April 5th, 2023
Catarina clutched her books tightly to her chest as she made the long trek back to Hanne’s house from Lord Nassar’s mansion. He had not been stingy with his homework tonight, expecting not only full length papers on the magical theories of geomancy and the creation of magical barriers, but multiple trigonometry and calculus problems as well. In addition, she owed Sheh a presentation on the history of Italian Poetry. Most importantly, Hildegard took her outside right when she got home from her sessions with Nassar to train before dinner every night. Cat found herself working night and day on all the different lessons, just to keep up with the work.
Tonight, however, it was not Hildegard who greeted her at the door, but Hanne. The older woman nodded to Cat as she stepped inside. On the table, the captain had laid out several different maps.
“Hildegard was called out on a matter of security.” Hanne said. “She won’t be back until dark, so I’ll be going over the expedition with you, Catarina.”
“Alright!” Cat said.
“The maps on the table are of the island of Sicily. I want you to familiarize yourself with the territory so that in the case you get separated from the expedition, you will be able to identify your position and navigate through the island.”
“Get separated? But I’ll be right with everyone else!”
Hanne gave her a very thin smile. “In the heat of battle, Catarina, the rush of adrenaline and the intense focus necessary to stay alive makes it easy to lose your companions. You look up and realize you’re all alone. Perhaps now behind enemy lines.” She walked the girl over to the table and sat her down. “And yes, I will be quizzing you when this is done, so do take the studies seriously.”
Cat nodded. If she had been bothered by the idea of quizzes, Sheh and Lord Nassar had forced her to adapt. Besides, this was about the expedition and Cat needed to prove herself here. Not only to Hanne and Hildegard, showing she was ready to be a full Ranger, but to Angel. The winged primordial who took the shape of the wolf had not been eager to part with one of her feathers. Even now, Cat could feel the harsh gaze of the slim wolf boring into her soul. She had not been willing to back down though, and eventually Angel had sighed in defeat.
“If you prove yourself as a true hero on this expedition, one worthy of such a responsibility as to wield a sword of the stars and of fate, then I will grant you a single feather to use as your focus.”
That had ended the conversation with more finality than anything before. Cat knew when not to push her luck any further. Still, that meant she had to go above and beyond the other soldiers. Taking a seat at the table, she began to pour over the maps, starting with the most recent one. Angel and the few surviving cartographers had worked together to create a rough idea of the current state of the island.
The expedition’s planned course was marked by a black dotted line. Rather than sailing through the monster-infested Tyrrhenian Sea, the expedition would proceed primarily by land to the south of Italy. Already simple ships were being constructed at the very tip of the boot. Cat frowned as she stared at the planned course, which then had them landing at what was once the city of Catania.
“Why are we spending so much time on the sea?” She asked. “Surely if we just crossed over and landed at Messina, we’d avoid any sea monsters.”
“From what our scouts have said, the land route is patrolled heavily by giants and creatures that make our own cacodemons seem harmless. It would be a tough fight to go by land once we are outside of Italy. While the sea puts us at risk as well, it also will give us a way back to relative safety.”
Hanne’s voice was steady, though Cat could see the pride in her eyes that Cat was learning how to think strategically. Cat looked down at the map, tracing the path with her finger. They would land in Catania, then march to the volcano, grab what they needed and march back. Still, there were so many questions she had…
The two spent the rest of the time before dinner pouring over the maps. Catarina took the opportunity to ask many more questions about the expedition. How many days would this route take? What was the plan for the return trip when the dragons’ forces would surely be hunting them? Hanne would give as complete an answer as she could to the questions, until finally it was time to put the maps away for dinner.
“You are off to your other tutor now, correct?” Hanne said, clearing the table after the meal was done.
“Mmhmm!” Cat finished the last bite of food, putting her fork and knife down and carrying her plate to the sink. “I’ll be back before ten.”
“Be safe.” Hanne said. Cat smiled and gave Hanne a hug. She knew the captain worried about her being out alone after dark, but the road to Sheh’s place was actually well patrolled these days. There were many rangers stationed between Hanne’s house and Sheh’s library. More than that, Cat knew Hanne trusted her to take care of herself. Otherwise she wouldn’t be going on this expedition at all.
Cat nodded to the rangers posted along the road as she passed them by. In her head, she liked to imagine they called Hanne after she was out of ear shot to reassure her that her ‘daughter’ was still safe. It wasn’t true, but it made her smile to imagine.
Sheh was waiting for her outside of the building in which she hid her secret library. “Mm, good evening, Catarina.” The older mage said with a smile on her face, holding her pipe in her hands. “You are right on time.”
Cat giggled. She was always right on time it seemed. “Thanks, Sheh.”
“Please, come inside!” The black haired mage stepped to the side, revealing to Cat’s eyes the numerous books that lay inside. The interior of the library seemed to sprawl beyond the boundaries of the building that housed it. Cat had spent one afternoon trying to measure the dimensions of the library, but she had gotten lost trying to explore every nook and cranny. She stepped eagerly into the enchanting realm. Speaking of enchanting…
“Sheh, you said you’d handle the enchantments necessary for the crafting of a sword?” Cat asked. It was a confirmation of something she already knew, but there was something about that fact that made her wonder.
“Indeed. It would be my honor to assist you in that way, dear Catarina.” Sheh gave her a warm smile. She gracefully took a seat on the pillows that surrounded the center of the library, the “story circle” as she called it.
“But you must be a pretty powerful enchantress to work with the focus and that star metal.” Cat had already told Sheh of Angel’s condition, and the older woman had given her assurances that Cat would fulfill it. “But I’ve never seen you at any of Lord Nassar’s meetings. How can a mage as experienced as you go unnoticed…?”
“Ah…You are a very curious and perceptive girl, Catarina.” Sheh said. Her eyes were twinkling like little gold flames as her smile grew. “I suppose it was bound to come up. Come, sit in the circle, and I will tell you a story.”
Cat did as her mentor said, settling herself down on the pillow next to her. She loved Sheh’s stories. There was a way she had with her delivery that kept Cat on the edge of her seat, completely immersed in the tale. Sheh shifted a bit to get herself comfortable before the sounds of flutes, harps, and a slow drum carried into the library.
“This story starts, as many do, years ago, when magicians first experimented with binding spirits to their service. These earlier summoners, as mages are wont to do, spent great efforts exploring the limits of their abilities. They created orders and categories for the different types and varieties of spirits they encountered. Nymphs, daemons, djinn, sprites…books upon books were written detailing the different ranks and classifications for the spirit world.
“But there were other kinds of spirits as well. Ones not of a specific class, but of specific natures. Archetypes, if you will.” Sheh paused for a moment to let the information already imparted sink into her pupil’s head.
Cat sat with her arms between her butterflied legs, focused solely on her words. She knew from her lessons with Lord Nassar that each class of spirit came with their own level of power and free will; she had even tried to summon her own in that failed ritual. Still, she hadn’t come across anything about spirits that were classless. “But how do they differ from the normal spirits?”
“A spirit of the kind I speak of, dear Catarina, was not born a spirit. They were once humans, like you. Yet over time, their legends and memories became so archetypal, the epitome of a role in a story, that they lived on as spirits. But these are not ghosts, as you know them. It is not the person themselves, the entity with all their human flaws, but an idealized symbolical representation of the person, an embodiment of everything that made their spirit archetypal!”
Cat’s head was spinning. She didn’t understand. “So then…Someone like Saint George, after he died, wouldn’t be remembered as the actual George whoever, but “The Dragonslayer”…is that what you are saying?”
“It is!” Sheh clapped her hands, proud of Catarina for following along. “Or if a mage needed a spirit that fulfilled the archetype “conqueror”…Depending on their needs, they could summon the spirit of Alexander or Genghis Khan, both men who were larger than life.
“But back to the story. We skip ahead many, many years. Magic has come, has gone, and has returned again. There is a young magus, still an apprentice and untrained, who seeks to summon herself a servant. A smart girl, a girl who has a big fate ahead of her.” Sheh said. Cat simply blushed. “But it is not a servant her spirit calls for. This young girl has a fire in her spirit that calls for something different. Not a demon, not a nymph, not a spirit bound to her at all.”
Sheh rose from the pillows, her long dress billowing out and her dark black hair falling down below her shoulders. The golden sparrows on her dress flittered about, but Catarina was still too enthralled to take notice of them.
“This girl’s spirit sought out the spirit of a storyteller. A powerful advisor who could teach and mold the hot passion inside her soul into the spirit of a true hero. Not too dissimilar from your own example of Saint George.”
Cat had brought up the story of Saint George many times to Sheh. She had loved telling the story of George’s bravery and chivalry, how he was the epitome of a knight in shining armor. He was known to be a dragon slayer in an age when dragons were very real and very scary. Sheh, in turn, had loved correcting and expanding Catarina’s accounts with her own vast knowledge.
“Your ritual did not fail, Catarina. And I’m sure Lord Nassar knew this. Your soul yearned not for a servant bound to your will…but for a storyteller to chronicle your own adventures. A storyteller to forge your potential into a hero. You called forth me…and I am no mere storyteller!”
Sheh gave a large smile as the library suddenly seemed to burst with energy. People and animals started crawling out from behind the shelves, garbed in exotic fashions, juggling swords, playing instruments, casting magic spells. Cat stared open mouthed as the stories in the books came to life around her, her head turning every which way.
“I think it is time you know who I am, dear Catarina. My name is Scheherazade, the greatest storyteller that ever was!”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=40&sl=505 ))