February 23rd, 2023
Catarina ascended the steps of the Nassar manor, with Basil’s head peeking out of her knapsack. Her nerves were wracked with every step up the hill, though she did her best to calm them. It wasn’t as though she had any reason to be intimidated, right? The mansion she had called home for so many years had been far larger than this urban manor. Yet even so, there was something about this place that made her feel small. Perhaps it was how it sat above much of the city in a forested hill. Perhaps it was that Cat had already grown accustomed to her smaller dwellings, that this lavish house seemed too large for her. Or perhaps it was simply that it was Lord Albion Nassar’s house.
It had taken all of her courage to even approach the older mage with her request at the end of one of the informal strategy meetings in Capitolina’s tent. The way he looked at them all, as though he were reading their very souls, unsettled the Aldobrandini heiress. Yet in spite of that, he was the most educated of all the mages among the survivors.
“Lord Nassar…” She had steeled herself to meet his eyes when she approached him.
“Miss Aldobrandini. May I say once more it was a delight to discover that another magic family had managed to escape destruction in this time of upheaval?” He had smiled, the only sign of emotion on his face that she could read and it was clearly hollow. She had squirmed a little before him. It made her feel the same as she did when she approached her father without his summons, yet without any of the paternal warmth that he had showed her.
“Thank you. Actually, what I want to talk about is somewhat related to that topic. I’m the last of my family in the city, though. Normally, my father would be teaching me lessons about thaumaturgy, but in his absence, I was hoping perhaps you were looking for an apprentice?”
“An apprentice?” He leaned forward, supporting his weight on the long cane he carried with him everywhere. Cat’s eyes were drawn to the sapphire at the head. She began to feel lethargic as she gazed into its refractive surface. Get a hold of yourself! Cat shook her head to clear her thoughts. The cane probably didn’t even do anything and she was just tricking herself into believing it was stealing her strength away. “Mm, no, I am far too busy to take on such a responsibility. To have to keep an eye on the student, correcting their forms and their incantations, it would be a tedious headache and a testament to the selfish ego.”
Cat imagined a mirror shattering in her mind. He was refusing her! She would never be a full-fledged magus if she didn’t have a teacher. As her face fell, Cat thought she saw a twinkle in the Lord’s eye and his lips twitch in slight satisfaction. “Now, if that is all, Miss Aldobrandini, I do have work to do around what remains of this city. It is the burden of the talented to be relied upon at the end of the world.”
Lord Nassar had brushed passed her at this point, throwing his cape over his shoulder. Cat reached over and grabbed him by the arm as he pushed against her. His smile had turned instantly into a scowl before settling back into a neutral look. “Miss Aldobrandini, while I understand you are upset, please. Control yourself and act like an adult.”
“I’m sorry, just…hear me out, okay?” Cat sheepishly let go of his arm, feeling uncomfortable again. “I know you are very busy, but I’m not bad with magic at all. My father taught me a lot, and it’s not like I slacked off during lessons. I could help you with some of the work that needs to be done. And…And…” She points at his chest, her face growing firmer as she gathers her courage again. “And I’m the Lady Aldobrandini, the scion of that family, Lord Nassar, and you should know what that means. As should the Aestling. As should the Cavallo.”
Albion gave her a wry smile. “Calling on old debts at a time like this, Lady Catarina Aldobrandini? Your family gave the others land and wealth yes, but as I said, we are at the end of the world. Things change power… shifts~”
He was looking to devour her, a powerful shark seeing a minnow standing up to it. But, perhaps Cat could use that to her advantage. “Power shifts. And what would show your power and your magnanimity more than an alliance with the Aldobrandini heiress? More than an alliance even, investing in her training. My family name still carries weight among the other mages. Wield it as you like, but I’m just asking you to finish my training!”
He considered her words for a time, far longer than was comfortable to bear. His eyes, dark and calculating, examined her like a problem to be solved, an unpleasant issue to be fixed and forgotten. It was all she could do to keep her face firm as she stared right back.
“Very well. I will take you in, Catarina. Despite what you may feel, I am not completely without a heart, so I will take you on.” He takes out his watch, clucking his tongue in annoyance. “But you have made me very late. There will be consequences for this. If you still wish to train, you will come to my manor tomorrow as the sun is setting.”
“Thank you, Lord Nassar!” Cat felt a sigh of relief, even willing to overlook his familiarity by calling her by her first name. She always liked being Cat more than Miss Aldobrandini anyway. She started to bow before he caught her by her chin.
“Do not thank me yet, Catarina. This is not an alliance in the slightest. You will do as instructed, or I will cease any effort invested in you. If you are as eager to learn as you claim, I am sure you understand~”
“O-of course, Lord Nassar…” That was all she got out before he let her go. He smiled at her, as politely as ever, but she felt smaller than she had ever felt before. She rubbed at her chin, watching as he strutted out of the tent.
And yet now here she was, outside the main house. She had taken quite a few glances behind her during the ascent, watching the sun sink behind the city. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Cat knocked three times against the front door.
