The Wolves of Rome

Fate’s Pool

It was a gathering of three, as it always is. They arrived, one-by-one, in the wooded glade, as they always do. Their location didn’t matter, so long as it is near water and will have trees in a purer, more ancient part of the world.

The eldest had been the first to arrive. Though timeless and untouched by age, the difficulties of her duties had proven themselves on her features. Her hair had become somewhat more flecked with silver, her eyes wearier. She moved with an almost nervous energy, her arms crossed over her chest as she had waited for the others to arrive.

The middle sister was second to arrive. Punctual as the movement of the stars, she was never late nor early. Counter to her elder sister, she was seemingly unburdened by the weight of her tasks. If anything, the middle child was the happiest of the three, her clever smile growing to the edges of her lips.

The youngest is the last to arrive. Her face is like sunshine, a brilliant mask over a merciless and tireless interior. On her face is a warm smile promising comfort and kindness, but her eyes are far from kind. There is a cruel ambivalence in her visage, her burden the heaviest to bear.

“So here we are, now and again.” The Middle smiled as they once more drew into their circle. “We three, as we are and ever are. Let us hear our joys and worries now.”

“My worries, as you have called them, were endless.” The Eldest frowned. “People forgot. Their minds were withdrawn from the past we drew, so I have been drawing another from so much smoke and aether. Again, I have asked what sense is there when the future alters the past? Even the mortals have noticed.”

“Mortals will always notice things in small numbers.” The Youngest child smiled.

“What is it they are calling it?” The Middle asked. “The Cavallo-White Effect?”

“That is what they will call it.” The Youngest said. “They will not call it that for another year or so.”

“What does it matter what it was called?” The Eldest snapped. “It was pestilence upon my work!”

“I ask that you abide.” The Middle said in her calm diplomatic tone. “We are all struggling.”

“How has she struggled?” The eldest lost her temper, rounding on the Youngest. “She has been free to weave and wander, to play and toss the threads so loosely.”

The Youngest laughed an empty laugh. “I will suffer as I always have,” She said. “With dignity and grace. For while it will be your charge to measure the births and spin the threads for those who will tread the paths of history, I shall stand, shears in hand, to meet them at their end.”

The Eldest, though still in her petulant mood, silenced herself before the Middle spoke again.
“Still, we are making progress.” She said, gesturing to both of them. “The prophecies we spin from Fate are holding true. Rome is the center of mortal activity for the time.”

“As it will be.” Said the Youngest.

“As it was” Said the Eldest.

“But it is not all there is, is it now?” The Middle said. “We are beginning to see other lands with other threads of fate begin to rise alongside it.”

“Sicily…” The youngest marked them off, as if in order. “Germany, Japan, Aztlan, Carthage, Egypt. These will simply be a few of many.”

“Good, good.” The Middle smiled as the Eldest kept her sulking silence. “And how are our actors on this stage of Rome. Are their lines well-tended to?”

“The threads have been handled decently.” The Eldest spoke up. “The incongruities and oddities have been dealt with in large part. Several of them have been worked to their conclusion.”

“Already?” The Middle asked in false surprise. “We work quickly, sisters.”

“The Tale of Echo’s Curse has been concluded.” The Eldest said.

“Then it is time for young Nora to move to center stage in her own role.” The Middle smiled. “How is that coming along?”

“It will be in your domain momentarily.” The Youngest smiled mischievously. “The last details I will attend to will soon be falling into place.

Perhaps a thousand miles away, tugged perhaps by chance or the pull of fate, a girl rises from a weeks-long sleep. A girl named Lenore.

“Excellent.” The Middle said. “And fine time as well. And what of the youngest wolf of Rome? Is he being handled?”

“His work into the cult will continue some time yet.” The Youngest said. “Though he is moving to the wayside. The Hour of the Wolf will be over soon in Rome.” She added with an impish grin. The others did not share in her amusement.

Another thousand miles away, Giovanni looks wistfully out a window, imagining the fields and forests at his feet. The work he does now is better fit for human hands and human minds. The humans will need their protection for some time yet, but how much longer will they need their aid?

“And what of our little heroic upstart?” The Middle one finally asked. “How is she?”

“That will be your job.” The Youngest giggled. “We merely handle how she will be.”

“And how she was.” The Eldest added.

“Fine then.” The Middle huffed. “I can tell you that she is taking her first few steps.”

“As have many others.” The Eldest said. “We were mistaken before to put so much faith in mortal hands. Many have died.”

“As will many more.” The Youngest said. “But we will all know she is something special, though she will not accomplish much alone.”

“This is very true.” The Middle smile. “She needs accomplices.”

“Her adoptive Sister was a candidate.” The Eldest shrugged. “But she had her own tale to tell.”

“Then our work is obvious.” The Middle said. “With one potential hero in our hands, it is time we found others.”

“Heroes will be rare to find.” The Youngest replied. “It will be easier to find more specialized accomplices.”

“You have something in mind?” The Middle cocked her eyebrow.

“I will.” The Youngest said. “I will have many things in mind. Friend, lover, teacher, wanderer, all will find their way to her.”

“And to what end will all of this have been?” The Eldest asked.

“Now, now.” The Youngest wagged a finger. “That is not yours to know, only mine. Just as I will never cross into your realm. Once things cease to be “What will be” I shall never see them again.”

“Which was a troublesome distinction these past few months.” The Eldest frowned.

“Which will not be my problem.” The Youngest shrugged.

“Ahem!” The Middle brought their attention together. “Is there anything else?”

“Zeus was mad at us.” The Eldest said. “As we had ceased to pay him lip service as we so often did before. We failed to tell him how his once servile Moirai have become so unbound.”

“It is not the first time.” The Middle said. “And it shall not be the last.”

“And we know you have had your own dealings with Odin.” The Eldest glanced her way. “Though he has always been wise enough to know the Norns were never at his beck and call.”

“He is quite wise.” The Middle’s smile grew. “And we do have dealings in regards to the fates of one of his chosen.”

“That valkyrie, of course…” The Eldest furrowed her brow. “Has she not seen enough?”

“Which Valkyrie?” The Youngest glanced between them.

“You cannot know everything, dear sister.” The Middle smiled at her. “Some things are ours to decide.”

The Youngest frowned. There was very little she never saw, and she did not appreciate plans for the future to be hidden form her. Still, she held her own advantage, there were things she knew that they could not, and this bred plans of her own.

“Now I believe that is all.” The Eldest smiled at them as they rose once more.

“It was.” Agreed the Eldest.

“It will be all.” Said the Youngest.

Without any further words, each of them turned away and left in their own time. The Eldest was the first to remove herself as she had been the first to arrive, already weary of the sorting work she had to do. So many little threads to be realigned. The Middle followed her in turn. She had people to meet, and threads to nudge in the right direction. The Youngest left last, the heaviest burden hidden behind her laughing face. So many little threads to cut.

Their wheel was spinning quickly, and it would need all hands to tend to it.


Previous Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 34

The Rangers were greeted at the gates of the Roman Sanctuary like conquering heroes. All but the most essential citizens of Rome had been given the afternoon off to cheer the brave Rangers as they entered the city. General Hanne led the way, a cart filled with the artifacts that were to be the city’s salvation trailing behind her. Though not all who had left had returned, the journey home had been easier. No ships had been sunk by ferocious sea serpents, and the cacaodaemons that lurked in the shadows of southern Italy seemed far less bold than they had been on the first journey south.

Another surprising addition that had caught the people of Rome with awe was a new face that had returned with the Rangers. With peace reigning in Syracuse, and at the word of his patron goddess, Salvatore had ridden to Rome astride Pegasus, trotting alongside Hildegard and Catarina, a development that many, Hildegard in particular, had been grateful for.

They were met by the Wolves of Rome and the Senate, who proclaimed the news of their victory publically to the cheering crowd and declared it a National Holiday. With the proclamation, the evening had burst into a night of drink and celebration as the Rangers told their tales of travel and monster-slaying, of dangerous lands and the amazing things they had seen. Wine flowed freely through the night and it soon became clear that none would be coming in to work bright and early in the morning the next day. Though the party ran long into the night, most knew that the work had only just begun, and the shakers and movers in Rome began to see to its safety.

———-

Angel had been the first to leave in the morning, carrying the lance-like artifacts that the Rangers had retrieved to Northern Italy. What magic she performed, or what principle these rods worked under, was inscrutable to all but her, and it took nearly three days to set them up in the appropriate position. When it was activated, however, the effects were immediate. Every spirit and mage in Rome, in all of Italy, felt like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, the oppressive burden of Typhon and Nidhoggr lifted away, leaving only peace behind. Even for the most mundane of mortals the effects were clear within days. The risen dead, Nidhoggr’s minions and the most numerous threat in Rome seemed to have evaporated like mist, the Primordial’s magic cleansed from their forms so thoroughly not even bones remained. The Cacodaemons, while not eliminated outright, were so massively reduced in number that their predations became more a nuisance than a threat. According to Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White, their presence would likely never cease entirely so long as humans existed, but without the omnipresent dread inspired by the Primordials, their population was massively reduced. Still, even with the occasional threat of danger, all of Rome knew the shift when it happened. In all of Italy, humanity once more had the upper hand.

“Reclamation has begun!” Capitolina spoke before the gathered Rangers and recruits a day after the peninsula had been shielded. She stood without podium, standing like a statue in her battle armor before the gathered army, for it truly was an army now. Tales of the success of the Rangers had rallied the public behind them and recruitment numbers had exploded over the past few days, likely only to grow with time. What once had been twenty now numbered nearly one hundred. And it was with that, Capi had decided, that change must come to.

“We have banished the Primordial’s presence from Italy!” She said. “We have proven time and time again that this land is not at the mercy of tyrant gods and cruel spirits. It is humanity and Rome’s defenders that will decide its future! The shadow has been washed from our fair lands, and it is time that we took them back! Our homes and our fields! Our temples and our churches! Our forests and our shores! This is not a new Italy! It is not a new Rome! This is and always shall be our Eternal City! Across the Mediterranean, humanity has defied the Primordials, and Rome shall lead the way!”

She looked down at the recruits, seeing so many fresh and eager faces. Reclamation came first, and all of them were eager to help. More would be found in the city and beyond, enclaves of isolated survivors. Their ranks would swell with time, and what had once been survival would become flourishing existence. It would not last forever, however. Nidhoggr and Typhon would not easily take this slight. The fight for survival had ended, but war would follow soon. Rangers would not be enough.

“And you shall be the arm of this city!” Capitolina continued. “Its hand and its voice across Europe and beyond. You shall be the shield against the darkness, the tip of humanity’s spear! It is with this in mind that I, Lupa Capitolina, name you Rangers no longer. From this day onward you are Legio I Capitolina, Rome’s First and finest! And it shall be you, Legionnaires, who shall make our land safe and whole again!”

There was no salute yet among them, no military discipline, but they cheered in their own way across the field before her. Rangers no more, Capitolina smiled to see, but men and women of the Legions, the first of many.

———-

“I suppose you heard the speech?”

The next day, Lord Albion Nassar and Senator Patricia Bellos walked side-by-side through the capital. It had been Nassar who had quickened his step to reach her, much to her dissatisfaction.
“I did.” Patricia nodded politely. “She certainly knows how to rile the people. A legion, is it? It is rather catchy.”

“It’s dangerous.” Albion said. “The Rangers were always quasi-military, half-rescue half-warriors. To call them something as aggressive as a Legion…well, it paints her intentions.”

“And what do you suppose her intentions are?” Patricia asked.

“Capitolina is ancient Rome in lupine form, and what has ever been Rome’s intent?” Albion replied, gesturing with a wry smile at his lips. “She is a conqueror, Senator Bellos, and a soldier.”

“We knew an organized military would come eventually.” Patricia shrugged. “Besides, it’s clear she plans on Reclamation first. She has all of Italy to conquer before we need bother with concern.”

“Do you truly think it will stop there?” Albion said. “We know now we’re not the only political power in the world. We will need to deal with Syracuse somehow in the future.”

“Syracuse is an island far from here.” Patricia said. “Besides, they have no reason to dislike Rome. I heard your apprentice was instrumental in the regime change.”

She noticed a subtle smirk appear on his lips, slightly…yet noticeably…different than the one he had before. “Yes she is…quite interesting. Still, they are hardly our only potential rivals.”

Patricia gave him a curious look.

“These Primordials will not take well to being ejected from the country, and they will be far fiercer than any rival nation. I cannot help but wonder if Capitolina plans to go to war against monsters of seemingly infinite power who cannot truly die.”

“That won’t be hers to decide.” Patricia said. “Her term as interim Consul ends in three months.”

“Ah yes” Albion was definitely smiling now. “Word is you plan to run, Senator Bellos.”

“It would hardly be prudent or polite to bring it up.” She replied with her own enigmatic smile. “Particularly while the same has been said of you.”

“No reason to give voice to rumor so far from the end of Capitolina’s term.” Albion said, smile never wavering. “Though it shall be an interesting election.”
“Oh of that I have no doubt.”

———-
The days had become strange to Catarina. They were busy, her constant studying and training saw to that, and she collapsed into bed each night with scarcely enough energy to pet Basil as he curled up beside her.

Yet it somehow felt emptier after the Sicily Expedition. The adrenaline had died down and it seemed more business as usual, though there was hardly anything usual about it. For their unusual talents and abilities, Catarina, Hildegard, and Salvatore as well had been moved from the Legion proper into…well Hanne had described it more of a “Special Forces Unit.” With the standardization of their training, those with impressive ability needed a separate program to better fulfill their potential. Not to mention Cat’s magical training from both Lord Nassar and Scheherazade meant she hardly had the time to be a full-time legionnaire. Still, the whole thing made her feel less like Special Forces and more like a Superhero…not that she was complaining.

Scheherazade had made herself somewhat scarce on the return journey. Catarina doubted she liked being away from the library for long, but even taking that into consideration she was oddly reticent. The curious behavior persisted for more than a week before Cat finally received her answer.

She was on the training field, running through her forms in the hour she had before she needed to return to Lord Nassar’s estate. She’d gotten used to the weight of the training sword, and many of the movements were becoming natural now. Maybe she might even be able to take on Hildegard soon! The thought made her smile even as the reality still overshadowed her. She’d never seen Hildegard go all out in a duel; she still doubted how much of a chance she could stand.

Her reverie was interrupted by Scheherazade’s arrival in a brief shower of golden light. What made today peculiar, however, was that she was not alone. She was joined moments later by Angel, who flapped down beside her from the air, a long bundle wrapped in blue cloth held in her arms.

“I am glad to see you ever dedicated to improvement, my dear Catarina.” Scheherazade smiled warmly. “We have something of a gift for you.”

“A gift?” Catarina glanced from Scheherazade to Angel, and her breath caught in her throat.

Sensing her anticipation, Scheherazade smiled as she spoke again in her usual grandiose manner.

“Indeed, fair Catarina. Your actions alone, with every intent, helped a people escape the oppression of their tyrant rulers and establish a new fairer regime in its place. You have made allies out of those who could have been your enemies, and left power in the hands of those who could use it most responsibly. Certainly you had some urging and some help along the way…” She smiled somewhat self-indulgently. “But Miss Angel and I both agree it is the first step on what is likely to be a bright future, so we did a little work for you.” She gestured with the long pipe she carried to Angel, who dropped Scheherazade’s eloquence in favor of her usual deadpan.

“Your spirit, Scheherazade, managed to retrieve particularly fine meteoric iron from the forge of Vulcan.” The slender wolf said. “Along with the services the Rangers rendered in clearing it of monsters, Vulcan offered to use the metal to forge a weapon of prodigious strength, with your spirit naturally providing the necessary enchantments.”

Her expression softened somewhat, and Catarina could have sworn she saw a smile creeping at the edges of Angel’s lips.

“I was quite impressed by what I saw in Syracuse, Catarina. Your initiative and courage, while occasionally foolhardy, were nonetheless impressive.”

Catarina winced a little at the slight, but didn’t speak out.

“I said before that I would not entrust a gift of great power to someone incapable of handling it. You raised the valid point that true heroes rarely received their gifts at the end of their journey. For your actions and for the promise and potential that you carry, I offered a single feather to Vulcan in the forging of this…”

Angel held out her hands, the blue cloth falling away to reveal a sheathed blade. Shakily, Catarina reached out and took it into her hands. The craftsmanship was unparalleled, the pommel made of flawless silver in the pattern of feathered wings from the base to the crossguard. Where the blade met the hilt was a perfectly smooth oval gem the same color blue as Angel’s eyes that seemed to shine with its own light. The scabbard was made of rich brown leather embroidered as well with the images of wings in silver.

Unsheathing the blade revealed white metal that shimmered in the light, the sound of its unsheathing like a music note to Cat’s ears. There were no letters on the blade, no runes or inscriptions like Stahlzahn, but the blade seemed to speak for itself. Catarina weighed it in her hand, felt the lightness of it, but also the power it held in its potential. It felt like a channel for her magic, like a wand, in a way it almost seemed to communicate.

Catarina was stunned into silence for almost a minute, simply taking in the marvel and the beauty of the blade.

“Th-thank you!” She finally remembered to blurt out inelegantly, bowing at the waist to both of them. She struggled for words, eyes still on the sword. “I don’t know how I can…thank you so much.”

“Does it have a name?” Cat asked, after admiring it for a little longer.

“Not yet.” Scheherazade smiled. “You still need to give it one.”

“Ah…” Catarina needed to think. She had given imaginary swords names since she’d been old enough to swing a stick at imaginary dragons. But actually holding something like this, feeling the reality, it made the task all the more daunting.

“Ummm…” Darn, it she needed a name! Something fierce but not scary! Something meaningful but not cliché. All the best magic swords had good names to go along with it.

“Caeruleamor…” She said finally. “Blue Amor.”

Scheherazade smiled “A lovely name.” She said. Angel, at least, also seemed somewhat amused at the choice of name.

“And I think this sword and its wielder has a long road ahead of it.” Scheherazade smiled. “I look forward to writing it.”

Catarina smiled back at her. “Come on then, let’s go find Hildegard so I can show off! Thanks again, Miss Angel!”

Angel smiled truly this time, before taking off again as the other two left the field.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 33

April 18th, 2023
The sun was high in the sky as Echo slowly made her way to the central Roman Temple. The great complex Kebechet and Nora had designed was still being overseen by architects and city planners, so a former administrative building had been gutted and redesigned to act as a primary center for the Greco-Roman deities to be worshipped if they lacked a dedicated shrine of their own. A statue to Nike stood in front of what had once been a palace as if it were a guard. Though the oldest and most defined of the statues, even from the piazza below the other statues could be seen. Nora and Echo had agreed that summoning Hera in Zeus’ temple, given their request, might not lend the best impression.

Still Echo dragged her feet. So much of her wanted to run away, back to Nora’s home or to the greenhouse, even to the cave back in Greece, anywhere but in the presence of this terrible goddess again. She knew it couldn’t work, that Nora’s plan would fail and they’d be left with nothing. There was no point to this, so why try?

Echo swallowed involuntarily, trying to gulp down her fear with it. It might fail, but she could not live with herself if she didn’t at least try. Nora had done so much for her already, the least she could do was try.

“Hey there, Echo.”

Echo nearly jumped as a young woman took up step next to her. Her heart started beating again when she recognized the speaker as Thalia, Muse of Comedy.

“H-hey there, Echo.” She said with a hesitant smile.

“I heard what you and Nora were planning.” The Muse said, the sun-like grin never leaving her face. “I think it’s great, and quite brave.”

“Q-quite brave…” Echo said, more unsure of herself than she’d ever been, footsteps dragging across the ground.

Thalia, seeming to sense her worry, took her arm, pulling her along as they walked towards the temple. Echo could feel the comfort in the goddess’ grip, the kindness and the warmth she seemed to exude. No one could remain unhappy in Thalia’s presence for long.

“You’re not alone in this, you know?” Thalia smiled at her. “We’re all rooting for you. Me, Nora, not to mention all eight of my sisters, even Kebechet. All of the people at the greenhouse know too.”

“Kn-know too?” Echo stammered, and Thalia’s grin only broadened.

“Of course” She said. “All of us want to hear the real Echo again. Even Melpomene thinks your story doesn’t have to stay a tragedy forever. No reason things can’t get better.”

“Thinks can’t get better…” Echo said, looking downcast. Thalia, however, responded only by holding her tighter as they walked.

“They can, Echo, I promise that. We’re all pushing for you, but we need you to make those last few steps. You’ve come this far already.”

Echo looked up and saw the façade of the temple before her.

“Come this far already…” She said, and then looked to her side just as Thalia seemed to vanish into air, leaving her at the threshold with only the echo of laughter in her wake. Taking one last deep silent breath, Echo stepped into the temple.

The building was taken up primarily by a great hall with a central altar at the far end. Lining the sides were smaller alcoves for individual shrines and statues recovered from the city museums. By order of the Pontifex it had been cleared for the next hour, supposedly for maintenance. Echo knew, however, and the other gods understood as well, that the Queen of Heaven would not want an audience.

Nora was standing by the grand altar, dressed in the finest robes she had made for herself as Pontifex, a flowing gown of black and white patterns and blue stitching, mirroring her own dyed hair and her position as bridge between mortals as the gods. If there was anyone who could pull Hera down from Mount Olympus to Rome, it was Nora.

“Ready?” Nora asked as Echo approached, looking all the meeker and smaller.

“Ready.” Echo fretfully shook her head, but Nora put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you started and then read off what we wrote, alright?”

“Alright…” Echo said hesitantly.

Nora turned back to the shrine, laden with images of cattle, peacocks, and bowls of pomegranates.

“So it’s taken some time and research.” Nora said “But I think the specific epithet we want is Hera Argeia. Gods tend to manifest under a bunch of different names and titles and while the spirit is still the same, the personality can…vary a bit.”

“Vary a bit…” Echo still didn’t entirely understand. She had only ever been Echo.

“Take Ares and Mars for example.” Nora said, still making sure everything on the altar was in the proper position. “Same god, entirely different personalities, all depends on the name.”

“All depends on the name.” Echo said, watching her work.

“Summoning Juno Capitolina wouldn’t be very helpful.” Nora said, turning to face Echo. “It wasn’t Juno that cursed you after all. We need a Greek.”

“We need a Greek.” Echo nodded as she took her place at Nora’s side, staring worriedly at the altar. The time had come.

“I call your name, Lady Hera Argeia, Queen of all Greece and all the Gods, Lady of the Mountain. I beseech that your spirit appear before us so we may speak low before you, pale-armed Queen of Olympos. Bring before us your grace so that we may speak, so humbly asks Pontifex Maximus of Rome.”

Nora’s words echoed through the empty hall, then seemed to hang in the air, reverberating through the silence like a low and steady hum. The sound hummed and shivered around them unnaturally. Something had heard the message.

Behind the altar, a throne seemed to trace itself into existence, a solid seat of shining white marble laced with glimmering gold that came into existence above the altar, putting both Nora and Echo well below the seated figure’s gaze.

The woman seated in the throne was truly larger than life. Three meters tall, her skin like polished ivory, and dressed in a long gown of blues and greens that clung to her divine figure. Her face was the very image of regency, stern and composed yet undeniably beautiful. A perfectly composed face of large brown eyes, a thin nose, and wine-colored lips. Her face was framed by tumbling waves of deep brown hair, held in a tall polos crown upon her head. Long chains and necklaces of gold hung from her neck and wrists, but they seemed merely to compliment the image of the woman, rather than enrich it, as no mortal gold could hope to match the beauty of the goddess herself. She sat loosely composed on the throne, one elbow resting on the arm of the seat as her chin rested upon her hand, her gaze passing from Nora to Echo.

Thalia’s divine aura was perceptible but almost pleasant; Nephthys’ had been like a windstorm that swept across the room. Hera, however, was on another level entirely. All of space and time seemed to warp around the woman’s presence, keeping everything in the reality of the hall focused upon her. Echo felt what little breath she had left flee her body entirely and even Nora seemed to shiver as the pressure of the goddess’ presence came down on them. Nora’s back bent low as she curtsied with due formality to Hera, and Echo mirrored her motion.

“Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar.” Hera seemed to try out the name on her lips. The voice, the same cold voice as she’d heard so long ago, sent an unstoppable and pronounced shiver down Echo’s spine.

“An oddity that you ask me to come under this name. Would not Juno Lucina or Capitolina be more appropriate for our venue?”

“Under normal circumstances yes, Basileia.” Nora said, head still bowed. “I apologize for the oddity of the request, but I felt it appropriate given the nature of today’s matter.”

“And what is today’s matter?” Hera asked, clear impatience rising in her voice. Echo stared. Did Hera not notice her? Did she even remember? Or was she simply being deliberately ignored?

“The matter…” Nora said, rebounding as she rose and cleared her throat. “Is the matter of the nymph, Echo, who I have brought with me here today.”

“Echo.” Hera did not look her way. “Tell me, Pontifex, why you would mention the nymph’s name in my presence, let alone be so bold as to drag her before me? The matter was settled before even your ancestors could remember.”

“I…we came to right a wrong, my lady.” Nora said, her hand reaching out to pull Echo closer.

“A wrong? And who might it be that has wronged this senseless nymph?” The coldness in Hera’s eyes was unmistakable. She was daring Nora to question her, to say that she’d been wrong, any excuse to bring her wrath to bear. Echo knew that look all too well, the frozen calm before the storm. She looked to Nora, and her eyes widened at the sight. She, Nora, looked unafraid.

“I say, Lady Hera, with all respect I can muster, that you are wrong to continue Echo’s punishment.”

Hera sat up in her seat, the full weight of her divine essence focused on the pair of them.

“It is not your place, Pontifex, to declare the gods to be right or wrong. The mere thought is ludicrous. A mere mortal cannot judge a god.”

“It is my place…” Nora said. “To defend the people of this city from divine abuse. The people of Rome are your worshippers, not your cattle. Whatever punishment Echo deserved, regardless of her crime, is long since passed its rightful expiration. Do you intend to force an eternity of punishment for an ignorant mistake?”

“I will do as I please to those who have wronged me for as long as it amuses me.” Hera said. “I see no reason to recant my word. Is this ridiculous appeal your only case? Is it the only reason you have summoned me?”

“It is not our only statement.” Nora said. “Echo would like to offer her words.”

At this, Hera laughed. It was a sound that should have been pleasant, but it came to their ears like a winter wind, harsh and biting and without a trace of sympathy.

“I believe you will find Echo quite without words of her own. I daresay that was the point.” Hera smiled.

Nora merely responded by pulling out a sheet of paper. Starting from the top line, she began to read it under her breath and Echo, heart full of terror, repeated every word.

“Queen Hera” She repeated. “This alone should show the lengths to which I will go in order to speak for myself. On my knees and in my heart I offer no desire of anger nor retribution. I merely ask for a chance of renewal, for some quantity of mercy you might show, fairest of the gods.”

It had taken seven hours of tireless work, a blackboard, and a dictionary to write this brief appeal in Echo’s own words. She had been as precise as she could be, and it almost felt like she was truly speaking for herself, even if she was far too terrified to ever speak her mind like this without her curse forcing her.

“For millennia I have suffered silence and repetition, unable to speak as myself to those I hold closest. I have all but lost the memory of who I was or how I spoke. My own voice is now foreign to me and in becoming so I have lost most of who I was.”

Echo trembled as she spoke, Nora’s voice pausing at intervals to let her catch up.

“I ask not that you forgive the punishment you laid upon me. It is not the nature of god nor queen to recant upon their word. I ask only that you display your divine compassion in releasing me in turn. As your humble servant that is all I ask and all in this world I desire.”

Nora finished speaking and Echo shortly after her, leaving a new silence in the room as Hera considered her words. It was, she knew, their only gamble. Hera would never go back on her word, but she could amend it later. Echo’s curse could never be lifted, but she could be granted her voice again in a singular act of compassion.

“I am impressed, if nothing else, at the courage you display by wandering before my presence again, Echo.” Hera’s voice had not lost an ounce of its edge.“Brave…but foolish.”
Echo could feel her heart sink in her chest, terror and desperation filling every fiber of her being. Even knowing it beforehand, failing here was like being cursed all over again.

“I see no reason to waste my compassion on a lonely nymph. I have no responsibility to you, and no desire to change how you are.”

Echo’s head sank low in a half-bow of defeat.

Nora, however, stepped forward, earning an irate glare from the Queen of Gods.

“I have no patience for repeating myself, Pontifex.”She said. “The matter is settled.”

“I believe it is not, Basileia.” Nora said.

“The Egyptians might be fond of you, Newstar.”Hera’s voice remained at a queenly calm, though the fierceness of her gaze could not be mistaken. “But we are not so quick to lend credence to your self-import.”

Nora bowed deeply, but did not back away. “Then I ask, Hera Argeia, that you do not offer compassion to Echo.”

“…” The surprise in Hera’s face was visible, and it was exaggerated in the shock on Echo’s face.

“I ask instead that you, under the name of Juno Sospita, offer relief to one of your citizens so greatly in pain.”

Hera scoffed. “Come now, Pontifex. I tire of this. This nymph hails from Mount Cithaeron of Attica. She is no Roman worthy of my protection.”

“I humbly disagree, Juno the Savior.” Nora said. “Echo has lived in Rome for months; she has drunk and ate with its people; she has lived by my side; she has served its people and its government in its time of direst need. She has literally lain down her roots here, with no desire to return to Mount Cithaeron.”

“No desire to return to Mount Cithaeron!” Echo repeatedly loudly, nodding vehemently.

“This city has hosted foreigners since its founding, Regina.” Nora said, switching to the Latin.

“People from across the Mediterranean have made themselves Roman Citizens. Gods as well have come from distant shores and made homes for themselves here. As surely as I am, Echo is a Roman.”

“Echo is a Roman!” Echo said, stepping forwards to stand alongside Nora.

Hera looked from one to the other, the expression on her face one of mixed conflict and mild surprise. A Queen was never one to show her emotions vividly, but her silence spoke to what she was truly feeling. Her fingers tapped on the arm of her throne as she thought. Nora and Echo caught, waiting, in the silence.

“Oh very well.” Hera’s patience had run out before her temper. “You make a strong case, Pontifex, but more than that, I am impressed by your dedication to this careless nymph. It speaks well to your position and to your heart that you would fight for her and stand by her side with nothing to gain.”

Echo, standing close to Nora, could feel the breath of relief.

“I owe much to Echo, Regina, but I would stand here for the good of every Roman.”

Hera turned to Echo, and even as the malevolence left her gaze, Echo could not help but almost cower.

“Then for the sake of that dedication, and for the sake of all those under my protection, I lift from you, Echo, the curse that was placed upon you.”

Hera raised a hand, and Echo placed a hand to her throat as she felt like a vice had been loosed from her tongue.

“Go then” She said “And please do not bother me personally with every gripe and grievance. I am a busy goddess.” With that brief huff Hera vanished, throne and all.
Nora turned expectantly to Echo, a clear weight off of her shoulders at Hera’s departure.

“So…did it work?” Nora asked.

Echo blinked, looking back at her. Slowly, she opened her mouth.

“Thank you, Nora.”

Nora smiled, but before she could reply Echo pulled her into a tight embrace, lips pressed to hers as she kissed her forcefully on the lips, holding her there for nearly half a minute.

“I…wow…” Nora said, half in a daze as Echo smiled at her. “Heh well…I guess we have a lot to talk about.”

“I think we do.” Said Echo. “I want to tell you everything, Nora, and I plan to mean every word of it.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 32

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.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 31

April 14th, 2023
Cat’s breathing grew shallow as she rushed through the streets. The palace was in sight. She could hear the shouts and the cries growing louder as she pushed herself forward.  The others behind her struggled to keep up. The gates to the palace were thrown open wide, revealing to the latecomers the chaos that was unfolding inside.

The palace’s façade, once the stately home of the wealthy made the center of all Syracuse, was now scorched and stained beyond repair under the weight of the rebel attack. Windows shattered, doors splintered off their hinges, and fires both natural and magical cropping up here and there.
Never before had Cat seen such a display of destructive magic being used so brazenly. Fire sprung from the fingertips of the mages, bouncing off the reinforced shields of the rebels. The mages were greatly outnumbered, but the sheer power they possessed made the battle too crazed for Cat to determine who had the advantage. Her reinforcement could only do so much against such a force, after all.

She rushed forward, mentally focusing herself as she ran. She didn’t know who she had to thank more, her father or Hildegard, for teaching her the multi-tasking techniques that let her still cast her spells while in the heat of battle. Whomever it was she owed the thanks, she was grateful for it. The air around her chilled as she gathered the frozen water droplets into her hand to form ice. She had gotten attention again, standing out from among the crowd of rebels.

Cat didn’t even hesitate as she saw a small fireball heading towards her, slinging her ice forward onto the ground and gliding over it as she leaned backwards. The heat of the blast washed against her face, the smoke catching in her lungs. Her shallow breathing turned into a cough, but Cat didn’t stop moving. This battle wasn’t between two distinct armies. It was a chaotic mob, a frenzy.

She had heard of scenes like this before but had never seen them herself. Locked away in her mansion, with a father who had no interest in owning a television, the tumult that had followed the Days of Revelation was only a story to her. This she could see. She could hear. She could feel the madness and the chaos that hung thick like smoke in the air, seeking to infect her like it had everyone in the courtyard.

Cat grit her teeth and forced the impulse, that primal human reaction, back down within her. She needed to be more than that. Ahead of her, she could see the long ponytail of the Mage Breaker captain whipping about. Brigida was surrounded by a pack of red eyed, slobbering dogs. Cat didn’t need to ask what they were. She was a mage after all. Where Rome had Cacodaemons, Syracuse had hellhounds. These creatures were normal animals, bound to a mage as a familiar. They often served as almost magical batteries for their masters. Sharp teeth were just an extra bonus. Here though, it was everything.

Brigida dug her feet into the dirt as she got into a stance. She was surrounded, but she hadn’t yet seen Cat. Cat’s love of stories told her she should rush in now, as the hellhounds attacked and cover Brigida’s back as if she had seemingly come out of nowhere. Cat remembered saying something similar to Hildegard one time when she got excited, how she would swoop down just in the nick of time!

Hildegard had slapped her. Lightly of course, but enough to get the point across.
“You’re as likely to end up on my sword as any demon if you do that, Cat. If you’re behind me, shout it out so I know and neither of us get hurt. Got it?” She had said.

“Brigida! Behind you!” Cat shouted as she drew her sword from its sheath.

The Mage Breaker turned over her shoulder quickly, her whole body tensed and wild. Cat nearly wondered if she was going to end up on the rebel’s spear anyway, but Brigida gave a very curt nod before turning back around, thrusting her spear forward into a leaping hellhound. Its death cries howled out as the others leapt into action as well.

Cat knew Brigida was fast. She had sparred with her before. Seeing her in the heat of battle, however, was a completely different experience. As Cat raced forward, Brigida squatted down, with one arm swinging her shield to the side, smashing into a hellhound and sending it tumbling back Cat’s way. A thrust into its chest and a slash at its neck saw the dog stop moving, but Cat didn’t. At the same time, Brigida lunged forward with her spear, impaling it through the jaw of one the dogs. Cat had only ever seen Hildegard move with such speed, and Hildegard was a combat mage.

Between the two of them, soon none of the pack of hellhounds was moving. Brigida jumped to her feet, taking her helmet off and throwing her head back as she gasped for air. Her face was red, sweat keeping her hair in the shape the helmet had left.

Without wasting a second, Cat reached onto her belt and took off a bottle of water, dumping the liquid onto Brigida.

“Thanks, mage.” Brigida said brusquely, wiping her brow. “I needed…that.” Her breathing was still quick, gasping for air. Cat just nodded her head before grabbing the Mage Breaker, using her magic to help Brigida’s body repair itself more quickly. They weren’t done yet.

“Where is Vittorio? Or the Dragon?” Cat asked once she was done. It had only taken a few seconds.
Brigida flipped her helmet into the air with her foot, catching it. “This…way. Follow me…” Shaking it free of dust, the rebel put her helmet back on, picked up her shield and spear, and charged forward. Cat chased after.

Their path could hardly have been called clear, but that didn’t stop Brigida. With her shield forward, the force of her adrenaline and Cat’s magic allowed her to bowl over everyone and everything that was in their way. Dogs went rolling to the side, rebels and mages alike were sent face first into the dirt and stone. Cat stayed close behind, using her magic to create a trail of ice behind them. It was thin, but slippery and would prevent any of the hellhounds to charge after them.

“Where have you been, Mage?!” Brigida shouted backwards, not slowing down her charge. Using her momentum to her advantage, she flipped one of the guards onto his back using her spear to get under his legs.

“I was…” Cat stopped herself. Perhaps it was better to tell Brigida after. “Held up!”

It didn’t take long for the two to reach the main hall of the castle, the doors already pushed open. Cat moved out from behind Brigida and let out a gasp as she saw what awaited them there.

The walls of the hall, once finely gilded and painstakingly maintained, were splattered with blood, bodies slumped over on the ground, unmoving. They wore the armor of the rebel soldiers, their swords stained with blood. Their own blood. The magical reinforcement she had given them hadn’t been enough for them to resist the full strength of the Dragon’s magic. And for a moment she felt a pang of guilt, of frustration at her own lack of power be focused again on the action in front of her. Some were still standing, locked into a murderous frenzy that kept them from telling their friends from their enemies.

Vittorio was standing in the center of the room, trying to push past his own men to get to the Mage King who had caused all of this. Cat recognized the movements of a man who was holding back in a fight. Hildegard had often done that during their earliest training sessions.

“Brigida! You take left, I take right. We make him a path.” Cat shouted as she shot to the right.

“…Fine. But don’t hurt them mage! They’re still on our side!”

“Right.”

Cat ran beside Vittorio, sheathing her sword. She wouldn’t need it here. The crazed rebels were moving sloppily, unable to control their actions. One of them swung wildly towards her head, his slowed actions giving her the chance to duck under his blow and take hold of his arm. As she did, however, what felt like icy pain burned across the skin of her gloved hand.

“Go, Vittorio!” She shouted as she pulled the possessed man out his way.

Cat could feel the magical tendrils crawling through her body into her mind. The mage was trying to turn her too. He was strong, much stronger than the other mages she had fought recently. She had dueled more powerful mages before, but a duel was much different than this. A duel had rules. This mage wasn’t holding back.

She saw Brigida freeze where she had begun to run, legs locking in place as her body was frozen where it stood, even with all of her willpower it was not enough to push past his magic.

Cat could feel her knees shaking as she tried to cleanse herself of the foreign magic. The others all grabbed their heads as they screamed out. Except Vittorio. Cat watched as he stood strong, the spell seeming to wash around him like a river around a rock. It was unlike anything she had ever encountered before. He wasn’t just resisting, he was entirely immune.

Cat, however, was sapped of strength. Between the physical toll of her exertion and spell casting, even resisting this spell was incredibly taxing, weighing down her arms and legs. Her breathing grew labored, her mind hazy as she worked to keep the Mage King’s magic from infesting her mind. It was like a sickness, a numbness in her blood she had to concentrate to keep at bay lest ti overwhelm her entirely, choking the magic from her body as she fought it.

Vittorio came to her side, noticing her shivering stance as she continued to resist, her mind still her own. He reached down, under her shoulder and lifted her to her feet. “Come on. We’re not done yet. We still need you, Catarina.”

She stumbled forward, still fighting against the mental assault, but even standing next to Vittorio seemed to empart some of his resistance on her. She could feel the Mage King’s vicelike hold weaken on her with each step. The Mage King himself was moving sluggishly now; the strain from influencing so many minds at once was obviously taking its toll on him. Still, Cat could see the glimmering tell-tale signs of magic over his armor. No mundane sword would pierce it as it was now.

“I can’t hurt him. I need you to break his protection.” Vittorio said, more calmly than anyone in his position should be.

Cat nodded, as she pulled herself forward from his grip under her own power. Each step was laborious, but Cat grit her teeth and bore through it. This was what she had stayed in this city to do first. Everything that would come after…No. Right now that was not important.

“You are just children, traitors.” Drago said, his voice sounding steady even as his body shook under the effort. “None of you will leave this place alive. Then I will stomp this rebellion! I am the King of this city! I am the Dragon!”

“You’re nothing but a cruel tyrant!” A girl’s voice echoed through the hall. Cat recognized it as the voice of Lana. Apparently so did Drago. The Mage King’s face was locked in shock, before it broke into a cold rage.

“What are you doing here, Lana. You were sent off with Cornelia.”

Cat could feel the strain pushing her back lighten some. This was the best opportunity she was going to get to strip Drago of his enchantments. Cat closed her eyes. Working with other people’s spells was always harder than working with her own. It always felt different, familiar but off.

Tearing through magical armor like this was tricky business. She pushed back against his influence, reaching out as she attacked the web of magic over his armor with her own power. She had to concentrate, feel for it before creating an image in her mind, a sword sundering armor to cut through his supernatural protection.

“What?! You…Absolutely not!” Cat heard his voice shout as she continued to attack his protection. He was aware of it now. He was fighting back. The armor attempting to knit itself together even as Cat’s magic cleaved through it.

“What happened…?” Brigida’s voice rang out, but Cat’s vision was growing hazy, her focus entirely spent on penetrating his armor. If Brigida could speak it meant he was spending all of his focus to fight her, she almost had him now.

With one last surge of power she tore apart a segment of his armor. She had created a breach in his defenses. He was using all his power to fight her. Cat fell to her knee again as she tried to protect her work against his onslaught.

Cat could feel heat encasing her body, but it didn’t burn. Magical flames seemed to surround her mind, creating a shield that kept the full power of the Dragon at bay. It was…another mage? Then it had to be…

“You ungrateful brat!”

Cat could feel Drago’s attention turn away from her in an instant. All of his anger and rage switched from Cat to his daughter. Lana let out a gasp as he grabbed her by the throat, lifting her in the air. His protection spells were quickly weaving themselves back up, even as Vittorio tried to attack him from behind, his sword simply bouncing aside mere inches from his skin as his fingers tightened around Lana’s throat.

The world was blurry as Cat stared out through her watering. Another rebel, one she didn’t recognize, had rushed forward to try and free Lana from the Dragon’s grip. Vittorio had been knocked back by a wild punch from Drago, but was stumbling to his feet. With his attention free, Drago put all of his focus on his all but defenseless daughter.

Cat took a deep breath. Time seemed to slow as it always did under this kind of pressure. The memory of her with Hildegard fluttered back into her mind. The conversation that had led to the light smack and stern words. It had started so innocently…

“I’m going to be a hero like you, Hilde! When people are in trouble, I’ll be there in the nick of time. They’ll turn around and then I’ll just be there, guarding their back…Heroes always show up right when they’re needed!”

Heroes always show up right when they’re needed. Right in the nick of time. She could run over and end this threat by herself, with her sword and magic. She would be the hero, saving Lana and stopping all this chaos. But she didn’t have a nick left to spare. Besides…Vittorio was closer.

“Vittorio! Left side of stomach! Now!” Cat shouted as she poured all of her power into a final, overwhelming attack into the Dragon’s defenses. The protection wards split open in the spot she targeted, leaving him vulnerable to mundane means there…but already she could see the spell starting to repair itself.

Lana was turning blue, her breath coming short. Vittorio was running over, but Cat wasn’t sure if he would even make it in time. Brigida pushed past Cat as she tried to rush the Mage before their opportunity was gone as well. Cat fell backwards. She lacked the strength to hold herself up.

“E-Emidio!” The raspy voice of Lana called out hoarsely. The other rebel, the one who had come with her, was stabbing into the Dragon’s side wildly. He didn’t seem to be aiming, just trying to do as much damage as he could. The wards couldn’t repair under this barrage.

The Dragon howled in pain and rage as he turned on the rebel, his sword being much more accurate, much sharper, than the rebel’s low quality blade. The rebel, Emidio, fell back, but his work was done.

Cat’s head hit the ground and everything went fuzzy. She saw Vittorio’s boots walking towards the Dragon. “It’s over. I’m ending your tyranny right now.” Cat sat up as her head spun. Through the double vision, she watched Vittorio thrust his sword into the Dragon’s side. She could hear the unforgettable howl of pain.

Vittorio twisted his blade inside the Mage King. Cat couldn’t tell if it was to make sure the mage was dead or just to see him suffer. It didn’t matter. The Dragon tried to cast a spell, but Vittorio just pushed his sword in deeper. The Dragon struggled, this big man being held by a much smaller teenager, but Vittorio’s grip stayed firm.

Soon the Dragon stopped moving all together.

Vittorio withdrew his sword from the Dragon’s body. Brigida rushed to his side as she raised his sword hand into the air.

“We have done it! We have freed our city from the tyranny of the mages! Long live our general! Long live Tagus Vittorio!”

Cat slowly drew herself to her feet. Their mission was done, the evil king beaten, all should be well. Still, something didn’t feel quite right about it all. As Vittorio’s men rushed to him, cheering his name, Cat turned and saw the rebel Emidio standing beside Lana. The girl looked exhausted, and definitely far from victorious. For all the evil he had been she had just lost a father.

“Thanks” Cat said, moving to her side, her movements still a bit sluggish. “You really helped me back there.”

“Mmm…” Lana nodded to her wearily, her eyes watching Vittorio.

“Things will get better.” Cat said hopefully.

“Will they?” Lana asked “The people will remember their oppression under mages for a lot longer than they’ll remember the fact that mages helped them.”

Cat’s heart sank a little. She knew it was true. With Vittorio’s abilities and Brigida’s battle fervor, balance might never be found. Instead the scales might simply tip the other way. One tyrant to replace another, and Cat couldn’t stay here forever.

“Then I guess they’ll need you.” She said, hope back in her voice as Lana turned to look at her, perplexed.

“Me? I’m his daughter and a mage.”

“Yes you.” Cat smiled “You’re magical royalty who turned against all of that in order to fight your father, not for power but because it was right.”

“Because it was right…” Lana repeated.

“It makes you the perfect person! Vittorio and Brigida can’t pretend you weren’t there. You’re on their side and no one can say otherwise, but you’re also going to protect all the innocent magic-users in this city.”

“I…I am?”

“Uh huh.” Cat nodded assuredly.

“And what about you?” Lana asked suspiciously “You’re a mage, you could help.”

“Oh no” Cat shook her head “I need to make a like a hero and vanish into the sunset. I have other days to save, after all.” She added with a cheery grin.

“It’s Catarina, right?” Lana asked.

“Yep”

“Well…alright” she nodded, a new force seeming to enter her voice. “I’d like to see you again someday, Catarina.”

With one last smile, Catarina made her way from the palace towards Aetna, and from there to home.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 3o

April 15th, 2023
Echo stepped lightly down the stairs to the basement of Nora’s home, almost soundless as her bare feet passed over the cold floor. She rather liked basements, she thought idly. They were closed in and under the earth, like the caves in the mountain on which she had once lived, where the roots of plants would pass through the walls and ceilings. A fondness for basements was one of those things no one would ever bother to ask her about. Who cared about basements, after all? It was simply another facet of her character, of her, that would continue on unknown so long as this curse persisted.

She shook the thoughts from her head as she entered the makeshift hospital bed that Nora had salvaged for Lenore. In truth, it was little more than an actual bed with an IV drip off to the side and a drawer full of miscellaneous pills on the bedside table. Hardly the peak of medical care.

Lenore was where she had been for nearly two weeks, lying on her back in the bed, to all the world asleep. Nora, meanwhile, sat her vigil, where she had been spending more and more time, at her bedside. A stool pulled beside the bed over as she sat, hunched over, elbows on her knees and head resting on her folded hands.

Echo, still walking in silence, slipped in beside her, kneeling low to meet her at eye-level.

“Ah, hey there, Echo.” Nora said.

“Hey there, Echo.” Echo said, concern on her face. Nora had grown visibly wearier over the past few days. Her pale skin only enhanced the dark shadows under her eyes and its increasingly pallid tone. Her hair was far more a mess than usual, odd strands hanging over her face that she would make a loose effort to brush aside every few minutes.

Echo frowned at the state of her. This level of stress wasn’t healthy; she looked perpetually ill. Still, there was nothing she could say. If Nora remained silent, so did Echo.

Echo had quietly seethed against her curse countless times in the past, and today was no different, as she longed to give Nora the comforting words she needed. Unable to do even that, Echo settled for sliding a hand over her shoulder.

“I took her off the coma-inducing drugs.” Nora said, leaning slightly towards Echo. “If I’m right, they also should have started removing some of her conditioning.”

“Removing some of her conditioning?” Echo did her best to ask with tone.

Nora nodded. “Her conditioning is reinforced by constant sensory cues. Spending a period this long might do something to ‘reset’ her brain, so to speak, and hopefully dull the connections her mind made. Now it’s just a matter of…if she wakes up.”

“If she wakes up?” Echo questioned. Was it that unsure of a thing?

“She’s in worse shape than I had hoped.” Nora said. “Her metabolism works so fast she needs a lot of energy to keep going. She’s incredibly strong but she’s still human and it takes a lot of toll on her to move that fast and work that hard. Not to mention…I have my hopes, but I have no way of really knowing what state her mind is in beneath that conditioning.”

“Beneath that conditioning…” Echo repeated glumly.

“I’m sorry.” Nora gave her a weary smile. “I’m usually the bold and active one and here I am sitting like a recluse in the basement.”

“Recluse in the basement!” Echo, deciding there wasn’t enough she could do to simply comfort, decided to try cheering her up instead. She pulled Nora into a hug, proclaiming her words in the cheeriest singing voice she could summon.

“Ack!” Nora was caught off guard as her head was pushed against the warm flesh of Echo’s breast, the nymph gently nuzzling her as she held her tight. “A-awfully affectionate today…” She said, and Echo silently beamed at getting a brief nervous stutter out of Nora.

“Awfully affectionate today.” Echo grinned impishly as she embraced Nora.

“Well…I know you don’t mind.” Nora supplied as her face once more fell into a tired but sincere smile, to which Echo cheerfully chirped “I know you don’t mind.”

“I suppose I don’t.” Nora said. “Though I’ll be sure to catch you a little less off-guard next time.”

“I’ll be sure to catch you a little less off-guard next time.” Echo scoffed at the supplied words. Nora usually got it close enough to right for her not to mind, but not catching Nora with a hug when she was off her guard? Where was the fun in that?

Nora stayed there for a few moments in Echo’s arm, seemingly put at ease by the nymph’s close presence, and Echo felt a feeling of elation wash over her. In the past, people had enjoyed Echo’s presence merely as far as it extended to meeting their own ends. Zeus had employed Echo merely as a distraction for his vengeful and vindictive Queen, and had thrown Echo to the wolves when his plot was discovered.

Narcissus, meanwhile, had been the epitome of the problem inherent in her curse. He had only seen in Echo that which he already loved in herself. She had meant no more to him as a person than a mirror did. In fact in many ways he had abandoned her for a mirror, obsessing over his reflection in the water.

Now however, sitting in silence with Nora taking comfort in Echo’s embrace, she felt that Nora truly was comforted by her presence, having Echo’s arms wrapped around her. Nora was quietly appreciating Echo, rather than appreciating the view of herself through Echo’s eyes.

Idly she wondered if this was what it was like for all those who still had their voice, to be loved for the qualities people saw in you.

“Hey…” Nora said quietly, and Echo slowly released her somewhat, one arm on Nora’s back and the other on her thigh.

“Hey.” Echo repeated simply.

“I…” For once Nora did seem at something of a loss for words, though she quickly rallied. “I really do appreciate everything you do for me.”

“I really do appreciate everything you do for me.” Echo mimicked with a smile.

“Heh, and I wasn’t fishing for a compliment there.” Nora said, though no matter how much she smiled the weariness refused to leave her eyes.

“And I really do want to do all I can for you.” She continued.

“I really do want to do all I can for you.” Echo repeated, nodding vehemently.

“You practically do too much already” Nora said. “Honestly beyond your work in the house…you helped save Lenore, you’ve worked with me communing with gods, and you’ve been there when I needed you and…I wanted you to know how much that meant to me. I haven’t really had people I could rely on like you before…well, not for a very long time.”

“Not for a very long time…” Echo said quietly. She moved the hand on Nora’s lap to her hand, gently closing it around her pale fingers.

She wanted to say so much more. Everything Echo did for Nora (and frankly she wanted to do more) was still so little compared to what Nora had been doing for Echo. In a thousand years no one had decided to try and help Echo lift her curse. A few months ago she had just been a bodiless voice in a cave. Now she felt so much more…real again. Part of that was the Days of Revelation, no doubt, but Echo knew Nora had no small part to play in it.

Echo wanted to tell her how much she enjoyed spending that time with Nora, how much she loved the few words they shared in full meaning, and how the silence had meant almost as much as the words. The words didn’t come, as they never did, but now she could dream, she could truly hope, that soon she would be able to speak those words to her.

Nora looked at her as if she was about to speak, but then went silent for a few moments longer.

“There’s more I want to say…” She said, and left it hanging long enough for Echo to repeat it back to her.

“There’s more I want to say.”

“But it’s…we both know how we do it now isn’t enough for either of us.”

“Isn’t enough for either of us.” Echo nodded. It truly wasn’t.

“Which is why I’ll wait.” Nora said. “I’ll wait until we get that curse off of you. Together we’ll face Hera and make her lift the curse on you. You shouldn’t have to live the way you do, no one should…” She added quietly.

“No one should.” Echo repeated, her eyes glancing to Nora.

“I suppose it’s pretty similar…” Nora said, following her eyes. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”

She took a deep breath as Echo quietly repeated her words.

“My sisters, Lenore and Ellen” Nora began. “Both of them were fully under the sway of the monsters that…made us. Brainwashed and conditioned past what you saw in Lenore…I’d known them all my life, knew them since we were just children and it was…it was as if something in them had been cut off or locked away. They weren’t the people I knew anymore, not in their voices and not in their hearts. I feared I had lost them forever and…” She took another deep breath, the words alone clearly taxing on her mind. Echo’s grasp tightened on her hand.

“I couldn’t save Ellen…I tried but…I failed. I told myself then that I couldn’t lose Lenore as well, I won’t lose Lenore.” She reached out, taking Lenore’s hand in her free one as Echo repeated her under her breath.

Nora turned back to Echo. “And I…I know there’s another you trapped in there somewhere. One I’ve never really met, and I really want to meet her. I want to hear what you have to say…in my own words.” She added with a smile.

“In my own words.” Again Echo felt a tear running down her cheek as she embraced Nora again.

“Ah…” Nora didn’t try to back away or let out shocked surprise this time, instead simply embracing her in turn.

“I promise we’ll lift that curse.” She said. “And when we do we’ll go out to dinner, somewhere with a nice table where we can sit and talk for hours…then we’ll come home to talk until morning comes again.”

“Talk until morning comes again.” Echo sniffed inelegantly as she squeezed Nora. It was what she wanted as well, what she had always want to, someone to talk to through the night who hung on her every word, who could follow along in Echo’s laugh and share in her sorrows. There was nothing in the world she wanted more.

Echo felt she understood Nora a little better now. When Nora had first offered to help lift her curse, Echo had been astonished and more than a little wary at such a great promise seemingly so lightly made. Perhaps she should have known better, Nora never did anything lightly. Seeing Echo, seeing a person whose tongue and heart were trapped by a cruel force of circumstance beyond her control, maybe she’d thought of her sisters. One still in the throes of a monster’s brainwashing, and another she failed to save.

Echo couldn’t help but smile a little at the irony. She had always feared and hated that people saw some facet of themselves when they looked at her. She had never expected that someone would look at her and see someone else entirely, let alone a clone of themselves. Still, she took some heart in it. Nora had taken pit on Echo, but that was not the reason she was still here. She knew, somehow, that Nora truly did care for her. What Echo wanted was to tell her she felt the same way, but in her own words.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 29

April 16th, 2023

Giovanni had been roused from his slumber very early in the morning. The sun was still resting on the eastern horizon, painting the sky its many colors as pale light began to flow through the window of the room of the capital the wolves had claimed as a “den”. He was awoken by the sound of rapid footfalls even before they reached his door and knocked quickly.

Giovanni shifted back into his human form and opened the door, finding a tired Aurelio standing before him, a hunting bow of polished wood and silver etching slung over his shoulder.

“Giovanni.” He said hurriedly, clearly out of breath “Something’s happened.”

This was why Giovanni now found himself walking through the streets of Rome in the early morning with a contingent of others behind them. They had brought all the guards they could afford to spare, fifteen in all, as well as a few others they had roused from bed. Nora Newstar and Lord Albion were among them.

“One more time for the less alert among us.” Lord Albion said, glancing at Nora, who was still bleary-eyed and yawning as she walked beside them. “Tell us what you saw.”

“The cult, the Hour of the Wolf, I believe it was established as a ruse.” Aurelio said. “My time among them was shorter than I would have preferred, but never once did I see the same kind of mind-control abilities that was put upon your vandal.”

“And these robed figures?” Albion asked.

“I do not know, they seemed to be from their own cult but…they certainly did not care for the Hour of the Wolf, they had only come to slaughter all of them.”

“A cult that eats other cults…” Nora muttered groggily. “This just keeps getting better.”

“The Messenger,” Aurelio continued. “Was in truth part of this new cult. There was something in her voice…some power…I believe that she was the true cause of the mind control, and performed her actions to divert our attention towards the Hour of the Wolf.”

“If our attention was being diverted towards Hour of the Wolf…” Giovanni spoke next. “Then why target them?”

“I doubt they suspected infiltration.” Aurelio said. “If they had been successful it would seem as if the cult simply vanished or disbanded. Would any of you theorize they’d been murdered ritualistically by another cult?”

“Fair…” Giovanni admitted. It still made him uneasy. They knew crime would happen eventually, but not from this cause and not on this scale. They had thought the Hour of the Wolf, a doomsday cult with a penchant for vandalism, had been the worst. But what was waiting for them now?

“It’s right up here.” Aurelio said, as he guided them down a narrow side street.

“I suspect they’re long gone.” Albion said. “They wouldn’t stick around if there were escapees.”
“Where are the other escaped wolf cultists?” Giovanni asked.

“I couldn’t say” Aurelio said, shaking his head. “I ran straight to the capital. I can give you their names though.”

“Please do.” Giovanni growled. “We need to learn as much as we can.”

“Worshipping in an unregistered cult isn’t strictly illegal, so long as their practices weren’t.” Nora said. “If what Aurelio says is true most of these people might only be guilty of being manipulated and used.”

“A fair point.” Albion nodded with a slight smile. “But there is certainly enough to round up and question all of them to the fullest extent of the law.” Nora stayed quiet.

“Here we are.” Aurelio said, pointing down past an open pair of cellar doors. Even from outside Giovanni’s sharp nose could smell the familiar scent of human blood and dead flesh. He shivered slightly, the scent bringing back more memories than he’d prefer.

“Very well.” Giovanni said. “Aurelio, you and I will go in with ten of the guards, the rest stay here with Senator Nassar and the Pontifex.”

Slowly they made their way down into the cellar. It was a simple layout. The stairs lead into a short hall that opened into a larger chamber. Underground, though, the smell of death became that much thicker as it hung in the stagnant air. Giovanni screwed up his face at the overwhelming stench, while even Aurelio with his dulled human senses seemed to be put on edge. Taking another breath, Giovanni smelled something else in the room, something he did not recognize but nonetheless was black and foul, a hidden potency in the reek of the room.

As they stepped into the room, Aurelio’s bow at the ready and the guards carrying spears, Giovanni felt a shiver run down his spine. One of the guards backed up from the group to vomit in the corner, and the others, Aurelio included, were visibly disturbed with many turning green.
The Hour of the Wolf had been truly eradicated, and they had not died well. The room was littered with nearly two dozen corpses in various states of mutilation. All of them had been butchered with long sharp knives, many of them quite crudely. The stench of death was now almost overpowering.

Aurelio stepped lightly through the room, picking his footing carefully through the bodies as he made his way to the bloodied altar at the back of the chamber. “Ah, they’re still here, Mister Giovanni.”

Giovanni hurried over, barefoot across the ground, to join him.

There behind the altar were two bodies. One belonged to the Hour of the Wolf cult leader that Aurelio had named “Lord Mani”. His eyes were still open in a deathly stare, and his entire front was soaked with blood. Beside him was a hooded woman Giovanni didn’t recognize. Her only wound was a small bloodless hole in her robes where Aurelio’s arrow had struck her down.

“Bring down the Pontifex and the Senator.” Giovanni said to the guards, many of whom were all too eager to leave the chamber. “…but be sure to warn them!”

Soon Nora and Albion had joined them in the chamber, Nora raising her sleeve over her mouth and nose at the stench. Albion made a better show but Giovanni could still see his face contort in disgust upon entrance.

“The thought of this happening in our city” Albion said. “No more playing around. We need to have these cultists hunted down and hanged.”

“I’m normally willing to give the benefit of the doubt” Nora said. “But this is barbaric…inhuman.”
“Ritualistic” Aurelio corrected. “This wasn’t just murder, it was sacrifice.”

Giovanni glanced down and saw Aurelio pull a knife from the belt of the so-called messenger. He weighed it in his hands. It was elegantly designed, a handle of bright leather tied with black feathers, and a long straight blade of shiny black stone.

“Obsidian” Nora said, looking at the knife. “Not your everyday stabbing weapon, and ridiculously sharp as well.”

“No good in a fight though.” Aurelio said, and without another word he smashed the blade against the altar, shattering it.”

“That was evidence, you twit!” Albion shouted, hand gripping his jeweled walking stick.

“I think you have plenty enough evidence here.” Aurelio said. “Besides, this is the implement of a vicious and bloodthirsty deity. It’s my duty as a champion to see it destroyed.”

“I understand where you’re coming from, Aurelio.” Nora said, more calmly as Albion continued to quietly seethe. “But this is more important. I’m sure you’ve done Diana proud already, and once we have everything in order we’ll let people know they’re safe from the Hour of the Wolf thanks to you.”

“More thanks to a bloodthirsty cult of killers.” Albion sneered stepping towards the altar.

“Look here.” He said, pointing his stick like a teacher’s rod to the body of Lord Mani. “That ‘Messenger’ ripped this man’s heart out of his chest right through his ribs. That’s not human strength.”

