April 2nd, 2023
Giovanni watched the greenhouse as the sun began to sink below the horizon. The evening light, dyed red and orange, was reflected brilliantly across the glass surface and scattered again. It reminded him of the stained glass of the Vatican and on any other night it would have been a comforting reminder.
He was not there for an idle visit. He was watching from the second floor of a nearby building, the room deserted by his request so he could sit and watch in peace for hours on end. He was staking out the greenhouse, and he planned to stay there most of the night. Stella had argued that he was needed at the Vatican, but he had simply asked her to cover his work for the night. He was, first and foremost, its defender, and the attacks on the greenhouse could, in many ways, be seen as an attack on the Vatican as well as on the city itself.
Stella had wanted him to send someone else, to assign more guards to the greenhouse, but Giovanni would not be able to rest easily until he knew who was behind these attacks. He could manage one of the cultists being behind it; he knew how to deal with that. Despite often being at odds, he at least respected Nora’s ability to keep them in line most of the time. If the attacker (or attackers) was revealed to be from her numbers then he knew she would handle it capably. What worried him more, however, was the possibility that these attackers were one of God’s own. Of course, if they were then they had turned away from God’s light, but the evil was done, and the damage it could do to the Vatican’s reputation was immense. A rogue cultist brings down the cult. Rogue Catholics…Giovanni didn’t like to think about what could happen, but it’s where his mind was stuck, wheels turning over the problem.
Giovanni rarely spoke before a congregation, despite Stella’s frequent pushing him to do so. He left that work to the priests and the new bishop, as it was their job. If the Roman Catholics were the flock, then they were the shepherds and Giovanni was…probably the sheepdog, now that he thought about it. What was he doing now if not keeping the flock in line, making sure some rogue sheep didn’t slip away from their shepherd? Capitolina would have hated the comparison. She was proud of being a wolf, always had been, but Capitolina was much older than Giovanni. Roman wolves and catholic wolves had very little in common. Still, it was a valid metaphor, he thought.
Giovanni drummed his fingers on the windowsill, his other hand propping up his head as he leaned on the edge of the window. What would he do if he found a Catholic here tonight? Well, first of all, he had no real idea if they were coming at all. Their attacks were random, the only pattern being their boldly increasing frequency. Tonight could be a complete waste, and if it was Giovanni would be right back here tomorrow night. A good hunter was patient; a good hunter could wait as long as he needed to.
If he did find a member of the flock attacking the greenhouse…well there were two things to consider. First of all the culprit would need to be punished. The Council, now the Senate, had outlined a number of potential punishments for thieves, vandals, and the like. Most of them involved putting the criminals into forced labor, working to clear rubble from streets and gather salvage materials while being kept under close supervision. Slightly more archaic but still effective was a public display. The stocks were used to publicize and humiliate petty thieves and vandals. But for this? If it really was multiple people, then it would be a conspiracy against the city. The punishment would have to be harsh, and given the intent of their crimes it would be harsher still. Execution? No, the Senate wouldn’t implement direct capital punishment, not with so few people in the sanctuary. Exile? More likely. It was execution by proxy in many respects, but it left a very real danger of the criminal returning or attacking the rangers on one of their outings.
There was more to it than punishment though. Once the law had sorted through the matter, it would be time for the Vatican to take the blow. If they were catholic, then the faith would need to make a number of public statements disavowing any connection with the criminals. If they were priests or other church officials, heaven forbid, then excommunication would be in order.
Giovanni rubbed his temples. That would be a circus and could tarnish their reputation for years. The Roman Sanctuary was still young, far too young, for a blow like this to go easily forgotten. Even if the Vatican disavowed all connections (and it surely would) the word on every Roman’s lips would be how the church attempted to kill them all over the matter of faith. A veritable disaster.
He had always tried to be self-assured, to sound confident when he insisted to Nora and Echo that there was no way one of God’s own could do this. The whole time, however, since the very first incident, he had feared that he was more bluster than substance. There was no real evidence against the idea save for Giovanni’s confidence. He liked to think it was the more volatile and diverse among the cults, more likely that one of them would go rogue and attempt to make…some kind of statement by assaulting the greenhouse. He liked to think this, even as he knew that both the Vatican and the dozen or so spreading cults were filled with people, all different and all the same.
All Giovanni knew for certain was that it needed to be stopped. This need trumped his fears and insecurity. Man or woman, Pagan or Catholic, it needed to be stopped. He was worried how it might progress if it didn’t. Already the attacks were accelerating not only in frequency but in ferocity. Glass was being broken, implements destroyed, and it would only get worse. If he waited, too afraid of the potential fallout, then how did he answer for what happened? What if they went from vandalism to arson? What if Echo or another of the workers there was assaulted? How far could it go?
It wouldn’t go any further, he decided. It ended tonight, or tomorrow night, or the night after. The next time they grew bold enough to strike he would be there to stop it. Pagan or Catholic, he would do what was necessary to search and stamp them out, root and stem.
Giovanni waited, eyes on the greenhouse as the sun’s rays vanished and the stars began to twinkle into being. It was peaceful, quiet. So many of the people were already sleeping. Without access to many lights or candles, people tended to divert to simple diurnal schedules. Giovanni, however, was a centuries old wolf. He didn’t need to sleep and the night was as welcoming to him as the day.
The world grew dark and quiet, and Giovanni continued to wait. His eyes were sharp enough to see the dark outline of the guards moving along their patrols around the garden areas. There were only three, all that could be spared, and it was far from enough. He could see the gaps in their vision, the long moments between their fields of vision that would allow a stealthy or determined trespasser to…
His ears twitched. His eyes narrowed as something moved in the darkness. He almost didn’t even recognize it at first. It was instinct, his pure predator’s sense that caught it before his mind could even register what he’d seen. A wolf’s senses were far keener than a human’s, and he was a very experienced wolf. It took less than a second to confirm, less than a second for him to be rushing out the door.
The intruder moved quickly and easily through the gaps in the guards’ patrol. He sometimes wondered why they even bothered. There were too many blind spots and not nearly enough guards. He could have waltzed in here for all the sight coverage it had. His mind was focused, much more focused than the average criminal, possessed by dark purpose as he moved to the greenhouse. He wasn’t laden with tools; there were enough loose stones and rubble to smash windows. There was a small knife in his pocket in case any of the workers were still there and he had abandoned the spray paint in favor of a small can of gasoline. The glass would break and the plants would burn. He repeated it like a mantra in his mind.
The glass would break and the plants would burn.
A noise sounded in his ears. He paused. The knife was in his hand even as his mind continued the mantra unabated. The glass would break and the plants would burn. Was it a guard? Had they caught him? No, he had done exactly as he was told. There was nothing out there to catch him.
It had been a very long time since Giovanni had last hunted something. It was unlike anything he could experience in human form. There was a thrill to it, a rush of blood through the veins and a harmony of the senses, all of the sounds, sights, and smells coming together with a single purpose in mind. He moved silently despite his size. He was used to padding through forests of sticks and leaves. His instincts were tuned to it. The quiet pavement and hard-packed earth of the farm was all but silent. His target, his prey, was clear now. It was often said a predator could smell fear. This wasn’t entirely true. A good predator, like a wolf, could smell sweat and adrenaline, could hear a heart hammering in a chest and blood pumping through veins, and he could see the light twitching and frequent itching movements indicative of fear.
It only made Giovanni more worried that this intruder, this prey, didn’t seem to feel fear at all. His heart was steady, his skin free of sweat though with the very distinct smell of old gasoline. There was something deeper still, something of an unnatural smell to him that Giovanni tried to place but couldn’t. It was familiar, but not something he encountered every day…
The intruder moved quietly towards the greenhouse, and Giovanni moved in his shadow. So far his only crime was trespassing. He could still be just a thief, as much as Giovanni doubted it. He wanted proof. He wanted to see the stone in his hand.
The intruder reached the dark greenhouse. From his pocket he produced a rock, hard and sharp, perfect for breaking glass. He weighed it in his hand, pulled back his arm, took aim…
And a force like a freight train hit him squarely in the back.
The intruder practically flew across the ground, rolling with the impact as he was scraped and cut by bushes before he landed in a heap against the wooden wall of a shed. His vision was spinning, his hand grasping from the rock he had dropped, feeling the blood running from the wound it had cut in his hand. He tried to rise, and something large and heavy hit his chest, forcing him onto his back and keeping him there.
As his vision stabilized, he saw the paw of a wolf pressed against his chest…except it was massive, as big around as a dinner plate. The rest of the wolf was just as enormous, easily larger than a horse. His eyes met the fierce glowing yellow eyes of the wolf, its muzzle bearing a row of long sharp fangs. Its body was a mass of scars and knotted muscle wrapped in matted fur. He could hear the slow and heavy breath, flowing like steam in the chill night, not just a wolf but a monster pinned him down.
Giovanni stared at the dead-eyed intruder underneath his paw. He expected shouts of fear, he expected to smell the terror coming off of him in sheets. What disturbed him more, however, was that he wanted to feel it. He wanted this man, this human, to feel the fear of being prey. How long had it been since he felt that? Not for a long time, from a darker part of his history.
As he stared into the intruder’s eyes he saw something, a haze, a lack of focus, and the slightest glow behind his eyes. Was he drugged? No, Giovanni would have sensed it. Something else was wrong. He smelled again that oddly familiar scent. This time, however, he recognized it. It was nothing that a human could have sensed, and Giovanni wasn’t sure which of his senses was registering it, but he knew it now, the odd smell of magic. The man was enchanted.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=30&sl=160 ))