The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 34

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

“I suppose you heard the speech?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia gave him a curious look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 32

April 18th, 2023
The early morning mist had not yet begun to settle on the grass of the rolling hills. The still morning calm remained unbroken save for the light calls of the morning birds and the odd patch of sunlight that broke through the thin shield of clouds overhead. The fields of long grass surrounded them, broken only by the odd rocky outcropping and the distant tame forests of central Italy. To their south was the Lago di Bracciano, a vast flat surface of water that shone a flat blue-grey in the morning stillness.

Here, just past the crack of dawn, Capitolina Lupa and the Wolf of Gubbio waited for the coming storm. Both of them had abandoned human form. Capitolina was the larger of the two of them, a tall and powerful she-wolf of monstrous size, over four meters at the shoulder and covered in fine orange-red hair flecked with white and grey. She sat, seemingly idle, on her side, legs stretched out as her eyes stared fixedly at the North. To most she would seem entirely peaceful, but Giovanni’s finer senses could feel the tenseness in her body, see the flickering movements in her ears and the watchfulness in her eyes. She was as ready as he was.

Giovanni, conversely, made no attempts to hide his own tension. He was standing up, hackles slightly raised as he stared towards the north, the rays of sun in the eastern sky catching in his coal-black fur, matted and irregular where old scars ran across his flesh.

Both of them knew, from their lupine senses and a deeper more spiritual knowing, that this was the path by which the sons of Fenrir would come on their way to Rome. Both of them had protected Italy for centuries, millennia in Capitolina’s case, and today was no different. They had stood against mortal armies and lesser hostile spirits time and time again as Giovanni protected the faithful and Capitolina had defended her city, but neither of them had faced a foe like this. Gods had come and gods had gone in search of worshippers, but now two divine wolves were coming in search of vengeance, and the two of them were all that stood in their path.

Skoll and Hati. Giovanni had only recently learned the names. Sons of Fenrir the Devourer, grandsons of Loki the Norse trickster god. Between them they would devour the Sun and Moon, casting the world into darkness as their father devoured Odin, Lord of the Aesir.

In comparison, Giovanni the Wolf of Gubbio was noticeably lacking in titles.

In a straight fight Giovanni did not like their odds. They were all spirits, wolves more powerful and more intelligent than simple beasts, but not all spirits were created equal. Skoll and Hati were god-slaying beasts of legends. Giovanni had simply hounded a single village as a monster while Capitolina carried the strength of ancient Rome’s kings and armies. Strong to be sure, but not nearly so strong as the beings they were to face.

But what choice did they have?

“Here they come.” Capitolina said, eyes watchful of the horizon. Her senses were sharper than his, as it took another few minutes before his nose and eyes caught what hers had.

The sky to the north had begun to darken, thick clouds rolling in to obscure the sun as the moon retreated below the horizon. Sol and Mani, the Norse called them, while Giovanni and Capitolina preferred Sol and Luna. Both of them had fled at the sight of the wolves, far from home but forever at the heels of the celestial orbs. Giovanni felt a shiver run down his spine as his coarse hairs stood one end. He could not say his presence had ever caused a shift in the sky before.

Capitolina rose to her feet, tense but not as apprehensive as Giovanni. How many times before had the wolf of Rome defended her homeland from foreign armies, Giovanni wondered to himself; had she waited like this as Hannibal crossed the Alps or when the Visigoths marched to Rome? Had she waited Caesar’s returning legions with fangs bared or had she walked in secret beside him as he marched to Rome?

Giovanni smiled as much as his wolfish muzzle allowed. Knowing her, she had certainly sided with Caesar.

Giovanni had hunted foreign and pagan spirits in his time, remnants of old gods that had been found disenfranchised with the fall of Rome, but nothing like this. After the Days of Revelation, power was firmly in the hands of monstrous spirits such as this. He stood beside Capitolina, however, as Rome was theirs to protect.

The wolves appeared as if out of a thunderstorm; from roiling clouds and dark shadows they pulled themselves into being across the field from the Roman wolves, having seen their challenge and deemed it worthy of their attention.

True to their fame and their legend, the wolves that took shape across the hill were massive in size, dwarfing the Italian wolves who could already be considered monstrous in their own right. The wolves, identical in size and shape, stood at least seven meters at the shoulder, casting long dark shadows on the ground even in the pale cloudy light.

One of them, Giovanni guessed Skoll, was covered from snout to tail in blackened fur the color of burned wood save for his eyes which shone a very pale yellow, almost a blind white. The other, Hati, was so pale he appeared almost white, the tips of his hairs seeming to glow in the dark, and his eyes a deep and malevolent black. Both were identically powerful, their legs and shoulders bulging with muscle from their endless pursuit, their very beings radiating power not unlike that of the spirits who called themselves gods.

“It seems we’ve been challenged, brother.” The pale one, Hati, announced as they stepped towards them, great padded legs silent as they bent the grass beneath them. His voice was deep, an echoing base note as he announced their presence.

“Do the little wolves take offense that we have walked into their territory unannounced?” Skoll laughed darkly, a chuckle that sounded like rolling thunder, before speaking again, voice as deep as his brother’s. “Do they know who it is they face? Skoll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, sons of Giants, wolves, and gods. The Sun and Moon Eaters. We have business in the southern city you call Rome, and we have little patience for obstacles in our path.”

“That southern city is my city.” Capitolina announced herself, stepping forward to meet them, undaunted by their size. “I am Lupa Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, mother to Romulus and Remus. This city and its lands are under my protection, and I will not let them be your hunting grounds.”
Hati cackled as she spoke. “Ah, see brother how the fertile southern lands make the people fat and the wolves small for want of hard prey.” He turned to Giovanni. “And who is this scrap of a wolf? Your mate?”

Giovanni bared his teeth, stepping forward to join Capi. “Hardly, you will find more than one wolf that defends this land. I am the Wolf of Gubbio, and I will not be intimidated by half-bred mongrel curs.”

That earned a snarl from both Skoll and Hati, and Giovanni was once more made aware of how much physically larger they were than he. “The pup speaks for a wolf twice his size.” Skoll mocked. “You think you can taste human blood and think yourself our equal?”

“I think I can disdain it and think myself your equal.”

“So this is what stands before us.” Hati said, examining them both. “A wolf who fancies himself a man, and a bitch who sides with them.”

Giovanni saw Capi’s fur rise as she let out a low snarl.

“We have business in your city.” Skoll said, his voice unamused. “We had worshippers who had pledged themselves to us, who proclaimed their allegiance and were butchered like sheep.”
“We know of your cult.” Giovanni said. “Those who called themselves the Hour of the Wolf. Unfortunately I have news for you, your entire cult was a farce.”

“What!?” Hati roared, and the clouds shook with his thunderous voice.

Giovanni held his ground. “Your cult was founded, raised, and groomed for slaughter by the machinations of another. They died as sheep because they were sheep. There is another power in Rome that used them purely for their blood and their belief.”

“You tell us this…” Skoll’s voice was calm compared to his brother’s fury, but no less dangerous. “And yet you stand in our way? Would you die for the sake of murderers of the foulest sort?”

“We stand here,” Capitolina said. “Because it is to Romans to decide how Romans are to be punished. It is not the land of Skoll and Hati, nor is it the land of the monster who murdered your cult. This is our land, and no one, be they god or monster, may lay claim to it without our consent.”

“Then you court destruction…” Came Hati’s retort. “For two small wolves to stand against any who they might offend.”

“Small perhaps…” A new voice joined in, a light feminine voice as a third wolf crested the hill behind Capitolina and Giovanni, their attention so focused northwards they had never looked south. “But certainly not two.”

Kebechet, almost unrecognizable in full canine form, stepped lightly to join them. Though the smallest of the three, she was more than a match for power, her lithe jackal body covered in sleek black fur that mirrored the hair of her human form.

“I asked you and Angel to look after Rome” Capitolina said, withholding the qualifying remark they all sensed ‘in case we didn’t make it back’.

“I intended to.” Kebechet said. “But I was reminded how important it is to look after one’s friends and family.”

“And how did you find us?” Giovanni asked.

“That was my doing.”

The fourth wolf did not so much rise over the hill as Kebechet had as simply appeared at Capitolina’s side, the air twisting and warping where she seemed to step into existence. If Kebechet in wolf form had been an oddity, seeing Angel in it was quite bizarre.

Her fur was black, like Kebechet’s, but lacked the shine, instead seeming to absorb the light around it, a deeper shade even than Skoll’s burnt hide. Her right foreleg and both hind legs were not flesh and blood, instead long artificial limbs of molded ebony and silver, moving as she did with a noticeable heaviness to them. Her eyes, contrasting the yellow of her companions, were still bright blue, and she maintained a pair of stunted vestigial wings folded on her back.

“It seems Angel chose quite a time to go against your orders, Capitolina.” Kebechet said with an audible smirk.

Capitolina shot a questioning look at Angel, who simply responded. “We are a pack, Capitolina, we stand together.”

“There you have it,” Capitolina said, turning once more to Skoll and Hati. “You face not two, but four.”

“Four it may be…” Hati growled. “Two lesser wolves, a weakling goddess, and a cripple. Indeed we are outnumbered as the does out number wolves.”

“Then you do a poor show of estimating your opponent.” Capitolina said. “I’ve seen a score of foreign gods march through my city and ensured they kept their place. Giovanni has defended his people and his faith relentlessly for eight centuries. Kebechet is no lesser a goddess for being from a foreign land, but your dismissal of Angel as a cripple was particularly poorly planned.”

Angel stepped forward, and Giovanni could see the glow in her eyes, the unearthly power that began to radiate from her as the loose stones scattered at her feet began to rise. The sky shifted again, the clouds parting as an open miasma of stars spread across the morning sky, obscuring the sun, moon, and all else as a river of countless stars filled the heavens.

“Skoll and Hati.” She breathed in power. “I watched you play in my sky, skipping and dancing at the heels of Sol and Mani like pups unable to catch your own tails. You are far from home, young wolves, and this land is not yours to hunt in.”

This display of power, it seemed, was enough to send both wolves a few steps back. Capitolina was quick to take notice.

“You’ll find all four of us are much harder to break than you might have thought.” Capi said. “Small perhaps but hardly young, and plenty fierce enough for both of you. This is not the Northern forests, these are not your sun and moon. We know there are monsters in Rome to be hunted and punished, but it is neither your fight nor your hunt. Rome will never be the playground of fickle gods, I can assure you of that.”

“And who are you…” Skoll spoke out, thunder in his growling voice “To assure such a thing?”
“We are the wolves of Rome.” Capitolina said, raising her fur to stand on end, to make herself appear as large as she could. Even with the difference in size, she still stared without fear at the two larger wolves. “It is our territory, our land, and while we do not rule it we will defend it from monsters like the ones that destroyed your hunt, and from the likes of you.”

Both wolves had their hackles raised, fangs bared. For a single electrifying moment Giovanni was sure they were going to charge. For all of Angel’s display and Capi’s words, he doubted they could best these wolves.

“See then that you thin your herd of predators.” Skoll growled, and Hati turned to his brother in disbelief.

“We are to leave them?” He asked, shocked.

“There is truth in their words, brother.” Skoll said, though he was clearly loathe to say it. “We are far from our hunting grounds, the Sun and Moon still flee us but they are not our usual quarry. Even the bravest wolf knows not to venture too boldly or too deep.”

He turned his pale eyes again on Capitolina. “But know this, this land is yours only so long as you can keep it. If these…fiends within your lands prove too much for you, then there is little stopping us from making this land ours as well.”

Skoll turned away, his brother grudgingly following him, and soon the pair had disappeared into the dark clouds once more, their footsteps thunder as they chased back through the sky into the north.

“I’ve been hearing the same threat for thousands of years.” Capitolina said, sounding rather unimpressed with their threat. “This will always be my city.”

“Our city now.” Giovanni said. He could feel his knees start to shake as the realization that they were still safe settled into his mind, but he found the strength to remain standing. “So long as we are needed to defend it.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

The Laughing Mask

April 15th, 2023
“And with that, I’m sorry to say our show is coming to a close.” Thalia spoke into the microphone as she checked the clock on the wall. “The time is seven o’ clock and the sun is just about down. That means it’s time for a few hours of music to lull all you sleepy hard workers off to bed. Today is Saturday meaning its classical aaaaall night, and thanks to the generous donation of Mister Antoni Caruso we have an entire evening of Holst lined up for you. I have a soft spot for the Jupiter piece in his Planets Suite, but there’s something for everybody there. So until tomorrow, this is your hostess Thalia signing off.”

With a flick of the switch Thalia turned off the microphone, giving a thumbs-up to one of her radio DJs to take over and flip through their records. She was a sweet girl but not much of a voice. Thalia had only just begun the search for new talent.

She stretched her neck and arms, the radio booth being a rather stifling place to sit for a few hours each day. As she stood up, she picked up tomorrow’s script that she had flipped through during their musical segments and prepared herself for another round of editing. Writers, that was another thing she needed, good writers. Her red pen flipped through the pages with an almost ferocious assault on the script. Some people simply did not get comedy. Timing, subject, clarity, and poise, good humor was more than a simply knock-knock joke. Why didn’t people seem to get that? Thankfully they had an expert in the field of comedy to see to their needs.

“Miss Thalia?”

Thalia glanced up to see her DJ speaking to her through the booth microphone. She must have announced and put on the music already.

“You um… have a visitor.”

Thalia perked up. A visitor? Most of their applicants went through a screening process, and interviews weren’t until tomorrow. Who was stopping by at this time? Curious, she grabbed the mic and flipped it to the channel to speak to her assistant.

“Who is it, Jodie?”

“Umm…Miss…Kebechet? Yes, you know…one of the wolves.”

Thalia’s face split into a grin running from ear to ear as she almost shouted over the mic. “Send her in! Honestly, silly girl, keeping an important guest like that waiting.” She added teasingly, spinning her chair (she had specifically asked for one with wheels) towards the door to face her guest.

Kebechet stepped in slowly, regarding the recently-assembled amalgam of scavenged machinery that Ilmarinen, bless his divine lovesick heart, had helped set up. There was a look of obvious apprehension on her face that Thalia expected from the start. Still, she had the result she had always hoped for: Kebechet had come to her rather than the reverse.

“Miss Thalia…” She began her greeting, but Thalia cut her off.

“Oh come now, Kebe, you can just call me Thalia.” She smiled before speaking into the microphone again. “Jodie I’ll be taking this into my office.”

She stood up from her chair, stepping towards Kebechet and leading her casually to her office with an arm around her waist and a carefree “Right this way.”

Kebechet, clearly caught off her guard, quietly complied.

Thalia’s office was precisely how she liked it, which was to say “meticulous chaos”. She could find precisely what she was looking for in a second from within her pile of papers, notes, and file upon file of sheet music. Her eldest sister hated it, and Thalia’s boyfriend did as well. Which meant no doubt Kebechet would cringe at the sight as well. Sure enough, even stepping into the somewhat cramped office was clearly uncomfortable for her, but she reluctantly took the seat Thalia offered to her after clearing it of loose Mozart.

