April 18th, 2023
The early morning mist had not yet begun to settle on the grass of the rolling hills. The still morning calm remained unbroken save for the light calls of the morning birds and the odd patch of sunlight that broke through the thin shield of clouds overhead. The fields of long grass surrounded them, broken only by the odd rocky outcropping and the distant tame forests of central Italy. To their south was the Lago di Bracciano, a vast flat surface of water that shone a flat blue-grey in the morning stillness.
Here, just past the crack of dawn, Capitolina Lupa and the Wolf of Gubbio waited for the coming storm. Both of them had abandoned human form. Capitolina was the larger of the two of them, a tall and powerful she-wolf of monstrous size, over four meters at the shoulder and covered in fine orange-red hair flecked with white and grey. She sat, seemingly idle, on her side, legs stretched out as her eyes stared fixedly at the North. To most she would seem entirely peaceful, but Giovanni’s finer senses could feel the tenseness in her body, see the flickering movements in her ears and the watchfulness in her eyes. She was as ready as he was.
Giovanni, conversely, made no attempts to hide his own tension. He was standing up, hackles slightly raised as he stared towards the north, the rays of sun in the eastern sky catching in his coal-black fur, matted and irregular where old scars ran across his flesh.
Both of them knew, from their lupine senses and a deeper more spiritual knowing, that this was the path by which the sons of Fenrir would come on their way to Rome. Both of them had protected Italy for centuries, millennia in Capitolina’s case, and today was no different. They had stood against mortal armies and lesser hostile spirits time and time again as Giovanni protected the faithful and Capitolina had defended her city, but neither of them had faced a foe like this. Gods had come and gods had gone in search of worshippers, but now two divine wolves were coming in search of vengeance, and the two of them were all that stood in their path.
Skoll and Hati. Giovanni had only recently learned the names. Sons of Fenrir the Devourer, grandsons of Loki the Norse trickster god. Between them they would devour the Sun and Moon, casting the world into darkness as their father devoured Odin, Lord of the Aesir.
In comparison, Giovanni the Wolf of Gubbio was noticeably lacking in titles.
In a straight fight Giovanni did not like their odds. They were all spirits, wolves more powerful and more intelligent than simple beasts, but not all spirits were created equal. Skoll and Hati were god-slaying beasts of legends. Giovanni had simply hounded a single village as a monster while Capitolina carried the strength of ancient Rome’s kings and armies. Strong to be sure, but not nearly so strong as the beings they were to face.
But what choice did they have?
“Here they come.” Capitolina said, eyes watchful of the horizon. Her senses were sharper than his, as it took another few minutes before his nose and eyes caught what hers had.
The sky to the north had begun to darken, thick clouds rolling in to obscure the sun as the moon retreated below the horizon. Sol and Mani, the Norse called them, while Giovanni and Capitolina preferred Sol and Luna. Both of them had fled at the sight of the wolves, far from home but forever at the heels of the celestial orbs. Giovanni felt a shiver run down his spine as his coarse hairs stood one end. He could not say his presence had ever caused a shift in the sky before.
Capitolina rose to her feet, tense but not as apprehensive as Giovanni. How many times before had the wolf of Rome defended her homeland from foreign armies, Giovanni wondered to himself; had she waited like this as Hannibal crossed the Alps or when the Visigoths marched to Rome? Had she waited Caesar’s returning legions with fangs bared or had she walked in secret beside him as he marched to Rome?
Giovanni smiled as much as his wolfish muzzle allowed. Knowing her, she had certainly sided with Caesar.
Giovanni had hunted foreign and pagan spirits in his time, remnants of old gods that had been found disenfranchised with the fall of Rome, but nothing like this. After the Days of Revelation, power was firmly in the hands of monstrous spirits such as this. He stood beside Capitolina, however, as Rome was theirs to protect.
The wolves appeared as if out of a thunderstorm; from roiling clouds and dark shadows they pulled themselves into being across the field from the Roman wolves, having seen their challenge and deemed it worthy of their attention.
True to their fame and their legend, the wolves that took shape across the hill were massive in size, dwarfing the Italian wolves who could already be considered monstrous in their own right. The wolves, identical in size and shape, stood at least seven meters at the shoulder, casting long dark shadows on the ground even in the pale cloudy light.
One of them, Giovanni guessed Skoll, was covered from snout to tail in blackened fur the color of burned wood save for his eyes which shone a very pale yellow, almost a blind white. The other, Hati, was so pale he appeared almost white, the tips of his hairs seeming to glow in the dark, and his eyes a deep and malevolent black. Both were identically powerful, their legs and shoulders bulging with muscle from their endless pursuit, their very beings radiating power not unlike that of the spirits who called themselves gods.
“It seems we’ve been challenged, brother.” The pale one, Hati, announced as they stepped towards them, great padded legs silent as they bent the grass beneath them. His voice was deep, an echoing base note as he announced their presence.
“Do the little wolves take offense that we have walked into their territory unannounced?” Skoll laughed darkly, a chuckle that sounded like rolling thunder, before speaking again, voice as deep as his brother’s. “Do they know who it is they face? Skoll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, sons of Giants, wolves, and gods. The Sun and Moon Eaters. We have business in the southern city you call Rome, and we have little patience for obstacles in our path.”
“That southern city is my city.” Capitolina announced herself, stepping forward to meet them, undaunted by their size. “I am Lupa Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, mother to Romulus and Remus. This city and its lands are under my protection, and I will not let them be your hunting grounds.”
Hati cackled as she spoke. “Ah, see brother how the fertile southern lands make the people fat and the wolves small for want of hard prey.” He turned to Giovanni. “And who is this scrap of a wolf? Your mate?”
Giovanni bared his teeth, stepping forward to join Capi. “Hardly, you will find more than one wolf that defends this land. I am the Wolf of Gubbio, and I will not be intimidated by half-bred mongrel curs.”
That earned a snarl from both Skoll and Hati, and Giovanni was once more made aware of how much physically larger they were than he. “The pup speaks for a wolf twice his size.” Skoll mocked. “You think you can taste human blood and think yourself our equal?”
“I think I can disdain it and think myself your equal.”
“So this is what stands before us.” Hati said, examining them both. “A wolf who fancies himself a man, and a bitch who sides with them.”
Giovanni saw Capi’s fur rise as she let out a low snarl.
“We have business in your city.” Skoll said, his voice unamused. “We had worshippers who had pledged themselves to us, who proclaimed their allegiance and were butchered like sheep.”
“We know of your cult.” Giovanni said. “Those who called themselves the Hour of the Wolf. Unfortunately I have news for you, your entire cult was a farce.”
“What!?” Hati roared, and the clouds shook with his thunderous voice.
Giovanni held his ground. “Your cult was founded, raised, and groomed for slaughter by the machinations of another. They died as sheep because they were sheep. There is another power in Rome that used them purely for their blood and their belief.”
“You tell us this…” Skoll’s voice was calm compared to his brother’s fury, but no less dangerous. “And yet you stand in our way? Would you die for the sake of murderers of the foulest sort?”
“We stand here,” Capitolina said. “Because it is to Romans to decide how Romans are to be punished. It is not the land of Skoll and Hati, nor is it the land of the monster who murdered your cult. This is our land, and no one, be they god or monster, may lay claim to it without our consent.”
“Then you court destruction…” Came Hati’s retort. “For two small wolves to stand against any who they might offend.”
“Small perhaps…” A new voice joined in, a light feminine voice as a third wolf crested the hill behind Capitolina and Giovanni, their attention so focused northwards they had never looked south. “But certainly not two.”
Kebechet, almost unrecognizable in full canine form, stepped lightly to join them. Though the smallest of the three, she was more than a match for power, her lithe jackal body covered in sleek black fur that mirrored the hair of her human form.
“I asked you and Angel to look after Rome” Capitolina said, withholding the qualifying remark they all sensed ‘in case we didn’t make it back’.
“I intended to.” Kebechet said. “But I was reminded how important it is to look after one’s friends and family.”
“And how did you find us?” Giovanni asked.
“That was my doing.”
The fourth wolf did not so much rise over the hill as Kebechet had as simply appeared at Capitolina’s side, the air twisting and warping where she seemed to step into existence. If Kebechet in wolf form had been an oddity, seeing Angel in it was quite bizarre.
Her fur was black, like Kebechet’s, but lacked the shine, instead seeming to absorb the light around it, a deeper shade even than Skoll’s burnt hide. Her right foreleg and both hind legs were not flesh and blood, instead long artificial limbs of molded ebony and silver, moving as she did with a noticeable heaviness to them. Her eyes, contrasting the yellow of her companions, were still bright blue, and she maintained a pair of stunted vestigial wings folded on her back.
“It seems Angel chose quite a time to go against your orders, Capitolina.” Kebechet said with an audible smirk.
Capitolina shot a questioning look at Angel, who simply responded. “We are a pack, Capitolina, we stand together.”
“There you have it,” Capitolina said, turning once more to Skoll and Hati. “You face not two, but four.”
“Four it may be…” Hati growled. “Two lesser wolves, a weakling goddess, and a cripple. Indeed we are outnumbered as the does out number wolves.”
“Then you do a poor show of estimating your opponent.” Capitolina said. “I’ve seen a score of foreign gods march through my city and ensured they kept their place. Giovanni has defended his people and his faith relentlessly for eight centuries. Kebechet is no lesser a goddess for being from a foreign land, but your dismissal of Angel as a cripple was particularly poorly planned.”
Angel stepped forward, and Giovanni could see the glow in her eyes, the unearthly power that began to radiate from her as the loose stones scattered at her feet began to rise. The sky shifted again, the clouds parting as an open miasma of stars spread across the morning sky, obscuring the sun, moon, and all else as a river of countless stars filled the heavens.
“Skoll and Hati.” She breathed in power. “I watched you play in my sky, skipping and dancing at the heels of Sol and Mani like pups unable to catch your own tails. You are far from home, young wolves, and this land is not yours to hunt in.”
This display of power, it seemed, was enough to send both wolves a few steps back. Capitolina was quick to take notice.
“You’ll find all four of us are much harder to break than you might have thought.” Capi said. “Small perhaps but hardly young, and plenty fierce enough for both of you. This is not the Northern forests, these are not your sun and moon. We know there are monsters in Rome to be hunted and punished, but it is neither your fight nor your hunt. Rome will never be the playground of fickle gods, I can assure you of that.”
“And who are you…” Skoll spoke out, thunder in his growling voice “To assure such a thing?”
“We are the wolves of Rome.” Capitolina said, raising her fur to stand on end, to make herself appear as large as she could. Even with the difference in size, she still stared without fear at the two larger wolves. “It is our territory, our land, and while we do not rule it we will defend it from monsters like the ones that destroyed your hunt, and from the likes of you.”
Both wolves had their hackles raised, fangs bared. For a single electrifying moment Giovanni was sure they were going to charge. For all of Angel’s display and Capi’s words, he doubted they could best these wolves.
“See then that you thin your herd of predators.” Skoll growled, and Hati turned to his brother in disbelief.
“We are to leave them?” He asked, shocked.
“There is truth in their words, brother.” Skoll said, though he was clearly loathe to say it. “We are far from our hunting grounds, the Sun and Moon still flee us but they are not our usual quarry. Even the bravest wolf knows not to venture too boldly or too deep.”
He turned his pale eyes again on Capitolina. “But know this, this land is yours only so long as you can keep it. If these…fiends within your lands prove too much for you, then there is little stopping us from making this land ours as well.”
Skoll turned away, his brother grudgingly following him, and soon the pair had disappeared into the dark clouds once more, their footsteps thunder as they chased back through the sky into the north.
“I’ve been hearing the same threat for thousands of years.” Capitolina said, sounding rather unimpressed with their threat. “This will always be my city.”
“Our city now.” Giovanni said. He could feel his knees start to shake as the realization that they were still safe settled into his mind, but he found the strength to remain standing. “So long as we are needed to defend it.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa