April 9th, 2023
The new Shrine to Diana in Rome had only been erected several weeks before. Her cult was a small one, reportedly popular among the Rangers but few else. Rome was a city for scavenging, not hunting. Unless you were a skilled monster hunter, there was little need for a god like Diana in Rome.
Still she, like so many others, had found a place in the hearts and minds of the Roman people. Her cult numbered around thirty, more than half of whom were at that moment across the sea in Sicily, meaning that for many hours of the day the shrine was deserted.
The shrine itself was simple. A small altar of stone carved by a former mason with images of does and arrows sat in the center of an artificial grotto. Topsoil and sod had been reclaimed to build an enclosed artificial garden, though it was presently little more than grass and the odd weed. The original plans had called for something that would have positioning decided by the movement of the moon, like how the ancient Egyptians had built their pyramids by stellar positioning. However, between a lack of available astronomers or precision equipment and zoning restrictions by the senate, the shrine had been set up in this small lot that they could collectively afford.
Altogether it was a sorry sight indeed. The shrines to Jupiter and Mars (the House of Mars insisted on their independence from the smaller Ares Cult) were quite large, and had been given choice positioning within the plans for the grand temple that was to be built. Even Thor’s shrine put theirs to shame. Of course, it was partially a matter of press and sponsorship. The House of Mars was sponsored by Capitolina herself, though there was a rumor that the wolf preferred the Mithraic Mysteries, and was merely backing the cult most evocative of ancient Rome. Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar was the darling of the Egyptians, and thus the House of the Sun had not only expanded but diversified into smaller sub-cults, with the cult of Isis-Ra in particular rapidly gaining traction. The Lady of Love was popular of course. Sex and sensuality always sold and Venus knew her customers well, something to which the chaste followers of Diana were opposed.
Though numerous rangers were outspoken in their faith, what continued to be a real blow to their popularity was a lack of endorsement from either Ranger-General Hanne or star ranger Hildegard Jazheil, both of whom had eschewed a particular cult in favor of a pro-Roman Unity message. It was a savvy political move to keep the government undivided, but it was irritating to the cult that dedicated itself to the hunt.
While all of this mattered to Diana’s thirty-odd cultists and worshippers, none of it mattered to her champion as he stepped into the empty shrine. It was almost a half-moon, not an ideal time to beseech the goddess, but the moonlight was plentiful enough for it to matter. Aurelio stepped silently across the short grass towards the altar, numerous offerings and burned out candles still covering its surface. Though they worshipped a common deity, Aurelio had never really joined the Cult of Diana. It had felt…awkward somehow. The thirty of them had built this cult from nothing but their faith and Aurelio felt no desire to come as a stranger and become their new face, at least not without proving himself worthy of praise in Rome first. That was where the wolf Giovanni’s plan came in.
Aurelio, however, still had its doubts it would work. He was stealthy certainly, but not an infiltrator or spy. He wasn’t sure he knew how to lie well or maintain his cover if he was to try and enter what sounded like a very small and exclusive cult. Worst of all, they were a brainwashing cult, and he needed to know if his mind was steel enough to resist the charms and enchantments with which they might try to ply him. For a person to be entranced was terrible. For a champion to fall, the results might very well be catastrophic.
Aurelio kneeled before the altar, his eyes closed as he placed the bow of silver-lined wood upon its surface, trying to recall the feeling of being in Diana’s presence and using that to call out to her again.
“You called, champion?”
Aurelio opened his eyes and lifted his gaze. Diana, in the splendor he had seen before, sat before him on top of the altar, her legs crossed as she reclined lazily, propped up by one arm, the fingers of her free hand wrapped around the tip of an arrow so pure a white it looked like a piece of the moon.
She looked the same as she had the night he had first met her, which was to say unspeakably beautiful, and he rapidly bowed his head again upon meeting her falcon-like gaze.
“You may rise. I am curious as to why you called, curious enough to interrupt a hunt.”
Diana deliberately took her time enunciating those last few words, and Aurelio knew enough to hang his head even as he rose to his feet.
“Forgive me the interruption, my lady, I merely had a few questions I felt only you could answer.”
As he spoke, he heard the soft sound of bell-like giggling coming from behind him. He turned and saw a small entourage of women, all crowded together and watching him with a cheery interest, and together they laughed again as he looked at them. All of them were dressed for hunting, and all of them were astonishingly beautiful in their own distinct way.
A sudden force took hold of Aurelio’s chin and snapped his vision back to Diana.
“You will keep those lowly eyes on me, Champion.”She said irritably. “Now tell me what it is you wished to know.”
“Of course, my lady.” Said Aurelio apologetically, trying to ignore the tittering behind him. No doubt that was Diana’s hunting entourage, and he knew he should be grateful that a scolding was all he got for looking askance at them.
Pulling his thoughts together, Aurelio continued. “Upon arriving in Rome, one of its leaders, a wolf named Giovanni, requested my aid in a task, one that will earn me quite some renown here in Rome.”
“Oh?” Diana’s interest was piqued as her thin eyebrows rose. “What sort of task would he ask of my champion?”
“He wants me to infiltrate a cult; they call themselves the Hour of the Wolf. Apparently they’ve been bewitching their members and using them to commit crimes in the city. He wants me to go into the cult and learn their secrets so they can be routed and destroyed.”
“And this is a problem for you?” She seemed almost bored by his description, the interest falling from her face. Aurelio spoke quickly in reply, not wanting to irritate her further.
“There are only two questions I had, my lady.” He said. “First I need to know if being your champion affords me some protection against enchantment.”
“Well of course.” Diana said, nonplussed. “You are infused with my divine power. I have ownership over your living soul. No mortal magic could pull your mind from me and no other god would dare try to encroach upon my territory.”
Aurelio was a mixture of relieved and concerned. He was happy that the Hour of the Wolf could not take his mind away, but he was not sure how much he cared for Diana’s wording. It made him sound less like a champion and more like a slave.
“What else did you wish to ask?” Her tone made it clear she was growing bored with the conversation, so Aurelio did not hesitate to speak.
“Simply put, my lady.” He said. “I am not sure if I am right for this job. It is the task for a spy or an informant, not a hunter. If he asked me to watch the night and kill every member of this cult…well I’m not sure I would but that would certainly be more like what I’m used to. Stealth is easy for me, but infiltration and deception less so.”
Diana sighed, worrying him at first, but his worry was eased by the slight smile she gave him afterwards.
“Champion, you underestimate both me and you. Your foolish humbleness and modesty is enough that I will ignore the slight against me.”
“It is true that I took you as my champion for our hunting prowess. And you used those same skills to great effect against the hideous Witchbreed. However, you are more than capable of destroying this Hour of the Wolf from within.”
“How, my lady, if I may ask?”
Diana laughed. It was not a cruel nor heartless laugh, but it was still cold, and not entirely pleasant to the ears. It fit her stern and pointed build.
“Because this is still a hunt, my champion. It is a very different kind of hunt, but a hunt nonetheless. When you stalk a wolf in the forest, do you know from the start where it keeps its lair?”
“No, my lady.”
“Do you know where to find the wolf from the moment you first pass the trees?”
“No my lady.” He knew he was being patronized, but given her tone he likely deserved it.
“You will hunt down this cult like a wolf in the forest. Trace by trace, waiting for the lightest smell or sight, patience and endurance to find the most secretive of quarry. Then you will find their base, and you shall slither in like a shadow moving in plain sight. The wolf does not know its hunter is there until you release the arrow, and so too shall you wait for the opportune moment. Your deceptions and your lies shall be the bramble and the leaves that hide you from hungry eyes. Your words and actions will be your arrows. It is a different kind of hunt, my Champion, but make no mistake it is absolutely still a hunt between a predator and its quarry.”
Aurelio bowed his head low. “Thank you for the perspective, my lady. I will not disappoint you.”
“I should hope not.” Diana muttered. “Though should you need my wisdom, you need only call.”
Though it was an open offer, her earlier words meant it carried the implicit order not to summon her needlessly.
“You seem to have found the decent place for it.”She said, glancing around. “The shrine is…disappointing, but they try.”
“They appear to, yes.”
“And why have you not joined them?” She asked, and Aurelio trembles slightly at her words.
“Well I umm…” He stuttered, trying to find the most convincing answer. “I feel…though I am your champion…I haven’t done enough or met their devotion…I don’t want to be their figurehead without earning something other than your grace…of which I am very appreciative!”
“I’m sure.” Diana frowned. “It is a reason, if a poor one. A better lie would have been to claim you could join no cult before infiltrating the Hour of the Wolf. When you help destroy them, you shall publicly declare yourself my champion and in turn take your place within this cult. They will need the publicity, and you do them a disservice by separating yourself from them.”
“I will do as you ask, my lady.” Aurelio bowed his head once more.
“See that you do.” She said impatiently. “Now then, let us be off.”
It took Aurelio a moment to realize she was talking to her entourage of nymphs, all of whom passed him as they followed Artemis. She stepped off the altar and walked away from him, vanishing into the night air without a trace, several of them winking and giving Aurelio flirtatious glances as they passed before they too vanished from sight, leaving him red-faced and flustered in the night.
It had not been a particularly comfortable meeting, but it had been worthwhile. Full of fresh confidence, Aurelio took his bow from the altar and walked back onto the city streets. The hunt was on, and he had a lot of work to do.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=47&sl=880 ))