April 5th, 2023
The night grew steadily colder as the stars twinkled into light with the setting of the sun. On a gentler night, Echo might have stopped to watch the constellations take shape one after another in the chill spring sky. Tonight, however, her attention was consumed by tracking Nora as silently as she could. Being barefoot helped; Echo could move with almost complete silence across the ground as she followed Nora’s sure and hurried footsteps through the empty roads.
While there wasn’t a curfew, the lack of good lighting and the hard work of the day meant most of the streets were entirely empty, and anyone else paid Echo little mind as she moved quickly and furtively through the streets, always staying just far enough behind Nora to keep her in sight without losing her trail. The city was exceedingly dark at night and in some places it still looked abandoned with dark windows overlooking empty streets.
True to her word, Nora stopped at the Ranger station by the wall. Echo watched from a nearby street corner as she stepped inside. She waited, foot nervously rubbing the back of her leg, for Nora to emerge again. She shivered slightly, and it had nothing to do with the cold. There was someone in this city that had made Nora, usually so cool-headed, react like this and run off into the night to get the best combat mage in the city.
Eventually Nora stepped out into the night again and, sure enough, Echo recognized the silhouette of Hildegard cast by the light from the Ranger station. The two were talking, though Echo was too far away to hear them clearly and there was nothing to hide behind for her to move closer. Eventually they set off into the night again, moving at a brisk pace, and Echo got her chance to follow.
Down the streets and with no clear destination in mind the pair moved, and Echo shadowed them all the way, moving from one hiding spot to another as she tried to keep Nora and Hildegard in view. All the while growing steadily more nervous of what they were looking for. They moved without any clear goal, and several times Nora motioned for them to double back, retracing mindless steps through the darkest parts of the city. Very few people lived in these newly-reclaimed streets and most were asleep or otherwise ignorant of the goings on in the streets. With every new corner rounded and every alley ducked into Echo grew a little more fearful of what she might find lurking in the shadows out of sight, but as the night progressed nothing showed itself.
It was well and truly night time when Nora and Hidlegard stopped in the middle of an alley, their words quick and furtive as they made occasional glances into the darkness. The alley was full of detritus and debris. Perhaps it was a lower-priority target for the cleaning and salvage crew or they simply hadn’t reached it yet; they hadn’t gone TOO far from the wall. A small part of Echo was pleased to see plentiful ivy growing around them. It felt…comforting.
Nora and Hildegard had no light to move by but the stars and moon, and the long shadows of the building cast the alley in almost complete darkness. Echo, being a spirit with better vision than most, could see more clearly than likely either of them could. She sneaked forward, quiet as a ghost as she moved behind some an empty dumpster to listen in on their conversation.
“We still haven’t seen anything.” Hildegard said, and there was an almost catlike glow to her eyes as she glanced around the alley. “Are you sure this person is out in the sanctuary?”
“I know what Echo saw.” Nora said. “It can’t be coincidence.”
“But you didn’t see it for yourself.” Hildegard said. “We’ve been searching in the dark for hours. Even if she is here she might be, I don’t know, sleeping?”
“She doesn’t sleep.” Nora said. “And believe me, I know how she thinks…how she works…why haven’t you drawn your sword?”
“Because apart from your word there’s no evidence that this ‘dangerous person’ of yours is even out in the city.”
Echo listened in silence, her worries reflected in the ivy plant beside her making it shake as if in a stiff breeze.
“Did you hear that?” Nora asked, going stiff.
“It’s the wind in the ivy, Miss Newstar.” Hildegard said, and Echo could almost hear the exasperation in her voice.
“There isn’t any wind in here.” Nora said. “Your sword please?”
Echo could hear Hildegard sigh but it was followed by the unmistakable sound of a sword being drawn.
“She’s patient, we need to be patient too.” Nora said, so quietly even Echo had to strain her ears to hear her.
The alley went darker. Echo looked up to see clouds had moved in front of the moon, sending another wave of darkness over the almost pitch black alley. With her heightened senses, Echo could just see the outline of the rooftops letting in what faint light remained in the sky.
Echo blinked, and she saw something small and quick moving along the edge of the rooftop, utterly noiseless as it got into position. Echo’s heart skipped a beat as she realized the shape had moved directly above Nora. Before she could shout to warn them the shape leapt into the air, and Echo could see the outline of a person against the night sky plunging towards Hildegard and Nora. Echo opened her mouth to scream but her voice caught in her throat as her mind froze up. What could she do?
Thankfully it seemed Echo was not alone in spotting the attacker. In one swift move, Hildegard knocked Nora aside as she intercepted the plunging assailant. There was a sound of metal striking metal as Hildegard deflected something with her own blade. In the darkness, Echo could barely see anything, but with a sweep of Hildegard’s hand a bright light was created in front of her, illuminating the alleyway so brightly Echo had to cover her eyes for a moment before her vision could adjust.
When Echo looked again, she could see the full view of what was happening. Nora was quickly pulling herself to her feet from where Hildegard had thrown her. Hildegard herself had her blade drawn and held in both hands, a circuit of fire running across its edge and filling the alleyway with orange light and dancing shadows. The assailant was facing her, bent low to the ground and covered almost entirely in deep navy clothes that had no doubt hidden her almost perfectly from sight. Although her face was half hidden in shadow, the resemblance to Nora was now undeniable. There were differences of course, Echo had known Nora long enough to see them. The attacker’s eyes were more sunken, her skin was a few shades darker and her body was leaner with more muscle on it. Her hair was brown and cut short enough to only reach a little down her neck, but Echo knew that Nora’s odd two-toned style was dyed and the earthy brown was her natural color. The glittering blue eyes, however were unmistakable a second time around.
The attacker had a long knife in her hand, almost twenty centimeters of dulled steel held tightly close to her as she sized up Hildegard. There was a brief silence between them, and Echo could see Hildegard’s muscles tightening for an attack before Nora’s voice cut through the air between them.
All of them paused, Hildegard passed a quick glance at Nora who had pulled herself to her feet. The attacker, however, had an almost violent reaction to it, her breathing quickening as the knife shivered in her hand.
“You said she might not be dangerous!” Hildegard shouted. “And you said she wasn’t a mage! She just jumped off a rooftop.”
“She’s…something else.” Nora said. “Don’t make any moves…it’s her conditioning, like instinct…dammit I shouldn’t have told you to draw the sword, I didn’t know she was this clo-“
Nora didn’t even finish her sentence before the woman, Lenore, struck forward towards Hildegard, leaving the mage with barely enough time to lift her sword to defend herself. Metal rang against metal as Lenore struck with her knife again and again, her blows dizzyingly quick as she sought a hole in Hildegard’s defenses. The Ranger, however, proved she was one of the best in the city as she deflected each blow, soon recovering her footing as she kept herself on the defensive.
“Lenore, please listen!” Nora shouted above the clashing steel. Echo could hear how distraught she was in her voice. She wanted to help, she needed to help.
The exchange of blows continued unabated. Hildegard’s flaming sword sent sparks flying every time it clashed with Lenore’s knife. The knife, however, seemed to glow with a blue light of its own, and Echo could sense a foreign magical energy flowing off of the blade. Hildegard was strong, but Lenore was unbelievably quick, the Ranger almost never got the chance to attack with Lenore’s quick and savage strikes putting her constantly on the defensive. Echo could see Lenore starting to gain the advantage, using the weight of Hildegard’s blade and her own almost supernatural speed against her. Echo had never seen a human move that quickly, striking like a viper with her free hand to land blows with her fist against Hildegard’s body where her sword couldn’t defend.
Taking another step back, Hildegard began to mutter under her breath, an incantation as sparks of fire flickered around her fingertips. Quick as lightning, Lenore’s hand lashed out, and Echo spotted something in her hand. There was a bright light and a loud cracking sound, like a small firework popping directly into Hildegard’s face.
Hildegard blinked, her trance and focus shattered long enough to cancel the spell and leave her open for Lenore to take tight hold of her sword arm, twisting the blade out of her hand and bringing her knife down towards her. Though dazed and disoriented, Hildegard’s experience and reaction time gave her a split second to take hold of Lenore’s wrist with the blade of the knife hovering above her throat.
Nora surged forward to try and pull Lenore off of Hildegard, but before she had reached her, what looked like a hundred tiny arms surged forth from the darkness, the walls of the alleyway falling down on Lenore as she found herself wrapped and bound by the sudden surge. Another look and she saw that more than a hundred branches of thick and spreading ivy had wrapped themselves around her body, yanking her free of Hildegard and lifting her off the ground. Her knife cut through a few before more strands surged forth and twisted the knife from her grip and bound her wrists together behind her back as she was lifted.
Both Hildegard and Nora stared as the ivy bonds secured themselves tightly around Lenore before seeing Echo step from the shadows into the light cast by Hildegard’s sword. Ivy clinging to her right arm as she directed and controlled it.
“Echo!” Nora shouted. “What are you doing here?!”
“What are you doing here!?” Echo tried to counter in a plea, but the expression on her face made it clear how scared and worried she had been.
“I asked you not to follow me.” Nora said.
Echo did her best to look back at her defiantly as she said “Asked you not to follow me.”
Nora rubbed her temples, her face lost in a muddled expression of anger and concern.
“Good thing she was here though.” Hildegard said, checking Echo’s ivy bonds for weaknesses. “Good work, Echo.”
“Good work, Echo.” She blushed as she repeated it. It had taken a lot out of her, and even now she had to keep adding vines as Lenore tried to break free, she was unbelievably strong…
While it was clear Nora wanted to tear into Echo for following her, Echo was relieved to see her turn her attention to Lenore. She was still low enough to the ground for Nora to place her hands on either side of Lenore’s face, turning her head to keep her gaze, staring straight into her own mirrored eyes. Echo could see ferocity in Lenore’s expression, a single-minded predatory glare fixed on Nora’s eyes.
Nora started speaking, never shifting her gaze or raising her tone, but keeping her voice level and steady. “Azure sky, hot sand, wide river, the taste of bread.” She said the words like a mantra, repeating them again over and over as she kept eye contact.
“Azure sky, hot sand, wide river, the taste of bread.”
Soon Echo could see Lenore’s eyes lose their ferocity. Her body slackened as she seemed to lose the edge and power she’d attacked with, her struggling ceasing. When Lenore’s breathing had steadied, her face calm, Nora finally stopped speaking.
“Was that some kind of command trigger?” Hildegard asked. “You told me she was brainwashed.”
Echo moved beside Nora, lightly placing a hand on her shoulder. Though Nora had removed her hands she didn’t seem to want to break her gaze.
“No, it’s just something our mother used to say to calm us down.” Nora said. “She’s conditioned, not brainwashed. I needed to get her into the right state of mind. The phrase helps pull her mind back from her conditioning using mental sensory images.”
“Mental sensory images…” Echo repeated the phrase, not knowing what two of the words meant, but knowing one of them very well.
“Your mother?” Hildegard asked. “So she’s your twin? Your sister?”
“Your sister?” Echo repeated, looking with concern at Nora.
“Almost,” Nora said. “We have an identical genome, but we weren’t born. She and I are clones.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=38&sl=142 ))