“So how can I help you, Kebe?” Thalia smiled, taking a seat in her own rolling chair across from her.

“I…” Kebechet’s face grew flustered at the nickname; Thalia’s smile only grew. “…I wanted to be sure it was really…you who was running this station.”

“Great, isn’t it?” Thalia asked, gesturing to the building around her.

“Well um…yes.” Kebechet glanced around. “It is widely acclaimed.”

“Did you come for a job?” Thalia asked teasingly.

“N-no!” Kebechet objected before blushing again. “Er…I mean…no thank you.”

“Really? You have a lovely voice, Kebe. Your father agrees with me.”

“A-about my father…”

Thalia made something of a spectacle of making a drawn-out weary sigh. “Kebeee…” She said, stretching the vowel to its breaking point “You and Anubis need to clear the air already. You both know I’m not the problem between you two, especially since I’ve done nothing but try and bring you two back together.”

Kebechet’s eyes moved towards the floor “I know…”

Thalia gave her a comforting smile, reaching out to lift her face up towards her. “Look, I know it’s hard. I know we don’t…agree all the time, and it’s hard when your parent starts dating again. Your father and I make each other happy…but you’re part of his family too and I can’t just leave you out. I want us all to be happy together.”

“It’s not exactly easy…” Kebechet said, still trying hard to break eye contact. “We have our differences.”

“It’s true.” Thalia grinned. “But diversity is the spice of life. I mean, none of my sisters are alike and we get along…mostly. And Anubis and I are almost opposites but that’s really what works for us.”

Clearly struggling for an objection, Kebechet tried to change the subject as Thalia let her hand fall away. “Do any of the people here…”

“Know who I am?” Thalia smiled, finishing her sentence.

“…yes.”

“Nope” Thalia said. “Well…Ilmarinen does, but that hardly counts since no one knows who he is.”
“So no one…”

Thalia’s grin grew into her usual mischievous smile. She reached up with her fingers towards her face, and with a single motion pulled away a mask that simply appeared over her visage, a pale mask of alabaster carved with the exaggerated face of a laughing man. As she pulled the mask away, Kebechet could feel the rush of divine energy filling the room. It was not as overwhelming as her grandmother’s had been. It was much lower in intensity, warmer, and almost more human.

“No one knows that their radio station is run by the Muse of Comedy.” Thalia grinned. She was still dressed in her casual clothes, but her face and skin had the grace of a goddess in them. Her whole body seemed to glow with warm light, her eyes a sparkling blue-green that caught the light and glittered. Perched upon her sleek black hair was a crown of ivy leaves.

“Though if Ilmarinen is to be believed, word has gotten out that I’m dating your father.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet simply made a noise. “How long have you been here?” She asked.

“The whole time really.” Thalia shrugged. “I was working on another project first, but that’s largely taken care of itself.”

“Another project?” Kebechet asked.

Thalia’s smile grew.

“I must hand it to your pharaoh; she knows her way around a nymph.” She said. “I knew I could help Echo if I brought her to Rome, but really it’s all exceeded expectations. Do pass along my regards.”

Kebechet blinked in surprise. “W-wait…you were the goddess who brought Echo here?”

Thalia laughed. Here the goddess truly revealed herself, as Thalia’s laugh was nothing short of divine. It was enticing and enchanting, like the ringing of bells and the chirping of morning songbirds. At the sound of it, even Kebechet could not help but smile.

“Well it was a group effort really.” Thalia said, still giggling. “It was an idea my sisters and I hatched. Calliope thought it up, Clio and Urania tracked her down, and Erato was the one who suggested Rome…guess I see why now.” She added with a sly smirk.

“So why did you go?” Kebechet asked.

Because I love a happy ending.” Thalia said, her voice still almost giggling with every word. “It’s kind of my thing.”

“It’s hardly over yet.” Kebechet said, doing her best to force levity to the situation. It was very hard to keep any sort of somberness around the revealed Muse of Comedy. “They plan to confront Hera.”

“I’m sure it will work out.” Shrugged Thalia. “Your Pharaoh is strong, and Echo is a lot tougher than she looks.”

“That’s still quite optimistic of you.” Kebechet said.

“Huh,” Thalia picked up the mask, placing the caricature of the laughing face in front of her own. “If that’s surprising to you I must have switched my mask with Mels. Does this look like a frown to you?” She said, waving the mask in front of her face.

Kebechet could not help but giggle at the joke, keenly aware of Thalia smiling at her through the mask.

“Kebechet…” Thalia said, placing the mask on her desk as she spoke “Your father misses you. He wants to see you again.”

Kebechet sighed. “I…have my duties here. I am in the service of the Pharaoh and…to Rome.”
Thalia’s smile never wavered. “Well, we all have our work to do.”

“I can’t leave now.”

“Well, I’m hardly asking you to pack your bags.”Thalia said. “I tend to flit between Rome and Mount Olympus a few times a week, no reason you couldn’t join me.”

“I suppose” Kebechet said slowly.

“Come on, my Sisters are all dying to meet you, and I know you want to see Anubis just as badly as he wants to see you.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet remained quiet, but the subtle swishing of her tail betrayed her.

“Why did you stay in Rome, Thalia? Was it for me?” Kebechet asked.

“Partially.” Thalia admitted, with a small nod. “But it’s a bit more complicated than that. I didn’t need to start a radio station to check in on you.”

“Then why?”

“I’m Thalia, the Laughing Muse with the face of sunshine.” She said. “It’s my job to make people laugh, to make them happy, and to make them feel fulfilled at the end of the day. Comedy is a lot more than just telling a good joke after all.”

Thalia smiled knowingly at Kebechet. “Of course, you’re just as important as they are, and I think it’s my job to try and make you happy as well.”

“I see…” Kebechet said slowly, before looking back at Thalia, rewarding her with her own subdued smile. “I suppose…I can only be grateful for all you’ve done for this city.”

“I do my best.” Thalia tried to act somewhat humble, even as her grin remained.

“There is certainly no fault I can find in bringing happiness to the people” Kebechet said. “And given the popularity of the radio show…you are doing great work.”

“Awww thanks, Kebe!” Thalia smiled.

“And I suppose…” Kebechet began, her voice more hesitant. “It is not too much for me to come back to see my father…now and then.”

Thalia’s smile only grew wider. “I don’t think it will be too much of anything either.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 29

April 16th, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And these robed figures?” Albion asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meaning?” Asked Giovanni.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A birthmark?” Albion asked, incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm?” Albion glanced at her.

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

“What was it called?” Giovanni asked.

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

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

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

Nora, who had gone quiet, spoke up next.

“We may have a more immediately pressing concern.”

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

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

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

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

“Your point being?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure, Mister Giovanni?”

“Quite sure.”

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

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

Giovanni now had questions he would ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“W-Who?” He stuttered.

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

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

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

“Speak!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Wolves of Rome

Clear Skies

April 12th, 2023
It was after a long day with Echo that Kebechet made her way back to the capital. She loved her grandmother Nephthys dearly, but time did tend to run while she was around, and Kebechet had her father’s preference for studiousness and scheduling. As such her day had fallen irreparably behind schedule and she’d been forced to call the day a wash to be picked up again tomorrow. So it was with trepidation that Kebechet walked through the early-night streets of Rome.

The streets themselves were largely deserted. Most after dark activities were focused in specific gathering halls and pubs and other places, with only the odd stranger like Kebechet stalking the night alone. She moved purposefully but in almost total silence, telling of either her divine or canine nature, her footsteps never echoing across the ground. As she stepped up to the Plaza del Campidoglio, planning to retire to her usual quarters for the night, something caught the corner of her keen vision. A glance upwards and she saw a lone figure on the roof of the new capital building. Though a small dark figure, likely invisible to human eyes, Kebechet could see the distinct winged outline of Angel even from across the square.

It was rare to see Angel on her own, as she seemed to have rented space permanently in Capitolina’s shadow. Kebechet could likely count the time she had seen Angel on her own on both hands, and seeing her alone on the rooftop like that had a distinct air of ominousness to it. Her day complete and her work going unfinished until the next day, Kebechet decided she might as well do some investigating on her own.

It was a quick and quiet route up the stairs of the building to the roof. All of the officials and the small gathering of senators had dispersed with the sunset. At night the capital building belonged almost exclusively to the wolves. Kebechet wasn’t sure where Capitolina was at present, though she knew Giovanni almost always returned to the Vatican by nightfall if business had dragged him away to the Capitoline Hill. Capi could be in any number of places, and it was possible that Kebechet and Angel were the only living souls in the building. Despite this, it was with her signature silence that she stepped free of the last doorway and out onto the roof.

The last rays of the sun were almost gone, merely painting the Western horizon a slight purple with their final passage. The rest of the sky belonged to the night, and Kebechet took a moment to look up at the vault of stars above them. If there was one thing to be said for the end of the world, it was that it had certainly opened up the skies again. Rome had not seen a night like this for centuries before the Days of Revelation, and with the outpouring of divine and spiritual energy into the world, the constellations seemed almost alive again. Though the stars held certain beauty, Kebechet could not help but feel unease at the thought of nightfall. She couldn’t help but imagine Egypt, her homeland, trapped for the last six months beneath an eternal night sky, Amon-Ra’s sun barge lost beyond the horizon and the terrible serpent Apep reigning supreme.

Kebechet approached Angel from behind, but she had no illusions of sneaking up on the other wolf. Angel’s vision far surpassed her physical eyes. Even Kebechet had a sense of awareness far beyond the mortal ken. Giovanni and Capitolina still relied on their (admittedly enhanced) senses for detection, but Kebechet was a goddess and Angel was something else entirely.

“It is a lovely night.” Kebechet said, breaking the ice as she took a spot standing next to Angel.

“All the stars are out.” Angel replied in her usual monotone. Kebechet was not sure if her words were casual or carried implication of some more troubling fundamental truth about stars, and she didn’t press for it. Glancing at Angel now that she stood beside her, Kebechet could see the stars reflected in her large blue eyes. Though she realized “reflected” might be the wrong word for it. She didn’t see any familiar constellations in Angel’s eyes. They were foreign stars, certainly foreign to the Mediterranean and possibly foreign to Earth entirely. There had always been something about Angel that put Kebechet into a sense of unease.

There were beings higher on the divine hierarchy than divinities like Isis-Ra, Zeus, or Odin. They were more ancient and more powerful but far less human, most unable to express thought or feeling or take any physical form. These were beings like Gaia, Nun, and Nyx, that brought the world into shape. Angel, like the other Primordials, was about halfway there. She was a cosmological constant, an anchored point of the universe, or at least she had been once. Though she possessed an odd and almost human form, from Kebechet’s perspective, merely looking at her was like seeing the whole of a ruined civilization.

“Just out stargazing?” Kebechet asked when the silence became too uncomfortable to stand.

“I am simply observing.” Angel said.

“The Sicilian operation?” Kebechet glanced at her again. Surely Angel could see that far if she could glance across the world at a moment’s notice.

“Once every few hours.” Angel said. “It has had a few problems but it is progressing.”

“Have you been keeping Capitolina updated?” Kebechet said, pleased with the small talk.

“No.” Angel said plainly.

This earned a look of surprise from Kebechet. Angel not disclosing something to Capitolina was something she had scarcely imagined before. Before she could ask why, however, Angel decided to cut her off.

“For the same reason I tell you nothing of your homeland. What good is it to know that which you cannot change? All it would bring is worry.”

Kebechet knew she had a point. They lacked the time, materials, and manpower to launch a second operation to rescue the first. If there were problems then nothing could be done at all, and they would have to live with the outcome whether they knew it beforehand or not. No doubt if total defeat had befallen them, Angel would let them know. But without that assurance of total loss, then there was no point wasting effort over the wringing of hands.

As for learning more about her homeland, Kebechet was actually thankful of her relative ignorance. She wanted to know as little as possible of the hell on earth that Egypt had likely become under Apep’s terrible reign.

“But that is not, I suppose, why I came out here tonight.” It was Angel’s voice now that cut the silence.

“You said you were observing.”

“And I am” Angel said “But I am not observing the world, merely the limit of my own power.”

“I don’t follow.” Kebechet said, her eyes moving back and forth from Angel’s face to the stars, as if hoping to find some connection.

“I told you when we first met that I am just a shadow of my former power.” Angel said. Kebechet remembered it distinctly. She had been the first of them to sniff out what Angel truly was. Neither Capitolina nor Giovanni had the senses for it, but Angel’s presence had sent every mental alarm of hers blaring in her head.

“That was not entirely the truth.” Angel said “The truth is…I believe I’m growing weaker.”

Kebechet was staring at her now.

“My strength left me long ago, and I grow tired more easily now. Even now…the length of my vision is beginning to recede. Events are blurrier and more difficult to track. I lose precision and accuracy in my sight almost every week.”

“Why?” Kebechet asked, even though she could guess the answer.

“Too little of me is Eagle now” Angel said. “Too much wolf, too much machine. Perhaps even a little too much human now.”

When a god was forced into a new role they could adapt to it, even thrive. Her Grandfather Set was a prime example of that, for better or worse. But with a being like Angel…she didn’t exist on human faith, and any alteration in her being was unwilling at best, dangerous at worst. It only made things worse that Kebechet knew nothing could be done. No matter the healing done or repairs made, nothing could make Angel truly whole again.

As Kebechet watched her, something unusual seemed to overcome Angel. Her hand moved to grasp her other arm, the false mechanical one she kept hidden under a jacket. She held it tightly as the rest of her started to shake, not heavily, but with a distinct series of trembles running through her body.

“I am…” Angel’s voice was quiet, and for once she seemed to have lost her monotone. “…frightened.”

Wordlessly, Kebechet reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. Though she was far from qualified to handle a Primordial in emotional distress, Kebechet knew that the last thing Angel should be at that moment was alone. No doubt Angel felt as much terror at the mere thought of feeling fear as she did from losing her powers.

“I think we are all a little afraid, Angel.” Kebechet said. “I fear for my homeland and my own future. Giovanni fears for the survival of his church. Even Capitolina I am sure fears for the future of her city.”

Angel did not reply, but Kebechet could feel that she had stopped trembling.

“I suppose one reason Capitolina made us a pack was so that if we’re scared, we can at least be scared together.”

At the sound of Capitolina’s name Kebechet could feel Angel growing calmer, and she could have sworn she saw her tail give a single contented wag.

Kebechet had always believed Capi had drawn them together simply for their proximity and their identities as wolves, but holding tight to Angel and looking out over the city that was slowly rebuilding itself, perhaps there was more to it than simply that. Though they were a disparate and mismatched group in almost all respects, they had helped the people of Rome begin to claw their way out of the shadows that had fallen on it. She could see the scattered lights of the city, the movements of people in their ever-growing sanctuary. If the mission succeeded, then the entire city, perhaps the entire country, might be like this again someday.

“Besides” She continued, keeping her hand on Angel’s shoulder “We can’t let the humans see we’re scared. We’re supposed to be their protectors, after all.”

“How long do you think that will hold?” Angel asked, and it took a moment to think before Kebechet responded.

“We’ll keep doing it until they can protect themselves. Whenever that is.”

“That may be sooner than we think.” Angel said. “Though they’ve had setbacks, the Rangers are availing themselves quite handily, and…” She seemed to trail off, her eyes flickering with movement.

“And…?”

“There is one I am watching with…particular interest.” Angel said. “I suppose she…piqued my curiosity.”

“Coming from you that’s praise indeed.” Kebechet couldn’t help but smirk. She’d never known Angel take an interest in anything other than Capitolina.

“Time will tell if she’s anything more than bravado, however.” Angel said “I shall wait and watch.”

“That’s about all any of us can do.” Kebechet said. “But if humans are good at anything, it’s holding surprises.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giovanni found he could not answer.

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

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Witchbreed?” Giovanni asked, ears perking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=42&sl=643 ))

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 18

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Stella?”

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

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

“He…he wished for more detail…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you do marvelously.” Stella said.

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

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

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

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=36&sl=190 ))

The Wolves of Rome

Fall From Heaven

April 4th, 2023
There once was an Eagle at the top of the world.

Its outspread wings canvased the vaulted sky, the aurora dancing through its feathers and the stars resting on its pinions. In its talons it grasped the very highest branches of Yggdrassil, the World Tree, upon which all nine worlds rested. No being rose higher than the Eagle, it owned the sky above all the worlds and roosted at the peak of the heavens where Ymir’s broken cranium was forged into the vault of the sky an endless age ago. Time did not matter to the Eagle. It did not matter to most outside the worlds. The Eagle would always remain at its perch as it had done since Yggdrassil sprang into existence. It remembered the worlds before time, when there was nothing in existence but fire and ice, and the Eagle knew that in time the worlds would be consumed and fire and ice would be all that remained again.

 From its roost atop the world the Eagle could see all of creation. It could see with perfect clarity the sights of the nine realms, the Eagle knew their histories and peoples, could watch them from its perch. The Eagle grew wise from this grand vision. The Eagle grew proud.

There are other creatures that live upon the World Tree, other entities as old as time who inhabit all of the worlds and none. There were the four harts, Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathror, who danced about its branches like the winds. There was the squirrel, Ratatoskr, that was the quickest on the branches. He spoke often with the Eagle, admired her perch and clarity of vision. The Eagle in turn was fond of the squirrel, and used him as her messenger.

There was another creature on the World Tree. Deep within its roots, where the rays of light from Sol and Mani never reached, there was a place where the gnarled roots of Yggdrassil bound the bodies and souls of murderers, adulterers, and oath-breakers. This was the most cursed place on Yggdrassil, the Well of Hvergelmir, where no water flowed but instead venom poured from the mouths of serpents beyond counting in number. Here in this terrible place lived the king of all serpents, an ancient ravenous beat that gnawed on corpse and root alike, Yggdrassil’s most terrible prisoner, Nidhoggr.

The serpent’s existence was torment compared to the Eagle’s life at the tree’s crown. Venom from countless lesser serpents dripped into its body until its very blood could melt steel. It gnawed and swallowed and chewed upon the corpses of the honorless and the cursed until its body grew rotten and skeletal and its breath carried every terrible plague. Even with its terrible agony the serpent Nidhoggr grew stronger and smarter. The roots of Yggdrassil tapped into the great wells of time, fate, and knowledge, and the tree itself was rich with power. As Nidhoggr’s fangs sank deep, damaging the tree over eons, it learned the most terrible powers of Seidr, Witchcraft. It learned how to ensorcel and command the dead to do its bidding. It saw the turning of the worlds and bided its time in agony, waiting and hoping for the moment to strike.

For an eternity the Eagle had mocked the serpent. Trapped so low and so far from light and warmth. She mocked its pain and agony with laughter and jeers by way of her swift-footed messenger Ratatoskr. Nidhoggr could never catch the squirrel, and was forced to endure centuries of insults and mockery from the lofty Eagle. Nidhoggr was patient, however, and knew how to bide its time. It endured the insults as it endured the agony. All it could do, all it had to do, was wait.

There was a witch goddess, Huldra, who had been lured to Hvergelmir by Nihoggr’s insidious call. The wyrm had enraptured her ambitioned and enslaved her mind, and in that moment all creation shook. The roots shattered, the serpents slithered free, and on terrible bat’s wings the dragon of Yggdrassil broke free and it knew its first meal.

With a terrible roar Nidhoggr rose upon Yggdrassil leaving chaos in its wake. The branches shook and snapped, the worlds tumbled, and the end of days began. As had been predicted so very long ago, Nidhoggr broke free.

The dragon attacked the Eagle, tore at its body with gnashing tooth and vengeful claw. Their battle tore the crown of Yggdrassil apart, shattering the ordered roost of the Eagle. It fought valiantly and boldly, but the Eagle had grown arrogant, its position unchallenged and its beak and talons dull. The dragon, however, had its teeth and claws sharpened on the World Tree’s roots, and the strength of eons in its jaws. Though their battle was fierce its outcome was certain from the start, and with a triumphant roar the Nidhoggr cast the Eagle down from its perch, letting its shattered body fall where it may so it could die in the dust as Nidhoggr felt it deserved.

Whether chance or destiny guided its fall, who can say, but chance rarely has any bearing on a Primordial such as the Eagle. Its power broken and its body torn apart the great eagle fell not to the tree’s roots but to Midgard, cascading down with the aurora in its wake and shining brightly like a meteor. This strange object that fell from the sky would by many who saw it be seen as the first sign of the Day’s of Revelation, falling in Mid-October before the hungry dragon Nidhoggr set its own eyes upon Midgard on October 31st.

The Eagle crashed in the far north lands, in the deep forests of the place now called Finland. There she would have remained until death had the falling creature not attracted the attention of a freshly-awakened pantheon. Not knowing where this strange thing was or where it came from, most ignored it or cursed it for an ill omen. One god, however, the Finnish god of the Forge, Ilmarinen, saw the thing for the shattered beauty it was, broken and neglected like a fallen chandelier. He took the eagle, at the edge of death, to his forge in the hopes of mending what he could.

Where once there had been flawless feather the color of night divine steel would have to take its place. It was Ilmarinen who had made the sky, and he could see that it was from the vault of the sky that the Eagle had come. He worked ceaselessly to repair its broken wings and feathers, and created wings of obsidian and moonlight so flawless they appeared as real feathers.

Ilmarinen’s forge, however, was a flawed and tricky thing. Whatever metals were placed within came out fearsome, ill-tempered, or simply cursed. When he placed the living Eagle in the forge, the metal set and new life began to flow into her but her form was forever altered. Gone was the shape of a proud and noble Eagle, daughter of the sky. Instead from the furnace he pulled the shape of the most feared and hated beast in Finland.

The Eagle had become a wolf.

Horrified by what she had become, the Eagle fled into the woods, traveling South into the darkness, with the wings upon her back all that remained of her noble heritage.

 

“That is what I am.” Angel said. Cat had taken a seat to listen, eyes wide, to Angel’s story. It was an unreal feeling, being given something that was both a life story and a fairy tale.

“How did you wind up in Rome?” Cat asked after the silence in Angel’s voice final settled.

“As I said I ran South. I wanted my revenge on Nidhoggr, but I don’t have the power…I doubt I ever did. I wasn’t used to supporting a wolf’s body, by the time Capitolina found me I was barely alive. I owe her my life and far more.”

“But if you’re a Primordial” Cat said “You should be really powerful, like a god even!”

“I was once.” Angel said. “But when Nidhoggr threw me from my perch my power was broken. Ilmarinen may have healed my injuries but in a wolf’s body my old strength will never return to me. I’m merely a shadow of my former power.”

“But still you’re a Primordial. A sword made from your feather would be really powerful, wouldn’t it?” Cat said excitedly. She was prepared to be shot down again, but she wasn’t prepared for Angel to get angry.

The room darkened, the evening light streaming in through the windows turned black, and there was a shift in the air as Angel’s wings spread from her back. For the first time Cat could see what Angel had meant in her story. She saw pinpoints of starlight reflected in her feathers and eyes. She could see shimmering blue lights surrounding her. For a moment all of Cat’s courage faded from her as she suddenly felt very very small.

“Do you think you could carry that power?” Angel demanded, and Cat winced away from the fierce tone in her voice. “A sword bound to a Primordial’s essence would call to them and they would come running, like a moth to a flame, to devour you and snuff out any threat to their power.”

“I’m not afraid!” Cat tried to covnince herself as well as Angel. “Could you at least give me a chance?”

The air shifted again, the light returned, and with a heavy sound Angel half-collapsed onto the table, one arm supporting her as her fingers dug into the wood with a mechanical grinding sound, her breath coming in quick halting breaths.

“Weaker every day…” Angel muttered ruefully to herself before rising to face Cat, her face returning to its stony mask.

“Are you okay, Miss Angel?” Cat asked, concern breaking through her earlier boldness.

“I will be fine.” Angel said, placing a hand to her chest and taking a deep breath.

“…why do they call you Angel anyway?” Cat asked.

“I never had a proper name.” Angel said “It was one Ilmarinen gave me when he found me.”
“Where is Ilmarinen?”

“I suspect he’s still in Finland…I regret leaving him on occasion, I was not in a…proper state of mind.”

“So it’s still a no on the sword, huh?” Cat asked after a moment with a hopeful smile.

“I would entrust such a blade to someone who had proven themselves worthy.”

“Like a knight?” Cat asked eagerly.

“Like a hero.” Angel said. “Like Sigurd, Karna, or Achilles. Do you claim to be the equal of any of these beings?”

“…no.” Cat admitted. “But it’s hard to prove yourself without a sword! It’s not like Sigurd got Balmung afterhe killed Fafnir.”

Angel made a brief noise not unlike a sudden exhalation through her nose. Had that been a laugh?
“There is something to that.” Angel said. “I Will be keeping a close watch on you, Catarina Alobrandini.” She said, her eyes twinkling with starlight.

“Go to Sicily, I’m not sure about a sword, but I believe you may yet find something there.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=35&sl=539 ))