April 6th, 2023
Giovanni had isolated himself in a small office in their makeshift capital on the Capitoline Hill. The only other person sharing the small room was Stella, sitting quietly across from him at the bare table, the room’s only other feature being the windows that let the evening sun drift in.
Giovanni had been reading in silence for over an hour, though truthfully he had finished reading in the first ten minutes and had spent the rest of the time thinking, his mind working over the information he had been given. In his hands were the final reports from the interrogation of the arsonist and vandal that Giovanni had captured. The entire case had been setting new precedents from the start. How did the new government treat criminals? How would they be punished? How did one determine the level of enchantment and deal with those acting under the compulsion of magic?
Giovanni had worked closely with Capitolina and the Senate to determine the answers to those questions. Though they were in many ways emulating ancient Rome, Capitolina relented on a softer and more modern approach to investigation and punishment. First they had needed answers from him. After consulting with Lord Nassar, the mage had assured them that the enchantments on the man could be broken fairly easily, but he might lose the memories of what he had done while under its sway.
Giovanni had not been present at the interrogation, though he had sent a Catholic representative to ensure ethics were maintained. Giovanni had no intention of letting the Church or the State slip back into old habits of torture as a means to extract information. From what he read in the transcript, that position had been thankfully maintained. With the enchantment in place, the vandal was difficult to intimidate, but it was not hard to cajole him into revealing more about his would-be cult than might have been prudent.
The Hour of the Wolf, as they called it, was an unaffiliated Norse cult that met in secret somewhere in the reclaimed sections of the city. They were characterized by the report as something of a “Doomsday Cult” trying to bring about the true end of the world on the hope or promise that they might be spared. According to them, the Days of Revelations were merely the forerunner to an oncoming and more final end of life on earth. Giovanni was not unfamiliar with the concept. There were rumors of Doomsday cults in every religion including his own. There were small bands of those waiting for the trumpets of Revelations to blow and for the armies of light and darkness to clash at the field of Armageddon. Giovanni and the Bishop had done what they could to quash those cults before they took hold. As a centralized religious power it wasn’t hard to do, but the cults were divided and small with little authority over one another save for Nora’s stern guidance. He had his issues with the woman but he had to admit she could be effective when she put the effort into it.
After gathering everything they could, Lord Nassar had worked to break the enchantment on the man. From what he had said, it was no simple Western Thaumaturgy but rather a complex sort of advanced hypnosis unlike any he had seen before. It had taken him over a day to find a proper ritual to reverse its effects, meaning whatever was behind it was either powerful or very old, possibly both. Lord Nassar said that had the enchantment been done by a modern mage he could have broken it in under a minute, but whatever force compelled the man had been smart and elusive, as they still had no idea what had put the spell in place.
With the enchantment broken it was time now to interrogate the man again and determine what punishment he deserved. Once again, the mages of Rome proved their use. Abigail, it seemed, was not only an adept healer but could use her talents over the human body to act as a living lie detector. It was not a perfect process, but it had been sufficient to extract what they needed.
The man had revealed his name to be Dante Coribiani, a tanner who had worked an honest job in the city producing the leather for cobblers and other leatherworkers. Those living near him corroborated his story and indicated their surprise at his actions, painting him as an honest and virtuous man. According to Dante, he had been approached by the Hour of the Wolf and offered a place in one of their meetings. Dante said he had never been a devoutly Catholic man and felt that, the world being what it was, all the cults deserved a fair shake and he had decided to attend. After arriving at their meeting location he lost memory of what had happened to him, save for a feeling of total bliss and understanding. He showed genuine shock and horror at his actions and begged for mercy in his trial, having been compelled entirely against his will.
According to Abigail, all of his testimony was true, or at least he believedit was. There might have been other forces at work, or he could have been a truly phenomenal liar. Either way, the evidence to his innocence was there, but so was the danger of retaliation if he was to be released. As a result he was kept in holding in a locked room under guard a few floors below where Giovanni sat now, in the basement of the capitol.
Rangers had been deployed to where the meeting house had been, but it was long deserted by the time they arrived there. No doubt the cult was still small and exceedingly mobile. There were countless rooms still empty in newly-reclaimed portions of the city where a small gathering could hide for their perverse rituals, and if they were brainwashing with magic now…
Giovanni lowered the files onto the table and rose from his chair. The sound of the chair legs grinding on the wood floors startled Stella from where she had been snoozing.
“W-wha-?” She said, brushing aside the hair that had fallen over her face as she tried to pretend she had been awake. “I mean…yes, Mister Giovanni?”
“I’m surer than ever.” He said. “We need someone on the inside to deal with this cult, someone resilient who can infiltrate them without falling under their sway or enchantment.”
“That’s a pretty tall order, sir.” She said. “Everyone knows who the mages in the city are for the most part, and you said only a mage could resist the brainwashing.”
