March 14th, 2023
Echo stepped lightly over the paved stone ground to the entrance of the greenhouse. It was very early in the morning, the sun just barely beginning to scrape the horizon and cast its rays against the sky. The air was cold and still tinged with dew as she walked lightly. She was always the first to the greenhouse in the mornings and usually the last to leave. Every week it seemed to grow larger, a little here and a little there as more rows were added and the greenhouse was expanded to house more plants under her tender care. It was still exclusively food plants, though there were plans to add more medicinal plants in the future when the supplies pillaged from old pharmaceuticals ran out or expired. Still, Echo was satisfied with the greenhouse. Others might see it as a simple necessary farm, but she saw it as her own personal garden.
As she approached the greenhouse, feeling the cold stone on her bare feet, she noticed something odd and hurried forward. She had not approved of locks on the greenhouse at first. “What would be the point,” she had asked (or rather someone had asked for her) but she had eventually relented on the condition she receive a key. When she reached the door, she found she did not need it, as the door was partially open. Echo frowned; the point of a greenhouse was to keep the cold air out. Who had forgotten to close it last night? Irritation turned to panic, however, when she glanced at the ground and saw the lock broken and tossed aside.
She hurried inside, shutting the door tight behind her as she inspected the greenhouse. About a third of the rows had been torn up, their leaves clipped, stems broken, and some torn out by their roots and thrown across the greenhouse. It was at times like this that Echo wished she could cry out in shock, or whisper “oh no, oh no, oh no” under her breath. Instead all she could do was rush silently to the plants, tending what she could as her hands worked rapidly to replant them.
It took her nearly two hours to fix what could be repaired. She was a nymph, so the plants responded more to her than they did to humans. The roots wrapped around her fingers as she lifted them from the floor. Stems straightened and repaired themselves as leaves began the long process of regrowth. For some plants, however, even her power as a spirit was not enough. The damage was too great or the night chill had struck them directly and all Echo could do was pile them in the compost bin with a heavy heart.
It was not simply the death of the plants, it was the madness of the act. This was food, most of the food for the Roman sanctuary now that the pillaged food supplies from the city were beginning to run out, and someone had gone out of their way to destroy it. All the volunteers had worked hard to make this greenhouse a reality. Months of effort to create the basis of a renewable food supply had been set back weeks, if not months, in a single night. Why?
With all that she could do done, Echo sank to her knees. Her fingers were caked with dirt and mud and they intertwined with roots still clinging to life even as she could feel it flowing out of them like the warmth draining from a corpse.
She sat there as the sun rose higher over the Roman rooftops and soon the other workers were coming in. Alma was the first, entering casually before stopping dead in her tracks, eyes wide at the many empty plots. “E-Echo!” She rushed quickly to the nymph, helping the nymph to her feet.
“W-what happened…” Echo was on the verge of tears, her voice quivering, infuriated by her inability to express herself.”
Alma frowned, having to stop to work out her next sentence. ”Echo is alright?” She asked, looking the nymph over as she helped her to an old lawn chair.
“Echo is alright.” Echo nodded. Physically at least, she was fine.
“Did someone break in? Where’s the lock?” Alma’s impatience was clear as she went back to asking questions. Echo raised a hand and pointed to the door. “Where’s the lock.” She repeated, and Alma rushed to the door, opening it to the gently warming morning air and soon returning with the broken greenhouse lock.
“It couldn’t have been a monster.” Alma said slowly. Echo nodded again. “Couldn’t have been a monster.”
A dark look came over Alma’s face and Echo knew where her thoughts were drifting. “Sabotage.” She said simply.
“Sabotage” Echo repeated.
Alma considered their options, looking over the damage. “We need to report this.” She said finally. There was little she could do to improve on Echo’s emergency transplanting, but the plants would need careful planning and this would set their crop back by weeks.
“We need to report this.” Echo nodded as she repeated. Her mind drifted to Nora, the only authority with whom she was on close (semi-)speaking terms. But Nora was a religious authority and this would need to be handled by a civil authority.
“Do you know General Hanne?” Alma asked.
“Know General Hanne?” Echo shook her head. Obviously she knew OF the intimidating Ranger leader but they had never met in person.
“Well, she’d be the one to tell about this. Capitolina as well.” Alma was speaking more quickly now.
“And Capitolina as well?” Echo could only stare on, still somewhat shaken by the ordeal.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll find the other caretakers and have them come here. It will be quicker for me to show them.”
“Quicker for you to show them.” Echo agreed forlornly, blushing slightly.
“Don’t worry, Echo.” Alma took her hand, pulling her gently to her feet. “You can inform General Hanne. You just need to tell her and she’s aware of your…impediment.” Alma took a moment to settle on the word. Echo frowned. It wasn’t a speech impediment or a disability. It was a very literal curse.
“Impediment.” Echo frowned over every syllable. But she didn’t dwell on it, she nodded and began to walk towards the exit.
“I’ll find someone to watch the greenhouse while we’re gone.” Alma said, rubbing her shoulder reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Echo. Just go straight to General Hanne.”
“Go straight to General Hanne.” Echo nodded. She bowed her goodbye to Alma and they separated towards their destinations. Echo began moving quickly to the Capitoline Hill, her bare feet skipping lightly across the ground. Even as she moved, however, her mind was on the greenhouse and who might be responsible.
Alma had been right, there was no way it could have been a monster sneaking past the barrier. It was not just a wooden and steel barricade that protected the safe areas of Rome. There was a spiritual barrier as well. Echo could feel it on the back of her neck, a protective field around parts of the city that barred hostile spirits from entering. It had been there since she had first arrived. She still didn’t know what caused it or where it came from but it was always there. This sabotage…she shook her head, even the thought was terrible in her mind…had to be of human origin. But who could have done it, and why?
Echo was so caught in her thoughts that she didn’t notice the figure with his face in a book until the two of them had forcibly collided with each other, sending both of them to the ground.
“Ouch…” The other groaned as he pulled himself up.
“Ouch…” Echo mimicked in agreement.
As he rose to his feet, offering Echo a hand to help her up, she caught sight of the black wolf ears and tail, and her mouth hung open in surprise at the sight of Giovanni, the Vatican Wolf.
“Are you alright?” Giovanni asked.
Echo nodded, blushing slightly as she parroted. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” He said, picking up his book and dusting off his simple robe. “Where were you off to in such a hurry? Though I suppose I wasn’t paying too much attention myself…”
“Wasn’t paying too much attention myself.” Echo’s face was red as she nodded in agreement.
“Well, glad you’re alright.” Giovanni nodded politely to her.
“Glad you’re alright.” Echo agreed, awkwardly adjusting her own skirt.
“Well, I shan’t hold you up anymore.” He said, and began to move on.
“Hold you up anymore!” Echo blurted, unable to hold herself back.
Giovanni looked at her curiously. “Is something wrong?”
“Something wrong!” Echo shook her head rapidly. He was one of the Wolves, after all, he had a lot of authority and pull. Surely he could do something!
“What is it?” He asked.
Echo nearly slapped her hand to her face in irritation. Now of all times…
“What is it.” She repeated begrudgingly.
“Is…something wrong with you, Miss?” He asked.
“Wrong with you Miss!” Echo repeated, brow furrowing.
“You’re repeating me.”
“Repeating me!” Echo knew he was simply unaware, but it was still infuriating.
“This is going nowhere.” Giovanni frowned.
“Going nowhere.” Echo was rather satisfied with that one.
“Is something the matter, Mister Giovanni?” A sharp female voice cut between the pair of them and Echo turned to see General Hanne walking towards them. “Apologies, but I believe you forgot this at the last meeting and Capitolina asked I return it to you.” She handed him a file, full of papers, before glancing at Echo. “And who is this?”
“Who is this?” Echo hung her head abashedly.
“I have been expending a great deal of effort trying to figure that out.” Giovanni glanced at her. “She seems bent on repeating me.”
“Bent on repeating me.” Echo frowned.
Hanne studied her closely. Echo withered under her gaze.
“I believe, Mister Giovanni, that this is our greenhouse’s current caretaker.” She said finally, and Echo breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Greenhouse’s current caretaker!” Echo tried to sound as alarmed as she could, doing her best through tone alone to tell her something was wrong.
“…I’m sorry, Miss Echo, is there something wrong?” Hanne asked, now fully facing her, a curious look on her face.
“Something wrong!” Echo nodded rapidly, speaking so quickly her words would have been tripping over themselves if she wasn’t cursed to speak them as spoken.
“Something wrong with the greenhouse?” Hanne asked. Echo was relieved, she knew that this line of questioning was slow and tedious, but it was the easiest way to communicate.
“Something wrong with the greenhouse.” Echo nodded again, hands clasped in front of her nervously.
“Accident?” Hanne spoke quickly and tersely. Giovanni merely looked between them as Hanne spoke and Echo repeated.
“Accident.” Even as she said it, she shook her head emphatically. Hanne’s eyes narrowed.
“Theft? Vandalism? Sabotage?” She asked.
“Sabotage.” Echo nodded gravely, and she could see Hanne’s posture stiffen as her face became like a mask.
“Mister Giovanni, it appears we have a domestic crisis on our hands.”
“Crisis on our hands.” Echo added, even as the two began to talk amongst themselves.
“A very serious situation.” Giovanni said. “I’m afraid I cannot be of much help, but I will be sure to check the Vatican’s food stores for similar tampering.”
“There are worrying implications, Giovanni.” Hanne spoke, and Echo shivered at her icy tone. “The only sensible reason to attack a food supply is if you had your own available.”
“Had your own available…”
“There is very little sense in this.” Giovanni prickled. “Though I dislike your tone.”
“I dislike your tone.”
“I will accuse no one without evidence.” Hanne straightened herself. “I will say, however, that the threat of religious violence is a possibility that has been considered.”
“A possibility that has been considered.”
“I will hear none of it without evidence, General.” Giovanni’s expression darkened. “There is just as much possibility that it was the work of a madman or a saboteur with some other intent than religious strife.”
“Other intent than religious strife.” Echo hoped dearly it was true. She was a spirit of Greek mythology, but she was working for the good of all of them. If her mere presence had incited the attack on the greenhouse…
“We will be working to uncover any evidence, I will have my rangers get right on it.” Hanne said. “I trust, Mister Giovanni, you would disapprove of such motives if they turned out to be true.”
“Of course I would!” Echo’s repeat was drowned out by Giovanni’s barely contained snarl. She flinched, sure she could see fangs behind his lips. “My flock wants safety and security, and unlike several cults that have sprung up they do not worship destructive war gods. I trust you will be asking the same questions of the recently-chosen Pontifex?”
“The recently chosen Pontifex!” Echo’s voice was louder than she intended and she slapped her hand over her mouth.
“Of course…I apologize, Giovanni.” She turned to Echo. “Echo, you and I will go to Miss Newstar’s dwelling and discuss the investigation further. I’ll see to my Rangers after that. Is that acceptable?”
“Acceptable.” Echo managed, nodding her head. She was sure Nora could be level-headed in a situation like this. She always seemed so collected…
Giovanni took a deep breath before speaking again. “…Forgive my tone, General Hanne…I will, of course, ensure that the faithful know that this greenhouse is for the good of all Rome. This form of action helps no one.”
“This form of action helps no one.” Echo nodded emphatically, hoping she was emphasizing the point rather than looking like a fool.
“I agree.” Hanne nodded politely. “We will find the ones behind this, regardless of who they are and what they worship.”
“What they worship.” Echo repeated quietly.
She did her best to remain silent as Giovanni and Hanne parted, moving in the General’s shadow as they walked towards Nora’s home.
“You do excellent work in the greenhouse.” Hanne said after a while.
“Excellent work in the greenhouse.” Echo said quietly.
“You do, and we all appreciate it. So I will ensure this never happens again. I’ll make sure a guard is posted at it during the night hours from now on.”
“From now on…” Echo’s heart sank. The greenhouse was meant to be for everyone. It was the center of growth in Rome, and now Hanne wanted a guard posted to save it from further attacks. The only other building that needed a guard was the armory. The comparison only caused her mood to darken further, and with a decidedly heavier step she walked towards Nora’s home.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa