.” She shut her mouth before her politeness got the better of her. She still didn’t know if they truly were peaceful.

“Miss Rhode, alright.” The woman Hanne nodded, and Analita felt a flush of pride at being referred to as such by an obviously older and more tempered woman. “We came here on a specific mission.” She continued “all of us are going to Mount Aetna, but we were…blown a little off course.”

Analita blinked in surprise. “I-I should think so.” Her eyes instinctively glances south towards the mountain. “It would take you two days at least on foot. What happe…hmmm…” She was going to ask what happened, but by the shape of all of them and the look of exhaustion and receding shock on Hanne’s face, it was clear that more than the wind had blown them off course.

“Sea Serpents then? “ She asked, and Hanne nodded.

“it sank one of our ships, thankfully not far from the shore, but a lot of our rangers were carried away by the current.” Something was straining just under her firm expression. Hanne took a few steps closer, and Rhode didn’t feel the need to raise her gun again.

“Miss Rhode.” She said, more quietly but also more seriously so that the others likely couldn’t hear. “I’m looking for two girls, likely around your age, one a little younger. They’re…well you couldn’t miss either of them.”

“Er..no, I’m sorry.” Rhode shook her head.

Hanne took a deep breath and ran a hand nervously through her hair. By the many loose strands she could see, it was likely the thousandth time she had done it that morning.

“I see…more of ours are still coming in every hour…i-if you see either of them…”

“Right…” Analita nodded. And somehow it felt like more than just a captain asking after her missing troops.

“But…what are you doing going to Aetna?” Rhode asked, trying to change the subject.

“There is something there our city needs.” Hanne said, her voice suddenly becoming cagey.

“You shouldn’t go.” Analita’s own face became stony as she spoke.

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.” Hanne said.

“There are monsters…”

“Miss Rhode.” Analita heard the iron in her voice again, Hanne’s arms held stiffly at her side. “If there is one thing of which I can assure you, it is that every person you see on this beach is a seasoned monster killer.”

Analita couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Every person here had not only seen a monster, but killed one? With things like swords and arrows? Suddenly her shotgun felt a good deal less comforting. There was something both terrifying and awe-inspiring about the thought of a brigade of monster killers.

But even more terrible had been the monstrous thing that had ripped itself free of Aetna those months ago.

“You’ve come to Sicily at a bad time.” She said. She didn’t want to talk about what she’d seen, but there were plenty of things other than Typhon to worry about between this beach and Aetna.
“I suppose it has something to do why you approached a group of strangers with a gun…after scouting us out, I assume.” Hanne said, with the hints of a smirk tugging at her lips.

“Er…yes.” Analita said abashedly, slinging the gun back over her shoulder. “But it is merited, and not just because of monsters.”

“I should hope so.” Hanne visibly relaxed as Analita put the gun away. “Guns can’t kill monsters.”

“What?”

“It’s true.” Hanne said. “Something about them being ‘too new’ or not ‘heroic’ enough or something.”

“But…” Analita struggled to put her confusion into words “What about werewolves? Aren’t those only killed by silver bullets?”

“Beats me” Hanne shrugged nonchalantly “I’ve never met a werewolf. Silver bullet won’t stop a cacodaemon though.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa