April 15th, 2023
A hushed silence had fallen over the gathering of the Hour of the Wolf. Around thirty cultists, hardly even a crowd, all collected in this small hall. It was one of their “temples”; it was, in truth, a glorified basement in the city outskirts large enough to hold them all. The walls were brick, decorated with banners covered in artful images of wolves consuming circles. At the head of this hall was an altar where the cult leader usually stood. Everyone present was hooded, either through a simple hooded coat or sweatshirt. There were those that went the full distance to cover themselves in long elaborate cloaks with shadowy cowls. The hall was lit with several lanterns, adding a flickering shadow presence to the place that aided in its foreboding nature. There was a strong smell of dampness and earth that pervaded it at all times. If there truly was an underworld, Aurelio imagined it would be something like this.
This was the third such meeting that he had attended. Others had been smaller congregations of only a dozen or so scattered throughout Rome. Aurelio never knew when they would meet next until mere hours before the meeting itself, and that had stopped him from tracking them down sooner.
The Cult’s Leader, who had adopted the name Lord Mani, was as enigmatic a figure as the cult itself. Aurelio had only managed to track him after the last such meeting, following him back to the small apartment he kept. It would have been enough to bring him in, he knew. No doubt if he told the Senate what he had found they would demand it. Aurelio, however, had decided to continue hunting. Someone else was pulling Lord Mani’s strings.
It was this messenger that sent Aurelio’s mind stirring. This figure mentioned only in whispers that Aurelio had never even seen. Lord Mani took orders directly from him, but even after tracking him for half a day Aurelio had never seen him interact with anyone else. It was possible of course that the Messenger simply didn’t exist. Aurelio had entertained the notion for a few days. This meeting, however, had all of the gathered cultists abuzz with excitement.
The Messenger would arrive and speak to them.
“Isn’t this exciting, Kenneth?” A woman beside him asked, and Aurelio turned to look at Corella, or at least she called herself that. Most cultists took second identities, but Aurelio knew Corella from the start to be the earnest type, and figured she might use her actual name. Kenneth, of course, was Aurelio’s own false identity.
He had been kind and outgoing to Corella, who in turn had offered him a great deal of information on the cult. She was kind and motherly, being somewhere in her late-forties, but Aurelio knew that no matter how kindly they seemed, he was alone in a true den of wolves, and his disguise could falter at any moment.
“Absolutely” Aurelio nodded with feigned interest. “The Messenger herself? How exciting.”
“The Promised Time is soon at hand! I’m sure of it!” She squealed, hands clasped in excitement.
Aurelio smiled with a nod as his insides curled in disgust.
The Promised Time. That was the crux of this entire cult. It was in the Old Norse legends that Skoll and Hati would consume the sun and moon, casting the world into darkness as their father Fenrir ate Odin whole. This was all to be part of Ragnarok, the almost ritualistic death of the world. Nidhoggr, the dragon of Yggdrassil, was the herald of this apocalypse, and these people…these cultists…had themselves deluded in the belief that their Ragnarok was ongoing, that the world would end and one needed to ‘go with the winning side’ as it were in order to survive into the next.
Aurelio had tried to empathize with them. Most of the people gathered, if Lord Mani’s rhetoric was to be believed, had lost everything in the Days of Revelation, and were afraid of what awaited them in the world beyond at the hands of fickle and newly-risen gods. Some were convinced that unless they rapidly earned the favor of another god, the Catholic Hell was all that awaited them.
They had, however, chosen the most cowardly way out. They chose life, at the price of the death of everyone else on Earth. It was a core part of their doctrine that most of the world must be purged so that they might survive. It was cowardly, and earned them none of Aurelio’s sympathy. They were at best only one step better than the Witchbreed, even Corella.
“Brothers and sisters!” Lord Mani’s voice cut the light chatter that had filled the chamber as he took his place before the altar, and old wooden table covered in carved runes, raw meat placed as offerings upon it.