“As far as I know.” He corrected her. “Did you get the list I asked you for?”
“Yes of course.” She said, as she pulled from her clipboard a list of several dozen names. “These are all of the new refugees to come in the last month and their primary skills. Many of those who came in the last two weeks are still being sorted and living in state housing.”
In truth, everyone was living in state housing. They didn’t have anything resembling an economy to allow privatized housing quite yet. A new refugee lived in somewhat squalid conditions on the outer areas of the Sanctuary until they found a position in which they could support both themselves and betterment of the state. Once they got a job. they were moved to more permanent housing.
“Very good, Stella.” He said, taking the list from her and began reading down the names and skills. He highly doubted he would find a listing under “mage”. He tended to leave Nassar’s self-proclaimed Mage’s Guild the job of seeking them out. All he needed was something that might resist enchantment.
His eyes paused near the bottom of the list, one of the most recent arrivals had an asterisk by his name with a small scribbled note saying “Check with Newstar”. Giovanni went through the rest of the list and didn’t find anything else particularly noteworthy and continued to find his eyes drawn back to that one name: Aurelio Furlan, occupation listed as “Hunter”.
“Stella” Giovanni said. “Can you tell me anything about this Aurelio Furlan? Have you heard anything?”
“No sir.” She shook her head. Giovanni went back to the paper, his eyes stuck on the name. “I would like to speak with him very much I think.”
“Very well, I can have something arranged…” Stella began to say, looking at her clipboard before Giovanni started striding to the door, leaving her to quickly gather up the papers and follow in his wake.
“No, I think I will see to it now.” He said calmly as he exited the room.
It took Giovanni several hours to locate Aurelio Furlan. The temporary housing was always in a state of semi-disarray as people moved in and out with alarming regularity. While the people here didn’t live in squalor (and it was far better than spending their nights in the streets with monsters), the rooms tended to be more cramped with people and what belongings they had carried, all of them waiting for the news that a new place and a fresh start had been found for them.
Aurelio Furlan was a youngish man, looking no more than twenty-five, with light hair and green eyes. He had a lean runner’s build and lived in a relatively humble setting, with few belongings wearing him down or filling up the space of the small room he owned in the apartment he split with four others. He seemed kind enough, though rather quiet as Giovanni asked him to take a walk out into the street so they could talk in a less confined setting. As they walked, Giovanni noticed Stella passing a number of sidelong glances to Aurelio. It gave him a small smirk. She wasn’t quite a nun yet and was still of the age where indulging her eyes in handsome young men was usual.
“The list of newcomers says you are a hunter, Aurelio.” Giovanni said as they stepped out into the orange light of the setting sun.
“That I am.” Aurelio said. “One of the best in northern Italy.”
“A hunter of what, precisely?” Giovanni asked as they set off down the street, Stella in pursuit.
“Well for most of my life simply game. Now though…I would call myself a hunter of monsters and monstrous men. In fact it is why I came to Rome, in part at least. I wanted to warn our Senate of the danger monsters like the Witchbreed might possess.”
“Witchbreed?” Giovanni asked, ears perking up.
“They are men and women who have given up their souls for power and now use it to desecrate the forests with their twisted magic. It was Lady Diana’s will that I use my power and her gifts to see to their extermination.”
“Lady Diana?” Giovanni said, unable to keep a frown off of his face. “The Goddess of the Moon and Hunt?”
“Yes.” Aurelio nodded. “She blessed me with power as her champion.”
Giovanni had more mixed feelings about this mission the longer it went on, but he knew that the work they did for Rome was more important than the Catholic Faith alone.
“Then I have a proposition for you.” Giovanni said. “I am close with the Bishop on the Senate as well as acting Consul Capitolina. If you aid us in our investigation then I will ensure your voice is heard on the Senate.”
It would take some difficult bargaining, but Giovanni had never been one to call in his favors before. The Senate would listen if he could bring them results.
“Investigation into what, precisely?” Aurelio asked, a hint of suspicion in his voice.
“There is a cult in the city that is brainwashing members that it forcibly inducts with magic and compels them to commit crimes. We thought only a mage could best their enchanting, but if you are blessed by a…goddess,” He really did hate using the term. “Then you might be able to best it as well and infiltrate their cult undiscovered.”
“I can’t say it’s like anything I’ve done before.” Aurelio said. “More espionage than hunting, isn’t it?”
“You’re the best man for the job, I’m afraid.” Giovanni said. “And as I said the reward for helping us bring this cult to justice will be substantial to your own cause, not to mention gaining you proper standing in the city.”
“Well…I suppose I can agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement.” Aurelio smiled. “Very well, I will help you weed out this cult of yours.”
“Excellent” said Giovanni. Already he was planning their next few steps. How to get Aurelio into position and into the cult. It would take time and cunning, but already the end was drawing closer for the Hour of the Wolf.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=42&sl=643 ))