Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 2

May 17th, 2024

It was a full moon over Rome tonight. It bathed the rooftops of the city in a soft silver glow distinct from the soft glow of the rare streetlights below. The moon and stars had not been this clear over Rome in centuries, and it gave the city a new life at night. It was by this silvery moonlight that Aurelio Furlan did his nightly hunts.

He found that from both experience and divine blessing his skills were sharper at night, particularly during the full moon. His patron, Diana, was a moon goddess after all, and his powers waxed with hers. By moonlight he could see farther than nay mortal man, picking up details even in the semi-darkness that would be lost by others in broad daylight. Most importantly, with his bow in hand, if he shot by moonlight he could not miss.

His bow was strung and carried in his hand, it was made of wood and etched with silver markings of trees and silver spheres, another gift from the Lady Diana. He carried it with him everywhere, and it had not failed him yet. He stepped lightly across the rooftop, feeling its weight in his hand as his eyes scanned the ground around him.

A cacodaemon was not a thing of flesh and blood. It was a creature of fear and dread cobbled together out of shadows and darkness until it took physical form. They were rare now in Rome where they had once been a constant terrible menace. They had been reduced massively from powerful apex predators to mere scavengers lurking dark alleys. Still they could be dangerous, and that merited response.

His blessed eyes could see the tracks left by the cacodaemon, like tracks of shadow that passed through the light, the odd cast aside stone or upturned dust pile showing that the thing had weight, and likely teeth as well. A year ago, a large cacodaemon could grow to sufficient size to become a true monster from legend, like a chimaera, a griffon, or a basilisk.

Thanks to the shield created by the wolf Angel, no such monsters existed in Rome, and there were maybe a handful left in all of Italy, now being hunted and destroyed by expert monster slayers like Hildegard Jazheil. While she was away, it fell to Aurelio and a few others to keep Rome safe at night.

Movement caught his eye several roofs down the street. An irregular shambling of black mass cast mostly in shadow. Aurelio quieted his movements, the sounds of his footsteps reduced almost to nothing as he paced around to get a better view, hand tightening on his bow as his keen eyes read the darkness.

It wasn’t human, whatever it was. It was bigger and moved on all fours, keeping to the shadows as it hobbled across the rooftop, snouting through refuse and rubble like a pig looking for truffles. The cacodaemons of Rome were greatly reduced in strength and power, but at over two meters long this boar-like monster could still prove a threat if it caught someone unawares. They were ambush predators now, but out in the open the tables had been turned.

Aurelio pulled an arrow from his quiver, his eyes never leaving the monster as he kept it firmly in his sights. The creature had nto noticed him, but it moved away from the protective shadows and Aurelio could get a closer look at it as it revealed itself in the moonlight. It did seem roughly pig-like in build. Likely it would have become a monstrous boar had it had time to grow and cement itself into a particular monstrous archetype. It was bigger than most Aurelio saw these days, and likely it had been living off of scavenged food and the constant mild dread that permeated the outer city where things became more wild. It would not live to ever reach that potential.

Slowly, silently, Aurelio notched his arrow, drawing it back as the pig-demon shuffled across the rooftop nearly one hundred meters away. It was not a difficult shot, the distance was good, the wind calm, and the monster very squarely in his sights. The only difficulty was killing it with a single decisive blow. An injured cacodaemon tended to rampage, the last thing he needed in a crowded city. Aurelio waited, arms tensed and quivering against the full draw of the bow, waiting for the perfect moment.

A flash of moonlight across a black eye on the side of the creature’s head, reflecting a light just bright enough to see.

Aurelio’s arrow seemed to glow like a meteor as it became a silver streak in the air, leaving a short trail of light behind it as it flew, silent as the wind, from his bow directly into the creature’s eye, killing it instantly. Aurelio saw the creature fall like a great sack or rubbish upon its stumpy legs and he rushed across the rooftops, leaping the gaps with ease, to retrieve his arrow and inspect the fresh kill.

Being creatures of shadow and fear, cacodaemons did not leave corpses around for very long. As the power seeped away from its form, shadow seeping from it like mist, he could see blackened bone already revealed by the time he pulled his arrow free, and within an hour even that would simply crumble into so much dust to be picked up by the wind.

It felt good certainly. It was a quick clean kill that rid Rome of another monstrous scourge. The city had been made a little safer and Aurelio’s rounds were complete. Still, he could not remove a lingering dread from the pit of his stomach. Hutning cacodaemons was all well and good, but they were no longer the most dangerous monsters creeping through Rome.

A year ago, Aurelio had infiltrated the cult known as the Hour of the Wolf. He had tracked them to their base and was helping prepare for an assault on their numbers when something unexpected had happened. The entire cult had been ritually slaughtered by another even more secretive group, with Aurelio barely managing to escape with his life.

This new dark cult, the Butterfly Shroud, had been his quarry since that day. But ever since then they seemed to have disappeared almost entirely, vanished into the wind. He might even had thought that they had disbanded entirely, had it not been for the intricate butterfly graffiti that appeared some nights in the dark place of Rome. It was a reminder for him and others like him, he knew, that they were still out there, mocking his inability to find them.

He was not the only person assigned by the wolf, Giovanni, to track them down. But as a witness to their monstrosities and the champion of the goddess of the hunt he still felt a burden on his shoulders to find them. Still, one could not hunt without a trail, and this cult had covered theirs well.

His arrow retrieved, Aurelio set off back towards the rendezvous point. He had been stalking the outskirts of the city. Where people were less dense and a creeping monster could still make its way stealthily between buildings. Rubble was more dense here as well from collapsed buildings not yet salvaged or cleared, a fine place for a monster to make its lair.

His work done for the evening and dawn not far off, Aurelio made his way back towards the city center, where the lights grew brighter and closer together. It was, however, still the very early morning so even the last of the night life had dimmed to almost nothing.

Their meeting spots were never conspicuous. Aurelio was always worried that he was being tracked by the cult, so they changed it frequently. He had no proof anyone was trying to follow him, but it never hurt to be sure. Cacodaemons always went from the hunter to the hunted, and he did not want to end up the same way.

Outside of a small sandwich shop, its windows dark and door locked, was a young woman leaning against the streetlamp. The lights in the street weren’t gas powered, rather they were actually  magic resource developed by the circle of mages calling themselves “the Mage’s Guild”. According to them the lights siphoned magical energy in the air at night and converted it to a soft bluish light. Aurelio didn’t know the mechanics behind it, but he did know it provided moderate light throughout the city center.

The woman, much like the lights, was less ordinary than she appeared. As he drew closer he could see the paleness of her skin and silvery hair over a pair of bright red eyes. She held herself stiffly, dressed in black suit pants and a button-down white shirt, foregoing a jacket on the warm night.

“Welcome back Aurelio” She said, rising from where she was leaning to greet him.

“Morning Elisa.” He said, nodding to the homunculus. That’s what she had told him she was, an artificial human created by mages. Aurelio still had trouble believing it. Other than her odd appearance and a few personality quirks she seemed…normal.

Still, Elisa had a sense for the supernatural and was terrifyingly strong in combat. It was with that in mind that her creator, Renard Aestling, had sent her “on loan” to the watch that Giovanni had established, currently consisting of only Aurelio and Elisa. It wasn’t much of a watch, but they had reduced the cacodaemon population in Rome, at least, and they were supported by others in the cult investigation, though no progress had been made.

“Anything to report?” She asked.

“Just two cacos tonight.” He said “both down without trouble. Big one near the Villa Borghese though, we’ll need to keep a more careful eye on that area. They’re clearly slipping past us.”

“Just one tonight on my end.” Elisa nodded. “And I did a sweep of the hills as well. Nothing there. It seems they dislike coming to where people are densest.”

“Can’t hide there” Aurelio said “they need room to stalk.”

“I take it nothing new on our butterflies then?” Elisa asked as the two of them began to walk towards the city center and home.

“Nothing” Aurelio shook his head “Another night come and gone and nothing.”

“We’ll find them” Elisa said confidently “A cult can’t live in obscurity forever. Either they’ll tip their hands or fade away. Either way, we’ll catch them before they do anything else.”

“I hope you’re right.” Aurelio sighed “What about you, anything else of note?”

“Yes actually, I received an interesting report from Pontifex Newstar.”

“Oh?” Aurelio passed her a curious glance.

“Yes, she has apparently received word from Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.”

“Morpheus…”

“Yes it is odd when one of your sources is a god.” She said, matter-of-factly. “Anyway, he said that there is something wrong in the dreams of Rome.”

“Something wrong?”

“He said that he has reason to believe there is some kind of…predator in the dreams of this city.”

“A dream predator?” Aurelio raised an eyebrow “What does that even mean?”

“I can’t be sure.” Elisa shrugged “Nothing good though. Morpheus could not identify what it is or where it came from, which means it’s not from around here.”

Aurelio took a deep breath before cracking a slight smile “Seems our jobs just became a bit more interesting again.”

“We hunt monsters for a living” Elisa countered “Is that not interesting enough?”

“Not as weird as hunting literal nightmares.” Aurelio said “This one is going to take some research.”

“Get some sleep” Elisa said “You humans need it.”

“Do you really have to phrase it that way?” Aurelio asked.

“What way?”

“You humans” he shrugged “it seems so…dismissive, so distant.”

“I’m not human.”

“You act a lot like one.”

Elisa furrowed her brow but did not reply, clearly holding back some witty retort from fear of looking petty. Aurelio did like getting some fun out of the frequently stuffy homunculus.

“Night’s still not done.” Aurelio said “But I suppose a little sleep couldn’t hurt. Then we get right back to work.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=4&sl=878
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One thought on “Where All Roads Lead

  1. Pingback: Where All Roads Lead | The Cities Eternal

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