The door was answered by a woman, except she was not a woman. Cat’s eyes were trained to see the unnatural, and she could see the face that greeted her was a shell for something else, almost certainly a familiar. Though she had the body of a curvaceous tan-skinned woman beneath a coldly smiling face and pale hair, her skin and eyes had an odd glow to them, and even the subtlest shifts in posture and movement were uncanny. She moved in an exaggerated way, capturing the attention, demanding the watcher figure out what wasn’t quite right.
“Greetings” she said, and the hollow voice only further cemented Cat’s assurance. “You must be Miss Aldobrandini, here for your appointment.”
“Err…yes, that’s me. I didn’t know Lord Nassar had a familiar…”
“Lord Nassar prefers to keep even the most insignificant piece of information close to his chest. Mm, he believes information is power and one should not foolishly part with it freely.” Cat’s eyes were drawn to the way the familiar’s hips swayed with every step. It reminded her of the sapphire in Albion’s cane, irresistible yet for reasons she could not adequately explain. Every step the familiar took caused Cat to pause, unwilling to get too close.
Get a hold of yourself! Cat scolded herself again. She’s not even human! The familiar led Catarina to the study, where Lord Albion sat in a chair, book cases lining every wall. His eyes were closed as he meditated, his fingers drawing circles and lines in the air. Cat assumed they were for some ritual he was devising.
The familiar approached the seat and curtsied. “Lord Nassar, Miss Aldobrandini has arrived.”
“Mm, thank you, Suty. You are dismissed, you may go about your chores.” The familiar curtsied again and vanished from sight, leaving Cat alone with Albion.
“I see you were not swayed from your desire, Catarina.” Albion said, rising from his chair. He didn’t seem too concerned either way about her presence there. “Come.” His command was simple; he didn’t wait for her acknowledgement as he started for the next room. Cat followed behind him silently.
As soon as she stepped through the doorway, the veil hiding the true contents of the room dropped. Where there once were bookshelves and writing desks now sat grimoires and runed tablets. A magical circle had been prepared on the floor, with candles providing light in place of the mundane electricity. It wasn’t too dissimilar from the workshop her father had gifted her when she began her studies. Though there was an unfamiliar glowing circle arranged on the floor.
It was a beautifully ornate and patterned thing, several intersecting circles all drawn to absolute precision, intersected by lines forming an eight-pointed star. She wasn’t familiar with that style of magic circle
“Now then. Before I begin the process of furthering your education, I must confirm that you are indeed even worth the time investment. As such, I have prepared a challenge to test your abilities. You are to use this circle to summon a spirit of immense power.”
“Summoning?” Cat’s mind froze. She hadn’t prepared. She hadn’t studied. What could she have studied for? Her father had told her that every mage taught their arts a little differently, and Albion hadn’t said anything like this! She’d expected work definitely, maybe even a test of her skills, but she hadn’t summoned anything in years.
Catarina tried very hard not to let her shock show. She didn’t gulp or shiver, and her expression remained as calm as she could keep it. It’s alright she told herself It’s fundamental, you can do this.
“Is everything prepared, Lord Nassar?” She asked. He nodded, the cold smile on his face more than enough to tell her that he fully expected her to either impress him or fail.
“Absolutely. All that is required is a capable mage to begin the summoning ritual.”
Capable. The word stung. He had accepted her as an apprentice, but it was still quite evident what he thought of her.
Catarina took a deep breath, trying to remember all that she had been taught about summoning.
At its core summoning wasn’t too hard. All spirits inhabited a parallel sort of “Otherworld” one that had only drawn closer after the Days of Revelation. Summoning was the art of drawing one of those spirits out and binding it. By drawing the circle properly, Albion had already done half the work, if not more. The binding and locating was what the circle was for, all Catarina had to do was reach out with her own spirit into the Otherworld, grab hold, and pull.
She approached the circle, her excitement and drive far outshining her apprehension. She could do this. She knew the incantations and it was just a matter of letting the magic flow through her body and having the strength of will to follow through. A string of Latin words fell from her lips as she began the recitation to focus her mind and put herself into a trance.
Catarina could feel the spirits around her. They were in everything, hiding out of sight in their own world. She was slipping through the barriers into their world, mentally. The lines of the circle glowed brightly as she continued her chant. Taking the knife she had been given by Hildegard, Cat drew it across her palm and clenched her wounded hand into a fist. Her eyes shot open. She saw the spirit’s trail, the one she was summoning. With her blooded hand, she grabbed the ‘tail’ of the spirit as her blood dripped onto the circle below. Its glow turned a dark crimson as her blood flowed through the markings.
There was an explosive flash that shook the room. Cat could feel herself being pushed back into her body but she fought against it, refusing to let go of the spirit she had caught. She had to keep hold of it. There was no way she was going to let it escape! It wriggled and pulled from her. It caused her grip to weaken but not release. She couldn’t…lose…now!
The room rocked again as Cat went flying backwards into the wall. Her head spinning, she could see Lord Nassar approach the circle, but she was seeing double and so couldn’t make out his expression. Cat rubbed her head as she inadvertently let out a moan.
“Did…Did I do it?”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=10&sl=617 ))