Cat: Asha? Asha, are you there?
Cat sat at the dining room table now, rather than relaxing on her bed with the tome splayed out in front of her. Somehow, it felt wrong to be relaxing so comfortably when she had so many questions. After her talk with Scheherazade, Cat was looking for more concrete information and she was not prepared to take no for an answer.
She went over the name multiple times in ink, bolding it to make it stand out. Perhaps the book would make a more insistent ping to catch the other girl’s attention. Cat kept her quill ready to write more when she saw the scratch marks appearing. Asha was responding.
Asha: Hey, Cat.
Cat: Asha, what’s going on? What’s the Line? And you can’t let Christie just push you around like that!
Asha: I’m sorry, Cat, but she’s right. We can’t afford distractions here.
Cat: Where is “here”?! Stop being so vague! I wanna know where you are. Let me help you!
Asha: No, that can’t happen, just leave me alone, Cat.
Cat took a deep breath as she wrote her response before she could even think. There was something very odd about this whole situation. Asha was being stubbornly reluctant to answer any of her questions.
Cat: Are you being held prisoner? Did someone kidnap you? Are you forced to stay there?
Asha: No, nothing quite like that. Look, it doesn’t matter, Cat. The fact is that I’m here at the Line, you’re in Rome, and we’re never going to be able to meet in person.
Cat: But we can! You said you were from the Middle East, right? Turkey or Syria or nearby. It might take some time but I totally could, I’d just need to know where.
Asha: Just leave me alone! You can’t help me, Cat, so just let it go!
Cat sat back in her chair as the picture of Asha starting to burst into tears, wet marks where the tears must have fallen appearing in her copy of the book. The text was appearing smudged as the ink ran, yet Asha didn’t throw the book down. Cat took a second to calm her own heart and allow
Asha time to cry. After some time passed, Cat hesitantly touched the page with her quill again, slowly writing out her message with a shaking hand.
Cat: Asha, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry. I’m sorry if I pushed too hard, I just, I want to know…I want to help…Please don’t cry because of me!
It took some time for Asha to respond again, though the picture changed numerous times before the message appeared. Cat watched as Asha wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and picked up her pen again, in three consecutive images. Finally, Cat could see the book showing that she was typing once again.
Asha: Sorry, it’s not your fault, Cat. It’s just…I know you really mean what you’re saying. That you’d want to save me, come looking for me. But that’s impossible, Cat.
Cat: It’s not!
Asha: No, Cat. It is.
Cat: I managed to help bring an end to a war in Sicily and take down a strong mage there. Multiple mages! I’ve fought monsters and while I might not be as good as Hildegard, I’m still one of the best in Rome! I can help you in whatever danger is threatening you, Asha…
The picture of Asha smiled at Cat through the pages of the book, though it was clear she was still crying. Some of the words she had written to Cat were becoming marked by wet tears.
Cat: Asha, why are you crying…
Asha: Sorry. The truth is, Cat, that I really did want you to be my hero when we first met. I wanted someone to come and rescue me. But it’s too late now. It was too late before we even met each other.
Cat: It’s never too late, Asha!
Cat could feel her own eyes watering now. She didn’t understand why Asha was saying things like this. All she needed to do was tell her mother and Capitolina that there were people in Turkey who needed help and they could probably send the Legion over and Cat would be able to bring her friend back to Rome to safety.
Even as she thought through the plan, her heart sank. While Sicily had been a dangerous mission, the reason they had undertaken it was to recover weapons to be used in the defense of the city. In a way, it was traveling to their own snake-infested backyard to get the tools from the toolshed. To risk the Legion to Turkey to rescue one person would be an unreasonable thing to ask of her mother.
Cat: There has to be something I can do to bring your out of there, to Rome!
Asha: Nobody leaves the Line, Cat. We can’t. The truth of this place, what I didn’t want to tell you is…you’re talking to a ghost. All of us here are spirits that were given a choice. We could serve at the Line Fortress to hold back Apep’s forces here in Gaza…or…well, you shouldn’t worry about the other option.
Cat just sat there with her jaw open as she read Asha’s explanation. Asha was a ghost. A spirit? Still, as a mage with the training of a summoner, there were ways that Cat could help a spirit. Scheherazade was a spirit after all.
Cat: I could summon you then! Then we could be together here.
Asha: That still won’t work, Cat.
Cat: Why not?
Asha: I’m already contracted.
Cat: Eh? To whom?
???: To me.
Cat jumped out of her chair as she saw strange handwriting appear in her book. The chair fell to the floor with a clattering bang as Cat’s heart started to beat faster. The reaction confused her. She felt as though her life was in immediate, life-ending danger, as soon as the text appeared but…they were just words in the book. Slowly, Cat reached towards the desk and pulled the book back into her hands.
Cat: Who are you?
???: The End of the Line. You will not interfere with a contract of mine, Catarina. I admit I’ll be rather fond of you, but if you persist in pressing against some doors where you’re not welcome, I might feel the need to take back this little gift of mine.
The handwriting was elegant and refined, and Cat felt as though there were invisible hands pulling her along. She shivered, forcing the mana through her body to remove whatever enchantment this mage was trying to cast on her.
Cat: Nice try! But I won’t let you!
Asha: Cat! Don’t! Please…Just let me finish.
Cat started to respond before she realized that Asha wasn’t speaking to her with that last sentence, but the intruder into their conversation. There was no immediate response, but after a moment, Cat could feel the tension leave her. She flipped her chair back to its upright position, taking a hesitant seat back in front of the desk. It seemed that Asha had continued to write.
Asha: We were basically pressed into service of Atropos to fight in the garrison of the Line Fortress. We’ve had a lot of people…spirits…come fight behind the walls here. We’ve been through a lot, Cat. I still remember when Atropos found me, starving to death.
There was a pause as Asha seemed to be thinking.
Asha: Well, I guess I actually did starve to death. Everyone here is dead, Cat. Me, Christie, all the other spirits. That’s why you can’t save me. This is literally no-man’s land and it’s where I belong. I had fooled myself into thinking that I could be a part of your life but…It’s time to end that delusion. I’m sorry, Cat, and I really did enjoy your stories. I’m glad I could be your friend.
Cat: Asha…We can still be friends!
Asha’s picture was smiling even as it shook its head in the manner of a flip book.
Asha: You’re impossible Cat. But no, you should go worry about your sister. She may be sick, but she’s still alive. And while I know you complain about her, you clearly have some care for Rosa too. And all the other people in your world to be friends with.
Cat: But we can be friends too!
Asha: Mmm, I know Christie’s furious with me for even writing in this book after she told me not to. It’s Atropos’s decision to make her garrison commander and she’s taken it very seriously. She’s probably going to destroy this book soon. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to talk again but…I’m glad I got to talk you for as long as I did!
Asha: Goodbye, Cat. I’ll think of you while I’m fighting here.
Her picture disappeared as Cat stared at the last message. Goodbye? It couldn’t be goodbye! Cat slammed the book shut. She didn’t care what Christie…or what even Atropos said! She wasn’t going to let them decide that Asha wasn’t allowed to be her friend!
“I’m coming for you, Asha! I’m going to save you like you wanted!” She vowed to herself. Still, she’d have enough on her hands dealing with Atropos, let alone a clone of Rosa.
An idea started to flicker in the back of Cat’s head. Who better to take down an angry redhead…than the angriest redhead Cat had ever met!