City of Dreams
Mary was a Mara, a simple kind of spirit, meant to be temporary and ephemeral. They were created at the behest of a powerful witch, deployed for their task, and then consumed in a single night. That should have been her life when she was created over a year ago, but it seemed that fate had other plans in store for her.
Mary was potent as spirits of her nature went. She had been created by an extraordinarily powerful witch-goddess after all, and it was for that reason that Mary believed she was advanced as she was. Any other Mara would have simply dissipated after a time, their energy spent on creating nightmares. Mary had an abundant store of energy, however, and that had given her time. Time, more than anything else, had made her intelligent.
In an odd way, she also had her captors to thank for her current status. The one thing that helped as much as time was continuity. As a formless spirit, Mary had hardly even understood the concept of time and space. They were irrelevant to a creature that lived almost exclusively in the dreaming. Upon her capture and imprisonment, Mary had been forced to learn precisely what it meant to have form, consistency, and continuity. An understanding of causality was an important step towards being fully sentient, and it was something she had lacked until being forced into a tiny body kept inside a magic birdcage.
Thankfully one of Mary’s captors was as determined to enhance the Mara’s intelligence as she was. The artificial being called Elisa had been significantly kinder to her, and had aided her in some of her early fundamental troubles. Speech, expression, self-awareness, all of these things needed to be learned. Thankfully, Elisa’s guidance and Mary’s own impressive intuition and native intelligence had made the process quick. She now felt more like a person than she ever had before.
Having struck a deal with her captors, Mary had been given some leeway, and tonight was to be the first experience she truly looked forward. Though she liked Elisa more than others, at the end of the day they were inhibiting her ability to move. For all that it had done, Mary had promised herself she would not grow content with her cage.
Tonight she was being allowed outside.
Not really outside, as she was still forbidden from leaving her cage until she could be bound to a body, but Elisa had offered the concession of taking the cage on a walk through the city. Mary had eagerly complied with the numerous conditions of the trip. All of it would be worth it to get to feel the night again.
The magic cage meant that she couldn’t slip away into the slumbering mind of the closest dreamer, but it was still enough for her. She could taste their minds through the bars of the cage, could feel the emotions and the dreams around her. It was almost like nourishment, and the sterile mind of a homunculus had left her famished.
“Are you ready?” Elisa asked, taking hold of the ring atop the cage.
“Ready!” May smiled brightly. Early on she had simply aped the expressions given to her, but now she was positive she felt a stirring of unique emotion, and changed her face almost automatically.
“Alright.” Elisa said. “Now remember, we’re just doing a quick walk around the hill then back down here. If you try anything, a number of people are on patrol. You won’t get far.”
Mary nodded her understanding. She had little desire to actually make a run for it. The agreement she had made with the hunter has been much more agreeable. Mary was a constructed being, her first duty was to her master, and even so long separated from her, Mary felt the due devotion to Huldra. Her freedom and that of her creator hinged on her working with her captors, and Mary was more than willing to cooperate if it got her everything she wanted.
“Good.” Elisa said. “Then let’s go for a ride.”
Carefully the homunculus lifted the cage, holding both the ring at the top and keeping one hand on the bottom to keep it stable. Mary didn’t really mind either way; she simply floated in the empty air at the center of the cage, unperturbed by its movement as Elisa carried it up the stairs.
Touch was still not a sense she had gotten used to. The tactile senses were less commonly used in her brand of dreams, particularly compared to sight and hearing. So when Mary first felt the cool night air of Rome rush against her face, she couldn’t even try to hide the exhilaration on her face, her hands sliding over the skin of her cheeks where the tingling memory of the wind had touched it. She could feel the air running through her hair and small robes and the slightly chilly temperature on her bare hands.
More than that, she could see the night sky. As a creature of dreams, Mary was drawn much more to the night than to the day. The darkness was her time, the time of mystery and shadows, of dreams and nightmares, and now it was through her own eyes that she could look upwards through the gold bars of her cage and see the shining light of a moon and the multitudinous pinpricks of stars that hung around it.
Mary was still trying to tie words to concepts. She was not a machine, and emotion came easily to a spirit (far more easily than logic and rationality) and it took her a moment to divine precisely what she had felt as she looked up into the pitch black sky.
“Beautiful.” She settled on in barely more than a whisper.
“It is.” Elisa smiled down at her, but Mary’s gaze was fixed on the night sky.
In a dream, the sky was merely a ceiling. It was the outer limit of the dream, and as much a wall as the ground beneath the dreamer’s feet. Never before had she thought of the sky as an expanse, something she could dive into and move in freely like the ocean. She wanted to rise out of the cage, to fly towards the moon and dance amidst the starlight.
Elisa began to walk away from the building under which she had been kept. Slowly as she made her steady way off the hill, Mary could feel them coming closer to the residential areas.
She could feel the sleeping dreamers all around her. It was a sense that she had learned not even the most gifted mortal witches possessed. A skilled oneiromancer could travel the dream, understand it as little pieces of recognizable reality. But Mary was a creature of dream, she was of it just as humans were of Earth, and she could sense it as surely as they could feel the constant presence of the ground beneath their feet.
“Do you feel them?” Elisa asked.
“Yes” Mary said.
It was an almost indescribable sensation. To an outsider it was as if numerous semi-opaque panes of glass had been put in layers in front of her vision. She could see the closest one the best, but she could see all of them at least a little, peering through the others to see it. Each of those panes of glass was a dream, the dancing images of a semi-tangible dreamscape, ne lain on top of the other, fading and appearing with proximity.
On a normal night, Mary would move from one dream to the next like most dream travelers, finding the common thread she desired and pulling herself across the city from one dream to the next. Here though, in the open world, she could see it all at once. It wasn’t entirely visual either. Her sight in the waking world was unaffected, and she could feel and hear the dreams as surely as she could see them.
The cage, however, was doing its work. A solid barrier of magic stood between her and the dreams that now surrounded her, and she was smart enough to know that she shouldn’t risk trying to reach out and touch the dreams where she was.
Without a real body, she did not particularly fear Elisa. The homunculus, as far as Mary knew, was unable to harm a spirit.
The Hunter and the Witch, however, were a different story. The Hunter obviously disliked her and for the most part the feeling was mutual. Even setting aside her capture and humiliation at his hands, he had been belligerent and rude at every turn, While the small rational part of her mind that had been slowly gestating told her that it was natural to dislike a creature like Mary, built to be essentially a predator of men, the much larger and more emotional part of herself still felt indignant about it.
Mary was not evil, though she would not define herself as good either. She didn’t hate the people whose nightmares she haunted, and she didn’t even cause those nightmares to begin with, What Mary did as a Mara was simply her nature, it was what she was created to do. Humans, she had found, were much less forgiving about the compulsive instincts of things beyond their understanding. It was arrogance, Mary had decided, arrogance that had told them that their human understandings of the world were right.
Mary disliked the Hunter, but she feared and admired the Witch. The woman (who Mary had learned was called Sybilla) was one of her Creator’s more impressive students. Her skills in oneiromancy were not to be denied, as it was clear that she had been the one leading the way through the dream to track Mary down.
In a direct competition of dream combat, Mary was not certain that she could win.
On top of that, Sybilla was as magically potent in the waking world as she was in the dream, something Mary couldn’t claim. If the witch was lying in wait nearby, and Mary was sure she was, then she would not get far if she tried to slip away. Mary was smart enough to know that another cage would not be waiting for her; she would simply be blown to bits.
“Do you like it out here?” Elisa asked.
“I do.” Mary nodded. “I like…nighttime.”
She was still irritated at how much she felt like a simpleton when she spoke. Her thoughts were mostly in roiling emotion and vague notions, so it took effort on her part to translate those into words. Elisa had assured her that the more she practiced the better she would become, given time.
“What do you like about it?” Elisa asked.
“Dreams.” Mary said. “I see them. I hear them. I want to touch them again.”
Elisa frowned. “To cause nightmares?”
“No.” Mary said.
She was telling the truth. Mary didn’t cause nightmares, and with her newfound awareness, she likely didn’t have to reside solely in them anymore.
“I am dream creature.” She said. “I want to be part of dreams.”
“Ah.” Elisa said. “It must be difficult to be stuck in that cage. Is it like losing a part of yourself?”
“Yes.” Mary said. For all that she had gained with her newfound intelligence, she was still missing a large portion of herself by being trapped in this cage.
“You still understand the deal, right?” Elisa asked. “You can get it all back and more.”
“I do.” Mary nodded. “I help you. We find cult and stop cult. You help Lady Huldra. I go free.”
“You go free,” Elisa nodded. “And no more nightmares.”
“No more nightmares!” Mary nodded. She’d probably drop by a few nightmares for the old thrill of it now and then, but she didn’t need to kill people with them. A little fear never hurt anyone.
“That’s the deal.” Elisa said. “And once you get your body you’ll start to feel a lot better…I can’t imagine living without one.”
Mary stayed silent. There were advantages to being formless. But now that she had tasted the other side, she wondered if having a body to call hers wasn’t a better way. It was grounding, a way to identify who and what she was when before there had only been a string of nightmares to know herself by.
Mary the Mara felt the dreams of Rome around her, she felt them and knew them with a more intelligent mind. Yes, she rather liked this new direction.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=41&sl=18