The Snake and the Mirror

Knights and Monsters

September 25th, 2024

 

The ‘interrogation room’ of the Night Guard headquarters was really more of a lounge that many of the Guard used between shifts. Even now, as the night began to trail on into early morning, a pot of coffee had been started and there was a plate of pastries on the table though no one had deigned to start eating.

There were three people in the room, with two on one side of the table and the third opposite. On the one side was Aurelio, hands folded on the table as he eyed their guest, and at his side was the fox spirit Hachi, who sat quietly with a calm and demure smile on her face. Sitting opposite them was the ‘knight’ from the confrontation with the werewolf. She had willingly doffed most of her armor and was now sitting in her padded gambeson in the room with them.

In the light, and with her armor removed, Aurelio could get a better look at them. She had darker tan skin and possibly bleached blonde hair, amber eyes and a noticeable scar running down her cheek. She was taller than Aurelio and more strongly-built, as he was often seen as lean and somewhat wiry. She kept her arms folded over her chest as her eyes passed back and forth between them, though mostly lingering on Hachi.

“So who exactly are you, Night Guard?” she asked with barely restrained contempt.

“There were a number of pamphlets and bulletins sent out,” Aurelio said. “We’re Rome’s guard against spiritual threats that the city guard and the legions aren’t equipped to deal with.”

“And half of you are…spirits yourselves,” It was clear from her tone that she had been very close to using the word ‘monster’ instead, and her eyes had never left Hachi.

“Well none of us are what could be called ‘fully human’,” Aurelio tried to keep his tone level. “But we all have nothing but Rome’s best interests at heart.”

“And yet you choose to lock up or talk to spirits rather than engage them,” She said, scornfully.

“When it is feasible,” Aurelio said. “When they cannot be reasoned with we answer with force.”

“Well I don’t know how your ‘spirits’ are in Rome, but where I come from, if you don’t hit first and hit hard then you wind up dead.”

“Then it must be unfortunate for you that you’re in Rome now,” Aurelio said, irritation creeping into his voice.

“Let us try to keep this civil,” Hachi said diplomatically. “First of all, we have been quite rude to our guest and failed to introduce ourselves. My name is Hachi.”

“…Captain Aurelio Furlan,” Aurelio said.

“…Kira,” The knight finally said, keeping her arms folded disdainfully.

“Very good, Miss Kira,” Hachi smiled. Aurelio was impressed at how level Hachi could keep her expression, especially considering how most of Kira’s insults had been leveled at her.

“Dame Kira,” Kira shot back scornfully. “Of the Order of the Brass Eagle.”

“Dame Kira, excuse me,” Hachi didn’t miss a beat. “It is obvious that the attitude of spirits and of monsters varies between regions. I have seen proof of this with my own eyes, being as I am from very far away. With that said, I believe that most people in this city would assure you that the spirits present here seek cooperation and coexistence over death and conquest. Our current Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar, as well as Spiritual Ambassador Megame Kamigawa, are the social and political representatives to the spirits of Rome and they have done tremendous work.”

“If they’re so cooperative, why even have this Night Guard?” Kira asked.

“Earlier this year, from my understanding, the city came under attack by a cruel and merciless Aztec deity that wished to overthrow the city,” Hachi said. “That, coupled with other incidents, showed the need for a specialized task force, one that could deal with spirits on an equal footing, something most humans are incapable of doing.”

“My order is something similar,” Kira said. “Except we didn’t recruit negotiators and ambassadors. We hired monster hunters, trained warriors, and anyone willing to fight and kill for humanity. Spirits only care about one law, the law of the strong over the weak, and no matter how much they dress it up in pretty language I’ve never seen evidence it changes.”

Aurelio glanced at Hachi and the fox woman hadn’t even twitched. Had it been Aurelio he would have visibly bristled at her comments, but Hachi never lost her cool.

“Then I am sorry for the experiences that you have had, Dame Kira,” Hachi said. “But I can assure you that the spirits of Rome wish to live in harmonious balance with their environment, a desire which requires effort both on their part and on the part of the spirits in question. And now, for the benefit of further discussion, I wish to establish the difference between a spirit and a monster.”

“I’ve yet to see the difference, save that some men can be turned into monsters too.”

“Well, it is true that most monsters are spirits and the legions have seen their fair share,” Hachi said. “Manticores, hydras, great lions and boars…there are spirits which have formed for the express purpose of hunting and killing humans. However, this is why we employ expert hunters such as Aurelio and Elisa. We believe in an even-handed approach, seeking diplomatic solutions while also carrying the capacity to respond with force.”

“I didn’t see much of that response when you chose to drag a werewolf back in chains rather than kill the damn thing where it stood!” Kira slammed her fist on the table.

“Leon hadn’t attacked anyone,” Aurelio said. “It was clear he was fleeing, not hunting.”

“So what, are you going to let a dangerous beast just walk!?” Kira demanded.

“No,” Aurelio said. “We don’t know the limitations and dangers of his condition, and he broke the law by not reporting it when he arrived. He will be dealt with as Roman law decides.”

“And how will I be dealt with?” Kira spat. “For trying to protect this city form the monsters it refuses to see in front of its face?”

“Well, thankfully, you didn’t hurt anyone either,” Aurelio said, but a slightly raised hand by Hachi left him silent as she took over again.

“Indeed, you were acting entirely in the way you believed best for protecting this city. Your actions were, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed but you broke no written law as we see it. You will be free to go after this talk is over, though we of course recommend you leave these kinds of matters to the Night Guard and the city guard patrol.”

“If there’s a werewolf on the loose,” Kira said. “I’m not going to standby.”

“I understand,” Hachi nodded, though Aurelio could feel slightly more force in her voice. “However, this city does not abide by vigilantism. If you began hunting spirits outside of self-defense then there would certainly be legal ramifications. What I can recommend for someone of your obvious, skill, and talent, is to seek out legitimate employment with the Legions or even perhaps with the Night Guard itself.”

Both Aurelio and Kira looked at Hachi with incredulous expressions.

“I’m surprised you’d even suggest hiring a full-blooded human,” Kira scoffed. “By the sound of it, that wasn’t in your hiring policy.”

“There is no reason to discriminate,” Hachi said. “You have skills that might prove useful in case there is a violent incident.”

“She might be able to work with Hildegard as well,” Aurelio said. “They do a lot of monster hunting.”

“Our point,” Hachi nodded. “Is that there are a number of excellent options for you that can fully utilize your skills, there is no need to make a vigilante of yourself chasing problems that might not exist.”

“Hmm,” Kira frowned, clearly still unhappy with the stated options, but her arms had moved onto the table. “I will…consider things.”

“That’s all we ask,” Hachi smiled. “We would hate for there to be another incident with a less peaceful resolution.”

After a few more questions regarding her background and her living arrangements Kira was released. Hachi offered to put together the official report to give to the guards, so Aurelio left her to it and soon found himself in the large entrance lobby to the Night Guard Headquarters, though he wasn’t alone for long.

“Make much progress?” Sybilla asked, pressing a mug of coffee into his hand.

“We think she’s cooled off a bit,” Aurelio said. “Guards will probably be keeping an eye on her for a while. Here’s hoping we don’t run into her again mid-chase.”

“Here’s hoping,” Sybilla nodded.

“What about the girl, Serlida?” Aurelio asked. “You and Cade had her, right.”

“She’s fine, sleeping on the second-floor lounge couch,” Sybilla said.

“What’s her story?”

“She’s a mage, as it turns out,” Sybilla said. “Explains the hair if your friend Catarina is anything to go by. She seems honest enough, very concerned for her friend Leon.”

“How does a mage meet a werewolf?”

“They apparently came as part of the same caravan. We’ll have more details when she’s rested in the morning.”

“Odd combination,” Aurelio said. “Elisa keeping a watch on the werewolf until his transformation wears off?”

“So she said,” Sybilla nodded. “This turned into a very interesting night.”

“Well, the night’s almost done,” Aurelio said, sipping the coffee.

Sybilla smoothly sat down on the arm of the chair, leaning on his shoulder. “But after a scarce few hours of daytime it’s night again and we’ll be right back at it.”

“Mmm…” Aurelio nodded but said nothing.

“Something on your mind, hunter?”

“The knight we brought in, Kira,” Aurelio said. “She reminded me a lot of…well, me.”

“Only natural,” Sybilla said. “You were very similar not too long ago.”

“I’m still similar now,” Aurelio said. “We have Hachi and Aelia and others for diplomacy, I’m mostly part of this team to be…well, a monster hunter like Kira.”

“Well of course you are,” Sybilla said. “Is that worrying to you?”

“Well if Elisa hadn’t already been there. I’m not sure if I would have held back an arrow on that werewolf,” Aurelio admitted. “I might have just shot him on the spot to be safe.”

“Mmm,” Sybilla simply leaned on him more. “But that’s not what happened.”

“But it could have happened.”

“Hunter,” Sybilla said, turning to look at him, black hair hanging idly around her shoulders. “You could have killed me dead the second I stepped out of my cell in Rome, or shot me in the Dreaming. You could have killed Mary when we had her captive in a cage. You could have spurned the idea of the Night Guard and insisted on working alone. You could have pushed me away the first night we got close….”

Aurelio felt her thin fingers slide over his chin as she drew his head to face her.

“But you didn’t. Do not waste your time and worry on the things that might or might not have been. Here we are in the now, everyone is safe, you are a respected member of the Night Guard, and you are with me.”

“I suppose,” Aurelio said. “That might be enough for now.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Nighttime Guardians

September 24th, 2024

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I highly doubt Hachi said that.”

“So you DO know her name!”

“You know I did.”

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

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

“Oh, I know it very well.”

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

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

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

“You feel that?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Aurelio hated every minute of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the-…witch!” She shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you getting?” Elisa asked

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

The End of Spring

July 26th, 2024

 

It was midsummer now in Rome, and the air was hot, dry, and thick with the sounds of people as the sun rose steadily towards its apex. Catarina had finished breakfast and was on her way to the training field for her morning routine, and today she wasn’t going alone.

“I wonder if you two will beat me today,” Hildegard smiled as she fell into step beside her.

“Of course we will!” Cat said proudly, hands on her hips “We get stronger every day! You can’t be the best forever.”

“I don’t need to be the best,” Hildegard said, her voice tilting as she teased her sister. “I just need to be better than you.”

The pair of them laughed as they made their way past the barracks of the first legion to the training field where dozens of people were already gathered to exercise and spar. Their favored training ring was a chalk circle drawn on the ground about five meters across, and their third was already there waiting for them.

“You Italians know how to keep someone waiting,” Rosa tapped her foot impatiently, training spear resting over her shoulder. “These spots aren’t exactly reserved you know; I gotta fight people off to keep it.”

“Then you’re nice and warmed up,” Hildegard said as she and Cat retrieved training swords from the racks.

The banter might have been cleaner, but the sparring matches between Rosa and Cat were no less brutal. They had stopped holding back on their abilities as well. Cat used her ice magic wherever possible to compliment her swordsmanship, but Rosa didn’t relent with her champion’s strength, and a powerful body blow from Rosa would often throw Cat out of the sparring circle entirely.

