Aurelio had slept only briefly, and only in the late hours of the morning, as he always did. His duties kept him active at night and he found that the more he worked the more nocturnal he became. Still, with Diana’s presence watching over him in the form of the moon each night, and the good he knew he was doing Rome, working the night shift seemed a small price to pay. It was a little past noon when he woke up in his small apartment and the noise outside indicated that life in Rome was already well underway. People were out to lunch in droves and he was awakened primarily by the scents of the bakery below. He turned on the radio, catching the middle of Thalia’s noon radio show Life in the World, a blend of travel documentary and talk show where the famous radio personality met with the people pouring into Rome and listening to their stories. As it was noon and the woman worked hard to keep her programming optimistic, it was largely stories of brave survival and the strange and wondrous things beyond the hills of Rome.
Aurelio enjoyed it, as did most others, and so he let the radio play as he showered, dressed, and helped himself to a light breakfast of bread and hardboiled eggs. By the time the show was over it was time for his day to begin, and he had no intention of slacking off during the daytime hours. This new issue that Eliza had heard about, straight from the Lord of Dreams himself, needed his immediate attention. Aurelio’s experience with the cult was sadly lacking, a flaw he had been working to rectify for years now. He knew exponentially more about Greek mythology than he before becoming Diana’s champion, but if Eliza was right than this threat came from beyond that school of knowledge, and even then his knowledge of dreams was limited.
When his own knowledge failed, Aurelio turned to others who could be considered experts in their field. Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White were a pair of mages he found to be both knowledgeable and friendly, so he went to them on matters regarding magic. Eliza’s own creator, Renard Aestling, was a master alchemist but somewhat more difficult to work with. If he needed help with something regarding Italy’s lands and creatures, he went to Capitolina, who knew Rome and its surrounding countryside better than anyone on Earth. When it came to the divine and the spiritual, however, there was one person he could usually count on. It was with that in mind that he set off into the city.
The Pontifex Maximus of Rome had changed her address several times as the city expanded, but she seemed to have settled into a sizable townhouse not far from the new Roman Temple. It was a place well-suited for her position, and was often a stopping point for cult leaders and church officials doing their business in the heart of the city. This was not, however, Aurelio’s immediate destination. As Aurelio had found, the real trick of meeting the Pontifex was tracking her down. She tended to move on an irregular circuit between the Capitoline Hill, the Roman Temple, her home, various cult temples, and the Vatican. Most people looking for Nora tended to run wildly between these places, as Aurelio had done in his early weeks here, and it almost felt as if Nora was deliberately giving people the slip. Aurelio had quickly learned, however, that there was a key to always knowing where Nora was at a given time. With this in mind, he made his way towards the Roman greenhouse.
The greenhouse had once been the source of much of Rome’s food supply, and Aurelio had been here several times when investigating the Hour of the Wolf, which had made several attempts to sabotage it. Now, as farmland began to spread out from Rome’s outskirts, the greenhouse was used mostly to grow exotic or medicinal fare not found in Rome’s native climate. Anything on Earth could grow in that greenhouse thanks to the ministrations of its caretaker.
As he had hoped, Aurelio spotted Echo the nymph as soon as he entered the bright and humid greenhouse. Still, he took a moment to marvel at her. Echo was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen barring perhaps Diana herself. The goddess had an austere and inapproachable beauty native to all goddesses, but Echo had the beauty of a goddess with all the charms of being human. A round face with bright blue-green eyes, dirty blonde hair hanging in waves falling past her shoulders and littered with flowers, all over an impressively curvaceous figure. He admired her for a few moments before walking up to her, greeting her with a friendly wave.
“Hello Aurelio!” Echo smiled brightly, all charm and warmth in her voice.
“Afternoon, Echo.” Aurelio nodded “I hope the day finds you well?”
“Very” Echo said “We have a few more medicinal specimens from North Africa and we’ve been potting them all morning. With luck they should take to root by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Excellent news.” Aurelio said “You’ve done wonders around her Echo.”
“Oh I’ve hardly done anything” Echo’s face reddened, eyes glancing away. “A-anyway, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, I was wondering if you could help me find Miss Newstar, it’s a matter of security for the people of Rome, so I needed help tracking her down quickly.”
“Oh, of course” Echo said, nodding hastily. “Nora is taking meetings with the cult leaders at the Roman Temple until this evening. If you’d like to stop by then…”
“Thank you very much” Aurelio said “I’ll be there a little before sunset, if that’s alright?”
“Certainly” Echo nodded.
As the sun began to set, Aurelio made his way to Nora’s home. He knocked politely on the door and had to wait only a moment to be greeted by Echo, still radiant as ever as she received him with her warm smile.
“Ah, Aurelio, do come in.” She said, before calling back into the house “Nora, Aurelio is here!”
She led him inside, where he was met in the parlor by Nora, who had changed from her more formal dress into a plainer shirt and skirt over a set of hose, legs casually crossed in her chair as she put aside the book she was thumbing through.
“Evening Aurelio” She said, gesturing with a hand for him to take a seat, which he did. “You always are a bit too clever, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Aurelio asked innocently, folding his hands in his lap.
“Going for my nymph to track me down” She said, a smirk growing on her face “After all the effort I go through to make myself hard to find, you try and seduce the information out of sweet innocent Echo here.”
Nora gestured to Echo, who had returned to set a tea tray for the three of them.
It was Aurelio’s turn to redden in embarrassment.
“There was no seduction.” He frowned, masking the embarrassment with a scowl.
“Did you hear that, Echo?” Nora’s smirk never faded “Aurelio here has no interest in seducing you.”
“Really, Aurelio?” Echo looked almost crestfallen, though he could see a smile in her eyes “None at all?”
“That’s…not why I’m here.” Aurelio gave up, knowing he’d never win that fight.
“I know” Nora said triumphantly “I just have to put you through the ringer for using Echo to find me. What do you need, huntsman?”
“You told Eliza last night that Morpheus wanted us to investigate something?”
“That’s right” Nora nodded. “He’s not very talkative and couldn’t give me many details himself, but we know it’s not Greek or Roman in origin.”
“What exactly is it doing? Nightmares?”
“If it were only nightmares we could write it off as just that.” Nora said “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”
“That’s when you wake up and can’t move, right?” Aurelio nodded “It’s happened to me a few years back once or twice, really messes with your head since you’re barely awake.”
“Reports of that are becoming common” Nora said “Along with vivid nightmares of abstract imagery and a feeling of sapped strength. It’s too much at this point to be mere coincidence.”
“So there’s some kind of dream predator lurking in Rome? How are we supposed to deal with that?”
“That’s why I hired you.” Nora said “And I take it you came here to gain access to my library?”
“That’s right.” Aurelio nodded.
While the Vatican Secret Archives kept the largest collection of books in Rome, it was impossible to peruse and Aurelio would need to know what he was looking for. Nora, however, had begun amassing all books of mythology and ancient lore that the Vatican had not clung to desperately, and was presently keeping them on her second floor which was rapidly reaching a point of overflowing.
“Have you considered a new library?”
“Every day” Nora said “But you would not believe the red tape in setting up a library of pagan and occult lore. Though in their defense I have no idea how much of it is legitimately dangerous. Not enough time in the day to read through it and test it all.”
“Do you think it has what we’re looking for?” Aurelio asked.
“Only one way to make sure.” Nora gave him a smile in return.
Aurelio began his studies at sunset and continued well into the night, Nora and Echo leaving him around midnight as they retired. He stayed at a small desk, reading by candlelight as he tried to work his way through a dozen volumes written on dreams. The trouble was not only content, which was esoteric at best and nigh-incomprehensible at worst, but also in language. While his blessings from Diana allowed him to read the ancient tongues, it was a mixed success, and he found himself tripping over flowery and symbolic language, trying to derive meaning from the confused written lore derived from a thousand years of degrading oral tradition.
As the night seemed to pass in endless hours, nothing but the shrinking of his candle to remind him of the passage of time, Aurelio found himself resisting sleep as he pressed himself to keep reading.
A noise behind him brought him back to full alertness, hunter’s instincts sending him rigid like electricity coursed through his body. He wheeled around in his chair, body tensed for a fight even as he knew there wouldn’t be one. He expected it to be Nora checking in on him, or (Hopefully) Echo, instead he was met with someone else, or at least he thought he was.
The woman in the doorway was in many ways identical to Nora, and for a moment he thought Nora had simply washed the dye from her hair to reveal its natural brown. A second glance with his sharpened vision, however, revealed that this was not the same woman.
“Who are you?” Aurelio asked, still feeling certain tenseness in his body.
“Lenore” The woman said “Nora’s…sister, I suppose.”
They must have been twins, Aurelio thought, for how similar they looked. Though it was odd Nora had never mentioned a sister as far as he knew.
“Sorry for the intrusion” she added “Nora asked me to check in on you by two after midnight if you hadn’t left.”
“Two already…” Aurelio groaned, more out of frustration than exhaustion.
Lenore stepped in the room, picking her way quietly through the books like a cat. Aurelio was impressed by her silence. The floor beneath the books was made of old wood that would creak for almost no reason at all, yet Lenore moved like a ghost towards him, it was almost unsettling.
As she drew closer Aurelio noticed more about her. She was slightly taller than Nora, and a bit broader in the chest and arms, likely much stronger physical than her twin.
“What have you been looking for?”
“A trickster spirit or greater cacodaemon.” Aurelio said wearily “Some malevolent monster that feeds on dreams, just a name to go by…”
“You think there is only one?” Lenore asked.
Aurelio nodded “Only one, the pattern is similar, there’s usually just one victim per night.”
Lenore was silent for a moment, perched over the desk like a great sharp-eyed bird as she stared at the tome he had been reading. “Perhaps you are not looking for a specific monster.” She said.
“What do you mean, not specific?” Aurelio turned to her “Like an undefined cacodaemon?”
“No” Lenore shook her head “Perhaps this creature isn’t acting out of malice…it’s merely a tool for another.”
Aurelio looked at her askance “What gave you that impression?”
“Experience.” Lenore said simply “Real monsters rarely leave such an obvious trail.”
“So rather than some named demon or trickster god…” Aurelio said “I might be looking for a lesser spirit doing another’s bidding?”
“It is one possibility” Lenore said “Though I’m not an expert.”
“I doubt anyone is” Aurelio sighed “Still, thank you…why haven’t I seen you around before.”
“I prefer to make myself scarce.” Lenore said “I usually act as Nora’s bodyguard when she will let me.”
“When she’ll let you?” Aurelio asked.
“There are times when she rejects the help, I’m no longer allowed to check the bedroom when she’s in it with Echo, for example…that’s part of why I was in the hall outside.”
“Ah…” Aurelio said, now working very hard to keep the distracting images from his mind.
“Still, you must be good in a fight if you can be the Pontifex’s bodyguard.”
“I was a professional mage killer” Lenore said, with the casual tone of someone who had declared themselves formerly a baker or an accountant.
“Umm…” Aurelio felt the tenseness return to him, not sure how to react.
“A path I left behind quite some time ago, and was forced into against my will.” Lenore said.
Aurelio breathed a sigh of relief. “You know” he said “We could always use more hands on the nightly patrol.”
Lenore was silent for a moment.
“Thank you” she said “But without Nora nearby…I don’t think it is entirely safe for me to be in a combat situation quite yet. Do you understand?”
Truth be told Aurelio didn’t, but he also had the feeling he didn’t want to pry much deeper into this girl’s past tonight.
“Your choice” he settled on.
“Thank you,” Lenore said “And I do mean that.”
“Well if you’re as good as you say, and you get Nora’s recommendation, then the offer is always open. For now, though, I think I need to get back to these books. Thanks again for your help.”
Lenore nodded and departed with the same stealth and silence with which she had arrived, leaving Aurelio alone to contemplate her words and the creature haunting Rome’s dreams.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=10&sl=470