April 7th, 2023
A full day and night had passed since their battle in the alley. Nora, and by habit Echo, now spent much of the time she could spare in the basement of her home where the woman, Lenore, was being kept sedated in a makeshift hospital room. Echo was never comfortable while they were there, and that was an understatement compared to what Hildegard’s reaction had been…
“You have got to be kidding me!” Hildegard had shouted that night, just after Echo had successfully bound Lenore. “You don’t plan to turn her in.”
“No.” Nora said flatly, refusing to back down or get angry, her voice a steady and steely calm.
“She just tried to kill you!” Hildegard slapped her palm to her forehead. “And you…what, want to keep her tied up in your basement?”
“Sedated, not tied up, and just for the time being.” Nora said.
Hildegard was dumbstruck. “You can’t just…Nora this is…what is…!?” She tried to articulate. Echo kept her distance, whispering into her hand her repetitions, not trying to be drawn into this fight as the adrenaline and rush of excitement quickly drained away.
“She’s dangerous and needs to be imprisoned.” Hildegard settled on.
“No prison we build will hold her.” Nora retorted. “The mage hasn’t been born that can keep Lenore in a place she really doesn’t want to be, and we don’t have the resources to try.”
“She’s a mage-killer.” Hildegard said. “I’m a mage. There are…other solutions to this problem.” Nora and Echo’s eyes both traveled to Hildegard’s sword, still drawn.
Nora moved faster than Echo had ever seen her to step between Hildegard and Lenore.
“You lay a finger on her and I swear by all the gods you won’t take another step, Jazheil.” Nora hissed. “She’s incapacitated and I can keep her that way.”
“To what end?” Hildegard growled, cat-like yellow eyes shining in the dark. “You defend your would-be murderer.”
“Lenore didn’t come to kill me, she came for my help.” Nora said. “I told you this is her conditioning. She didn’t mean it and she can be broken free from its control.”
“Somehow, Newstar, I don’t believe you.” Hildegard said. “She’s dangerous. Too dangerous to leave her in your care.”
“She’s like a sister to me, Hildegard please.” Nora pleaded.
“I’m a mage, Nora, my fresh-adopted sister is a mage. I’m protecting me and mine just the same as you.”
“She doesn’t care about you or your sister.” Nora said. “Just me. Please, just give me a little time that’s all I ask.”
“How long?” Hildegard demanded.
“I don’t know…with magic I might be able to break the first few layers in…a few weeks?”
“The Sicily Expedition lives in a few days.” Hildegard said. “I will be coming by every day between now and then. When I return from Sicily, if she is still dangerous…then we reopen negotiations.”
“Fine.” Nora said. “…thank you, Hildegard.”
“You have nothing to thank me for yet.” Hildegard shrugged before she turned to Echo. Echo winced at her gaze, but her expression grew softer.
“You did well, Echo.” Hildegard smiled at her. “That was a brave move and it paid off, thank you.”
“Thank you.” Echo nodded, and Hildegard whispered to her as she passed. “Keep a close eye on Nora. Don’t let her feelings cloud her judgment on this. I’ve seen it too many times, okay?”
“Okay.” Echo repeated as she watched Hildegard leave.
With Echo’s help she and Nora had safely hauled Lenore back to their home. Nora, she learned, had been expecting this for some time and had been prepared for it. She had an old hospital bed in her basement (complete with wrist and ankle straps Echo was scared to note) that Lenore was soon bound up in. She also kept a store of specially-designed tranquilizers to keep Lenore in something of a light haze, not fully unconscious but only semi-cogent and barely able to move.
“I managed to steal these from the lab when I escaped.” Nora noted, looking the long blue pills over. “No idea what’s in them or how they work. They were designed for the three of us so it wouldn’t feel right giving them to the clinic.”
“Giving them to the clinic.” Echo dutifully repeated, but her crossed arms and direct expression communicated clearly to Nora that there were other questions she wanted answering.
“I truly am sorry to drag you into this.” Nora said. “I suppose you deserve an explanation.”
“Deserve an explanation.” Echo nodded, not moving from where she stood.
“Well…oh jeez where to start…well I told you she’s my clone, right?” Nora said, gesturing to Lenore. “I know what a clone is.” She supplied for Echo.
“I know what a clone is.” Echo nodded her head. She knew the concept, though she far from grasped the science behind it. Plants could be cloned by hand, so she supposed humans at some point learned to do it with animals somehow including people. The thought was far from comforting to her.
“Well about twenty years ago, some mages and scientists…I hesitate to even call them that, I’ve got a long list of obscenities for them…decided that if old bloodlines made strong mages then someone cloned from a very old bloodline would make for a very strong mage. Get some blood from a two thousand year old mummy and you’re in business. Turns out with a lot of money you can just up and create the clone of an Egyptian pharaoh.”
“Clone of an Egyptian Pharaoh!?” Echo practically shouted in surprise.
“Calm down Echo.” Nora sighed “Only by blood, my “progenitor” I suppose you could call them was a few generations post-Cleopatra, never actually crowned Pharaoh of any kind. I’m not some kind of lost royalty.”
“Lost royalty…” Echo said dreamily. She ignored Nora’s protests, lost in the romantic ideal of Nora as a secret queen or princess.
Nora rubbed her temples. “If you’re wondering why the Egyptian gods are hounding me…well now you know the reason. They think I’m some kind of grand follow-up and new mortal leader. The reality is much closer to me being the best thing they could get.”
“Best thing they could get.” Echo said, nodding happily, trying to put a positive spin on the statement, to which Nora offered back a slight smile.
“Well, for some of these…scientists…the particularly bad ones, they didn’t just want powerful mages, they wanted perfectly obedient and powerful soldiers. So they set to work on their more monstrous experiments as soon as they got three test subjects.”
“Three test subjects?” Echo asked, head tilting slightly.
Nora’s expression sank. “There were three clones, all of us nicknamed Eleanor, one through three. I as Eleanor Two, Lenore was Eleanor One, then there was Ellen…Eleanor Three.”
“Eleanor Three?” Echo was almost afraid to ask.
“She didn’t make it.” Was all Nora said. “I managed to escape, but Lenore wasn’t so lucky.”
“Wasn’t so lucky…” Echo’s gaze shifted to Lenore. She was asleep at the moment, and seemed…peaceful was the word Echo settled on. As she slept the differences between her and Nora seemed to shrink even more. They looked almost identical when they slept.
More importantly, she realized with a smile, she knew Nora’s name now. Eleanor-Two was a bit sterile, but Eleanor by itself was quite lovely. “Newstar” was obviously a name she made up for herself, but now she couldn’t help but wonder what her “progenitor’s” name had been to use Nora’s own word.
“I got away” Nora’s voice took Echo from her thoughts, and she saw the young woman was also looking down at her nigh-identical clone. “I got away and I never forgave myself for not saving Lenore too. They turned her into a weapon, almost a monster. But I knew…I hoped that the Days of Revelation would shake them off their game, maybe break them completely. At least I hoped it would give Lenore the opportunity to come find me.”
“Come find me.” Echo said, watching her. Nora’s gaze never left Lenore, even as she spoke.
“She needs help, Echo. She’s not a monster, she’s a person whose brain is all bound up in instincts that were placed in her head. I can save her, I…need to save her.”
“Need to save her!” Echo nodded strongly, placing a hand on Nora’s shoulder. Nora couldn’t help but smile again at the gesture, placing her hand over Echo’s.
“Thank you, Echo… I mean, truly thank you. I don’t think I could have gotten her here safely without you there. I’m sorry for leaving you out of it earlier….apology accepted?”
“Apology accepted.” Echo smiled broadly at her.
“Mmmm, do you know Abigail White?” She asked.
“Know Abigail White.” Echo shook her head. If they didn’t visit the Greenhouse or Nora regularly Echo had probably never met them.
“She’s a mage, one of the few in the city.” Nora said. “She specializes in healing magic, so I’m hoping that with my guidance we can break through Lenore’s conditioning.”
“Break through Lenore’s conditioning.” Echo said hopefully.
“She’ll be here tomorrow, so expect her around midday if you’re free. I am free.”
“I am free.” Echo nodded again to the statement.
“Good, I need to see to the various cults around that time and Kebechet needs me to take a look at the temple. If there’s a time neither of us can be there I’ll have Hildegard stand watch. Sound good?”
“Sound good.” Echo said.
“Excellent…” Nora’s words trailed off, leaving Echo to parrot them back before she spoke again.
“Echo,” Nora began. “This is going to take a lot of my time and energy. Even if we break the conditioning magically, she’s not going to be better overnight but…Echo I made a promise to you, and I intend to keep that promise.”
“Keep that promise.” Echo said, trying to keep the pleading tone from her voice.
“I promised you I’d free you from your curse and I meant it. I don’t think having a Pharonic bloodline means anything to the Greeks…but I’m Pontifex Maximus of Rome. As far as the Egyptians are concerned, I’m a god in living flesh, and most of all I’m your friend and your boss. I’m not about to let some goddess run roughshod over you thousands of years after the fact. Got it?” She smiled at Echo, that same confident smile that always made Echo’s heart skip a beat and her face flush red.
“Got it.” She replied meekly.
“Good” Nora clapped her on the shoulder. “Put some tea on, we can chat for a while down here.”
“Chat for a while down here.” Echo chirped as she went to put the tea on, a slight skip in her step as she went upstairs. Though she’d been doubtful before, there was something in Nora’s demeanor, in her certainty, that made Echo feel safe.
What she failed to see as she left was Nora retaking her seat in her chair, her body practically crumpling as she hit the soft seat, her arms resting on her legs and her head supported by one hand. A person can only bear so much before their burdens pin them down. Nora had never been one to share her pain. After abandoning Lenore and Ellen, she’d had no one to share it with. How could she take advantage of Echo by bringing her any closer to the misery that was her “childhood”? Echo was far too kind, far too trusting to trouble her like that.
Taking a deep breath and rising again to a seated position, Nora pulled herself back together. She would bear it alone as she always had. All the memories and the betrayal. All she needed to survive, all she needed to keep going, was to still have Echo’s beautiful smiling face beside her. She wouldn’t let such a sweet smile be marred by pain. She would bear it all, Echo’s past and her own, if she needed to.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=44&sl=811 ))