April 4th, 2023
Cat stood at attention in front of Hanne, with a great big grin on her face. While others might have been smiling out of arrogance in her position, Cat was smiling out of nothing but sheer excitement. She would prove to everyone she was worthy of being taken on this expedition and fight alongside Hildegard and the other Rangers! She had a full night’s rest, a good breakfast, and had pet Basil for luck. There was no doubt in her mind she was going to pass these tests as she looked around the field. It was early enough that so far they were the only two. As far as Cat was concerned, there were fewer eyes to judge her.
That’s when Hanne dragged the sandbag over and dropped it down with an audible thump. Cat looked at it, then back at Hanne with curiosity. “What is that for?”
“Eh?” Cat blinked. Her eyes trailed back down to the heavy bag of sand. What did this have to do with her test?
“Pick it up, and start running around the course. Don’t stop until I say stop.” Hanne ordered in a brisk tone, emphasizing her command. When Cat didn’t immediately reply, her voice rose harshly. “That means go!”
That was all it took to get Cat moving. She reached down and picked up the sandbag, slinging it over her shoulders as she started to run around the track. Cat was in good shape, so she was able to run, but she had never run carrying something this heavy. There were spells that she could cast that would make the burden lighter, but Cat grit her teeth and carried on without them. Magic seemed the easy way out!
The first lap was fast, but by the second her speed fell drastically. Cat could feel the sand bag sliding down her back as she started to sweat. Hanne was watching her with hawk-like eyes, holding an old pocket watch in one hand just to keep track of the time. Cat sighed as her legs shook. The sandbag made her arms feel like jelly. Before she had even finished the third lap, she had collapsed, rolling over onto her back and breathing heavily.
Hanne’s boots crunched in the wet dewy grass. Cat winced as the crunching stopped and she felt Hanne standing over her. Slowly, she opened her eyes to Hanne’s face of stone.
“I didn’t tell you to stop.” The voice was devoid of any of the warmth that Hanne usually showed the young girl. It was cool, the quiet tone more intimidating than even her loud barking voice.
“S-sorry.” Cat mumbled, trying to push herself up off the ground. The sandbag had worn out her muscles, so she fell back down onto her bag. Her face turned red in embarrassment. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go after all.
“You have magic to enhance your physical capabilities, do you not, Catarina?”
“I told you to run until I said stop. That means run!” Her voice got loud again, but not quite as loud as a proper order. “If this was a field of battle, you’d have been dead because of your stubbornness, girl.”
Cat turned even redder as she tried to push herself up again, still refusing to use her spells, her stubbornness not allowing her to back down. “I-I can do it. I don’t need magic to do this.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Hanne reached down and yanked Cat to her feet. Cat moved with the force of the pull to avoid having her yank out her arm and dislocate her shoulder. If that happened, there’d be no way she’d be going on the expedition. “You have magic, so use it. Or are you planning on going into battle handicapped? If that’s the case, then you can go home right now, Catarina. I don’t have time if you’re not going to take this seriously.”
Brushing herself off, Cat looked down to avoid letting Hanne see how embarrassed she was feeling. The captain was right of course. Cat had been trying to show off. “A-alright. I’ll be serious. Sorry, ma’am.”
“Don’t ‘sorry’ me, pick up the sandbag and start running like I told you to…NOW!”
Cat hardly had time to think before she sprang into action. She could feel the magic of her reinforcement spell weaving through her limbs. Her bones grew sturdier. Her muscles moved more easily and tired less quickly. The sandbag felt like feathers compared to the weight it had been before. Cat took off as fast as she could before scolding herself again. She had been so focused on not holding back, she had moved into the other extreme.
This was only the first test. She couldn’t afford to waste all of her magical energy so quickly. Hanne had told her to use magic, not to blow through it like a child. Cat quickly focused her mind as she ran, letting her body sink into a steady rhythm, channeling the magic through her body’s natural cycles rather than letting it wash off her like sweat. Once she slid into a stable pattern, Cat continued her laps at a steady pace.
She had lost count somewhere around twenty seven and so had no idea how many laps she had done by the time Hanne called out stop. Breathing heavily, but still on her feet, Cat slowly dragged her feet to a stop in front of the captain. Though the sandbag was feeling heavy again, Cat kept it slung over her shoulders, awaiting Hanne’s order to drop it. When it came, she let out a slight sigh as the sandbag slid to the ground with another thump.
“It’s time for your next test.” Hanne said, holding up a key in front of Cat’s face. “Follow me.” Spinning on her heel, Hanne started off towards one of the houses the Rangers used for urban patrol training. Cat followed along behind her, curious as to what the next test could be.
The house was filled with apparently nothing but pieces of furniture, arranged carefully to look as if things had been haphazardly tossed about in the chaos. Cat had watched Hilde prepare a scene like this before, the older girl noting how much effort went into setting up these simulations. Cat figured she was in for such a test, and so wasn’t paying enough attention when Hanne grabbed her wrists, pinning her arms behind her back harshly. Cat felt the cold metal of the handcuffs clip around her sore wrists and heard the snap of the lock shutting closed.
“Your next test, Catarina, is to escape not only these handcuffs but the room itself. And before you ask…” Hanne holds the key she was carrying in front of Cat’s face again. “This is the only key to this lock. And it is coming out with me. You’ll need to figure out something else.”
Cat stared up at the captain, rising to her knees as her arms were still pinned behind her. She knew better than to ask for any help, and that Hanne was very serious. So she just put on a smile as Hanne left the room, Cat hearing the click of a lock yet again. “At least it’s better than running…”
She started to squirm against her binds, not to break free but just to check her mobility. They were pretty tight, but if she bent her fingers in just the right way she could run them along the chain that connected the two manacles. Cat figured many people would break their thumbs trying to get out, but she had a better idea. She had learned her lesson, and this time she would use her magic. With a self-satisfied smile, Cat started to cool down the metal around her hands and the chain itself.
She’d snap it when it turned brittle. Quickly, her magic ran over the handcuffs and started to freeze them.
She focused her mind into the trance-like state needed for spell-weaving.
“Ow!” Cat yelped when her wrists started to burn, not from heat but the icy metal. She hadn’t thought that plan through. By the time she got the handcuffs brittle, she’d have done serious damage to her skin. There had to be a better idea. Cat ran her fingers along the chain again, when one came to her.
Taking a deep breath to clear her mind, she sought out the moisture along the chain. There was some in the air, some on the metal. She reached out with her will, forcing the moisture closer together to form small crystals of ice between the chains. Slowly, she started to expand them within the empty spaces of the links. She moved her fingers about to warm them from her earlier attempt when she heard the satisfying snap as the links broke. The cuffs were still around her wrists, but at least now she had movement.
Cat tried the handle on the door, and found it locked. She didn’t think it would be that easy but she had to try. That meant she had to get creative with whatever was in the room. There were no windows, as that would have also been too easy. Her thoughts turned the stories of Alexander the great, as she looked at the wrecked furniture. She could always use the Gordian knot solution if all else failed.
Before she resorted to that, though, Cat dug through her pockets. She had to have something that could be of use for this. “Ah! Bingo!” Cat said, with a grin, pulling a bobby pin out from her pocket. She often had to use them to keep her hair out of her face. She had never been so happy to see one as she was now.
“Carefully…Let’s see…” Cat bit at her bottom lip as she focused with the little light she had, working the bobby pin into the lock. It wasn’t like she had done this before, but she certainly knew the principle. She listened for the click, one hand constantly trying at the handle. The first attempt failed. The second wasn’t much better. She was about to call it quits when she felt the handle jiggle.
“Yes! I knew I could do it!” She jumped up and swung open the door, only to find Hildegard standing on the other side. “Eh? Hild—“
Cat hadn’t even gotten the words out of her mouth before Hilde grabbed her and tossed her towards the front door. Cat stumbled to her balance, still confused. “Hilde, what— Oh no…”
The younger girl turned and ran out the door when she realized what was happening. Hildegard was charging down the hallway at her, rushing to tackle her outside. Cat flung herself outside and fell into a roll, before dashing for her weapon. Cat had seen the older knight drawing her sword right before she made her exit and knew what was coming next.
Turning on her knees, Cat quickly froze the patch of grass between Hildegard and her. Hilde was indeed chasing her, sword drawn. The fierce look in her eyes confirmed that she intended to duel her. The experienced knight didn’t even waste any time melting the ice, instead slipping into a controlled slide to cover the distance even more swiftly. At the end of her slide, Hilde pushed herself off and into the air, swinging her sword in an upward arc.
Cat barely had time to draw her own practice blade before Hilde was upon her. At the last second, using the momentum of her draw, the unsheathed sword intercepted the precise blade swing of the other. It was Hilde’s turn to roll as she hit the ground. Cat took the time to put more distance between the two, once again freezing the ground behind her.
Cat had no doubts who was the stronger and faster between the two mages. It was Hilde who had helped Cat improve her own enhancement spell. If she was going to win this duel and be allowed on the expedition, she’d need to think one step ahead of Hilde. Even that wasn’t a sure thing though! Hilde had far more experience. All Cat had was determination and…
There was hardly time to think between the whizzing of the air moving past her ear and it took a precious half-second for Cat to turn around to block another sword strike, the ring of metal striking metal ringing in her ears. Too close. Cat reached out and grabbed at Hilde’s wrist. Focusing her magical energy into her palm, she tried to make Hilde feel as cold as she had in the cuffs.
Hilde kicked Cat hard in the stomach, sending the younger girl backwards. Her world was spinning, but the magic helped her keep her breath as she quickly got to one knee, just in time for Hilde to come at her with another swing. Cat rolled to the side, swinging her own blade as she jumped to her feet, only to miss. Hilde wasn’t there. “Where did she…?”
The back of Cat’s head seethed in pain as Hilde came up from behind her and hit her in the back, though hardly with all her strength. Cat tumbled forward again, feeling the cold touch of Hilde’s blade against her neck.