“You have waited. You have been patient. And now our moment is at hand! I have received direct word from the Messenger!”
A twinge ran up Aurelio’s spine. It had become almost routine for him now, every time Lord Mani or whoever was speaking said “the Messenger” something like a minor jolt of electricity ran through his body. At first he had thought it was nerves, now however he knew it was something supernatural at work. As he glanced around, at the sound of the word everyone drew almost simultaneous breaths of exaltation.
“Tonight the Messenger…” There it was again, the same twinge of electricity, the same deep breath “…will stand before us! They will speak to us and announce the Promised Time is soon to be at hand! And we will cavort in the shadows cast by the twin Lords Skoll and Hati! Then we shall know it for the Hour of the Wolf!”
At this, the gathered cultists threw back their heads and howled, the sound bouncing into a cacophony off the thick walls of the chamber until the noise vibrated throughout his body. Aurelio reluctantly following suit.
Lord Mani continued to speak, more a rant than sermon, of the coming darkness and the death of all those who failed to believe, their souls at the mercy of the pitiless gods they had cowered to.
Aurelio could not help but feel a twinge of anger, though he didn’t let it show on his face. Part of it may have been his nature as a champion reviling a man who could speak so low of Lady Diana.
But he had seen Diana himself, had spoken to her and accepted her charge. She was aloof and distant, as was appropriate for a goddess, but she was generous with her rewards and far from what he would call cruel. She was beautiful, radiant, and a true goddess in every respect. Hearing her so disrespected made him want to launch an arrow clear through Mani’s tainted heart.
He kept his breath calm and his face stony, however. Tonight was too important to waste on urges. A hunter had patience.
“I shall not make you wait any longer!” Lord Mani finally said, to the hushed excitement of his gathered congregation. Aurelio drew in a deep breath, preparing himself.
“I present to you now, the messenger!” He raised his hand, pointing it past the crowd to the entrance behind them. The gathered cultists turned, Aurelio among them, and saw a figure, wrapped and shrouded in a voluminous cloak and robe, a long hood casting their face in shadow. Rather than the rough cloaks and street clothes of the cultists, the messenger wore ornate robes of deep violet silk that wrapped around their body, flowing like draped wings.
The crowd parted as they passed, and Aurelio could smell an unusual scent coming off of them, almost like flowers. They stepped lightly and silently forward, unimpeded by the crowd as they moved to take the space over the altar as Lord Mani stepped aside.
There was a moment in silence, and then the Messenger spoke.
Instantly Aurelio felt a powerful surge of energy run through his body. The Messenger spoke with command, a woman’s voice, as she addressed the gathered crowd before her. Something was wrong, however. Aurelio struggled to keep himself still as what felt like electricity coursed through every fiber of his body. It was the same feeling as one Lord Mani spoke of the messenger, but magnified by a thousand as it made him want to twitch and spasm where he stood, only sheer force of will keeping his body still.
What on Earth was happening to him?
“Hour of the Wolf,” she addressed them. Her voice. It had to be her voice. Everyone else in the room was staring at her, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“You have done much and waited patiently. You have seen past the false comforts of fickle gods and known that only fire awaited this world, so you made preparations for the next.”
The room was completely silent save for her voice. For a moment, Aurelio wondered if anyone else was even breathing.
“Your faith is strong and your cause is righteous. Each of you have given to the wolves. You have given your faith, your time, your sweat and your tears.”
There was a long pause, and the silence so absolute Aurelio could feel his heartbeat drumming in his ears.
“Save for one.”
There was a simultaneous gasp, a truly unnerving sound as if the air had been sucked from the room.
“You have been infiltrated. Deceived. A lamb now walks boldly among the wolves.”
Aurelio stood his ground, if he moved now…
“It matters not.”
Aurelio could not help but stare I surprise, an expression mirrored as the cultists seemed to break from their trance for the first time, glancing in confusion at one another.
“For the true rites shall be performed, and the lamb shall be sacrificed along with the wolves.”
