But now the gods — or at least one goddess — had taken an interest in the insular city-state. The Hecate Centuria was only ever deployed on direct order from the goddess Hecate herself.
Yet another centurion howled in victory; from her place of concealment Dematria shuddered at the thought of what atrocity could have motivated the outburst. Already, she had seen at least seven of her sisters savagely torn apart by Hecate’s lupine soldiers.
There was only one thing another god could want from Venera: the goddess’s sacred fires. As long as the holy flames were kept alive and within city limits, the goddess and her eponymous city were as one, each of them an aspect of the other. The sacred fires could also infuse mundane matter with a spark of divinity, hence vermilion’s potency. For someone with the proper training, for someone who knew the sacred rites of the goddess, vermilion could be much more than the simple recreational drug most used it as.
Hidden she may be among the wax statues of the Platea Theatrum, atop a slight rise that gave her an unobstructed view of the eastern shore and of the heart of city — whose most recent face had been overseen by the Pompeian exile Maria Vitruvia, outdoing by far the decadent Campanian metropolis for the gaudy eroticism of its architectural detail; the goddess Venera encouraged indulgence in carnal and sensual delights, and the architecture of her city reflected her predilections — but Dematria knew it was only a matter of time before the centurions caught her scent and hunted her down.
Dematria weighed her options. There was a chance she might survive if she went underground and lost herself among the layers of history and prehistory beneath the modern city of Venera; there was a hidden opening to the tunnels a mere hundred steps from where she stood … if she could reach it without being detected. Or she could make her way to the sacred altar where burned the goddess’s holy flames, where perhaps, with the proper ritual, Venera might grant her the divine attributes necessary to save the city — an option that carried not only an increased risk of discovery but the potential of leading the enemy to the very secrets they desired to wrest from the goddess. Or Dematria could reveal her presence to the invaders and let herself be slaughtered by the changeling centurions, eliminating any danger that she might carelessly betray her city-goddess. Or the priestess could simply do nothing, stay hidden, and hope that she survive the carnage.
Or she could inhale the last of her stash, pray to Venera, and perhaps the plans of the city-goddess might then be revealed to her.
Choice was taken away from her: two of Hecate’s man-wolves were now sniffing around the piazza, converging upon her. Quickly, she snorted the rest of her vermilion, hoping at least that it would numb the pain of the inevitable brutal assault.
The heavy dose of the holy spice made her lose control of her sensory input. Dematria could barely hold on to even her sense of self. No longer aware of the material world, she was thrust into the presence of the goddess Venera, became one with the object of her worship. Dematria hoped to fathom if the goddess had any plans to save the city, but the deity — like her Earthly alter ego, the city-state that bore her name — was under attack. Venera was locked in combat with the divine she-wolf, the goddess Hecate herself. Dematria did not so much see as intuit the conflict; the gods could not be reduced to mere visual representation. Hecate remained locked in her lupine attribute, and Dematria recoiled at the savageness of the invading deity, at the assault of ethereal claws and fangs; Dematria marshalled her courage, struggled to remain calm and silent; she dared not distract her matron goddess, lest she unwittingly give an advantage to the aggressor Hecate.
Sharp physical pain pulled Dematria back to the material world, back to the Platea Theatrum. One of the centurion wolves had attacked her. He had gone for her neck, but even in her vermilion trance Dematria had reflexively blocked the assault with her forearm.
They were both on the ground now, the wolf’s jaws clamped on her arm, tearing it to shreds. The second wolf hung back, observing the fight and protecting his fellow centurion’s flank.
Dematria’s blood covered the wolf-soldier’s snout, filled his mouth. The divine attributes of vermilion extended her consciousness. She was one with her shed blood as it flowed down the wolf’s throat, as her blood became one with the wolf.
Dematria herself became one with the wolf. Her desperate, vermilion-enhanced consciousness overwhelmed that of the overconfident and obedient soldier’s, and she now commanded the changeling’s body. With her newfound canine senses, heightened by the holy spice, she detected that the other wolf smelled that something was amiss with his fellow centurion. She could not afford to wait.
Before the other wolf could be fully on guard, Dematria set upon him and tore at his throat until he lay dead before her.
With wolf eyes, she looked back at her bleeding, savaged human body; it had precious little life left. Her consciousness would fade once her original body expired. There was no time to waste.
This wolf body had escaped unscathed from that first confrontation with another wolf. She knew she could not always be so fortunate. The Hecate Centuria was a full hundred soldiers strong. She had possessed one and killed a second. That was only two.
With a last sniff at her dying human vessel, Dematria howled at the full moon and set out to hunt the ninety-eight remaining werewolves.