Though Aurelio and Elisa did much of their work at night, they often met during the day as well, though usually later in the afternoon (long night hours made the mornings often untenable for Aurelio, Elisa simply didn’t need sleep). So they had decided to meet in the afternoon to discuss their plans further.
They met at the same café they had several nights previously where Elisa had first brought him the news. This time, however, it was open and the pair of them were enjoying some of the local tea. Aurelio found he had been missing coffee, but that was one of the many luxuries they had been forced to live without. The only coffee plant in Rome was a singular specimen in the greenhouse, hardly enough for the caffeine addiction of a small city. So they had to do without.
“Hope you’ve been well.” Aurelio said, taking a seat across from her as she offered him a cup of tea.
“Well enough.” Elisa nodded before sipping her own.
“What do you do in your time off anyway?” He asked, regarding her as he brought the cup of thankfully hot tea to his lips. It was not actual tea, which had dried up just as quickly as the coffee. Instead it was an herbal tea that had little of the taste and none of the energy of the real thing. Still, it was something to drink before the taverns opened.
“Oh there’s plenty to do.” She said. “First I need to see that my Master doesn’t need me for anything.”
Aurelio had never gotten used to Elisa referring to Renard Aestling as “master”; it felt uncomfortably subservient for someone who was clearly about as sentient as any other human. He had raised the issue once, and Elisa had revealed that Renard wasn’t particularly fond of it either, but she felt it was the title that fit best for a man who had literally given her everything she was. She had tried “Father” at first but they had both found that even more uncomfortable.
“And then I usually go to the training fields.” She said.
“You need to exercise?” Aurelio asked.
“Not for the same reason you do.” She said. “I don’t need to keep in shape. My musculature does not degrade, but it sharpens the mind and the reflexes. It’s where I practice combat, after all.”
“Ever try your hand at archery?” Aurelio offered with a smile.
“I feel challenging you would be both redundant and humiliating.” Elisa sad flatly. “And I doubt your patron would approve of you using your talents purely as a point of pride.”
“Oh she wouldn’t mind under some circumstances. I think.” Aurelio said. “If I praised her name and competed for her glory she’d come around.”
“I will stick to my sword, thank you very much.”
“Speaking of which, have you seen that new champion while you’re out there? Diana warned me to look out for her.”
“Rosaria yes.” Elisa nodded. “Usually dueling Miss Aldobrandini.”
“Hildegard’s sister?” Aurelio asked curiously. “She can fight a champion of War?”
“They…are about on the same level.” Elisa said, thinking it over. “But Miss Aldobrandini is impressive in a fight.”
“I bet.” Aurelio nodded. “I’m a champion of the Goddess of the Hunt and I think Hildegard might be a better monster hunter than me.”
“How do you know her?” Elisa asked curiously.
“Through Turi, Salvatore that is, Athena’s champion. They’re dating apparently.”
“Good for them.” Elisa raised a cup. “Now then, what have you brought today?” She had been eyeing the satchel carried over Aurelio’s shoulder.
“Ah right.” He nodded, and from the bag he withdrew a heavy leatherbound tome he had borrowed with permission from Nora’s library, its cover scrawled in runes of Old Norse.
“And what is this?” She asked curiously, shifting her cup and saucer out of the way.
“It is an account of famous uses of Seidr, Norse witch magic.”
“Seidr…” Elisa rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Any practitioners in the city?”
“None.” Aurelio shook his head. “I asked around, almost all of our mages are western
thaumaturgists, entirely different school apparently. I’d have asked Nassar for more but he’s out of the city.”
“And what did you find?” She asked.
“I think I found the cause of our nightmares.” Aurelio said, and he opened the tome to the page he had bookmarked. There, beneath a paragraph of hand-scrawled runes, was the stylized image of a king sleeping upon his throne, perched upon his chest was some kind of imp or gremlin, ugly and horned as it sat there, imagery of skulls and swords blossoming forth from its diminutive form.
“And this is…?”
“They call it a Mara.” Aurelio said. “It’s a kind of minor demon that haunts the sleeping. A witch sends one out to her victims and it fills their mind with horrible dreams, in some it can even kill if given time and power. They call it being hag-ridden.”
“So we’re dealing with a vindictive witch?” Elisa asked. “I can look at the records again but our victims didn’t seem to have much in common.”
“That confused me as well.” Aurelio nodded. “These things usually don’t strike successive targets. They’re used once for a haunting or assassination. This seems like the actions of a serial witch, if there is such a thing.”
“Well, first things first.” Elisa folded her hands together on the table, red eyes moving from the book to Aurelio. “Is this the work of the Butterfly Shroud?”
“I think we can rule that out.” Aurelio said. “We’ve never identified what kind of magic they use, if any, but Seidr doesn’t seem quite like their modus operandi. If anything it’s more similar to the Hour of the Wolf, but I doubt that. Not only is that cult dead, but they disdained Seidr according to records that Giovanni and I found.”
“A mixed blessing I suppose.” Elisa said. “Our mysterious cult likely isn’t using witch magic…but we’re no closer to finding them and we now have a rogue witch to deal with.”
“There is more.” Aurelio said. “I had to do some reading but…I think I know a bit more about where this might have come from.”
“Well don’t keep it to yourself.” Elisa said. “Let’s hear it.”
“Mara’s are old magic, and heavily attested. By the looks of things they were used frequently throughout northern Europe. To the point that it’s entered the languages.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where do you think the “Mare’ in nightmare comes from?”
Elisa paused. “So etymology aside, where are you going with this?”
“I’m getting there” Aurelio said. “Now, I looked up famous cases of maras being utilized in legend, and I turned up something troubling.”
He continued. “Two ancient Swedish kings were killed by Maras, hag-ridden to death by a hired witch at the request of their vengeful kin. It was the same witch in both tales.”
“A witch who is now thousands of years dead…right?” She asked to Aurelio’s grave expression.
“The witch’s name was Huld.” Aurelio said. “The mortal name of the Norse Witch-Goddess Huldra.”
If Elisa’s face was not already deathly white it would have gone pale. “Where have I heard that name before?”
“Huldra is the right hand of Nidhoggr” Aurelio said. “She is the one who freed it, and she was also the progenitor of the Witchbreed.”
“Witchbreed.” Elisa repeated the word. “You’ve told me about them, but not very much.”
Aurelio sighed, taking a deep breath. “Witchbreed were like…monstrous champions in a way. Huld empowered them, and in doing so twisted their minds into monstrous inhuman things. They skulked in the forests of my home, preying on the innocent and twisting the forest’s nature to their own ends. It was because of them that Diana made me her champion, so I could hunt them and purge the woods of their corruption.”
“But you hunted them all.” Elia said. “You’ve told me as much.”
“I think I did.” Aurelio nodded. “At the very least the forests of Northern Italy are free of the more monstrous ones…”
“It feels as if there’s a ‘but’ coming on.”
Aurelio nodded. “Well…the idea always bothered me that Huldra might have improved the process.”
“That she might have made a superior strain of Witchbreed, more like a proper champion. Still as intelligent and cunning as a human, but filled with all that same malice and dark power. I haven’t heard word of anything like that from my fellow benandanti, but the idea alone still haunts me at times…”
“And you’re worried this could be them?” Elisa said. “Come to take their revenge?”
“The thought had occurred.” Aurelio said. “People like us would be immune, naturally. Champions and homunculi and benandanti, but the common people of Rome…”
“Like unwary lambs.” Elisa nodded. “But have we considered the possibility that it is Huldra herself doing this?”
Aurelio shook his head. “I doubt that for a few reasons. First of all she is a tremendously powerful Witch Goddess, like Hecate. If she wanted these people dead they would not still be alive.”
“She might just be trying to spread fear.”
“Why though?” Aurelio asked. “She’s not spreading fear of Nidhoggr or the Witchbreed or even herself. That at least could let her derive power from the worship and fear…these people are just reporting their own fears, like usual nightmares but…worse.”
“True…” Elisa said.
“Also,” Aurelio continued. “If she was doing it, she’d have to be present in the city, and Rome is rife with gods right now. At the very least Diana and a few others would have caught her scent if she was skulking in Rome. No, I think this is the action of an independent witch, just trying to spread fear for fear’s sake.”
“Then we have unpredictability to contend with.” Elisa said. “If they are just trying to sow fear for its own sake then there will be no rhyme or reason to it, making them all that much more difficult to track.”
“I realize that.” Aurelio said. “So we’ll need to devise a new plan of attack. If we’re only reactionary then we’ll never get to the heart of this.”
“Agreed.” Elisa said. “I’ll look into it as well…good work on the book. At least we have a better idea of what we’re contending with.”
“Thanks.” Aurelio said. “Though…it has dredged up some old worries.”
“Oh?” Elisa asked, watching him with concern.
“Yeah,” He nodded. “Thing is…Angel’s field repels Nidhoggr and his magic since they’re both Primordials. Huldra isn’t a Primordial and her magic is of an entirely different kind. If she wanted to wreak havoc…”
“There’s nothing to stop her.” Elisa finished for him. “So you’re worried that, while this might be independent, it could also be the prelude to something much worse.”
“People could die.” Aurelio said.
“Do we know why she works for Nidhoggr?” Elisa asked. “Do we know any of her motives or plans?”
“No.” Aurelio admitted. “She’s been a bit of an enigma.”
“The way I see it,” Elisa said. “Every single god and mortal is in opposition to these chaos Primordials…except for Huldra. Something about that strikes me as unusual.”
“She is unique like that.” Aurelio said. “But what are you suggesting?”
“I think there might be more to Huldra than we’re aware of,” Elisa said. “And finding out what that is could be the key to stopping her before any potential rampage.”
“Well…you have a point.” Aurelio admitted. “But we know next to nothing, and have no real way of finding out.”
“We just need to take it one step at a time.” Elisa said. “We’ll start with this Mara and the witch, from there perhaps we can find out more about what makes this Witch-Goddess tick.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Aurelio nodded. “And make it one less threat to Rome.”
The pair of them drained their cups of tea and Aurelio packed the book away.
“I’ll see you on patrol.” Elisa said and, after paying the check, they departed.