They ran a few rounds one on one, keeping the other sharp as they kept finding new ways to exploit each other’s weaknesses.

“Back legs too far out!” Rosa jeered as the butt of her spear smacked hard against Cat’s shin.

“Ow! Dammit!” Cat growled, striking out against Rosa’s defenses.

“She’s right!” Hildegard called from the sidelines. “You keep ignoring your footwork when you’re not on ice.”

“I don’t need reminding!” Cat shouted back as she parried another quick blow from Rosa, countering into a quick elbow to the ribs.

“And you get too aggressive when you’re parried, Rosa!” Hildegard called to her in turn.

“Ya ya!” Rosa retorted as she pulled back. “Not game point yet though.”

After several spars, Cat finished in the lead at two hundred and fifty six wins to Rosa’s two-fifty three (The pair of them had kept track since their very first bouts). They switched to coordinated fighting, with the pair of them up against Hildegard.

Hildegard could have used her magic, but it was quickly apparent she didn’t need to. Catarina didn’t even know how she moved like she did. There was no excess energy, no nervousness or uncertainty to her movements. She could dodge the edge of Cat’s practice sword by centimeters and be utterly unfazed. She was also incredibly ruthless with the pair of them, using her entire body as a weapon, as Rosa was quick to discover when Hildegard’s knees slammed into her stomach after a miscalculated spear thrust. The pair of them didn’t need to keep track of their wins against Hildegard. They hadn’t won one yet. They didn’t train against Hildegard to win, however. They did it to communicate.

“Rosa, up top!” Cat called, as a wave of ice-filled air whipped towards Hildegard’s head. Hilde ducked low, just in time for the shaft of Rosa’s spear to swing around towards her face, forcing Hilde onto the defensive as she raised her sword to block the blow with the flat of the blade. Neither of them were done yet, and they moved as one to attack Hildegard from both sides. On anyone else it would have worked, but Hildegard was dangerous from all angles. She dodged a thrust from Rosa’s spear, hooking her arm around the shaft and redirected it towards Cat just as she stopped her swing with a counter of her own, twisting out of reach as Cat and Rosa all but collided with each other.

“An improvement,” Hildegard smiled. “But not good enough.”

“We’re not done yet,” Cat said, picking herself up along with Rosa.

“Not even close,” Rosa added, leveling her spear at Hilde.

 

As the sun reached its peak, the three of them finished their spar. Rosa needed to leave to continue her training with Capitolina and Hildegard needed to train some of the recruits. On her own until her magic lessons, Cat decided to grab a sandwich to go and take a walk through the Parco San Sebastiano, where quite a bit of development had gotten underway.

Utmost care had been taken not to disturb the native trees, and in fact more had been imported as a large complex of wooden buildings began to take form at the center of the park. They were built with naturalism and minimal impact in mind, and the three masterminds of the structure were currently meeting beneath a large wooden gate that stood austerely at the front.

“Painting it red might be too much of a statement,” Nora said, looking over the large building schematics. “This is an inter-pantheon shrine after all.”

“I think it’s a lovely shade of vermillion,” Echo smiled.

“Well the painting isn’t really necessary, but I’m glad to see Echo-san is onboard,” The last one, and the newest to the city, smiled before catching sight of her. “Ah, Cat-chan!”

“Hey, Megame,” Cat waved at them, finishing the last of her sandwich. “More shrine work?”

Megame gave an exaggerated sigh. “It doesn’t seem to stop. Inari-sama never said it would be this hard…”

“They rarely do,” Nora clicked her tongue. “Anywho, this gate…called a tori right?”

“That’s right,” Megame nodded.

“We’ll leave it bare wood for now. Now regarding the central shrine…I dunno, Echo, general purpose? What do you think?”

As the Pontifex and nymph chatted, Cat took the time to talk with the young Japanese woman, a shrine maiden as she had explained.

“I’m still surprised they’re building a shrine in the city,” Cat said. “We have the temple after all.”

“Temples are for gods, shrines are for the lesser spirits, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled. The nickname had been a joke at first but Cat liked it, and all but insisted Megame continue. She’d met the shrine maiden not long after she arrived in the city a month ago, hardly a day in fact and it seemed at times as if the Japanese girl had deliberately sought her out. Still, Cat didn’t have much company her age, so she was more than happy to make friends. “And there are some god-like spirits who prefer a more natural setting.”

“Well it’s coming along great,” Cat said.

“Did you just get off sparring?” Megame asked. “You seem a bit sweaty.”

“Ya, I did,” Cat sighed. “Hilde kicked our asses again.”

“Aaw, well, maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck!” Megame said cheerfully.

“So where’s your fox?” Cat asked.

“Hachi? She’s sleeping, she spends most of her nights out with Aurelio and Cade now.”

“Ah right, she’s with the Night Guard too,” Cat nodded. “Shame, she’s cute and I barely get to see her anymore.”

“I’ll let her know,” Megame giggled.

 

The two of them kept chatting until the sun passed its noon zenith, signaling the time for Cat to make her way back into the city. She waved a goodbye as she walked out of the park, making her way to Lord Nassar’s impressive estate. His lessons were as challenging as ever, but much of it felt like busywork to keep her occupied with minimal effort on his part as he continued his campaign work, so for many lessons Catarina found herself either alone or in the company of Albion’s new assistant.

“Now that is a fascinating interpretation” Lutetiana said as she glanced over her homework. “Though I feel you’re missing the historical relevance of the katadesmoi in favor of a literal interpretation. I suggest rereading the Selinus documents.”

“Right,” Cat bowed her head. “I will see to it.”

She had no idea where Lutetiana had come from. Indeed, the accomplished and knowledgeable mage seemed to have appeared from thin air to work as Albion’s campaign assistant. While she was supposedly a lesser mage to Cat’s teacher, the breadth of her knowledge at times seemed to rival Scheherazade’s. She was also a tremendously attractive woman, with unnaturally young silver hair bound behind her head, and gleaming curved eyed always watching past her thin glasses. At times, during her lessons, Cat found her eyes distracted as they followed her around the room.

“See that you do,” Lutetiana said with an enchanting smile. “A smart mage can’t afford to ignore the classics.”

 

After her lesson, later in the afternoon, Cat made her way to Scheherazade’s library. Normally she spent the time reading or having the storyteller help her with her homework, but it was Friday so she had an appointment to make. Inside the vast library Cat hurried through the varied shelves, almost inadvertently passing a collection of chairs where Scheherazade sat engrossed in conversation with another visitor.

“Afternoon, Catarina,” Schehera smiled as her guest, a lithe dark-haired woman, raised her cup in casual greeting.

“Hey Schehera, hey Kara,” Cat nodded. “Sorry, need to take a call.”

“Of course, we won’t hold you up,” Schehera smiled. Cat hurried on and found the familiar journal she’d be given sitting open on a pedestal.

“Afternoon, Asha,” Cat wrote happily, waiting for the familiar face to appear on the opposite page.

“Evening, Cat.” Asha’s smiling face and flowing script appeared. “Off your lessons already?”

“Ya, Lord Nassar is super busy these days so I get off easy a lot. How’s the campaign?”

“Well another day another monster fought and another village saved,” Asha said. “But at times it feels like trying to drain a river with a bucket, you know? Leyla says we should set eyes on Babylon.”

“Well, whatever you think will work best,” Cat said. “Just stay safe, I want to make time to visit you soon, and I can’t do that if a monster eats you!”

“Not a whole lot to see out here, Cat,” Asha said sheepishly. “Sand, rock, and monsters mostly.”

“Well, you’re there for starters” Cat smiled. “And if that’s the case you should come to Rome!”

“Heh, we’ll see,” Asha said. “How else have you been?”

The two of them kept exchanging conversation through the book until the sun was low in the horizon, and it took a gentle reminder from Schehera in the form of a golden bird on her shoulder to remind Cat that she would soon be running late for dinner.

“Thanks, Sheh, bye!” She called as she ran out of the library and headed home.

 

The dinner table at the Anchesi-Jazheil-Aldobrandini household had only grown larger and more cramped, to the point that Hanne was considering looking into a larger home. Where before it had just been her and her adoptive daughters, it was now Hanne, Hildegard and Salvatore, Catarina with the frequent company of Sheh or Megame, and now Rosaria and Capitolina were frequent fixtures as well. There was, of course, Basil the cat but he tended to make himself scarce whenever Capitolina was around. The dining room was filled with the noise of Cat and Rosa arguing, Hildegard and Turi flirting to the absolute limits that Hanne would tolerate, and Hanne herself discussing legion movements with Capitolina. When she was away on the march, Hilde tended to take control of the household, much to Cat’s dismay.

“You’re always the slower one,” Rosa argue, skewering a meatball with her fork before pointing it at Cat. “I mean honestly, it’s like being chained to a slug.”

“I’m plenty faster than you!” Cat said. “But at close range that spear is useless, so I need to cover more ground to keep you protected at that range.”

“I do just fine!”

Capitolina sighed but gave Hanne a smile. “Nothing like a noisy dinner.”

“Is this like how wolves do it?” Hanne said. “They do have similar manners at least.”

Capitolina gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Well not too different. Lots of yipping and barking and fighting for the scraps.”

“Sounds like home,” Hanne said. “How are the others?”

“Kebechet and Giovanni are doing what they can. They both approve of this shrine plan given the pressure on the Temple and the Vatican.”

“And Angel?” Hanne asked, passing some of the salad to Turi.

“She’s in one of her weird moods again,” Capitolina sighed. “I worry about her…and other things as well. These weird moods tend to come before something else bad happens.”

“Well hopefully this time we’ll be a bit more prepared,” Hanne said. “At least, I hope we will.”

 

Capitolina left soon after dinner, leaving Rosa to chat with Cat and Hildegard about their training until well into the night, at which point Cat elected to walk with Rosa back to her small apartment in the next district over.

“So things seem to be going well,” Cat smiled, as the pair of them strolled under the moonlight.

“What do ya mean?” Rosa asked.

“We’re having fun being part of Hilde’s unit, right?” Cat asked. “Better than being a huge jerk and a loner at least?”

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “It has its perks I guess.”

“I know Hilde likes it,” Cat said. “And so do I.”

“Aaah come on stop making a thing out of it,” Rosa groaned. “We work decently together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“We’ll talk about it,” Cat stuck out her tongue teasingly. But her short giggle was interrupted by the sounds of another joining them in the narrow street.

“Ah, there you are, Cat,” Aurelio said as he slid down a nearby wall. “Hilde and Turi said you were coming this way.”

“Sure, what’s up, Aurelio?” Cat asked, curious.

“There’s…something you need to see,” Aurelio said, and Cat caught the slight twinge of nervousness in his voice.

“Right now? It’s kind of late…”

“Best not to keep it waiting too long,” Aurelio said.

“I can make my own way home,” Rosa said. “See ya tomorrow, Cat.”

“See ya,” Cat waved as she followed Aurelio into the city.

“How’s the Night Guard doing?” Cat asked as they moved towards the Capitoline Hill.

“Better than expected,” Aurelio said. “And growing every day.”

“How’s…what’s her name again? Sybilla?”

“Ya, Sybilla, we’re…fine,” Aurelio said, and Cat smirked at the slight redness in his face.

“So is Night Guard business why you’re looking for me?” Cat asked. “I mean, I think it’s really cool and all but I doubt I’m qualified.”

“It’s more…unfinished business,” Aurelio said as he walked into the building at the head of the square, leading Cat down into the dark and empty basement. His face had gained a serious tone that Cat wasn’t used to, and she fell into a hushed silence as she followed him down the stairs.

“It took us months to get a word out of her,” Aurelio said. “She’s not someone you can just throw in jail, so we’ve had her in holding until she started making requests. The first one was to see you.”

“Me?” Cat asked.

“By name,” Aurelio nodded.

“Who is she?”

Aurelio led her to a holding cell, where the wall had been replaced by a clear pane of enchanted glass so reinforced Cat could practically see the magic glistening across its surface. On the other side of the glass, standing at the center of a prison-like cell of a padded mat, toilet, and desk, was a young woman with long black hair and a pair of bright violet eyes on her thin face.

“So you brought her here after all,” The woman said. “Catarina Aldobrandini, it is a pleasure.”

Despite her words there was no smile on her face, or any sign of emotion at all.

“Who are you?” Cat asked, suddenly wishing she had her sword, despite the barrier between them.

“My name is Gisela Silva,” the stranger said. “And I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=71&sl=920

Where All Roads Lead

The Night Guard

April 15th, 2024

Aurelio still had his arm in a sling as he walked the steps up to the Campidoglio. Once the center of the Roman Sanctuary, it had fallen out of use as the center of new Roman life when the Senate had relocated and the new market districts began to open. It now served primarily as offices for mid-level bureaucrats, artifact storage and, most notably, the den of Rome’s favored wolves. It was with them that Aurelio was to meet, and while he disliked being up so early in the morning, he moved with purpose so as not to be late.

The city had largely recovered from what was being called the Battle of the Black Sun, though tensions were still high and Pontifex Nora had been working overtime to try and calm fears and stifle false rumor. Butterfly cultists were still being drawn out of the woodwork every day, some by force and others turning themselves in for hope of leniency. Still, the damage had been mostly repaired, the injured were safely in hospital care, and Aurelio had been working overtime to seek out and destroy the last of the cacodaemons that had cropped up during the siege.

The battle had not been without its casualties. A number had died during the attack and Rome had instituted a day of mourning in honor of both civilians killed and the soldiers lost defending them. But in the recent days there had been some hope amidst the post-battle malaise that clung to the city.

Hildegard was back on her feet. Though not in fighting condition, she was lucid and moving around, improving with every passing day. According to Mary, Cat was to thank, and she’d fought valiantly inside the Dreaming. Aurelio had suspected that Hildegard’s adopted sister had a lot of potential, but he was starting to think he had been underestimating her.

“Good morning, Aurelio,” Elisa’s voice pulled him from his thoughts as he looked up at her. She had recovered much more quickly from the fight with Gisela than he had, which he suspected had much to do with her being a homunculus.

“Oh, hey Elisa,” He said, giving her a wave. “Capitolina call you here too?”

“She did,” Elisa nodded. “I imagine to thank us for our work.”

“Maybe,” Aurelio said. “Though I’m not really one for being decorated, and that’s not the impression I got from her.”

When Capitolina had asked him, it had been with a serious tone in her voice. She’d thanked him then for all he had done, but had left him with a somewhat ominous message.

“We can’t let this happen again.”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon.” Aurelio said, and together the pair of them walked into the old senate palace.

Capitolina was waiting them in the large room that had once housed the senate, now empty save for a large round table of oak lined with chairs, and a broad window looking out over the city and letting the morning light shine into the otherwise lightless room, filling it with the pale grey light of morning. She was not alone either. Joining her in the room, standing along the edges of the table were Sybilla, Mary, and to his surprise, the ghost Aelia as well.

Capitolina’s ears rose as they stepped in, and she smiled at the sight of them. “Good, the last two are here.”

“Almost late, hunter,” Sybilla said, arms folded over her chest. “Hardly gracious.”

“Almost,” Aurelio said. “So why are we here, Capitolina?”

Capitolina began to pace a bit, hands held behind her back as she spoke. Though there were many chairs around the table, none of the people standing took a seat.

“If there’s anything that this battle showed us,” Capitolina said. “It is that the city is unprepared for this kind of attack.”

“Can anyone be prepared for something like that?” Aurelio asked. “An attack by an Aztec cult and its monstrous goddess? Not to mention an enemy champion…”

“There is precedent now, even if there wasn’t before,” Elisa said. “We know it’s possible, and no doubt there are other threats we haven’t predicted brewing as well. We all knew we would have to deal with monsters and hostile groups of humans, but the world has changed in the past two years, and the threats against this city will change as well.”

Capitolina nodded. “Precisely what I’m saying. We’ve had to deal with cult sabotage, dream plagues, violent gods, and enemy champions. These aren’t the threats that the legions were raised to deal with.”

“We’ve managed,” Aurelio said.

“Barely,” Sybilla spoke next. “By the time you and Elisa had fixed a problem it was often long after it had developed. People were put at risk, and now people have died.”

“We weren’t alone in failing,” Aurelio snapped at her. “You wouldn’t help us until you could turn it into a bargain for your own gain, and it’s not as if you could have prevented the battle either.”

“A bargain to secure my own freedom!”

“Enough!” Capitolina barked. “It is true that you and Elisa were not enough to track down the cult before they became dangerous, Aurelio.”

The words stung, even if Aurelio knew they were true. If they had found some clue earlier, one lucky break, the battle might have been avoided entirely. Instead they had been caught up in chasing Mary and dealing with Sybilla in the last few crucial weeks, missing any time the cult may have tipped their hand early.

“The important thing to take from that,” Capitolina said. “Is not that you two failed, but that what you did simply wasn’t enough. Rome is a big city, and it’s getting bigger every day. Two people can’t patrol it alone.”

“So you want to form a team,” Elisa finished the thought for her, and Capitolina grinned somewhat impishly.

“I was thinking more of a…guard.”

“Like a task force?” Sybilla raised an eyebrow. “For what exactly, cult extermination?”

“More than that,” Capitolina said. “There are a lot of threats to this city that the legions can’t deal with. Mary showed us that we’re not necessarily safe in our dreams, and the cult showed us that not every god out there has the city’s best interest at heart. During the battle we saw that monsters and cacodaemons will take any opportunity to rush back into the city if chaos reigns, and of course I have little doubt that the Primordials have their own plans now that they’re aware of Rome, even if the shield is keeping the bulk of their forces back.”

“Umm…i-if I can speak?” Aelia spoke up quietly as all eyes turned to her. She was visible enough, but the ethereal morning light made her slightly translucent.

“It’s why I invited you too,” Capitolina said. “You were part of the city’s defense, and one of its spirits. Besides, I always like hearing from the Romans I know best,” she added with a smile.

Somewhat reassured, Aelia spoke with more confidence.

“You keep phrasing things as threats to the city, things that need to be eliminated like the cult…but that’s not the only way to deal with these things. I mean…look at Mary, if what I’ve heard was true, she used to be a threat to the city and now she’s helped defend it.”

“You can add me to that list as well,” Sybilla said. “I wasn’t exactly welcome when I arrived.”

“I’m not welcome either!” Aelia said, nodding along. “I’m a spirit, so of course people are afraid of me. But I love this city and the people in it. I think that there might be ways to deal with spirits other than brute force. If we approach some of these threats the right way, they might become allies instead.”

“She has a point,” Sybilla said. “The legions negotiate with the human settlements, but no one’s tried to negotiate with the spirits in Italy, not even in Rome itself, except the Pontifex but from what I understand she deals exclusively with gods.”

“Probably because it requires a very specific kind of negotiator,” Mary said. “You only managed to capture and work with me thanks to Sybilla.”

“And that’s just the kind of thing we need,” Capitolina said excitedly. “We need warriors, negotiators, experts in all fields regarding spirits and the supernatural.”

“That’s a tall order,” Aurelio said. “If you consider it’s just the five of us right now. Has anyone heard from Evangeline?”

“From what I understand she wants to work freelance,” Elisa said. “Besides as a champion, she’s not as well-versed in spiritual or magical matters.”

“I’m a champion,” Aurelio frowned.

“But also a hunter of spirits, a role which made you uniquely suited for the job,” Capitolina said. “Evangeline will help this city, no doubt, but she might not be right for this group.”

“I believe Capitolina is looking for people of distinctly inhuman nature,” Elisa said, looking over the room at the people gathered. “Benandanti, homunculus, mara, witchbreed, lemure. None of us can be called a completely mundane human, and where there are five of us we might very well find more.”

“There have been a few promising people entering the city recently,” Capitolina nodded. “I keep getting reports of people with powers or spiritual natures, though distinct from mages or champions. There’s also exorcists and other experts from the Vatican to consider.”

“Well, I mean this is all well and good to discuss,” Elisa said. “But we do require a great deal if we want to make this more than unorganized patrols. There’s funding, management, and supply requisition to consider. Not to mention selling to the public the idea of a squad of inhuman warriors and spiritualists.”

“I’ll see if I can make it work,” Capitolina said. “I still have plenty of pull with the senate, and right now I think the people want that little bit of extra reassurance.”

“I think that’s all any of us want,” Aurelio said. “To make the people of this city feel safe again, and back it up by preventing this kind of thing before it happens again.”

“Well,” Sybilla said, uncrossing her arms. “I’m not quite what this city’s little mage club is looking for so I’ve no better place to be. I’m onboard.”

“As am I,” Mary nodded.

“Me too,” Aelia smiled as she nodded.

“And I as well, though I still have my duties to Renard,” Elisa said.

Aurelio hesitated before speaking as the eyes came on him, though only for a moment.

“Before coming to Rome I prided myself on hunting alone. But during the battle…I doubt any of us could have succeeded without the rest of us working together. I can’t protect this city or the rest of Italy alone so…count me in.”

Capitolina’s tail wagged as they all agreed, her toothy grin wide. “Then it’s settled…though we’ll need a name.”

“Dream squad?” Sybilla offered jokingly with a half-grin.

“Legio Spiritus?” Aelia offered sheepishly.

“I think a fanciful name for it is somewhat silly…” Elisa said.

“What about the Night Guard?” Aurelio offered, and the others looked at him.

“Short, evocative, gets the point across,” Sybilla mulled it over. “Not bad, hunter.”

“It’s not overly flashy,” Elisa said. “It could work, and we do seem to operate largely at night.”

“I kind of wish it was in Latin, but I can’t complain,” Aelia said.

“I certainly don’t have a better idea. I barely understand how humans go about naming things,” Mary said.

“Seems like Night Guard is the winner,” Capitolina said proudly. “I’ll start pushing the paperwork through with the Senate.”

The rest of them started discussing the direction this fledgling guard would take, times of operation, and rumors of arrivals in the city who might be of use. They spoke through lunch and well into the afternoon before departing for the evening, all of them now flush with dreams for the future defenders of Rome.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=68&sl=973

Where All Roads Lead

Return to Rome

April 10th, 2024

The journey home had been a quiet one. Rosa had spoken little for most of the ride and it took no small amount of cajoling from Cat to bring her around again.

“You alright, Rosa?”

“Whaddya mean?” Rosa pulled her eyes from the horizon to look at her.

“I mean…you lost your-“

“I didn’t lose anything.” Rosa cut her off. “I lost my sister a long time ago. This was…well I guess…this was a chance to say goodbye.”

“I see…” Catarina fell into sheepish silence for a moment, but it was not long before she couldn’t take the silence anymore.

“You ever think about joining me and Hildegard?” Catarina asked the reticent redhead.

“Join you for what?” Rosa eyed her somewhat suspiciously.

“Well, Hilde and Turi tend to go out and slay monsters the legion can’t deal with easily. I wanted to join them, but I think we can make a stronger case if we volunteer together.”

“Seriously?” Rosa asked. “You want us working together?”

“Did you see us back there at the fort!?” Cat said. “We couldn’t be stopped! We make a great team!”

“You’re delusional,” Rosa waved her off.

“I’m right,” Cat said stubbornly. “You and I did really well together, and I think we could make a good team.”

Rosa let out a long sigh. “We wouldn’t be part of the legions?”

“Not officially, no,” Cat said. “We mostly answer to Hanne, the Senate, and Capitolina.”

At this Rosa’s interest seemed to perk up as she glanced at Cat. “Really?”

“Well, sure,” Cat nodded. “Capitolina and the other wolves put the security of Rome as their primary focus, so they want to know where the monsters are and be sure the best people are getting rid of them.”

Cat could tell Rosa was becoming more interested, even if it wasn’t showing on her face; she just needed a bit more of a push.

“Come ooooon,” Cat said. “You, me, Hilde, Turi, some of the best fighters in Rome going out to hunt monsters. How does that not sound awesome? You don’t have to walk in formations or go on long patrols with the legion or anything, just us and the hunt.”

“Jeez, you’re pushy,” Rosa said. “Fine, I’ll join Hilde and Turi on one of their hunts and see if it’s my thing. You can come along too if you have to, so long as you don’t talk this much.”

“No promises,” Cat grinned. “But I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll see about that…” Rosa muttered, looking out over the edge of the carpet. “Is…that Rome?”

“Hmm…” Cat looked out over the horizon and the rich green Italian countryside as well. “Looks like Rome to me though…I don’t remember that much smoke.”

Rosa’s eyes narrowed. “Something’s gone wrong.”

Cat felt a lump in her throat, her thoughts instantly going to Hilde, vulnerable and bedridden. “I-I’m sure everything is fine.”

“Can this thing go faster?” Rosa asked, feet rubbing against the fabric of the flying carpet.

“It’s not like it has an accelerator or brakes or anything,” Cat grumbled, fingers hooking around the forward edge of the carpet as she tried to urge it forward. She wanted to get to the ground as much as Rosa did, but a magic carpet wasn’t exactly intuitive to fly.

As they flew in closer, it became clear that something disastrous had happened during their brief excursion. Numerous streets were in disrepair, with stones shattered and the fronts of buildings torn open. There was evidence of fires and other smaller-scale damage, and the legions were out in force along with the city guard to repair damage and protect the populace.

“I need to check in with Capitlina,” Rosa said. “See what went wrong.” Rosa said, surveying the damage from above.

“I need to get home…” Cat said, her anxiety slowly rising in her chest.

“Drop me off near the Hill,” Rosa said. “It’s on the way.”

“R-right…” Cat maneuvered the carpet a little to bring them low over the Capitoline Hill. She didn’t even touch the ground before Rosa leapt off the side of the carpet and started off running, leaving Cat to shoot back off into the air and fly straight for home.

She touched down a few minutes later, jumping off the carpet which vanished into a mist of golden light behind her as she threw the door open. The house itself seemed unharmed, the windows and door were still intact and there were no signs of exterior damage, but Cat’s heart was in her throat as she ran inside.

“Mrowr,” The familiar meow of Basil greeted her as the cat sat up from where he had been curled on the couch, hopping softly down to receive his usual attention. Cat ignored him as she ran upstairs.

“Hilde!” She shouted up. “I’m home!”

Cat ran up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door to Hilde’s room, only to find it already crowded with a number of people. Hilde was still in bed, seemingly asleep, while Salvatore and Aurelio were there as well. Both of them seemed much worse for wear. Turi had a number of bandages over his arms and one on his face. Aurelio was leaning against the wall, one arm in a sling and similarly scratched up with dark rings around his eyes from lack of sleep.

“Cat, you’re back,” Turi smiled as she ran into the room.

“What happened?” Cat demanded before he could say more. “Did Rome come under attack?”

“Ya,” Turi nodded. “The cult decided to make their move while you and Rosa were away.”

Cat’s heart sank. She had gone on this mission purely to save Asha. While the girl was a close friend, not being in Rome might have endangered a lot of people, and she’d taken Rosa as well, one of the best monster hunters in the city.

Turi apparently saw her fears on her face, as he was quick to respond.

“It’s not your fault, Cat. No one saw this coming, there was no way any of us could have known and I doubt they were waiting for you to leave, more likely they were waiting for the Legions to depart again so they only had the guard to defend Rome.”

“But we repelled the attack, right?” Cat asked. “Is the cult still out there?”

“Not anymore,” Aurelio shook his head. “We cut off the head, rounded up most of the remaining members as well as its most influential leaders. Whatever dregs of the cult remain will be gone soon enough as people start to name names.”

“And Hilde’s fine,” Turi said. “I defended this area personally to make sure of it.”

Though pangs of guilt still cut at her, Catarina did feel some relief at that note. “Alright…what about Hildegard? Has she improved?”

There was a brief silence as Turi looked towards the floor, and Cat knew that the situation had no doubt become worse. Cat may have solved Asha’s problems on the other side of the sea, but she was still powerless to help Hildegard now.

There came a knock at the door, and it was opened to reveal a young woman Cat didn’t recognize. She had short dark hair, black but with a touch of blue, and bright turquoise eyes.

“Aurelio?” She asked, looking around before spotting him in the crowded room, “I wanted to make sure you were still here.”

“Still here, Mary,” Aurelio nodded. “How’s everyone else?”

‘Aiding in the rebuilding efforts,” Mary said. “Sybilla asked after you so I came looking.”

“I’ll be out to join them soon,” Aurelio said, arms folded over his chest. “Just needed to check on Hilde and Turi here.”

“Of course I…” Mary had glanced at Hildegard while speaking, but as she did the short woman did a brief double-take before staring at her in earnest, words trailing off.

“Something wrong, Mary?” Aurelio asked.

“I’ve seen this before…” The woman called Mary said quietly, and both Cat and Turi turned to face her.

“Before?” Cat asked. “This sickness? Where!? Where have you seen it before?”

Before she had even realized it, Cat had grabbed Mary by the shoulders. The young woman seemed surprised, though her expression was still slightly muted.

“Well I haven’t seen it personally but…I have some of my creator’s knowledge, and she was familiar with all manner of vicious curses.”

“So it is a curse…” Turi said. “We had thought as much.”

“What can we do?” Cat asked. “How is the curse lifted?”

“Breaking a curse is deceptive in its simplicity,” Mary said. “One must be the person who laid the curse in the first place, or more powerful than said person.”

“We don’t know who it was…” Cat said. “At least I don’t.”

Mary spent another moment looking over Hildegard “It is…a very powerful curse. Beyond the grasp of mortal spellcasters.”

Cat’s heart sank. If that was true, then she didn’t have the power to break the curse; Scheherazade likely didn’t either, perhaps not even Albion Nassar.

“Though I know someone who would be easily capable of tearing this curse away,” Mary concluded as she drew back from Hildegard.

“Who!?” Caat all but demanded, fists shaking.

“My creator and former master,” Mary said. “The Witch Goddess Huldra.”

“Then we’re sunk,” Aurelio said. “Not only is Huldra who-knows-where, there’s the small problem of her being evil.”

“Argh!” Cat shouted in frustration, hands still on Mary’s shoulders, a nonplussed expression on her face. “Why would even suggest that if there was no hope?”

“Because the Hunter is not telling the full story,” Mary said. “Lady Huldra is not by her nature evil. She is possessed by a piece of Nidhoggr’s spirit. It consumes her thoughts and guides her actions. She is a slave to it, not a willing servant.”

“But we’re still at square one,” Cat said. “With no one to turn to.”

Mary looked past Cat to Aurelio. “Now is the time,” she said firmly.

“No,” Aurelio said. “Too much has happened, we need to recover.”

“We made a bargain, I am upholding my end.” Mary’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“How can we even hope to find Huldra?” Aurelio asked. “Or get her to agree to some kind of exorcism?”

“By doing for her what you did to me,” Mary said. “We must kill this piece of Nidhoggr where it resides within her mind, in the Dreaming.”

“You can find her in the Dreaming?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course,” Mary nodded. “She is my creator, I can always track her presence.”

“Why didn’t you say so earlier!?” Aurelio demanded, but Cat cut him off.

“Wait, wait. wait, you both lost me,” she said, hands raised. “Explain what’s going on.”

Mary spoke before Aurelio could come up with the words.

“My creator, Huldra, is also a goddess of dreams,” Mary said. “All dreams can be reached in the Dreaming, the gestalt world from in which all dreams are formed, if one knows the way. Aurelio has been there before, and it is the place where I once existed.”

“So you’re saying,” Cat said, parsing things out. “Is that someone can go into the Dreaming, find your master, and kill the piece of Nidhoggr that’s enslaving her?”

“It can be done, hypothetically,” Mary said. “Though the journey will be difficult. I can take one person at most. Aurelio’s injuries would follow him into the dreaming alogn with his mental fatigue, and Hildegard is obviously incapable…”

“I’ll do it,” Turi said. “I am a Champion of Minerva, I think I stand a better chance than most.”

“No,” Cat said. “Let me do it.”

Turi turned to her. “Hilde would never have let me put you at risk to save her. Besides, you’re not as skilled a monster-slayer as she is, and you’re not a champion.”

Cat stood stubbornly against him. “She wouldn’t want you to risk your life either, and I might not be a champion but if this IS a primordial we’re dealing with, then I have an advantage.”

“Advantage?” Mary asked, curious.

Cat lifted the sword from her belt and showed it to Mary. “Caeruleamor, my sword.”

Mary stepped closer, tilting her head as she examined the sword, a curious expression on her face. “This steel…what has been worked into it?”

“Mmm…something potent.” Cat said, recalling her promise to Angel. “Something that can cancel out the power of a Primordial.”

Mary looked from Cat’s sword to Turi. “She has a point,” she said. “Nidhoggr, even a fragment of it, is no mortal monster or cacodaemon. The Dragon of Yggdrassil is mightier than the power of a god, save perhaps for the likes of Zeus or Thor, and a fragment is more than enough to overcome most mortals unless they have an advantage such as this.”

“It’s still not a safe journey,” Turi said hesitantly.

“I never asked for a safe journey,” Cat said. “But if I can help save Hilde, if there’s anything I can do to make a difference, then I’ll do it.”

Cat turned to look at Mary. “I want to do it.”

“Very well,” Mary said. “I’ll begin the preparations.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=67&sl=912

Where All Roads lead

Chapter 32

April 9th, 2024

“Charge the radio station,” Aurelio said.

The others didn’t object, all of them charging forward to where the dark-haired woman was waiting for them. Another black arrow shot through the sky, only for one of Sybilla’s crow-like minions to fly down and intercept the shot. The others ran too, Mary using her magic bolts to tear through the closest star demons, disarming some and destroying others to clear their way.

Gisela jumped down from the roof of the building, standing between them and the door as she drew another arrow. Aurelio did the same, trying to keep pace even as he drew back his next arrow, his only hope was that he was a better shot than she was. With his champion’s vision, he could track the movement of her eyes, see where she was looking as she pulled back the arrow, her eyes squaring on Sybilla. They were both fully-drawn, ready to fire. Aurelio knew he could make this shot, that he could put an arrow through her heart, but if he released his arrow at the intended target, then Gisela’s would strike just as true.

Aurelio made his decision, at the last moment he threw himself to the side, slamming into Sybilla to throw her to the ground as the black arrow screamed through the air where her heart had been mere moments before. His own arrow flew off course, embedding itself into the wall a meter from Gisela.

Sybilla stared up in Aurelio in surprise, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. Aurelio, however, frowned as he pulled her quickly back to her feet. He had missed his shot, missed it in order to save a Witchbreed. He didn’t want to talk about it.

Elisa had closed the distance between their group and Gisela, moving in to engage the champion head on. Her sword flashed as Gisela swung her bow like a curved sword, using the flat edge to deftly parry Elisa.

“Keep going!” Elisa shouted. “Stop the signal! I’ll hold her off!”

Aurelio knew she was right; they had to keep moving. Together, they threw open the double doors of the radio station and ran inside. He slammed the doors shut behind them, but as the doors closed he caught Gisela’s eye for the briefest, and saw the power behind her dark violet eyes.

Elisa wasn’t going to last long.

As he slammed the doors shut, Sybilla and Mary summoned magical chains and barriers over the doors to slow down any pursuers. Evangeline was rapidly disassembling the marionette, the armored soldier coming apart into a number of small insect-like constructs that wrapped themselves around her body like thick bands of jewelry and two on her hands like armored gloves.

“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked, flexing her fingers, more of the constructs wrapping around her leg like a brace.

“Afraid not,” Aurelio said. “Guess we’ll just have to find-“

“Thank goodness you’re here!” A voice cut through them, all of them ready for a fight as they saw a woman running down the hall towards them. He didn’t recognize the woman, but there was something oddly familiar about her voice.

“Who are you?” Aurelio asked.

“I’m umm…well I’m Siren on the radio.” She said.

“Y-You’re Siren?” Aurelio asked in surprise. He had to admit, the woman was pretty but from -the- Siren, he was expecting someone more…voluptuous.

“That’s right,” She nodded quickly.

“What are you doing here?” Sybilla asked. “This place is the center of a cult invasion!”

“Well I couldn’t go outside!” She said. “So I just…hid in the closet.”

“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked.

“Of course,” Siren nodded quickly. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” Aurelio asked.

“It’s Mariposa, one of the new singers. She’s locked in the broadcast room and…” She trailed off.

“Is she the source of this?” Aurelio asked.

“I think so,” Siren nodded. “But I don’t think…she’s herself. I believe she’s been brainwashed.”

“Take us there,” Aurelio said. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Siren nodded and led them deeper into the facility, guiding them towards the broadcast room. It was a large room, divided in half by a large glass screen, one side filled with recording and broadcast equipment, the other with several chairs and microphones. The only other figure in there now was a young olive-skinned woman who was singing into the microphone, the machines seeming to work of their own accord as they captured her voice. Though she was singing in that same steady haunting tune, Aurelio could see shivers running down her body, her eyes tearstained and glowing with unnatural power.

“I’ll try to shut down the broadcast,” Evangeline said, moving to the machines and setting to work.

“Good. Mary, Sybilla, do you think you can break that trance on her?”

“We can try,” Sybilla said. “What about you?”

“I’m going to help Elisa,” Aurelio said, and he ran back out the way they had come.

By the time he burst through the doors back outside, Elisa was on her last legs. Her arms, chest, and face were covered in cuts and bruises form blows. Gisela wasn’t untouched, but she was in far better shape than the homunculus.

“I’ll take this, Elisa,” Aurelio said, readying his bow. “You join the others inside.”

For a moment it looked as if she was about to protest, but Elisa relented. “Fine,” she said “Don’t get yourself killed.”

Aurelio had an arrow nocked to the string, keeping his distance as he carefully eyed Gisela.

“Why did you come here?” He asked. “Why are you doing this?”

“I only came here looking for someone,” Gisela said. “And it isn’t you.”

“Well you sure know how to make an entrance,” Aurelio growled. “How many people are going to die today because of you?”

“This city would have come under siege whether I came here or not,” Gisela said. “If it can’t survive now then perhaps it was never meant to.”

“And who made you the judge of that!?” Aurelio demanded. “Your patron!?”

“Make no mistake,” Gisela said. “I despise Itzpapalotl as much as you do, perhaps more.”

“Then why!?” Aurelio demanded. “Why have you helped her!? Why are you willing to destroy this city for her!?”

“Because the threads of fate don’t always pull us in the direction we choose.” Gisela said, an arrow appearing in her hands as she nocked it against the bowstring.

“I don’t accept that” Aurelio said. “You can’t just blame fate and refuse to take responsibility!”

“Oh, I will take the responsibility,” Gisela glared at him. “I do this because it is the only thing I can do, the only hope I have, and I will bear that burden.”

“And it’s my duty to stop you,” Aurelio said. “At any cost.”

“Then you may try, Champion of Diana.”

Aurelio drew and fired his arrow with incredible speed. If it had been a cacodaemon or a monster he would have caught it right in the eye faster than it could move. But she was no cacodaemon; Aurelio was fighting another champion, and he knew the fight wouldn’t be that easy.

Gisela leaned out of range, the silver arrow missing her by inches as it streamed through her hair, her arm pulling back as her own black arrow shot through the air. Her bow arm was as quick as his, but her precision was lacking as Aurelio quickly moved out of the arrow’s path. She was a champion but not a hunter; her bow didn’t respond to her like Aurelio’s did to him. Here, at least, he had the advantage.

Aurelio leapt back, putting more space between them, knowing that the more distance he got, the greater his advantage would be. As he moved he drew and fired another arrow, almost striking Gisela if she hadn’t struck back at the last second, her black bow whipping through the air as it deflected the arrow and sent it spinning into the air.

“Is that all you have?” Gisela said, drawing and firing another arrow that came dangerously close to his neck. She might lack his precision, but she was no amateur. He couldn’t afford to lower his guard.

“How long have you been a champion?” She asked as she pulled back another arrow, ducking her head at the last moment as another silver shaft missed her by centimeters. Aurelio had to admit her reflexes were top notch, f that was all it was letting her dodge his arrows.

“More than a year,” Aurelio said proudly. “All in service to Lady Diana.”

“Amateur.”

Aurelio hadn’t even seen her move. She didn’t run at him so much as she seemed to fade out of one spot and appear much closer, as if the shadows cast over the street had delivered her there without need to walk. In less than the blink of an eye the distance between them was halved, and Aurelio had to all but throw himself out of the way as another black arrow flew at him with renewed speed.

By the time he recovered Gisela was upon him again, another arrow drawn as the distance between them evaporated. She fired at almost point-blank range and only his reflexes saved him from catching the arrow full in the chest. Still, he wasn’t fast enough, and he felt the black arrowhead cut his left arm.

Aurelio swore under his breath as Gisela changed tact, the string vanishing from her bow as the strange black wood seemed to reshape itself into a bladed edge. With no way out, Aurelio brought his own bow to meet hers like clashing swords, the divine wood holding against Gisela’s attack.

She didn’t stop at one attack, however, unleashing one ferocious swing after another. Aurelio knew what she was doing, exploiting the inherent weakness of his bow to take her advantage. At close range he didn’t like his odds, at least not while she was armed. She was fierce but also rather short, only around Catarina’s height and more than a head shorter than him. She had eliminated his reach, so he needed to eliminate hers.

Still holding his bow like a club, he made his attack, forcing her to raise her bow to defend herself as his left hand pulled an arrow from his quiver. Holding it just below the tip, he made a sudden jab at her arm, the arrow scratching against her skin, but delivering enough pain to make her drop her bow.

Aurelio knew his chance wouldn’t last long. If she recovered she could summon the bow back to her hand and all of this gained ground would be lost. So the moment it left her fingers, he made his attack.

Aurelio dropped his bow, bringing up his fists as he struck for her stomach with a fast jab form his right hand. The speed caught her off-guard, and he knocked the air from her lungs as she staggered back. When he brought his fists back around again, however, she was ready for him, and Aurelio saw her foot swing around like a whip far too fast to prevent it slamming hard against the side of his face, sending him reeling. He saw her hold out a hand, trying to bring her bow back between her fingers, but he threw himself at her, tackling her to the ground before she could regain the focus.

Soon any thought of their bows were abandoned as they broke into a close-range fist-fight. At this distance, Aurelio had some advantage from size and reach, but Gisela had a champion’s strength, and he could feel each brutal blow as she delivered it, strong enough to shatter bones on an ordinary man. A single dizzying kick to his side almost audibly cracked several of his ribs. And another blow to the head sent his vision spinning.

Aurelio gave as good as he got though. Striking wherever he could find an opening to throw her off-balance. He knew this wasn’t going to last forever, and that he was probably at a disadvantage, but he didn’t need to beat her, he just needed to stall her. He could only hope the others had found a way to stop her.

Before long both of them were tired and ragged, worn to the edge by their fight. Aurelio could feel his breath coming in heavy pants, body aching with each new breath. He didn’t know how much fight was left in him, but he was going to make sure it was enough. Steadying himself, he hunched his shoulders and charged Gisela, expecting her to strike back as he threw his full weight against her.

He felt her fist slam into the side of his head, color flashing behind his eyes as he tackled her to the ground, arms wrapping around her chest to try and pin her arms behind her. After a few moments of struggle he managed to pin her on her stomach, face to the ground with her arms held behind her.

“I might not be who you’re looking for,” Aurelio panted. “But I guess I’m enough.”

Just as he subdued her, light seemed to fill the air around them. At first Aurelio thought it must have been a spotlight or a meteor, blocking his eyes with his hands, but as he looked up he could see that the sun had revealed itself in full, the black miasma that had blocked it vanishing. With a last waning scream, the star demons vanished in the sunlight and the monsters and cacodaemons retreated or were destroyed entirely.

All around him the tune that wafted through the air had changed. It was no longer Mariposa’s haunting song, but instead another, brighter, and more intoxicating melody that sang through the air. With a start, Aurelio realized that Siren’s voice had replaced Mariposa’s, freeing the minds of the city from its grasp.

“Strong enough to protect your city,” Gisela said, face still pressed against the ground. “I will admit…Rome has impressed me.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=64&sl=398

Where All Roads Lead

Battle of the Black Sun

April 9th, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not far,” Sybilla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary shook her head. “None yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose…”

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

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

Aurelio could almost feel Mary smiling behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will say I am impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Where All Roads lead

Chapter 29

April 9th, 2024

 

Something about tonight was very wrong.

It began when Aurelio begrudgingly accepted doing his rounds with Sybilla that night. The Witchbreed had wanted to begin “Contributing to the city that has sheltered me” as she put it in so many diplomatic words, but he felt that another part of the reason had simply been to needle him.

What had once been Elisa and Aurelio alone had now doubled to the pair of them and the new additions of Sybilla and Mary. Simply to put him at ease, they had moved in pairs with one of the newcomers always in the company of the old. Aurelio did not yet trust Sybilla and Mary alone together out in the city.

Even with this unusual arrangement in place, things had gone relatively normally. For the first few hours of the night the city had been quiet. The moon was brilliant and bright overhead, and the starlight had revealed little in the way of resistance…at least at first.

“That’s the third one tonight,” Aurelio said, walking to the body of the fallen cacodaemon as the arrow in its side dissolved in a stream of moonlight. “And this isn’t even a wilder part of the city. There hasn’t been a single one reported in weeks and now we have three in one night.”

“Well you know what they say,” With a flick of her wrist, Sybilla undid the magic binds that had held the beast in place as Aurelio finished it. “Once is an occurrence, twice is coincidence…”

“And three times is evidence of malice.” Aurelio finished for her. “We should get in touch with Mary and Elisa; they’re closer to the frontier.”

“Do you think this area is safe?” Sybilla asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelio admitted. “But the city guard should be able to handle it. We can’t just leave the outskirts, especially if they have it worse. We’ll need that flying spell of yours.”

“Asking me for favors so freely now?” Sybilla asked with a smirk.

“I’m asking you to help me out.” Aurelio griped.

“Very well, come along then.” Sybilla offered a hand which Aurelio reluctantly took. She had a tendency to treat him like a child whenever she used her magic. It may have been true that he didn’t understand most of it, but he still hated her patronizing tone.

He felt Sybilla’s magic course under his skin as she floated from the edge of the rooftop into the open air. Aurelio felt his stomach drop as he followed her off the edge, expecting to plummet at any moment. As their feet touched the next closest rooftop their speed increased, both of them running or gliding across the rooftop before taking a flying leap across the next street. It was a quick way to move as it let them cross even the widest streets that would have blocked Aurelio’s nightly rooftop jaunts, even if it took some getting used to.

It was when they were crossing the roof of a large estate, Aurelio’s boots hitting the roof hard as Sybilla floated beside him, that he felt a tug on his hand indicating that she had stopped. He almost tripped at the sudden change, and rounded on her to demand what the problem was, only to see her eyes staring upwards into the sky. Following her gaze, Aurelio saw precisely at what she was staring.

The moon, which had been largely full and waxing every night, now appeared as if a fresh new moon. Only the faintest outline of its presence could be seen, and its surface was almost completely black.

“That’s not right…” Sybilla muttered.

“No, it’s not,” Aurelio said. “The moon doesn’t just suddenly switch phases like that.”

“It’s almost like an eclipse,” Sybilla said. “As if something just dropped a shadow on top of it.”

“But lunar eclipses are red,” Aurelio said. “This is just…black.”

“The more I look at this, the less I like it.” Sybilla said. “This isn’t a bit of freak astronomy.”

“It might be causing all these cacodaemons.” Aurelio said. And even as he spoke, the night seemed to erupt with howls. Roars and growls and moans rose form the shadows as a thousand lurking horrors began to tear themselves free from the spirit world of human fear. As the noise rose, Aurelio could almost feel a sense of fear spreading through the city as he had in the nightmare. People cowered in their rooms at the sounds of the multiplying cacodemons, and that fear only gave them more power.

“I’ve never heard of this many in one place…” Sybilla said.

“Not since the Days of Revelations,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow again. “This is too much to just leave for the guards. This is an attack on the city.”

“By whom?” Sybilla asked.

“My guess?” Aurelio asked. “The cult. Unless I’m wrong this is them making their move.”

Sybilla nodded as a new seriousness came over her face, one he had not seen since the dream. “What’s the plan?”

“Elisa and I talked about this,” Aurelio said. “If the city comes under attack from spirits then she heads to the Capitoline Hill and I secure anyone who can help.”

“And who is that in this case?”

“Most notably? The Pontifex and Echo, Hildegard’s family, and then Angel.”

“Understood.” Sybilla nodded, and Aurelio felt a fresh flood of her sorcery pour into him. “Think you can fly on your own, hunter? I’ll need both hands free.”

“So will I,” Aurelio nodded. “Nora’s estate is this way. Follow me.”

Without further words the two of them rushed out over the city of Rome. Without Sybilla’s handholding, Aurelio found himself much quicker to adapt to the newfound flight. He couldn’t levitate like she could, but his leaps were much longer, almost like taking jumps on the moon. He could take his speed and arc into account as he ran and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, which was invaluable as he needed to shoot and run almost the entire way there.

The cacodemons seemed to rise from every dark corner and dim night alley in the city. Every place where shadows lurked seemed to hide a nest of them as they rose and lurched from their home in human nightmares with drooling fang and sharpened claw. A menagerie of horrors in every shape and size came crawling into being across the city of Rome. Where they came their roars soon followed, creating a siren call of terror throughout the city as people woke to find a city filled with nightmares.

Arrow after arrow flew from Aurelio’s bow, and each one found its mark, but for every cacodemon he struck down two more seemed to rise from the shadows that he had to overlook. If he stayed to fight and kill every single one he saw, they would never make it far across the city. Their numbers were overwhelming, and soon Aurelio saw the city guards and the garrisoned legionnaires rushing into the street, half-dressed in armor with swords and spears ready as the spirits attacked on all sides.

Sybilla had not been lying when she said she needed her hands free. Both were occupied with somatic gestures needed for her more advanced spellwork, and between his shots Aurelio would sometimes pause to watch her work. Blue light, dripping with power, lashed like whips from her hands and tore through cacodaemons like paper. With a wave of her hand she flung bolts of magic through the air like missiles, their paths curving like an arcing comet before striking some shadow-born monster that flapped along on leathery bat wings.

Her real specialty, however, was in summoning. From some realm of nightmare she summoned her own monstrous horrors to fight fire with fire. Beasts of black obsidian hide and burning blue eyes built like fierce wolves tore through their weaker and less-defined cacodaemon cousins. Raven-like creatures with flaming wings erupted from portals she opened in the sky to tear through others form above. In the alleys and streets, long clawed tentacles burst from sewer grates, and pulled the helpless and howling cacodaemons down into the depths to meet their fate.

Aurelio had always assumed that if she truly was evil, Sybilla would be no more difficult to hunt down than any other Witchbreed, but tonight he was being rapidly proven wrong.

It took them over an hour to finally reach Nora’s townhouse, and in that time Aurelio had lost count of the spirits he’d killed, not even bothering to keep track of Sybilla’s. As they landed at Nora’s front door, her summoned minions seemed to vanish into the night air and Aurelio felt the power fade from his body. Sybilla took a moment, leaning against the brick wall as her breaths came in ragged pants.

“Give me…a moment.” She breathed, clearly drained.

Aurelio nodded and started slamming his fist on the door.

“Echo!” He shouted “Nora! It’s me! Aure-“

His words were cut short in an instant as he felt the unmistakable feeling of a cold steel blade pressed to his throat. Sybilla was up in an instant, hand pointed over his shoulder as blue lights danced up her arm.

“Release him!” She hissed at his unseen assailant.

“In short order,” Aurelio nearly did a double take when he heard what was unmistakably Nora’s voice in his ear. “When I know who he really is.”

Aurelio shivered as he felt the blade press ever so slightly into his skin, the razor-like edge drawing a few drops of blood. In a moment he was released, and he turned, rubbing his neck with one hand, to face his attacker.

Lenore was standing behind him, idly wiping his blood from her knife.

“What the hell was that!?” He demanded, angered as much by the assault as he was by her candidness.

“Always be sure your allies are who they claim to be.” Lenore said before flashing the blade at him “Silver lined with Zoroastrian runes. Anything in false shape is going to be shifted back to their true form by it.”

“Satisfied then?” Aurelio said, still annoyed.

“Yes.” Lenore said plainly before her eyes traveled to Sybilla, who still had her hands raised threateningly.

Aurelio saw a new kind of intensity in her eyes, and there was something deeply unsettling about the way she regarded Sybilla.

As the intensity in the air grew, Aurelio heard the door open and saw Nora, far less regal than usual in a blue nightgown, regarding the scene.

“Hands down, both of you.” She said, and both Sybilla and Lenore followed her instructions “We don’t need people on the same side killing each other tonight.”

“We came to check on you,” Aurelio said. “To make sure you’re safe.”

“We’re all plenty safe, please come inside.” She said, leading the trio back inside the warm light of her townhouse.

As they stepped into the sitting room, Aurelio saw they weren’t alone. Angel, the winged wolf, seemed to have beaten them there, and she stood next to Echo over a pile of old books that were stacked high on the table.

“We need to get back onto the streets.” Aurelio said.

“I agree,” Nora nodded. “But you need to know what we’re up against first.”

“Do we have any ideas?” Aurelio asked. “We figure it was the Butterfly Shroud making their move.”

“This is not the work of mere mortal spellcasters,” Angel said. “The worst of this has yet to come.”

Aurelio frowned; he had been afraid she would say something like that.

“What is it then?” Sybilla asked.

“This is not a mere lunar event,” Angel said. “I have looked to the dawn and the news becomes much worse. A black sun rises over Rome.”

“Black sun,” Aurelio repeated. “Please tell me that’s not literal.”

“It is,” Angel said. “To your eyes it will appear like an endless solar eclipse.”

“What does it mean?” Sybilla asked

“In general, it is a mark of cosmic instability for the black sun to rise in the daytime world. One hangs over Cairo even as we speak. As for the specifics…” She took a moment to consider her words.

“Something foul has snuck past my shield.”

“How?” Aurelio asked. “Some loophole?”

“If I knew I would have fixed it,” Angel said, with a note of irritation. “But what I do know is that something evil and very powerful is now lurking in Rome. Normally I would trust this task to Miss Jazheil and her sister but…”

“Hildegard is out of commission,” Aurelio nodded.

“And Catarina is outside Rome, along with the Champion of Ares.” Angel said. “I have contacted Salvatore already. You remaining champions are now the best hope for Rome.”

“Where do we start?” Aurelio said. “We need to start looking somewhere.”

“Angel and I are doing all the research we can,” Nora said. “To try and find out what’s causing this.”

“We’ll rendezvous with Elisa and Mary and fill them in.” Sybilla said. “We’ll need to be coordinated.”

As they spoke, a strange soft sound began to waft through the room. It was pleasant, almost mesmerizing as it filled the air without their notice until it filled every corner of the room. All of them looked around for the source, and soon their eyes focused on the small radio set, which had turned itself on and begun playing the unearthly tune.

“To hazard a guess,” Nora said. “Start at the radio station.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=58&sl=813

Where All Roads lead

 

Chapter 26

April 9th, 2024

Patrol had a very different feeling to it when you weren’t alone. Aurelio was used to the solitude of his nightly hunts through the city of Rome; in fact, he had somewhat begun to enjoy it. Sure, he liked it when he and Elisa needed to team up for something, but there was nothing quite like the serenity of patrolling the quiet city late at night, when the lights were few and the stars bright.

Thus he had at first been somewhat annoyed when he learned he would not be alone this patrol.

“Who is that statue of?” Mary asked, pointing at a large statue standing on a pedestal above the street.

“Giordano Bruno,” Aurelio answered with the same annoyed tone he had given for the last fifteen or so interruptions.

“He looks rather sinister,” Mary said, squinting at the hooded statue. “Was he some manner of despot?”

Mary’s vocabulary had exploded with her transfer into a more humanoid form, and at times it could be grating as she tried out more loquacious phrases or archaic grammar.

“No,” Aurelio said. At least he didn’t think so. Admittedly history had never been his strongest subject. “Now keep going, we have a lot of city to cover and we’re wasting time.”

Mary followed him, but argued nonetheless. “Yes well it’s fine to protect the city, but I don’t know anything about it.”

“What’s to know?” Aurelio asked. “It’s Rome, the Eternal City, and the place you’ll be protecting from now on. Do you need more than that?”

“Yes, I do,” Mary nodded emphatically. “You can tell me this is Rome, that it’s the ‘Eternal City’ and that’s fine, but I don’t know what any of that means.” She stressed the last word. “What is a city compared to a town or a village when this is all I’ve ever seen? What is Eternal when I’ve only followed the passage of time for a few weeks? You’ve dropped me in this city full of wonders I do not know or understand and now you tell me to ignore them.” She placed her hands on her hips.

Aurelio sighed. He disliked chatting with the Mara in the homunculus body, but he hated it when she had a point. Mary was like the strangest child ever born, fully lucid and with the capacity for thought of a philosopher, but with experience measured in days. Everything was new to her. She had assumed buildings were natural phenomenon like mountains or forests that humans merely dwelled in, or that fountains worked on magic due to a fundamental lack of knowledge of plumbing. She had a weird sort of reverse object permanence. An infant will believe anything it cannot see does not exist, but Mary believed that everything she saw had always existed in that form. It made her question all the more striking. What was eternal to a being that had no concept of beginnings or ends?

“Fine,” Aurelio sighed. “Ask your questions, but try not to slow down too much. In the morning, Elisa can take you around town.”

“Morning? As in the day?” Mary asked. She seemed to have developed almost a fear of daytime and the sun. It made sense, in a way. She was a Mara, meant to exist for one night and perish into nonexistence with the coming of the sun. To her, morning must have been like the twilight years of a man, the grim pall of death hanging over what to most was a pleasant time of day. Since gaining her body, she had spent most days shut up inside a windowless room, reading feverishly through books to advance her knowledge and vocabulary.

“Yes” Aurelio nodded “You need to get used to the sun and daytime.”

“Very well,” Mary sighed. “So tell me, Hunter…” Aurelio hated the nickname, it reminded him of Sybilla. “…Why do people live in cities?”

“That’s a pretty broad question.” Aurelio said. “What do you mean?”

“Well from what I’ve read, humans don’t live spread out evenly across the land. There are a lot more people in a city than there are outside of it…in terms of density.”

“Well yes,” Aurelio said. “That’s part of what defines a city.”

“But why? Doing that will attract more spirits, and that seems to be a problem.”

“The good outweighs the bad,” Aurelio said. “People enjoy living in communities, and with trade and importance some communities grow into cities. It’s not usually a designed process, but one that just…happens.”

“Interesting.” Mary thought over his words as they moved through the city.

Aurelio, with his champion-born strength, tended to move across the rooftops at a steady jog, leaping across streets and alleys when he needed to and easily scaling up and down walls. At times he felt like a superhero with all the power he had, but Mary traveling with him made him feel all the more human.

Renard had insisted that a homunculus body still had most of the limitations of a human one. It had limited energy and while they possessed impressive strength and stamina they were slightly less than his own. They were not, however, designed to account for Mary’s affinity for magic. New body or not, Mary was a spirit, and as a spirit she seemed to prefer floating to walking. She did it from time to time, taking light steps as she seemed to glide across a surface, but she seemed to pantomime it more than actually walk. And while they were on the rooftops, she made no attempt to hide the fact that she hovered through the air, floating like a cloud across alleys. It gave her an air of inhuman grace that betrayed her origins. Full-sized body or not, Mary could never pass for human.

“So tell me how your hunts go,” Mary said. “What do you do to hunt spirits that aren’t in dreams?” There was a bit of bite in her words, but Aurelio ignored them.

“It’s not all that different,” Aurelio said. “Everything leaves a trail when it moves through a place, spirits just leave a different kind of trail. It’s…hard to describe at times, more like a feeling left in a room than a footprint, but it’s enough for me to track one.”

“So you track down a spirt,” Mary said. “And then?”

Aurelio gestured to his bow. “I put an arrow through it, simple as that.”

“And that’s what you wanted to do with me?” Mary frowned.

“At first,” Aurelio wasn’t afraid to say it. “At the time you were just a rogue spirit. You could have killed someone if we didn’t stop you. It was Elisa and Sybilla who insisted on taking you alive.”

“And what do you do about benevolent spirits?” Mary asked. “Or do you make the distinction?”

“Of course there’s a distinction,” Aurelio said. “I’m not about to hunt spirits like Capitolina or Giovanni just because they’re spirits.”

“That’s because, from what I can tell, they serve humanity,” Mary said. “What about the spirits who live here, but simply want to keep living?”

“I’m not sure the city can handle humans and spirits that don’t want to work together.” Aurelio said. “We’re too different. Spirits have their ways and humans have ours.”

“I think that’s a narrow view of spirits,” Mary said.

“You’re one to talk about narrow views,” Aurelio snorted derisively.

“If there is one thing I know,” Mary said. “it is spirits and how we think. And I think that there are enough spirits in Rome that you will need to adapt just as much as they will. The monsters and cacodaemons should be hunted, but there are many more varieties of spirits, and while they can be negotiated with, they would not take well to being hunted.”

Aurelio sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it. But I’m a hunter as you’re so fond of pointing out. Hunting is what I do, not negotiating. Besides, it’s not like we could have negotiated with you before your capture.”

“Perhaps you should expand your ranks,” Mary said. “And find others who know how to deal with spirits in other ways.”

Aurelio fell silent. He had long considered finding more hunters to join himself and Elisa. Two people could hardly patrol a city the size of Rome, and it grew bigger every day. But to take people on to negotiate with spirits…Aurelio wasn’t sure what to think of it.

“Did you not say this was a more dangerous part of the city?” Mary asked after a brief period of silence.

“Yes, Cacodaemons tend to gather here, why?” Aurelio asked. “Did you spot one?”

“No,” Mary sad simply, and she pointed down to the street where a pair of young women were walking and chatting, seemingly without a care in the world.

Aurelio’s mouth screwed into a frown, and he took hold of the gutter, sliding down the metal pipe with ease until his feet hit ground, Mary floating quietly behind him. The two women, lost in their conversation, apparently didn’t notice.

“Excuse me!” Aurelio called to them. “You two!”

Both of them reacted with surprise, turning his way before glancing at one another. As he approached, Aurelio noticed the strange style of dress between them. One of them, the older looking one, was dressed as if from a painting of a Roman woman. Aurelio assumed that she was part of the new “Neo-Roman” fashion subculture that was picking up speed, based off of ancient fashion trends. The other, however, wore an elegant white dress that seemed plucked out of an elegant party three hundred years ago. Aurelio had never understood fashion, but he assumed that some people just took what they could find or get away with.

“Coming home from a party?” Aurelio asked.

The pair glanced at each other again before the older one nodded. “Yes, something like that I suppose. It is getting rather late, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Aurelio nodded. “And this isn’t the safest part of the city this time of night.”

Normally people grew terrified at the prospect of a cacodaemon lurking in the shadows, but the older woman merely smiled, almost giggling as she turned to her pale companion. “Hear that, Bernadette? It’s not safe around here at this time of night.”

“Oh what rubbish!” The younger woman, Bernadette, said with an almost palpable aristocratic tone. “This street is perfectly safe! And we’re not about to take advice from some street hooligan with a bow and arrow are we, Miss Aelia?”

“Now, now, Bernadette.” Aelia tried to calm her, even while she kept smiling. “No need to insult the man, he was just trying to warn us.” She turned to Aurelio again. “Sorry, she’s had a little to drink.”

“I am quite within my senses!” Bernadette said, aghast. “Honestly, Miss Aelia, spreading such stories!”

“Either way, we’ll be careful.” Aelia tried to reassure both Aurelio and her irate and noble-toned companion. “Thank you for the advice, Mister.”

With that the young woman began all but pushing her companion away, leaving Aurelio to stand in confusion as they left. It would be Mary’s voice this time that would call him back to attention.

“It seems there is a hole in your fine hunter senses,” She said.

“What do you mean?” Aurelio turned to her, still too confused to be annoyed.

“You can track monsters and malevolent monstrous spirits, but I suppose it makes sense that as a hunter, certain less-than-animal spirits can hide from you.”

Now Aurelio was becoming annoyed. “What are you getting at?”

“You just had a conversation with a pair of human spirits and you failed to even notice.” Mary said. “A hunter is meant to track beasts, after all. Not people.”

“Human spirits?” Aurelio asked, turning to where the women had been walking, only to see they had vanished “You mean…”

“Yes, you call them ghosts.” Mary said. “And I think it makes my point.”

“What point?”

“That hunting or capture is not always the ideal solution.” Mary said. “Those two ghosts harm no one, but they are not…compatible with your Rome. Do you try to exile them? I imagine that would be very difficult. Or do you hunt them when they have done no wrong, simply to remove their presence.”

“Then what’s your solution?” Aurelio asked. “Let them have run of the city?”

“Peace through understanding.” Mary said. “The city has two sides to it. I’ve walked in both and I can see it clearly. You need to find more people like that, who know the human as well as the spiritual. Through them…maybe we won’t have to hunt or capture spirits anymore.”

 

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Where All Roads Lead

April 6th, 2024

 

It was the first time Aurelio had ever been inside Renard’s laboratory. As he had come to understand, a mage’s laboratory was their sanctum sanctorum, the heart of their research and the absolute center of their world. Aurelio had expected dusty bookshelves, the skulls of strange and exotic animals, and any number of unidentifiable devices meant to divine the secrets of the universe clustered on shelves.

What he received instead upon entering was something between the castle of Dr. Frankenstein and a serial killer’s den. Human body parts littered shelves and worktables, several of them with empty chest and stomach cavities, and unkempt piles of scribbled writing stacked here and there across the walls. Large chemistry glassware bubbling with strange fluids stood against one wall, and other walls of bare stone were covered in diagrams of the human body combined with arcane figures. It was, in a word, a terrifying place to be, which made it all the more unsettling when Renard led them inside with a casual stroll, whistling as he walked.

“Well, get comfortable.” He said, hanging up his jacket and rolling up his sleeves as he placed his cane against the wall. “There’s some preparation I need to do.”

Aurelio had come along with Elisa and the Mara, still held within its cage. The homunculus seemed far more at home here, or at least more comfortable than Aurelio was.

“How does this place not give you the creeps?” Aurelio asked her quietly.

“Hmm? This is like a childhood home to me.” Elisa said. “I was made here.”

“It’s full of body parts.”

“They’re not human.”

Aurelio nearly jumped as Renard clapped him on the back.

“That’s right.” The mage grinned. “Don’t worry, none of these bits and pieces were ever part of a human begin. Think of it as a room full of…really well-made prosthetics.”

“So they’re all fake?” Aurelio asked.

“Oh, now I wouldn’t call them fake” Renard said. “They’re perfectly serviceable and built much like the real thing. I even synthesize the bone matrix and muscle strands right here. Make the skin down the hall, and if you thought THIS room gave you the creeps let me tell you… Heh, well, at least it’s all locally prepared organic body parts, eh?” He said with a slightly crooked grin.

“Sure…” Aurelio said, not sure if he was joking or not.

“Master Aestling is an expert anatomist.” Elisa said as Renard went back to work. “I was built by hand, after all.”

“I always imagined mages disdained the sciences.” Aurelio said. “Seemed kind of…antithetical.”

“Maybe to some.” Renard spoke up as he worked, sliding into protective gear that wouldn’t look out of place in a chemistry lab. “Sometimes magecraft is as much science as art. It’s like…sculpture.”

As he spoke he rifled through several cases and racks of body parts, examining them one by one as if looking for details Aurelio couldn’t see. “See, if you want to be a master sculptor you need to understand many of the finer aspects of form, figure, anatomy, and proportion. Otherwise your attempt at Venus de Milo is going to look like an asymmetric yeti. My work however requires an even finer touch. Imagine for me, hunter, not a sculptor who works down from a block of marble, but a sculptor who works up from a skeleton. Every bone, every organ, every muscle, every patch of skin and strand of hair placed with deliberate design. Oh sure you can make something slapdash, two feet tall with long arms, buggy eyes and a limp and call it a homunculus, but where’s the pride in it? Where’s the craft?”

He smiled as he stepped over to ruffle Elisa’s hair. “You, my dear, are a work of art.”

Elisa smiled somewhat demurely as Renard returned to work, but Aurelio could not help but watch her as he considered his words.

She was certainly pretty, if somewhat plain, but he could not help but think of her now as a sculpture rather than just another person. Was the way she held herself intentional? Could he plan that from the proportions of her hips and leg bones? Had Renard meticulously placed the pores in her skin, the way her hair parted or the shape of her ears? Had her brow been designed to easily fit that furrowed expression she so often wore? Had he made each delicate finger through some design or with an artist’s keen eye? How long had he worked to sculpt the curve of her eyes, the point of her feet, or the shape of her breasts? While he had not made Elisa to be intensely beautiful, she suddenly seemed much more…deliberately pretty than any quirk of randomly combined genetics could allow.

“Is it common to mages,” He asked. “To have a scientific background as well?”

Renard waved dismissively over his shoulder. “It varies and no two mages are really the same. If you get really deep into the sciences, magic stops working quite so well, just like how delving too much into ritual can screw with your experimentation and repeatability. It’s all about finding the balance that works best, not just for you but for your work as well. Like…take me for example. I know what the body looks like and what it does, but I’m a novice in microbiology. Don’t ask me how a stomach works on the cellular level because I don’t know. Most of Elisa’s organs are for show, or they work by entirely different processes altogether.

He moved to a tall case that Aurelio at first thought had been filled with busts for holding wigs, before a second chilling glance informed him that it was in fact full of human heads. Renard looked them over with the intense gaze of a man choosing a tire, before shrugging and taking two of them by the neck. He carried them over to Mara’s small birdcage and held them up for it.

“Tell me, which do you like more?” He asked. “I’m feeling this one for the chin, but these eyes seem more you.”

Mara, seemingly as unperturbed as everyone else in this increasingly mad basement, pointed to the one he carried in his left hand.

“Ah of course!” Renard smiled. “I can be such a fool at times.” He casually replaced the other one on the shelf as he set back to work.

“Did…did she just pick out her head?” Aurelio asked.

“Well I’m not about to pick it out for her!” Renard scoffed. “So presumptuous. Tell me, Aurelio, if you had to wear only one suit for the rest of your life, and it covered your entire body from head to foot, and that’s the only thing you could wear when you went to a formal gathering, did the shopping, stayed in on a lazy afternoon, made love, or ate lobster, would you let someone else pick it out for you?”

“Er…I guess not.”

“Precisely.” Renard continued. “Normally, I’d make it a custom job from the ground up, but we’re a bit pressed the time so I have to work from templates. Still, it’s our dear Mara’s body, so she gets to pick.”

“Fair enough.” Aurelio gave up and leaned against a wall, arms folded as he tried not to touch anything.

The preparations went on for over three hours. Renard would ask Mara’s opinion on even the most minute of details, from the width of her fingernails to the parabola of her foot arch, weighing to her the pros and cons of each. Aurelio at first thought that a lot of the questions seemed silly and irrelevant, but the more he thought about it the more he realized that if you truly had that much control over your appearance, would you pass on picking most of the details? Even if it took a while, it seemed only right to let her choose, and it made him a little assured that she was indeed planning to stay in this body.

Aurelio couldn’t help but turn a bit red and politely look away when Renard polled Mara on what her ideal breast size would be, or especially when he made a point of mentioning her new body would be fully functional in all respects.

“Oh don’t look at me like that.” Renard chided him. “She wants a human body then she deserves to experience all the best parts. It’s a fundamental part of being human, and trust me once you’ve built enough of ‘em you stop being juvenile about it. I made all of Elisa’s reproductive organs by hand, that doesn’t mean I have any interest in getting in them.”

Elisa made a point of looking away and coughing, clearly preferring not to be mentioned.

Renard glanced at her before shaking his head. “Right, point is, shut up I’m working.”

As Renard and Mara worked, Aurelio couldn’t help but notice one particular oversight they seemed to be making.

“Umm…”He eventually drew up the courage to speak. “Doesn’t she choose…you know, hair and eye color? Or do all homunculi turn out like Elisa?” He glanced between them, having long since noted the similarities in white hair and red eyes between Renard and Elisa.

“Nah, that’s just trademark.” Renard smiled. “The stuff like hair and eyes are temporarily protomorphic, it’s hard for me to get quite right, so it can be mentally altered within three hours after creation to any color you like.

He glanced at Mara. “I’ll give you plenty of hair to work with, but if you want it cut don’t worry, extensions are easy on a homunculus, even if it doesn’t grow back.”

The Mara nodded and he kept working. In time, when the sun was starting to set, all of the choices has been made and it was time for the real work to begin. Renard began assembling her desired body parts into a recognizable form upon the central working table, a large raised tablet that looked like a medieval torture station, with a large alchemical pentagram embedded in silver into the wood. The stomach cavity was still open, and Renard set to work hooking up what appeared to be archaic IV stands filled with pale white and silver fluids.

He worked quickly and largely in silence now as Aurelio and Elisa watched from nearby. His work on the body seemingly done, Renard went to a large cabinet sealed with multiple locks and magic wards. It took him nearly ten minutes to undo them all, and when he opened it Aurelio’s jaw nearly dropped. Enormous gemstones that appeared to be of priceless quality were held within, and Renard’s fingers moved past one then the other, seemingly unaware of the massive fortune at his fingertips as he settled on a cubic zirconium carved into the shape of a dodecahedron larger than his fist.

He turned, locking the shelves back up with a snap of the fingers as he looked up to see Aurelio’s dumbfounded expression.

“Oh don’t look so shocked.” He said. “Mages have known how to grow and cultivate oversized gemstones for centuries. Not our fault you mundanes have an obsession with pretty rocks while being ignorant of their true worth.”

“True worth?” Aurelio asked.

“Watch this.” Renard said with a smile as he held the gemstone before Mara’s cage. “If one of you could be so kind as to open the door?”

Elisa stepped forward as Aurelio readied himself. Slowly the homunculus opened the door of the cage as Renard slid his hand and the massive jewel inside. The Mara placed its diminutive hands against the diamond-like surface before pressing its large forehead to it. In moments the tiny image of the Mara had vanished, as if falling forward into the carved rock, which began to glow soft green-blue with its own inner light.

Renard smiled and pulled it from the cage, showing the stone to Aurelio.

“Here it is.” He said. “The heart, brain, and soul of our new homunculus. Elisa’s core is a touch more ornate, but we had the luck of having a largely complete spirit already ready and willing.”

Without further ado, he carried the glowing gemstone back to the prone proxy body. Gently he slid the stone inside the open cavity and upwards into the chest, attaching it to some unseen internal apparatus that would bind the core in place. With another well-placed spell he sealed the stomach closed without leaving a mark, his smile beginning to grow as he began reciting a long chant in some ancient language, Coptic or proto-Arabic or another tongue Aurelio couldn’t hope to understand, clearly relishing each word as the symbols beneath the body began to glow with the same shimmering eerie light.

The light grew and grew, suffusing every inch of the body until every inch of it was luminescent. Only when Renard finished the chant did the inner illumination begin to fade. He took a step back when it had died down completely, and Aurelio could not help but step forward, watching the prone body closely.

A finger twitched, then two, then the toes curled and a shiver ran down its spine. An eye opened.

For the sake of her newfound modesty Renard had placed a sheet over her chest and hips, and as sensation began to flow through the new homunculus body, she gently took hold of the sheet to keep it in place as she, inch by inch, rose into a sitting position.

Seemingly unconsciously the colors of the body began to shift. The skin remained pale but with a touch more color than Elisa’s snow white pallor. Her hair became much darker, almost black, but with a distinct blueish tinge that was visible when the light struck it. Her eyes went from a colorless white to a bright turquoise color, the same as the earlier glowing had been. She flexed and stretched her muscles, feeling each one for the new time.

“This is around the point where I shout ‘It’s alive!’” Renard grinned. “Hope everything’s feeling alright, Mara. The ears working?”

Mara nodded, clearly having heard as she opened and closed her newfound mouth.

“Speaking takes a little work.” Renard said. “Elisa had an adorable lisp for three months after I made her.”

Aurelio had never seen Elisa flustered before, so it was surprising to him just how endearing he found it to be in her.

If the ears were working, however, then Aurelio had a few words of his own.

“Don’t forget our deal now, Mara.” He said. “We give you a body, and you help us track this cult, and your Master.”

A new expression arose on her face, one of rigid and somewhat strained determination as she tried to summon up the words.

“Y-Y-ye-ye-yes..a-a-a-ai-I…wi-wi-will…hel-help…you.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=46&sl=31