The sun rising in the eastern horizon, orange rays breaking over the Roman skyline, marked another night of fruitless searching. For all his efforts, even Aurelio could find nothing, left with no leads and cold trails. It was as if the entire cult had simply turned to smoke. So it was with trepidation that he finished his rounds and made his way back to the estate of Renard Aestling, their current base of operations, to meet with Elisa.
“Another night of nothing.” He muttered as he walked into their sitting room. “Just smoke and air, nothing to grab hold of.”
He fell into a plush armchair, leaning back before doing a sudden double-take at what he had seen. Elisa was in the room, certainly.
And so was the Mara.
Still in its cage, seated with its diminutive body facing Elisa but with its head turned to him, watching with a curious expression on its face.
“…Elisa.” Aurelio said slowly. “What is that thing doing here?”
“No harm, I assure you” Elisa said. “It is not as if I am letting her out of her cage often, or out of my sight.”
“Do I need to remind you what this creature did? Has done?” Aurelio asked, exasperated. “People could have died.”
“Help!” The Mara, Mary as she liked to be called, chirped. “I want to help!”
“See?” Elisa said.
“A ruse.” Aurelio shrugged. “It’s a nightmare spirit, that’s all it knows and all it wants.”
Both Mary and Elisa frowned at him.
“I’m not a monster!” The tiny Mara objected.
“That’s precisely what you are.” Aurelio said. “You have not done anything to prove otherwise, or attempt to explain your actions.”
“Couldn’t before!” The Mara said. “Can’t…speak good.”
“I asked Sybilla.” Elisa said. “She believes that with time outside the Dreaming the spirit has time to better develop itself. She’s growing more eloquent and lucid by the day.”
“And likely more devious as well.” Aurelio said. “And I do not entirely trust the Witch’s words either.
The Mara gave Aurelio a foul look, far less muted than her façade had been a few days before.
“Not a monster.” She said again. “Just more…free.than I was.”
“Free?” Aurelio looked at Elisa.
“I believe she means that she is free from Huldra’s influence.”
The Mara named Mary nodded. “Couldn’t think” She said. “Didn’t know anything.”
“Without a master to compel her, she could only act on instinct.” Elisa translated. “With this new temporary body she’s increasing in both intelligence and sentience.”
“I’ll grant she’s smarter.” Aurelio said. “But she’s got nothing to offer.”
“Cult!” Mary said, sounding much like a bird in her chirping high-pitched voice. “Can help find cult!”
Aurelio glanced at Elisa. “Was that an offer?”
“It was indeed.” Elisa said. “A Mara could be very useful in tracking down this cult for us.”
Aurelio frowned. “In theory maybe, but Elisa, she’s a dangerous spirit. She isn’t allowed to exist in Rome.”
“We could make safeguards.” Elisa said. “There are ways to prevent…mishaps.”
“The easiest is way to keep her in that cage.” Aurelio crossed his arms.
“Aurelio,” Elisa’s face was hardened as she looked at him. “We are rapidly running out of options. We are all working on finding the cult but we are getting nowhere. We need to consider other options.”
“Unconventional approaches.” Elisa settled on.
“And how exactly is a nightmare spirit supposed to help us track a cult?”
“Can’t hide.” Mary said. “No hiding in dreams.”
“She’s right.” Elisa said. “The one place no one can hide from the truth is in their dreams.”
“You’re talking about going into people’s dreams, scanning them to find out who they’re affiliated with.”
“Nothing so invasive.” Elisa said. “I’ve been speaking with Mary and Sybilla. It would be easy for Mary to find such dreams from the outside, more like…sieving dreams than investigating them.”
Mary nodded along as she spoke. “Don’t need to go inside,” She said. “Just need image. Thought. Feeling.”
Aurelio was reminded of his trip through the dreams of Rome. How they had passed from one dream to the next using common ideas and feelings. If Mary truly could filter them out from the outside…
“I’m going to need details.” Aurelio said. “And we’ll need approval from…Capitolina and Giovanni at the very least.”
“There are a few hurdles.” Elisa said, and Mary spoke up to finish for her.
“No body!” It chimed.
“You seem to have enough of one.” Aurelio said, looking at her tiny state.
Mary shook her head. “Not good. Break aparts!”
“The form is unstable.” Elisa said. “It is taking most of her effort to maintain it, and if it breaks then we’ll be back to square one when it comes to her intelligence and instincts.”
“So this newfound chattiness is temporary?” Aurelio asked.
“Unless a replacement can be found.” Elisa nodded.
“Well people don’t tend to leave spare bodies just lying around.” Aurelio said.
“Some spirits are capable of possessing pre-existing bodies” Elisa said.
“Absolutely not.” Replied Aurelio “She is not going to be possessing anyone.”
“Calm down, Aurelio.” Elisa said. “That’s not quite what I was suggesting. She can “inhabit” a pre-existing form, but you were wrong when you said there weren’t spare bodies just lying around.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know I am a homunculus.” Elisa said. “Every part of me is artificial, my body included. I did not grow up, I was never a child; I was made fully formed by my Master in the body you see now, although my consciousness isn’t part of it.”
“What do you mean your consciousness isn’t part of your being?”
Elisa sighed. “Everything that makes me ‘myself’, my personality, memories, and thoughts, are all kept within my core, a device placed in my chest that is…imagine a heart combined with a brain. Without that core this body is simply a lifeless doll, not terribly difficult to produce and very easy to alter.”
“So if I’m understanding you,” Aurelio said. “And I think I am, you want to stick the Mara into a homunculus body?”
“It would be the simplest solution.” Elisa nodded.
“We’re just giving a material body to a dangerous spirit?”
“Body makes weak!” Mary chimed in, objecting to Aurelio. “Not strong!”
“What’s she on about now?” Aurelio asked.
“From what I’ve gathered,’ Elisa said. “Granting Mary a body might be as much a handicap as a boon.”
Aurelio sighed and leaned back in the chair. “Explain it.”
“Right now she’s a spirit, incorporeal and intangible. She can’t be touched and she can easily enter a dream as there is nothing to tie her to the physical world. A physical body is like an anchor tied around her ankle. It allows her to stay grounded and keep her newfound sentience, but by the same measure it is a weight she cannot simply abandon. Her life force is tied to it and she cannot abandon it for long.”
Aurelio took a moment to consider. “So we still have a hold on it?”
“If need be,” Elisa nodded. “If we have reason to believe Mary plans to betray us…killing the body would kill her, even if she wasn’t inhabiting it.”
“That sounds more acceptable at least…” Aurelio began, before turning to the Mara.
“Do you understand what this means?” The Mara named Mary stared back at him.
“Can’t betray.” She said “Body die, I die.”
“And do you understand that? Are you willing to accept that?”
“Yes.” Mary nodded.
Aurelio took a long sighing breath as he thought, brow furrowed. “Have you spoken to Mister Aestling?”
“Spoken to me about what now?” Renard’s voice announced him, and Aurleio was impressed that he had manage to sneak to the threshold of the room with his noticeable limp and cane, even on a carpeted floor.
Elisa rose instantly to her feet. “Ah, welcome home, Master.” She bowed her head.
“Thanks.” Renard waved it off. “What’s going on now?”
Aurelio looked to Elisa, who seemed to struggle for a moment to find the words she needed.
“Well Master, after a great deal of scrutiny and planning we seem to have come to the agreement that finding a permanent body for this Mara, Mary, may be not only advantageous in learning more about her, Huldra the Witch Goddess, and the Primordial Nidhoggr, but it may be just what we need to track this cult as well.”
“Is that right?” Renard stroked the pale stubble at his chin, red eyes flashing from Elisa to Mary. “I take it if you want a body for this Mara and you needed something from me, then it is one of my spare blanks that you’re after.”
“Blanks?” Aurelio asked.
“Quite so, dear boy.” Renard smiled. “Fortune favors the prepared, after all. Homunculi are my forte and so I keep a number of blank body types in the basement in case I am in need.”
“You keep them here?” Aurelio asked, somewhat in disbelief.
“Oh yes.” Renard nodded before adding with a grin. “I admit it makes my basement look like some kind of unspeakable snuff dungeon.”
Aurelio felt a shiver run down his spine. Mages truly were disconcerting people at times.
“Why do you keep so many?” He asked.
“A good question, young man.” He pointed his can at Aurelio. “A number of them are keyed to Elisa’s core. You see, a homunculus ‘blank’ needs to be sort of…bound to the core it will be paired with. I’ve taken the additional effort to ensure that Elisa has several backup bodies into which she can be easily transferred should the worst arrive.”
Aurelio looked at Elisa. “So she’s invincible?”
“Oh far from it.” Renard corrected him. “If her core is irreparably damage then she is quite dead. And she can be crippled almost as easily as any human before I can transfer her core. The tradeoff for this, of course, is that she cannot ‘heal’ naturally. She needs to be repaired.”
“I…I think I see…” Aurelio nodded. It often took reminding on his part form him to remember just how inhuman Elisa could be. “So the rest of the blanks?”
“Are presently un-keyed.” Renard said. “Those are in case I get something running and don’t want the tedium of making one alongside. I’ve long considered giving Elisa a younger sibling, though my recent attempts have been somewhat unstable…”
“The Mara doesn’t exactly have a core though.” Aurelio said.
“In this case,” Elisa chimed in. “Mary is the core. Though we will need to create a kind of physical catalyst she can store herself in. I wonder if such a thing is possible…”
“Mary can!” The Mara chimed in. “I came from jewel!”
“What?” Aurelio asked.
“If I had to hazard a guess,” Renard said. “I think she means that when she was first formed the nascent power she was crafted from was held in a jewel.”
Mary nodded vigorously.
“Excellent.” Renard said. “Welll…while I’m usually loath to loan my blanks…I think this experiment is novel enough for me to allow the donation.”
Elisa’s stoic face broke into a relieved smile. “Thank you, Master.”
“Thank you!” The Mara chirped eagerly.
Aurelio sat where he was in his chair. He was still uncertain about all of this. There were too many steps in this chain to the cult that he didn’t like. First trusting the Witchbreed, now trusting a Mara. He was making a great number of compromises with creatures that had once been his prey.
“Alright.” he said finally “So long as we can keep her in check.”
One more bargain he had not intended. Aurelio could not help but wonder how far he would have to go.