The Snake and the Mirror

Okami

September 22nd, 2024

 

Megame had returned to the shrine to think. There would be no easy reconciliation between these kami, so she had cleared the bridge and come here to consider her options as Rome watched its primary source of water thrash and bite at itself. Amnis and Adversum would not stop fighting until one of them was victor, but neither of them seemed fit to take control of the entire river. Cooperation would be the ideal solution, but that was looking more and more unlikely.

When it came to situations like these, Megame needed the advice of an expert.

She sat, legs folded under her, in the central shrine of the Roman Shrine Complex. The secluded room was dedicated to Inari Okami, one of the few spirits that had a permanent residence and dedicated shrine within the overall complex, and easily the most powerful spirit that called it home. Nora had even offered to give her a cellae in the Roman Temple, a place more suited for a god, but both Megame and Inari had declined. Inari Okami preferred a more naturalistic setting, and her authority could keep the rowdier lesser spirits in line. While the official name was the Roman Shrine Complex, the nickname “The Inari Shrine” was already beginning to catch on.

Inari’s personal shrine room was dimly lit, with the light of the sun shuttered away. The air was still and thick with the scent of incense. Flanking the altar on either side was a pair of stylized stone fox statues with bright red bibs tied around their necks. On the altar, itself was a number of prayers wrapped into scrolls and an offering of rice, some of Megame’s last from Japan. Megame herself lowered her forehead to the floor, prostrating herself before the altar as she waited for divine contact.

“Megame, my dear child, you seem troubled. Lift your gaze”

Megame lifted her head from the floor as she heard the voice. No longer was Inari the semi-tangible echo of a spirit that had followed her across Eurasia. Here, in a proper shrine with proper worshippers, she could take full form.

In this case, Inari had taken her favored appearance as a beautiful young woman in the prime of her health. Her hair and eyes were both brilliant gold, and her long hair fell in great tumbles down her back and shoulders. Her skin was ivory pale, her thin eyebrows raised in amusement. She was dressed in a brilliant kimono of gold and vermillion that was wrapped around her with a loose elegance. She radiated light in the dark shrine, casting an amber glow around the room. Flanking her, the two stone foxes had come to life as pure white fox spirits, moving protectively to either side of their goddess.

She sat on the shrine, reclining slightly with a sake vessel balanced in one hand as she regarded Megame. “What is it that burdens your thoughts, my loyal shrine maiden?”

“Inari-Okami, I seek your aid in resolving a matter that might jeopardize this city.”

Inari smiled at her, taking a brief sip of sake before replying.

“Of course, dear Megame. I promised to be your adviser in all things, did I not? What counsel can one of the Okami provide.”

“I am humbled by your generosity, Inari-Okami. The two spirits of the Tiber River, Amnis and Adversum, are refusing to cooperate in any way with one another. The river grows fierce, and it is unfit for travel and soon may be unfit to drink.”

“That is worrisome,” Inari said casually, lacking urgency in her voice. “A river is the lifeblood of a city. Without access to the river for trade and freshwater the city itself may wither. I take it you have spoken to both spirits and tried to resolve their quarrels?”

“I have, Inari-Okami. They refuse to speak on level terms. Both believes the other to be inferior, and that the entirety of the river should be theirs.”

“Why has this only just begun? Surely they must have had quarrels before?”

“Indeed they would have, Inari-Okami, however, there was once a third spirit who commanded all the river. He was known as the god Tiberinus, and he kept the other spirits in line so that the river flowed as it was meant to.”

“And where is this god Tiberinus now?” Inari asked, eyebrow raised.

“No one knows, Inari-Okami.” Megame said. “They say he is dormant, or perhaps simply…gone. The spirits at least feel safe enough that he is to fight over his position.”

“And with so much to gain and so much to lose, neither side will be willing to cede power.” Inari said, a smile growing at the edges of her lips. “My this is a difficult negotiation.”

“The river cannot function without both of them.” Megame said. “Neither of them respects the purpose of the other enough not to neglect their domain. Adversum does not care for the river floor, or the purifying and nurturing it provides. Amnis doesn’t care for the surface water or the current, the flow that we need for transport and drinking. Without both in control of their domains, the river and Rome will suffer.”

“An astute observation, my dear shrine maiden,” Inari said. “You are becoming better at weighing a situation before you act. You are a clever girl and good with words, but sometimes it takes more than words to put a spirit back in line.”

“Would intimidation lead to a prosperous result, Inari-Okami?” Megame asked. “I am not sure if forcing a spirit will aid us, or if I am even capable.”

“These spirits are attempting to expand their domains.” Inari said. “This by itself is not unusual or despicable. I myself have expanded into many domains over my long existence. However, an attempt to openly subjugate an equal spirit to expand one’s own power is…vulgar. It is unbecoming behavior on the part of both of them, and it needs to be stopped. Occasionally the hand of force is needed to keep the overly-ambitious in line.”

“I see,” Megame nodded her head. She didn’t like the idea of bullying spirits back into line. But this quarrel between equals was putting the entire city at risk. “Though I am not sure if I am capable of bullying a spirit…” Megame said reluctantly.

“You have neither the height nor the strength to do so on your own,” Inari said, still smiling. “Nor do you yet have the authority. You could in theory call upon one of your native Okami to assist you, but…?” She left the statement deliberately open-ended, testing Megame to hear her reply.

“But…such an act of cultural aggression would not be taken well.” Megame finished the statement. “The Roman gods would resent a Japanese Okami bullying the spirits of their domain…. though by the same measure they will be difficult to coax into intervention.”

“And why is that?” Inari asked, her smile broadening as she was clearly pleased.

“Because the powerful Roman gods, those with the authority to punish the river spirits, show too much disdain for lesser spirits to govern them.”

“As you eliminate all unfeasible solutions, the workable ones present themselves” Inari said, “This is how you should approach the problem. Find the method by which they can be coerced, and find a spirit fit to apply it. It may require a good deal of effort, but I am confident my shrine maiden can accomplish it. You are, after all, what the western Okami refer to as my ‘Champion’.”

Megame bowed her head deeply again. “I will not disappoint you, Inari-Okami.” She said, and as she spoke the amber light began to fade. The fox spirits once more turned to stone, and the beautiful image of Inari faded away.

Megame waited for a few moments in the darkness before rising again, breathing in the scent of incense as she focused her thoughts. It was Inari’s way to never give her a direct answer unless she was issuing command. She much preferred it when Megame discovered a solution for herself. No doubt if she failed and Rome was truly imperiled she would give her a solution, but neither of them wanted that to happen. She may not have given Megame everything, but she had set her down the right path. Inari might be her adviser, but it was up to Megame to solve this problem.

 

The sun was beginning to set when Megame returned to the river, bathing the sky in oranges and reds as it painted the chopping waves of the Tiber gold and white with the dimming sunlight catching in the swells. People still gathered at the river, watching the waters churn nervously as they waited for a solution to arrive, or perhaps for the chaos to stop.

As she stepped towards the bridge, she saw she was not the only specialist on the scene Nora was still there, talking now with Sybilla Musil. Sybilla was a witch of some kind employed with Rome’s Night Guard, and by the expression on their faces, the situation had not improved.

“Ah, welcome back, Megame.” Nora said, spotting her as she approached. “Did your goddess have any answers.”

“None directly,” Megame said. “Though I believe she may have given me the inspiration for a solution.”

“You can stop this?” Sybilla asked, turning to her as well. “It didn’t sound as if you had much luck beforehand.”

“I was unprepared, now I am better informed.” Megame said. “But if the Night Guard has its own solution.

“Nothing yet,” Sybilla sighed. “We’re better at hunting or dealing with angry ghosts and lesser spirits where they become an issue. This is a bit beyond our capabilities at the moment.”

‘If you have a solution, Megame,” Nora said, “The floor is yours.”

Megame bowed her head. “I will do my best.”

Once more the bridge was cleared, and Megame walked out onto it alone. She walked to the center and sat down, legs folded beneath her as she took several long deep breaths. She closed her eyes, hands on her legs, and after one long breath she cleared her mind.

As Megame focused herself, her mind wiped of distraction and emotion, she could feel something else around her. She could feel the flow of spiritual energy winding around her like river, flowing past her in great waves as it filled the air. It was the aether, mana, chi, the breathing air for spirits and the fuel for mages the world over. With proper meditation and a practiced mind, even a mundane human can feel the spiritual energy that radiates from everything. Now that she was in an almost trance-like state, Megame could feel the push and pull of the energy around her as it flowed through her, through the people in the crowd, and gathered like whirlpools in the spirits of Amnis and Adversum.

Megame could feel the flow moving through them all, but the was only the surface. She needed to dig deeper, to feel the current that pushed the eddies and the flow of tides, to sink down into the primal forces that shape the world. There was the mortal Tiber River, the water that flowed through its banks. Beneath that there were the two spirits, Amnis and Adversum, fighting for control. But below that still was the spiritual heart of the river, the power that the two spirits battled for. It was the core of the river, the heart of its power inaccessible to all but a few. To feel the energy moving through it, Megame had to reach out with her own spirit and throw her mind outward into the spirit world around her.

It was not unlike Astral projection, the separation of the spirit from the body. But while astral projection could allow someone to easily communicate with spirits and the spirit world, Megame needed to send herself deeper, to mingle her essence with the primordial spirit of the Tiber River and stir up whatever slept there. She was so deep in the spiritual realm, so far removed from the material plane, that she couldn’t speak or see or sense anything with perception as she knew it. There was only her spiritual sense to guide her.

Megame’s spirit sank below the bridge and into the spiritual waters, diving below the battling whirlpools of Amnis and Adversum. As the flow of energy began to steady around her, growing dark as it neared the chaotic depths, she sent out the closest thing she could to a summons. Megame let loose a pulse of her own spiritual energy, a vibrating echo of power that rippled through the aether to reach whatever could hear it so deep below the mortal world.

For a moment she sensed noting but the slow flow of energy. Then something powerful flowed past her body, another pulse much larger and more sluggish than the one she had sent out. It was probing, questioning why she was there.

Hurriedly Megame sent out another pulse, trying her best to weave her thoughts and emotions into the wave of spiritual energy. Worry, concern, fear, combined with the feeling of the flowing waters of the Tiber. There was another silence before the entity pulsed again, this time she felt its own feelings of concern flow through her body. They communicated like submarines bouncing signals through the abyss, two whirls of energy pulsing at one another through the sightless spiritual realm. Finally, Megame focused herself, putting all of her effort into the one single message so that the precise meaning came through.

“Come with me.”

With that last message, her spirit flew upwards towards her body. She sucked in a deep gasp of air as if she had been holding her breath, eyes fluttering as her vision cleared. She could hear the muttering of the crowd and the slapping and crashing of the water. Now all she could do was wait, and hope that her message had been heard.

Moments after the churning began to slow, and soon it ceased entirely as an unnatural stillness overcame the water. The crowd watched nervously, a silence descending on the bridge as everyone waited for something to happen.

With an immense splash of water something huge launched itself from the river’s depths, a great serpentine shape that rose into the air, its aqueous body coiling around the bridge several times over like a tremendous python. There were several terrified screams and cries from the crowd as they backed away, the guards moving between them and the new monstrous entity, but Megame simply rose to her feet as the head of the serpentine water creature began to form.

Water coalesced into azure scales, churning foam into a mane of white hair, and the great head of the entity solidified into the head and muzzle of a lion-like creature. As the entity took full form, Megame saw now that a long sinuous dragon had wrapped itself around the bridge, its tail still lost in the depths of the harbor.

Megame bowed her head. “Lord Tiberinus, I presume”

“It has been long since I last heard that name,” The dragon’s mouth did not open as it spoke. “I have forgotten the face it wore and the faces of the people it spoke to.”

“I hope this one will suit you.” Megame bowed her head again. “I think it is quite regal.”

“And how did you find me, little mortal? How did you know where to look?”

“So long as there is a Tiber River there is spirit of the Tiber.” Megame said. “When you disappeared I realized you must have simply sunk back into the waters from which you were birthed. But please, Lord Tiberinus, will you let the river flow as it always has?”

“I will ensure it,” Tiberinus said. “It shall flow from the mountains to the sea. It shall chop in the storm and flow calmly under the sun. So it has been for thousands of years, so it shall be again.”

“And Amnis and Adversum?”

“Spoiled children to be dealt with. There is but one Tiberinus.”

Megame bowed once more, this time to her knees, forehead to the ground. “Thank you, Lord of the River.”

 

Nora and Sybilla watched in relative quiet from the river’s edge nearby as Megame spoke to the great water dragon.

“I’ve never seen a river spirit quite like that,” Sybilla said. “Granted I’ve only met a handful.”

“They tend not to look like that around here.” Nora said, a nervousness growing in her voice.

Sybilla quickly took notice. “Is something wrong?”

“That’s not what Lord Tiberinus looked like in any depiction…that’s what a Japanese river spirit might look like.”

“Japanese?” Sybilla looked at the serpentine dragon again. “Do you think…?”

“That Megame altered the nature of the spirit itself using nothing but her own spiritual influence?” Nora finished her question. “It can happen with gods and spirits but…it takes hundreds or thousands of people all believing the same thing to change a spirit like that. Not a single Japanese girl.”

“Then perhaps we should keep an on this one.” Sybilla said, a slight smile growing on her face. “There might be more to her than we first suspected.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Purity

September 22nd, 2024

 

The waters of the Tiber thrashed and churned like the waves on a storming sea. Great swells a meter high smashed into one another in flying sprays of white that splashed against the concrete banks of the river. The oddest thing of all, however, was that all this storm and fury was happening under a clear blue sky on a windless day.

“That certainly is…unusual,” Megame said, standing at the river’s edge as she watched the churning waters.

“Not exactly natural, is it?” Nora asked. The pair of them stood slightly apart, given a berth by the people who had gathered to watch the strange thrashing of the water.

“No, it’s definitely the water kami in the river fighting one another.”

“Well we need them to stop,” Nora said. “If they get too out of control it could damage valuable infrastructure and put a lot of people at risk.”

“Absolutely,” Megame nodded. “I just need a way of reaching out to them.”

“How do you do it normally?” Nora asked. “It’s easy with gods since they usually want the attention. But these spirits seem pretty distracted.”

“Well there are a number of ways,” Megame said. “They don’t all work outside of Japan though…I’m going to need a bridge to be cleared.”

“It’ll get done,” Nora said. “Best to get this solved quickly.”

“Ah…thank you,” Megame bowed her head, slightly embarrassed to be ordering the Pontifex around.

“Hey, you’re the expert here,” Nora said. “If it’ll stop these spirits, then you say jump and we’ll jump.”

“I’m going to do everything I can.”

It took only a few minutes for them to clear the closest bridge with the help of some nearby local guards. People had gathered in a growing crowd at either end of the bridge, all interested in seeing the young shrine maiden at work. There were many in the city who didn’t support the shrine or Megame’s position. To many in Rome, spirits were evil and needed to be eradicated or ousted by the city rather than negotiated with, and others were deliberately inflating the problem for funding, making up fake conflicts and capitalizing on everyone’s heightened superstitions. Megame might have been a little nervous working in front of so many people, but more than anything, she was determined to show that not only was her job important, but it was vital to the safety and prosperity of Rome.

Still, anxiety tugged at her stomach, and her hand went to the small satchel at the base of her back that was tied to her sash. If something went wrong, she always had backup to call upon.

Megame stood alone at the center of the bridge, water splashing violently beneath her as the water spirits raged. Taking a deep breath, she gestured for the guardsman who had helped clear the bridge to give her his canteen. He handed it over, a slightly confused expression on his face as she took it gratefully. First, she poured some of the water over both of her hands, then poured a little more into her cupped left hand before bringing it to her lips. After briefly rinsing the water in her mouth she spat it out onto the ground then poured more water over her left hand before handing the canteen back to the confused looking young guard with a smile.

“Thank you very much,” She said as she handed it back.

“Er…no problem,” he said. “Does that…help?”

“It helps me,” Megame said, the water dripping freely from her fingertips. “One must be physically and spiritually pure to commune with the kami properly.”

“Um…alright then,” the guard simple nodded before returning to the far end of the bridge with the rest of the crowd. Megame could hear him muttering with another guard as she prepared herself mentally.

“Did she just spit it out?”

“Ya, it’s weird, didn’t think the spirits’d like that.”

“And you just have normal water today, right?”

“Well ya, it’s not like I asked a bishop to bless my canteen today. It’s just water…”

“I don’t get half this ritual stuff.”

“Well, that’s why you’re on this end of the bridge, isn’t it?”

Megame smiled to herself. The purification ritual didn’t have anything to do with the kami or the water. It was a symbolic gesture to show Megame’s body, heart, and soul were spiritually pure before attempting to speak with the Kami. It was a formal necessity in Japan, but she found even as far as Rome the spirits responded well to an effort to make the body pure before speaking to them. Kami, most people failed to realize, were a symbolic race rather than a literal one. Megame could have taken a cleansing shower in Catholic holy water for an hour, but if she did not respect the inherent nature of the rite, then the gesture would be meaningless. So long as she believed the ritual made her body spiritually pure, the kami would as well.

Now she was clean, so it was time to begin the communion.

Megame bowed deeply at the waist, her body facing upstream. It was a long, formal, and deeply reverent bow and she rose slowly from it. Then she repeated, once more bowing deeply to signal her sincere and deep reverence for the spirits churning in the waters before her. When she rose the second time, she clapped loudly twice, the sound of her wet palms striking echoing over the water. After clapping, she repeated the bow a third time.

This was to catch the attention of the kami, to let them know that a mortal was listening and wished to speak. Unless they were offended, this was usually when a Japanese spirit would give sign that they were listening, if not quite willing to communicate directly. The water beneath her, however, continued to thrash violently against the banks.

This was the tricky part of the game. It was a test of formality and patience when it came to spirits. The world over, all spirits were proud, and most did not appreciate needing to communicate with mortals at this level. Megame’s posture, gestures, and intent all pointed to reverence, but also her desire to negotiate. To come too quickly to her call would indicate subordinate position in the discussion, something no spirit would abide.

Megame had heard that Nora had directly negotiated with Hera Okami in order to secure the removal of Echo’s famous curse, and Megame was astonished that she was able to bargain with something as powerful as that. Megame had spoken to a number of Okami in Japan, but she had never truly negotiated with them. This kind of interaction, with lesser more earthbound kami was more her speed.

The river continued to splash wildly. It was time for Megame to make another gesture.

“Great spirits of the river,” she spoke out over the wild waves. “I ask that you please hear my words. I speak for the people of Rome, those who rely upon these waters to survive. We wish to know, all of us, why such good spirits who have allowed us to survive should choose to cause such chaos.”

She spoke using her most formal Japanese as the language held far less bearing than the tone. She was deliberately placing herself in a somewhat subordinate position, showing that any further negotiation relied on their willing cooperation. But she did not debase herself entirely, naming herself as active representative of Rome so that they could not simply ignore her and demand a more ‘important’ representative.

At this, the waters paused, the waves stopped and settled as the current again took hold. There were a number of “oohs” and hushed talking from the crowds, as well as a cheer or two. Megame’s heart was speeding up, however, as she knew that this was far from over.

On either side of the bridge the water began to churn, great white foam frothing up from the river’s depth as great mounds of water began to rise up until they formed great cascading water hills that loomed over the bridge. There was a sudden hush of whispers, several people shouted in fear, but Megame retained her calm, turning ninety degrees so she would be directly facing neither of them, keeping her head bowed.

The great hills of water began to take defined shape. Both of them took the appearance of large broad-shouldered old men. The one on her right, on the downstream side of the bridge, took a much lighter appearance. His beard and long hair were formed from white foam, as were his large bushy eyebrows. His eyes were a light shining blue, like looking up at the sun from under shallow water. His counterpart was physically darker, with skin taken from the deeper siltier waters. His beard and hair were an oily mess of river plants and sunken flotsam with odd pieces of shell, driftwood, and rusted iron wrapped in his long beard. His eyes were a deep green, like a sunken lantern in night waters.

The pair of them eyed her suspiciously, but she did not move until they spoke to her.

“This human is an odd one,” The brighter river spirit said, great watery hand stroking his foamy beard. “Look at how she is dressed.”

“Agreed,” the darker river spirit said, leaning in closely to observe her. Both of them were massive, the waterline only at their waist as they towered over the bridge. But Megame wasn’t intimidated. Size was no true indicator of power. “All white and red, no blue at all, and not nearly enough skin.”

Megame frowned slightly. One thing that she’d found in Rome was that spirits in this land were far more interested in attractive young humans than she had been used to. Hachi had suggested using this to her advantage and using her body for negotiations, and Megame had flatly refused. She took the ‘maiden’ part of ‘Shrine Maiden’ seriously.

“My name is Megame Kamigawa,” she said, keeping her head lowered. “Might I know your names, great spirits of the river?”

Both of the spirits began speaking at once, their voices splashing and gurgling with the sound of a flowing stream as they tried to speak over one another, shooting angry looks at one another before taking their turns. The lighter one with the beard of foam spoke first.

“I am Adversum,” he said, his voice carrying a regal bearing.

“And I am Amnis,” Said the darker water spirit through his floral beard.

Megame turned to both of them in turn as they introduced themselves, making sure never to offer attention to one more than the other.

“Lords of the river,” she addressed them both. “Why do you cause such chaos in the Tiber?”

“Because it is my river!” Adversum shouted angrily, his voice a crash of waves upon the rocks. “Up to Mount Fumaiolo!”

“And time and again I have told you it is mine!” Amnis protested angrily, teeth clanking like sheets of metal. “Down to the Tyrrhenian Sea!”

“Both of you stake claim,” Megame said. “And such great spirits would not lay claim to a river without just cause. Pray tell us humans why it is the river is ones and not the others.”

Instantly both spirits set into one another, their arguing at such a rage and such a volume that Megame could scarcely make heads or tails of it. The noise sounded much like the crashing waves below her did, incoherent and directionless as the two river spirits verbally crashed into one another. She did all she could to try and coax clearer answers from them, but it took some time.

 

“So let me get this straight,” she said, hands on her hips. The argument had gone on for over an hour, and the spirits had largely accepted her role in it. It let Megame speak a little more casually.

“You, Lord Amnis, command all that flows downstream and gathers at the bottom of the Tiber.”

“It is so! That is my ancient duty and I will not abandon it!” The vine-haired spirit gargled.

Megame turned to his counterpart. “And you, Lord Adversum, command all the waves and spray of the Tiber from the coast up to the mountains.”

“Wherever the sky kisses the water is my domain!” Adversum said. “This river is mine.”

“And you two refuse to share the river?”

“The Tiber can have but one spirit as its master,” Adversum said. “So before it was with Tiberinus, so too shall it be with me.”

“I command more of the water!” Amnis shot back. “The waters of the river beneath the surface are mine and I will not give them up.”

Waves splashed over the bridge as the two spirits shouted, drawing closer together until their hands rested on the bridge railing and water and detritus fell from their bodies to the pavement.

“M-my lords, please if we could just-“ Megame’s words failed to reach them as the shouting continued until it reached a fever pitch.

“I’ve had enough of your filthy scum dirtying my waters!” Adversum roared.

“The Tiber is nothing but a trickling stream without me!” Amnis shouted. “Take your pretty waves back to Fumaiolo and shove them up your spring.”

At this final insult, both spirits came to blows, watery fists thrown across the bridge as both river spirits exploded into geysers of water, the churning and roiling returning to the river’s surface as Megame sighed in defeat, water falling down on her like rain.

This was going to be tougher than she’d thought.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Miko

September 22nd, 2024

The life of a shrine maiden began early in the morning. The sun was only beginning to send its light up in the east by the time that Megame was rolling out of bed. It usually took a moment for her to orient herself, her half-sleeping brain asking why she wasn’t sleeping out on the cold forest ground or in her familiar futon back home and half a world away. Megame had rolled instead out of a comfortable western bed to stand groggily, swaying like a tree in storm, in a room that was still somewhat unfamiliar.

A light clap of her hands to her face brought reality and memory back to her as she recalled where she was. She was in Rome, in the small second floor apartment of a townhouse in the inner city that she shared with her fox and companion, Hachi. Her room was small and relatively barren, the walls undecorated but the furnishings lovingly tended. She didn’t have much for herself, but she was proud of what she had.

After a quick hot shower (a blessing after more than a year traveling on foot), she was out in the apartment, pulling on the white kimono and bright red pleated hakama that were once merely for ceremony but seemed to have become her permanent uniform in the city. While she still had her old weather-beaten set from her travels, she had requisitioned more from the local tailors (With careful oversight from Inari-Okami) and they had cost no small amount given the current price of silk.

As she walked into the sitting room, she found Hachi asleep on the couch. It would have been cute to find her there in fox form, her bright red bushy form curled like a dozing cat, but she had taken human form and appeared more like a disreputable woman sleeping off a hangover. She was sprawled over the couch with her arm hanging off and her foot in the air, her head lost in the mess of her tangled black hair, and her long bushy foxtail lying limp over her back. Everything about her was askew, and Megame decided to take a moment from her morning routine to admonish the fox.

“Hachi!” She called, and with a grunt the fox woman snapped awake.

“Huh-wha?”

“Look at yourself! You look like a-“

“Like a woman who had a real good time,” Hachi said with a weary smile.

“You were supposed to be on patrol last night!”

“I was on patrol!” Hachi said defensively. “I was out with Cade until two! Then we just…went back to his place till…four I think?”

“Ugh you should’ve stayed there,” Megame leaned in before pinching her nose in disgust.

“You reek of booze.”

“These Italians make good wine!” Hachi said.

“That’s not wine I’m smelling.”

“Well funny story…” Hachi’s words were still slightly slurred “So apparently there’s this thing called ‘U-ui-su-…” She stumbled over her syllables as she tried to sit up, pulling her kimono back over her shoulders to retain some semblance of modesty.

“It’s whiskey and you’ve had entirely too much! It’s obscene!” Megame scolded.

“Not so loud,” Hachi mewled. “I’m hungover!”

“You’re not hungover, you’re still drunk!” Megame said, loud enough for Hachi’s ears to flatten in pain. Wherever she was in the haze between drunk and hungover, it was not a pleasant place to be. “What you need is a cold shower and new clothes.”

“Then help me to the bath,” Hachi complained, clearly intent on not moving under her own power.

“We only have a little shower here and I already used it,” Megame said. “You can get yourself into it. Besides you’re entirely too handsy when you’re drunk.”

“No, you’re just no fun when you’re sober!” Hachi objected. “Remember that time in…uuh…Beijing I think? With those refugees and we both got suuuuper drunk?”

“I really try not to,” Megame frowned. “That’s when I knew I would have to be the responsible one.”

“So be responsible and carry meeee,” Hachi waved an arm uselessly at her.

“Turn into a fox then! You’re too big and heavy when you’re human.”

“Mmmm, no,” Hachi put her hands over her tucked fox ears. “Can’t focus.”

“Uuugh, fine,” Megame rolled her eyes and with no small amount of tugging, pulling, and lifting, managed to lurch the drunken fox woman off the couch and into the shower, dumping her into the tub and quietly enjoying the animal shriek she gave when Megame turned on the cold spigot.

Once she was sure Hachi wasn’t going to pass out and drown, Megme left her to begin preparing her breakfast toast and packing her lunch, taking the extra time to make food for Hachi as well.

Troublesome though the fox might be, Megame loved her dearly and considered her the closest friend she had in Rome. Hachi had been at her side the entire length of her journey, and had saved her from danger on countless occasions. She was also a surprisingly wise ear to talk to and shoulder to lean on. She was, after all, ninety-seven years old by most reckonings. They were so close in fact that the kitsune had on more than one occasion joked that she was Megame’s ‘fox wife’, drawing from those old stories of young men seduced by lovelorn fox spirits.

Having fixed Hachi’s lunch and left it where the fox could find it, Megame left the apartment to begin her day out in the city. Moving from the wilderness to Rome had been a massive shock in many regards, but in others it had felt like coming home. She had grown up in Kyoto and the bustle and movement of an ancient city felt familiar, even if they were very different in setting. Her origins, combined with her unique style of dress and her actions in constructing the shrine, had made her something of a known figure in the neighborhood. People often stopped to wave or say hi to her, and every day she received a free loaf of bread from the bakery at the end of the street after she had helped him quell the angry wheat kami that had been souring his dough.

That was part of her new job here in the city of Rome. She had been officially appointed by the then-acting Consul and Wolf of Rome Capitolina as ‘Spiritual Ambassador’ of Rome after helping resolve an incident with a rampaging wind kami, though they had called it an eolian nymph. It was her job to act as mediator between the common people of Rome and the common spirits of Rome that inhabited it.

This position had also earned her the respect of the local spirits as well, though their greetings were often subtler than the peoples’. A warm breeze over her face or the falling leaves parting around her were a sure sign that the wind kami had seen her and given their greetings, just as the trees seemed to bend slightly to shade her face from the sun.

Megame walked with a quick step form her apartment towards her new place of business. What had once been only the Parco San Sebastiano (along with the Parco degli Scipioni and other reclaimed areas of greenery that had been combined into a whole) was now home to the Central Roman Shrine Complex. A large wooden temple built in a style mixing ancient Japanese architecture and classical Roman sensibilities, made almost entirely out of wood and salvaged stone without hint of glass or metal beyond use in ornamentation. Despite being new it already seemed quite old, and it had been built with care among the trees and plants of the park, with many more having been planted to spread the vegetation further. It was a green piece of naturalism in a decidedly artificial city, and Megame had chosen it for just that reason. Spirits were of nature, and therefore attracted to where it was densest within cities. At last count, the park and Shrine complex was the transient home to over forty major spirits and hundreds of lesser ones.

The entrance to the park and the shrine was marked by a tall wooden gate, made in the style of a Japanese torii, but not strictly the case. Gates had long since been used to mark the divide between the spiritual and mortal worlds by cultures the world over, so while the styling might represent Megame’s personal flare, the gate itself was a beloved feature of many of the shrine’s local spirits.

Waiting at the gate’s entrance for her was the other spiritual ambassador to Rome, though one who held much higher prominence in Roman society.

“Morning, Megame,” Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar waved casually to her.

“Ah, good morning, Pontifex,” Megame inclined her head politely.

“It’s Nora,” She waved it off.

“As you wish,” Megame smiled. “How can I be of service?”

As Pontifex Maximus, Nora was the chief religious official in the new Roman government. She was to act as liaison between dozens of religions and cults to the various ancient spirits, Okami, and gods that lived and were worshipped in the city. She also acted as an arbiter with the gods themselves, resolving their differences with their cults and with each other. Her positions was in many ways similar to Megame’s, but while Nora worked with gods and city leaders, Megame’s worked between the small nameless spirits and the common people, promoting harmony between the mortal and the spiritual. It was why Nora operated out of the massive Roman temple, while Megame worked out of the smaller and more pastoral shrine.

“There’s been some trouble on the river,” Nora said. “It’s close to the temple but it seemed more like your kind of work, and when I asked Echo she agreed that I should see you about it.”

“Oh of course,” Megame nodded. “Let me make sure everything is in order here and I can see to it.”

Megame stepped into the shrine as Nora walked beside her, seeing to her morning duties and ensuring nothing had gone wrong during the night.

There was nothing of value in the shrine, and so Megame had little fear of potential thieves, and the watchful eyes of spirits would ensure that no such transgression would be tolerated. Still, the front door to the shrine itself needed to be open, the stairs needed to be checked for loose debris, and she needed to ensure none of the lesser shrines were knocked over by more energetic or mischievous spirits. After making sure everything was in order, she returned to Nora at the gate.

“So where are we off to?” She asked.

“Down to the river,” Nora said. “There’s been something of an uproar recently.”

“An uproar?” Megame asked.

“Well the Tiber river is the main source of freshwater in Rome,” Nora said “Making it an invaluable human resource. Unfortunately with more spirits moving in, a number of water spirits have been increasing, and they all want to stake a claim in the Tiber.”

“Staking a claim?” Megame asked. “But what about the native river spirit? Shouldn’t there be a spirit for the river specifically?”

“There should,” Nora nodded. “An ancient river spirit named Tiberinus. However, no one has heard from him or seen him since the Days of Revelation.”

“I see,” Megame said “So with that vacuum in the river, you have water and river kami trying to take his place.”

“Yes, and it’s becoming a nuisance,” Nora said. “If something isn’t done soon then they’re going to fight it out.”

“You’re right, that’s no good,” Megame said. “Spirits fighting can be very destructive, and the consequences if it happened in our water supply…”

“None of the gods I’ve spoken to are willing or able to keep them in line,” Nora said.

“Greco-Roman river spirits tend to be…wild. It will take a lot to bring them in line.”

“So that’s why you need me?” Megame asked.

“We need an expert, and that’s you,” Nora said. “I won’t lie it’s a big job.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do.” Megame smiled.

 

 

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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

Chapter 29

April 9th, 2024

 

Something about tonight was very wrong.

It began when Aurelio begrudgingly accepted doing his rounds with Sybilla that night. The Witchbreed had wanted to begin “Contributing to the city that has sheltered me” as she put it in so many diplomatic words, but he felt that another part of the reason had simply been to needle him.

What had once been Elisa and Aurelio alone had now doubled to the pair of them and the new additions of Sybilla and Mary. Simply to put him at ease, they had moved in pairs with one of the newcomers always in the company of the old. Aurelio did not yet trust Sybilla and Mary alone together out in the city.

Even with this unusual arrangement in place, things had gone relatively normally. For the first few hours of the night the city had been quiet. The moon was brilliant and bright overhead, and the starlight had revealed little in the way of resistance…at least at first.

“That’s the third one tonight,” Aurelio said, walking to the body of the fallen cacodaemon as the arrow in its side dissolved in a stream of moonlight. “And this isn’t even a wilder part of the city. There hasn’t been a single one reported in weeks and now we have three in one night.”

“Well you know what they say,” With a flick of her wrist, Sybilla undid the magic binds that had held the beast in place as Aurelio finished it. “Once is an occurrence, twice is coincidence…”

“And three times is evidence of malice.” Aurelio finished for her. “We should get in touch with Mary and Elisa; they’re closer to the frontier.”

“Do you think this area is safe?” Sybilla asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelio admitted. “But the city guard should be able to handle it. We can’t just leave the outskirts, especially if they have it worse. We’ll need that flying spell of yours.”

“Asking me for favors so freely now?” Sybilla asked with a smirk.

“I’m asking you to help me out.” Aurelio griped.

“Very well, come along then.” Sybilla offered a hand which Aurelio reluctantly took. She had a tendency to treat him like a child whenever she used her magic. It may have been true that he didn’t understand most of it, but he still hated her patronizing tone.

He felt Sybilla’s magic course under his skin as she floated from the edge of the rooftop into the open air. Aurelio felt his stomach drop as he followed her off the edge, expecting to plummet at any moment. As their feet touched the next closest rooftop their speed increased, both of them running or gliding across the rooftop before taking a flying leap across the next street. It was a quick way to move as it let them cross even the widest streets that would have blocked Aurelio’s nightly rooftop jaunts, even if it took some getting used to.

It was when they were crossing the roof of a large estate, Aurelio’s boots hitting the roof hard as Sybilla floated beside him, that he felt a tug on his hand indicating that she had stopped. He almost tripped at the sudden change, and rounded on her to demand what the problem was, only to see her eyes staring upwards into the sky. Following her gaze, Aurelio saw precisely at what she was staring.

The moon, which had been largely full and waxing every night, now appeared as if a fresh new moon. Only the faintest outline of its presence could be seen, and its surface was almost completely black.

“That’s not right…” Sybilla muttered.

“No, it’s not,” Aurelio said. “The moon doesn’t just suddenly switch phases like that.”

“It’s almost like an eclipse,” Sybilla said. “As if something just dropped a shadow on top of it.”

“But lunar eclipses are red,” Aurelio said. “This is just…black.”

“The more I look at this, the less I like it.” Sybilla said. “This isn’t a bit of freak astronomy.”

“It might be causing all these cacodaemons.” Aurelio said. And even as he spoke, the night seemed to erupt with howls. Roars and growls and moans rose form the shadows as a thousand lurking horrors began to tear themselves free from the spirit world of human fear. As the noise rose, Aurelio could almost feel a sense of fear spreading through the city as he had in the nightmare. People cowered in their rooms at the sounds of the multiplying cacodemons, and that fear only gave them more power.

“I’ve never heard of this many in one place…” Sybilla said.

“Not since the Days of Revelations,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow again. “This is too much to just leave for the guards. This is an attack on the city.”

“By whom?” Sybilla asked.

“My guess?” Aurelio asked. “The cult. Unless I’m wrong this is them making their move.”

Sybilla nodded as a new seriousness came over her face, one he had not seen since the dream. “What’s the plan?”

“Elisa and I talked about this,” Aurelio said. “If the city comes under attack from spirits then she heads to the Capitoline Hill and I secure anyone who can help.”

“And who is that in this case?”

“Most notably? The Pontifex and Echo, Hildegard’s family, and then Angel.”

“Understood.” Sybilla nodded, and Aurelio felt a fresh flood of her sorcery pour into him. “Think you can fly on your own, hunter? I’ll need both hands free.”

“So will I,” Aurelio nodded. “Nora’s estate is this way. Follow me.”

Without further words the two of them rushed out over the city of Rome. Without Sybilla’s handholding, Aurelio found himself much quicker to adapt to the newfound flight. He couldn’t levitate like she could, but his leaps were much longer, almost like taking jumps on the moon. He could take his speed and arc into account as he ran and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, which was invaluable as he needed to shoot and run almost the entire way there.

The cacodemons seemed to rise from every dark corner and dim night alley in the city. Every place where shadows lurked seemed to hide a nest of them as they rose and lurched from their home in human nightmares with drooling fang and sharpened claw. A menagerie of horrors in every shape and size came crawling into being across the city of Rome. Where they came their roars soon followed, creating a siren call of terror throughout the city as people woke to find a city filled with nightmares.

Arrow after arrow flew from Aurelio’s bow, and each one found its mark, but for every cacodemon he struck down two more seemed to rise from the shadows that he had to overlook. If he stayed to fight and kill every single one he saw, they would never make it far across the city. Their numbers were overwhelming, and soon Aurelio saw the city guards and the garrisoned legionnaires rushing into the street, half-dressed in armor with swords and spears ready as the spirits attacked on all sides.

Sybilla had not been lying when she said she needed her hands free. Both were occupied with somatic gestures needed for her more advanced spellwork, and between his shots Aurelio would sometimes pause to watch her work. Blue light, dripping with power, lashed like whips from her hands and tore through cacodaemons like paper. With a wave of her hand she flung bolts of magic through the air like missiles, their paths curving like an arcing comet before striking some shadow-born monster that flapped along on leathery bat wings.

Her real specialty, however, was in summoning. From some realm of nightmare she summoned her own monstrous horrors to fight fire with fire. Beasts of black obsidian hide and burning blue eyes built like fierce wolves tore through their weaker and less-defined cacodaemon cousins. Raven-like creatures with flaming wings erupted from portals she opened in the sky to tear through others form above. In the alleys and streets, long clawed tentacles burst from sewer grates, and pulled the helpless and howling cacodaemons down into the depths to meet their fate.

Aurelio had always assumed that if she truly was evil, Sybilla would be no more difficult to hunt down than any other Witchbreed, but tonight he was being rapidly proven wrong.

It took them over an hour to finally reach Nora’s townhouse, and in that time Aurelio had lost count of the spirits he’d killed, not even bothering to keep track of Sybilla’s. As they landed at Nora’s front door, her summoned minions seemed to vanish into the night air and Aurelio felt the power fade from his body. Sybilla took a moment, leaning against the brick wall as her breaths came in ragged pants.

“Give me…a moment.” She breathed, clearly drained.

Aurelio nodded and started slamming his fist on the door.

“Echo!” He shouted “Nora! It’s me! Aure-“

His words were cut short in an instant as he felt the unmistakable feeling of a cold steel blade pressed to his throat. Sybilla was up in an instant, hand pointed over his shoulder as blue lights danced up her arm.

“Release him!” She hissed at his unseen assailant.

“In short order,” Aurelio nearly did a double take when he heard what was unmistakably Nora’s voice in his ear. “When I know who he really is.”

Aurelio shivered as he felt the blade press ever so slightly into his skin, the razor-like edge drawing a few drops of blood. In a moment he was released, and he turned, rubbing his neck with one hand, to face his attacker.

Lenore was standing behind him, idly wiping his blood from her knife.

“What the hell was that!?” He demanded, angered as much by the assault as he was by her candidness.

“Always be sure your allies are who they claim to be.” Lenore said before flashing the blade at him “Silver lined with Zoroastrian runes. Anything in false shape is going to be shifted back to their true form by it.”

“Satisfied then?” Aurelio said, still annoyed.

“Yes.” Lenore said plainly before her eyes traveled to Sybilla, who still had her hands raised threateningly.

Aurelio saw a new kind of intensity in her eyes, and there was something deeply unsettling about the way she regarded Sybilla.

As the intensity in the air grew, Aurelio heard the door open and saw Nora, far less regal than usual in a blue nightgown, regarding the scene.

“Hands down, both of you.” She said, and both Sybilla and Lenore followed her instructions “We don’t need people on the same side killing each other tonight.”

“We came to check on you,” Aurelio said. “To make sure you’re safe.”

“We’re all plenty safe, please come inside.” She said, leading the trio back inside the warm light of her townhouse.

As they stepped into the sitting room, Aurelio saw they weren’t alone. Angel, the winged wolf, seemed to have beaten them there, and she stood next to Echo over a pile of old books that were stacked high on the table.

“We need to get back onto the streets.” Aurelio said.

“I agree,” Nora nodded. “But you need to know what we’re up against first.”

“Do we have any ideas?” Aurelio asked. “We figure it was the Butterfly Shroud making their move.”

“This is not the work of mere mortal spellcasters,” Angel said. “The worst of this has yet to come.”

Aurelio frowned; he had been afraid she would say something like that.

“What is it then?” Sybilla asked.

“This is not a mere lunar event,” Angel said. “I have looked to the dawn and the news becomes much worse. A black sun rises over Rome.”

“Black sun,” Aurelio repeated. “Please tell me that’s not literal.”

“It is,” Angel said. “To your eyes it will appear like an endless solar eclipse.”

“What does it mean?” Sybilla asked

“In general, it is a mark of cosmic instability for the black sun to rise in the daytime world. One hangs over Cairo even as we speak. As for the specifics…” She took a moment to consider her words.

“Something foul has snuck past my shield.”

“How?” Aurelio asked. “Some loophole?”

“If I knew I would have fixed it,” Angel said, with a note of irritation. “But what I do know is that something evil and very powerful is now lurking in Rome. Normally I would trust this task to Miss Jazheil and her sister but…”

“Hildegard is out of commission,” Aurelio nodded.

“And Catarina is outside Rome, along with the Champion of Ares.” Angel said. “I have contacted Salvatore already. You remaining champions are now the best hope for Rome.”

“Where do we start?” Aurelio said. “We need to start looking somewhere.”

“Angel and I are doing all the research we can,” Nora said. “To try and find out what’s causing this.”

“We’ll rendezvous with Elisa and Mary and fill them in.” Sybilla said. “We’ll need to be coordinated.”

As they spoke, a strange soft sound began to waft through the room. It was pleasant, almost mesmerizing as it filled the air without their notice until it filled every corner of the room. All of them looked around for the source, and soon their eyes focused on the small radio set, which had turned itself on and begun playing the unearthly tune.

“To hazard a guess,” Nora said. “Start at the radio station.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 5

May 18th, 2024

Aurelio had slept only briefly, and only in the late hours of the morning, as he always did. His duties kept him active at night and he found that the more he worked the more nocturnal he became. Still, with Diana’s presence watching over him in the form of the moon each night, and the good he knew he was doing Rome, working the night shift seemed a small price to pay. It was a little past noon when he woke up in his small apartment and the noise outside indicated that life in Rome was already well underway. People were out to lunch in droves and he was awakened primarily by the scents of the bakery below. He turned on the radio, catching the middle of Thalia’s noon radio show Life in the World, a blend of travel documentary and talk show where the famous radio personality met with the people pouring into Rome and listening to their stories. As it was noon and the woman worked hard to keep her programming optimistic, it was largely stories of brave survival and the strange and wondrous things beyond the hills of Rome.

Aurelio enjoyed it, as did most others, and so he let the radio play as he showered, dressed, and helped himself to a light breakfast of bread and hardboiled eggs. By the time the show was over it was time for his day to begin, and he had no intention of slacking off during the daytime hours. This new issue that Eliza had heard about, straight from the Lord of Dreams himself, needed his immediate attention. Aurelio’s experience with the cult was sadly lacking, a flaw he had been working to rectify for years now. He knew exponentially more about Greek mythology than he before becoming Diana’s champion, but if Eliza was right than this threat came from beyond that school of knowledge, and even then his knowledge of dreams was limited.

When his own knowledge failed, Aurelio turned to others who could be considered experts in their field. Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White were a pair of mages he found to be both knowledgeable and friendly, so he went to them on matters regarding magic. Eliza’s own creator, Renard Aestling, was a master alchemist but somewhat more difficult to work with. If he needed help with something regarding Italy’s lands and creatures, he went to Capitolina, who knew Rome and its surrounding countryside better than anyone on Earth. When it came to the divine and the spiritual, however, there was one person he could usually count on. It was with that in mind that he set off into the city.

The Pontifex Maximus of Rome had changed her address several times as the city expanded, but she seemed to have settled into a sizable townhouse not far from the new Roman Temple. It was a place well-suited for her position, and was often a stopping point for cult leaders and church officials doing their business in the heart of the city. This was not, however, Aurelio’s immediate destination. As Aurelio had found, the real trick of meeting the Pontifex was tracking her down. She tended to move on an irregular circuit between the Capitoline Hill, the Roman Temple, her home, various cult temples, and the Vatican. Most people looking for Nora tended to run wildly between these places, as Aurelio had done in his early weeks here, and it almost felt as if Nora was deliberately giving people the slip. Aurelio had quickly learned, however, that there was a key to always knowing where Nora was at a given time. With this in mind, he made his way towards the Roman greenhouse.

The greenhouse had once been the source of much of Rome’s food supply, and Aurelio had been here several times when investigating the Hour of the Wolf, which had made several attempts to sabotage it. Now, as farmland began to spread out from Rome’s outskirts, the greenhouse was used mostly to grow exotic or medicinal fare not found in Rome’s native climate. Anything on Earth could grow in that greenhouse thanks to the ministrations of its caretaker.

As he had hoped, Aurelio spotted Echo the nymph as soon as he entered the bright and humid greenhouse. Still, he took a moment to marvel at her. Echo was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen barring perhaps Diana herself. The goddess had an austere and inapproachable beauty native to all goddesses, but Echo had the beauty of a goddess with all the charms of being human. A round face with bright blue-green eyes, dirty blonde hair hanging in waves falling past her shoulders and littered with flowers, all over an impressively curvaceous figure. He admired her for a few moments before walking up to her, greeting her with a friendly wave.
“Hello Aurelio!” Echo smiled brightly, all charm and warmth in her voice.

“Afternoon, Echo.” Aurelio nodded “I hope the day finds you well?”

“Very” Echo said “We have a few more medicinal specimens from North Africa and we’ve been potting them all morning. With luck they should take to root by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Excellent news.” Aurelio said “You’ve done wonders around her Echo.”

“Oh I’ve hardly done anything” Echo’s face reddened, eyes glancing away. “A-anyway, what can I do for you?”

“Oh, I was wondering if you could help me find Miss Newstar, it’s a matter of security for the people of Rome, so I needed help tracking her down quickly.”

“Oh, of course” Echo said, nodding hastily. “Nora is taking meetings with the cult leaders at the Roman Temple until this evening. If you’d like to stop by then…”

“Thank you very much” Aurelio said “I’ll be there a little before sunset, if that’s alright?”
“Certainly” Echo nodded.

As the sun began to set, Aurelio made his way to Nora’s home. He knocked politely on the door and had to wait only a moment to be greeted by Echo, still radiant as ever as she received him with her warm smile.

“Ah, Aurelio, do come in.” She said, before calling back into the house “Nora, Aurelio is here!”
She led him inside, where he was met in the parlor by Nora, who had changed from her more formal dress into a plainer shirt and skirt over a set of hose, legs casually crossed in her chair as she put aside the book she was thumbing through.

“Evening Aurelio” She said, gesturing with a hand for him to take a seat, which he did. “You always are a bit too clever, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Aurelio asked innocently, folding his hands in his lap.

“Going for my nymph to track me down” She said, a smirk growing on her face “After all the effort I go through to make myself hard to find, you try and seduce the information out of sweet innocent Echo here.”

Nora gestured to Echo, who had returned to set a tea tray for the three of them.

It was Aurelio’s turn to redden in embarrassment.

“There was no seduction.” He frowned, masking the embarrassment with a scowl.

“Did you hear that, Echo?” Nora’s smirk never faded “Aurelio here has no interest in seducing you.”

“Really, Aurelio?” Echo looked almost crestfallen, though he could see a smile in her eyes “None at all?”

“That’s…not why I’m here.” Aurelio gave up, knowing he’d never win that fight.

“I know” Nora said triumphantly “I just have to put you through the ringer for using Echo to find me. What do you need, huntsman?”

“You told Eliza last night that Morpheus wanted us to investigate something?”

“That’s right” Nora nodded. “He’s not very talkative and couldn’t give me many details himself, but we know it’s not Greek or Roman in origin.”

“What exactly is it doing? Nightmares?”

“If it were only nightmares we could write it off as just that.” Nora said “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”

“That’s when you wake up and can’t move, right?” Aurelio nodded “It’s happened to me a few years back once or twice, really messes with your head since you’re barely awake.”

“Reports of that are becoming common” Nora said “Along with vivid nightmares of abstract imagery and a feeling of sapped strength. It’s too much at this point to be mere coincidence.”

“So there’s some kind of dream predator lurking in Rome? How are we supposed to deal with that?”

“That’s why I hired you.” Nora said “And I take it you came here to gain access to my library?”

“That’s right.” Aurelio nodded.

While the Vatican Secret Archives kept the largest collection of books in Rome, it was impossible to peruse and Aurelio would need to know what he was looking for. Nora, however, had begun amassing all books of mythology and ancient lore that the Vatican had not clung to desperately, and was presently keeping them on her second floor which was rapidly reaching a point of overflowing.

“Have you considered a new library?”

“Every day” Nora said “But you would not believe the red tape in setting up a library of pagan and occult lore. Though in their defense I have no idea how much of it is legitimately dangerous. Not enough time in the day to read through it and test it all.”

“Do you think it has what we’re looking for?” Aurelio asked.

“Only one way to make sure.” Nora gave him a smile in return.

Aurelio began his studies at sunset and continued well into the night, Nora and Echo leaving him around midnight as they retired. He stayed at a small desk, reading by candlelight as he tried to work his way through a dozen volumes written on dreams. The trouble was not only content, which was esoteric at best and nigh-incomprehensible at worst, but also in language. While his blessings from Diana allowed him to read the ancient tongues, it was a mixed success, and he found himself tripping over flowery and symbolic language, trying to derive meaning from the confused written lore derived from a thousand years of degrading oral tradition.

As the night seemed to pass in endless hours, nothing but the shrinking of his candle to remind him of the passage of time, Aurelio found himself resisting sleep as he pressed himself to keep reading.

A noise behind him brought him back to full alertness, hunter’s instincts sending him rigid like electricity coursed through his body. He wheeled around in his chair, body tensed for a fight even as he knew there wouldn’t be one. He expected it to be Nora checking in on him, or (Hopefully) Echo, instead he was met with someone else, or at least he thought he was.

The woman in the doorway was in many ways identical to Nora, and for a moment he thought Nora had simply washed the dye from her hair to reveal its natural brown. A second glance with his sharpened vision, however, revealed that this was not the same woman.

“Who are you?” Aurelio asked, still feeling certain tenseness in his body.

“Lenore” The woman said “Nora’s…sister, I suppose.”

They must have been twins, Aurelio thought, for how similar they looked. Though it was odd Nora had never mentioned a sister as far as he knew.

“Sorry for the intrusion” she added “Nora asked me to check in on you by two after midnight if you hadn’t left.”

“Two already…” Aurelio groaned, more out of frustration than exhaustion.

Lenore stepped in the room, picking her way quietly through the books like a cat. Aurelio was impressed by her silence. The floor beneath the books was made of old wood that would creak for almost no reason at all, yet Lenore moved like a ghost towards him, it was almost unsettling.

As she drew closer Aurelio noticed more about her. She was slightly taller than Nora, and a bit broader in the chest and arms, likely much stronger physical than her twin.

“What have you been looking for?”

“A trickster spirit or greater cacodaemon.” Aurelio said wearily “Some malevolent monster that feeds on dreams, just a name to go by…”

“You think there is only one?” Lenore asked.

Aurelio nodded “Only one, the pattern is similar, there’s usually just one victim per night.”

Lenore was silent for a moment, perched over the desk like a great sharp-eyed bird as she stared at the tome he had been reading. “Perhaps you are not looking for a specific monster.” She said.

“What do you mean, not specific?” Aurelio turned to her “Like an undefined cacodaemon?”

“No” Lenore shook her head “Perhaps this creature isn’t acting out of malice…it’s merely a tool for another.”

Aurelio looked at her askance “What gave you that impression?”

“Experience.” Lenore said simply “Real monsters rarely leave such an obvious trail.”

“So rather than some named demon or trickster god…” Aurelio said “I might be looking for a lesser spirit doing another’s bidding?”

“It is one possibility” Lenore said “Though I’m not an expert.”

“I doubt anyone is” Aurelio sighed “Still, thank you…why haven’t I seen you around before.”

“I prefer to make myself scarce.” Lenore said “I usually act as Nora’s bodyguard when she will let me.”

“When she’ll let you?” Aurelio asked.

“There are times when she rejects the help, I’m no longer allowed to check the bedroom when she’s in it with Echo, for example…that’s part of why I was in the hall outside.”

“Ah…” Aurelio said, now working very hard to keep the distracting images from his mind.

“Still, you must be good in a fight if you can be the Pontifex’s bodyguard.”

“I was a professional mage killer” Lenore said, with the casual tone of someone who had declared themselves formerly a baker or an accountant.

“Umm…” Aurelio felt the tenseness return to him, not sure how to react.

“A path I left behind quite some time ago, and was forced into against my will.” Lenore said.

Aurelio breathed a sigh of relief. “You know” he said “We could always use more hands on the nightly patrol.”

Lenore was silent for a moment.

“Thank you” she said “But without Nora nearby…I don’t think it is entirely safe for me to be in a combat situation quite yet. Do you understand?”

Truth be told Aurelio didn’t, but he also had the feeling he didn’t want to pry much deeper into this girl’s past tonight.

“Your choice” he settled on.

“Thank you,” Lenore said “And I do mean that.”

“Well if you’re as good as you say, and you get Nora’s recommendation, then the offer is always open. For now, though, I think I need to get back to these books. Thanks again for your help.”

Lenore nodded and departed with the same stealth and silence with which she had arrived, leaving Aurelio alone to contemplate her words and the creature haunting Rome’s dreams.

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Where All Roads Lead

The Temple of Rome

The Grand Roman Temple, as it was being called, had been built over a wide area from the edge of the River Tiber and covered part of the ancient remains of the old Circus Maximus. It gave the building proximity to the river as well as a central location for all of Rome’s worshippers. Easily the largest building built from the ground up since the Days of Revelation, it was nonetheless slightly smaller than Nora would have liked. They had needed to scale back their ambitions for the time being, but it had been built with expansion in mind. More people would come to Rome over the next few years, and more gods would come with them.

From the outside it was meant to look distinctly Greco-Roman (Kebechet had final relented on her pyramid design), the front featuring a large portico and distinctly ionic columns. Rather than a dark singular cella within for worship of a single deity, the inside of the temple was an expansive hall designed to let in as much light as possible, decorated with sculptures and images of many gods. The walls of this primary hall were inset with smaller altars, generally for the worship of more minor everyday gods. The nine Muses, ever popular among the people, occupied perhaps the largest of these small shrines.

Branching off of this hall were several dozen individual cellae, smaller rooms with a single altar each and larger images and facsimiles of their respective gods, done in the style requested by each deity. Over two dozen were occupied and there was room for many more. The Olympians received many of the “best” spots, or so they had been told. They were closest to the entrance, it was true, but Nora had been strict in noting that each god received a cella of equal size.

Nora now spent much of her day in and around this temple. There was a raised stage and podium near the back of the great hall not dedicated to any specific god, instead acting as an open stage for each cult to make their public statements (though many preferred the designated street corners out in Rome), as well as the place where Nora, in her duties as Pontifex, made her own addresses to the faithful of Rome.

Today, however, she had no such business, but was making her presence known at the temple to receive visitors and questions. It was important, Echo and Kebechet had insisted, to keep herself in the public eye as reassurance for the people of Rome, and to ensure her own popularity. While Nora worked diligently at her duties and went many sleepless nights working out solutions to the myriad of problems that organizing several dozen cults entails, she still privately disliked the publicity angle of it.

Which meant of course that if she was going anywhere, Kebechet and Echo would be dragged along with her.

The pair of them handled it much better than Nora did. Kebechet was a wolf of Rome, and thus had the support and thanks of virtually everyone in the city. Capitolina Lupa and her wolves had fought for months to ensure that there was still a Rome to exist. Kebechet might be foreign, but it had been her divine power over water that had given the people of Rome access to clean freshwater for those first few months where it had been so precious.

Echo was perhaps even more popular than Kebechet. The wolf was relatively cold and unapproachable, a side-effect of godhood and being a generally aloof person. Echo, however, was warm and bubbly to virtually everyone. She had also helped the first Roman greenhouse, ensuring a steady food supply and keeping the people fed. Particularly now that the curse Hera had placed upon her had been removed Echo was more popular than ever and was almost always found at Nora’s side.

“What a lovely day.” Echo smiled as they walked across the sunlit portico. It was the midday break and people were streaming in and out of the temple, many of them hopefuls wishing for a little more luck to make it through the afternoon, or begging protection for friends and loved ones in the legion. Echo was in full bloom, as Nora liked to think of it. She had started dressing more finely since she became so frequently a part of Nora’s circle. She was resplendent in a dress of white and softly dyed greens with hints of yellow at the hems. Her hair held in a tumble of light brown around her back and shoulders, bedecked with several large living flowers that seemed to react to both her weather and her mood. She walked barefoot, as she always did, and was always at Nora’s side, though maintaining a certain proper distance in public that evaporated once doors were closed.

Nora preferred to wear blue and as her position grew more prominent, so did her dress become more elaborate, much to her dismay. The finery of cult leaders necessitated a certain level of equivalence from the Pontifex who was meant to be their leader, and it had led to something of an understated fashion war as certain cult leaders chose increasingly elaborate costumes, which pressured Nora into similar choices until she had put a stop to it. Sometimes she envied Giovanni and his more modest take on Catholicism. While the wolf was no longer the leader of the faith, he was still the one most people turned to and had never worn anything more elaborate than a homespun brown robe.

“Agreed.” Nora said, squinting slightly in the harsh light of the late spring sun. “Seems the people are happy.”

“They have no reason not to be.” Kebechet said. “Each day for Rome grows better. There is more food, water, and space available than ever before.”

“It honestly worries me a bit.” Nora said hands held at her sides. “All good things must come to an end, or so everyone says.”

Echo passed her a comforting smile. “Try not to think too hard on it.” She said. “Just enjoy the good times while they’re here, that’s why they’re here. If you dread the good times and the bad, then you’ll be miserable no matter what you do.”

“That sounds about right.” Nora smiled wryly. “Miserable one hundred percent of the time? I’d say that’s me.”

Echo gave her reply in the form of a gentle nudge of the hips.

“Fine,” Nora relented. “Ninety percent of the time.”

“Better.” Echo said, retaking her position beside and slightly behind her.

“Kebechet,” Nora turned to the wolf girl next. “Is the temple functioning at full capacity?”

“It’s not a machine.” Kebechet raised an eyebrow. “This is an entirely faith-powered place, I can’t adequately quantify that.”

“What is the metric unit for faith?” Nora pondered sarcastically. “Millimiracles? Milliprayers?”

“I certainly have no idea.” Kebechet said. “Though to answer your original question, the temple is purifying the River Tiber to an adequate degree. It is well within safe drinking limits and is still the primary source of drinking water in Rome for the time being.”

“Good” Nora said triumphantly.

“Though before we grow complacent there are other considerations.” Kebechet said. “Siphoning from the river alone will last us for some time, possibly years, but if Rome is to reach its former glory alternatives will need to be found before too great a toll is taken on the water table. Public bathhouses in particular take a tremendous toll on water supply.”

“Then we’ll do it old school like we always do.” Nora said. “Repair or rebuild the old Roman aqueducts until we get the man and machine power for a more modern spin.”

“I’ll take the idea to Capitolina.” Kebechet said.

“Do so.” Nora nodded. “Now back to the temple, do we have a headcount on all of the gods here?”

“We do.” Kebechet said. “I keep the ledger in your office updated. Most individual cellae are dedicated to the Roman gods. Jupiter, Janus, Juno, and Mars were some of the first, though the insistence of their champions ensured places for Diana and Minerva as well, some under their Greek names and epithets.”

“Do the smaller gods appreciate the spaces in the temples? I know we couldn’t get them their own rooms but…”

“Thalia approves.” Kebechet said plainly. “She said she prefers a less stuffy spot closer to the people anyway, though her spinning chair is comfier.”

“I don’t get it.”

“My apologies, Pharaoh, the irony was for me.” Kebechet said.

“Ah, well…speaking of, how are the Egyptians? I know we got Isis-Ra her own room but…”

“Outside of the cella for Isis-Ra, there is one dedicated to the pantheon as a whole but it is rapidly becoming insufficient. Argument for who is to take a new one has been…quite fierce.”

“No fights I hope?”

“None yet, no.” Kebechet, an Egyptian goddess herself, said. “The frontrunner is presently Osiris. Isis-Ra all but insists upon it and he was a chief deity even before her ascension. The problem being…”

“The problem being Osiris is trapped in Duat and can’t hear or answer prayers.” Nora frowned.

“Just so.”

“It might still be a good idea.” Echo chimed in.

“Oh?” Nora turned to her, unable to help herself but smile. A year ago chiming in had been all but impossible for Echo. Now it seemed she almost couldn’t help herself.

“Well, I heard a rumor that Typhon is laying low-level siege to the Underworld.” She said. “And it’s why there is some changing opinion about Hades…er…Pluto. Some say we should worship him to give him strength against the monster. If that’s true, wouldn’t praying to Osiris help him against Apep, even if he can’t respond?”

Nora glanced at Kebechet.

“It is possible.” The jackal-eared girl nodded. “Though it bares resemblance to your earlier suggestion, Pharaoh.”

“Hmm?” Echo looked from Kebechet to Nora.

“I did have an idea.” Nora said. “To establish a cross-pantheon cult specifically for veneration of divine aspects that had slain or beaten Primordials like Apep and Typhon in the past.”

“And…?” Echo looked at her for an answer.

“It never got much traction.” Nora sighed. “Jupiter obviously has his own cult and they don’t like to share. Thor is a controversial choice as, while he’s popular, he never slew the Nidhoggr even if he’s archetypically appropriate for the role as a dragonslayer.”

“Right he slayed the other big dragon! The umm…Yor…Yorma…” Echo tried pronouncing. To her credit she had been doing her best to read up on foreign myths, but something in her very essence made it difficult. She was, after all, a Greek spirit to her very bones.

“Jormungandr.” Nora finished for her. “And the fact that it might also be out there only worries me more. That’s not what stopped up the idea though.”

“No?”

“Nope.” Nora said. “The problem is that the Egyptian deity most attuned to fighting Apep, other than Isis-Ra herself, is Kebechet’s grandfather Set.”

Nora noticed Kebechet go quiet.

“Ahh…” Echo said awkwardly. She didn’t know much Egyptian mythology, but she didn’t have to. Set was known to much of the world as an evil deity, a dark lord of the desert and a despoiler of civilization. Nora and Kebechet both knew the truth was significantly more complex than that, but the problem with gods is that they could be defined by their worshippers. As long as Set had none, he could continue to live in his milder and more ancient aspect. If that changed, however…if the Cult of Osiris, an enemy of Set, grew more popular, then they could lose a powerful ally and, at worst, gain another enemy.

“It is best to tread carefully in this regard.” Said Kebechet. “Inter-pantheon unity will come slowly, but it will come.”

“It had better.” Nora sighed. “Norse, Egyptian, Greek…we need them all working together, and it doesn’t stop there. Already we’re hearing rumors of Sumerian Gods in the Middle East; then there are the older gods of the Yoruba and Akan in Africa. I’m starting to wonder where it ends.”

“I doubt it will.” Echo said. “I can tell you, and I’m sure Kebechet agrees that…this isn’t just Europe. This is happening everywhere in the world.”

“She’s right.” Kebechet nodded. “Africa, Slavic Lands, the Fertile crescent, and I’m sure beyond. They have their own gods and monsters to contend with.”

“Well for the time being we need to keep our eyes focused inwards.” Nora said “We can leave those Gods to act as they please until they reach Italy.”

“And then?” Kebechet asked.

“Then we’ll see.” Nora was already walking again, heading out of the temple and back into the city.

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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Where All Roads Lead

Ways of the Gods

May, 16th, 2024

The Capitoline Hill of Rome was still the seat of the senate, and as such it was almost constantly abuzz with activity. As it had once been the heart of the sanctuary, life seemed to revolve around the hill, making it constantly alive with the sounds of travelers, petitioners, senators, priests, and people from all walks of life.

Albion Nassar, Senator of Rome and Archmage of the fledgling mage’s Guild, was not the biggest fan of crowds, but he recognized the usefulness of placing himself in the beating heart of the city. He kept an office but that was largely for formality, he was more often found in the open on the stairs of the senate building, speaking with his underlings, fellow mages, or petitioners. He wished to become consul, after all, and he needed to craft an image of a man of the people, particularly if his primary competition for the seat were to be Patricia Bellos, darling of the downtrodden, as he knew it would be. Patricia had the rather irritating trait of being naturally beloved. Her rather vocal push for economic reform had ensured that. The shift from scavenger economy to something resembling market capitalism had not gone smoothly for all, and Patricia had been the voice behind safety net programs for them.

Albion knew, of course, that beneath her kind demeanor was an almost terrifyingly shrewd woman who was not to be trifled with. Patricia knew that Albion had the mages and their supporters, he also appealed to the old upper class. She had, in turn, taken the common man to her cause, and Albion knew from experience that the two things least trusted by the common man was nobility and mages. After the civil war in Syracuse, tensions had always been palpable between mages and mundanes. Patricia had never had cause to incite action against mages, but she was perfectly positioned to if the need or desire arose. It was another bullet in the chamber for her, and Albion preferred his opponents disarmed.

Albion would need additional assistance and the news of late had piqued his curiosity. He had known about champions for over a year, ever since Aurelio Furlan and Salvatore Messana both came to Rome. What he still lacked, however, was information. So he had called an acquaintance to meet him here on the steps of the senate to discuss the matter.

“Good afternoon, Senator Nassar.”

The dry voice of Nora Newstar, Pontifex Maximus and nominal Pharaoh, met him as she climbed the steps towards him. True to her position, she kept herself elegantly dressed in ornamented whites and blues. Her hair, parted in the center, was unusually dyed with one half white and the other black as she seemed to prefer. Regardless of her dress and style, he was always caught off-guard by her youth. When they had first met he had reckoned her too young for the job. She had proven him wrong on several occasions, and he knew she had powerful protectors. Nora was on his list of people to not rashly be made into enemies, thankfully he had her as something of an ally.

“And to you, Pontifex” he smiled “I’m glad you received my invitation.”

“What’s this about?” Nora had an open disdain for small talk. He appreciated that, and while he preferred good banter he would indulge her for now.

“I wanted to discuss champions, Pontifex..” he said “you seemed the most qualified on the subject.”

“I’m not the most qualified, merely the most knowledgeable human…that I’m aware of.” She added the last addendum almost as an afterthought. “If you want more information I suggest you go visit a temple.”

“I’ve always preferred a human conversation partner.” He said, starting to walk with her down the steps and onto the hill “Particularly one I know so well.”

Albion knew Nora had no particular fondness for him. Few did. It did not bother him in the slightest though, fondness would only get you so far. It is good to be loved, but it is better to be necessary, a distinction that might cost Senator Bellos the race.

“Fine, what do you want to know?” She asked, and Albion smiled.

“I want to know how and why the contract is established, why a specific person is chosen and what the terms are.”

Nora made a soft snort of derision, and Albion passed per an innocently perplexed look.

“It’s not a business deal, Senator. The ‘contracts’ are rarely beyond verbal as far as I understand. As for picking the person…they want someone both attuned to them and well-suited for the task in mind. Aurelio is a hunter and a protector, two things associated with Diana. She would have preferred a virgin girl but didn’t have any on hand who fit the bill better.”

“So they choose by their own criteria?” Albion asked “Admittedly I did not think one could drop off a resume at a temple, but that seems far too…organic, too trusting.”

This time Nora did not try to hide her laugh, and he knew it was again at his expense. He didn’t care, he prefer Nora think of him too outside his depth. It might make her give more than she intended.

“These are gods. They don’t believe in safeguards or contingencies. They trust in fate, perhaps to a dangerous degree. If they feel right about something, if they have a gut reaction to it, they trust it. That’s part of why Diana chose Aurelio and why Minerva chose Salvatore. They knew when they saw them that it was meant to be that way.”

“Hmmm” Albion considered her words for a moment, a silence between them despite the noise surrounding them.

“I cannot say I am particularly fond of such a system.” He said “It seems so…one sided from the perspective of the gods. What if a man thought himself unsuitable for the position, or another thought himself more suitable?”

“You can feel free to argue the decision.” Nora shrugged “I can tell you from experience that arguing with a god is rarely a painless process. I think even you, Senator, would find the prospect terrifying.”

Truth be told Albion had never had direct contact with a deity. He had met spirits certainly, from the nymph Echo to his own pet demon, but he had never knowingly faced one high enough on the hierarchy of power to be referred to as a “god”.

“And what are their demands?” he asked “Aurelio was granted impressive powers and a magic bow. What does he give in return?”

“Ah, that one is easier.” Nora said, hands held behind her to keep her back straight. “From what I understand, champions are free to act on their own will and desires most of the time. The god in question did choose them for a compatible personality after all, however if the god needs something done then the champion does it. No argument, no fuss, they are to jump when told to jump.”

“That seems almost like servitude.” Albion frowned.

“Of a sort” Nora shrugged “it is the price of power. And they are called champions, after all. They represent a god’s will on earth, and sometimes that requires doing what you’re told. It’d be an issue if a god commanded them to do something horrific or illegal, but that’s a problem we’ve not faced yet.”

“That makes it sound like an issue to be faced in the future.”

“Well…” Nora trailed off her, voice becoming more quiet. “You and I were both there in the aftermath of the Hour of the Wolf Massacre.” She said.

Albion nodded. His nose still wrinkling at the memory of the sights and smells of the carnage and gore the ritualistic mass-slaughter had left behind.

“As you noted, we have evidence to suggest that was a…proto-champion of sorts. Obviously the deity who supports this cult is to be expelled from the city by any means necessary though.”

“Expelled?” Albion raised an eyebrow “Suggesting we mortals send a god into exile?”

“It’s not as hard as you might think.” Nora said “The gods need human worship to sustain themselves. Without it they wither and shrink. If this god can’t get a foothold in Rome they’ll be forced to seek more fertile ground for their fiendish death cult.”

“I see…” Albion said “The problem you could face in the future is if an established deity did not like the course the city was taking.”

“Something like that.” Nora said “a conflict between the desires of the gods and that of the city could be potentially disastrous depending on the size of their following and their influence in the senate.”

Albion folded his arms. “The gods are here to aid humanity, not to direct it.” He said “I’ll make sure my position on that is known before the race for Consul begins in earnest.

“It’ll win you points with the Catholics at least.” Nora shrugged. “Now, is that all you wanted me for?”

“More or less.” Albion nodded “I was curious about the relationships betweenmen and gods, the kind of playing field they’re on.”

“Looking to become a champion?” She passed a glance at him.

“Oh hardly.” Albion waved off the idea “I have no interest in becoming some Olympian puppet.”

“Then why ask?”

“Several reasons” Albion said “First and foremost is that willful ignorance is perhaps the world’s greatest sin. Champions are some of the most powerful people in the city, and it would be foolish not to know how they operate. Aurelio in particular is worth keeping an eye on. There is also the fact that the gods themselves are worth looking into. Knowing their intentions and their Modus Operandi might save us all a good deal of grief in the future.”

“So I see playing on the Capitoline Hill isn’t enough for you” Nora smirked “Now you want to play on Mount Olympus.”

“Oh hardly” Albion could not help but smile himself “I have no interest in the games of the Olympians or the Egyptian Ennead, they are far too large and too dangerous for the likes of me.”

He kept a touch of sarcasm in his voice. He enjoyed keeping Nora guessing about his true intentions.

In reality he was being honest. Attempting to manipulate one of the greater gods would only end in pain, death, and possibly an eternal and humiliating afterlife. No, that was not the goal for him. He lived in the mortal world with mortal people, but that did not mean the gods had no part in it.

“If that will be all, Senator?” Nora’s voice drew him back “I am a busy woman and I am needed elsewhere.”

“Of course.” Albion said, gesturing with an open hand for her to take her leave “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. It has been…enlightening.”

Nora nodded and departed with a swish of blue dress as she moved back towards the temple complex, leaving Albion surrounded but alone on the Capitoline Hill.

All that she had said simply confirmed what he had suspected. He could never likely manipulate a god, but the aid of one or more could be invaluable to him. The trick was getting that aid without sacrificing too much of himself.

Being a champion was now firmly out of the question. He had no intention of being a servant or a pawn. He could brown nose if need be, respect those in positions of superiority, but there was something different about doing that to a god over, say, Capitolina Lupa. With the wolf of Rome he could eventually usurp her position as chief authority in Rome, but he lacked the delusions of grandeur to consider usurping a god.

Still there were other options to him. The Olympians were well-known and the most worshipped pagan gods in Rome, but they are not the only members of their pantheon. There are hundreds of Greek gods alone, and not all of them are as terrifying or as austere as Diana and Minerva. He smiled as he considered his options, there might be gods and goddesses out there who could be bargained with after all. They might not be on the same level of power as the Olympians, but even the smallest god could grant a great advantage.

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 33

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

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

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

“Hey there, Echo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright…” Echo said hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…did it work?” Nora asked.

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

“Thank you, Nora.”

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

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

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

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Rare and Radiant

April 15th, 2023
Beneath Nora’s home, lying on a bed beyond the reach of the waking world, Lenore slept. Freed from the drowning of her thoughts by the coma-inducing solution Nora had worked into her, her mind began its slow crawl from the abstraction of the subconscious and into something more vivid. In that quiet twilight world between waking and true unconsciousness, Lenore dreamed.

So many people in Rome dreamed fitfully. They dreamed of the chaos and terror of the Days of Revelation, losing family and friends to monsters from myth and legend. Many were relieved upon waking, knowing that they had at last found a modicum of safety in the waking world.

Lenore, however, dreamt peacefully of another time. When one’s life was a nightmare of foreign thoughts, death, and the constant adrenaline ride of the hunt, only in dreams could she find refuge, and now at last she could truly dream again.

She was young, truly young in mind and body, surely no more than six. None of the conditioning training had begun, and she had no idea of the course that had been set for her. She was merely a child, one of three, living happily in the URIEL compound somewhere in Central Asia far from prying eyes. It had been unusual, though she hardly knew that at the time. She knew now they were being raised as test subjects rather than children, but it had still been her childhood. They might have called it “Recreational Stimulation” and “Necessary Pre-Conditioned Education”, but it had simply been playing and learning to them. Things all children did.

They knew their names from the start. The three of them were merely days apart in age, but they knew that she, Eleanor-1, was the oldest and treated her as such. Eleanor-2 was the middle child, often overlooked and a troublemaker for attention. Eleanor-3 was the youngest and most childish, the loudest when she laughed and cried.

They had parents as well, just like other children. They had their Father, Dr. Joachim, the mastermind of their creation, a harsh and often terrifying presence who was thankfully absent for much of their early lives. Even trying to remember his face, Lenore could only summon the shadowed face of a thin man with cruel eyes.

Their “Mother” had been much more active in their early development. She had always been a mother to them, even if her nametag had read “Project Lead Dr. Varia Archeille”. She called herself their mother, and they did the same in turn. It had been she who had given them the names that they grew up with. Eleanor-3 had been called Ellen. Eleanor-2 had been named Nora. And she, Eleanor-1, was called Lenore.

Lenore.

She sounded the word out in her mind. It was so familiar, yet the images she summoned were so unlike her life as it was that it almost felt to her as if it had been the name of an entirely different person. “Lenore” Nora had called her when she tried to plot her thousandth escape attempt, jealous of the affection Ellen received from Mother and with her eyes forever on the distant horizon. “Lenore” Ellen had called for her when she scraped her knee, always running faster than her legs were able to carry. “Lenore” Mother had named her, and spoke with authority when she failed to keep her younger sisters in line.

Lenore, the strongest and fastest, the most reasonable and most responsible, the eldest and the wisest. She had been the counter to bold Nora and youthful Ellen. So much they had asked of her, and she had delivered all she could. They had been a family, after all, how could she do less?

When she was thirteen is when they had begun their work on all of them, the end of their childhood and the beginning of the waking nightmare. Lenore’s mind clouded as memories of reality mixed with her own suppressed nightmares. Again she pushed back the clock to a younger time, when they were hardly seven, a happier time, away from all of them. A sweet memory that could not be invaded or encroached upon.

At their Mother’s insistence, they were allowed to play in the grassy courtyard of the compound, a square space barely fifty meters across. But it had sun, grass, and the smell of earth, and the three of them loved their daily hour in the open, even when it rained or grew unbearably hot.

“Lenooooore!” Ellen’s voice called across the space. Lenore was pulled into her dream’s reality, young again with fresh eyes as she relived the memory, and watching Ellen, all bright-eyed and short-haired, running to her as her eyes strained with coming tears. Oh no, she thought, what happened this time.

“Nora…Nora jumped all over my flowers!” She cried out to her, struggling for breath from her combined crying and running.

“I did not!” Nora was right behind her, trying to subvert Ellen’s case before the two of them could round on her in full.

“You did so!” Ellen objected, pointing to where they had run from. Lenore’s sharp eyes could see the crushed stems of an uneven patch of dandelions. “See! They’re right there all crushed!”

“Okay I did…” Nora said, backpedaling, arms crossed over her chest. “But it was an accident. I was trying to climb the wall.”

Lenore looked from one to the other. To any person, their Mother included, the three of them were virtually identical. All of them, however, could instantly tell one from the other. It was minor details that coalesced into a whole, so unfailing they could be differentiated at a distance. Nora held herself much more firmly, straight-backed and balanced on the balls of her feet as if to look taller than she was. Her arms always moved aggressively or defensively, but never passively, and she had a distinct stubbornness that was always present on her face. Ellen, meanwhile, was much more passive and loose in her motions, occasionally erratic but always exaggerated. She never did things by half. If something was funny she would laugh until she was all but choking herself; if something was sad she would cry for hours; if she was angered she would be in a fuming mood for days. Lenore had no idea what her tells were, but the other two insisted they could always tell her apart, and Ellen insisted she was tallest, despite Nora’s accusations otherwise.

This memory, however, still had shades of the dream. In all of them she could still see the ghosts of the people they were to become. Lenore would indeed become the tallest. The muscular therapy and metabolic treatments saw to a painful growth spurt that gave her an entire two inches on Nora’s height. Nora’s stubbornness would gain the character of a sickness on her face. Her skin would pale from an olive-tan to almost snow-white from a combination of stress, skin damage, and lack of sun. Her eyes would sink into her skull as shadows of weariness would grow prematurely around them. Ellen would remain small, the experiments done upon her stunting her physical growth as well as mental. Her bright eyes would become crazed and maddened, her erratic movements growing into a series of pained twitches that would keep her from sleeping.

“Nora.” Lenore’s own authoritative voice drew back her mind. “Why were you jumping up and down over there?”

“The wall’s short over there.” Nora said, trying to look as innocent as possible, though she could never beat Ellen at that game. “I just wanted to see if I could climb onto the roof. It’s not my fault Ellen’s stupid flowers grow there.”

“They’re not stupid!” Ellen shouted. “They’re mine and you ruined them!”

Lenore sighed, but could still feel the bite of nostalgia. This had ben her childhood, and for so briefly sweet a time this had been the greatest of hardships for them, and the greatest divisions between them.

“Nora” Lenore said in her most authoritative voice. “Apologize to Ellen.”

“But-“ Nora began to protest but Lenore cut her off “Whether you meant to or not, Ellen really loves her flowers and you hurt them.”

“Mmm…”Nora grumbled. “M’sorry…”

“Say it better.” Lenore said. “Say it like you were saying it to Mother.”

“Sorry Ellen…” Nora groaned. “I didn’t mean to hurt your flowers.”

Lenore turned next to Ellen. “Now Ellen, Nora did something dumb but she apologized.”

“But my flowers!”

Lenore sighed. “Remember last winter? When it snowed and you were really happy, but then saw all the flowers died and you cried until your face hurt?” She asked.

“Uh huh…” Ellen said, already threatening tears again.

“Remember what Mother said?” Lenore asked, but Ellen shook her head.

“Mother said that they would grow back in the spring. And they did! Now winter is a lot harder on plants then Nora stomping on them, right?”

“So they’ll come back?” Ellen’s eyes filled with hope.

“Yes they will.” Lenore said emphatically. “Now, Nora’s apologized and she said she won’t jump on them again. Go take care of your flowers, I’m sure she didn’t smash all of them with her big stupid feet.”

“Okay!” Ellen said, rushing back to her makeshift garden as Nora scowled.

“My feet aren’t stupid…”

“I’m trying to help, okay?” Lenore sighed.

“You’re not Mother.”

“No, but Mother said I was in charge when she’s not around.” Lenore said. “Why were you trying to get on the roof?”

“No reason…” Nora said, once more trying to lie before a glare from Lenore pulled her back. “Fine I was…”

“Trying to run away again.” Lenore finished it for her. “Why?”

“Because you don’t need me here and I don’t want to be here.” Nora said stubbornly. “I want to go outside.”

“We are outside.”

“Shut up! You know what I mean!”

Lenore frowned. “Do you know how upset Mother would be if you ran away? Or how angry Father would get?”

“I don’t care about Mother!” Nora all but shouted, and Lenore glanced worriedly towards Ellen, but saw she was entirely consumed by picking up the pieces of her dandelions. “And Father doesn’t care about us!”

“And what about Ellen?” Lenore asked “She’d cry for days and days if you ran away.”

“So?”

Lenore frowned. “Don’t lie to me, I know you hate making Ellen sad. That’s why you said sorry even though I wasn’t Mother.”

“Hmph.” Nora simply made a stubborn noise.

“Mother’s really busy with work, Father too.” Lenore said, more quietly to try and make Nora lower her voice. “That doesn’t mean they don’t care.”

“They might as well” Nora huffed.

“But I care.” Lenore said, and Nora turned away, not wanting to look at her. Grabbing her shoulders, Lenore turned her around again. “When Mother’s not around that’s when I’m in charge. She told me I shouldn’t boss you around because that’s my job. My job is to take care of both of you.”

“Then why don’t you help me?” Nora asked.

“Mother said it would be bad if we ran away.” Lenore said. “And I can’t help you if you’re not here. So I’m going to take care of you.”

Somewhere outside the dream, outside of the safety of the memory crafted for herself, Lenore slept quietly on a bed in a basement in Rome. Beside her, hands folded and elbows resting on her knees, was her younger sister, watching her sleep peacefully and with no appearance of stopping. Gently, perhaps for the hundredth time, Nora did all she could allow herself to do, brushing a few loose and stubborn hairs out of Lenore’s face as she watched her. To all the world Lenore was asleep, and perhaps beneath that façade she truly was dreaming, of happier times when the two had been three, when they had been children together in ignorance.

It would be cruel, Nora knew, to wake Lenore from such a dream. But she needed her to, she wanted her to, if only because Nora couldn’t bear to live much longer being the only one left. But she would not let Lenore keep living in a nightmare outside the dream. She had failed Ellen, failed to protect her sisters, and she would not do so again.

“I’m going to take care of you, Lenore.” She said quietly into the darkness. “But please, I need you to wake up.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa