September 22nd, 2024
There was a stirring in the darkness, a shadow that wound its way through the trees as Cat wandered through the ancient forest. Snow was falling gently, hushing all noise within to silence as any hint of birds or insects was gone, the wind deathly still as the cold night drifted over the forest. Cat wandered with caution through the trees, sword in hand, as she picked her way across the forest floor, never leaving her back unchecked for too long, moving this way and that with slow deliberate steps as she waited for the next attack.
For Cat was not alone in the darkness. Something shifted in the trees, always just out of view, something massive and coiling as it surrounded her on all sides. As the darkness spread it whispered to her in a dozen hushed voices, the words wafting gently into her ears but their tone acrid and unrelenting.
“There’s no place for you in this city,” The voice of Capitolina lacked its characteristic warmth and praise. “We don’t need you.”
Cat ground her teeth; she wasn’t about to be tricked.
“It’s time you found your own way,” Hanne’s voice spoke to her next. “We don’t want you here.”
“Shut up!” Cat shouted at the darkness. “I’m not about to be tricked.”
“Oh, I doubt that” The cold voice of Gisela sounded next, and for a second Cat could see her out of the corner of her eye, a silhouette standing against the darkness, vanishing when she turned her way. “You’re a fool, and underestimating your enemies is going to get you killed.”
“I’d like to see them try,” Cat’s hands tightened on the hilt of her sword.
“All you mages are the same” The voice of Vittorio of Sicily came next. “A tyrant’s blood runs in you. You’re no hero, just a monster waiting to be born.”
Cat didn’t reply; she wasn’t going to argue with a shadow.
“I put my trust in you,” Asha’s voice came next. “I guess it really wasn’t worth that much to you.”
“I’d never betray anyone’s trust!” Cat snapped. “Not Asha’s, not anyone’s!”
“You’re not a hero,” The voices said together, speaking as a single bodiless chorus. “You’re a child lost in the dark.”
Cat spun around, sword raised, the silver blade’s shine seeming to grow dimmer by the second as she looked for the source of the voices, the head of whatever darkness surrounded her.
A child lost in deep delusion
Of stunted build and crippled urd
An ill-born story told and ended
The womb and tomb of tales untold.
Cat felt herself shiver as the echoing voices came together into the terrible voice of Nidhoggr. The dragon of Yggdrassil with a voice pulled from the mouths of countless dead, with those she helped and cared for lost forever in tis jaws. Its great yellow eyes lit up the darkness, sickly blue with the glow of death as its ever-widening jaws reflected the white of the snow, the voices lost within its gullet screaming at her as it roared.
“What good were you to begin with!?”
“You were nothing but a child!”
“Wake up, Cat!”
Cat launched herself forward, all but catapulting Basil from where he had been curled at her side and nearly headbutting the person who had grabbed her shoulders in her sleep.
“Ah! Goddammit, you almost clocked me there!” Rosa pulled back, releasing her as Basil darted out of the room.
“Ah! S-sorry, what time is…w-wait…” Cat blinked her eyes rapidly as the dream faded away. She was in her bed, in her room, wrapped in her blanket as the late morning sun came streaming in through the windows. The only unusual thing in her room was Rosa standing over her bed, hands on her hips and an annoyed expression on her face.
“G-get the hell out of my room!” Cat shouted at her, pulling up the blanket. “Who let you in here!?”
“Hilde,” Rosa said simply, not moving. “You missed practice, I mean what the hell we had a day scheduled!”
“Get out, get out!!” Cat shouted, grabbing her pillow and throwing it at her. “I’ll meet you downstairs just get out of my room!”
Rosa deftly dodged the pillow as she started backing out, a smirk growing on her face. “S’not like I caught you with anyone in here.”
“Wha-“ Cat looked at her before turning scarlet. “Get the hell out, you jerk!”
“Or were you worried I’d see you in your jammies?” Rosa gave her a Cheshire grin, ducking another thrown pillow as she opened the door.
“They’re cute, by the way, but I was expecting a onesie.”
With a quiet slam, Rosa slid out the door and shut it behind her, leaving Cat alone in the room and now incredibly annoyed as she tried to clear her thoughts. The memories of the nightmare had already begun to fade, but she could still feel her heart thumping in her chest and the adrenaline rushing through her body. None of it was real, she’d told herself; it was nothing but a dream.
But dreams had power, the witch-goddess Huldra had told her so those months ago, and she’d proven it to Nidhoggr. And while the monster in her dreams might have just been a figment of her imagination, the Dragon of Yggdrassil was very real.
After a few minutes sitting huddled among her blankets and sheets, Cat slid out of bed and retrieved some fresh clothes before heading to the shower. When she made it downstairs a little while later, she saw Rosa helping herself to some of their bacon as Basil eyed it hungrily from the floor.
Before taking a bite, Rosa passed a glance to the hungry cat. “Step off, kitty. This is mine.”
“Mrow,” Came Basil’s pleading reply.
“Nope,” Rosa took a bite out of it, looking as if she gained some real satisfaction from depriving Basil.
“Oh, stop teasing him,” Cat said, annoyed as she pulled some eggs from the cupboard.
“Ya, the bigger Cat is here anyway,” Rosa said, shoving the rest of the strip into her mouth. “You know I appreciate a good pun but if you start sleeping as much as a cat I’m going to have to kick your ass like this every morning.”
“Ya, won’t happen again,” Cat said, too tired to argue.
Rosa looked at her for a second before speaking.
“Something up?” She asked.
“Something like what?” Cat asked, warming up the pan.
“I mean you sound like a zombie and look a bit like one too.”
“Oh, come on where’s all that energy from earlier?” Rosa asked. “Unless you’re plotting to try and beat me with that frying pan. Good luck.”
“I’m not going to beat you with this frying pan,” Cat sighed.
“Well then what is it?” Rosa said.
“Just…some bad dreams,” Cat said, sitting down at the table with her plate of eggs and the last of Rosa’s bacon. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fine,” Rosa said. “Then we won’t talk about it, but don’t go missing practice again. I was pissed when Hilde came and told me you were sleeping.”
“Ya I know…sorry…” Cat wanted to say something, to make fun of Rosa’s own frequent laziness or defend the fact that she’d been having night terrors, waking up intermittently throughout the night, but she felt too listless, too tired, too…grey.
“Whatever, you got magic school at one, right?”
“Ya I…ah, dammit what time is it?” Cat said annoyed, glancing around to take a look at the clock.
“You got time,” Rosa waved it off. “I’ll walk you, make sure that you don’t fall asleep halfway there.”
“Thanks…” Cat said, a bit sheepishly. She didn’t need an escort.
“You still taking lesson with Albion?”
“Not usually these days,” Cat said. “Election’s almost decided, after all.”
“So you’re with what’s-her-name now? Silver hair, big rack?”
“Her name’s Lutetiana, no need to be crude,” Cat frowned. “She’s a really smart teacher.”
“Ya, I bet,” Rosa said. “What do you learn in magic school anyway?”
“Stop calling it that,” Cat said. “It’s more…tutelage and research. I study magic theory and history while working to apply it to my own skills.”
“Sounds even more boring than magic school,” Rosa feigned a yawn. “How do you actually manage to make shooting ice from your hands like a comic-book mutant boring?”
“Oh, shut up it is not boring,” Cat frowned. “You’re just a jerk. You don’t even go to school.”
“Hey, I take plenty of lessons!” Rosa said. “They’re just from Capitolina and are actually interesting. We learn about battles and strategies, not dull magic history.”
“It’s the same thing,” Cat frowned.
“Ya, ya” Rosa shrugged. “Come on, we should get moving.”
“Fine,” Cat put her dishes in the sink, going back to her room to get her books from her room before following Rosa out the door.
“So your friend Megame was causing some big ruckus at the river,” Rosa said.
“Eh, Megame? That doesn’t sound like her,” Cat said. “She’s not the ruckus type.”
“Ya, you’ll have to talk to her about it, I just heard it all secondhand,” Rosa said.
They walked towards Albion’s townhouse at a steady pace, mostly swapping small talk or Cat simply enduring Rosa’s near-constant needling. Something in her simply felt…off, as if she had never fully recovered from the dream. Though she hadn’t been particularly happy when she went to bed either. She wanted to say it was Gisela’s fault, that the woman had gotten into her head somehow, but she knew that it had been since her battle with Nidhoggr that this feeling had started, it had only just started getting worse.
“Do you ever get…y’know, nightmares?”
There was a brief silence between them as they continued walking down the street.
“Everyone has nightmares these days, Cat,” Rosa said. “We all just need to learn to live with it.”
“Ya, I guess so.”
“You better not be looking for a shoulder to cry on or a girlfriend to discuss your dreams with.”
“Ugh, not with you,” Cat managed a small smirk.
“Good,” Rosa nodded. “I’d have to beat you up if you tried.”
“As if you could.”
The small talk started up again with more energy this time as they continued their path, and eventually Rosa left Cat as they stopped before the thick wooden door of Albion’s estate, the inner lining of the doorframe carved with runes and writing in ancient languages. When she had first come here, Cat had thought it was largely decorative, now she had a better understanding of the kind of mage Albion was, the kind that was always armed and armored. Her mentor was not someone to be taken lightly.
Albion was out today, likely working with the Senate, meaning she had only his assistant Lutetiana for company. There was always his personal daemon, Suty, but she had become much more elusive since Lutetiana arrived. Cat harbored the feeling that the daring young demoness was not only cautious around her, but downright afraid.
“Ah, young Catarina, right on time,” Lutetiana had a voice that should have put her at ease, but instead always made Cat acutely aware of everything she was doing, as if every breath and twitch of her muscles was being judged. Lutetiana was certainly a gorgeous woman, and Cat personally believed that Albion was always swift to use that to his advantage against the other senators. Popular rumor had it that the two of them were having an affair, but Cat didn’t think of Albion as the romantic type.
“Lady Lutetiana,” Catarina bowed her head. “What will be today’s lesson?”
“Today we will be studying the Magoi of Classical Greece, starting with Pythagoras,” Lutetiana said. “I assume you brought the relevant literature and last week’s assignment?”
The lesson went as it normally did. Lutetiana would spend the first hour grilling her over the assigned reading, making sure she understood even the finest detail and recalling an almost encyclopedic knowledge of magical history and theory. After that came the practical where Catarina had to demonstrate that she could perform accurately the rituals being described (Even if no actual magic was being done) as well as the relevance it had to modern Thaumaturgy. Today however, while her conversation with Rosa had pulled her out of the doldrums, it was clear that neither her mind nor her heart were one hundred percent in her lesson, and Lutetiana not only noticed, but seemed to take it as an affront.
“Am I boring you, Catarina?” She asked, golden eyes flashing dangerously.
“N-no not at all!” Cat said quickly. “I’m just…not in a good state right now.”
“Clearly,” There was no comfort in her voice as she compiled a number of withered-looking scrolls on a nearby table with nothing but a flick of her wrist. “Then we will end the lesson early today and you shall have a double-length session next week, with this as your reading assignment. I trust then that I will not be disappointed.”
“N-No, Lady Lutetiana, my apologies again.”
“Then go and clear your head,” she said. “Before I am forced to take further punitive action.”
Cat bowed, gathering up some of the scrolls as she hurried out, hoping not to offend her further somehow along the way. As she left the estate, Cat took a long sigh. From the start this just had not been her day. Kicked out of her lesson (which Albion would certainly hear about), missing her practice with Rosa and Hilde, and though she’d never admit it she was a bit embarrassed at Rosa having to pull her out of bed. Something was wrong with her, and had been for a long time. She needed a place where she could quietly work things out for herself, alone in a familiar setting.
After walking a while through the town she made up her mind. She was going home.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa