The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part I

 

Torleif had not seen so many people in years. The streets of Rome in the mid-morning were lively and bustling as people moved for work, to get food, or simply to get from one place to another. Without cars, horses, or any vehicle more advanced than a bicycle, the roads were dominated by foot traffic. That meant Torleif, still a little short for her age (though she’d never admit it), was constantly underfoot and almost claustrophobic in the tight crowds of Rome.

She finally got some air at an open market on the edge of the Tiber. Leaning against a stone railing, looking down into the slow brown waters, Torleif could catch her breath as her eyes wandered across the view. Over the past few months she could have gone days without seeing another human being. Sure having company was nice, but the city of Rome was a lot of company to ask for.

Torleif’s stomach grumbled unhappily, and she recalled the breakfast line for new arrivals that she had ditched because it was too long. Regret was starting to worm its way into her head as she eyed the stock of a nearby apple stall hungrily, almost drooling with desire. Hesitantly she started to edge closer to the stall. The owner was busy talking with several customers, and she was small and easily missed, particularly since she had left most of her gear in a locker back at the camp, save for her hammer which still hung from her belt at the back of her waist.

Creeping forward, Torleif began to plan her attack, a quick grab and run and she’d be gone…

A hand gently took hold of her shoulder, causing her to almost jump in mid-air.

“I wasn’t doing anything!” She said so rapidly she almost stumbled over her words. She turned and saw the hand belonged to a woman looking at her with a mix of concern and confusion. She was a lot taller than Torleif (though most people were), with a loose chestnut brown hair and bright green eyes. She was wearing a simple sundress of light browns and off-whites, which only brought more attention to the large white flowers literally growing in her hair.

“I wasn’t!” Torleif said before clamming her mouth shut, realizing she was only digging herself deeper.

The woman simply smiled warmly at her.

“Hungry?” She asked. Torleif nodded silently, face red.

The woman with flowers in her hair lifted her hand from Torleif’s shoulder and held it with her palm up at Torleif’s eye-level. Torleif watched, marveling, as a vine crept down the woman’s arm and sprouted into a large shiny red apple in the palm of her hand.

“Wooow…” Torleif’s eyes went big as she took the apple before swiftly adding a polite “Thank you!” As she did before biting into it.

“Of course,” the woman smiled, but Torleif could see a bit of concern in her face as well. “Are your parents having trouble getting food for you?”

“Don’t got parents,” Torleif said roughly between mouthfuls of apple.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Echo said. “But the city has put you with a foster family, right?”

“No,” Torleif said. “Miss Capi Wolf said that my case is strange cause I’m a champion. Don’t need fosters. Don’t want ‘em either.”

“Ah, my, you’re a champion,” The woman said. “I’m honored. Whose champion are you?”

“Thor.” Torleif paused to take another bite before adding. “God of Thunder! Toughest of the gods too!”

“Oh, my,” The woman said. “I’ve heard of him. I’m just a lowly spirit though, I don’t meet that many gods.”

Torleif nodded, though she also saw the smile creeping across the woman’s face. “So who are you?” She asked. “My name’s Torleif.”

“My name is Echo,” The woman smiled. “Nice to meet you, Torleif.”

“Echo?” Torleif asked. “Like in a cave? Echo, echo, echo.”

“Heh, something like that,” Echo chuckled. “But can’t you use the breakfast food line for refugees?”

“That line is so looooong,” Torleif moaned.

“I’m sure it is,” Echo nodded. “Though if you like I can help you get lunch. I know some people who-“

Echo was cut off by the sight of guards rushing down the street up the river, a number of them hurrying together at the call of some emergency.

“U-umm excuse…” Echo tried to catch their attention, but she was ignored as they hurried past her. “Hmm…I wonder what the excitement is…”

“Let’s go see!” Torleif said eagerly, taking Echo by the wrist as she moved after the guards. Echo lurched along after her, clearly surprised at the small girl’s strength.

“But Torleif! It could be dangerous!” She tried to object, helpless to break free from her grasp.

“That’s okay, I’ll protect you,” Torleif smiled.

 

The running guards and soon sounds of commotion lead them to a local park, where a dividing line had been set up to keep out the public, manned by a number of guards trying to hold back a line of curious citizens. Within the park, invisible through the trees, came the sounds of creaking branches and splintering wood as if something massive was moving through the small forest. Without pausing, Torleif pushed her way through the barricade and the guards as Echo helplessly apologized. To her surprise, they weren’t followed as Torleif pulled Echo along into the forests.

In the center of the wooded park was the source of the noise. An enormous and likely ancient tree, with a trunk many times wider than an adult man, was moving and lurching of its own volition, massive branches swaying and coiling as its canopy crashed against the leaves and branches of its neighbors. Near the base of the tree stood a trio of women, deep in conversation as they watched the tree from a safe distance away.

“I can see why you called me, the spirit is clearly very upset,” The youngest, a shortish Asian girl dressed in bright white and red robes with short dark hair was the first to speak.

“That’s what we gathered. Aurelio wanted an expert on the subject,” The second one was the tallest. She was a slender black-haired woman dressed in a long cloak and slimming clothes that made her look like an evil sorceress.

The last one to speak was older-looking, but what stood out the most were the long ears and tail of a fox that poked out from her hair and the back of her dress. “That’s why I retrieved Megame, though a proper expert would be…ah, there they are!” The trio turned to see Torleif carrying Echo to join them.

“Hi!” Torleif waved. “Need some help busting up an angry spirit? I’m your champion!”

“Ah, you must be Torleif,” The youngest woman in white and red said. “Catarina mentioned you. My name is Megame Kamigawa.”

“Oh, right,” Torleif nodded. “Cat talked about you on the trip here. Who are these?”

“This is my friend, Hachi,” Megame said, gesturing to the fox woman who eyed her curiously. “And this is Miss Sybilla, they’re with the Night Guard.”

“We are, and this is one spirit we don’t need ‘busted up,’” Sybilla said, hands on her hips. “In fact, I’m much more interested in what Echo there has to say.”

“Echo?” Torleif looked at her. “She’s just a little spirit though…”

Hachi smiled as Echo stepped towards the thrashing tree. “Something to keep in mind, Torleif-san, is that sometimes the easiest solution isn’t necessarily the best.”

“It’s not too surprising,” Sybilla said. “As they say, ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Torleif frowned.

“It means,” Hachi said calmly. “That when you have something that can fix a lot of problems, like your hammer, you tend to use that to fix all of your problems.”

“Oh…” Torleif said, going a bit quiet as she turned to watch Echo and Megame chatting closer to the tree.

“So can you hear the problem?” Megame asked.

“It doesn’t like all of the new transplants in the park,” Echo said. “It’s restoring the land but the tree doesn’t recognize them; it thinks they’re invading and trying to replace it.”

“That’s not true at all,” Megame said. “We were just trying to bring some life back, and move some trees that would have been cut down for construction.”

“I’ll try to reassure it,” Echo said, moving to the tree and placing her hands on the gnarled bark, vines spreading from her fingertips.

Torleif hung back, annoyed she had nothing to do but not wanting to abandon her new friend Echo with these strangers, even if Cat had said Megame was a good person. A while later Echo removed herself from the tree, vines withdrawing from her hands as the tree’s thrashing ceased and she went to speak to the others.

“He understands and will try to be more cooperative,” Echo said. “But Miss Kamigawa, if you could mention him when you do your rituals for the local spirits?”

“I’ll be sure to,” Megame nodded. “Thank you, Echo kami-san.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Echo smiled before she went to check on Torleif. “You look a bit bored.”

“M’fine…” Torleif mumbled.

“You know, if you wanted to fight a bit you could always go down to the training fields, there’s always someone there.”

Torleif’s eyes lit up. “Can we?”

“I’m not in charge of a champion,” Echo smiled. “Lead the way, the others can take care of the rest.

Torleif smiled and started leading her from the park toward the training field. “Sorry to get you roped into that stuff back there,” Torleif said “I didn’t mean to bother you. All you did was help.”

“Oh it’s no problem at all,” Echo smiled. “I actually like getting to know people, particularly since-“

“Oh we’re here!” Torleif grinned, interrupting her as she hurried towards the field, though she spared Echo her grip this time. While the nymph took to the stands to watch, Torleif looked around to see who was there to spar. She grinned as she spotted a pair of people she knew, Rosaria from the trip down south was in a wrestling match with Capitolina Lupa, the Wolf of Rome, and while the wolf might have had all her strength, she was in human form which meant Rosa was putting up a good fight.

Torleif went to the edge of the ring, watching before chiming in. “I’ve got next!”

She watched as Rosa finally managed to pin down Capitolina, though by the way the wolf woman’s tail was still wagging, she’d been treating it more like a game than a fight.

“Well done, Rosa,” Capi smiled. “Getting better at reading your opponents.”

“Or you at least,” Rosa said before looking at Torleif. “You said you want to go, short stuff?”

“Ya!” Torleif said, dropping her hammer to the ground at the edge of the ring and rolling up her sleeves. “And don’t call me short!”

After a bit of stretching both of them bent low on either side of the ring. Torleif charged, ready to throw all her weight against Rosa, only to find the taller girl skillfully maneuvering her out of the way, and soon Torleif felt her chest being slammed into the hard earth.

“H-hey!” She shouted angrily, getting her feet under her to push Rosa off of her.

“Want to give it another try?” Rosa smiled, and again Torleif charged her, and again she was on the ground in mere moments.

“Heh, you fight like Rosa did when I met her,” Capi chuckled as Torleif struggled to escape the pin.

“Grrr…whaddya mean?” Torleif said, still wriggling in Rosa’s grasp. “I’m stronger than her!”

