March 13th, 2023
It was with no small amount of humble satisfaction that Giovanni strode down the Via della Conciliazione, having just crossed the River Tiber. This road had once been barred off, a killing field of monsters in direct view of St. Peter’s Square, but in the last three weeks it had been successfully barricaded and reinforced as part of a usable thoroughfare from the sanctuary to the Vatican. Many of the buildings facing the streets were half-crumbled, falling victims to the fires that ravaged the cities when there was no one left to manage its water. The Vatican had been spared, but many of these ashen ruined buildings would need to be torn down and replaced. Several had already been deliberately collapsed, ropes tied to their weakened supports to rip them in two and bring the buildings down. There were ample supplies to start rebuilding from the ruin. Likely, in time, the face of Rome itself would change.
The battle had been slow, fierce, and methodical. The best of the rangers and sanctuary guards had moved street by street, building by building. Building barricades by day when the monsters were less active, and steadily gaining ground at night by torchlight. He had fought as well, alongside Sanctuary “General” Hanne and her daughter. Capitolina, always eager for a fight, had been there as well. Giovanni passed his tongue over his teeth for what felt like the thousandth time. Snapping monstrous bone between his jaws always left a bad taste in his mouth.
Beside him, almost lost in his shadow, was a young woman, hardly more than a girl (he had asked and she had said she was fifteen. He had trouble discerning human ages). She wore the dark tunic and scapular of a nun, but lacked the habit, seeing as she had been in training when the Days of Revelation fell on Rome. Her name was Stella Notaro, and she had taken it upon herself to be something of a secretary for him as her training had gone unfinished. Her head was on her clipboard where she idly scrawled her notes. Of what, he was not sure. She did not speak often, and it was easy for him to practically forget she was there, were it not for the noise his sharp ears could always detect, and the distinct smell of the soap she used and the ink on her fingers. Even with an inclination for stealth it was hard to remain hidden from a wolf.
Today he was meeting someone in the square, as he often did. He preferred meeting people outside, otherwise he would rarely leave the deeper parts of the Vatican he oversaw. Still, he often lead guests inside the Basilica itself, away from prying ears who might think him an authority over the church. The Plaza was relatively alive with activity, as Vatican City had taken on many of the same duties as the sanctuary. Relief stations, supply storehouses, and temporary hospitals were more numerous than ever as the population grew. However it served another purpose that Giovanni oversaw, and the subject of today’s meeting.
Standing near the obelisk in the square’s center was a tall, somewhat lanky man in a scruffy navy suit and a pair of rectangular glasses. His arms were over his chest, one hand on his chin as his eyes keenly gazed at the tall spire before him under a mop of dark hair. He was likely not past his mid-twenties yet, with a face full of keen intellect balanced around a thin mouth and a hawkish nose.
“Ettore Cavallo?” Giovanni asked as he approached. The man’s eyes brightened as he turned to face him, nodding his head politely before offering his hand, which Giovanni gently shook. His ears caught the gentle scratch of Stella’s pen across paper, likely she was transcribing the meeting. It was a useful habit, but it caused his ears to twitch involuntarily.
“Indeed.” The man said with a light, almost effeminate tone. “You must be Giovanni, yes? It is a pleasure and an honor, you’ve quite a reputation here.”
“I do what I must for the Lord. Please, walk with me.” With a gesture of the hand Giovanni began to walk towards St. Peter’s Basilica. Ettore easily fell into step beside him, and he heard Stella softly padding in their wake. The entrance was once much more crowded, and in his private moments, Giovanni liked to imagine the square packed with people as his Holiness addressed the crowd. Alas, a wolf was hardly welcome in the city that was, and he had only ever seen it all but empty. Now, at last, life in abundance was beginning to return.
“You worked for the University in the city, yes?” He asked as they moved towards the steps.
“Ah, yes.” Ettore seemed nervous as he spoke. It was not uncommon, even in his human form, for people to feel as if they were in the company of a top predator.
“You sought me out specifically, might I ask why?” Giovanni’s voice was smooth and even-tempered. Many asked requests of the Vatican, and they often went to him first. He claimed no rank or position, but as its chief defender and spokesperson among the wolves he had become its de facto leader in many respects.
“It is in regards to the Vatican libraries and…” Ettore began. It was the first half of a sentence, and one he was hesitant to finish. Giovanni decided to truncate it for him.
“What scholars we have from the Pontifical Academies have been left in charge of the libraries, I suggest you speak with them.”
Ettore was not deterred as he steeled his face somewhat. “…and the Vatican’s vaults and tombs.”
Giovanni sighed, he had known this was coming. “The vaults and tombs remain as they are and as I have kept them. Undisturbed.” His voice was final, but Ettore was clearly a stubborn one.
“Is there complete documentation of such an inventory?” He asked.
Giovanni’s ears twitched. “There are tens and thousands of objects, documentation would be…”
“Immense, and likely in disarray.” Ettore swiftly finished his thought for him. “If I may volunteer to see to them, even if I cannot see to the artifacts themselves?”
“You are quite eager. While I applaud your enthusiasm, it does betray a motive I may not agree with.”
Ettore bowed his head. “Forgive me. It is merely something I wish to investigate.”
“I had suspected as much. Continue.” Giovanni kept his eyes forward as they entered the Basilica, though he noticed Ettore’s eyes travelling upwards to marvel at its scale as they passed through the narthex. Giovanni kept his eyes low, almost reverently, though his ears were focused on Ettore, sensitive to the subtlest shifts in his tone and intonation.
“There is now more than enough evidence that swords are more effective against spiritual aberrations…”
“Spiritual what? Is that what these monsters are being called now?” Giovanni snorted derisively.
“It’s what I’m calling them.” Ettore responded with a slight smile. “But as I was saying, swords and other ancient weaponry are most effective against them, particularly when compared to firearms. Seeing this, I became curious as to what other ancient relics and objects might have gained or regained unusual properties.”
Giovanni’s face did not flinch. “Explain your reasoning.” He said.
“Of course.” Ettore nodded. “I was wondering why it was that swords were so effective. I was speaking to Miss Jazheil on the matter…”
“Hildegard?” Giovanni interrupted, and Ettore nodded.
“Yes, the mage.”
“Of course, continue.” Giovanni nodded.
“She claimed that it is not the sword itself, that is to say not the steel and leather in its construction, that makes it strong against these aberrations. Rather, she claimed it was the concept behind it, the idea of a sword that is dangerous to them.”
“How can the idea of a sword slay a monster?” Giovanni’s ears lowered, an unconscious signal of his skepticism, Ettore didn’t seem to notice, lost in his words.
“That’s just it. Swords slay monsters. In every tale and every story, it’s always a sword, or a spear, or an arrow that slays the monster and the dragon. Was it not with the sword Ascalon that Saint George slew his dragon?”
“In some legends it’s a spear.” Said Giovanni “But I think I begin to see your point. Now, what do famous swords have to do with the Vatican’s collection?”
“It is because I am not convinced this effect this…conceptual potency ends at swords.” Ettore’s voice was firmer now, subtly, but Giovanni could tell he had reached his point.
“The vaults and collections of the Vatican contain thousands of relics, many of them supposedly possessing supernatural powers. What if blessed armor really is stronger than even modern steel? What if the relics of saints did carry protection from evil? If the answer is yes we may have an untapped resource in the defense and reclamation of the city.”
Giovanni frowned. He had worked hard to keep the Vatican as it was when his Holiness and the College had left, and he had worried something like this would happen. He continued walking down the nave and past the central altar as they spoke, pausing before the statue of St. Helena.
“This is the Vatican, the seat of the Catholic faith.” Giovanni said sternly. “I have preserved it to keep the Lord’s grandest house on Earth safe from the defiling footsteps of monsters, not for it to be turned into an armory.”
“Of course” Ettore bowed his head, a decent showing of humility. “I meant no disrespect. But merely studying these artifacts could give us valuable insight into this phenomenon.”
He was backtreading, hoping for a compromise. Giovanni could hardly blame him, if such a thing were true it could very well be a godsend for Rome. But the idea of exploiting the Vatican’s resources was vile to him, and who was he to make such a decision?
“I am not his Holiness.” Giovanni said after a pause. “I am not a priest, a monk, a friar, nor a hermit. I have no real rank within the Faith, and no authority save what I have been given, often against my will, and that is authority I have used to safeguard this place.” He gestured around himself, to the high walls and pillars of the Basilica. “I have never used it to give what we could not afford to lose. Food, aid, and manpower we have offered all we have, but these relics are not mine to offer.”
“Who in the city has that authority if not you?” Ettore asked, his eyes kept on the wolf now.
Giovanni sighed. Those he would have answered had long since started deferring to him, much to his chagrin. He was a pious wolf, it was true, but still a wolf. If he allowed this, even with the provisions he intended, it would open the floodgates of requests and reports and make him a steward of the Vatican, something he had long since tried to prevent.
Giovanni let out a weary sigh. “Very well, I will give you the names of several bookkeepers and Vatican librarians. You are to touch none of the relics without first receiving my permission, but you may freely organize and observe the documentation with the supervision of a Vatican official. Do you understand?”
Ettore nodded repeatedly, as if bowing to him. “Of course, thank you, Giovanni.”
“You will thank the librarians, and the priests, and the ministers, and the others who will aid you. They are the ones in command, you carry only the word of a wolf, nothing more.”
“I understand.” Ettore nodded again. “Still, I hope with this we can do much for Rome.”
“As do I…” Giovanni sighed again. “as do I.”
They chatted more for a time before Ettore departed for the nearest library, leaving Giovanni with his thoughts where they had stood before the statue of St. Helena. He tried to think of his duties, to the protection of the Vatican, but his mind kept going to the vaults beneath the city and the battle to retake this city. It had been difficult getting even from the Capitoline Hill to the Vatican, if these relics could give them an advantage…
He shook his head, ears flicking angrily. It was not his place to decide what was kept in the Vatican and what was freely given. He was its protector, and only its protector so long as he could remain so. Swords and armor could be forged, and there had been a time when holy relics were spread across the continent as well as gathered here. Whether it was for their supposed powers, or the foresight of some far-seeing prophet to stockpile them, it was not his place to decide.
He blinked, suddenly remembering that Stella was still with him. She really was quite stealthy.
“Sister Stella.” He turned to face her. “I’m not a ‘sir’, I am no kind of knight or lord.”
“And I am not yet a sister.” She smiled in return, gesturing to her habit-less crown of short blonde hair. “But still you have done enough for the faith that I feel you have earned a title of some kind.”
“If you are not a sister, Stella, than I am certainly not a Mister.” Giovanni could not help but smile back at Stella’s cheerfulness.
The smile she gave him told him she would disregard those words. “Very well. I wished to ask what was troubling you. I have never seen you so lost in thought without your nose in a book…speaking of which it is rather unusual to see a wolf that can read.”
“They are few and far between.” Giovanni laughed. “As for my thoughts…Stella I wish for an opinion. Do you defer to me? Do you see me as an authority in this Church?”
“Hmm…” Stella placed a finger on her chin, her eyes moving from Giovanni to Saint Helena. “I would not say you are an authority on the faith…but you are an authority in this city. In better days his Holiness would be both, but while the priests see to matters of faith, someone must meet with the wolves, organize supplies, and see to our resources. You have protected us for months. It is only natural we hold some reverence for you.”
“I am a wolf…” He began, but she caught him off-guard as her words cut through his.
“A pious wolf, one who knows the faith, and has given us no reason to believe he has anything but the best intentions for Vatican City. It is why you speak for us among the other wolves, and it is why you are steward of the Vatican until his Holiness returns.”
Giovanni fell silent as she finished speaking, not sure how to respond. Was it so wrong of him to think of himself as the Vatican’s caretaker? Let the men of God see to the faith, as is their rightful place, and he will keep tabs on its physical legacy. He was, after all, an earthly beast, it was only right that he keep to earthly matters while they saw to matters of the spirit.
“I shall take your words to heart, Stella.” He finally said, and the young girl’s smile grew.
“I am glad to be of service, Mister Giovanni.” She bowed her head, curtsying politely.
“Then keep to my side.” He nodded as he moved once more towards the Basilica’s entrance and the square outside. “I could certainly use the counsel.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=12&sl=989 ))