The Mara had been sealed away, kept in what looked like an elaborate birdcage designed and built by the combined efforts of Renard Aestling and Sybilla to keep the elusive spirit in place. For the time being it was kept in the same locked basement room in which Sybilla had once been kept, the former Witchbreed now residing in a halfway house as her “services to Rome” were to be rewarded with full citizenship, something about which Aurelio was still less than enthused. Still, he had to admit that Sybilla’s help had been invaluable, and the Mara was now kept behind bars where it could not hurt anybody. Now all that remained was to try and discover its intentions, which required interrogation.
It was late in the morning when Aurelio arrived to find Elisa waiting for him, standing stiff as a board with her sword slung over her shoulder. She was on self-appointed guard duty, and while they had been assured that there was no way the Mara could escape its prison, it reassured Aurelio to know that someone was there to keep an eye on it.
“Has it done anything suspicious?” Aurelio asked.
Elisa shook her head. “Not particularly. For the most part, it just flutters about and pushes itself against the bars. No sign of finding a way to escape or disappearing.”
“Well that’s some reassurance, I suppose.” Aurelio said. “Still, time to try and find out what this thing knows.”
Together the pair of them stepped into the small, cramped room. All the furniture had been stripped away, leaving only a small standing table at the center of the room upon which the cage of interwoven brass and silver had been placed. The cage of silver arrows Aurelio had used to capture the Mara was merely a creation of the dream, unable to leave the mind of the dreamer. Thankfully the mages had prepared this solution ahead of time.
When they had first dragged the Mara from the dream, carrying it back to Aurelio’s sleeping mind before waking them up, it had no real form. It had been a ball of floating light, brilliant and shining white with no defined shape or weight, simply floating in the air emitting noiseless light as it was caged away. As Sybilla had said and Elisa had observed, it seemed the Mara had a knack for shapeshifting, as it had begun to change form not long after its capture and placement in isolation.
Now the cage held a miniature human being, small and slender, looking like a pixie from a fairytale save for a notable lack of wings. Its head was slightly overlarge and its eyes even more so. The skin was a pale white and the hair and eyes both a deep navy blue, the color of a moonlit night sky. It was feminine in shape, appearing around its late teens and wrapped in long white robes and cloak. All of its form seemed to glow with a soft light, reflected off the metallic bars of the cage and giving a slight illumination to the room.
“Can it speak?” Aurelio asked as the pair stepped closer to the cage. The tiny Mara, no more than thirty centimeters tall, stared back at them, large eyes focused on Aurelio as they observed it.
“Not that I’ve observed.” Elisa said. “But it does seem to understand things.”
“Good.” Aurelio said as he crouched low so that he was at eye level with the Mara, which stared right back, its face passive.
“I bet you remember me, Mara, don’t you?” He asked.
The Mara continued to stare, expression unchanging and lips kept shut.
“We want answers about you.” Aurelio continued undeterred. “Where you came from, why you do what you do, and what sent you.”
Again his statement was met with silence.
“Alright, first question then.” Aurelio said. “Can you even understand what I’m saying? Nod for yes, shake your head for no. Be cooperative and we might decide a more lenient fate for you.”
Aurelio had no intention of releasing this monstrous spirit, but he needed some incentive other than fear. The mages could pull it apart at the core for all he cared.
For a moment it seemed a moot point. The Mara did not immediately response, keeping its repose for a few long silent moments before its large head finally tilted in a nod.
“Good.” Aurelio smiled. “Then let’s get started. Are you currently in the service of the Witch Goddess Huldra?”
At the mention of the name, the Mara’s eyes seemed to widen in shock or fear. Aurelio couldn’t tell. He saw its diminutive body tense and, after a brief pause, the Mara shook its head.
“That seemed to get a reaction.” Aurelio glanced at Elisa, who was watching just as closely. “It might not be in her service but it does know her.”
He turned his attention back to the Mara, which retained the new and slightly fearful expression. “Do you serve anyone?” He asked, more threateningly this time.
Now, however, the Mara did not respond, simply keeping itself still. Frowning, Aurelio reached into the quiver on his back and drew a single long silver arrow, sliding the shining white tip through the bars to point at the Mara, the shine of the spirit mixing with the moonlight glow of the arrowhead.
“Aurelio.” Elisa said. “Is that really necessary so quickly?”
“We need answers.” Aurelio said. “To make sure the Butterfly Shroud isn’t involved in this, or that Huldra doesn’t have some dark intent for Rome.”
Again the Mara flinched at the name, and it recoiled slightly from the arrowhead as it was pointed at her threateningly.
“Are you ready to talk now, Mara?” Aurelio said. “And answer all of our questions?”
This time the Mara was quicker to nod its head.
“Good.” Aurelio said, his expressions still hard, the arrow kept in place about a hand’s length from the Mara, enough room to increase the pressure if need be.
“Now, to repeat myself, do you serve any master at all?”
This time the Mara shook its head, hair swinging slightly from side to side.
“It was as Sybilla expected then.” Elisa said. “This spirit is rogue, acting without orders. That would explain the randomness of the attacks.”
“It would explain that.” Aurelio said. “But not how this Mara got away in the first place. Maras aren’t natural spirits; they need to be created and it’s not easy to lose something like this once you’ve made it. Tell me, Mara, were you created by the Goddess Huldra, even if she is not presently your Master?”
The Mara nodded tentatively, flinching again at the name as it eyed the arrow in Aurelio’s hand.
“A spirit called into existence by a goddess does not easily go astray.” Aurelio said. “Particularly one this dangerous.”
“I am not sure it is actually all that dangerous…” Elisa said, and Aurelio shot her an irritated look. She had not seen the skeletal monster that this tiny spirit had become in that poor girl’s dream, or the trail of other nightmares it had left in its wake.
“I mean…yes I know it is very dangerous in a dream.” Elisa said. “But it’s not in the Dreaming anymore. I spoke with Sybilla about it earlier; apart from some shapeshifting ability she is almost powerless.”
“You’re calling it ‘she’ now?” Aurelio scoffed.
“Well it does appear to be somewhat feminine.” Elisa shrugged.
“It’s a thing, Elisa.” Aurelio said. “An intelligent tool called up into artificial existence. It doesn’t have a sex.”
It was Elisa’s turn to shoot him a nasty look. “Do not forget, Aurelio, that I am also an intelligent tool called up into artificial existence. Shall I drop my pants and show you just how much of a ‘she’ I am?”
“Er…no…sorry…” Aurelio muttered, red-faced duly cowed. “But does the Mara even care?”
“Well let’s ask.” Elisa said, bending low to crouch beside him.
“Do you prefer being called ‘she’ to ‘it’?” Elisa asked the Mara, her tone significantly softer than Aurelio’s.
Without a moment’s hesitation the Mara nodded.
“Matter resolved.” Elisa said. “A little more cooperation might go a long way in this matter.”
Aurelio rolled his eyes. “Fine, we can call the Mara “She” and “Her”. That doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what part it might play in Huldra or Nidhogg’s plans.”
If the Mara had shivered at the sound of Huldra’s name, its expression changed to one of vivid rage at the name Nidhoggr. The Mara’s large eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed, tiny hands balling into fists.
“…that was quite a reaction.” Elisa noted, and Aurelio had to blink in surprise as well. “Could be our Mara is no friend of the Primordial then.”
Once more Aurelio put his focus on the Mara. “So then you have no connection to the dragon, Nidhoggr?”
At this the Mara vehemently shook her tiny head, furious eyes still on Aurelio.
“It is possible,” Elisa said. “That this Mara might have been separated from Huldra when the goddess was ensnared by the dragon.”
“Is that what happened, Mara?” Aurelio asked, inching the arrow a little closer. “And we’ll have no lies from you.”
The Mara shivered at the arrow but nodded her head.
“And do you have any connection to the cult known as the Butterfly Shroud?” Elisa leaned in to ask the question, and the Mara turned to her as she listened. When she had finished, the Mara shook its head, a slightly confused expression on its face.
“It’s responding more quickly.” Aurelio said.
“Perhaps it likes being called ‘she’.” Elisa chided him, but Aurelio ignored the biting remark.
“No, I think it might actually be getting smarter…” He said. “It’s more expressive and quicker.”
“Perhaps soon she will be able to speak.” Elisa said.
Aurelio sighed. “That would certainly be helpful…of course, this could all be a charade. It could be playing dumb and feeding us false information.”
“I suppose there is that possibility.” Elisa nodded. “Of course we aren’t giving her much incentive not to lie.”
“It’s not like we can reward it with leave time.” Aurelio frowned. “It’s a dangerous spirit.”
“Perhaps under supervision?” Elisa offered with a shrug.
Aurelio sighed. “First the Witchbreed, now a Mara. We can’t let dangerous creatures walk around of their own free will in Rome.”
“That’s a rather biased statement, Aurelio.” Elisa frowned in turn, arms folded over her chest. “I understand she’s dangerous and needs to be monitored, but that former Witchbreed helped us capture this Mara in the first place, not to mention it’s a bit hypocritical to condemn possibly dangerous creatures when this city used to be safeguarded by wolves.”
“Wolves that had the peoples’ interests at heart.” Aurelio countered. “This Mara has shown nothing but malevolence towards people since its arrival.”
“Then we should speak to further experts.” Elisa said. “Sybilla and others educated in spirit matters, gather their opinion.”
“If you insist.” Aurelio said. “Then fine, do so. But if we wind up needing to recapture this thing…” He eyed the Mara suspiciously.
“I will take my due responsibility.” Elisa nodded before turning back to the Mara as well. “But a little friendliness might go a long way in getting more cooperation.”
Gently Elisa pulled Aurelio’s arrow away from the cage as she spoke in a softer voice. “Tell us, Mara, is there a name you might prefer to be called.
For a few moments the spirit was silent, even as she opened and closed her mouth as if to signal words. After a few silent attempts, slight noise did start to come from her mouth, empty consonants and orphaned vowels at first as she tried to grasp the technique of making voice before finally uttering the single word.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=34&sl=501