The Snake and the Mirror

The Wolf Pilgrim

 

It was pre-dawn as Giovanni began to make his way from the Capitoline Hill to the city’s edge. The eastern sky was only just beginning to pink near the horizon, and most of the stars were still bright and clear overhead. He was plainly dressed as ever in a monk’s robe with an old wooden walking stick in hand, even if he didn’t need it.

“You’re really sure about this?” Capitolina asked, walking at his side. “You only just got back.”

“Our journey north is what gave me the idea,” Giovanni said/ “And I’ve been too long in this city. I’m not like you or Kebechet, Capitolina, I need the wilds.”

“When will you be back? We need you at the Vatican,” There was clear concern in her eyes, her ears drooping slightly.

“A few months, most likely,” Giovanni said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”

“And you’re going alone?” Capi asked. “Even for a wolf that’s not the safest journey.”

“I will manage, Capitolina. You can stop being a mother wolf,” He smiled gently as he saw her fluster. “But yes, if Torleif is right, then there is at least one Catholic holdout in Spain, and they deserve to hear from the Vatican. We’ve been without contact with the rest of the faith outside of Italy for too long.”

“So long as you come back,” Capi said. “Rome needs you.”

“I will be back,” he said. “Thank you, Capitolina.”

“Travel safely, Giovanni.”

 

Giovanni made his way alone to the edge of the city. It was a long road ahead, but at the same time he was slightly relieved to have a direction and purpose again. It was a stark contrast to his almost stifling city life.

“Mister Giovanni!”

He paused, looking over his shoulder as he saw Stella, still bleary-eyed with a heavy pack over her shoulders, running to meet him.

“Stella, what are you doing…” Giovanni started, before he recognized the pack as the one she had used to carry her camping gear with her to the Alps. “Stella you’re not-“

“With all due respect, Mister Giovanni,” Stella cut him off for the first time. “It’s barely four in the morning, I’ve not yet had my tea, and I’m coming with you.”

“Stella, I’m going on a pilgrimage, it’s an important and personal-“

“Personal journey of self-discovery, yes I know. And I also know you better than that, Mister Giovanni.”

“Do you now?”

“I know you need others,” Stella said. “You’re a wolf, just like a person, a social creature. More than that, you need a friend.”

“So that’s why you’re going with me?” He asked. “To be my sounding board? My company?”

“No, I’m going because I’m your friend,” Stella smiled. “Besides, you’re not the only one whose been cooped up in Rome for too long.”

“It’ll be a dangerous trip,” Giovanni said. “We’re going beyond the Alps, into Nidhoggr’s territory.”

“I survived the Days of Revelation,” Stella said. “And that was before I became an approved exorcist. I have faith in my abilities and yours, Mister Giovanni, and that faith will be our shield.”

Giovanni sighed but couldn’t help but feel a smile tug at his lips.

“Very well, Stella, you may come with me. It would be an odd thing for a wolf to go alone on a pilgrimage anyway. But we need to get a move on.”

Stella smiled back at him. “Of course. Where is our first destination?”

“Assisi, about two days walk,” Giovanni said. “There is an old friend I would like to meet there.”

 

The days passed quickly between them on the road. Though hesitant at first, Giovanni quickly grew to enjoy Stella’s presence on the journey. He didn’t have as much time for quiet introspection, but the days were long and there was only so much meditation a wolf like him could stand. Stella turned out to be a marvelous traveling companion, talkative but not chatty, quick but not over-eager, and sunny without being grating.

Stella had grown more comfortable with his massive lupine form, no longer intimidated by the enormous heavily-scarred and dark-furred wolf. Indeed, several times on warmer nights she fell asleep curled up against his fur near the fire. Giovanni had always held a close bond with the other wolves of Rome, the bonds between a pack. But Stella, he had come to realize, was the first honest human friend he had known in centuries.

Assisi was one of the larger Italian cities. It had an active population of over a thousand people, much of the surrounding countryside filled with farmland, and the view of the city from the hills around was dominated by their the city’s large basilica, a massive stone complex of Romanesque and gothic architecture.

“It almost looks like a fortress,” Stella remarked as Giovanni pointed it out.

“That likely helped it survive,” Giovanni said. “Strong stone walls to keep the dead at bay.”

“Faith might be a good shield, but strong stone walls never hurt,” Stella said with a smile as they continued on into the town.

Giovanni was a known figure in Assisi. He had been one of the first from Rome to arrive here and had come several times in the past, so it was with smiles and nods of polite reverence that the city’s religious elite welcomed him and Stella into the city, provided them with lodging, and lead them to the Basilica to leave Giovanni to his devices. Though Stella was with him, this was, after all, to be a private audience.

“They seem quite fond of you here,” Stella said.

“Well, I helped a fair bit in the reconstruction. I convinced the Vatican of the importance of this place and made sure they diverted some of their resources here.”

“I can imagine why,” Stella said as they walked through the nave of the basilica towards the double staircase leading down into the crypts. “Would you like to be alone?”

Giovanni considered it. “…No,” he decided on. “I would like your company here as well.”

Together they descended into the quiet stone crypts of the basilica, alone for the time as they stepped down into the candle-lit hallway of stone. Giovanni knew the way from here, having walked it many times before as Stella followed him to his destination.

They soon came to an altar placed before a tomb made in a very plain style of old Romanesque stone. Within was a plain stone coffin tied with iron above a placard reading:

 

  1. Francesco
    1182-1226

 

“Hello, old friend,” Giovanni smiles as he approached the altar. “Though I suppose I’m the old one now…eight centuries, has it really been that long?”

Many memories across hundreds of years could fade, but some stuck out despite the passing of even the greatest spans of time. Capitolina said she could remember clear as day finding the young babies Romulus and Remus, as well as Julius Caesar’s taking of Rome. Kebechet recalled vividly her youth with her father, Anubis, despite being many thousands of years old, and he had no idea what kind of memories Angel possessed. But Giovanni still had, clear in his mind, the image of the first man he had considered his friend. Saint Francis was already old then, haggard and plagued constantly by the claws of disease. But there was an indefinable kindness to him, a radiance that almost seemed to set him apart from other men. He could still hear his voice, tired but full of life.

“Brother Wolf,” Francis had called him, entreating him to stay his claws and teeth from the people of Gubbio, to hold back his hunger-driven wrath and in turn be offered forgiveness. Francis had made a promise to him then, and asked that he make one in turn.

“I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

“I’ve kept that promise, as best I can, my friend,” Giovanni said. “Against my better wishes I have had to fight against man, spirit, monster, and wolf. I have not taken a living soul since I made that promise to you, and all the harm that I’ve done was in the defense of these people that you loved, and that I have loved as well.”

Gently he moved past the altar, placing his hand upon the cold worn stone.

“They cared for me then, and in their time of need I came to care for them. Now I’m here to renew that promise I made to you. The people have forgiven me, but I still owe to you and to them my protection and my faith. Not only for their forgiveness, but for you and in thanks for what you’ve done. Eight hundred years and still I cannot hope to match the good you’ve done, for all the good I do was brought to them by you, when you placed a hand on mine and brought me to them as an ally.”

Giovanni bowed his head and turned as Stella took his place, leaving her to pray quietly at the altar as he moved back towards the stairs. She met him a few minutes later, a smile on her face.

“Did I ever tell you about Jacoba dei Settasoli?” Giovanni asked as they ascended the stairs.

“I…don’t believe so?” Stella said.

“Did you see the small urn by the crypt?”

“Yes.”

“Those are her remains. She was a stalwart follower of St. Francis, so beloved that she earned the nickname ‘Brother Jacoba’ among many. She was even allowed into the friary when Francis was on his deathbed when women were forbidden from such things.”

“She must have been quite a woman then,” Stella said.

“She was. She was a friend and stalwart supporter of St. Francis, and supported him and his followers whenever they were in Rome, using her privilege and abilities to look after those less fortunate.”

“Did you meet her?”

“Oh no,” Giovanni shook his head. “Unfortunately, she stayed in Rome for the most part. But she’s the kind of person that I’ve always tried to look for. Not everyone can be a saint, Stella, and not everyone can be a pilgrim, priest, or monk. But everyone, high and low, should do what they can to look after those souls less fortunate, and to care for them is to enrich one’s own soul.”

“So that’s why you’re on this pilgrimage then?” Stella asked.

“Partially,” Giovanni said. “I want to find those fine and generous souls who manage to remain such even through the harshest times. Even those who aren’t among the faithful must be seen to. I was a wolf, after all, simply an animal when Francis took pity upon me and saved me from my own evil. While I seek the other sanctuaries of faith in Europe first and foremost, this journey will be…perhaps a bit like Torleif’s, I suspect.”

“Like hers?” Stella looked at him curiously.

“She was seeking warriors, right? The strongest and bravest, the mighty and the dragonslayers. Well I’d like to find some of the kindest and the most charitable, the most virtuous in these trying times.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

Ill Met by Starlight

April 9th, 2024

Despite their best efforts, the music had continued to play through the radio. Even turned off and unplugged, the same unearthly music was pouring from the speakers unabated. Aurelio and Syblla had gone to the radio tower to find the source, while Angel had left to secure more of the city, leaving Nora, Echo, and Lenore in Nora’s townhouse to begin work on finding out exactly what it was that was driving the city into a frenzy.

“I don’t know if this music is enchanted or not.” Nora said, tipping the large wooden radio box to this side and that, as if looking for some hidden switch labeled “Sinister Cult Music” flipped to the “On” position.

The music certainly sounded supernatural. It was the chanting voice of a single woman, harmonizing with separate tones that waxed and waned in and out with her voice into a tune she couldn’t recognize, singing in a language she didn’t understand.

“But it’s definitely giving me a headache.” She said, rubbing her temples.

There was a loud crunching sound of breaking wood and metal striking metal as the music ceased. Lenore’s knife had come smashing down on the radio set, disabling the rogue signal permanently.

“That,” She said simply. “Was quite enough.”

Nora rolled her eyes. “Well that solves the issue for us at least, but we can’t exactly smash every radio in Rome.”

“The radio is not our goal.” Lenore leveled eyes with her, and Nora couldn’t help but feel a shiver run down her spine. Lenore had been recovering well, better than even Nora had hoped for, but she was far from cured, and when her mind was focused she seemed possessed by a strange sort of…intensity.

“Our mission right now is to solve the problem of this cult. If we are correct and this is their master stroke then we are rapidly running out of time.”

“She’s right,” Echo said comfortingly, placing a hand on Nora’s shoulder. “We have new information now, it’s time to use it.”

“New information,” Nora nodded as she started sorting through the books they had dragged down into the living room. “We have a ghostly music in a non-Indo-European language, uppity cacodaemons, and a black moon.”

“It’s not a black moon anymore.” Lenore said, taking a glance out the window through the drawn curtains.

“Oh, good,” Nora said. “Is the moon back to normal?”

“The opposite, I’m afraid,” Lenore said with her usual flat delivery. “Sunrise was a half an hour ago.”

“…” Nora stared at the window; it was still dark outside.

“It is as you feared,” Lenore said. “And as Angel predicted. A Black Sun over Rome.”

“Let me see.” Nora said quietly as she and Echo hurried to the window, pulling the curtain open.

The street outside was dark; where the sun should have been tinting the eastern sky with yellows, oranges, and reds, it was instead cast in a deep blue more suited to the ocean than the sky. The sun itself, that ball of brilliant white light, was black. This was not the black of an eclipse, rather the sun itself had been drained of all light, leaving it spreading black arms of shadow across the heaven, leaving only the starlight to light the streets.

And there were so many stars. Nora had never seen so many stars before, even outside of a city like Rome. They filled the sky in patterns she did not recognize, and around the fringes of the black sun, new stars that should have gone unseen burned with eldritch light.

“Well…” Nora muttered under her breath. “This is going to be a very busy day.”

She felt Echo shudder beside her, and placed a hand comfortingly over her back.

“What do you feel?” She asked. If anyone they knew would be affected by cosmological events like this, it would be Echo.

“It’s wrong…” Echo said “And I mean…more than just looking wrong. It’s…chaos…disorder…ancient beyond imagining.”

“What it is our next clue?” Nora said, going to her books as she tried to stifle the hammering in her heart. “The Black Sun…that narrows things down, though not as much as I’d like.”

She began piling books, scrolls, and tomes on the table in the room.

“The occult, hermetic alchemy, mysticism…the idea of a black sun isn’t new, and it’s not unique to any one culture or religion…” She muttered, as much to herself as others.

“It’s prominent in German neopaganism, might register with the Hour of the Wolf connection…Nazis were a big fan apparently.” She mumbled, flipping through pages.

“Don’t forget the music,” Echo said. “And the term Butterfly…”

“None of this is really adding up…” Nora sighed, throwing another book over her shoulder. “I’m missing something, something big.”

“Well we might have more information coming,” Lenore said, glancing out the window. “We have company. A wolf.”

“Well then,” Nora said, slamming the book shut. “In defiance of all childhood fairy tales, let’s let the wolf inside.”

Lenore nodded and opened the door just as a loud knock struck the wood, revealing Giovanni in their doorway, a package tucked under his arm.

“Come on in,” Nora said. “Get comfy, have tea, you caught us in the middle of trying to figure out what might be the end of the world.”

“Good,” Giovanni said hastily. “Because I might have some information on that.”

Nora raised an eyebrow “Let’s hear it; we’re getting desperate at this point.”

Giovanni gently placed the bundle in his arms onto a clear space of the table and undid the cloth wrapping around it.

“I brought this from the archives,” He said. “So do be gentle with it; it’s quite likely almost as old as I am.”

Nora watched as he revealed what looked like a bundle of animal skins. Only when he gently folded the top one to the side did she see that they were pages.

It was not a traditional western book, instead a series of stiff animal skins bound one edge to another to form a single long canvas of pages, each a square of hide about thirty centimeters in across.

“Giovanni what is this?” She asked as the opened page revealed colorful images of abstractly human and animal figures.

“A possible solution,” Giovanni said. “The legends of the old world have given us nothing, so it is time we looked to the new. I had few suspicions until I saw that black sun overhead…When this document came to Italy, it made its rounds through some of the religious elite. I heard rumors of it then, tales of a place in what would be called New Spain and later still Mexico, of Black Suns and the eclipse, of monstrous demons that came from the stars.”

Nora moved her fingers over an open page, resisting the urge to slide her fingers over the ancient hide.

“Giovanni…” She said quietly. “This is Aztec, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Giovanni said. “The Codex Borgia, one of the few documents that survived the Spanish conquest, and I believe that somewhere in all of this…madness…is the face of our enemy.”

Nora stood up straight, pulling Giovanni’s hand from the document as well as she turned to the others.

“Echo,” She said. “I need you to get gloves for us and every book I have on Aztec mythology, should be in section “M”.”

Echo nodded hurriedly and scurried form the room as Nora turned to Lenore. “Lenore, I want you on the roof, eyes on the sky. Tell us if anything strange…well, stranger…happens with that sun. Understood?”

“Right,” Lenore nodded as she quickly moved to the stairs to ascend to the roof.

Echo returned with the gloves first, and Nora pulled them on as she began to gently turn the pages. “You know the Vatican Library has a digital database of all this, right?” She asked Giovanni. “I mean, I love the originals, but you shouldn’t be dragging legitimate relics across town in an emergency situation. Just bring a thumb drive or something.”

“The Vatican doesn’t have the best IT right now,” Giovanni said sheepishly. “They keep telling me the servers are down and I don’t know how computers work.”

“Fair,” Nora said, resisting the urge to pet the flustered wolf. “This might be the better resource anyways.”

One by one she moved through the pages, examining the imagery within. It was at once a work of utility and one of supreme art. There were no written words, merely symbols and images representative of calendars both terrestrial and astronomical, works of divination, and images of deities and rites.

The abstractness and styling of the Mesoamerican art was as impressive as it was macabre. She was used to a more realistic style that could be found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Even with the various art styles of Norse, Persian, and Egyptian, all images of gods could be identified as human, or at least humanoid. With the Aztec markings, however, there was no such familiarity.

The images of humans were small and crouched in worship before images of, to her eyes, monstrous deities. Beings with many arms and legs, clawed and striped like animals, with skeletal faces and plumed crowns, bearing claws and swords and serpents wreathed in darkness, water, and flame.

Soon Echo returned with books and reference guides which Nora used to guide herself. Together the three of them worked to pronounce the names, titles, and domains of each figure as they appeared. Echo seemed to physically recoil at times, particularly at images of the various rites and rituals, all of which seemed to involve elements of death, dismemberment, and possibly cannibalism.

“Barbaric…” Giovanni muttered under his breath.

“Through our eyes,” Nora said. “This was the way of the world in those times, no stranger to us than ours must have been to them. Besides, all religions from the Greeks, to the Romans, to Muslims to Catholics at one time or another celebrated ritual murder, even if it was killing heretics or the disavowed or just enemies of the state. Is sacrifice so different?”

Nora frowned at a particularly visceral illustration “That said, I’m all for cultural relativism but if we’re dealing with an Aztec cult in the present and in the middle of Rome…”

“Then they need to be stopped.” Giovanni said.

“Agreed.” Nora nodded.

“Ergh…” Echo shriveled. “The thought alone…”

Nora nudged Echo comfortingly with a shoulder. “We know what we’re facing a little better now. We can put a stop to it soon enough.”

They had reached the sixtieth page or so, going through most of the thick manuscript, but finding nothing that quite matched what they were looking for. Nora’s finger passed over the image of a horrifying deity-figure, its face a skeletal visage of striped white, black, and red, the face framed with what she assumed was long black hair matching the stylized jewels and dress upon their body. Their arms and legs were those of jaguars, spotted and fiercely clawed, and from the back sprouted broad depictions of abstract wings.

“Well, our next contestant on this little tour of horrors” Nora said sarcastically, hands sliding just over the page. “We have this skeletal god…dess? With some images of sleeping, dead, or blinded people next to a weird tree…dragon…thing? Spewing blood everywhere.”

Nora sighed. “I get that I’m supposed to take the symbolic meaning and not the literal but…come on.”

“According to the guide,” Giovanni said, looking through their reference. “That’s…”

His words gave way, leaving them in silence.

“Who is it?” Nora asked.

“Her name is Itzpapalotl,” Giovanni said. “The Obsidian Butterfly.”

There was a very apparent silence that passed between them at the name as all of them stared down at the goddess drawn across the fading animal hide.

“What else does the guide say?” Nora said in a hushed voice, as if scared to speak louder.

“She comes in many forms, sometimes that of a beautiful woman, other times she looked like…well, that. She was a member and leader of several orders of spirits. The cihuateteo, fierce spirits born from the souls of mothers who died in childbirth…she was their leader and the savior of such spirits in times of cosmic stability…”

“And in times of cosmic instability?” Nora asked. “Such as the last two years or so?”

“She takes on her terrible form, and leads the tzitzimimeh to descend upon the earth and spread chaos and destruction as they feast upon the living.”

“What the hell…” Nora said slowly. “…is a tzitzimimeh?”

“Well umm…” Giovanni flipped through a few pages. “That looks like the plural, singular is tzitzimitl…they’re…associated with the cihuateteo but during events like a solar eclipse…”

“Or this black sun.”

“Or that…they descend from Itzpapalotl’s afterlife world of Tamoanchan and work to bring about the end of humankind. They are embodied in the stars, particularly those that hide behind the sun… Imagine a three meter tall skeleton women wrapped in seashells and snakes…”

“And this goddess, Itzpapalotl, is their queen?”

“In a way yes.” Giovanni nodded. “If this source is accurate.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Lenore hurrying down the stairs.

“Everyone in the basement.” She said, with a command in her voice Nora hadn’t heard since they were children.

“Why?” Nora asked, the anxiety in her chest growing into fear.

“Something is descending from the sky,” Lenore said. “It’s like the stars are falling.”

As she spoke, Nora became distinctly aware of a new noise outside that she had at first brushed off the wind, a sound like howling that rattled through old bones.

And it was getting louder.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=59&sl=372

Where All Roads lead

The Wolves of Rome

May 18th, 2024

The sound of shuffling footsteps faded from the senate chambers as the last of the active senators filed out for the day. The sun was setting low now, and all of Rome was finishing the work of the day and preparing for the business of night. Capitolina could hear them, her lupine ears quick to pick up the noise of the city as people walked or rode their bicycles home, tuned in their radios, or went to find their friends for the evening. Like the others, Capitolina’s work was over for the day, and she allowed herself a moment of peace before returning to her den under Rome for the evening.

Leaning back in her chair, she shut her eyes and listened to the noises of the night. This was not the Rome she remembered, the Rome of her sons, of the Republic, of Ceasar and Augustus. Still, it was Rome, simply another face of the eternal city, and it had grown larger by the day. She smiled to herself, pleased with the progress it had made. Still, she could not help but feel a tinge of emptiness cut through her satisfaction. Rome had gotten back on its feet. It was administrated by its effective (if somewhat prone to bickering) senate and protected by its legions. The city of Rome was no longer hanging by a thread, but it no longer needed her as it once had.

The soft patter of new footsteps entering the room intruded on her thoughts, but she smiled as she recognized the quiet padding of Angel trying not to disturb her.

“I’m not asleep.” Capitolina said, her eyes still closed as she heard the footsteps freeze in place.

“Pardon the intrusion.” Angel said in her quiet monotone.

“Not an intrusion.” Capitolina corrected her, sitting up and opening her eyes.

Angel, the black-haired and winged wolf was standing across from her. Since almost the very start, Angel had been at her side while they protected Rome. She was only part wolf, but it had been enough for Capitolina to accept her. Angel served an important purpose. It had been her abilities as a former Primordial spirit that had allowed them to safeguard Rome,  and it had been her sound technical skills and supreme vision that had helped organize the city into what it was now. More than anything though, Angel was Capitolina’s close friend and confidant. While she was often at odds with Kebechet and Giovanni, she found she could always find an ear and helping hand in Angel.

Capitolina smiled, reaching out to pat Angel on her head, ruffling her hair and ears and earning a flustered noise from the wolf which did not help to make her any less adorable.

“I came in to check on you.” Angel said.

“Oh?” Capitolina asked, rising easily from her chair and stretching “Why?”

“You have seemed…tired and perhaps slightly listless of late.” Angel observed, looking her over with her calculating dark eyes. “I wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

“Everything is fine, Angel.” Capitolina smiled, petting her again. “Come on, let’s go find the others.”
Normally Kebechet would be at the temple and Giovanni would be at the Vatican, but Capi could smell them both in the building, so before Angel could say another word she set off at a quick march into the halls of the Senate offices with Angel a few steps behind her.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” The concern had left not Angel’s voice.

“I’m fiiiine” Capi said “Just thinking a lot lately.”

“Hmmm…”

They found Kebechet walking the halls in the opposite direction, no look of surprise passing over her face as they came into view. Likely Kebechet had sensed them coming.

“Capitolina, Angel” She nodded politely to them both “Good evening.”

“Heya Kebe” Capitolina smiled. “How’s the Pontifex?”

“Active as ever.”

Captiolina smiled as she saw some of the weariness on Kebechet’s face. Nora Newstar had the mind of Cleopatra with the willpower of Caesar, it was part of why Capitolina had wanted her to be Imperator rather than Pontifex Maximus, and it looked like it was wearing down even a goddess like Kebechet.

“She’s dating that nymph now, right?” Capitolina asked, pulling Kebechet into step alongside them as she walked.

“Echo, yes.” Kebechet nodded “Which brings its own set of problems.”

“Sure sure” Capi nodded along “And the temple? Everyone happy? Human and god both?”

“Happy enough” Kebechet nodded “The gods are pleased by the proper accommodation and the organized reverence, while the people are pleased by the ease of location and the new abundance of fresh water.”

“I do love it when everyone wins” Capitolina’s tail wagged. “Well done, Kebechet.”

“I do what I can for the Pharaoh and the city.” Kebechet bowed her head humbly.

They talked a while longer, Angel falling into silence a step behind them as she always did as Capitolina talked at length with Kebechet. The Wolf of Rome wanted to keep herself in the loop at all times, which is what her wolves were for. Kebechet could connect with the Egyptian gods and the cults in a way she rarely could, utilizing her own divine nature and close connection to Nora. Similarly Giovanni had his Catholic connections and a good reputation among Rome’s poorer residents. Finally, it was Angel’s duty to keep her eyes on the big picture, Rome as merely one city in the world, with the Primordials to contend with. It was a good system and it worked.

They caught up to Giovanni not long after that, he had been meeting with several Catholic Senators as a messenger for the Vatican. That was much of what he did these days, acting as an intermediary between the faith and people in power. It saddened Capitolina somewhat. Giovanni had led and protected the Catholics since the Days of Revelation, and had almost single-handedly developed the plan to bring down the Hour of the Wolf, now he was little more than a messenger and a symbol.

What are you, she thought dryly to herself, If not just a symbol for Rome?

“Giovanni” She smiled as the three wolves came up to him.

“Capitolina” He gave her his subdued smile in return, inclining his head. Much as he seemed to enjoy butting heads with the other wolves, herself included, Capitolina liked Giovanni. He might be a Catholic and a bit on the tame side, but he was strong-willed, courageous, and intensely stubborn, all traits she prized in a good Roman.

He was also the only male in their pack, and while she treasured Angel above all others she enjoyed keeping Giovanni close for other reasons than his governing skill.

“How are the Catholics faring?” she asked as she pulled him along to join the others.

“Well…” He said before finally extricating his simple robe from her hand, falling into step alongside her. “They’re doing well. The Archbishop is reorganizing the College, but with the world in the state it’s in, we do not feel justified electing a new pope quite yet, not while there are still possibly many Catholic sanctuaries in the world who are now voiceless. In his stead, the Archbishop is commanding the faith.”

“Should be you in command” Capitolina smiled, half-teasing him. She enjoyed his flustered reactions, much like Angel. His greatest flaw, Capi always felt, was a crippling lack of pride. He had always pushed being humble too hard.

“I am a wolf, Capitolina, as you well know.” He said, trying to retain his aura of collected calm. It wasn’t working, wolves had a much harder time hiding their emotions than humans did. “An animal deemed the servant of Man by God, I have no authority to command them.”

“You’re a public servant” Capitolina was a Roman, and even a Roman wolf knew her rheotoric. “A proper ruler serves his people as well as himself, and I know no one who rules themselves more strictly than you do, Giovanni.”

Giovanni sighed, and Capitolina’s tail wagged as she knew she had won.

“It is a shame the younger faiths never learned to venerate the spirits of the world as their elders did.” Kebechet said.

“Perhaps it does not underestimate we animals” Giovanni said, turning next to Kebechet “Perhaps yours merely underestimates men.”

Kebechet folded her arms, but her ears remained perked upwards and her tail hanging loosely. Capitolina could tell when the two of them were truly arguing and when it was simply banter. They might be exceedingly different individuals, but Capitolina had chosen them both for a reason.

In time, however, the wolves dispersed. Kebechet, as ever, needed to meet with Nora and her own pantheon of gods while Giovanni needed to return to the Vatican. Once more Angel and Capi were the only two wolves in the Senate House, and as the night grew later they were the only people there at all.

“Capitolina?” Angel was the first to speak, as she had expected.

“Call me Capi, Angel.”

“I do think something is bothering you.”

Capitolina let out a long drawn-out sigh. “I suppose there is, but it’s nothing worth worrying over me for.”

Angel frowned, tail hanging limp, Capitolina knew there was little that the former did other than worry.

“Alright then” She relented, taking a seat for herself. “I suppose…well, there’s less for us to do now, we’re not as needed as we used to be.”

“We knew this was coming.” Angel said, sitting beside her “We’ve known it for a year. This was always meant to be temporary. Wolves can protect people but we cannot rule them.”

“They depended on us, needed us to defend and help them get back on their feet.”

“And you enjoyed that?”

“Of course I did!” She scoffed. “How could I not? It’s good to be needed.”

“None of us were ever truly needed before.” Angel said “I certainly never helped anyone but myself. It is…sad perhaps, but it is the way we knew things would go.”

“Mmm…” Capitolina fell silent as she turned to glance out the window. She had always felt somehow responsible for Rome. In a way she was. She had nurtured and raised Romulus and Remus, had known them as children before the very first stone in the foundation of Rome had been laid. In a way she was the mother of this city, for good or ill, and she had watched its history for thousands of years. It had been wonderful, elating, to be the protective mother of the city again. But just as she had before, she had to pull back and let the humans decide what their fate would be.

“Before long they will not need us.” Angel said “It is simply the way of things.”

Capitolina smiled, ruffling her hair again.

“That’s not true, Angel. They won’t need our help anymore, and that day is fast approaching. But they’ll always need us. Why do you think the humans remembered us for hundreds or thousands of years? Not because of the help we gave them, but because this city needed protectors and they came to us. We’ll be remembered, Angel, for centuries more to come…I suppose both of us can live with that.”

She smiled to herself as she leaned back in her seat. That was enough for her. Rome again remembered who its mother wolf was. Many people already had found small statues of her, once sold as curios and souvenirs in the more ancient parts of the city, and set them up in their homes. The wolves of Rome might not be needed anymore, but the people were grateful, and they would be remembered.

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=7&sl=315

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 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 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 24

April 12th, 2023
With the city now empty of its rangers, a number of people had scrambled to pick up the call to police the city of Rome. Giovanni had been one of those people. While edicts had made it clear that no cult was to establish a military branch, Giovanni had enough pull among the faithful to convene something of a small task force. Twenty-five people, all true Catholics, who were willing to take positions as temporary guards in place of the Rangers. They were an eager bunch, wanting to name themselves after an old knightly order as well, but Giovanni had managed to talk them down before too much was made of it. They were Catholic volunteers, nothing more. The last thing they wanted in a relatively undefended city was religious strife.

They made up the bulk of the replacement garrison, and while all of the recruits were eager, the void left by the rangers was particularly evident every day. People had known the ranges and the usual guards, a rapport was built that was now replaced by almost entirely untrained newcomers. The raids and sorties into the city beyond the wall had ceased entirely. Without the skill and strict training of the Rangers most of the new guard didn’t stand a chance against the cacodemons and other beasts that lurked beyond the city walls.

Around fifteen rangers remained, mostly to oversee this new garrison, and they were worked constantly overtime to make sure order and stability were maintained. An unscrupulous few tried to use the confusion to their advantage, leading to a rise in petty crime that ate up valuable senate hours. The leaks were starting to show, and a body of justice would no doubt soon be needed. Add onto that the general public division grown by the popularity of rising cults an the announced proposal of a joint temple complex, and the days long and tiring for all, particularly for a wolf like Giovanni.

Presently he was seeking temporary refuge in his office in the Vatican. Every time he stepped inside he took a moment to chuckle grimly at the reality of a wolf having an office. Truth be told it was just a place where he did paperwork that eventually mutated into what could be called an office. There was no sense of personality or ownership to it, simply stacks of papers and reports to look over on an old and beaten desk.

Stella was off running errands for him and (he hoped) taking a break for a few hours. If he had been busy then Stella had been run ragged, and she didn’t have the wolf’s stamina to work for days on end. That meant he was entirely alone for at least an hour before anyone found him, and he took the time to lean back in his chair and try to clear his head. He was not truly relaxed, he’d have to head down to the grottoes and take his full form to honestly relax, but the quiet was still a necessity from time to time.

Far too many things were gnawing at his mind these days. The Hour of the Wolf had eluded the Rangers and the garrison. Their overt actions had ceased but Giovanni could almost feel their presence like a rot in the city. Aurelio had taken the case, but he had not heard from the young hunter in three days and he was starting to get nervous, it was as if he had simply vanished into the city, unseen and unheard. Maybe that was his plan, Aurelio hadn’t bothered sharing any of the details of how he would work. Even if it was, Giovanni felt distinctly uncomfortable. He hated not knowing how the investigation was progressing, he hated knowing the cult was out there intact even after nearly destroying the greenhouse. It annoyed him so much that some nights he was tempted to take his full form and go hunting, wolf to wolf.

Giovanni sighed. He was not the brazen sort to try it. He needed to keep a calm and level head about himself for the city’s sake at the very least. His ears twitched at the silence. Total silence was almost as bad as too much noise, so he decided to clam his nerves somewhat and reached for the small radio on his desk, flipping it on.

The radio had been an overnight success. With the aid of an unknown engineer, the woman Thalia had set up a small set of broadcasting equipment to test its range and capabilities. Barely more than a low-grade pirate radio station, it had lead to a clamor as every household and business in Rome had all but run over themselves to get their own receiver. Thankfully they were still only a small part of the city and radios were not particularly rare, even in the modern age.

Before this, if a person had wanted to hear music or stories their only venue had been the odd nightly performance by musicians or actors. Sufficient for the ancient world, perhaps, but the people of Rome were still modern in their tastes and sensibilities, they desired more constant distraction, music to have in their homes and offices, relevant stories to make them laugh and pull at their heart strings.

Giovanni had heard about Thalia’s plan and thought it daring if over-ambitious. It seemed she had proved him wrong. Presently his office was filled with the soft sounds of Debussy as violin notes wafted lightly from the speakers. Music was usually what played during much of the day, when people needed their focus elsewhere and they could simply go through the enormous backlog of salvaged records and CDs. They were experimenting with theme days for different genres but it was clear the DJ (who Giovanni suspected was Thalia herself) had a fondness for classical.

The evenings were dominated either by radio plays or variety shows. The latter hadn’t quite come into being yet, as no doubt scripts and concepts were barely past written form, but they did have on program that Stella particularly enjoyed called Night in the City, in which the host interviewed recent refugees for the stories of how they had come to Rome and what they hoped to find and accomplish. It set a good mood between exciting and uplifting, with touches of drama and loss in between. Though the host was a relative unknown, a Spanish girl and former singer by the name of Mariposa, she was clearly skilled in finding excellent candidates, unless Thalia had her devious hands in that as well.

Stella was a great fan of the radio, and Giovanni had to admit he had grown fond of it as well, if only for the happiness it clearly brought to many. With its runaway popularity, there was little doubt that they would soon be erecting a broadcasting tower to reach for miles around. With their present setup Giovanni doubted the signal even reached past the city limits. Last night, however, Stella had given him an idea. Many of the faithful lead busy lives helping the city or were otherwise unable to join them for morning mass. Why not but some airtime for the sake of spreading the good word? Though Giovanni had quickly reached for his pen to write a missive to the bishop and tell him to get right on it, another idle thought had stayed his hand. If the Church used airtime to spread the word, no doubt the other cults would be quick to follow. Soon the airwaves would be crowded with competing faiths, particularly those with the resources to float around. It would take the religious division to a new battleground and could spread the fires even further than they already hand.

The alternative made him twinge just as much. That he should be the leader in making the radio free of religious broadcast was against his very nature. And the Wolf of the Vatican campaigning for secular radio did not exactly paint the image of him he wanted. It was a sensible thing to do, but he was not the person to do it.

His thoughts, left to wander by the soft tones of the music, were interrupted by a knock on the door. Turning off the radio and sitting up he called to the visitor through the close wooden door.

“Come in!”

Into his office stepped Capitolina, casually dressed as she preferred when not acting as temporary Consul.

“Afternoon, Giovanni.” She smiled, tail wagging as she pulled up a chair next to him. Capi, he noticed, never seemed to know how to sit quite right in a chair. Human behavior did not come easily to her.

“Afternoon, Capitolina.” Giovanni said, leaning back in his seat. “What can I do for you?”

“Bored” she grunted. Meaning she wasn’t needed as Consul and her usual source of entertainment, Angel, was off busy with something else.

“My sincerest apologies.” Giovanni said flatly, figuring this wasn’t to be a productive meeting and looking back at the stack of papers on his desk.

“How’s the investigation with umm…what was his name, Aurelio? Yes, that’s him, I remember liking his name…” Capi said lightly, clearly ignoring Giovanni’s own indifference.

“I don’t know.” He said “I haven’t heard from Aurelio in three days. Either he’s deep undercover or something bad has happened. Either way there’s not much we can do about it.”

Capitolina huffed at the news, her tail falling still. No doubt she was even more eager to run out into the streets and find this doomsday cult. But she had been told (time and again) that discretion was the best plan here.

Next she glanced at the radio. “You got one too, huh?” She mused.

“Yes” said Giovanni “Though it’s mostly for Stella’s sake. Though I was considering buying time for some religious programming.” He chose his tone carefully, gauging Capi’s reaction.

“That could be trouble.” The Wolf of Rome said. “There’s a lot of religions these days. Don’t want them all fighting for air time.”

“You’d suggest barring it?” Giovanni asked, keeping the accusation out of his tone. Capitolina was as much a proponent of faith as he was.

“I’d have to talk to the Senate, they know more about how radios work.” She seemed to shrug off the matter but Giovanni knew she was wrestling with it as much as he was.

“Almost feel like there are too many gods in this city.” Capi sighed.

“Somewhat hypocritical.” Giovanni said with a slight teasing tone. “Rome was hardly a stranger to foreign gods in its day.”

Capitolina shot him a look that made it clear she knew. She was just feeling the same thing they all did, that their own god was being pushed to the wayside to accommodate everyone. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and one with no morally clear solution.

“It’s why there are four of us, I suppose.” Giovanni said.

A certain sense of balance did seem to exist among their diminutive wolf pack. Though Capi was usually in charge and the proclaimed “Alpha”, they shared their qualities and special interests with the city at large and what it had become. Giovanni most represented the modern Rome, the youngest of the wolves and a Catholic to his bones. Capitolina was the old Rome, a conqueror and a fighter with a strong sense of national pride. Kebechet was the foreigner, and as more people came in from over land and sea, her purview as someone not native to Rome became ever more evident. Angel was the strange, and accounted for the abnormal and the inexplicable that happened in the city beyond any mortal control. Their burdens and their tastes had lead them to the city they have now, and Giovanni was to an extent satisfied with the outcome, a Rome that did not lean towards any of them in particular, though the balance was always an unsteady one.

“Do you ever feel rather…useless, Capitolina?” Giovanni asked.

Capi glanced at him before smiling, her tail betraying her good mood again. “Why, does the Catholic wolf feel useless despite all his busy work?” There was a teasing edge in her voice he did not appreciate. She knew he preferred doing extra work while she spent much of her time sleeping and teasing Angel.

Giovanni frowned and didn’t answer, but that was still answer enough for Capi’s reply.
“We were never going to stay their physical leaders and protectors.” She said “They were always going to take back control one way or another. They always do.”

“Speaking from experience?” He asked, and she nodded without hesitation.

“Rome didn’t need its Capitolina Lupa since its founding. It’s not about what we do for them, it’s what we are that they honor us for. You fought for the Vatican, ensured its place in the sanctuary and have secured its future in Rome. Do you think the rest of the church thinks you’re useless?”

Giovanni found he could not answer.

“It’s hard sometimes, but they’re like children. We need to take our hands off their shoulders and let them grow without us, and if we’re lucky they’ll still be making statues of us centuries later.” She smirked at him.

“Leave the human work to humans.” She said. “we’re not meant to be Rome’s leaders anyway. We’re just its wolves.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 21

April 6th, 2023
Giovanni had isolated himself in a small office in their makeshift capital on the Capitoline Hill. The only other person sharing the small room was Stella, sitting quietly across from him at the bare table, the room’s only other feature being the windows that let the evening sun drift in.

Giovanni had been reading in silence for over an hour, though truthfully he had finished reading in the first ten minutes and had spent the rest of the time thinking, his mind working over the information he had been given. In his hands were the final reports from the interrogation of the arsonist and vandal that Giovanni had captured. The entire case had been setting new precedents from the start. How did the new government treat criminals? How would they be punished? How did one determine the level of enchantment and deal with those acting under the compulsion of magic?

Giovanni had worked closely with Capitolina and the Senate to determine the answers to those questions. Though they were in many ways emulating ancient Rome, Capitolina relented on a softer and more modern approach to investigation and punishment. First they had needed answers from him. After consulting with Lord Nassar, the mage had assured them that the enchantments on the man could be broken fairly easily, but he might lose the memories of what he had done while under its sway.

Giovanni had not been present at the interrogation, though he had sent a Catholic representative to ensure ethics were maintained. Giovanni had no intention of letting the Church or the State slip back into old habits of torture as a means to extract information. From what he read in the transcript, that position had been thankfully maintained. With the enchantment in place, the vandal was difficult to intimidate, but it was not hard to cajole him into revealing more about his would-be cult than might have been prudent.

The Hour of the Wolf, as they called it, was an unaffiliated Norse cult that met in secret somewhere in the reclaimed sections of the city. They were characterized by the report as something of a “Doomsday Cult” trying to bring about the true end of the world on the hope or promise that they might be spared. According to them, the Days of Revelations were merely the forerunner to an oncoming and more final end of life on earth. Giovanni was not unfamiliar with the concept. There were rumors of Doomsday cults in every religion including his own. There were small bands of those waiting for the trumpets of Revelations to blow and for the armies of light and darkness to clash at the field of Armageddon. Giovanni and the Bishop had done what they could to quash those cults before they took hold. As a centralized religious power it wasn’t hard to do, but the cults were divided and small with little authority over one another save for Nora’s stern guidance. He had his issues with the woman but he had to admit she could be effective when she put the effort into it.

After gathering everything they could, Lord Nassar had worked to break the enchantment on the man. From what he had said, it was no simple Western Thaumaturgy but rather a complex sort of advanced hypnosis unlike any he had seen before. It had taken him over a day to find a proper ritual to reverse its effects,  meaning whatever was behind it was either powerful or very old, possibly both. Lord Nassar said that had the enchantment been done by a modern mage he could have broken it in under a minute, but whatever force compelled the man had been smart and elusive, as they still had no idea what had put the spell in place.

With the enchantment broken it was time now to interrogate the man again and determine what punishment he deserved. Once again, the mages of Rome proved their use. Abigail, it seemed, was not only an adept healer but could use her talents over the human body to act as a living lie detector. It was not a perfect process, but it had been sufficient to extract what they needed.

The man had revealed his name to be Dante Coribiani, a tanner who had worked an honest job in the city producing the leather for cobblers and other leatherworkers. Those living near him corroborated his story and indicated their surprise at his actions, painting him as an honest and virtuous man. According to Dante, he had been approached by the Hour of the Wolf and offered a place in one of their meetings. Dante said he had never been a devoutly Catholic man and felt that, the world being what it was, all the cults deserved a fair shake and he had decided to attend. After arriving at their meeting location he lost memory of what had happened to him, save for a feeling of total bliss and understanding. He showed genuine shock and horror at his actions and begged for mercy in his trial, having been compelled entirely against his will.

According to Abigail, all of his testimony was true, or at least he believedit was. There might have been other forces at work, or he could have been a truly phenomenal liar. Either way, the evidence to his innocence was there, but so was the danger of retaliation if he was to be released. As a result he was kept in holding in a locked room under guard a few floors below where Giovanni sat now, in the basement of the capitol.

Rangers had been deployed to where the meeting house had been, but it was long deserted by the time they arrived there. No doubt the cult was still small and exceedingly mobile. There were countless rooms still empty in newly-reclaimed portions of the city where a small gathering could hide for their perverse rituals, and if they were brainwashing with magic now…

Giovanni lowered the files onto the table and rose from his chair. The sound of the chair legs grinding on the wood floors startled Stella from where she had been snoozing.

“W-wha-?” She said, brushing aside the hair that had fallen over her face as she tried to pretend she had been awake. “I mean…yes, Mister Giovanni?”

“I’m surer than ever.” He said. “We need someone on the inside to deal with this cult, someone resilient who can infiltrate them without falling under their sway or enchantment.”

“That’s a pretty tall order, sir.” She said. “Everyone knows who the mages in the city are for the most part, and you said only a mage could resist the brainwashing.”

“As far as I know.” He corrected her. “Did you get the list I asked you for?”

“Yes of course.” She said, as she pulled from her clipboard a list of several dozen names. “These are all of the new refugees to come in the last month and their primary skills. Many of those who came in the last two weeks are still being sorted and living in state housing.”

In truth, everyone was living in state housing. They didn’t have anything resembling an economy to allow privatized housing quite yet. A new refugee lived in somewhat squalid conditions on the outer areas of the Sanctuary until they found a position in which they could support both themselves and betterment of the state. Once they got a job. they were moved to more permanent housing.

“Very good, Stella.” He said, taking the list from her and began reading down the names and skills. He highly doubted he would find a listing under “mage”. He tended to leave Nassar’s self-proclaimed Mage’s Guild the job of seeking them out. All he needed was something that might resist enchantment.

His eyes paused near the bottom of the list, one of the most recent arrivals had an asterisk by his name with a small scribbled note saying “Check with Newstar”. Giovanni went through the rest of the list and didn’t find anything else particularly noteworthy and continued to find his eyes drawn back to that one name: Aurelio Furlan, occupation listed as “Hunter”.

“Stella” Giovanni said. “Can you tell me anything about this Aurelio Furlan? Have you heard anything?”

“No sir.” She shook her head. Giovanni went back to the paper, his eyes stuck on the name. “I would like to speak with him very much I think.”

“Very well, I can have something arranged…” Stella began to say, looking at her clipboard before Giovanni started striding to the door, leaving her to quickly gather up the papers and follow in his wake.

“No, I think I will see to it now.” He said calmly as he exited the room.

It took Giovanni several hours to locate Aurelio Furlan. The temporary housing was always in a state of semi-disarray as people moved in and out with alarming regularity. While the people here didn’t live in squalor (and it was far better than spending their nights in the streets with monsters), the rooms tended to be more cramped with people and what belongings they had carried, all of them waiting for the news that a new place and a fresh start had been found for them.

Aurelio Furlan was a youngish man, looking no more than twenty-five, with light hair and green eyes. He had a lean runner’s build and lived in a relatively humble setting, with few belongings wearing him down or filling up the space of the small room he owned in the apartment he split with four others. He seemed kind enough, though rather quiet as Giovanni asked him to take a walk out into the street so they could talk in a less confined setting. As they walked, Giovanni noticed Stella passing a number of sidelong glances to Aurelio. It gave him a small smirk. She wasn’t quite a nun yet and was still of the age where indulging her eyes in handsome young men was usual.

“The list of newcomers says you are a hunter, Aurelio.” Giovanni said as they stepped out into the orange light of the setting sun.

“That I am.” Aurelio said. “One of the best in northern Italy.”

“A hunter of what, precisely?” Giovanni asked as they set off down the street, Stella in pursuit.

“Well for most of my life simply game. Now though…I would call myself a hunter of monsters and monstrous men. In fact it is why I came to Rome, in part at least. I wanted to warn our Senate of the danger monsters like the Witchbreed might possess.”

“Witchbreed?” Giovanni asked, ears perking up.

“They are men and women who have given up their souls for power and now use it to desecrate the forests with their twisted magic. It was Lady Diana’s will that I use my power and her gifts to see to their extermination.”
“Lady Diana?” Giovanni said, unable to keep a frown off of his face. “The Goddess of the Moon and Hunt?”
“Yes.” Aurelio nodded. “She blessed me with power as her champion.”

Giovanni had more mixed feelings about this mission the longer it went on, but he knew that the work they did for Rome was more important than the Catholic Faith alone.

“Then I have a proposition for you.” Giovanni said. “I am close with the Bishop on the Senate as well as acting Consul Capitolina. If you aid us in our investigation then I will ensure your voice is heard on the Senate.”

It would take some difficult bargaining, but Giovanni had never been one to call in his favors before. The Senate would listen if he could bring them results.

“Investigation into what, precisely?” Aurelio asked, a hint of suspicion in his voice.

“There is a cult in the city that is brainwashing members that it forcibly inducts with magic and compels them to commit crimes. We thought only a mage could best their enchanting, but if you are blessed by a…goddess,” He really did hate using the term. “Then you might be able to best it as well and infiltrate their cult undiscovered.”

“I can’t say it’s like anything I’ve done before.” Aurelio said. “More espionage than hunting, isn’t it?”

“You’re the best man for the job, I’m afraid.” Giovanni said. “And as I said the reward for helping us bring this cult to justice will be substantial to your own cause, not to mention gaining you proper standing in the city.”

“Well…I suppose I can agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement.” Aurelio smiled. “Very well, I will help you weed out this cult of yours.”

“Excellent” said Giovanni. Already he was planning their next few steps. How to get Aurelio into position and into the cult. It would take time and cunning, but already the end was drawing closer for the Hour of the Wolf.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 18

April 5th, 2023
The Vatican Grottoes were some of the only places Giovanni could find the peace to think in solitude. With the constant busyness  in St. Peter’s basilica above his head, the quiet of the halls beneath it were a welcome respite that did not require him having to seek solitude far from the center of the Faith.

The Grottoes were the resting place of dozens of Saints, their tombs or memories laid out in the mazelike halls. It felt, at times, like the purest part of Vatican City, so close to the beating heart of the Faith. It was presently off-limits to most, by Giovanni’s decision. He enjoyed padding through the admittedly cramped halls in full form, an enormous black-haired wolf walking silently among the tombs. More than a few wayward monks had been terrified by the sight, fearing a monster in the halls. Most by now knew better. Giovanni was, after all, their most stalwart protector.

The interrogation of the vandal had not gone well. The enchantment on him had eventually been broken by Lord Nassar after several failed attempts by other mages. He had admitted to being a member of a new cult, much to Govanni’s relief. The man might have renounced the true faith, but what information he had grew only more disturbing.

The sound of another set of footsteps roused him from his reverie. He had been lying down on the cold stone foot, great paws crossed under his muzzle. Giovanni recognized the footprints from the start, and did not move as Stella rounded the corner to face him. If she attempted to hide her surprise, she did a poor job of it, nearly jumping in place, hand grasping for the wall as she came face to face with a five-meter long wolf.

“F-forgive me, Mister Giovanni.” She stuttered. Giovanni didn’t mind she was there. He had told her to come find him if he was needed.

“What is it, Stella?”

“The bishop is still requesting your report from the interrogation.” She said.

“I told him the man has broken ties with the faith. We are free to renounce him.” Giovanni said gruffly.

“He…he wished for more detail…”

Giovanni was more at home in the shape of a wolf than as a man, though he could see the fear in Stella’s eyes was plain. He shifted his weight slightly, making himself more comfortable. “I would have you tell him then. I think I’ll be spending the night down here.”

“Of…course.” Stella said “What should I say?”

“After some carefully applied pressure, the vandal admitted to being a part of a new…I suppose you would call it a Doomsday Cult, they call it the Hour of the Wolf.”

“Hour of the wolf?” Stella asked, her hands already moving like lightning as she recorded his words.

“No relation.” Giovanni chuckled darkly. “It is a Norse cult venerating Skoll and Hati. According to Nora these are the sons of the great wolf Fenrir and they chase the sun and moon across the sky. At the end of the world their hunt shall succeed and the world will be plunged into darkness.”

“Well…” Stella’s words paused with the movement of her hand. “I suppose it’s good the sun is still shining outside.”

“Quite.” Giovani said. “They’re an unsponsored cult, and we’ve spoken with the representatives of the Way of the One-Eyed Traveler and the Hammer and Lightning. They have disavowed any relation.”

“Do you think they’re just covering themselves?” Stella asked.

“Nora doubts it on theological grounds.” Giovanni made a rough lupine suggestion of a shrug. “I have no interest.”

“What will be done about the cult?” Stella asked.

“Nora and I will be working together, she suggested I find an agent for infiltration and I am giving it some thought.”

Stella was silent again for a time before she spoke. “I’m not sure if I’d be capable…”

Giovanni let out a low drawn out chuckle, mouth opening to reveal sharp rows of teeth. “No, Stella, you are too useful to me here, and while you are a diligent and pious young woman I do not believe you have the stomach for espionage and deception.”

He could see he relief spreading across her face. “Thank you, Mister Giovanni.”

She finished writing her report but didn’t leave afterwards, spending a few minutes in silence with him in the tombs.

“Is something wrong, Mister Giovanni?” She asked.

He glanced up at her, quiet for a moment before responding. “Why do you ask?”

“You’ve been at the forefront of the investigation, but you started drawing back after he was caught, and now you’re delegating the report to me when you would have given it to the Bishop in person just a week or two ago. I can’t help but think that something’s wrong.”

Giovanni sighed, his mouth drawing back in something like a smile. “Bless you Stella, your compassion is admirable. But the troubles of a wolf should not bother the hearts of humans.”

“You’re not just a wolf, you’re our protector.” Stella kneeled beside his head. “Besides I have some time before the Bishop expects me to turn in the report. It’d be nice to have some time to talk.”

“There are few things nicer than time to talk.” Giovanni admitted. “And what would we talk about, Stella?”

“Well, we could talk about what’s troubling you.”

Giovanni chuckled again. “Are you trying to coerce me into confession, Stella?”

“Oh heavens no.” Stella smiled, raising her hands innocently. “I’m not qualified. Besides what is there to absolve? Wolves can’t sin. Think of this…as a friend reaching out.”

“If you must insist.” Giovanni took a deep breath, sides visibly rising as he did, only making him look larger in Stella’s eyes.

“When I apprehended the vandal, when I caught him in the act, I was not merely trying to catch him. There were…old instincts at play. I stopped being an agent of the church trying to stop an act of evil. I was…a predator hunting its prey.”

“Well that just seems natural.” Stella said. “You are a wolf. You have a wolfish instinct.”

“We are both fooling ourselves if I claim to be an average wolf.” Giovanni said. “I am not human, I do not possess a divine soul as you do. In the hierarchy of creation I am less even than that vandal, but I am blessed with a man’s intelligence, the capacity to reason and tell right from wrong. It is a test for me every day, and one I failed that night.”

Stella took a few moments to think before she spoke again, and Giovanni knew what she was going to ask.

“Mister Giovanni…how does one go about becoming a Catholic wolf? Isn’t this something of a no-win scenario? No matter how virtuous you can be, it’s not as if you can become human.”

“Ah sweet Stella, it is not so hard. A virtuous life performed only at the promise of heavenly reward is hardly virtuous. You do it because one with the capacity for virtue should always strive for virtue, it is the right thing to do and that should be reward enough.”

“Of course, forgive me.” She bowed her head. “But how did you become…what you are?”

“I made a promise to someone a very long time ago.” Giovanni said before rising somewhat into a sitting posture to better speak to Stella, who shuffled a little to make room for him.

“I am the youngest of the wolves in Rome, I think. Angel’s age I truthfully don’t know save that she is likely truly ancient. Capitolina is nearly three thousand years old, Kebechet is nearly twice that at five thousand years by her reckoning. I am a ‘mere’ eight hundred years old. Almost to the year, I might add.”

“Still quite a bit older than I’ll ever be.” Stella said. “But I hear that’s the norm for spirits.”

“Once a story gains momentum it never truly dies, though my case is an odd one. I was fairly well known in my day before I became the wolf you see before you. Unfortunately back then it was infamy that followed me.”

Giovanni saw Stella’s eyes glance to the scarred flesh and matted fur that covered most of his body, relics from an abandoned life.

“In those days I was feared as the worst sort of beast, a man-eater, unkillable and uncatchable as I plagued the town of Gubbio in Umbria not too far from here.”

“Gubbio…” Stella tested the name, before her eyes alighted and she clapped her hands together. “You mean…Mister Giovanni you’re THE Wolf of Gubbio?”

“The very same.” Giovanni smiled. “I see you know the story.”

“Oh yes,” Stella nodded, placing her hands back in her lap. “But I’d love to hear you tell it.”

“Well then I suppose I can indulge you.” Giovanni said.

“In Gubbio, around 1220, there lived a terrible wolf. A man-eater that had plagued the town for years. The spears and arrows had bounced off its hide. Nothing could kill the beast, and any man bold enough to challenge it was devoured. It would wait outside the city gates to feast on anyone foolish enough to venture out alone. To put it in more recent terms, the spirit of the Wolf of Gubbio had ascended from the tale of a mere dangerous wolf, and it had become as tmuch a monster as the dragon slain by Saint George…

“It would not be a sword-wielding warrior that came to Gubbio, however, but a humble holy man. He had foregone ordainment of any kind, not even a priest was he as he walked to the gates of Gubbio to meet this wolf. Dressed in frayed robes and threadbare shoes he was hardly even a morsel for the ravenous wolf, but he was lucky as the gates were deserted and the wolf had taken the evening to lurk in its den. The holy man made the sign of the Cross and stepped out of the gates, a small gaggle of villagers following him, half-curious and half-afraid of what might happen to this humble man of God.”

“And what happened?” Stella asked, still smiling.

“Despite the protests of the townsfolk, the man walked to the very lair of the Beast. At the entrance he crossed himself once more and stepped within while the townspeople stayed behind, though still able to see what transpired.

“The wolf attacked, but the man said that the wolf was to cease and listen in the name of God. In that moment, the wolf felt something it had never felt before. Awareness, consciousness, a sense of grace no monster had ever felt. It stayed its jaws as the man commanded. And the man spoke again with words I still recall quite clearly, the first words I ever truly heard:

‘Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee anymore.’

“That is what he said to me, he offered his hand and I placed my paw upon it. And from that day on I was a changed wolf. I knew true compassion, I felt the grace of God within me, and I came to be at peace with the town of Gubbio.”

Stella knew the tale of course, but it was clear she really did enjoy hearing Giovanni tell it, and he had to admit it brought a sense of peace to him as well.

“I knew that man for many years until his death. It is why, when I came to the defense of this holy place six months ago, I gave his birth name as mine, Giovanni.”

“Though of course we know him better as Saint Francis of Assisi.” Stella said. “I suppose I should have caught the reference. The story ends after you make peace with the town. You really remained his friend afterwards?”

“As much a friend as a wolf can be.” Giovanni nodded. “He had a tendency to wander and I preferred the wild places, but I have never known so good and whole a man. It is good to know he rests in the kingdom of Heaven.”

“You said you made a promise to him?” Stella asked.

“Indeed I did. I made a compact before him and the people of Gubbio, that I would never again offend either man or beast or any kind of living creature. I do not hunt, I do not steal, I live as pious of a life as can be expected of a wolf and more. Some days are harder than others…”

“I think you do marvelously.” Stella said.

“You are as kind as ever, Stella. I only wish he were here to guide me in these times.”

“We don’t expect you to be a Saint, Giovanni.” Stella said. “You’ve protected and helped this city for months and we already owe so much to you. It was the teachings of Saint Francis and the will of God that brought you to us, and I’m sure they will continue to guide you.”

“You’re a fine speaker, Stella.” Giovanni smiled. “Have you considered missionary work?”

“I’m just relieved it doesn’t sound like empty platitudes to a centuries-old wolf.” Stella returned the smile. “I do my best.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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The Wolves of Rome

The Matter of Mind Control

April 4th, 2023
The Vatican library had over one million books within its halls. It was one of the largest and most ancient libraries on the planet and contained an enormous collection of works on countless topics. It contained codices gathered from across the world, spanning the ages from antiquity to the modern day and covering material far and beyond the purview of Catholicism. Before the Days of Revelations, it had attracted thousands of researchers every year, and even now it still had its visitors.

“Remind me again,” Abigail White rubbed at the corners of her eyes, her fingers pushing up her glasses. “Why I am reading a thirteenth century account of the life of Saint George?”

“Ascalon,” Ettore Cavallo, her sole companion in their reading room, spoke even as he scanned another thick tome, his gloved fingers delicately turning each page.

“What about it?” She asked, glancing back at the tiny print and finding it almost impenetrable in her fatigued state, her eyes wandering across the page.

“Was it a sword or a spear?” Ettore said, still not looking up.

Abigail hung her head. “I don’t know, the accounts don’t seem to agree.”

“Then go with the earliest.” He said, finally looking up.

“Then I’d say lance.” She said. “It’s the earlier and more popular representation.”

“Nothing conclusive though?” He asked and Abigail groaned.

“Ettore we’ve been at this for days. Literally nothing here is conclusive. It’s not as if we can just pop into a museum and see if Ascalon is on display. We don’t even know if it’s real.”

“I would err on the side of it being real and that it really was used to kill a dragon.” Ettore said calmly. “Seems to be the course of things these days. But a lance? That would be odd.”

“Why would a lance be odd?” Aabigail asked, sitting back in her chair, arms crossed over her chest. “It’s as common a mounted cavalry weapon as a sword.”

“But it’s less heroic than a sword.” Ettore said “It’s probably why the story was retold with it as a sword.”

“Not everyone gets to have an Excalibur.” Abigail shrugged “Nothing wrong with a sensible weapon.”

“King Arthur actually had a magic spear.” Ettore said, turning back down to his tome.

“You’re kidding. What was it called?”

“Ron.”

“Okay now I know you’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m absolutely serious.” Ettore said. “It was shortened from its Welsh name Rhongomyniad”

“Yes, well, no one likes to read stories about King Arthur and his trusty spear, Ron.”

“My point exactly.” Ettore smiled, and Abigail couldn’t help but chuckle a little, muttering “Ron” again to herself and laughing.

“Amusing ourselves, are we?”

Abigail nearly fell out of her chair and Ettore shuddered as Giovanni’s voice cut through the air between them. Neither of them had even heard the wolf enter the library despite the usual deadened silence of the place.

“M-Mister Giovanni.” Abigail blushed as she rose to greet him. “Sorry, you caught us unaware.”

“Nothing to apologize for.” Giovanni did not seem irritated, but the stony demeanor of his face did not make him look happy either. Abigail wondered what was weighing on him. He normally sent Stella if he had a specific request for them or wanted an update.

“Ettore, is your research progressing?” Giovanni asked. It was forced, but polite, small talk. He hadn’t needed to come to ask that.

“Very well, thank you again.” Ettore said. “We’ve made a lot of headway with access to the library, but about the secret archives…”

Giovanni raised a hand to silence him. “An issue for another day, Ettore.” Giovanni said. “I have a request for you, and for Miss White as well, if she is willing to offer her services.”

“Of course.” Abigail nodded. She had only recently started coming down to the Vatican library with Ettore. They had started their adventures doing joint research at Lord Nassar’s request in Ettore’s personal magical library, but after noting several times that he had to leave to study in the Vatican, Abigail had offered some of her remaining free time to assist him. She liked spending time with him…when he wasn’t entirely lost in his work, that is.

“What’s the issue?” Ettore asked.

Giovanni took a deep breath “The vandal, or at least one of them, responsible for the recent damages at the greenhouse has been captured and is currently in holding in the capitol. His guilt is undeniable as he was caught in the act, but I fear he may be enchanted and not inhis own mind.

“Enchanted?” Abigail asked, sitting up straighter. “Magically?”

“Is there any other kind?” Giovanni asked sarcastically, letting his aggravation slip into his voice.

“Who is he?” Ettore asked, hand on his chin.

“The Senate has decided not to reveal his identity quite yet…” Giovanni’s voice fell and Abigail saw his ears twitch as he listened for potential eavesdroppers in the library. “I will say I recognize him as a member of the flock I protected in the Vatican, though he has not come to mass on Sunday in over a month. His religious standing is ambiguous at present.”

“What makes you think he’s enchanted?” Abigail asked “What are his symptoms?”

“For one he expressed no signs of fear or heightened adrenaline when he was attacked by a giant wolf.” Giovanni muttered matter-of-factly. “And I’m not particularly proud of how terrifying my visage in that form can be.”

“He could have been drugged?” Abigail suggested. “Something to dull the senses and make him more suggestible. It’s not unheard of.”

“There’s something else.” Giovanni said. “You’ll have to take my word on it as my senses are sharper but magic leaves a…smell of sorts. A sensation that can be detected, and this man certainly had it on him.”

“That’s not a lot to go on, Mister Giovanni.” Abigail said, Ettore nodding in agreement.

“I cannot say much more without bringing you two on as expert references.” Giovanni said. “And I want to wait before I confirm that…but I need a mage consultant, and in particular I need a mage consultant I trust.”

“Well you can trust us of course.” Ettore said “We just need a little more to go on before we can say anything definitively.”

“Then before we commit to anything.” Giovanni said “I want you to tell me everything you can about magical mind control. First of all, is it even possible?”

“Is the culprit a mage himself?” Abigail was quick to respond. How magic affected the body was her specialty, after all.

“He is not.” Giovanni said. It was clear he wanted to reveal as little as he could manage about the culprit, whether it was to protect his identity or the integrity of the church, or merely for potential legal complications.

“Then it’s not only possible, it’s easy.” Abigail said.

“Really? Easy?” Giovanni frowned.

“Distressingly so, if the mage is skilled.” Abigail said. “It has its limits obviously, but only magic can offer real long-term resistance to magic, so a mundane person doesn’t stand much of a chance against a skilled enchanter.”

“It’s not all that different from hypnotism.” Ettore said “Even I can do it to an extent.”

“If it really was that easy.” Giovanni glanced around before taking a seat. “One wonders what a corrupt mage might be capable of…what they might already be guilty of doing.”

“I wouldn’t put too much worry into it.” Abigail said, trying to reassure him. “As I said it has its limits. Controlling multiple people becomes exponentially more difficult, for example.”

“So a single mage couldn’t control an organized cell of criminals?” Giovanni asked.

“Not without being both very powerful and very focused on it.” Abigail said. “However the biggest threat to mind controllers are other mages.”

“What do you mean?” Giovanni looked at her curiously.

Abigail smiled. “Mages are people just like anyone else. We have our bad eggs but there are just as many good mages as there are bad, if not more so.”

“Over the years we have become very well-organized.” Ettore said “Part of living in a secret community is keeping tabs on everyone in case they go rogue.”

“The potential for conspiracy is still…” Giovanni began to say, worriedly, but Abigail cut him off.

“The majority of mages are perfectly able to tell right from wrong.” She said. “Mind control is an insidious power, a fundamental violation of someone’s rights as a human being. It wasn’t allowed before the Days of Revelation, and it’s not tolerated now.”

“That’s certainly an…optimistic viewpoint.” Giovanni settled on.

“Well, perhaps more reassuringly, there are only six mages in Rome, and you’re looking at almost half of them. The third is an alchemist, two others are teenagers and live with the Ranger-General, and the sixth is a Senator.”

“I don’t know how you think that puts my mind at ease.” Giovanni said. “Because none of the alternatives are good.”

“Well I think we can agree it’s not a mage.” Abigail said. “You can’t be accusing any of us…”

“I can agree that the man was enchanted.” Giovanni said fiercely. “And that would imply…”

Before the debate grew more heated Ettore interrupted them both, speaking as he rose from his chair.

“You might both be right.” He said, moving to the shelves to look over tomes.

“No it wouldn’t be here…” he muttered to himself as his eyes wandered the spine. “What I mean to say…” he addressed the two of them “Is that mages are not the only magical things in the city.”

“…Explain.” Giovanni’s attention was on him now. “Are you suggesting a monster…”

“No, not a monster.” Ettore said “Though that’s not beyond the realm of possibility, sirens and some more malevolent nymphs can entrance and enchant. But if you’re right in your suspicions. And he is part of some larger conspiracy or cult…then the enchantment could be divine or witchcraft.”

“Witchcraft?” Giovanni looked between him and Abigail. Abigail shrugged; this was far from her specialty. “What’s the difference between a mage and a witch? And what do you mean by divine?”

“Well,” Ettore began, “There are lots of different ways to perform magic. We six mages just practice one of the most common forms in Europe. It could be another kind of spellcaster, like a witch, has slipped into the city without us realizing. That or…a divine spirit, like a god of one of the new cults, has empowered a human with supernatural powers.”

“I still have yet to be reassured.” Giovanni practically growled. “So there are six magic-users in the city…that you know of.”

“If you can give us access to the victim,” Abigail suggested, “We might be able to tell you the source. We’ve had time to do research, and if we can see to a proper diagnosis of his mental interference…”

“I will do what I can.” Giovanni said. “But this is a senate matter now, and they might object to interference on the Vatican’s behalf. More likely Lord Nassar would see to it himself.” He fell into a long pause. Long enough for both Abigail and Ettore to predict what he was going to ask next.

“Is Lord Nassar trustworthy?” It was a massive accusation by implication, but it had also been weighing on both of the mages’ minds.

“I think I can say,” Ettore said. “That Lord Nassar is ambitious and cunning…but would not violate the ethics of the community in a brazen way.”

It was a carefully crafted sentence, one Abigail could only admire for its tact. She didn’t know Lord Nassar particularly well, she had only met him on several occasions after all, but what little she had seen of him had not been…entirely comforting. He was a magi in power, with all that implied.
Giovanni sighed. “Then at least I have some small measure of reassurance.”

“If there is any more we can do…”Abigail began, but Giovanni raised a hand to stop her.
“Thank you, both of you. You have provided me with invaluable information. But there is little else to be done without Senate approval. Until then I can only request none of us repeat what has been said in here. Do you understand?”

The pair of them nodded.

“Very well. Thank you again, truly.” He said, bowing his head as he turned to leave.

Abigail looked again at Ettore, who sighed and took his own seat.

“It’s always something, isn’t it…” He said, gazing off absently into the shelves. “Troubles never cease, as they say.”

Abigail looked at him in silence for a few moments, contemplating his words before pushing forward a smile and rising to take a seat next to him.

“I suppose then.” She said, pulling a book from the table and opening it in her lap. “We simply need to keep finding the good.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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