What can I say of Rome the eternal? Beautiful? Yes, I found her beautiful. Grand. So large and so inspiring of awe as to swallow a man, to shrink him to a feeling of insignificance, an insect crawling about over the ruins of a civilization of vanished gods. But for all its magnificence, I saw a sickness there also. Nothing so tangible as to constitute any one thing; pondering it, I can lay name to nothing seen by eye; rather it presented a feeling, a sentiment, hanging about, lingering in the air, an invisible taint, harbinger of coming pestilence. I could describe the eternal city as a beautiful woman possessing still the ripeness of her youth, the first streaks of gray showing in her hair, the first lines forming at the corners of her eyes and lips, but lovely still, capable of enticing with smiles the whole world. Yet there was that in her eyes that predicted illness, a tiredness, a slight darkening, the first faint vestiges of ruin and early, too early, death.
I saw the ruin of the Empire in the eyes of her citizens, already begun, destined to play out to completion in the fullness of time. Rome would outlive me, I knew. She would linger on for some time, whereas my days were few—or so I had believed. I would find myself surprised, for I had many more left to me than I anticipated, many miles left to walk before my steps ended. Even so, Rome would remain standing long after my departure from mortal life. But she would not live forever. I had seen her end already underway. Eternal? No. No longer.
Of a certainty I never had expected to see Rome, nor desired to. For all her glories to be imbibed by the senses, her great structures that, when approached from a distance on a sunlit day, appeared fashioned of purest gold; her dun walls that, seen as a whole, a portion of the overall pattern, looked hewn from ivory; the multitude of life teeming in her streets and peering, shouting, from her windows, that made it seem the whole world entire had gathered there within her walls; the listless pinions dangling from poles and the scalloped edges of draperies over makeshift stalls; her carts and wagons and the march of countless sandaled feet; painted faces of women peering from alleyways with invitation smiles and kohl-stained, curious eyes; her running children; her marketplaces, with birds of wild and colorful plumage squawking in cages, the barking of dogs and braying of horses, the jangle of armor worn by preening soldiers; the tap-tap-tap of spear butts on cobbled streets in accompaniment to marching, practiced steps—Rome offered so much to drink in. But despite all these things which might have been guessed at, seen before within the confines of my imagination and seen now in reality—despite all this, I had never desired to see the city in person. For one such as me, even before my days of true freedom among the Marmorca, Rome, for all her beauty, all her magnificence, comprised, portrayed the role of captor. The comeliness of a slaveholder cannot diminish the repugnance in which she is held by the slave. I bore no love for Rome.
If I had never expected to see her, I daresay she had neither expected to lay eyes upon me. My fame, or infamy, of a certainty had preceded me, to judge by the gawking throngs through that pressed in about the little parade—the march of soldiers and the flat-bedded wagon upon which I stood, enclosed in gleaming bars—that conveyed me from where we had approached the city, viewed by myself from the crest of her fabled seven hills, looking down upon her as upon a sleeping face, to the palace of the Emperor.
“The werewolf!” I heard voices crying. I could not tell from which lips the words came. “It’s the werewolf!”
I had by then grown accustomed to such notoriety. Bored with it, even. My captors, upon bearing me from the Marmorcan village, had afforded me the gravest respect. None of the abuse, born of contempt, which the Roman soldier is wont to visit upon his captive did these men offer to me. They feared the thing within me. Even two hundred strong, with two hundred swords ready at hand, they feared. Such is the dread inspired in the souls of mortal men by the manifest power of the Infernal, even hardened, cruel men like these Romans.
I found, upon reaching their ships docked in our river, that the Centurions had come prepared for me. And it was here, at this juncture and locked in the hold of one of those Roman ships, that I discovered for the first time another weakness of the monster: silver.
The Romans had brought with them a cage, just large enough to contain one man, fashioned of the purest, gleaming silver.
“Am I offered a gilded cage as some sort of jest?” I asked upon seeing it.
“It is you who jest with us, creature,” the head of my captors replied to me. “We know well enough the power of this precious metal over you!”
They did, but I did not. I would soon learn it.