The hairs on the back of Aurelio’s neck stood on end. He turned, risking his position, and stared as he saw that others had come in behind the Messenger, all of them wrapped in long concealing robes, though none as ornate as hers. His instincts told him what it was before his rational mind had time. The secluded basement with one entrance. The secret meeting place. A crowd of people without family or loved ones.
This wasn’t a trap for Aurelio. It was a trap for the entire cult.
“There is no promised time for you. Only endless night beneath a Black Sun.”
He took a deep breath, steadying his heart in those last few moments he had before all hell broke loose. They had caught a hunter in their wolf trap, and he would not be taken lightly.
A scream behind him, Corella’s, he turned and saw a sight that made his blood run cold. The Messenger’s hand had come free of her sleeve, revealing fingers sharpened into blackened claws. Without a moment to react, she plunged her hand up to the wrist into Lord Mani’s chest, blood spattering across her robes as he stared down in shock at the hand plunged inside of him.
Aurelio’s next movements could not be timed even in seconds. He turned once more to the new robed figures that blocked the exit. He raised his arm to shoulder-height, hand outstretched as the silverwood bow Diana had enchanted appeared in his hand, an arrow that glowed like moonlight already drawn. He exhaled and fired.
The bow was noiseless as the arrow was released, the shaft striking the figure closest to the door square in the chest. Aurelio didn’t have to look to know he was dead before he hit the ground, such were the arrows delivered from a bow blessed by Diana. He knew he had perhaps another two seconds before all hell broke loose, and used the time to draw another arrow and release it at a second figure. Already they were beginning to act, hands going into folds of robes to draw knives of shining black. There were at least a dozen, and Aurelio needed to get past them all.
He thought of the cultists, nearly thirty people no doubt about to be butchered like sheep. A cruel death and a pointless one, but if he stayed to fight in quarters like these then he would simply die with the rest of them, a pointless end.
Still, to simply leave them all to die, cowardly as they were.
“Everyone! Run!” He shouted, his contribution to the rising crescendo of screams and shouts as the robed figures moved forward. A few, at least, seemed to take him at his word as a throng of cultists surged forward to the door, Aurelio at their head.
One robed figure rushed to meet him, knife ready, dark eyes hungry. He stabbed, Aurelio lowered his bow and grabbed the man’s wrist with his free hand, stopping his knife and twisting it away with a spine-tingling crack. Weapons were not the only gift’s given to a champion.
The man screamed in pain, causing a few of his hooded fellows to hold back, which gave the hour of the Wolf cultists the momentum they needed to push through to the door. Aurelio ran with them, his feet rushing to the stairs and beyond them the crisp night air.
“Help” He stopped and turned. Corella, last of the group to run, had been grabbed by two of the hooded figures. She stared at him, eyes pleading, and behind her Aurelio could see the crowd of remaining terrified cultists being encircled by the figures. The bulk of their number still remained behind fresh for a sacrifice, the messenger standing above them, clutching in her hand something bleeding red.
A month ago, had he been in that dark forest in North Italy alone, he would have turned back to the door and run for freedom. There was nothing for him here, no reason to stay and every reason to leave. Even now he knew he had to run if he wanted to make it out alive. Now, however, in this damp basement in Rome, he was not alone, and the Champion of Diana had one last shot to make.
He raised his bow, drawing in his breath as another shaft of silver moonlight flowed from his fingertips. He held his breath steady, muscles flexing as he drew back the taught bowstring. He released his breath as he took aim, his heartbeat steady and calm.
The arrow flew, noiselessly, like a shaft of pure light. It whipped through Corella’s hair harmlessly, flying past the robed figures who promptly dropped her in surprise, giving her time to scramble into another run. It flew over the heads of the terrified cultists and instead ran itself clean through the heart of the Messenger.
Once more there was silence, but now Aurelio felt that electricity that had coursed through him fade, replaced only with grim satisfaction as he turned and ran to the exit, escaping into the triumphant moonlight over Rome.
The Hunter had made his kill.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa