The Night Guard
April 15th, 2024
Aurelio still had his arm in a sling as he walked the steps up to the Campidoglio. Once the center of the Roman Sanctuary, it had fallen out of use as the center of new Roman life when the Senate had relocated and the new market districts began to open. It now served primarily as offices for mid-level bureaucrats, artifact storage and, most notably, the den of Rome’s favored wolves. It was with them that Aurelio was to meet, and while he disliked being up so early in the morning, he moved with purpose so as not to be late.
The city had largely recovered from what was being called the Battle of the Black Sun, though tensions were still high and Pontifex Nora had been working overtime to try and calm fears and stifle false rumor. Butterfly cultists were still being drawn out of the woodwork every day, some by force and others turning themselves in for hope of leniency. Still, the damage had been mostly repaired, the injured were safely in hospital care, and Aurelio had been working overtime to seek out and destroy the last of the cacodaemons that had cropped up during the siege.
The battle had not been without its casualties. A number had died during the attack and Rome had instituted a day of mourning in honor of both civilians killed and the soldiers lost defending them. But in the recent days there had been some hope amidst the post-battle malaise that clung to the city.
Hildegard was back on her feet. Though not in fighting condition, she was lucid and moving around, improving with every passing day. According to Mary, Cat was to thank, and she’d fought valiantly inside the Dreaming. Aurelio had suspected that Hildegard’s adopted sister had a lot of potential, but he was starting to think he had been underestimating her.
“Good morning, Aurelio,” Elisa’s voice pulled him from his thoughts as he looked up at her. She had recovered much more quickly from the fight with Gisela than he had, which he suspected had much to do with her being a homunculus.
“Oh, hey Elisa,” He said, giving her a wave. “Capitolina call you here too?”
“She did,” Elisa nodded. “I imagine to thank us for our work.”
“Maybe,” Aurelio said. “Though I’m not really one for being decorated, and that’s not the impression I got from her.”
When Capitolina had asked him, it had been with a serious tone in her voice. She’d thanked him then for all he had done, but had left him with a somewhat ominous message.
“We can’t let this happen again.”
“I suppose we’ll find out soon.” Aurelio said, and together the pair of them walked into the old senate palace.
Capitolina was waiting them in the large room that had once housed the senate, now empty save for a large round table of oak lined with chairs, and a broad window looking out over the city and letting the morning light shine into the otherwise lightless room, filling it with the pale grey light of morning. She was not alone either. Joining her in the room, standing along the edges of the table were Sybilla, Mary, and to his surprise, the ghost Aelia as well.
Capitolina’s ears rose as they stepped in, and she smiled at the sight of them. “Good, the last two are here.”
“Almost late, hunter,” Sybilla said, arms folded over her chest. “Hardly gracious.”
“Almost,” Aurelio said. “So why are we here, Capitolina?”
Capitolina began to pace a bit, hands held behind her back as she spoke. Though there were many chairs around the table, none of the people standing took a seat.
“If there’s anything that this battle showed us,” Capitolina said. “It is that the city is unprepared for this kind of attack.”
“Can anyone be prepared for something like that?” Aurelio asked. “An attack by an Aztec cult and its monstrous goddess? Not to mention an enemy champion…”
“There is precedent now, even if there wasn’t before,” Elisa said. “We know it’s possible, and no doubt there are other threats we haven’t predicted brewing as well. We all knew we would have to deal with monsters and hostile groups of humans, but the world has changed in the past two years, and the threats against this city will change as well.”
Capitolina nodded. “Precisely what I’m saying. We’ve had to deal with cult sabotage, dream plagues, violent gods, and enemy champions. These aren’t the threats that the legions were raised to deal with.”
“We’ve managed,” Aurelio said.
“Barely,” Sybilla spoke next. “By the time you and Elisa had fixed a problem it was often long after it had developed. People were put at risk, and now people have died.”
“We weren’t alone in failing,” Aurelio snapped at her. “You wouldn’t help us until you could turn it into a bargain for your own gain, and it’s not as if you could have prevented the battle either.”
“A bargain to secure my own freedom!”
“Enough!” Capitolina barked. “It is true that you and Elisa were not enough to track down the cult before they became dangerous, Aurelio.”
The words stung, even if Aurelio knew they were true. If they had found some clue earlier, one lucky break, the battle might have been avoided entirely. Instead they had been caught up in chasing Mary and dealing with Sybilla in the last few crucial weeks, missing any time the cult may have tipped their hand early.
“The important thing to take from that,” Capitolina said. “Is not that you two failed, but that what you did simply wasn’t enough. Rome is a big city, and it’s getting bigger every day. Two people can’t patrol it alone.”
“So you want to form a team,” Elisa finished the thought for her, and Capitolina grinned somewhat impishly.
“I was thinking more of a…guard.”
“Like a task force?” Sybilla raised an eyebrow. “For what exactly, cult extermination?”
“More than that,” Capitolina said. “There are a lot of threats to this city that the legions can’t deal with. Mary showed us that we’re not necessarily safe in our dreams, and the cult showed us that not every god out there has the city’s best interest at heart. During the battle we saw that monsters and cacodaemons will take any opportunity to rush back into the city if chaos reigns, and of course I have little doubt that the Primordials have their own plans now that they’re aware of Rome, even if the shield is keeping the bulk of their forces back.”
“Umm…i-if I can speak?” Aelia spoke up quietly as all eyes turned to her. She was visible enough, but the ethereal morning light made her slightly translucent.
“It’s why I invited you too,” Capitolina said. “You were part of the city’s defense, and one of its spirits. Besides, I always like hearing from the Romans I know best,” she added with a smile.
Somewhat reassured, Aelia spoke with more confidence.
“You keep phrasing things as threats to the city, things that need to be eliminated like the cult…but that’s not the only way to deal with these things. I mean…look at Mary, if what I’ve heard was true, she used to be a threat to the city and now she’s helped defend it.”
“You can add me to that list as well,” Sybilla said. “I wasn’t exactly welcome when I arrived.”
“I’m not welcome either!” Aelia said, nodding along. “I’m a spirit, so of course people are afraid of me. But I love this city and the people in it. I think that there might be ways to deal with spirits other than brute force. If we approach some of these threats the right way, they might become allies instead.”
“She has a point,” Sybilla said. “The legions negotiate with the human settlements, but no one’s tried to negotiate with the spirits in Italy, not even in Rome itself, except the Pontifex but from what I understand she deals exclusively with gods.”
“Probably because it requires a very specific kind of negotiator,” Mary said. “You only managed to capture and work with me thanks to Sybilla.”
“And that’s just the kind of thing we need,” Capitolina said excitedly. “We need warriors, negotiators, experts in all fields regarding spirits and the supernatural.”
“That’s a tall order,” Aurelio said. “If you consider it’s just the five of us right now. Has anyone heard from Evangeline?”
“From what I understand she wants to work freelance,” Elisa said. “Besides as a champion, she’s not as well-versed in spiritual or magical matters.”
“I’m a champion,” Aurelio frowned.
“But also a hunter of spirits, a role which made you uniquely suited for the job,” Capitolina said. “Evangeline will help this city, no doubt, but she might not be right for this group.”
“I believe Capitolina is looking for people of distinctly inhuman nature,” Elisa said, looking over the room at the people gathered. “Benandanti, homunculus, mara, witchbreed, lemure. None of us can be called a completely mundane human, and where there are five of us we might very well find more.”
“There have been a few promising people entering the city recently,” Capitolina nodded. “I keep getting reports of people with powers or spiritual natures, though distinct from mages or champions. There’s also exorcists and other experts from the Vatican to consider.”
“Well, I mean this is all well and good to discuss,” Elisa said. “But we do require a great deal if we want to make this more than unorganized patrols. There’s funding, management, and supply requisition to consider. Not to mention selling to the public the idea of a squad of inhuman warriors and spiritualists.”
“I’ll see if I can make it work,” Capitolina said. “I still have plenty of pull with the senate, and right now I think the people want that little bit of extra reassurance.”
“I think that’s all any of us want,” Aurelio said. “To make the people of this city feel safe again, and back it up by preventing this kind of thing before it happens again.”
“Well,” Sybilla said, uncrossing her arms. “I’m not quite what this city’s little mage club is looking for so I’ve no better place to be. I’m onboard.”
“As am I,” Mary nodded.
“Me too,” Aelia smiled as she nodded.
“And I as well, though I still have my duties to Renard,” Elisa said.
Aurelio hesitated before speaking as the eyes came on him, though only for a moment.
“Before coming to Rome I prided myself on hunting alone. But during the battle…I doubt any of us could have succeeded without the rest of us working together. I can’t protect this city or the rest of Italy alone so…count me in.”
Capitolina’s tail wagged as they all agreed, her toothy grin wide. “Then it’s settled…though we’ll need a name.”
“Dream squad?” Sybilla offered jokingly with a half-grin.
“Legio Spiritus?” Aelia offered sheepishly.
“I think a fanciful name for it is somewhat silly…” Elisa said.
“What about the Night Guard?” Aurelio offered, and the others looked at him.
“Short, evocative, gets the point across,” Sybilla mulled it over. “Not bad, hunter.”
“It’s not overly flashy,” Elisa said. “It could work, and we do seem to operate largely at night.”
“I kind of wish it was in Latin, but I can’t complain,” Aelia said.
“I certainly don’t have a better idea. I barely understand how humans go about naming things,” Mary said.
“Seems like Night Guard is the winner,” Capitolina said proudly. “I’ll start pushing the paperwork through with the Senate.”
The rest of them started discussing the direction this fledgling guard would take, times of operation, and rumors of arrivals in the city who might be of use. They spoke through lunch and well into the afternoon before departing for the evening, all of them now flush with dreams for the future defenders of Rome.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=68&sl=973