“Mmm. You moved quickly and more importantly, you thought quickly. I didn’t give you a chance to prepare and you still managed to avoid most of my strikes. Not to mention keeping an eye on me for most of the duel.” Hilde sheathed her sword, before kneeling down to rub the back of Cat’s head. “No concussion, good, that makes this easier.” She slowly chanted a few words and started to heal the injury Cat sustained.
“Nnnn…Ow, but I still lost…” Cat said, a bit dejectedly. She had failed her final test.
“Yes, but the raw skill you demonstrated was respectable, better than many of the new recruits from the rangers, anyway. And we hardly have enough Rangers to start splitting them up now.”
“So…does that mean…?”
“Yes. You passed your final test, Cat. You’re going to Sicily.” Hilde’s face broke into a smile. “If I were you, I’d start looking for someone to take care of Basil while you’re away, sis.”
Cat’s heart elated with the news, and before Hilde could react she had wrapped her arms tight around her.
“H-hey now!” Hilde said, taken aback. “This was your accomplishment.”
Cat walked with a spring in her step for the rest of the day. Hanne had given her the whole day off after congratulating her, giving her time to rest, recover, and prepare herself, but Cat found she was too excited to stay in one place so she struck out into the city.
It was a little after lunch when she remembered the task she had set for herself. She really was going on the Sicily Expedition, and that meant she would need to start working on her swordplay as soon as possible. Sheh had said she needed something magical for a focus, and Cat knew just where to start.
It took her longer than she had expected to find Angel. Cat knew she must be somewhere around the Hill, but it took more than an hour of asking after officials and close misses before she finally managed to track the odd wolf into one of the rooms of the new Capital Building. Angel was alone in one of many rooms set aside to filing documents. It paid to keep track of everyone in the sanctuary as well as trying to keep tabs on old world documentation that might come in handy one day. When Cat found her, Angel was looking over a number of papers seemingly lost in thought.
“Hello, Miss Angel.” Cat said cheerily, and the only note of surprise from the odd wolf that Cat could see was a twitch of her ears before she turned to face her.
“Ah you are…Catarina. Hanne’s adopted mage, yes?” She said, and Cat kept her smile fixed even as Angel looked at her with an expression that could at best be described as dispassionate.
“That’s right!” Cat smiled. “Do you have a moment?”
“I suppose I can spare a few.” Angel said, her hands moving from the papers to fall to her side. “How can I help you?”
“I was wondering…” Cat considered her words as carefully as she could, which wasn’t much at all, given how excited she was. “I wanted to make a magic sword, to help defend the city, like Hildegard’s! And well…I need a magic focus as part of it and I was wondering…could I use one of your feathers?” Cat could feel the air grow silent between them, the utter lack of emotion on Angel’s face growing more disquieting with each passing second until Angel finally responded.
Cat’s heart plummeted, her expectations falling flat along with the spring in her step.
“Not even one?” She tried “Not even one you have to pluck, just shed…”
“I do not shed feathers.” There was a sternness in her voice that had not been there before, and Cat grew increasingly uncomfortable with looking in her eyes.
“But why?” Cat had not gotten this far by giving up. She needed a reason.
“My word should be all you need.” Angel said dismissively as she moved to turn back to her work.
“Just and answer!” Said Cat, shouting more than she had planned to. “I’d at least like a reason. Would it hurt you? Are they too valuable? Do you just not like me?”
Once more the silence between them grew, and Angel was no longer looking at her but seemed instead to stare blankly into space.
“Only three people in this city know why I cannot do this thing for you, Catarina.” She finally said, eyes turned back on her. She didn’t seem irritated anymore, and while her face was no longer completely blank it seemed to have become…sad? “Myself, Capitolina, and I suspect Kebechet knows as well. Others may perhaps suspect but if I am to include you in this list of those who know you must understand you will be sworn to secrecy. No one can know.”
“Of course.” Cat nodded hastily. She prided herself on her honesty. If she agreed to something she always kept her word.
“Try to understand, Catarina…”Angel continued. Something seemed to be changing in her. Were her eyes glowing now? “…this is not some verbal agreement. This is a deal bound in magic more ancient than you can imagine.”
Cat felt a shiver run down her spine, a touch of electricity at her fingertips not unlike when she used magecraft, something supernatural was definitely at work. “I understand, I won’t tell a soul that doesn’t know.” Cat said, standing up straight with her arms at her side. She didn’t need binding magic to make her keep her promises.
“Very well.” Angel said. “There is a reason I know how to create a magic barrier to expel Nidhoggr’s magic from Italy. Nidhoggr. Apep. Typhon. These are three examples of an ancient class of being. They are not monsters as you know them but primordial chaos given life and form. They are at the very root of creation, as eternal as the earth and heaven, and they are all composed of the same essence, the same chaotic life force.”
Angel took a deep breath, as if preparing herself before she spoke again. “I understand this essence and I understand these Primordials for a single reason: Because I am one of them.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=34&sl=723 ))