He used the stick next to pull up the sleeves of the Messenger’s robes, revealing where the fair skin of her hands twisted into fearsome black claws. “I’m sure this woman was born human, but now…”

“Are you saying she’s some kind of monster?” Giovanni asked. He could still smell human on her…but that second smell, the one he’d sensed earlier, was like something foul saturated her entire body.

“Not quite.” Albion said. “Aurelio, did you feel anything odd around this Messenger?”

“Er…yes.” Aurelio nodded. “Like lightning was running down my body. It was…a bit painful but more…energetic than anything.”

“As I thought.” Albion said. “This is no monster, this is something much more sophisticated.”

“Meaning?” Asked Giovanni.

“I believe this woman is a “Messenger” in a very literal sense. She is a harbinger for the word of her deity, a proto-champion of sorts. Not as skilled or specialized as Aurelio here, but certainly containing more than a modicum of power.” He turned again to Aurelio. “That energy you felt? No doubt that was your goddess’ essence protecting you from being drawn under the sway of another. This Messenger was divinely inspired.”

“So you have a cultist, now you need to find the god.” Nora stepped forward as well, pulling back the Messenger’s hood. She appeared quite normal, even pretty. Sleek black hair tied back behind her head over slim aquiline features. Nora looked her over, rolling up her sleeves and examining her head and neck.

“She looks peaceful…” Giovanni said, a part of him angry that such a vile person seemed to have died so untroubled.

“The arrows of Diana.” Aurelio said. “They deliver death swiftly and painlessly. It is fairer to beasts, though I would be lying to say I wanted the same for her.”

Nora seemed caught up on something as she turned the Messenger’s head over to see the back of her neck.

“Hello…what’s this?” She said, mostly to herself as she leaned closer.

The rest of them crowded around, and Nora leaned back to reveal what she’d found. On the back of her neck, just below her right ear, was what appeared to be a birthmark in the shape of a butterfly.

“A birthmark?” Albion asked, incredulously.

“That’s no birthmark.” Nora said. “Look closer. That isn’t ‘shaped like’ a butterfly; that is a perfect image of a butterfly embedded in her skin. It’s not a tattoo either, it’s almost…like a brand, but not scarred in.”

“A god that likes to mark their merchandise.” Albion quipped. “How conveniently vulgar.”

“A butterfly…” Giovanni had limited knowledge of other religions and mythologies, but nothing sprang immediately to mind. “What does that mean?”

“Not exactly intimidating is it?” Albion said. “You’d expect it to be something brutish or vile, like a skull or a bleeding sword. Not something as delicate as a butterfly.”

“Not exactly” Nora said. “Butterflies have long been associated across cultures with the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as well as incarnations of the soul. To many, the butterflies are the souls of the dead.”

“So we can’t exactly narrow it down?” Giovanni asked, ears hanging low.

“Well…it’s not Greek or Roman.” Nora said. “The gods despise human sacrifice and Psyche herself is harmless as deities go…they have no real mythological significance in Egypt…I’d have to check my books, but nothing springs to mind.”

“A bloodthirsty foreign god…” Giovanni muttered. “Far worse than what we had imagined.”

“Worse than that.” Albion said. “Skoll and Hati are bloodthirsty foreign gods, but with them we knew what we were up against. This cult…this Butterfly Cult…they are not only bloodthirsty but empowered and very organized. It seems our work is only just beginning.”

“Butterfly cult…” Nora muttered. “Wait…I think I remember something.”

“Hmm?” Albion glanced at her.

“A month or so ago…when a lot of cults were still getting started, I heard a rumor about an unregistered cult. Someone found advertisements for it but they went dark not long after. I thought they just disbanded.”

“What was it called?” Giovanni asked.

“The Butterfly Shroud.” Nora said. “Sounded harmless from what I heard, a bit New-Agey and super spiritual…not a bloodthirsty murder cult.”

“It’s a start.” Aurelio said. “Though if they have ‘Messengers’ like this one…then I doubt infiltration will work.”
“This isn’t just a band of rogues and misguided fools” Giovanni said, his teeth bared. “This is an infestation that needs to be stamped out with extreme prejudice.”

“Well, if anyone can do that the Catholic Church certainly has experience.” Albion snarked wryly. Giovanni shot him a venomous look. “Though in this case I agree. This cult cannot be allowed to exist, and this god should be expelled from Italy.”

Nora, who had gone quiet, spoke up next.

“We may have a more immediately pressing concern.”

“More pressing than a murder cult?” Albion asked.

“For now, yes.” Nora said. “Thanks to Aurelio this butchery of theirs just revealed their existence to us. They’re going to go dark for a while, and if the Hour of the Wolf was built solely for this event then they won’t be planning anything on this scale for a long time. No doubt they deliberately struck when the Rangers were gone.”

“True.” Albion said. “Then what is more pressing?”

“It may have been manipulated…but look at this altar, at their organization and their secrecy…this was a legitimate cult in the eyes of a divinity. These people really did worship Skoll and Hati.”

“Your point being?”

Nora fixed a hard-eyed look at both Albion and Giovanni. “I don’t think Skoll and Hait are going to take having their entire cult butchered very well.”

For a moment, the silence was so absolute Giovanni could have sworn all their hearts skipped a beat.

“Shit.” Albion abandoned his usual gentile demeanor for a second before composing himself. “Well done, Pontifex. You’ve convinced me. A pair of sky-devouring wolves out for revenge is indeed much worse than a murder cult sent temporarily back into the shadows.”

“What do we do?” Nora asked, and for a moment all eyes turned to Giovanni.

He was at a loss. He had hoped that within the next few days the Hour of the Wolf would be disbanded and peace would return to the city. Instead they now had something much worse lurking in Rome, and a second terror no doubt already coming their way from the distant north.
He took a deep breath and addressed the three of them.

“For now, we gather up the remaining hour of the Wolf cultists for questioning and learn all we can. We announce the disbandment of their cult. Word of this Butterfly Shroud CANNOT be allowed to spread as long as we can keep it secret.”

“Keeping secrets from the people of Rome…” Nora muttered, but Giovanni overran her.

“It’s not ideal but news like this could tear the city apart.” He said. “We do all we can to hunt them from the shadows. Aurelio, you’ll be helping us with that.”

“I would not have it any other way.” He said.

“As for Skoll and Hati…” Giovanni considered his options. The weight of the situation pressed down heavily on his shoulders as his face turned dark. He had always acted on his own before but now? “…I have to inform Capitolina. She has as much a claim to the title of Defender of the City as I. We’ll take care of it.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 28

April 14th, 2023
Cat rolled across the pavement as a bolt of electricity crackled above her head. Without wasting a second, the young magus had risen to a kneeling position, her hands outstretched as she froze a block of ice in the path of the lightning. The hostile magic struck her barrier, protecting the mortals hiding behind it. “Don’t touch it!” She shouted to her allies.

Her mind flashed back to the days studying under her father. He was an ice mage, just like she was and he’d have her practice these magic duels. Cat’s hand reflexively began to rub her arm as a lifetime of duels filled her mind. He would not hold back and more than once she had blacked out from the pain. Yet here, in this war, his lessons were saving her and her newfound allies.

The metal cross around her neck was pulled for a brief moment towards the ice structure, the energy coursing through the frozen water. Soon enough, the phenomenon was over and the cross rested easily once again. Cat, however, did not. She leapt over the city bench behind which she had taken cover.

Hildegard had taught her how to use a sword and magic at the same time. Cat still carried the sword with her into battle, but she hadn’t swung it once yet. Vittorio had enough swordsmen, or so he claimed. The groups had split into three. Cat had spent much of the night reinforcing the mundane troops as best as she was able. Should the magi try to overpower the minds of the resistance, the troops would have a few seconds to fight off the influence. In battle, all it took was a few seconds to break a mage’s focus.

Cat was running across the battlefield, the enemy mage already in her sights. He had been focused on the people behind the ice rather than the girl who had dove for cover. As expected. Syracuse seemed to have a higher mage per capita than Italy had even before the Days of Revelation, but they weren’t trained in the traditional way. The magi here had no reason to hide their natures in the recent days.

The Sicilian mage had brought his arms back, as if preparing to toss a large boulder at the resistance. The electricity already began to spark about his fingers. It was an obvious display of power.

It was hubris, plain and simple. The more powerful the spell, the more obvious it was but the longer it took to cast. Against a mob of angry townsfolk, this show of power might work. Against another mage?

Cat’s hair rushed behind her head as she created a sheet of ice on the ground in front of her, her speed increasing as the traction beneath her feet clung desperately to the ice. With one hand, she drew her sword. Her other hand was weaving the moisture in the air together, gathering it to her grip, creating water from the droplets in the air. She could feel her body pooling the energy in her hand, turning that same energy into even more liquid.

The lightning was starting to crackle loud enough to be heard. Cat stopped running, letting her momentum carry her across the near frictionless ice. Her sword hand fell back as her water hand pushed forward, the water ball she had created flying through the air before splashing on the enemy’s hands. With a shout and the smell of burning hair and flesh, his spell stopped. The electricity dissipated into the air.

He didn’t even have time to turn around before Catarina thrust her sword forward. She had a clear shot and it would be an easy kill. She could not ask for a better opening.

Her body froze, her arm losing its momentum as the sword approached his stomach. In a panic, unsure of what just happened, Cat changed her tactic. Rather than stab the magus, she brought her sword hilt down upon his head. There was a loud, disturbing thud, and a shout of pain, before the magus fell face first to the ground.

Cat felt as though she was going to be sick. What had happened? She had an easy shot. Was there another mage nearby, affecting her abilities?

It had been only fifteen seconds, yet to Cat that whole affair had felt as if it had been in slow motion. The mortal troops had finally caught up her, and one of them unceremoniously impaled the unconscious mage through the chest with a spear. Cat stared wide-eyed, unable to muster the strength to stop them, not sure why she felt the need to do so.

“Good job, mage!” One of them shouted as they rushed forward. Cat stood there motionless as they ran past, staring at the dead body. It was hardly the first she’d ever seen. He was her enemy and certainly a part of an evil system. Yet…

Cat grit her teeth. Now was not the time to hesitate. She had seen what the magi in this city were doing to the mundane citizens. She had seen the destruction that they had brought, keeping the people inside trapped. Still something felt off inside her.

The resistance ran ahead of her, leaving her behind as she watched them. The anger and hate that drove them just tasted bitter in her mouth when she tried to dredge it up. Why was she fighting?
Rather than chase after her allies, Cat turned to the side. She was scouting to protect the flanks, she told herself. She had pretty much brought her forces safely to the Palace. By this point, had Vittorio’s plan worked, he would be there with the majority of the forces. Brigida’s own specially trained “Mage Breakers” would be on patrol to hunt down any magi not at the palace.

Cat winced as she thought of Vittorio’s right hand and her coterie. Their name alone caused her alarm whenever she heard it. Cat had seen the scars when Brigida had stripped out of her gear one practice. The wounds. The brands. Now, the Mage Breaker wanted to hurt magi, but would that not just lead to the same cycle?

Cat pushed herself off a closed dumpster to get onto the roof tops. She could see the walls of the island around her, circling her, entrapping her. Entrapping everyone inside. The magi fought because they had no one to check their power. The resistance fought out of anger and hate.

Vittorio fought because…Cat wasn’t actually sure. He didn’t seem to have the same violence, the same hatred that his soldiers did. Thinking back on her time with the somewhat cold, yet no less brilliant, young man, Cat found herself coming to the conclusion that he fought because he believed it was the right thing to do.

Wasn’t that why she had joined him? Then why was she not rushing towards the palace right now?
From her position on the rooftop, she saw three of the Mage Breakers chasing two women. One of the girls was about Cat’s age. She had brown hair and a blue dress. She looked terrified as she clutched a puppy to her chest. The other was older, wearing a suit and glasses, her long hair hanging freely down her back.

Cat figured those two must be magi if the Mage Breakers were chasing them down like this. Yet they didn’t seem to be doing anything but trying to escape the slaughter.

Why was she fighting? Cat sighed and jumped down from the roof. It was obvious wasn’t it? She was fighting to put an end to all of this. She couldn’t let the resistance perpetuate this cycle. Cat charged forward, putting herself between the two magi and the three Mage Breakers, cape blowing, sword sheathed. No one here was her enemy unless they made her their enemy.

“Stop! What do you think you’re doing?!” Cat said, holding out both her hands as she stared down the three trained soldiers.

“Get out of our way, mage! These two are agents of the Dragon!” One of them shouted. None of them stopped their own charge.

“So what!? They’re not going to the palace, they’re fleeing for their lives! Did they even attack you?!”

“They’re magi working for the Dragon.” Another of them said. This soldier actually slowed down. The other two began to drag their feet as they saw this. Still, it seemed that the three of them considered this to be crime enough.

“So what?!” Cat shouted again, stepping forward. “You want to kill all the magi, is that it?”
“There’s no such thing as a good mage!”

“Then kill me!” Cat raised both her arms to the side, glaring angrily at her three allies. They stood there, staring at her, unsure of what to do. She remembered casting her spells to enhance their speed and mental resistance this morning. The Mage Breakers were the first to receive the benefits.

“What’s the matter? I’m not casting spells at you either, I’m a mage just like these two. There’s no such thing as a good mage, then I guess I’m not a good mage either! So do it…Or maybe you are letting your hate cloud your judgement!”

The three Mage Breakers looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Cat had stood by Vittorio this morning, had given the speech about being in the front line. She wasn’t attacking them, just standing in front of them and their prey. Cat’s face stayed grim and serious.

“Not so black and white, is it? You’ve been hurt by the mage-kings, I get it. But what do you think you’re doing now, “Mage Breakers”? Do you think you’re going to feel better killing these two women?”

The sweat was building on Cat’s brow. Once again everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, as she felt the adrenaline pump through her veins. She knew she was in danger. Two ‘enemies’ behind, three angry mage killers in front. The instincts she had been training for months demanded she act to save her life, but she forced herself to stay still. Her life was not more important than this. The Mage Breakers raised their weapons. They took a step forward.

Cat drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes. She heard the thud of the spearheads embedding themselves with a thud. Opening her eyes, she saw the Mage Breakers had thrust their spears into the ground. Cat slowly lowered her arms.

“Thank you. You may be mad at me right now…but one day, you’ll thank me.” These soldiers, most of the resistance, they were hardly older than the teenaged Cat. She felt so odd speaking to them like that. She could feel their frustration with her pooling and knew she’d have to be careful.

The older woman had pushed herself in front of the younger girl, standing in defiance of the soldiers and Cat as guardian. Her eyes seemed to have a strange glow about them as Cat turned to face her, but whatever power they held seemed to be a passive one.

“I am Catarina Aldobrandini, current head of the Aldobrandini family of Rome.” Cat said. “Tell me…what are your names?”

“I am Cornelia. I’ve been called Ghost Eyes for much of my life, so it is a better last name than my actual family name.”

Cat could hear murmurings behind her, but she ignored them. It didn’t matter to her what the name Ghost Eyes meant right now. There would be time after the action, when everything was calmer, to figure out what crimes this woman might have committed. “And the girl?”

Cornelia seemed to pause. Cat could tell she was unwilling to say anything about her charge, but the girl herself did not. Pushing in front of the tall woman, the brown haired girl with the dog stepped forward, holding her head up in defiance.

“I’m not scared of you or these soldiers, Aldobrandini! My name is Lana. Lana Drago.” In spite of her words, Cat could see her body shaking. The puppy shivered in her arms, sensing the nerves of its master. Cat clicked her tongue as the girl introduced herself. Lana Drago meant that she was…

“The daughter of the Dragon!” Immediately, the Mage Breakers reached to dig their spears out of the ground. Cornelia seemed to be getting ready to cast a spell, not afraid to take the opportunity to get a first strike in. Cat extended her arms out to both of sides, her hands blue as her hair as she prepared her magic.

“Stand down, all of you.” No one moved. “I said…STAND DOWN!” Cat had learned from Hanne the power of a loud voice when nerves were tensed. It wasn’t shouting that made people do what you said, nor was it magic, it was just the force of will with which you spoke.

Cornelia was the first to respond, lowering her hands to her side. Slowly, the Mage Breakers did the same. Cat didn’t lower hers, however. Her father had caught her off guard more times than she could count by pretending to surrender. It was her nature to assume the best of people, but with other people’s lives on the line…it was different than when it was just her own.

Lana was the only one who didn’t seem to back down, staring defiantly at Cat. She was also the only one to not prepare for battle, however. “I’m not afraid of you…” She repeated, though her voice seemed to be straining. “I’m not scared of anything! I-I’m the daughter of the Dragon! I don’t run!”

Cornelia seemed to sigh at that. “Lana…”

“No!” Lana put the dog down on the ground, clenching her hands into fists as she stood there shaking. “I-I’m tired of being scared! I’m not scared of my Father! I’m not scared of these soldiers! I’m not scared of this mage! I don’t wanna run!”

Cornelia moved forward and grabbed Lana by the hand, trying to pull the girl behind her again, but Lana yanked her hand away. She just shot her guardian a look and took a step closer to Cat. “I-I’m not going down without a fight!”

It was Cat’s turn to sigh. Slowly, she lowered her hands and dropped the magic she was preparing. “You’re not going down, Lana. Your father must be stopped, but I know now what I’m doing here.”

Cat stepped back from the middle so she could talk to all five of the others. “This isn’t about punishing mages. This isn’t about killing mundanes. This fight is something more. I’m not fighting to help the resistance take over and start doing the same thing to mages that mages did to them!” She pointed to the Mage Breakers, her voice as steady as she could make it. “I’m fighting for the same reason your Tagus is! Vittorio is fighting because he believes it is right! As am I! But I promise you that I will fight anyone who will wound this city, be they Resistance or Mage!”

She flipped her cape and drew her sword. It felt good to do that. “I’m going to join Vittorio at the palace now. I’m going to help overthrow the Dragon and free this city. But most importantly, I’m going to be there to see that he doesn’t damn him in the process. The Dragon will fall…” She looked at Lana as she said this. The girl’s defiant expression seemed to wither. “But Syracuse will be stronger by the end of this. I’ll make sure of it!”

With her sword raised, Cat started marching towards the palace. The others stood watching her. Lana was the first to act. The young girl ran after the her, the small dog yipping at her heels.
Cornelia turned to the Mage Breakers, her hands lighting up with fire again. The soldiers raised their weapons. Instead of fighting, however, Cornelia turned, striding after her charge. The Mage Breakers followed, all in Catarina’s trail.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 27

April 14th, 2023
Giovanni spent a long time staring at the note he had been given. It was hand-written in rapid scrawl on an old sheet of paper, folded up and casually addressed “For Giovanni”. Stella had handed it to him nearly ten minutes ago and he had yet to read it, too busy smelling it and looking it over trying to learn what he could. Stella was standing in the corner of his office looking concerned as Giovanni closed his eyes and took in the deep scent from the letter. Humans overestimated the importance of the letters actually scrawled on a message, whereas everything else about it could often tell far more.

He could tell, for instance, that this was certainly penned by Aurelio. It had the man’s scent all over it where his hand had touched the paper while writing and when he had folded it. He could smell that the paper had been stored somewhere particularly damp for a long time. Likely he had gotten to it from an office that was inadequately reclaimed, possibly from outside the sanctuary itself, downriver of where he was. The handwriting was rapid and done by someone inexperienced with shorthand, clearly Aurelio had been in a hurry when he wrote it.

“You keep a very clean floor.” Giovanni remarked wryly as he noted the smell of lemon-scented floor cleaner, almost certainly from when Aurelio or his proxy slid it under Stella’s door. Judging by Stella’s flustered reaction, he was correct. From the letter alone Giovanni was at least partially sure he could track it back to where it had come from, but before he ran off with his hackles raised he decided to read the letter itself.

Giovanni,
Apologies for long delay. In deep cover and under surveillance. Tracked almost every hour of the day. I have successfully infiltrated the cult. They have not tried to place me under enchantment, though I believe they will if I advanced in ranks. Cult numbers around twenty, still small. Most members unattached or disillusioned. Few names yet, not enough to bring down cult. Believe something big is coming. Cult speaks of “Arrival of the Messenger. Some kind of prophet, not sure. Cult leader claims to be speaking to messenger, still no clues as to identity if divine or mortal. Afraid to ask too many questions. I will be in touch soon.
-A

All told, it wasn’t a whole lot to go on. It was progress, certainly. Now Giovanni knew that they at least wouldn’t dredge up Aurelio’s body from the bottom of the Tiber. Still it was small comfort. Giovanni had hoped they would get a time and a place to set up an operation to capture all the cultists at once. Something smooth and simple to eliminate the threat. Of course, things like this were rarely ever smooth and simple.

Stella must have seen the irritation on his face, as she spoke up against his prolonged silence. “It is still somewhat reassuring, isn’t it?” She turned her statement into a question at the last minute. “We know he’s still…somewhat safe, and he’s successfully infiltrated the cult. Quite skillfully too if he’s avoided detection.”
“That is some reassurance yes.” Giovanni said idly as he put the paper down. “But it means we’re still stalled, and I’ve nothing to do but sit on my hands while we wait.”

“Sometimes waiting is the best thing to do.” Stella offered, though he could hear from her tone that she was offering a suggestion rather than any reasonable bit of wisdom. It was often said that patience was a virtue, but it was one virtue among many that Giovanni found conflicting with his more wolfish instincts.

Certainly a wolf knew to wait until its prey was in the ideal position to strike, but that could be hours at most and one always kept the prey within their senses. Giovanni however could not see his current prey, he could not smell it on the wind and he could not foresee the ideal opportunity. He instead had to rely on Aurelio, a hunter, and if there is anything more disliked by a wolf than a hunter, Giovanni had yet to find it.

He knew there was no real reason to dislike Aurelio, but it was a deeper more base distaste he had a good deal of trouble ignoring. He would have much rather entrusted something like this to Capitolina, or even Angel or Kebechet. They at least still had the sense of wolves about them. Yet he had been the one to send Aurelio on this mission in the first place out of necessity. His personal preference aside, the other three wolves were as high profile as he himself was.

No, everything about this mission left Giovanni dissatisfied, and it must have shown plainly on his face because Stella was still fretting in the corner, as if looking for the answer that would put him instantly at ease.

There was no solution, however. He stood up from his desk and walked towards the door but he stopped when Stella moved to follow him.

“That’s quite alright, Stella. I’ve no need of you today, see to the church.” He said plainly, and though he kept his tone even it was clear how worried she was by the furrowing of her brow.

“Are you sure, Mister Giovanni?”

“Quite sure.”

He walked out without another word, his mind turning as a plan began to take form. He hadn’t learned much of the cult’s structure or leadership, nor any of their names. It was still far too little to use to make any arrests or bring down the cult, but it was perhaps enough to learn a little more on his own. If enchantment was only used on those who were higher-ranking in the cult, then it meant that the zealot that he had captured might be convinced to speak a little more.

Lord Nassar had certainly done quite a number on the man, dispelling the enchantment and even offering to turn it back on him to make him reveal everything he knew. The rest of the Senate had decided, however, that using magic to extract information on their first criminal case set a dangerous precedent, and thus they settled for more traditional questioning. His interrogations had been fruitful, and Capitolina’s ears and Nassar’s spells were both sharp enough to catch lies, but even they can’t catch a lie of omission. None of them had heard anything about this “Messenger” or a similar prophet figure.

Giovanni now had questions he would ask.

The prisoner was being kept in a makeshift cell under the capitol building, really just a windowless room in the basement with a reinforced door. The lock was strong and a guard checked in on him every hour or so. It was hardly maximum security, but if he escaped he had nowhere to run.

It was only half past the hour so the guard was nowhere to be seen. Giovanni, of course, had access to the room’s key, and opened it without issue as he stepped inside. The prisoner, who went by Dante (Giovanni neither knew nor cared for his last name), was sitting in a chair at the desk provided for him. He was given a change of clothes and the odd book to keep him preoccupied, but the room was empty save for a cot and small toilet and sink. He looked up at Giovanni as he entered with cold empty eyes.

“We have more questions for you.” Giovanni said, and though his voice remained level he could see his steely gaze reflected in the man’s eyes.

“I’ve answered everything.” Dante said, and Giovanni studied his every movement and reaction carefully. This was more like what he had expected when he first caught the man. His heart rate was rising, sweat beginning to form, and his pupils dilated as his body expected him to run. It was all the marks of prey that knew it was being hunted. Giovanni could not help but be satisfied at the reaction. It felt right to him.

“Allow me to correct myself. I have questions for you. Questions you will answer.” His voice settled into a low growl. Wrath was perhaps the sin Giovanni had the most affinity for. Eight hundred years ago he would have eaten this man alive just on principle. Giovanni may have forsaken violence of any sort, but he still knew how to intimidate, how to inspire fear in his quarry.

Giovanni narrowed his yellow eyes. He knew Dante could remember everything that had happened while he was entranced. He knew what Giovanni’s true form looked like, an enormous monstrous wolf, all muscle, tooth, and scar. There was no way he could fit all of himself in this cramped little room, but a small form did not mean small strength. Giovanni could till easily tear the man limb from limb, and it was clear he knew it.

“Who is the Messenger?” Giovanni snarled, stepping closer to him. Dante visibly recoiled in his chair, but there was more confusion in his eyes than fear.

“W-Who?” He stuttered.

“I am not here for games, human!” Giovanni snarled. Had Stella seen his performance he was not sure if she would wilt or laugh out loud. It truly was entirely out of his character. These days.

Thankfully, Dante had no way of knowing that. “Who is the Messenger!?”

“I-I umm…I…” He seemed at a loss for words, eyes darting  across the room as if looking for some way to defend himself, some route that would offer an escape.

“Speak!”

“I don’t know! I’ve never seen them!” Dante shouted, his hands rising defensively as Giovanni stepped forward. “They’re talked about a lot but no one’s ever seen them!”

“Do you expect me to believe no one knows who they are!?” Giovanni’s fist slammed into the wall by Dante’s head, causing him to visibly flinch as the bricks cracked beneath the layer of white paint like spider webs.

“Th-The Master Cultist!!” Dante shouted, hands over his face as Giovanni exposed his sharp teeth. “He would know!”

Dante had spoken of the Master Cultist before, but after exhaustive efforts they had decided he truly knew nothing about their cult’s leader save he was an older man.

“I want more than that, human!” Giovanni’s eyes were glowing in the light of the dim lamps that lit the room.

“Th-The Master Cultist…h-he often spoke of a time when the messenger arrive in the city!”

“So they’re outside the city…” Giovanni said. “Are they human? Tell me what you know!”

“I-I don’t think so!” He stammered. “He always said the messenger would come from a faraway land, to bring about the end of days and reveal the true purpose of the Hour of the Wolf!”

Giovanni pulled himself back, letting the man regain some of his breath as he cowered before him.
It was certainly more than they had before now. But it still left far too many questions unanswered. Who or what was this messenger? The Hour of the Wolf worshipped Fenrir and his monstrous offspring. Nora had spoken to the cultists who worshipped the Norse god Odin, and according to them Fenrir was still being bound somewhere in the distant North, not yet free.

Fenrir’s sons Skoll and Hati, however, were unaccounted for.

With this dire thought in his mind, Giovanni left Dante’s cell, locking it behind him as he left. He would need to inform the senate of the threat it posed, but he would have to be careful who he spoke to. If someone in the senate secretly held ties to the cult, Aurelio would almost certainly be put in jeopardy. For now, the only person he could definitively trust was Capitolina.

Though he had gleaned some knowledge thanks to Aurelio’s letter, the sense of unease remained with him. There was still too little he was able to do, so he had to satisfy himself with what he could.

 

 

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The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 26

April 13th, 2023

The more Cat saw of Syracuse, the more she thanked the Lord that Rome had Capitolina keeping order and policing it. Vittorio and his men had given her a rather effective tour, so Cat had a good idea the extent of chaos that had befallen Syracuse. People were hardly ever out in the open on the streets, unless they were wearing the markings of one of the various different mages that claimed rule. The most common one that Cat saw was that of the Dragon, a man for whom Brigida and Vittorio seemed to carry an intense hate.

For the most part, however, they tried to keep Cat from being seen too much out in the open. She was a newcomer, an unknown element, and if she was outted as a mage it might be all the worse for her current “hosts” and likely for Cat herself. More than likely the self-styled Mage-Kings like the Dragon would see her as a threat to be eliminated. So for the time being she spent most of the daylight hours in a cramped room with little more than a cot, a cracked opaque window, and a length of exposed pipe near the ceiling.

Growing bored from the lack of conversation or even a book to read, Cat pulled herself up to the pipe to try keeping up her fitness regimen while she was trapped here. Well, partly trapped. Really, she could have already left if she so desired. Vittorio wasn’t keeping her prisoner, and while Brigida the so-called Mage Breaker kept watching her with a wary eye, she had relative freedom to move around the hideout, though there was little else in the sparse and ruined building to occupy her, and everywhere outside were the constant suspicious stares. Still, she couldn’t just bring herself to leave the city entirely. Not when others were here…But the Rangers must be worrying about her.

“Mmm that’s quite a conflict, my dear.” An amused soft voice echoed through the room, causing Cat to fall with a start from the bar, turning just in time to see a familiar dark-haired form coalescing into shape beside the window. “Your rational thoughts are conflicting with your fated role, quite the conundrum indeed.” Sheh, or rather Scheherazade, took form in the room with her. Overcome with the sight of a familiar face in a sea of strangers, Cat rushed in for a hug around her waist, leaving the librarian bemused as she offered Cat a consoling pat on the head before extricating herself from her grasp.

“What do you mean?” Cat asked as she stepped back, flopping her rear down onto the cot. “My fated role?”

“It’s simple, dear Catarina. As I told you before, there are some who are simply born to be heroes. You cannot bring yourself to leave a place that so desperately calls for you, even though you know you should.” Schehera (as Cat had taken to calling her) said, pulling a long golden pipe from the sleeve of her robe and lighting it with a flick of her fingers.

Cat rubbed her hands together. “Vittorio and Brigida seem heroic enough to me. I mean, they’re fighting against psychotic mages to free the city. Do they really need me?”

“What do you think?” Scheherazade’s eyes seem to gleam gold as she smiled gently at Cat. Cat let out a sigh as she tried to think in the odd way of a storyteller. Scheherazade insisted that everything fit in a nice narrative spot, though there might be thousands of narratives going on at one time. Still if one was a skillful enough storyteller, Schehera insisted one could spot the threads as they wove themselves. Cat wasn’t sure she bought that, but with a bit of coaching, she was starting to understand how to play that game.

“Mmm, Vittorio is a bit too much of a general and leader to be the hero. I mean, he can barely compete with me when it comes to swordplay; he only won one of the four matches. Plus, while he leads from the front, Brigida always seems to shuffle him to the back eventually…”

“Ah, yes, the Mage Breaker. And is she a Hero?”

Cat sighed again as she thought about it. “No, I suppose not. She’s really good at fighting, better than I thought she’d be. I didn’t even know you could shut down a mage’s magic using physical attacks!”

Cat rubbed at her ribs. Earlier in the morning in the cover of the secluded yard Brigida had offered to spar with Cat to truly ‘test her mettle’ as she’d put it. Though Cat had recovered most of her strength after being shipwrecked, The Mage Breaker had not only sent the sword they had loaned her flying out of her hands, but a fierce body blow to her torso had somehow briefly stopped the flow of Cat’s mana running through her veins. Cat had managed to fend her off, thanks to her spars with Hildegard, but it had come as a surprise to suddenly find herself without her most reliable tool.

“But she’s not really…heroic. She’s a lot angrier than Vittorio. Sometimes I feel she’s actually trying to hurt me.”

“Well, there you have it!” Scheherazade clapped her hands together. “You have the reason why you feel you must stay. You want to fill the role the Fates have woven…and you will get the practice here, Catarina!”

“But the expedition…!”

Scheherazade drew up her full height, looking down at Catarina sternly. It reminded the young magus of her tutors in the more mundane subjects. “Catarina, would you really leave the people of Syracuse to suffer under the indignity of other magi when you know you can help stop them?”

Cat shrank back a bit. “No…”

“I would hope not!” The spirit said, as if the very idea was wrong to her. “The expedition will certainly need time to regroup. And I will spend my own time searching for Captain Hanne to let her know where you are. I hope that by the time the Rangers arrive, you will have a freed city to show them!”

“Don’t feel afraid to put ALL the responsibility on my shoulders, Schehera…” Cat mumbled to herself, before sighing in resignation. It looked like she had little choice right now.  “But alright. Vittorio seems like a decent enough sort. Kind of bossy though.”

“Who are you talking to?” Vittorio’s voice came from Cat’s side. She looked quickly to him and was about to introduce him to Scheherazade, but when she turned back, the spirit was gone. “Hmph…” Cat could hardly say she was amused by this sort of exit. Nor could she say she was surprised by a drama lover like her spirit advisor.

“Just going over somethings in my head. Magic stuff and all that.” Cat said, turning to face Vittorio. “So what’s the story?”

Vittorio furrowed his brow, looking past Cat to where Scheherazade had stood, as if he could see the traces of her presence lingering, before he shook his head. “I can’t say I will ever understand magic fully. Perhaps it comes from my…unique situation, but anyway, I’ve come to see if you are committed to helping us. I know you’re here on a different mission. While it would be useful to have a mage fighting mages, if you are not committed, you would be a liability.”

Cat gave a big smile as she stretched out her arms, cracking her joints into place. “Oh, I’m down for this fight. You’ve got a Ranger of Rome on your side now, so they’re not going to know what hit them!”

“Very well, come with me.” Vittorio turned and headed back towards the center of the hideout. Cat couldn’t help but wonder if he was always this stiff. Syracuse was a weird place. Still, she followed after him towards the meeting center. Brigida was there of course. She shot Cat a look at her coming in with the commander. Cat would have put money on it that the look she got was coming more out of jealousy than anything else.

Vittorio moved to the center of the room, signaling with his hands for everyone to circle around him. When they were all paying attention, he stepped upon the table that had the map of the city laid out upon it. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, before beginning a speech.

“This is it, friends. This is our last night together before we storm Drago’s Palace. I know it seems like just a few nights ago that Brigida stood in this spot, reminding you all that we have a chance because I was here. Because I was immune to magic. Since then, I’ve tried to lead you the best I could, to victory and to a free Syracuse.”

He paused, letting his eyes scan across the room at the small army that had been assembled. They watched him with intense emotions, each one having come to trust Vittorio heavily over his time as leader. To Cat’s eyes, the mantle seemed to slide easily onto his shoulders.

“Under Brigida’s and my teaching, each one of you knows how to stop a mage while they’re casting. Each one of you knows how to snap your friends out of the mind control that may afflict them. Each one of you knows how to fight these monsters in human skin that run rampant through our city. And we will fight them!”

A cheer filled the room. Cat stayed silent, just standing to the side as the anti-mage sentiment grew stronger and louder among the soldiers. Many of them had lost family and friends to the petty wars of the petty kings. These were the times when Cat felt that she had to stay the most. For if they didn’t have an example of a mage that wasn’t evil, would Vittorio’s regime be any different?

Cat watched as Brigida’s cheering began to drown out everyone else. The hate in her eyes, the anger in her roaring voice, Cat had a feeling that if she had her way, then there would be no place for mages at all in the new city. With Vittorio, she felt his eyes always calculating, watching it all with a cold distance.

He had claimed to be immune to magic. He had allowed her to test it as a show of faith earlier. Her ice, when cast to form over his skin, didn’t form. Any attempt she made to reinforce his bones and muscles just failed as the mana flowed back into her. She had never heard of people like that. He was as far from being a mage as you could come, but Cat intended to prove to him that just because he was fighting mages, didn’t mean they couldn’t be his friends as well.

When the cheering died down completely, Vittorio continued his speech. “So tonight, I want you all to sleep soundly. I want you all to think of the better times this city has seen. To think of the light and the water, not the darkness and the fire.” He hopped off the table, walking through the crowd of soldiers, putting his hand on their shoulders as he walked past, his eyes meeting all of theirs one by one.

“Because we’re going to need those memories to give us strength against Drago. They call him the Dragon, but he is just a man, like you and like me. He has magic…but so do we.” At that, Vittorio turned around and gave a wide gesture towards Cat. “Catarina is going to help us fight. She’ll be enhancing your physical capabilities to match the pawns of the mage-king.”

The crowd was less enthusiastic at this. Their energy slowly started to die. “Tagus…is this wise?” One of them asked. Brigida looked as far from thrilled as she could.

This was it. If she was to win their trust, she’d need to say something now. Taking a deep breath, Cat stepped forward. She could almost feel Scheherazade beside her, feeding her words from old speeches long forgotten.

“I’m an outsider to this group, guys. I’m from Rome, not Syracuse. I’m a mage. I think I’m the only one here with hair quite as cool as mine!” She smiled brightly, trying to be light hearted. She got a few chuckles, which was enough. As her smile fell a bit, her posture became far more serious. “But this isn’t just your fight. This is my fight too. I stand not just for myself, but for Rome, to show that we will help those in need. I stand for all mages, to show that we are not all as bad as these tyrants who have caused so much pain. I stand for the Rangers, who mean the people of this city no harm and only good. But in the end…I stand for the right thing. This is my fight just as much as it is yours. What is happening here is wrong. And I won’t stand for it.”

It was Cat’s turn to stand on the table and she jumped onto the war table with glee. Pointing out towards the soldiers, she swept her hand across in front of her. “So tomorrow, you’ll see me in the front, with all of you. I’m going to break down the palace gates. Nothing is going to stop me!”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa