It was with a sigh that Giovanni pulled himself up the rusted iron ladder built into the tunnel wall. Bright light streamed down from overhead and he had to shade his eyes briefly under his hand as he pulled himself into the emptied basement above. The area around the shaft leading down into the tunnel had been roped off, a minor gesture to try and show the importance it held. With a similar sigh he brushed his simple robe clean with his hands to make himself somewhat more presentable.The tunnel ran its course under Rome and came up beneath the Capitoline Museums, an entrance that had been long forgotten until recently, when a far more crucial purpose had been found. The Museums surrounded the Piazza del Compidoglio, the center of the Capitoline Hill, which had been transformed by the rallied survivors of the city into the center of organization and the “salvation” efforts. The tunnel ran for several kilometers under the city, even passing beneath the Tiber River, Giovanni recalled with a frown as he wiped his feet on the bare stone floor. At the other end of the tunnel, fully secured from the monstrous scourge still rampaging through the city, was Vatican City.
He walked the familiar route through the museum that saw itself now repurposed as a temporary medical center. Many of the relics were placed carefully in storage to make room and curtains and drapes sewn and hung together to create partitions, where anyone with even a cursory medical knowledge had been pressed into service healing the wounded. Many of them nodded politely as he passed by, his presence familiar to them now, though he noticed few made eye contact with him.
A loud groaning came to his sharp ears and he detoured from his route to find its source. Hidden in one of the partitions was a man in his middle years attended by a young nurse, but Giovanni could tell from a glance that his prospects were poor. He had long bloody wounds across his chest, likely from the raking claws of one of the skeletal atrocities walking freely in the city. There were many like him. Few managed to make it to the safe zone, though the survivors worked night and day to save as many as they could. This man had made it but he would not be there for long. Giovanni could practically smell death overcoming this man. He glanced up at the nurse, whose eyes sank to avoid his gaze, confirming his doubts.
The wounded man’s hands reached out blindly and Giovanni took it gently in his own.
“Rest now.” His voice was gentle as he cradled the man’s hands in his own rough palms. “Tell me, are you a child of God?”
The man coughed as he brought his throat to answer, and Giovanni waited patiently until he was able to speak.
“H-How can I say…with so many gods now…”
Giovanni gently took his rosary in his hands, letting the man’s own fingers run over the beads.
“There is only one God, and you are his child so long as he remains in your heart.”
Together he guided the man through each prayer as he ran the rosary beads through their fingers, until the man’s last breath left him.
Giovanni sighed as he crossed the man before turning to the nurse. “Please pray for this man.” He said, as he stood up, wrapping the rosary between his fingers. “I would myself, but I am not sure if he can hear me.”
Giovanni, though he never would have admitted it, was now perhaps the most important figure in the protection of the Roman Catholic faith. The Vatican had been emptied weeks before, the Pope and the College of Cardinals evacuated as the scourge had just started to reach Rome. Since then, no word had come from them. Many others had fled in their wake, with only a dedicated few remaining to preserve the libraries and relics of the faith. What they had lacked, however, was the protection needed to stop the tide of the living dead. Giovanni had provided that protection, holding the gates for nearly six weeks against waves of nightmarish creatures until he had received word of this place, a single hill in all of Rome that was truly safe. Though a single subterranean passage was all that connected the Capitoline and Vatican Hills, it had provided the relief that he and the others there had needed. More people had come with the weapons and materials needed to fortify the Vatican, and while it lacked the supernatural protection of the Capitoline Hill, the Vatican had been designated safe.
Giovanni had organized all of this. The defense, communication, and safeguarding of the Vatican had been orchestrated by him, despite the unease if not veritable terror he inspired in the hearts of other believers and despite the lack of eternal reward waiting for him for his deeds. That was because Giovanni was not a man, but a wolf.
At first glance he appeared very much like a man. He walked and dressed as one, and in this form the only signs of his wolfish nature were in the short, ragged ears poking out of his unruly mop of dark hair, and the long black tail under his robe. He had olive skin that bore countless scars hidden beneath his long robes, marks of shame he still carried, and he always had a wolf’s shining yellow eyes. He had another form as well, that of an enormous scarred wolf that had guarded the Vatican gates. His ability to shift forms was not necessarily unusual. A creature of magical nature, or a mundane one who gained greater power and intelligence, could often take human form, something to which the remaining refugees of Rome were slowly growing more accustomed.
Giovanni had soon found out he was not the only wolf in Rome. In fact the refugee organization efforts had been founded, and were in a large part organized, by three others. It was to meet with them that he had made the damp sojourn through the tunnel from the Vatican, a familiar journey he made several times a day.
He stepped out into the open piazza, wincing in the bright sunlight that filled it. All around him people milled, every one of them with job to do. Spare time was wasted time when you were recovering from the supposed end of the world. Dozens of tents had been erected where supplies were gathered and administered, and few even seemed to notice him as he passed. He crossed the piazza quickly, walking swiftly past the tall bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius towards the Senatorial Palace, the center of organization.
He was to meet someone at the entrance to the Senatorial Palace, so he quickly made his way to the steps that flanked its entrance. There he found his escort waiting for him and shivered involuntarily at the sight of her.
She was another wolf, dressed in human form like himself, though in a more modern fashion with a black sweatshirt half-zipped up at the front over a grey t-shirt and black jeans. Her hair was similarly black, not simply a deep brown like his own, but a truly almost unnatural black, made all the sharper against her pale skin. The signs of her lupine nature were the same as Giovanni’s. She had short stubby ears on her head and a long elegant bushy tail that was tipped with white ending just above her ankles. That was where their similarities ended.
She was called Angel, a name of obvious provenance given her most obvious abnormality, a pair of black-feathered wings folded behind her shoulders. They were an odd feature on man or wolf, but it wasn’t that alone which gave Giovanni pause each time he encountered her. Her movements were…heavy. That was the only word Giovanni could come up with for it. She turned and moved to intercept him, and he could see the mass in her steps. She was short and slightly built, but seemed to be carrying an incredible density to her. Giovanni didn’t know if it was merely a trick of his eyes. He had never found reason enough to touch her.
As she stepped towards him with a polite nod which he returned, he got to see the characteristic that always sent a shiver through him: her eyes. His eyes, and the eyes of the other two wolves, were similar in their brilliant yellow color and lupine heritage. Angel, however, had deeply unsettling eyes. They were blue, and quite prettily shaped astride her nose, but she possessed large pupils that belied her true nature. It was more a sensation than an observation. It was said that one could see age and experience in the eyes alone. Angel was not simply older than she appeared. She was ancient. Her eyes were an abyss of time from which no light could escape. And sometimes, though Giovanni hoped it was merely a trick of the light, he could have sworn that he saw stars shining back at him from within the void of her pupils.
Giovanni did not know from where Angel had come, and frankly, he did not wish to know.
Angel led him into the Palace, which was now crawling with relief workers and aids, rushing back and forth as they coordinated the scouting teams going out into the city to try and find survivors and reclaim valuable pieces of human history before time or monsters destroyed it. Angel led him with heavy, almost mechanical footsteps up the stairs within and into a smaller chamber where the temporary leadership met to discuss the city’s longer-term plans. Several humans were gathered around as well as the other members of the so-called “Wolf pack”.
Dominating the room was an immense round table, completely covered in a map of the city center, which was in turn covered in markings and notes. Standing at the table opposite the door was the city’s rallying point, the lynchpin of this safe area’s success. She was another wolf, but a far cry from Giovanni’s piety and Angel’s abstract strangeness.
Her hair was a brilliant orange-red that framed her grinning face, the same color as her tall ears and bushy tail. She wore a regal set of decorated armor not unlike what would be seen on the body of a Roman Emperor beneath a scarlet cloak fastened at one shoulder. She had the air of a soldier more than ruler, but with a voice very familiar with command. She smiled at his entrance as Angel walked past him to take her usual place in her shadow.
She was Lupa Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome. She was the first one in the city to start organizing the survivors and was still the leader of salvation efforts. It had taken some cajoling to make her dress more formally at meetings like this, but the others agreed it was more fitting her position.
“Giovanni, I’m glad you could make it.” She grinned broadly at him, revealing sharp teeth. “Now we can get started in earnest.”
“Of course.” Giovanni answered as he bowed his head. “What is the topic of discussion today?”
Capitolina, or Capi as she often preferred to be known, glanced at the other wolf standing at the table, the fourth of their number.
For all that Capi was Roman, the fourth, Kebechet, was Egyptian. Her skin was several shades darker than his own, her hair a straight sheet of black under sharp ears. Her eyes were slightly more human than his own or Capi’s and lined with black eyeshadow. Combined with her slimming white robe and brightly decorated shoulder cape, she was the very image of ancient Egyptian nobility.
“There are several matters to attend to.” She said in a cool and collected voice as she sorted through several papers. “We need to designate additional areas for residential use. And then there is the deity matter.”
Giovanni frowned. Monsters were not the only thing returning to the world. The dying man in the museum had been right when he had said that there were many gods now. Giovanni did not consider these powerful spirits equal to the true God, but their increasing presence was undeniable.
“What specifically about it?” He asked suspiciously, fearing he already knew the answer.
“The gods are asking for places of worship to be sanctified within the city’s safe zones. They have blessings they can confer to the mortals here, and I feel given the current state of the Greek Pantheon, as well as my own, that they need all the assistance we can give.”
Giovanni frowned. “That is entirely outside of my area.” he began, “Though I would ask that we refrain from doing such a thing until either the tunnel to Vatican Hill is accessible to the public or a new public route is secured. I understand people may seek the blessing of these spirits, but there is only one God in this city.”
Kebechet met his gaze, her expression of distaste matching his own. “That is…one way to phrase it, though I agree, in a way. The Catholic people of Rome deserve fair representation.”
“At the very least.” Giovanni said in curt reply.
“Perhaps there is a solution that will solve all of our problems.” Hanne Anchesi, the captain of the Rangers, spoke next.
“You have the floor, Commander.” Capitolina smiled. It was an informal rank, but she prized military discipline.
“We need more room for the growing population. Normally I would be against using valuable living space as places of worship, but if these deities really can offer us an advantage, then their aid will be invaluable. That said, Rome has been a Catholic city for a thousand years, and that population must remain protected. Therefore, I propose that the main thoroughfares between the Capitoline and Vatican Hills be secured first and foremost.”
“That, I can agree with.” Giovanni nodded firmly, his arms folded over his chest.
“Likewise.” Kebechet added.
“Very good.” Capi said, her tail brushing lightly from side to side in satisfaction. She was often the arbiter in disagreements between Giovanni and Kebechet, and it pleased her when they agreed.
“Furthermore on the matter of the divinities…” Kebechet said, addressing the room. “We need a channel of sorts, a voice through which they can speak.”
“I imagine that is what priests would be for.” Hanne said. Giovanni remained silent. His duty was to the Vatican and the Catholic faith. What the spreading pagan cults did was of no consequence so long as it did not push against them.
“Most humans still have difficulty with it.” Kebechet continued “The gods are only now relearning how to let their voices be heard. Likewise, there will doubtless be numerous temples cropping up to multiple pantheons. They will need to be organized beneath one spokesperson.”
“And you’re suggesting this one person speak both for the gods and for any new priests?” Capi asked, curiosity in her voice.
“Indeed.” Kebechet nodded. “And I know of a prime candidate.”
“You want Nora Newstar.” Angel spoke, drawing eyes from the rest of the room. Her voice was deadpan, utterly devoid of emotion, but her words set off a number of voices as people chattered and whispered to one another.
“That is correct.” Kebechet replied, unfazed. “She is the best-suited for the job.”
“Be that as it may, there is a good deal of what could be construed as bias in that opinion, Kebechet.” When Capi spoke, her voice was loud enough to silence the room.
“I would at least suggest you seek an audience with her, Capitolina.” Kebechet said, and Capi, after a moment’s thought, nodded her assent. “I will do so.”
“Speaking of which…” It was another human who spoke up, a man this time. He was smartly dressed, a rarity in this day and age, in a tailored dark blue suit over a light blue shirt. His hair was black, and slicked back from his brow, and his eyes were a shining and cunning blue over a straight nose and a thin smile. “I requested an audience with you as well, Capitolina, regarding the matter of the city’s mage population.”
“Ah, of course.” Capi nodded, and Giovanni noted her tail stopped wagging. “I can see you now, Lord Nassar. With that said, I call this meeting to a close.”
The man, Lord Albion Nassar, smiled as the rest of them filed out, leaving only himself, Capitolina, and Angel.
Giovanni walked with purpose in his step, hoping to return quickly to the Vatican to give them the news, as well as hopefully avoid…
“Giovanni.” Kebechet’s voice put a stop to his step and to his hopes as he turned politely to face her.
“Yes, Kebechet?” Giovanni kept his voice calm and affable, but his flattened ears betrayed him.
“This frequent arguing is wearing on us both.” Her voice reflected her own restrained distaste.
“I agree.” Giovanni nodded. Half of the Wolf Pack being constantly at odds served only to slow what needed to be a quick process.
“Then why are you so vehemently in denial about the existence of the gods? Even when evidence is literally standing in front of you?”
“I am not in denial.” Giovanni shook his head. “I acknowledge beings such as your father exist, I merely deny that they are gods.”
“Fine, call them ‘Great Spirits’ if you must.” Kebechet rolled her eyes.
“I indeed must.” Giovanni said. “There is only one God.”
“Are you willing to cooperate with the cults of these ‘Great Spirits’ then?” She asked.
Giovanni frowned. “I protect the interests of the Faith and its followers before all else, so long as they do not conflict with others, I shall not be in your way.”
“I would rather we cooperate than simply avoid one another.” Kebechet frowned as well, tail hanging limply behind her.
“Time will tell. For now, the Vatican needs me. There will no doubt be a great deal of work to do.” Giovanni bowed cordially as he made to set off. Kebechet, giving up, simply waved him out as Giovanni once more made his way outside.
He knew that denial of these beings who called themselves gods, once worshipped in the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse pantheons, was growing increasingly impossible. Evidence of their existence grew with each passing day. But it was as Hanne had said; the Vatican Hill had been the center of their faith for well over a thousand years, and that legacy would not be ignored in light of recent events. Life was too precious and resources too scarce now for his disagreements to become a feud. The people of Rome could not afford a schism, but it was his duty to see to the protection of the Faith and its people.
Giovanni sighed to himself. The work of a wolf of Rome was never easy.