April 16th, 2023
Giovanni had been roused from his slumber very early in the morning. The sun was still resting on the eastern horizon, painting the sky its many colors as pale light began to flow through the window of the room of the capital the wolves had claimed as a “den”. He was awoken by the sound of rapid footfalls even before they reached his door and knocked quickly.
Giovanni shifted back into his human form and opened the door, finding a tired Aurelio standing before him, a hunting bow of polished wood and silver etching slung over his shoulder.
“Giovanni.” He said hurriedly, clearly out of breath “Something’s happened.”
This was why Giovanni now found himself walking through the streets of Rome in the early morning with a contingent of others behind them. They had brought all the guards they could afford to spare, fifteen in all, as well as a few others they had roused from bed. Nora Newstar and Lord Albion were among them.
“One more time for the less alert among us.” Lord Albion said, glancing at Nora, who was still bleary-eyed and yawning as she walked beside them. “Tell us what you saw.”
“The cult, the Hour of the Wolf, I believe it was established as a ruse.” Aurelio said. “My time among them was shorter than I would have preferred, but never once did I see the same kind of mind-control abilities that was put upon your vandal.”
“And these robed figures?” Albion asked.
“I do not know, they seemed to be from their own cult but…they certainly did not care for the Hour of the Wolf, they had only come to slaughter all of them.”
“A cult that eats other cults…” Nora muttered groggily. “This just keeps getting better.”
“The Messenger,” Aurelio continued. “Was in truth part of this new cult. There was something in her voice…some power…I believe that she was the true cause of the mind control, and performed her actions to divert our attention towards the Hour of the Wolf.”
“If our attention was being diverted towards Hour of the Wolf…” Giovanni spoke next. “Then why target them?”
“I doubt they suspected infiltration.” Aurelio said. “If they had been successful it would seem as if the cult simply vanished or disbanded. Would any of you theorize they’d been murdered ritualistically by another cult?”
“Fair…” Giovanni admitted. It still made him uneasy. They knew crime would happen eventually, but not from this cause and not on this scale. They had thought the Hour of the Wolf, a doomsday cult with a penchant for vandalism, had been the worst. But what was waiting for them now?
“It’s right up here.” Aurelio said, as he guided them down a narrow side street.
“I suspect they’re long gone.” Albion said. “They wouldn’t stick around if there were escapees.”
“Where are the other escaped wolf cultists?” Giovanni asked.
“I couldn’t say” Aurelio said, shaking his head. “I ran straight to the capital. I can give you their names though.”
“Please do.” Giovanni growled. “We need to learn as much as we can.”
“Worshipping in an unregistered cult isn’t strictly illegal, so long as their practices weren’t.” Nora said. “If what Aurelio says is true most of these people might only be guilty of being manipulated and used.”
“A fair point.” Albion nodded with a slight smile. “But there is certainly enough to round up and question all of them to the fullest extent of the law.” Nora stayed quiet.
“Here we are.” Aurelio said, pointing down past an open pair of cellar doors. Even from outside Giovanni’s sharp nose could smell the familiar scent of human blood and dead flesh. He shivered slightly, the scent bringing back more memories than he’d prefer.
“Very well.” Giovanni said. “Aurelio, you and I will go in with ten of the guards, the rest stay here with Senator Nassar and the Pontifex.”
Slowly they made their way down into the cellar. It was a simple layout. The stairs lead into a short hall that opened into a larger chamber. Underground, though, the smell of death became that much thicker as it hung in the stagnant air. Giovanni screwed up his face at the overwhelming stench, while even Aurelio with his dulled human senses seemed to be put on edge. Taking another breath, Giovanni smelled something else in the room, something he did not recognize but nonetheless was black and foul, a hidden potency in the reek of the room.
As they stepped into the room, Aurelio’s bow at the ready and the guards carrying spears, Giovanni felt a shiver run down his spine. One of the guards backed up from the group to vomit in the corner, and the others, Aurelio included, were visibly disturbed with many turning green.
The Hour of the Wolf had been truly eradicated, and they had not died well. The room was littered with nearly two dozen corpses in various states of mutilation. All of them had been butchered with long sharp knives, many of them quite crudely. The stench of death was now almost overpowering.
Aurelio stepped lightly through the room, picking his footing carefully through the bodies as he made his way to the bloodied altar at the back of the chamber. “Ah, they’re still here, Mister Giovanni.”
Giovanni hurried over, barefoot across the ground, to join him.
There behind the altar were two bodies. One belonged to the Hour of the Wolf cult leader that Aurelio had named “Lord Mani”. His eyes were still open in a deathly stare, and his entire front was soaked with blood. Beside him was a hooded woman Giovanni didn’t recognize. Her only wound was a small bloodless hole in her robes where Aurelio’s arrow had struck her down.
“Bring down the Pontifex and the Senator.” Giovanni said to the guards, many of whom were all too eager to leave the chamber. “…but be sure to warn them!”
Soon Nora and Albion had joined them in the chamber, Nora raising her sleeve over her mouth and nose at the stench. Albion made a better show but Giovanni could still see his face contort in disgust upon entrance.
“The thought of this happening in our city” Albion said. “No more playing around. We need to have these cultists hunted down and hanged.”
“I’m normally willing to give the benefit of the doubt” Nora said. “But this is barbaric…inhuman.”
“Ritualistic” Aurelio corrected. “This wasn’t just murder, it was sacrifice.”
Giovanni glanced down and saw Aurelio pull a knife from the belt of the so-called messenger. He weighed it in his hands. It was elegantly designed, a handle of bright leather tied with black feathers, and a long straight blade of shiny black stone.
“Obsidian” Nora said, looking at the knife. “Not your everyday stabbing weapon, and ridiculously sharp as well.”
“No good in a fight though.” Aurelio said, and without another word he smashed the blade against the altar, shattering it.”
“That was evidence, you twit!” Albion shouted, hand gripping his jeweled walking stick.
“I think you have plenty enough evidence here.” Aurelio said. “Besides, this is the implement of a vicious and bloodthirsty deity. It’s my duty as a champion to see it destroyed.”
“I understand where you’re coming from, Aurelio.” Nora said, more calmly as Albion continued to quietly seethe. “But this is more important. I’m sure you’ve done Diana proud already, and once we have everything in order we’ll let people know they’re safe from the Hour of the Wolf thanks to you.”
“More thanks to a bloodthirsty cult of killers.” Albion sneered stepping towards the altar.
“Look here.” He said, pointing his stick like a teacher’s rod to the body of Lord Mani. “That ‘Messenger’ ripped this man’s heart out of his chest right through his ribs. That’s not human strength.”
He used the stick next to pull up the sleeves of the Messenger’s robes, revealing where the fair skin of her hands twisted into fearsome black claws. “I’m sure this woman was born human, but now…”
“Are you saying she’s some kind of monster?” Giovanni asked. He could still smell human on her…but that second smell, the one he’d sensed earlier, was like something foul saturated her entire body.
“Not quite.” Albion said. “Aurelio, did you feel anything odd around this Messenger?”
“Er…yes.” Aurelio nodded. “Like lightning was running down my body. It was…a bit painful but more…energetic than anything.”
“As I thought.” Albion said. “This is no monster, this is something much more sophisticated.”
“Meaning?” Asked Giovanni.
“I believe this woman is a “Messenger” in a very literal sense. She is a harbinger for the word of her deity, a proto-champion of sorts. Not as skilled or specialized as Aurelio here, but certainly containing more than a modicum of power.” He turned again to Aurelio. “That energy you felt? No doubt that was your goddess’ essence protecting you from being drawn under the sway of another. This Messenger was divinely inspired.”
“So you have a cultist, now you need to find the god.” Nora stepped forward as well, pulling back the Messenger’s hood. She appeared quite normal, even pretty. Sleek black hair tied back behind her head over slim aquiline features. Nora looked her over, rolling up her sleeves and examining her head and neck.
“She looks peaceful…” Giovanni said, a part of him angry that such a vile person seemed to have died so untroubled.
“The arrows of Diana.” Aurelio said. “They deliver death swiftly and painlessly. It is fairer to beasts, though I would be lying to say I wanted the same for her.”
Nora seemed caught up on something as she turned the Messenger’s head over to see the back of her neck.
“Hello…what’s this?” She said, mostly to herself as she leaned closer.
The rest of them crowded around, and Nora leaned back to reveal what she’d found. On the back of her neck, just below her right ear, was what appeared to be a birthmark in the shape of a butterfly.
“A birthmark?” Albion asked, incredulously.
“That’s no birthmark.” Nora said. “Look closer. That isn’t ‘shaped like’ a butterfly; that is a perfect image of a butterfly embedded in her skin. It’s not a tattoo either, it’s almost…like a brand, but not scarred in.”
“A god that likes to mark their merchandise.” Albion quipped. “How conveniently vulgar.”
“A butterfly…” Giovanni had limited knowledge of other religions and mythologies, but nothing sprang immediately to mind. “What does that mean?”
“Not exactly intimidating is it?” Albion said. “You’d expect it to be something brutish or vile, like a skull or a bleeding sword. Not something as delicate as a butterfly.”
“Not exactly” Nora said. “Butterflies have long been associated across cultures with the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as well as incarnations of the soul. To many, the butterflies are the souls of the dead.”
“So we can’t exactly narrow it down?” Giovanni asked, ears hanging low.
“Well…it’s not Greek or Roman.” Nora said. “The gods despise human sacrifice and Psyche herself is harmless as deities go…they have no real mythological significance in Egypt…I’d have to check my books, but nothing springs to mind.”
“A bloodthirsty foreign god…” Giovanni muttered. “Far worse than what we had imagined.”
“Worse than that.” Albion said. “Skoll and Hati are bloodthirsty foreign gods, but with them we knew what we were up against. This cult…this Butterfly Cult…they are not only bloodthirsty but empowered and very organized. It seems our work is only just beginning.”
“Butterfly cult…” Nora muttered. “Wait…I think I remember something.”
“Hmm?” Albion glanced at her.
“A month or so ago…when a lot of cults were still getting started, I heard a rumor about an unregistered cult. Someone found advertisements for it but they went dark not long after. I thought they just disbanded.”
“What was it called?” Giovanni asked.
“The Butterfly Shroud.” Nora said. “Sounded harmless from what I heard, a bit New-Agey and super spiritual…not a bloodthirsty murder cult.”
“It’s a start.” Aurelio said. “Though if they have ‘Messengers’ like this one…then I doubt infiltration will work.”
“This isn’t just a band of rogues and misguided fools” Giovanni said, his teeth bared. “This is an infestation that needs to be stamped out with extreme prejudice.”
“Well, if anyone can do that the Catholic Church certainly has experience.” Albion snarked wryly. Giovanni shot him a venomous look. “Though in this case I agree. This cult cannot be allowed to exist, and this god should be expelled from Italy.”
Nora, who had gone quiet, spoke up next.
“We may have a more immediately pressing concern.”
“More pressing than a murder cult?” Albion asked.
“For now, yes.” Nora said. “Thanks to Aurelio this butchery of theirs just revealed their existence to us. They’re going to go dark for a while, and if the Hour of the Wolf was built solely for this event then they won’t be planning anything on this scale for a long time. No doubt they deliberately struck when the Rangers were gone.”
“True.” Albion said. “Then what is more pressing?”
“It may have been manipulated…but look at this altar, at their organization and their secrecy…this was a legitimate cult in the eyes of a divinity. These people really did worship Skoll and Hati.”
“Your point being?”
Nora fixed a hard-eyed look at both Albion and Giovanni. “I don’t think Skoll and Hait are going to take having their entire cult butchered very well.”
For a moment, the silence was so absolute Giovanni could have sworn all their hearts skipped a beat.
“Shit.” Albion abandoned his usual gentile demeanor for a second before composing himself. “Well done, Pontifex. You’ve convinced me. A pair of sky-devouring wolves out for revenge is indeed much worse than a murder cult sent temporarily back into the shadows.”
“What do we do?” Nora asked, and for a moment all eyes turned to Giovanni.
He was at a loss. He had hoped that within the next few days the Hour of the Wolf would be disbanded and peace would return to the city. Instead they now had something much worse lurking in Rome, and a second terror no doubt already coming their way from the distant north.
He took a deep breath and addressed the three of them.
“For now, we gather up the remaining hour of the Wolf cultists for questioning and learn all we can. We announce the disbandment of their cult. Word of this Butterfly Shroud CANNOT be allowed to spread as long as we can keep it secret.”
“Keeping secrets from the people of Rome…” Nora muttered, but Giovanni overran her.
“It’s not ideal but news like this could tear the city apart.” He said. “We do all we can to hunt them from the shadows. Aurelio, you’ll be helping us with that.”
“I would not have it any other way.” He said.
“As for Skoll and Hati…” Giovanni considered his options. The weight of the situation pressed down heavily on his shoulders as his face turned dark. He had always acted on his own before but now? “…I have to inform Capitolina. She has as much a claim to the title of Defender of the City as I. We’ll take care of it.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa