Where All Roads lead

 

Chapter 26

April 9th, 2024

Patrol had a very different feeling to it when you weren’t alone. Aurelio was used to the solitude of his nightly hunts through the city of Rome; in fact, he had somewhat begun to enjoy it. Sure, he liked it when he and Elisa needed to team up for something, but there was nothing quite like the serenity of patrolling the quiet city late at night, when the lights were few and the stars bright.

Thus he had at first been somewhat annoyed when he learned he would not be alone this patrol.

“Who is that statue of?” Mary asked, pointing at a large statue standing on a pedestal above the street.

“Giordano Bruno,” Aurelio answered with the same annoyed tone he had given for the last fifteen or so interruptions.

“He looks rather sinister,” Mary said, squinting at the hooded statue. “Was he some manner of despot?”

Mary’s vocabulary had exploded with her transfer into a more humanoid form, and at times it could be grating as she tried out more loquacious phrases or archaic grammar.

“No,” Aurelio said. At least he didn’t think so. Admittedly history had never been his strongest subject. “Now keep going, we have a lot of city to cover and we’re wasting time.”

Mary followed him, but argued nonetheless. “Yes well it’s fine to protect the city, but I don’t know anything about it.”

“What’s to know?” Aurelio asked. “It’s Rome, the Eternal City, and the place you’ll be protecting from now on. Do you need more than that?”

“Yes, I do,” Mary nodded emphatically. “You can tell me this is Rome, that it’s the ‘Eternal City’ and that’s fine, but I don’t know what any of that means.” She stressed the last word. “What is a city compared to a town or a village when this is all I’ve ever seen? What is Eternal when I’ve only followed the passage of time for a few weeks? You’ve dropped me in this city full of wonders I do not know or understand and now you tell me to ignore them.” She placed her hands on her hips.

Aurelio sighed. He disliked chatting with the Mara in the homunculus body, but he hated it when she had a point. Mary was like the strangest child ever born, fully lucid and with the capacity for thought of a philosopher, but with experience measured in days. Everything was new to her. She had assumed buildings were natural phenomenon like mountains or forests that humans merely dwelled in, or that fountains worked on magic due to a fundamental lack of knowledge of plumbing. She had a weird sort of reverse object permanence. An infant will believe anything it cannot see does not exist, but Mary believed that everything she saw had always existed in that form. It made her question all the more striking. What was eternal to a being that had no concept of beginnings or ends?

“Fine,” Aurelio sighed. “Ask your questions, but try not to slow down too much. In the morning, Elisa can take you around town.”

“Morning? As in the day?” Mary asked. She seemed to have developed almost a fear of daytime and the sun. It made sense, in a way. She was a Mara, meant to exist for one night and perish into nonexistence with the coming of the sun. To her, morning must have been like the twilight years of a man, the grim pall of death hanging over what to most was a pleasant time of day. Since gaining her body, she had spent most days shut up inside a windowless room, reading feverishly through books to advance her knowledge and vocabulary.

“Yes” Aurelio nodded “You need to get used to the sun and daytime.”

“Very well,” Mary sighed. “So tell me, Hunter…” Aurelio hated the nickname, it reminded him of Sybilla. “…Why do people live in cities?”

“That’s a pretty broad question.” Aurelio said. “What do you mean?”

“Well from what I’ve read, humans don’t live spread out evenly across the land. There are a lot more people in a city than there are outside of it…in terms of density.”

“Well yes,” Aurelio said. “That’s part of what defines a city.”

“But why? Doing that will attract more spirits, and that seems to be a problem.”

“The good outweighs the bad,” Aurelio said. “People enjoy living in communities, and with trade and importance some communities grow into cities. It’s not usually a designed process, but one that just…happens.”

“Interesting.” Mary thought over his words as they moved through the city.

Aurelio, with his champion-born strength, tended to move across the rooftops at a steady jog, leaping across streets and alleys when he needed to and easily scaling up and down walls. At times he felt like a superhero with all the power he had, but Mary traveling with him made him feel all the more human.

Renard had insisted that a homunculus body still had most of the limitations of a human one. It had limited energy and while they possessed impressive strength and stamina they were slightly less than his own. They were not, however, designed to account for Mary’s affinity for magic. New body or not, Mary was a spirit, and as a spirit she seemed to prefer floating to walking. She did it from time to time, taking light steps as she seemed to glide across a surface, but she seemed to pantomime it more than actually walk. And while they were on the rooftops, she made no attempt to hide the fact that she hovered through the air, floating like a cloud across alleys. It gave her an air of inhuman grace that betrayed her origins. Full-sized body or not, Mary could never pass for human.

“So tell me how your hunts go,” Mary said. “What do you do to hunt spirits that aren’t in dreams?” There was a bit of bite in her words, but Aurelio ignored them.

“It’s not all that different,” Aurelio said. “Everything leaves a trail when it moves through a place, spirits just leave a different kind of trail. It’s…hard to describe at times, more like a feeling left in a room than a footprint, but it’s enough for me to track one.”

“So you track down a spirt,” Mary said. “And then?”

Aurelio gestured to his bow. “I put an arrow through it, simple as that.”

“And that’s what you wanted to do with me?” Mary frowned.

“At first,” Aurelio wasn’t afraid to say it. “At the time you were just a rogue spirit. You could have killed someone if we didn’t stop you. It was Elisa and Sybilla who insisted on taking you alive.”

“And what do you do about benevolent spirits?” Mary asked. “Or do you make the distinction?”

“Of course there’s a distinction,” Aurelio said. “I’m not about to hunt spirits like Capitolina or Giovanni just because they’re spirits.”

“That’s because, from what I can tell, they serve humanity,” Mary said. “What about the spirits who live here, but simply want to keep living?”

“I’m not sure the city can handle humans and spirits that don’t want to work together.” Aurelio said. “We’re too different. Spirits have their ways and humans have ours.”

“I think that’s a narrow view of spirits,” Mary said.

“You’re one to talk about narrow views,” Aurelio snorted derisively.

“If there is one thing I know,” Mary said. “it is spirits and how we think. And I think that there are enough spirits in Rome that you will need to adapt just as much as they will. The monsters and cacodaemons should be hunted, but there are many more varieties of spirits, and while they can be negotiated with, they would not take well to being hunted.”

Aurelio sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it. But I’m a hunter as you’re so fond of pointing out. Hunting is what I do, not negotiating. Besides, it’s not like we could have negotiated with you before your capture.”

“Perhaps you should expand your ranks,” Mary said. “And find others who know how to deal with spirits in other ways.”

Aurelio fell silent. He had long considered finding more hunters to join himself and Elisa. Two people could hardly patrol a city the size of Rome, and it grew bigger every day. But to take people on to negotiate with spirits…Aurelio wasn’t sure what to think of it.

“Did you not say this was a more dangerous part of the city?” Mary asked after a brief period of silence.

“Yes, Cacodaemons tend to gather here, why?” Aurelio asked. “Did you spot one?”

“No,” Mary sad simply, and she pointed down to the street where a pair of young women were walking and chatting, seemingly without a care in the world.

Aurelio’s mouth screwed into a frown, and he took hold of the gutter, sliding down the metal pipe with ease until his feet hit ground, Mary floating quietly behind him. The two women, lost in their conversation, apparently didn’t notice.

“Excuse me!” Aurelio called to them. “You two!”

Both of them reacted with surprise, turning his way before glancing at one another. As he approached, Aurelio noticed the strange style of dress between them. One of them, the older looking one, was dressed as if from a painting of a Roman woman. Aurelio assumed that she was part of the new “Neo-Roman” fashion subculture that was picking up speed, based off of ancient fashion trends. The other, however, wore an elegant white dress that seemed plucked out of an elegant party three hundred years ago. Aurelio had never understood fashion, but he assumed that some people just took what they could find or get away with.

“Coming home from a party?” Aurelio asked.

The pair glanced at each other again before the older one nodded. “Yes, something like that I suppose. It is getting rather late, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Aurelio nodded. “And this isn’t the safest part of the city this time of night.”

Normally people grew terrified at the prospect of a cacodaemon lurking in the shadows, but the older woman merely smiled, almost giggling as she turned to her pale companion. “Hear that, Bernadette? It’s not safe around here at this time of night.”

“Oh what rubbish!” The younger woman, Bernadette, said with an almost palpable aristocratic tone. “This street is perfectly safe! And we’re not about to take advice from some street hooligan with a bow and arrow are we, Miss Aelia?”

“Now, now, Bernadette.” Aelia tried to calm her, even while she kept smiling. “No need to insult the man, he was just trying to warn us.” She turned to Aurelio again. “Sorry, she’s had a little to drink.”

“I am quite within my senses!” Bernadette said, aghast. “Honestly, Miss Aelia, spreading such stories!”

“Either way, we’ll be careful.” Aelia tried to reassure both Aurelio and her irate and noble-toned companion. “Thank you for the advice, Mister.”

With that the young woman began all but pushing her companion away, leaving Aurelio to stand in confusion as they left. It would be Mary’s voice this time that would call him back to attention.

“It seems there is a hole in your fine hunter senses,” She said.

“What do you mean?” Aurelio turned to her, still too confused to be annoyed.

“You can track monsters and malevolent monstrous spirits, but I suppose it makes sense that as a hunter, certain less-than-animal spirits can hide from you.”

Now Aurelio was becoming annoyed. “What are you getting at?”

“You just had a conversation with a pair of human spirits and you failed to even notice.” Mary said. “A hunter is meant to track beasts, after all. Not people.”

“Human spirits?” Aurelio asked, turning to where the women had been walking, only to see they had vanished “You mean…”

“Yes, you call them ghosts.” Mary said. “And I think it makes my point.”

“What point?”

“That hunting or capture is not always the ideal solution.” Mary said. “Those two ghosts harm no one, but they are not…compatible with your Rome. Do you try to exile them? I imagine that would be very difficult. Or do you hunt them when they have done no wrong, simply to remove their presence.”

“Then what’s your solution?” Aurelio asked. “Let them have run of the city?”

“Peace through understanding.” Mary said. “The city has two sides to it. I’ve walked in both and I can see it clearly. You need to find more people like that, who know the human as well as the spiritual. Through them…maybe we won’t have to hunt or capture spirits anymore.”

 

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2 thoughts on “Where All Roads lead

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

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

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