“Probably,” Rosa smiled. “But you fight like a charging bull.”

“She’s using your strength against you,” Capi said, more gently. “You’re off balance when you charge, and with your height, you’d have an advantage if you keep your footing and leveraged your strength right. What was that saying, Rosa? The Greek said it.”

“Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the world,” Rosa said. “Fighting’s more than throwing a hard punch, and I’ve got the bruises to show it. Want to go another round?”

Torleif grumbled, already red with embarrassment and not sure she wanted to continue.

“You can do it Torleif!” Echo’s call from the nearby stands only made her face redder. She hated being embarrassed like this, but Echo was cheering for her, and she couldn’t give the nymph a bad impression of her first champion!

“Alright!” Torleif got up. “Let’s keep going.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Patrons of the Arts

September 15th, 2024

“So this is where she’s been spending all of her time, huh?”

“Well, most of it at least, when she’s not with her sexy Egyptian boyfriend.”

“I have always loved Rome.”

“Of course you have, so many dead empires and emperors.”

“You come around here just as often as I do.”

“Now, now you two, let’s not fight, we’re here to see our sister, after all.”

A trio of women walked casually through the eastern gate of Rome into the city, slipping past the notice of the guards whose duty it was to check each new arrival who entered the city. Normally they were quite attentive, and it was difficult to pass inside the city without it being known, but they didn’t stand a chance against these three. Not that it mattered, as no human could hope to perceive them if they didn’t want to be seen. As soon as they were in, however, they shed their spiritual disguises and took human forms. After all, some spirits liked spending time among humans.

All of them were young and beautiful, the kind of faces that could inspire poetry or art. The tallest, and the one in the lead, was the most mature physically though still no older than her mid-thirties. She had curly brown hair mostly kept restrained in a bun at the back of her head. A pair of slim glasses balanced on her nose, and she was dressed in a light business jacket and pencil skirt. In her hand was a slightly out of date electric tablet which she would frequently check absentmindedly. Her name was Calliope.

On her left was the women who easily drew the most eyes of the three. Her head was a carefully  cultivated mess of wavy blonde hair, her eyes a shining marine green, and she was rarely without a smile or smirk. She wore a much brighter jacket loosely over her shoulders that was open to reveal the low-cut shirt that showed off her slim neck and large breasts. Under her jacket she wore a pair of remarkably short shorts that focused attention her wide hips and thighs. She clutched an old mp3 player in her hand, the headphones worn around her neck, and a gold arrow emblazoned on the case. Her name was Erato.

On Calliope’s right was a much more subdued but no less beautiful woman. Her hair was the silver of an old spinster despite appearing in her late-twenties, her eyes were duller behind a pair of sunglasses but no less enticing, and she wore a modest buttoned shirt over a long skirt, and had a decorative scarf around her neck that supported the bountiful waves of her hair. She almost never smiled, unlike her sisters, but inspired in others the desire to try. She kept her hands folded solemnly behind her back at almost all times. Her name was Melpomene.

They were muses, three of nine, and each of them delivered their specific brand of inspiration to mortals the world over. Calliope, the eldest sister, inspired those who sang of great deeds and world-moving histories, the epic poets and historians, the painters of grand murals, and all those who sought their magnum opus. Erato inspired love and lust in art as much as she did in appearance, reveling in youthful all-consuming love. She is desired as much as she inspires desire, and she lives vicariously along the boundary of love and lust. Melpomene, meanwhile, was both the most demure and most melodramatic of her sisters. She reveled in the tragic and the lost, loving that which brings tears and seeking always the conclusions that wrench the soul.

The three of them had agreed to make time for their sister in Rome, and were intent on making a vacation of it. Erato and Melpomene had hatched the plan, while Calliope had demanded to come to ensure that her more incorrigible sisters stayed out of trouble.

“Such a lovely city,” Melpomene breathed, looking towards the ruined and crumbling façade of the ancient coliseum.

“I’ll say,” Erato said, her eyes hungrily devouring a cadre of handsome young Italian men passing them by.

“Radio tower first, ladies,” Calliope retained a strictness in her voice. “We’re here for Thalia, remember?”

“Of course,” Erato smiled. “Lead on, Calli.”

“Here’s hoping we don’t get lost or accosted,” Melpomene sighed.

They hadn’t needed to walk, of course. They were gods in their own right, after all. However they were muses. Among spirits of any kind, they were renowned and beloved for spending time among people, and being the most human in character. So they enjoyed the sights as they walked through Rome until they reached the tall metal radio tower, home to the famed Radio Roma.

A quick chat with the secretary at the desk and the three of them were left to wait in the front room, looking over the various accolades the show had received, and its hostess in particular.

“Thali always did love the spotlight,” Erato grinned. “I’m surprised she’s kept up the disguise so long. I couldn’t do it.”

“I’d never have a chance,” Melpomene said. “I’d be found out at the worst possible moment.”

Even through her dreariness, however, the bright light of a muse still shone through, and it was clear she was enjoying herself as much as her more outspoken sisters.

They did not have to wait long before a beaming sun-like face burst into the lobby, all beaming smiles and bright clothing.

“Hey guys!” Thalia all but shouted into the lobby. “I can’t believe you made it here!”

“Well, of course,” Calliope smiled before she was all but assaulted by a hug from Thalia.

Thalia seemed the youngest in appearance, being in her early twenties. She was short, but almost glowed with energy and vigor. Her skin carried a tan and her hair was a tousled black kept in a loose ponytail, and she eagerly hugged her sisters in turn.

“Well let me give you a tour of the place,” Thalia said, leading them through the door she had come through and into the radio station interior.

“I can’t say I’ve ever been in a radio station before,” Calliope glanced around curiously as they walked.

“You’re way too stuffy for this medium,” Erato teased. “Leave all this new-fangled media to the young people.”

Calliope frowned, but knew better than to be baited by her younger sisters.

“Can we meet Siren?” Erato stepped forward quickly to keep pace with Thalia. “I loooove her show.”

“Heh, I’m sure she’d get a kick out of a visit,” Thalia smiled, redirecting them towards the staff lounge. Upon entering the small comfortable room with the requisite table, couches, and kitchenette, all three of the sisters were quick to move in on the young singer listening to music through her headphones.

“Eep!” Pisinoe practically shrieked as she was accosted by the trio of goddesses, caught between fear and awe as she recognized the three of them.

“Oh she is cute!” Erato beamed. “I didn’t know your siren was so literal!”

“How said to be so far from home,” Melpomene said affectionately.

“That certainly explains quite a bit,” Calliope was slightly more restrained than the other two as Erato and Melpomene eagerly explored Pisinoe’s hair and fashion choices.

“How did you come across a siren?”

“Stroke of luck, believe it or not,” Thalia smiled. “And following a few leads.”

“What about your other singer?” Calliope asked in slightly more hushed tones, not sure quite how to broach the subject.

“Ah…” Thalia’s smile became a bit more subdued. “Mariposa is welcome back, of course. It wasn’t her fault after all. She just needs some…time to recover.”

Thalia’s mood snapped back rapidly. “But more than that you three need to see how Echo’s doing!”

“Oh of course!” Erato clapped her hands together. “I want to know who that sexy nymph has been up to.”

“You mean what she’s been up to,” said Calliope.

“If you insist,” grinned Erato before she turned back to Pisinoe. “Don’t be a stranger, I’m more than happy to give tips on how to ramp up Siren’s sex appeal.”

“O-Of course…” nodded the slightly abashed siren, utterly without her persona’s confidence in the presence of four muses.

The four of them laughed, chatting with Pisinoe and the other staff a little longer before making their way from the building.

“So how are you and Anubis doing?” Erato asked Thalia teasingly.

“Well, I hope,” added Melpomene.

“Oh, we’re doing just fine,” Thalia beamed. “He looks all scary and strict but he’s still my big puppy.”

“So I have to ask,” Erato leaned in closer, an almost sinister smile on her face. “How are the Egyptians in bed? I’ve always been curious.”

“Well I’ve only been with the one Egyptian,” Thalia smirked back. “But what I can tell you is-“

“I think we can do without,” Calliope said strictly. “Honestly, Erato is that the only thing on your mind?”

“Well…not the only thing,” Erato said.

“Well, what I will say is that I certainly have no complaints.”

“I bet he doesn’t either,” Erato smiled/ “But I’ll need you to tell me more about the man situation here in Rome…or women, I’m not overly picky.”

“I’ll say,” Calliope rolled her eyes.

“For their love, sis, not my own,” Erato copied her motion. “Honestly I’m not THAT much of a sex fiend.”

“So many love stories in Rome,” Melpomene said. “So many infidelities and star-crossed romances.”

“Thanks, sunshine,” Erato said. “Just what we all wanted, a sobering slap in the face.”

“The best romances are tragic,” Melpomene said.

“I resent that,” Thalia huffed, though her smile never left her face. “Everyone prefers a happy ending!”

The three of them bickered and teased as they always had for centuries, their divine senses leading them to their destination until at last they came across the gorgeous nymph caught between Nora’s townhouse and the greenhouse where she worked.

“Afternoon, Echo!” Thalia almost shouted, and all of them marveled as Echo turned and waved, her lips free to respond as she pleased.

“Ah! Miss Thalia! And your sisters as well, it is an honor.”

She bowed her head, giving the muses ample opportunity to surround her, and when she lifted her head back up she had the Muse of Comedy and the Muse of Romance on either shoulder.

“Please the pleasure is ours,” Thalia grinned. “Always fun to see our happy nymph.”

“Well I couldn’t have done it without you all,” Echo smiled sheepishly. “Ah, my regards to your other sisters as well.”

“We were more than happy to help,” Callipoe smiled. “It’s so refreshing to hear your words in your voice.”

“Even I thought your tragedy was getting stale,” Melpomene said, a smile tugging at her frown. “You need some light to balance out the gloom, otherwise it’s simply misery.”

“Well, nonetheless…” Echo said, glowing slightly with the attention. “I owe a lot to Nora as well.”

“Ah, yes, Nora,” Erato pushed herself against Echo. “You’ll have to tell us more about your little love affair with Rome’s Pontifex”

“I-It’s a bit private,” Echo reddened, but that was more than enough to start Erato whispering into Echo’s ear certain things that made the already pink nymph turn downright scarlet.

“Wh-what? That’s…goodness but…I-I couldn’t!” Echo stammered through Erato’s hushed whispers.

“Oh, please,” Erato said, pulling away from her ear. “You’re the nymph, nine to ten says you jumped Nora like hot meat in a lion’s den.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Thalia said. “But I’ve definitely noticed a spring in the Pontifex’s step since you got the use of your tongue back.”

Echo, red in the face and defeated, simply took the banter until Calliope eventually called it off.

“While we’re here,” Calliope said loudly. “How about we get lunch?”

“There’s any number of good places,” Thalia grinned. “More each month.”

“It does seem quite lively,” Melpomene nodded. “Much more than I thought. I’m sure the others would love to see it.”

“You should all stick around more!” Thalia said happily. “Clio, Poly, the Terps, all of you!”

“Maybe we will,” Calliope smiled. “The stories coming out of this place…”

“Heh, if you want epics, sis, do I know the girl for you,” Thalia grinned. “Not to mention all the romance for Erato. Not about to help you find something, Mels.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll manage,” Melpomene said. “It is my specialty.”

“Well come on then!” Thalia stepped forward, taking the lead. “Let’s have a Muse’s day out!”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

Ill Met by Starlight

April 9th, 2024

Despite their best efforts, the music had continued to play through the radio. Even turned off and unplugged, the same unearthly music was pouring from the speakers unabated. Aurelio and Syblla had gone to the radio tower to find the source, while Angel had left to secure more of the city, leaving Nora, Echo, and Lenore in Nora’s townhouse to begin work on finding out exactly what it was that was driving the city into a frenzy.

“I don’t know if this music is enchanted or not.” Nora said, tipping the large wooden radio box to this side and that, as if looking for some hidden switch labeled “Sinister Cult Music” flipped to the “On” position.

The music certainly sounded supernatural. It was the chanting voice of a single woman, harmonizing with separate tones that waxed and waned in and out with her voice into a tune she couldn’t recognize, singing in a language she didn’t understand.

“But it’s definitely giving me a headache.” She said, rubbing her temples.

There was a loud crunching sound of breaking wood and metal striking metal as the music ceased. Lenore’s knife had come smashing down on the radio set, disabling the rogue signal permanently.

“That,” She said simply. “Was quite enough.”

Nora rolled her eyes. “Well that solves the issue for us at least, but we can’t exactly smash every radio in Rome.”

“The radio is not our goal.” Lenore leveled eyes with her, and Nora couldn’t help but feel a shiver run down her spine. Lenore had been recovering well, better than even Nora had hoped for, but she was far from cured, and when her mind was focused she seemed possessed by a strange sort of…intensity.

“Our mission right now is to solve the problem of this cult. If we are correct and this is their master stroke then we are rapidly running out of time.”

“She’s right,” Echo said comfortingly, placing a hand on Nora’s shoulder. “We have new information now, it’s time to use it.”

“New information,” Nora nodded as she started sorting through the books they had dragged down into the living room. “We have a ghostly music in a non-Indo-European language, uppity cacodaemons, and a black moon.”

“It’s not a black moon anymore.” Lenore said, taking a glance out the window through the drawn curtains.

“Oh, good,” Nora said. “Is the moon back to normal?”

“The opposite, I’m afraid,” Lenore said with her usual flat delivery. “Sunrise was a half an hour ago.”

“…” Nora stared at the window; it was still dark outside.

“It is as you feared,” Lenore said. “And as Angel predicted. A Black Sun over Rome.”

“Let me see.” Nora said quietly as she and Echo hurried to the window, pulling the curtain open.

The street outside was dark; where the sun should have been tinting the eastern sky with yellows, oranges, and reds, it was instead cast in a deep blue more suited to the ocean than the sky. The sun itself, that ball of brilliant white light, was black. This was not the black of an eclipse, rather the sun itself had been drained of all light, leaving it spreading black arms of shadow across the heaven, leaving only the starlight to light the streets.

And there were so many stars. Nora had never seen so many stars before, even outside of a city like Rome. They filled the sky in patterns she did not recognize, and around the fringes of the black sun, new stars that should have gone unseen burned with eldritch light.

“Well…” Nora muttered under her breath. “This is going to be a very busy day.”

She felt Echo shudder beside her, and placed a hand comfortingly over her back.

“What do you feel?” She asked. If anyone they knew would be affected by cosmological events like this, it would be Echo.

“It’s wrong…” Echo said “And I mean…more than just looking wrong. It’s…chaos…disorder…ancient beyond imagining.”

“What it is our next clue?” Nora said, going to her books as she tried to stifle the hammering in her heart. “The Black Sun…that narrows things down, though not as much as I’d like.”

She began piling books, scrolls, and tomes on the table in the room.

“The occult, hermetic alchemy, mysticism…the idea of a black sun isn’t new, and it’s not unique to any one culture or religion…” She muttered, as much to herself as others.

“It’s prominent in German neopaganism, might register with the Hour of the Wolf connection…Nazis were a big fan apparently.” She mumbled, flipping through pages.

“Don’t forget the music,” Echo said. “And the term Butterfly…”

“None of this is really adding up…” Nora sighed, throwing another book over her shoulder. “I’m missing something, something big.”

“Well we might have more information coming,” Lenore said, glancing out the window. “We have company. A wolf.”

“Well then,” Nora said, slamming the book shut. “In defiance of all childhood fairy tales, let’s let the wolf inside.”

Lenore nodded and opened the door just as a loud knock struck the wood, revealing Giovanni in their doorway, a package tucked under his arm.

“Come on in,” Nora said. “Get comfy, have tea, you caught us in the middle of trying to figure out what might be the end of the world.”

“Good,” Giovanni said hastily. “Because I might have some information on that.”

Nora raised an eyebrow “Let’s hear it; we’re getting desperate at this point.”

Giovanni gently placed the bundle in his arms onto a clear space of the table and undid the cloth wrapping around it.

“I brought this from the archives,” He said. “So do be gentle with it; it’s quite likely almost as old as I am.”

Nora watched as he revealed what looked like a bundle of animal skins. Only when he gently folded the top one to the side did she see that they were pages.

It was not a traditional western book, instead a series of stiff animal skins bound one edge to another to form a single long canvas of pages, each a square of hide about thirty centimeters in across.

“Giovanni what is this?” She asked as the opened page revealed colorful images of abstractly human and animal figures.

“A possible solution,” Giovanni said. “The legends of the old world have given us nothing, so it is time we looked to the new. I had few suspicions until I saw that black sun overhead…When this document came to Italy, it made its rounds through some of the religious elite. I heard rumors of it then, tales of a place in what would be called New Spain and later still Mexico, of Black Suns and the eclipse, of monstrous demons that came from the stars.”

Nora moved her fingers over an open page, resisting the urge to slide her fingers over the ancient hide.

“Giovanni…” She said quietly. “This is Aztec, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Giovanni said. “The Codex Borgia, one of the few documents that survived the Spanish conquest, and I believe that somewhere in all of this…madness…is the face of our enemy.”

Nora stood up straight, pulling Giovanni’s hand from the document as well as she turned to the others.

“Echo,” She said. “I need you to get gloves for us and every book I have on Aztec mythology, should be in section “M”.”

Echo nodded hurriedly and scurried form the room as Nora turned to Lenore. “Lenore, I want you on the roof, eyes on the sky. Tell us if anything strange…well, stranger…happens with that sun. Understood?”

“Right,” Lenore nodded as she quickly moved to the stairs to ascend to the roof.

Echo returned with the gloves first, and Nora pulled them on as she began to gently turn the pages. “You know the Vatican Library has a digital database of all this, right?” She asked Giovanni. “I mean, I love the originals, but you shouldn’t be dragging legitimate relics across town in an emergency situation. Just bring a thumb drive or something.”

“The Vatican doesn’t have the best IT right now,” Giovanni said sheepishly. “They keep telling me the servers are down and I don’t know how computers work.”

“Fair,” Nora said, resisting the urge to pet the flustered wolf. “This might be the better resource anyways.”

One by one she moved through the pages, examining the imagery within. It was at once a work of utility and one of supreme art. There were no written words, merely symbols and images representative of calendars both terrestrial and astronomical, works of divination, and images of deities and rites.

The abstractness and styling of the Mesoamerican art was as impressive as it was macabre. She was used to a more realistic style that could be found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Even with the various art styles of Norse, Persian, and Egyptian, all images of gods could be identified as human, or at least humanoid. With the Aztec markings, however, there was no such familiarity.

The images of humans were small and crouched in worship before images of, to her eyes, monstrous deities. Beings with many arms and legs, clawed and striped like animals, with skeletal faces and plumed crowns, bearing claws and swords and serpents wreathed in darkness, water, and flame.

Soon Echo returned with books and reference guides which Nora used to guide herself. Together the three of them worked to pronounce the names, titles, and domains of each figure as they appeared. Echo seemed to physically recoil at times, particularly at images of the various rites and rituals, all of which seemed to involve elements of death, dismemberment, and possibly cannibalism.

“Barbaric…” Giovanni muttered under his breath.

“Through our eyes,” Nora said. “This was the way of the world in those times, no stranger to us than ours must have been to them. Besides, all religions from the Greeks, to the Romans, to Muslims to Catholics at one time or another celebrated ritual murder, even if it was killing heretics or the disavowed or just enemies of the state. Is sacrifice so different?”

Nora frowned at a particularly visceral illustration “That said, I’m all for cultural relativism but if we’re dealing with an Aztec cult in the present and in the middle of Rome…”

“Then they need to be stopped.” Giovanni said.

“Agreed.” Nora nodded.

“Ergh…” Echo shriveled. “The thought alone…”

Nora nudged Echo comfortingly with a shoulder. “We know what we’re facing a little better now. We can put a stop to it soon enough.”

They had reached the sixtieth page or so, going through most of the thick manuscript, but finding nothing that quite matched what they were looking for. Nora’s finger passed over the image of a horrifying deity-figure, its face a skeletal visage of striped white, black, and red, the face framed with what she assumed was long black hair matching the stylized jewels and dress upon their body. Their arms and legs were those of jaguars, spotted and fiercely clawed, and from the back sprouted broad depictions of abstract wings.

“Well, our next contestant on this little tour of horrors” Nora said sarcastically, hands sliding just over the page. “We have this skeletal god…dess? With some images of sleeping, dead, or blinded people next to a weird tree…dragon…thing? Spewing blood everywhere.”

Nora sighed. “I get that I’m supposed to take the symbolic meaning and not the literal but…come on.”

“According to the guide,” Giovanni said, looking through their reference. “That’s…”

His words gave way, leaving them in silence.

“Who is it?” Nora asked.

“Her name is Itzpapalotl,” Giovanni said. “The Obsidian Butterfly.”

There was a very apparent silence that passed between them at the name as all of them stared down at the goddess drawn across the fading animal hide.

“What else does the guide say?” Nora said in a hushed voice, as if scared to speak louder.

“She comes in many forms, sometimes that of a beautiful woman, other times she looked like…well, that. She was a member and leader of several orders of spirits. The cihuateteo, fierce spirits born from the souls of mothers who died in childbirth…she was their leader and the savior of such spirits in times of cosmic stability…”

“And in times of cosmic instability?” Nora asked. “Such as the last two years or so?”

“She takes on her terrible form, and leads the tzitzimimeh to descend upon the earth and spread chaos and destruction as they feast upon the living.”

“What the hell…” Nora said slowly. “…is a tzitzimimeh?”

“Well umm…” Giovanni flipped through a few pages. “That looks like the plural, singular is tzitzimitl…they’re…associated with the cihuateteo but during events like a solar eclipse…”

“Or this black sun.”

“Or that…they descend from Itzpapalotl’s afterlife world of Tamoanchan and work to bring about the end of humankind. They are embodied in the stars, particularly those that hide behind the sun… Imagine a three meter tall skeleton women wrapped in seashells and snakes…”

“And this goddess, Itzpapalotl, is their queen?”

“In a way yes.” Giovanni nodded. “If this source is accurate.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Lenore hurrying down the stairs.

“Everyone in the basement.” She said, with a command in her voice Nora hadn’t heard since they were children.

“Why?” Nora asked, the anxiety in her chest growing into fear.

“Something is descending from the sky,” Lenore said. “It’s like the stars are falling.”

As she spoke, Nora became distinctly aware of a new noise outside that she had at first brushed off the wind, a sound like howling that rattled through old bones.

And it was getting louder.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=59&sl=372

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 5

May 18th, 2024

Aurelio had slept only briefly, and only in the late hours of the morning, as he always did. His duties kept him active at night and he found that the more he worked the more nocturnal he became. Still, with Diana’s presence watching over him in the form of the moon each night, and the good he knew he was doing Rome, working the night shift seemed a small price to pay. It was a little past noon when he woke up in his small apartment and the noise outside indicated that life in Rome was already well underway. People were out to lunch in droves and he was awakened primarily by the scents of the bakery below. He turned on the radio, catching the middle of Thalia’s noon radio show Life in the World, a blend of travel documentary and talk show where the famous radio personality met with the people pouring into Rome and listening to their stories. As it was noon and the woman worked hard to keep her programming optimistic, it was largely stories of brave survival and the strange and wondrous things beyond the hills of Rome.

Aurelio enjoyed it, as did most others, and so he let the radio play as he showered, dressed, and helped himself to a light breakfast of bread and hardboiled eggs. By the time the show was over it was time for his day to begin, and he had no intention of slacking off during the daytime hours. This new issue that Eliza had heard about, straight from the Lord of Dreams himself, needed his immediate attention. Aurelio’s experience with the cult was sadly lacking, a flaw he had been working to rectify for years now. He knew exponentially more about Greek mythology than he before becoming Diana’s champion, but if Eliza was right than this threat came from beyond that school of knowledge, and even then his knowledge of dreams was limited.

When his own knowledge failed, Aurelio turned to others who could be considered experts in their field. Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White were a pair of mages he found to be both knowledgeable and friendly, so he went to them on matters regarding magic. Eliza’s own creator, Renard Aestling, was a master alchemist but somewhat more difficult to work with. If he needed help with something regarding Italy’s lands and creatures, he went to Capitolina, who knew Rome and its surrounding countryside better than anyone on Earth. When it came to the divine and the spiritual, however, there was one person he could usually count on. It was with that in mind that he set off into the city.

The Pontifex Maximus of Rome had changed her address several times as the city expanded, but she seemed to have settled into a sizable townhouse not far from the new Roman Temple. It was a place well-suited for her position, and was often a stopping point for cult leaders and church officials doing their business in the heart of the city. This was not, however, Aurelio’s immediate destination. As Aurelio had found, the real trick of meeting the Pontifex was tracking her down. She tended to move on an irregular circuit between the Capitoline Hill, the Roman Temple, her home, various cult temples, and the Vatican. Most people looking for Nora tended to run wildly between these places, as Aurelio had done in his early weeks here, and it almost felt as if Nora was deliberately giving people the slip. Aurelio had quickly learned, however, that there was a key to always knowing where Nora was at a given time. With this in mind, he made his way towards the Roman greenhouse.

The greenhouse had once been the source of much of Rome’s food supply, and Aurelio had been here several times when investigating the Hour of the Wolf, which had made several attempts to sabotage it. Now, as farmland began to spread out from Rome’s outskirts, the greenhouse was used mostly to grow exotic or medicinal fare not found in Rome’s native climate. Anything on Earth could grow in that greenhouse thanks to the ministrations of its caretaker.

As he had hoped, Aurelio spotted Echo the nymph as soon as he entered the bright and humid greenhouse. Still, he took a moment to marvel at her. Echo was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen barring perhaps Diana herself. The goddess had an austere and inapproachable beauty native to all goddesses, but Echo had the beauty of a goddess with all the charms of being human. A round face with bright blue-green eyes, dirty blonde hair hanging in waves falling past her shoulders and littered with flowers, all over an impressively curvaceous figure. He admired her for a few moments before walking up to her, greeting her with a friendly wave.
“Hello Aurelio!” Echo smiled brightly, all charm and warmth in her voice.

“Afternoon, Echo.” Aurelio nodded “I hope the day finds you well?”

“Very” Echo said “We have a few more medicinal specimens from North Africa and we’ve been potting them all morning. With luck they should take to root by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Excellent news.” Aurelio said “You’ve done wonders around her Echo.”

“Oh I’ve hardly done anything” Echo’s face reddened, eyes glancing away. “A-anyway, what can I do for you?”

“Oh, I was wondering if you could help me find Miss Newstar, it’s a matter of security for the people of Rome, so I needed help tracking her down quickly.”

“Oh, of course” Echo said, nodding hastily. “Nora is taking meetings with the cult leaders at the Roman Temple until this evening. If you’d like to stop by then…”

“Thank you very much” Aurelio said “I’ll be there a little before sunset, if that’s alright?”
“Certainly” Echo nodded.

As the sun began to set, Aurelio made his way to Nora’s home. He knocked politely on the door and had to wait only a moment to be greeted by Echo, still radiant as ever as she received him with her warm smile.

“Ah, Aurelio, do come in.” She said, before calling back into the house “Nora, Aurelio is here!”
She led him inside, where he was met in the parlor by Nora, who had changed from her more formal dress into a plainer shirt and skirt over a set of hose, legs casually crossed in her chair as she put aside the book she was thumbing through.

“Evening Aurelio” She said, gesturing with a hand for him to take a seat, which he did. “You always are a bit too clever, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Aurelio asked innocently, folding his hands in his lap.

“Going for my nymph to track me down” She said, a smirk growing on her face “After all the effort I go through to make myself hard to find, you try and seduce the information out of sweet innocent Echo here.”

Nora gestured to Echo, who had returned to set a tea tray for the three of them.

It was Aurelio’s turn to redden in embarrassment.

“There was no seduction.” He frowned, masking the embarrassment with a scowl.

“Did you hear that, Echo?” Nora’s smirk never faded “Aurelio here has no interest in seducing you.”

“Really, Aurelio?” Echo looked almost crestfallen, though he could see a smile in her eyes “None at all?”

“That’s…not why I’m here.” Aurelio gave up, knowing he’d never win that fight.

“I know” Nora said triumphantly “I just have to put you through the ringer for using Echo to find me. What do you need, huntsman?”

“You told Eliza last night that Morpheus wanted us to investigate something?”

“That’s right” Nora nodded. “He’s not very talkative and couldn’t give me many details himself, but we know it’s not Greek or Roman in origin.”

“What exactly is it doing? Nightmares?”

“If it were only nightmares we could write it off as just that.” Nora said “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”

“That’s when you wake up and can’t move, right?” Aurelio nodded “It’s happened to me a few years back once or twice, really messes with your head since you’re barely awake.”

“Reports of that are becoming common” Nora said “Along with vivid nightmares of abstract imagery and a feeling of sapped strength. It’s too much at this point to be mere coincidence.”

“So there’s some kind of dream predator lurking in Rome? How are we supposed to deal with that?”

“That’s why I hired you.” Nora said “And I take it you came here to gain access to my library?”

“That’s right.” Aurelio nodded.

While the Vatican Secret Archives kept the largest collection of books in Rome, it was impossible to peruse and Aurelio would need to know what he was looking for. Nora, however, had begun amassing all books of mythology and ancient lore that the Vatican had not clung to desperately, and was presently keeping them on her second floor which was rapidly reaching a point of overflowing.

“Have you considered a new library?”

“Every day” Nora said “But you would not believe the red tape in setting up a library of pagan and occult lore. Though in their defense I have no idea how much of it is legitimately dangerous. Not enough time in the day to read through it and test it all.”

“Do you think it has what we’re looking for?” Aurelio asked.

“Only one way to make sure.” Nora gave him a smile in return.

Aurelio began his studies at sunset and continued well into the night, Nora and Echo leaving him around midnight as they retired. He stayed at a small desk, reading by candlelight as he tried to work his way through a dozen volumes written on dreams. The trouble was not only content, which was esoteric at best and nigh-incomprehensible at worst, but also in language. While his blessings from Diana allowed him to read the ancient tongues, it was a mixed success, and he found himself tripping over flowery and symbolic language, trying to derive meaning from the confused written lore derived from a thousand years of degrading oral tradition.

As the night seemed to pass in endless hours, nothing but the shrinking of his candle to remind him of the passage of time, Aurelio found himself resisting sleep as he pressed himself to keep reading.

A noise behind him brought him back to full alertness, hunter’s instincts sending him rigid like electricity coursed through his body. He wheeled around in his chair, body tensed for a fight even as he knew there wouldn’t be one. He expected it to be Nora checking in on him, or (Hopefully) Echo, instead he was met with someone else, or at least he thought he was.

The woman in the doorway was in many ways identical to Nora, and for a moment he thought Nora had simply washed the dye from her hair to reveal its natural brown. A second glance with his sharpened vision, however, revealed that this was not the same woman.

“Who are you?” Aurelio asked, still feeling certain tenseness in his body.

“Lenore” The woman said “Nora’s…sister, I suppose.”

They must have been twins, Aurelio thought, for how similar they looked. Though it was odd Nora had never mentioned a sister as far as he knew.

“Sorry for the intrusion” she added “Nora asked me to check in on you by two after midnight if you hadn’t left.”

“Two already…” Aurelio groaned, more out of frustration than exhaustion.

Lenore stepped in the room, picking her way quietly through the books like a cat. Aurelio was impressed by her silence. The floor beneath the books was made of old wood that would creak for almost no reason at all, yet Lenore moved like a ghost towards him, it was almost unsettling.

As she drew closer Aurelio noticed more about her. She was slightly taller than Nora, and a bit broader in the chest and arms, likely much stronger physical than her twin.

“What have you been looking for?”

“A trickster spirit or greater cacodaemon.” Aurelio said wearily “Some malevolent monster that feeds on dreams, just a name to go by…”

“You think there is only one?” Lenore asked.

Aurelio nodded “Only one, the pattern is similar, there’s usually just one victim per night.”

Lenore was silent for a moment, perched over the desk like a great sharp-eyed bird as she stared at the tome he had been reading. “Perhaps you are not looking for a specific monster.” She said.

“What do you mean, not specific?” Aurelio turned to her “Like an undefined cacodaemon?”

“No” Lenore shook her head “Perhaps this creature isn’t acting out of malice…it’s merely a tool for another.”

Aurelio looked at her askance “What gave you that impression?”

“Experience.” Lenore said simply “Real monsters rarely leave such an obvious trail.”

“So rather than some named demon or trickster god…” Aurelio said “I might be looking for a lesser spirit doing another’s bidding?”

“It is one possibility” Lenore said “Though I’m not an expert.”

“I doubt anyone is” Aurelio sighed “Still, thank you…why haven’t I seen you around before.”

“I prefer to make myself scarce.” Lenore said “I usually act as Nora’s bodyguard when she will let me.”

“When she’ll let you?” Aurelio asked.

“There are times when she rejects the help, I’m no longer allowed to check the bedroom when she’s in it with Echo, for example…that’s part of why I was in the hall outside.”

“Ah…” Aurelio said, now working very hard to keep the distracting images from his mind.

“Still, you must be good in a fight if you can be the Pontifex’s bodyguard.”

“I was a professional mage killer” Lenore said, with the casual tone of someone who had declared themselves formerly a baker or an accountant.

“Umm…” Aurelio felt the tenseness return to him, not sure how to react.

“A path I left behind quite some time ago, and was forced into against my will.” Lenore said.

Aurelio breathed a sigh of relief. “You know” he said “We could always use more hands on the nightly patrol.”

Lenore was silent for a moment.

“Thank you” she said “But without Nora nearby…I don’t think it is entirely safe for me to be in a combat situation quite yet. Do you understand?”

Truth be told Aurelio didn’t, but he also had the feeling he didn’t want to pry much deeper into this girl’s past tonight.

“Your choice” he settled on.

“Thank you,” Lenore said “And I do mean that.”

“Well if you’re as good as you say, and you get Nora’s recommendation, then the offer is always open. For now, though, I think I need to get back to these books. Thanks again for your help.”

Lenore nodded and departed with the same stealth and silence with which she had arrived, leaving Aurelio alone to contemplate her words and the creature haunting Rome’s dreams.

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=10&sl=470

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 33

April 18th, 2023
The sun was high in the sky as Echo slowly made her way to the central Roman Temple. The great complex Kebechet and Nora had designed was still being overseen by architects and city planners, so a former administrative building had been gutted and redesigned to act as a primary center for the Greco-Roman deities to be worshipped if they lacked a dedicated shrine of their own. A statue to Nike stood in front of what had once been a palace as if it were a guard. Though the oldest and most defined of the statues, even from the piazza below the other statues could be seen. Nora and Echo had agreed that summoning Hera in Zeus’ temple, given their request, might not lend the best impression.

Still Echo dragged her feet. So much of her wanted to run away, back to Nora’s home or to the greenhouse, even to the cave back in Greece, anywhere but in the presence of this terrible goddess again. She knew it couldn’t work, that Nora’s plan would fail and they’d be left with nothing. There was no point to this, so why try?

Echo swallowed involuntarily, trying to gulp down her fear with it. It might fail, but she could not live with herself if she didn’t at least try. Nora had done so much for her already, the least she could do was try.

“Hey there, Echo.”

Echo nearly jumped as a young woman took up step next to her. Her heart started beating again when she recognized the speaker as Thalia, Muse of Comedy.

“H-hey there, Echo.” She said with a hesitant smile.

“I heard what you and Nora were planning.” The Muse said, the sun-like grin never leaving her face. “I think it’s great, and quite brave.”

“Q-quite brave…” Echo said, more unsure of herself than she’d ever been, footsteps dragging across the ground.

Thalia, seeming to sense her worry, took her arm, pulling her along as they walked towards the temple. Echo could feel the comfort in the goddess’ grip, the kindness and the warmth she seemed to exude. No one could remain unhappy in Thalia’s presence for long.

“You’re not alone in this, you know?” Thalia smiled at her. “We’re all rooting for you. Me, Nora, not to mention all eight of my sisters, even Kebechet. All of the people at the greenhouse know too.”

“Kn-know too?” Echo stammered, and Thalia’s grin only broadened.

“Of course” She said. “All of us want to hear the real Echo again. Even Melpomene thinks your story doesn’t have to stay a tragedy forever. No reason things can’t get better.”

“Thinks can’t get better…” Echo said, looking downcast. Thalia, however, responded only by holding her tighter as they walked.

“They can, Echo, I promise that. We’re all pushing for you, but we need you to make those last few steps. You’ve come this far already.”

Echo looked up and saw the façade of the temple before her.

“Come this far already…” She said, and then looked to her side just as Thalia seemed to vanish into air, leaving her at the threshold with only the echo of laughter in her wake. Taking one last deep silent breath, Echo stepped into the temple.

The building was taken up primarily by a great hall with a central altar at the far end. Lining the sides were smaller alcoves for individual shrines and statues recovered from the city museums. By order of the Pontifex it had been cleared for the next hour, supposedly for maintenance. Echo knew, however, and the other gods understood as well, that the Queen of Heaven would not want an audience.

Nora was standing by the grand altar, dressed in the finest robes she had made for herself as Pontifex, a flowing gown of black and white patterns and blue stitching, mirroring her own dyed hair and her position as bridge between mortals as the gods. If there was anyone who could pull Hera down from Mount Olympus to Rome, it was Nora.

“Ready?” Nora asked as Echo approached, looking all the meeker and smaller.

“Ready.” Echo fretfully shook her head, but Nora put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you started and then read off what we wrote, alright?”

“Alright…” Echo said hesitantly.

Nora turned back to the shrine, laden with images of cattle, peacocks, and bowls of pomegranates.

“So it’s taken some time and research.” Nora said “But I think the specific epithet we want is Hera Argeia. Gods tend to manifest under a bunch of different names and titles and while the spirit is still the same, the personality can…vary a bit.”

“Vary a bit…” Echo still didn’t entirely understand. She had only ever been Echo.

“Take Ares and Mars for example.” Nora said, still making sure everything on the altar was in the proper position. “Same god, entirely different personalities, all depends on the name.”

“All depends on the name.” Echo said, watching her work.

“Summoning Juno Capitolina wouldn’t be very helpful.” Nora said, turning to face Echo. “It wasn’t Juno that cursed you after all. We need a Greek.”

“We need a Greek.” Echo nodded as she took her place at Nora’s side, staring worriedly at the altar. The time had come.

“I call your name, Lady Hera Argeia, Queen of all Greece and all the Gods, Lady of the Mountain. I beseech that your spirit appear before us so we may speak low before you, pale-armed Queen of Olympos. Bring before us your grace so that we may speak, so humbly asks Pontifex Maximus of Rome.”

Nora’s words echoed through the empty hall, then seemed to hang in the air, reverberating through the silence like a low and steady hum. The sound hummed and shivered around them unnaturally. Something had heard the message.

Behind the altar, a throne seemed to trace itself into existence, a solid seat of shining white marble laced with glimmering gold that came into existence above the altar, putting both Nora and Echo well below the seated figure’s gaze.

The woman seated in the throne was truly larger than life. Three meters tall, her skin like polished ivory, and dressed in a long gown of blues and greens that clung to her divine figure. Her face was the very image of regency, stern and composed yet undeniably beautiful. A perfectly composed face of large brown eyes, a thin nose, and wine-colored lips. Her face was framed by tumbling waves of deep brown hair, held in a tall polos crown upon her head. Long chains and necklaces of gold hung from her neck and wrists, but they seemed merely to compliment the image of the woman, rather than enrich it, as no mortal gold could hope to match the beauty of the goddess herself. She sat loosely composed on the throne, one elbow resting on the arm of the seat as her chin rested upon her hand, her gaze passing from Nora to Echo.

Thalia’s divine aura was perceptible but almost pleasant; Nephthys’ had been like a windstorm that swept across the room. Hera, however, was on another level entirely. All of space and time seemed to warp around the woman’s presence, keeping everything in the reality of the hall focused upon her. Echo felt what little breath she had left flee her body entirely and even Nora seemed to shiver as the pressure of the goddess’ presence came down on them. Nora’s back bent low as she curtsied with due formality to Hera, and Echo mirrored her motion.

“Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar.” Hera seemed to try out the name on her lips. The voice, the same cold voice as she’d heard so long ago, sent an unstoppable and pronounced shiver down Echo’s spine.

“An oddity that you ask me to come under this name. Would not Juno Lucina or Capitolina be more appropriate for our venue?”

“Under normal circumstances yes, Basileia.” Nora said, head still bowed. “I apologize for the oddity of the request, but I felt it appropriate given the nature of today’s matter.”

“And what is today’s matter?” Hera asked, clear impatience rising in her voice. Echo stared. Did Hera not notice her? Did she even remember? Or was she simply being deliberately ignored?

“The matter…” Nora said, rebounding as she rose and cleared her throat. “Is the matter of the nymph, Echo, who I have brought with me here today.”

“Echo.” Hera did not look her way. “Tell me, Pontifex, why you would mention the nymph’s name in my presence, let alone be so bold as to drag her before me? The matter was settled before even your ancestors could remember.”

“I…we came to right a wrong, my lady.” Nora said, her hand reaching out to pull Echo closer.

“A wrong? And who might it be that has wronged this senseless nymph?” The coldness in Hera’s eyes was unmistakable. She was daring Nora to question her, to say that she’d been wrong, any excuse to bring her wrath to bear. Echo knew that look all too well, the frozen calm before the storm. She looked to Nora, and her eyes widened at the sight. She, Nora, looked unafraid.

“I say, Lady Hera, with all respect I can muster, that you are wrong to continue Echo’s punishment.”

Hera sat up in her seat, the full weight of her divine essence focused on the pair of them.

“It is not your place, Pontifex, to declare the gods to be right or wrong. The mere thought is ludicrous. A mere mortal cannot judge a god.”

“It is my place…” Nora said. “To defend the people of this city from divine abuse. The people of Rome are your worshippers, not your cattle. Whatever punishment Echo deserved, regardless of her crime, is long since passed its rightful expiration. Do you intend to force an eternity of punishment for an ignorant mistake?”

“I will do as I please to those who have wronged me for as long as it amuses me.” Hera said. “I see no reason to recant my word. Is this ridiculous appeal your only case? Is it the only reason you have summoned me?”

“It is not our only statement.” Nora said. “Echo would like to offer her words.”

At this, Hera laughed. It was a sound that should have been pleasant, but it came to their ears like a winter wind, harsh and biting and without a trace of sympathy.

“I believe you will find Echo quite without words of her own. I daresay that was the point.” Hera smiled.

Nora merely responded by pulling out a sheet of paper. Starting from the top line, she began to read it under her breath and Echo, heart full of terror, repeated every word.

“Queen Hera” She repeated. “This alone should show the lengths to which I will go in order to speak for myself. On my knees and in my heart I offer no desire of anger nor retribution. I merely ask for a chance of renewal, for some quantity of mercy you might show, fairest of the gods.”

It had taken seven hours of tireless work, a blackboard, and a dictionary to write this brief appeal in Echo’s own words. She had been as precise as she could be, and it almost felt like she was truly speaking for herself, even if she was far too terrified to ever speak her mind like this without her curse forcing her.

“For millennia I have suffered silence and repetition, unable to speak as myself to those I hold closest. I have all but lost the memory of who I was or how I spoke. My own voice is now foreign to me and in becoming so I have lost most of who I was.”

Echo trembled as she spoke, Nora’s voice pausing at intervals to let her catch up.

“I ask not that you forgive the punishment you laid upon me. It is not the nature of god nor queen to recant upon their word. I ask only that you display your divine compassion in releasing me in turn. As your humble servant that is all I ask and all in this world I desire.”

Nora finished speaking and Echo shortly after her, leaving a new silence in the room as Hera considered her words. It was, she knew, their only gamble. Hera would never go back on her word, but she could amend it later. Echo’s curse could never be lifted, but she could be granted her voice again in a singular act of compassion.

“I am impressed, if nothing else, at the courage you display by wandering before my presence again, Echo.” Hera’s voice had not lost an ounce of its edge.“Brave…but foolish.”
Echo could feel her heart sink in her chest, terror and desperation filling every fiber of her being. Even knowing it beforehand, failing here was like being cursed all over again.

“I see no reason to waste my compassion on a lonely nymph. I have no responsibility to you, and no desire to change how you are.”

Echo’s head sank low in a half-bow of defeat.

Nora, however, stepped forward, earning an irate glare from the Queen of Gods.

“I have no patience for repeating myself, Pontifex.”She said. “The matter is settled.”

“I believe it is not, Basileia.” Nora said.

“The Egyptians might be fond of you, Newstar.”Hera’s voice remained at a queenly calm, though the fierceness of her gaze could not be mistaken. “But we are not so quick to lend credence to your self-import.”

Nora bowed deeply, but did not back away. “Then I ask, Hera Argeia, that you do not offer compassion to Echo.”

“…” The surprise in Hera’s face was visible, and it was exaggerated in the shock on Echo’s face.

“I ask instead that you, under the name of Juno Sospita, offer relief to one of your citizens so greatly in pain.”

Hera scoffed. “Come now, Pontifex. I tire of this. This nymph hails from Mount Cithaeron of Attica. She is no Roman worthy of my protection.”

“I humbly disagree, Juno the Savior.” Nora said. “Echo has lived in Rome for months; she has drunk and ate with its people; she has lived by my side; she has served its people and its government in its time of direst need. She has literally lain down her roots here, with no desire to return to Mount Cithaeron.”

“No desire to return to Mount Cithaeron!” Echo repeatedly loudly, nodding vehemently.

“This city has hosted foreigners since its founding, Regina.” Nora said, switching to the Latin.

“People from across the Mediterranean have made themselves Roman Citizens. Gods as well have come from distant shores and made homes for themselves here. As surely as I am, Echo is a Roman.”

“Echo is a Roman!” Echo said, stepping forwards to stand alongside Nora.

Hera looked from one to the other, the expression on her face one of mixed conflict and mild surprise. A Queen was never one to show her emotions vividly, but her silence spoke to what she was truly feeling. Her fingers tapped on the arm of her throne as she thought. Nora and Echo caught, waiting, in the silence.

“Oh very well.” Hera’s patience had run out before her temper. “You make a strong case, Pontifex, but more than that, I am impressed by your dedication to this careless nymph. It speaks well to your position and to your heart that you would fight for her and stand by her side with nothing to gain.”

Echo, standing close to Nora, could feel the breath of relief.

“I owe much to Echo, Regina, but I would stand here for the good of every Roman.”

Hera turned to Echo, and even as the malevolence left her gaze, Echo could not help but almost cower.

“Then for the sake of that dedication, and for the sake of all those under my protection, I lift from you, Echo, the curse that was placed upon you.”

Hera raised a hand, and Echo placed a hand to her throat as she felt like a vice had been loosed from her tongue.

“Go then” She said “And please do not bother me personally with every gripe and grievance. I am a busy goddess.” With that brief huff Hera vanished, throne and all.
Nora turned expectantly to Echo, a clear weight off of her shoulders at Hera’s departure.

“So…did it work?” Nora asked.

Echo blinked, looking back at her. Slowly, she opened her mouth.

“Thank you, Nora.”

Nora smiled, but before she could reply Echo pulled her into a tight embrace, lips pressed to hers as she kissed her forcefully on the lips, holding her there for nearly half a minute.

“I…wow…” Nora said, half in a daze as Echo smiled at her. “Heh well…I guess we have a lot to talk about.”

“I think we do.” Said Echo. “I want to tell you everything, Nora, and I plan to mean every word of it.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 3o

April 15th, 2023
Echo stepped lightly down the stairs to the basement of Nora’s home, almost soundless as her bare feet passed over the cold floor. She rather liked basements, she thought idly. They were closed in and under the earth, like the caves in the mountain on which she had once lived, where the roots of plants would pass through the walls and ceilings. A fondness for basements was one of those things no one would ever bother to ask her about. Who cared about basements, after all? It was simply another facet of her character, of her, that would continue on unknown so long as this curse persisted.

She shook the thoughts from her head as she entered the makeshift hospital bed that Nora had salvaged for Lenore. In truth, it was little more than an actual bed with an IV drip off to the side and a drawer full of miscellaneous pills on the bedside table. Hardly the peak of medical care.

Lenore was where she had been for nearly two weeks, lying on her back in the bed, to all the world asleep. Nora, meanwhile, sat her vigil, where she had been spending more and more time, at her bedside. A stool pulled beside the bed over as she sat, hunched over, elbows on her knees and head resting on her folded hands.

Echo, still walking in silence, slipped in beside her, kneeling low to meet her at eye-level.

“Ah, hey there, Echo.” Nora said.

“Hey there, Echo.” Echo said, concern on her face. Nora had grown visibly wearier over the past few days. Her pale skin only enhanced the dark shadows under her eyes and its increasingly pallid tone. Her hair was far more a mess than usual, odd strands hanging over her face that she would make a loose effort to brush aside every few minutes.

Echo frowned at the state of her. This level of stress wasn’t healthy; she looked perpetually ill. Still, there was nothing she could say. If Nora remained silent, so did Echo.

Echo had quietly seethed against her curse countless times in the past, and today was no different, as she longed to give Nora the comforting words she needed. Unable to do even that, Echo settled for sliding a hand over her shoulder.

“I took her off the coma-inducing drugs.” Nora said, leaning slightly towards Echo. “If I’m right, they also should have started removing some of her conditioning.”

“Removing some of her conditioning?” Echo did her best to ask with tone.

Nora nodded. “Her conditioning is reinforced by constant sensory cues. Spending a period this long might do something to ‘reset’ her brain, so to speak, and hopefully dull the connections her mind made. Now it’s just a matter of…if she wakes up.”

“If she wakes up?” Echo questioned. Was it that unsure of a thing?

“She’s in worse shape than I had hoped.” Nora said. “Her metabolism works so fast she needs a lot of energy to keep going. She’s incredibly strong but she’s still human and it takes a lot of toll on her to move that fast and work that hard. Not to mention…I have my hopes, but I have no way of really knowing what state her mind is in beneath that conditioning.”

“Beneath that conditioning…” Echo repeated glumly.

“I’m sorry.” Nora gave her a weary smile. “I’m usually the bold and active one and here I am sitting like a recluse in the basement.”

“Recluse in the basement!” Echo, deciding there wasn’t enough she could do to simply comfort, decided to try cheering her up instead. She pulled Nora into a hug, proclaiming her words in the cheeriest singing voice she could summon.

“Ack!” Nora was caught off guard as her head was pushed against the warm flesh of Echo’s breast, the nymph gently nuzzling her as she held her tight. “A-awfully affectionate today…” She said, and Echo silently beamed at getting a brief nervous stutter out of Nora.

“Awfully affectionate today.” Echo grinned impishly as she embraced Nora.

“Well…I know you don’t mind.” Nora supplied as her face once more fell into a tired but sincere smile, to which Echo cheerfully chirped “I know you don’t mind.”

“I suppose I don’t.” Nora said. “Though I’ll be sure to catch you a little less off-guard next time.”

“I’ll be sure to catch you a little less off-guard next time.” Echo scoffed at the supplied words. Nora usually got it close enough to right for her not to mind, but not catching Nora with a hug when she was off her guard? Where was the fun in that?

Nora stayed there for a few moments in Echo’s arm, seemingly put at ease by the nymph’s close presence, and Echo felt a feeling of elation wash over her. In the past, people had enjoyed Echo’s presence merely as far as it extended to meeting their own ends. Zeus had employed Echo merely as a distraction for his vengeful and vindictive Queen, and had thrown Echo to the wolves when his plot was discovered.

Narcissus, meanwhile, had been the epitome of the problem inherent in her curse. He had only seen in Echo that which he already loved in herself. She had meant no more to him as a person than a mirror did. In fact in many ways he had abandoned her for a mirror, obsessing over his reflection in the water.

Now however, sitting in silence with Nora taking comfort in Echo’s embrace, she felt that Nora truly was comforted by her presence, having Echo’s arms wrapped around her. Nora was quietly appreciating Echo, rather than appreciating the view of herself through Echo’s eyes.

Idly she wondered if this was what it was like for all those who still had their voice, to be loved for the qualities people saw in you.

“Hey…” Nora said quietly, and Echo slowly released her somewhat, one arm on Nora’s back and the other on her thigh.

“Hey.” Echo repeated simply.

“I…” For once Nora did seem at something of a loss for words, though she quickly rallied. “I really do appreciate everything you do for me.”

“I really do appreciate everything you do for me.” Echo mimicked with a smile.

“Heh, and I wasn’t fishing for a compliment there.” Nora said, though no matter how much she smiled the weariness refused to leave her eyes.

“And I really do want to do all I can for you.” She continued.

“I really do want to do all I can for you.” Echo repeated, nodding vehemently.

“You practically do too much already” Nora said. “Honestly beyond your work in the house…you helped save Lenore, you’ve worked with me communing with gods, and you’ve been there when I needed you and…I wanted you to know how much that meant to me. I haven’t really had people I could rely on like you before…well, not for a very long time.”

“Not for a very long time…” Echo said quietly. She moved the hand on Nora’s lap to her hand, gently closing it around her pale fingers.

She wanted to say so much more. Everything Echo did for Nora (and frankly she wanted to do more) was still so little compared to what Nora had been doing for Echo. In a thousand years no one had decided to try and help Echo lift her curse. A few months ago she had just been a bodiless voice in a cave. Now she felt so much more…real again. Part of that was the Days of Revelation, no doubt, but Echo knew Nora had no small part to play in it.

Echo wanted to tell her how much she enjoyed spending that time with Nora, how much she loved the few words they shared in full meaning, and how the silence had meant almost as much as the words. The words didn’t come, as they never did, but now she could dream, she could truly hope, that soon she would be able to speak those words to her.

Nora looked at her as if she was about to speak, but then went silent for a few moments longer.

“There’s more I want to say…” She said, and left it hanging long enough for Echo to repeat it back to her.

“There’s more I want to say.”

“But it’s…we both know how we do it now isn’t enough for either of us.”

“Isn’t enough for either of us.” Echo nodded. It truly wasn’t.

“Which is why I’ll wait.” Nora said. “I’ll wait until we get that curse off of you. Together we’ll face Hera and make her lift the curse on you. You shouldn’t have to live the way you do, no one should…” She added quietly.

“No one should.” Echo repeated, her eyes glancing to Nora.

“I suppose it’s pretty similar…” Nora said, following her eyes. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”

She took a deep breath as Echo quietly repeated her words.

“My sisters, Lenore and Ellen” Nora began. “Both of them were fully under the sway of the monsters that…made us. Brainwashed and conditioned past what you saw in Lenore…I’d known them all my life, knew them since we were just children and it was…it was as if something in them had been cut off or locked away. They weren’t the people I knew anymore, not in their voices and not in their hearts. I feared I had lost them forever and…” She took another deep breath, the words alone clearly taxing on her mind. Echo’s grasp tightened on her hand.

“I couldn’t save Ellen…I tried but…I failed. I told myself then that I couldn’t lose Lenore as well, I won’t lose Lenore.” She reached out, taking Lenore’s hand in her free one as Echo repeated her under her breath.

Nora turned back to Echo. “And I…I know there’s another you trapped in there somewhere. One I’ve never really met, and I really want to meet her. I want to hear what you have to say…in my own words.” She added with a smile.

“In my own words.” Again Echo felt a tear running down her cheek as she embraced Nora again.

“Ah…” Nora didn’t try to back away or let out shocked surprise this time, instead simply embracing her in turn.

“I promise we’ll lift that curse.” She said. “And when we do we’ll go out to dinner, somewhere with a nice table where we can sit and talk for hours…then we’ll come home to talk until morning comes again.”

“Talk until morning comes again.” Echo sniffed inelegantly as she squeezed Nora. It was what she wanted as well, what she had always want to, someone to talk to through the night who hung on her every word, who could follow along in Echo’s laugh and share in her sorrows. There was nothing in the world she wanted more.

Echo felt she understood Nora a little better now. When Nora had first offered to help lift her curse, Echo had been astonished and more than a little wary at such a great promise seemingly so lightly made. Perhaps she should have known better, Nora never did anything lightly. Seeing Echo, seeing a person whose tongue and heart were trapped by a cruel force of circumstance beyond her control, maybe she’d thought of her sisters. One still in the throes of a monster’s brainwashing, and another she failed to save.

Echo couldn’t help but smile a little at the irony. She had always feared and hated that people saw some facet of themselves when they looked at her. She had never expected that someone would look at her and see someone else entirely, let alone a clone of themselves. Still, she took some heart in it. Nora had taken pit on Echo, but that was not the reason she was still here. She knew, somehow, that Nora truly did care for her. What Echo wanted was to tell her she felt the same way, but in her own words.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 22

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.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=44&sl=811 ))

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 19

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.

Something moved.

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.

“Lenore!”

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.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=38&sl=142 ))

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 16

April 5th, 2023

Tea, Echo realized sadly, was going to be one of the unfortunate casualties of the Days of Revelation. They were running out of their scavenged supply of dry leaves and there was nothing left to replenish it. She had this somber thought as she sipped at the slightly chipped teacup in her hands, Nora sitting in her favored armchair across from her. The pair of them were enjoying a brief break in conversation over tea as the sun was setting outside the window, casting long shadows across the parlor. Echo had not yet brought up the matter of the greenhouse over the last few hours. Part of it was difficulty addressing it in conversation given her curse, another part was…well she was just nervous.

It didn’t help matters that Nora no doubt knew that she was nervously hiding something, and Echo in turn knew Nora knew…which Nora probably knew too. Echo shook her head as if physically trying to brush off the increasingly circular sequence. Nora was being patient with her, which only served to make Echo more self-conscious. Echo might not be able to speak first, but Nora was still waiting for her to make the first move.

It wasn’t talking to Nora that made Echo nervous. To the contrary, she loved doing that. What made her nervous was knowing that she would, in her way, be asking if Nora knew who might be responsible for the attacks on the greenhouse and if she had known anything beforehand and had kept it from Echo, an accusation not lightly made, even if it was only implied.

Finally managing to drum up the courage to speak, Echo gently put down her teacup and looked across at Nora, trying to maintain eye contact.

“Want to talk?” Nora said patiently, despite clearly having been waiting for this.

“Want to talk.” Echo nodded in agreement.

“If it took you this long, it’s about the greenhouse?” Nora crafted the sentence for her, and Echo nodded, altering her tone as she spoke.

“It’s about the greenhouse.”

Nora sighed, putting down her own teacup as she folded her fingers in her lap. “I heard rumors there was another attack last night, it’s true?”

“It’s true.” Echo said, her face serious.

Nora’s expression darkened, and Echo’s heart sank a little. She hated these silences waiting for someone to speak.

“Giovanni was there?” She asked.

“Giovanni was there.” Came Echo’s swift reply, betraying her anxiousness in answering.

“Then I suspect the reason you’re being so timid this evening is because I don’t want to sound accusatory.”

“I don’t want to sound accusatory.” Echo blushed as she said it, having been completely found out.

Nora sighed again before speaking, and it was clear she wouldn’t edit her words and syntax for Echo’s sake. When she did that, it was because she wanted to make her message clear at the cost of conversation. When Nora spoke like that, it was more like she was giving a command than offering anything.

“If I’ve told Giovanni once I’ve told him a thousand times, I keep as close of an eye as I can on the various cults but there’s already over a dozen of them and that’s just the ones we know about.” She said angrily, fingers curling in her hands.

“Just the ones we know about…”

“Officially my job is to oversee those cults approved for committee by the Senate. How am I supposed to look after the rest? It’s not like they come to me. I mean…I do what I can…”

“I do what I can…”

“Plenty do come to me, the ones looking for senate approval. And I help them, I ask for written manifestos, guidelines of behavior, and rituals. I sit in on their meetings and practices. But there’s only so much one person can do.”

“Only so much one person can do.”

“And then there’s the other half of the job. Actively serving as a bridge between these cults and their gods and, let me tell you, that can be an absolute nightmare. I can’t allow animal sacrifices because we need that food, but have you tried explaining to a god that they can’t always have their way?”

She was ranting now, and Echo nodded along, occasionally repeating her words whenever there was a break for Nora to breathe. Really, Echo was more relieved than anything. Nora might have been exasperated, but that exasperation wasn’t leveled at her. So as Nora continued to complain about her exceedingly difficult job, Echo leaned back in her chair contentedly, returning her tea to her hands to drink.

“So basically, you tell Giovanni…or get Alma to tell Giovanni…that I am doing the absolute best I can, and I expect him to do the same. I don’t care if he works for the Vatican I’m not about to take more of this holier-than thou attitude, do you understand?”

“Do you understand.” Echo chirped idly, nodding her head.

“Sorry…” Nora said, putting her hand to her forehead as she drew her thoughts back together. “I’m fine with that, Nora.”

“I’m fine with that, Nora.” Echo said with a smile, happy to have a voice again.

“Anything else you want to talk about?” Nora offered.

“You want to talk about…” Echo thought for a moment before an idea struck her and she nodded her head vigorously.

“Something happened?” This part was always the trickiest, and it was more or less process of elimination.

“Something happened.” Echo said, shaking her head to have Nora move on to the next question.
“You saw something?” Nora asked.

“Saw something.” Echo nodded again.

“Someone?”

“Someone!” Echo smiled. The process was becoming smoother than it had been.

“Who?” This is where it usually broke down again. Nothing made a person value the ability to make words more than losing them. This time, however, Echo had a key advantage. She simply pointed at Nora.

Nora gave her a quizzical look. “I was nowhere near the greenhouse today…”

“Nowhere near the greenhouse today.” Echo said before glancing around and picking up the reflective silver teapot and holding it up to Nora’s face so she’d see her reflection.

“You saw…someone who looked like Nora?” Nora offered, shrugging.

“Someone who looked like Nora!” Echo said, grinning. In truth, the news itself was less important than the breakthrough in conversation.

Nora offered a light smile. “That’s sweet, Echo, but I’m not sure if it’s really all that…” Her voice trailed off as Echo picked it up, looking at her with concern as she repeated “Not sure it’s really all that…?”

Nora had developed a hollow look in her eyes, staring at the teapot before taking it in her hands, knuckles white as she brought it close to her face.

Nora dropped the teapot, still staring straightforward into space as Echo’s mouth opened in a silent yell to catch it before it struck the ground.

Unable to put voice to her concern, Echo rose to meet Nora’s gaze, trying to find the source of her sudden shift as she reflexively clutched the teapot to her chest.

Nora rose to her feet, her posture rigid with her arms flat at her side, her eyes displaying that same hollow look. Echo wanted more than anything to be able to speak at that moment, to ask what was wrong and how she could help. All she could do, however, was sit and stare with concern at Nora.

Another moment passed, and Nora’s posture loosened somewhat, and her face settled from the long pointed stare into a face of hard determination. It was far from comforting, however. Echo had never seen Nora with a look on her face like this, a cold hard look in her eyes at odds with the woman Echo knew. For a moment, she looked much more like the mystery woman in the street Echo was now regretting to have run into.

“I’m going out.” She said, after another moment of terrible silence.

“I’m going out.” Echo agreed, rising to follow her.

“No, you’re not.” Echo’s heart skipped a beat as Nora rounded on her, but she steeled herself and put her hand on Nora’s shoulder. “No you’re not.”

“Echo.” Nora’s voice was unmoved as she pulled Echo’s hand from her shoulder. She didn’t say anything more, knowing Echo could only helplessly reply with her own “Echo.”

“I need you to let me do this. Right now I can’t say anything more.”

“Say anything more!” Echo protested.

Nora turned to walk towards the door, but Echo mirrored her footsteps, one step behind as Nora grabbed her coat off the hanger by the door. Nora rounded on her, but Echo refused to back down. Staring Nora in the eyes. Though she did her best to keep her expression in what she hoped was a determined mask, inside she was on the verge of quelling under Nora’s withering gaze. Had her eyes always been that harsh of a blue?

Nora stared right back at her, and for a single terrible moment Echo was worried she might lash out at her. But when Nora moved, Echo was taken by surprise as she was caught in Nora’s embrace.

“I love how much you can worry about me.” She said, and for a moment Echo could barely speak.

“I love how much you can worry about me…”

“But I need you here, I need you safe. You want me to be safe above all else.”

“You want me to be safe above all else!” Echo protested, unable to move the words to say how worried that sentence made her for Nora.

“I can’t have you with me, Echo, but don’t think I’ll be going alone.” Nora said. “I’m going to find Hildegard first. She should be on the wall right now. You can rest more easily knowing I’ve got the best ranger in the city with me, right? I feel more reassured now.”

“I feel more reassured now.” Echo felt anything but, and she knew Nora feeding her lines was more for her own sake than Echo’s. She clutched at Nora’s coat, the only protest she could make without a voice. Nora released her from the embrace, her hands sliding up to Echo’s ears, fingers smoothly sliding around the flowering plants at her crown. Nora rose, on tiptoe being a bit shorter than her, and kissed Echo on the forehead.

The flowers in her hair withered for all the protest Echo could muster at that, her fingers loosening their hold. Nora’s hands fell, wrapping around her hand.

“I know you worry, Echo. But this is something I need to deal with. It’s…something from my past, and I don’t want you involved with it. Be back soon.”

“Be back soon…” Was all Echo could request as Nora slipped from her grasp and out the door like a shadow, leaving Echo alone at the door.

Some part of Echo knew that Nora was being kind. She didn’t speak of her past often but when she did there was nothing pleasant to say, and a lot of questions had risen in Echo’s mind never to be asked. Nora wasn’t going to speak of it, and if no one spoke of it, how could Echo? She understood the feeling of course. A person’s past was their burden to carry, and she didn’t want to meddle in affairs that weren’t hers.

Echo went to the window looking out at the dark street. She could see the shadow of Nora walking down the sidewalk towards the sanctuary wall. Another part of her, something louder and more indignant than the first timid voice, told her to follow. Nora’s past might be hers, but so was Echo’s. Nora had promised to do everything she could for her, to help her where no one else could. How could Echo let Nora help her then sit idly by while she walked alone into the cold night into an uncertain future? Would Nora have let her walk off like this?

Steeling herself again, Echo went back to the door, her hand pausing for only a moment above the doorknob before taking it and quietly moving out onto the street and in the direction of the wall.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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