Prologue from The Eterna Files
The White House, April 16, 1865
The sanity of a bloodied nation hung by a precarious thread. Hundreds of thousands of bodies rotted in mass graves. Mountains of arms and legs lay just beneath the earth in countless pits of appendages. Thousands of young men had been torn into wingless birds, stunned, harrowed, and half whole. No one had gone untouched by the war; everyone was haunted. A gunshot in a theater tipped the straining scales and the nation’s battered, broken heart faltered and stopped.
This was the world in which twelve-year-old Clara Templeton grieved. She wept for her land with the kind of passion only a young, gifted sensitive could offer. When she was called to the side of the first lady, she did not hesitate.
Clad in a black taffeta mourning gown, Clara stood in a dimly candlelit hallway outside the first lady’s rooms, awaiting admittance alongside her guardian, Congressman Rupert Bishop, aged twenty-five—though his prematurely silver hair gave one pause as to his age. He’d been silver-haired as long as she’d known him. When she’d asked about it with a child’s tactlessness, he’d simply responded with a wink and a smile: “It’s the fault of the ghosts.” Soon after, Bishop took her to her first séance and Clara began to understand just how dangerous the thrall of ghosts could be. . . .
A red-eyed maid opened the door and gestured them in.
Inside the small but well-appointed room, a low fire mitigated a cool draft and cast most of the light in the room. Mary Todd Lincoln sat on a chair in the shadows, staring out a small window, her bell-sleeved, black crepe dress spilling out in all directions. Only the ticking of a fine clock on the mantel and the occasional sniff from the weeping maid broke the silence. The congressman beckoned Clara forward, into the firelight. Her step creaked upon the floorboards as her petite body cast a long shadow behind her.
Finally the first lady spoke in a quiet tremor. “Do you know why I called you here, Miss Templeton?”
“I’ve a supposition,” Clara replied quietly, nervously moving forward another step. “But first, Mrs. Lincoln, my deepest sympathies—”
“When your guardian here first brought you to visit the White House two years ago, you ran up to me, a perfect stranger, and gave me an embrace from my William. My dead William.”
“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln,” Clara murmured, “I remember—”
“I need you now, Miss Templeton,” the first lady began with a slightly wild look in her eyes, “to give me an embrace from my dead husband.”
Alarmed, Clara looked at Bishop, her eyes wide. The tall, elegantly handsome man lifted a calming, gloved hand and Clara attempted to gather herself
“I . . . well,” she stammered, “I’m unsure my gifts can work on command, Mrs.—”
“Try!” the grieving widow wailed, turning to face the girl, her face drawn and hollowed. Clara rushed over and fell to her knees beside the first lady, removing her kid gloves to take Mary’s shaking, bare hands into hers.
“I know that he is with you,” Clara murmured, tears falling from her bright green-gold eyes. “The president is with all who mourn him—”
“Prove it,” Mary Todd murmured. She snapped her head toward the door. “Rupert. You’re a spiritualist, have you not trained Miss Templeton since she became your ward?”
“Only charlatans cue up the dead precisely when the grieving want them, Mary, you know that,” Bishop said gently. “And this is far too vulnerable a time to try.” He shivered suddenly. “Too many things want in. We risk inviting malevolence, not comfort.”
“No one should ever have to suffer what I have—” the first lady choked out.
“No, they shouldn’t,” Clara replied. “Never.”
“The country can bear no more,” Bishop added quietly, his fine black mourning coat making him almost invisible in the shadows by the door. “We must guard against the basest evils grasping for purchase—”
“What could be more evil than what I have endured?” the first lady exclaimed.
The last two years had taught Clara that Rupert Bishop coddled no one, even the grieving. She spoke before he could offer another example of his oft-sobering perspective. “Such a powerful seat needs protection,” Clara exclaimed, squeezing the widow’s shaking hands with innocent, sure strength. “Such a man should never have fallen. He deserved to have been made immortal!”
“Why . . . yes, child!” Mary Lincoln exclaimed, a sudden light in her eyes. “Do we not have resources, researchers, scientists, theorists? Should we not have granted a man like the president eternal protection while he bore the nation on his shoulders? My dear Congressman Bishop . . .”
The small woman rose to her feet and began to pace the room, skirts swishing and sweeping with renewed determination.
“I charge you,” she said, bright gaze fastened on Bishop. “If you’ll not bring my husband back to me in spirit or form, then you must do this. Take Clara’s idea. For this bled-dry country. For the seat cloaked in immense power. Do this, Congressman, so no other wife in this dreadful house might go through such agony again. . . .”
“Do what, Mary?” he pressed.
She stared at him with steely ferocity. “Find a cure for death.”
Seventeen Years Later
New York City, 1882
“It was born of good intentions,” Clara insisted in a choking murmur.
She sat on a bench in Central Park on a mild June day, beneath a willow tree, looking out over the southeastern pond. She could not move. Her breath was shallow against the double stays of corset and buttoned bodice; soft ivory lace and muslin ruffles trembled around her throat. Tendrils of dark blond hair, blown free from braids beneath a fanciful straw feathered hat, tickled around her streaming eyes. Her world was again cracking open.
“Wake up,” she heard a voice calling. “Wake up.” It was not a human voice but that of some ancient, cosmic force.
She had known there was something different about her since the age of nine, since she’d awakened in the middle of the night to see a wild-haired woman in a cloak sitting at the foot of her bed.
“You’re special,” was all the woman said before vanishing.
The next day, Clara’s father, a prominent doctor to Washington lawmakers, died of tuberculosis. Her mother soon followed. They were buried in a Greenwood Cemetery mausoleum in their native Brooklyn. Clara was the marble sepulcher’s most frequent haunt. The Templetons’ will ensured that Clara would be educated at fine institutions and looked after by prominent figures.
Rupert Bishop, then a talented young New York lawyer, frequented the same Washington and spiritualist circles as the Templetons. A beloved family friend, he stepped in to graciously provide for the girl left behind. Bitterly estranged from their Southern families after the war, the Templetons hoped Clara’s manifest spiritual talents would blossom under Bishop’s care and guidance. She indeed flourished, until her gifts turned physically dangerous and had to be carefully monitored.
The visitor returned the night Bishop brought Clara to the White House the first time; Clara saw the creature watching her from the shadows. She had not seen the strange herald since, not even after that fateful second encounter with the first lady, a meeting that had set an unlikely destiny in motion.
Paperwork left on the slain president’s desk established a “Secret Service” to investigate counterfeit currency. A tiny cabal, headed by Bishop, supposed the service might also, in some unnamed office, investigate immortality. Bishop assembled a team of occultists, mystics, and chemists and set them to work in a secret location.
Once Clara completed finishing school, Bishop gave her a key to a nondescript office on Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan. A county clerk’s record office on the first floor served as a front. Clara’s offices—and those of the colleagues she and Bishop hired—took up the top floor. Congressman Bishop became Senator Bishop. A quiet era of investigation and theorizing followed.
In 1880, Eterna theorist Louis Dupris secretly told Clara that he’d made a breakthrough in localized magic. The world had suddenly seemed full of possibility. But now . . .
The Eterna Compound had been born out of grief. At this moment Clara wondered if it should never have been born at all, for now it bore grief of its own.
“Something’s wrong,” Clara murmured, wanting to cry but feeling wholly paralyzed. “I can feel it. . . .” All of Clara that had ever been could feel it; a love torn from her like layers of skin.
Before her eyes, in layers of concentric circles stretching out like mirrors reflecting mirrors in dizzying multiplication, she saw lives. Her lives, those she’d had before. She was twenty-nine years old . . . with a soul a thousand years older.
Pried open in a painful awakening, she knew her life was far more than the boundaries and limitations of her current flesh, but at present she felt the pain of all those centuries all at once, things done and undone. The sheer, heavy press of it all was staggering.
A mockingbird alighted on a branch above Clara’s head. It squawked and stared at her, then made the sounds of a police whistle, a bicycle bell, and some roaring, whooshing thing: the sound of something tearing.
And then there was a woman next to her. The visitor.
Though she couldn’t turn her head, in her peripheral vision Clara saw skirts, gloves, and long hair that was scandalously unbound. The presence of the visitor confirmed what she was feeling; something terrible was happening. Clara tried to move again, to fight the gravity lashing her to the bench, wishing tears, something, anything could be set free.
“What is it this time?” Clara gasped.
“Hello, Clara,” the visitor said quietly. One didn’t mistake an ordinary person for the visitor, for it brought with it the weight of time itself. “It’s been awhile.” The visitor smoothed the skirts of its long, plain, black, uniform-like dress, something a boarding school girl might wear. “Have you been waiting?” the visitor asked.
“I’m not a girl who waits,” Clara replied.
“That’s why I trust you,” the visitor said, pleasure in its voice. “I last saw you when you impetuously gave the first lady an embrace from her dead son.”
The mockingbird gave a raucous trill from the limb above them. The woman adjusted what Clara thought was a hat—she still couldn’t get a good look. The mockingbird had flown across the path and alighted on a limb at her eye line, trilling accompaniment to their conversation.
“You presage terrible things but I never know what,” Clara growled.
“You’ve always been gifted,” the visitor replied. “Sensitive.”
“And we see what good sensitivity has done me.” Clara choked out her words. “I’m a freak of nature. My ‘fits’ render any hope I might have had for a normal life or a place in society laughable. I curse my gifts for all the misfortune they bring.” Embarrassing, traumatic memories paraded through her mind, her past lives staring on in pity. Clara hated pity. Perhaps it was best, then, that the visitor had none.
“Don’t be ungrateful, child,” the visitor chided. “You’ve two friends in a world of loneliness, you had a lover when many never know such pleasure, you’ve worked when hordes seek pay, you’ve a guardian who dotes on you when countless orphans have no one, and you’ve money and a fine house in a city that denies both to thousands of its denizens.”
Clara wanted to lash out at the creature. But it was right, which only sharpened her pain.
“Something terrible has happened, hasn’t it? To the Eterna team?” she whispered, her throat raw as if from screaming even though she had loosed no such sound. “To my Louis? My love is among them. . . .”
An amulet of protection, tucked beneath her corset stays, was a knot against her shaking breaths. The amulet had been given to her by Louis, an item charged and blessed by his mother. Clara never felt she had the right to it, and now, he, who needed protection, lacked it
“I am very sorry for your loss,” the visitor said solemnly.
“I must go,” Clara insisted, trying to fight free but failing. “Maybe I can help the team—”
The visitor held up a hand. “It’s no use. They’re gone.”
“Why can’t you stop terrible things if you’re aware of them?” Clara demanded. “Why can’t I?”
“Not in our skill set,” the visitor replied. “You’ve taken too much ownership of something that is not your responsibility, Templeton. What is your responsibility, is to—”
“‘Wake up?’ Yes, I hear it, on the wind. In my bones. What does it mean?”
The woman gestured before her, to Clara’s iterations. “You see the lives, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Clara swallowed hard. “Do you?”
“Of course I do,” the visitor replied. “I’m here to tell you that a great storm is coming. It will break across two continents; two great cities, the hearts of empires. Your team is gone and storms are coming. Weather them, find special souls and shield them. Second-guess your enemy. Find the missing link between the lives you see. Do this for yourself. And for your country.”
Clara snorted bitterly. “Do I hear patriotism?”
The visitor shook its head. “I owe allegiance to no land.”
“Then what are you here for?” Clara begged.
The visitor’s voice grew warm. “I care about certain people.”
“Show me why you, Templeton,” the visitor proclaimed. “You’re at the center of the storm. Be worthy of the squall.”
The mockingbird made the strange, roaring sound again and the woman was gone.
Clara’s hands shook. The people she had been in her many lives turned and looked at her, male, female, all with certain similar qualities that she recognized as uniquely hers. Curiosity. Hunger. Restlessness. Intensity. Independence. A desperate desire for noble purpose. And lonely.
She was awake. But Eterna had died, taking with it the lover no one knew she had.