The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 25

April 12th, 2023

Echo walked with some trepidation towards the recently-declared capitol building of Rome. It was technical one of her days off (which meant in some cases she had to be shooed away from the greenhouses). It wasn’t that her presence was unappreciated, but if she put too much of herself in the plants it could be draining for her, and Echo was a poor judge of her own limits. She had planned to spend the day at Nora’s place with Dr. White ensuring that Lenore stayed stable, but she tended to fuss and fret when she didn’t have anything to do, so Nora had sent her on a task out of the house, a task Echo was none too eager to fulfill.
Nora had been working out how to best lift Echo’s curse. No speech therapy on Earth could help her, it wasn’t a stutter or impediment but a true divine curse. A goddess had put it in place, and only a goddess could remove it. Nora was well-placed among the Egyptian gods to ask for that kind of favor, and someone like Isis-Ra was no doubt powerful enough to remove it herself. That would be the easy way out.

Rather than call on her directly, however, Nora had sent Echo to speak with Kebechet. When Echo had (in her way) asked why, Nora had brushed off the question and told her it would be good for her, handing her a sealed message for Kebechet to read. So no Echo found herself ascending the steps into the capitol to find the Egyptian wolf. She was nervous and grew more so with each step, the flowers in her hair drooping and her fingers working against each other nervously.

She eventually found Kebechet leaving an office, a stack of papers under her arm. At a glance it seemed she recognized her, as she paused and greeted her. “Ah, Echo, good morning.”
“Good morning.” Echo bowed her head respectfully. She had never formally met the minor goddess, but it was likely that she could sense who and what she was by nature alone.

“Do you need my assistance for something?” She asked, continuing her walk and leaving Echo to follow after her.

“Assistance for something.” Echo nodded, stepping lightly after her, barefoot across the tiled floor.

Kebechet lead her silently to what was likely her office. The room was small and stuffed with papers, with little more than a bland chair and desk to mark itself apart from any other room. Folders and loose sheets piled high here and there, but all of it was arranged with a strict sense of order to it, neat and precise.

“So what can I help you with?” Kebechet asked, placing the fresh stack she had been carrying onto her desk.

“Help you with.” Echo repeatedly hopelessly while offering the letter from Nora. Kebechet took it, unsealing it with a finger and reading through it at lightning speed, Echo taking a moment to marvel at how quickly her eyes seemed to soak in information.

“Very well…” She glanced up at Echo. “The Pharaoh has not let you see this?”

“Not let you see this.” Echo shook her head emphatically.

“Ah” Kebechet said “well, simply put the Pharaoh wants to acclimate you to being once more in the presence of gods.”

“In the presence of gods?” Echo’s confusion was apparent on her face.

“Quite” Kebechet continued, her tone seeming almost bored. “She says you will need to be able to stand your ground when you and she inevitably confront Hera.”

“C-Confront Hera!?” Echo’s voice actually managed a stutter as she took a step back in confusion and alarm. Surely that wasn’t necessary, surely they could just have another god or goddess do it and save them all some trouble.

“That is what it says.” Kebechet glanced at the letter again. Surely you did not think she could do it herself, or find someone else to do it?”

“Find someone else to do it!” Echo all but shouted.

“That will not be possible, I’m afraid.” Kebechet never raised her voice, but Echo still found herself quieted beyond her usual capacity whenever she spoke.

“I’m afraid.” Echo could only repeat glumly, her words and intent aligning by unfortunate coincidence.

“While it likely well within a goddess such as Isis-Ra’s ability to remove your curse, the trouble it would cause could have an effect that escalates into the catastrophic.”

“Catastrophic?” Echo asked, surely it could not be all that bad?

“The Pharaoh has told me the major details of your curse. It seems that the spite of the goddess Juno, or Hera as we both know her better, was the major cause.”

“Major cause.” Echo hung her head, she really didn’t like to speak of it.

“Whether it was justified or not is immaterial” Kebechet continued, unperturbed by Echo’s increasingly obvious distress. “The matter remains that if Isis-Ra removed the curse delivered out of spite, then she would earn the ire of Hera in turn. Given the Greeks’ position as our temporary hosts, such a slight against her is not only ill-advised, but a transgression of our rights as guests. While I do apologize, and I am sure Lady Isis-Ra would as well, the fortunes of one nymph are not worth jeopardizing our already tenuous position, particularly given the grace the Greeks have shown us thus far.”

“Shown us thus far…” Echo meekly repeated. She understood the logic behind it. It made perfect sense why the Egyptians could do nothing, and none of the Greek gods would be willing to go against Hera’s wishes. Still the thought of facing Hera again in person was…Echo shook just considering it.

“That is why…” Echo felt a hand on her shoulder. Though her tone did not change, Kebechet had moved to place a comforting hand on her. “…Nora has advised me to help you get used to being in the presence of a god. The entire experience can be overwhelming, and it has been some time for you.”

“Has been some time for you.” Echo nodded, taking some comfort from Kebechet’s closer presence. If most gods were like her, this might not be so bad.

“Unfortunately” Kebechet continued, and Echo’s heart sank a little at her tone. “I am hardly the caliber of goddess you need to be exposed to. We would need to find someone more…impressive.”

“Impressive.” Echo muttered nervously. She wasn’t sure she liked where this conversation was going.

“Come, walk with me.” Kebechet said, moving to the door as Echo humbly repeated her. Following in her footsteps, the pair of them moved from the capitol building out into the streets with Kebechet leading the way, talking as she went.

“It would be easier for me to request the presence of one of the deities of my pantheon. It would likely also serve us better, as if Hera learned what we were planning she might take great offense.”
“Take great offense” Echo said, nodding as she walked.

“Isis-Ra herself is no doubt busy, and summoning her for such a thing as this would be less than prudent.”

“Less than prudent”

“Don’t get me wrong, my great aunt is a kind and personable woman.” Kebechet said quickly, sensing Echo’s unease. “She is, however, the leader of the pantheon now and thus we need someone who has time to spare to come.”

It was about fifteen minutes of walking before Echo realized where they were going. Kebechet was leading them towards the primary shrine of the House of the Sun, the center of Egyptian faith in Rome. Echo had been there once or twice to see Nora about something, but she always felt a bit uneasy there. It was too out of her element compared to the various Greek and Roman shrines.
As it was a weekday and most of the followers were out working, there were only a handful of people in the shrine itself. It was a small circular chamber with part of the roof removed to create a portal looking up into the clear sky. Small shrines below painted images of numerous Egyptian gods lined the perimeter of the walls. Echo didn’t know most of them, and the odd animal-headed figures put her into a state of unease. Kebechet spoke with the chief priest (below Nora) and soon they had the temple to themselves. It was easier to contact a deity to speak to spirits like Kebechet and Echo alone. A mortal present would have complicated the issue.

While a god and spirit like Echo were fundamentally similar, the comparison was still almost insulting. Echo was a nature spirit, a lesser part of the world that existed independently from humans. Gods were similar in that they were often extensions of worldly phenomenon, but they drew much of their immense power from human worship and faith. If Echo was worshipped and venerated, she doubted it would make her any stronger in particular, but gods thrived on it.

Kebechet moved to the altar in the center of the room, placing her hands upon its surface as she closed her eyes and lifted her face towards the heavens. She stood there in silence for several minutes, leaving Echo alone to fidget awkwardly nearby. When she seemed to have finished, Kebechet opened her eyes, lowering her gaze and taking several steps back. To a mortal it would seem at first as if nothing had happened, but with a rush of energy she could feel something manifesting in the center of the room in the shrine.

The effects came next. The sky overhead seemed to darken as if the morning had rapidly shifted to night, the air howled and whipped through the temple in a brief cyclone as a shape began to manifest in the center, wreathed in a curtain of black feathers.

Finally the goddess took form, that of a tall woman with dark hair and dark eyes. She was royally dressed in a long black dress with gold finery, including an elaborate headdress that adorned her brow. Beneath her arms were folded a pair of black-feathered wings.

There was no malice on her face, but Echo could feel the pressure of her presence like a weight on her shoulders. Kebechet could be mistaken for a person, but this being was a goddess to her core, like a black hole of energy that drew all around her towards herself.

Echo shrank from her gaze as much as she could, the overpowering aura of the deity enough to put her entirely on edge. When she spoke, Echo had expected her to speak with immense command and authority, enough to make Echo fall to her knees.

What she had not expected was for the goddess to rush forward and embrace Kebechet, cheer in her voice as she spoke like a doting mother.

“Kebechet, it’s been entirely too long!”

Kebechet, for her part, seemed a mix of embarrassed and stubborn as she greeted her with a pained hug.

“It’s…good to see you too, grandmother.”

“And who is your friend?” She smiled as she turned to Echo, who was now too surprised to wince. Despite the dark and regal appearance, this…goddess seemed almost full of sunshine.

“Her name is Echo, a Greek nymph. Pharaoh wanted her to meet a proper goddess.”

“Now Kebe, I always said you could be more of a goddess if you cleaned yourself up every once in a while.” She said, her hands rubbing Kebechet’s face and smoothing her hair over. “Honestly you still look like a rowdy teenager.”

“Rowdy teenager” Echo slapped her hand over her mouth as she repeated it, her face flushing red.

“Yes precisely…ah, where are my manners.” The goddess turned again to Echo, and once more she felt that rush of divine power coursing through the room, almost forgotten in the open display of affection. “I am Nephthys, Lady of the Temple, Fourth of the Ennead, Bringer of Dusk and Sister-Wife of Set.”

Echo bowed stiffly, the sudden power display sapping her of will as she blatantly repeated all of Nephthys’ epithets.

“Hmmm…” As Echo rose again, she stiffened even ore as Nephthys placed a light hand on her chin. Though the gesture was a soft one, Echo could feel the power flowing through her like electricity. This wasn’t some two-bit local god, but one of national importance. If that much power had been stuffed into Echo, she likely would have exploded.

“A curse. Poor dear, I wish I could do something.”

Echo had long wondered how another goddess would see her curse, was it like a scar or mark? Was some foul word scrawled across her face in ink only the divine could see? As she stared quaveringly back into Nephthys’ deep black gaze, she tried to see the softness in her expression despite the overwhelming presence she possessed.

“We are trying to acclimate her to a god’s presence.” Kebechet said, her fingers getting her hair back in place.

“I see…” Nephthys said, concern in her voice as she pulled away from Echo. “Little wonder she’s shaking then.”

“Shaking then…” Echo said ruefully, trying to stop herself from shivering.

“Well then, Echo” Nephthys smiled “Perhaps the best advice I can give is that while gods can be cruel, they can be kind in equal measure. A god never does anything halfway. When we cheer we celebrate for days, when we mourn we cry for weeks, and when we rage the earth and heavens quake at our passing.”

Echo took little solace in that knowledge. She had seen a goddess’ full fury before.

“But that means while our curses can last eons from our spite, so to can our forgiveness be all but everlasting.” Nephthys continued. “The same goddess who produced such terrible spite can, I assure you, grant that same forgiveness.”

“Grant that same forgiveness…” Even as Echo doubted her words, she felt somewhat comforted. The goddess’ speech had touched something deeper than her conscious spirit, and spoken to a more potent absolute truth.

Hera was not known for forgiveness. In all the stories Echo knew she had never once rescinded her ire. Still Nephthys was right, Gods did everything humans could but more so. If she could be so truly full of spite, the capacity for forgiveness must be within her as well.

It was, admittedly, not much hope. But that was still infinitely more than what Echo had before.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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