“Loretta…” Meducia cooed.
Loretta rolled away from the voice, pulling her blankets high. It was too early for her games. Too early to learn more. She had been up half the night with the awful woman’s latest foul potion, stewing away. The addition of two cups of bat pupils near the end had created such a stench that it was a wonder it didn’t still permeate every pore in the wooden hut’s walls.
“Loretta.” Meducia repeated, more firmly.
The one-eyed girl considered her position. On the one hand, if she answered the witch, surely she would get thrown into one task or another. Some mean-spirited and ugly task, designed with the particular intent to scold her for being ‘such a lazy child’. On the other, if she pushed her luck hard enough and long enough, it was just possible she might finally make the sinister old bat snap and kill her. Plus, she’d get more time in bed. It was certainly the more appealing of the two options.
But then, Loretta would never live to see Meducia burn. To watch the crackling flames of the witch’s power turn against her. To live free and have at least the opportunity to die on her own terms. Loretta’s bitter hatred for the woman who had tricked her companions into trading her life for a few magical pills and transportation to distant Celestine was deep. It was sharpened by the lack she felt in her face – her eye, gone – a permanent disfigurement that would always remind her never to trust this psychopathic woman. She was, clearly, evil. For all her muttering about ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality between the powers’, she was a manipulator, and her directions were always leading to her own ends.
There was, too, this menace behind her power. An overwhelming, distant and ancient power. Loretta had been forced to touch its source herself. It was not worldly. Not godly. It was Other.
The bringer of all and nothing.
“Girl.” A tense danger was leaking into the sweet old granny-voice that belied Meducia’s true self.
Loretta turned over and gazed at her with a solitary bright blue eye.
“What?” She snapped.
“Is that a tone we are adopting this morning? Young ladies should have manners.”
Loretta stopped herself from rolling her eye, and with a tremendous effort of will, forced herself to sit up in bed and planted the biggest, fakest smile on her face that she could.
“How can I help you this morning?” She said in a forced singsong voice.
Meducia was unimpressed. “One shouldn’t smile so widely, child. It contorts the face.”
The little old lady turned away from the bedside and sat down in her habitual rocking chair.
“To answer your question, sweetling, I’m in the mood for a story.” She said, leaning back into the chair and setting it rocking. It was a well worn chair, but it did not so much as squeak as she gently swayed back and forth. “Tell me one,” she demanded.
Loretta’s smile dropped – she was confused, usually it was Meducia who did the storytelling around here. Generally, they were stories about her previous apprentices, all of whom had met nasty ends after leaving her, if she could be believed. Which she couldn’t. Unless she meant…
“No,” Loretta said, the word coming out as a gasp, and then, “no, please…” this time as a plea.
A grin that made Loretta sick to her stomach was all the response she got from the witch, who watched her intently from across the room.
Meducia could have simply commanded it of her, as she had years ago, but clearly the witch wanted Loretta to do it herself. To look elsewhere and to see – to truly see. To do so she would have to touch the ancient one. She had to find her sight through it. It was likely to be unpleasant. The memory of her first encounter – the feeling of the blood trickling down her arm – had been more than enough to ensure that she wouldn’t ever try it of her own accord.
Sweat was beading on her forehead, and she was breathing heavily just considering the idea. She glanced again at the witch. She knew full well that looking for help there was like seeking water from a dry well – but she was desperate. Surely there was some compassion to be found. But she could clearly see that the woman was enjoying watching her struggle.
That made her angry. Fortunately, the anger was what she needed. It made her focus. With a firming resolve to show her captor exactly what she could do, she suddenly shut her eye closed, and opened the one she had lost.
The last time Loretta had used this ability, she had been magically impelled to do so. At the time, the rush of visions was uncontrollable, and the touch of the ancient one was so passing as to be unnoticeable. She had simply slid into the trance. This time, however, as her eye opened, she could feel the far greater will of the ancient one acting around her. Her tiny eye was a part of this massive unknown now. She had been afraid that it would feel painful, or at least uncomfortable, to contemplate that connection. But it was not. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world for this eye to dwell in a realm of being so far removed from her own.
For its part, Mochi, for that was its mortal name, did not acknowledge her presence. It simply continued its being. On and on. For eternity.
Remembering the task at hand, Loretta turned her eye towards the contemplation of all. Reality shimmered like a veil before this entity, and she could pick anything in all time and space that struck her fancy to be revealed to her. That is, if she had any idea how to navigate that infinite lattice. But she did not. Meducia had yet to teach her any of that particular secret. So, choosing at random, she let her eye fall on the first large, glimmering lattice of fate that caught it.
In a world an impossible distance away, a girl’s lips parted, and her voice put words to the visions that Loretta’s eye saw.
~ * ~
It was a hot spring day, and the songbirds were singing in the trees so brightly that you could almost be convinced that there was no death or tragedy to be found in the world. It was, therefore, a truly magnificent day to be on the prowl for bird-flesh, as the blue-grey female cat was.
The cat was slowly, quietly stalking up a long, thick branch of a flowering cherry tree towards a pair of doves crooning quite amorously to one-another. The feline was patient. She had seen a few winters, and knew the ways of birds. Her timing would be precise. As she closed within pouncing distance, she didn’t make a sound. Her approach was flawless. Shielded by the blooms around her, she was a blue shadow. Even her piercing violet eyes didn’t seem out of place as they grew closer to her prey. Finally, she halted her approach, and the powerful coils of muscle in her back haunches pulled taught as she prepared to spring forward.
Inside the Tower of the Twelve Free Thoughts, the great wizard Xedeldu was leaning over a raw chunk of Niam crystal. The strange energies that emanated from the crystal, transported a great distance and at a heavy price from the Far Isles, had fascinated him all morning. They tore at the substance of spells, bending and warping them in sometimes subtle and occasionally extravagant ways – always unpredictably. He was beginning to realize how dangerous his experiments could quickly become, but he was too engrossed by the endeavor, and too invested in making his mark on the history of magic with his discoveries of Niam’s properties, to stop now.
He was baffled by the inconsistency of the Niam, however. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its effects, even after identically repeated stimuli. It was frustrating him, but he kept his temper, and decided that what he needed was to clear his mind and sharpen his focus. He brought to mind a charm of increased intellect, as he had done so many times in the past when he was experiencing such difficulties in the midst of research. He cast it almost automatically, and without a second thought.
The cat sprung, launching herself towards the doves. Some instinct had them fluttering their wings in terror, but it was too late, much too late. Claws unsheathed, mouth wide, the blue-grey blur soared with feline grace towards the pair, moments from sinking her teeth in one, and very possibly catching and tearing at the other, rendering it flightless – easy prey to pick off later.
Then, suddenly, a flash.
Green light, brighter than the sun in the sky above them, brilliantly lit the right side of the cat. She immediately flinched, twisting in mid-air away from the light, missing the doves, which fluttered out of reach. As she tumbled, the green light seemed to fill her vision regardless of her distance from its source, and soon a tingling, crackling energy began to suffuse her very being. The cat screamed as she fell into the free, empty air – a void of endless emerald green to her now. She hardly felt the shock of the ground as it rushed up to claim her, and her consciousness.
Within the Tower, the great wizard Xedeldu was no longer great, nor a wizard, nor could he so much as remember his own name. The pretty green stone that sat in front of him was nice though, and he liked it very much. His lazy eyes drifted up to the large, open window just beyond his workbench, the view looking out between the limbs of a flowering cherry tree and to the glorious day beyond. That was pretty too. He liked it very much.
When the cat had regained her consciousness, finding herself relatively unscathed but quite uncomfortable in a leafy bush, she quickly composed herself and cursed her luck for missing a meal that had been practically a sure thing. Prowling away, she considered her options and tried out a few more of her usual hunting spots. They were fruitful, and she found in herself a particular adeptness for planning out her strategy of attack. She soon had more than enough birds for several meals. It occurred to her to preserve the meat to save on work later. She soon had it swaddled in leaves and buried in a soft, cool bed of creek side mud. She had watched a huntsman do something similar with a fish a few days earlier without truly understanding what he had been up to, but it made sense to her now.
That night, a light spring rain pattered through the forest, and the cat shivered until the next morning. The rain persisted into the day, and so, after a meal of her previous day’s catch, she made for a nearby watermill, where she had in the past found refuge from the elements and cream for her belly from the friendly miller’s wife. Arriving there, she gave a few plaintive meows, and was soon greeted at the door by the happy, fat woman.
“Ah,Tess, I was wondering if we would see you today. Come on in!” The woman stepped aside for the cat to enter, but the feline was shocked dumb and stiff as a board by one simple fact. She could understand every word that the woman had just said.
The miller’s wife looked down at the cat with some concern. “Looks spooked, poor thing. I wonder if something’s been at her.” She retreated briefly from the door, leaving it open, and returning a few moments later with a dish of milk, which she laid gently on the floor in the doorway. “Come along, little one. Milkies!”
The cat remained rooted in place. Thoughts were racing through her mind. Endless questions. Even questions about her questions. How long had she been able to question? When had she learned to think this way? To process things cerebrally, rather than instinctively? Why hadn’t she ever thought like this before? What was she?
Sitting on the wet porch, the cat proceeded to experience a full awakening of her awareness of being. Every hair stood on end, every cat’s instinct within her screamed to run, but she could not escape from her own mind. There was nowhere to go.
Blood pounding, head swimming, she suddenly seized up even further, but a moment later her body went slack, dropping to the ground bonelessly. As she blacked out, she felt gentle hands curl around her body, and a floating sensation as she was lifted into the air, and borne into the mill, to be tended by the kind miller’s wife.
The cat woke later atop a set of cushions and blankets in a basket next to the hearth. She was warm and comfortable, and for a moment, happy. But soon the gears began grinding in her head again, and she burrowed it into the blankets, mewling piteously. The Miller’s wife was next to her in a trice, gently petting her soft blue-grey fur. “Oh, poor dear. I wonder what’s the matter with you?”
“I know. I know far too much,” said the cat.
For a moment, the petting stopped. The hand almost began to recoil. But something stronger than fear or superstition was within the portly woman, and that was a good heart. Chiding herself internally for nearly abandoning someone in need, she continued stroking the cat. “Is that so?” she responded, just as she might to a child who had a bad day.
“I don’t understand it,” the cat continued, “I could never understand you before. I came here to get an easy meal and to get clear of the rain, as I’ve done so many times in the past, but this time, today, the words you speak are as clear as the clearest creek. And I can speak your tongue, besides. It’s easy. So unbelievably easy.”
“There, there…” the miller’s wife said to the cat as she began to moan again. “I can see why you would be confused and surprised. I am myself! It’s not every day a cat you’ve known for years suddenly starts talking to you!” She gently pulled the cat out of the basket and settled back in a rocking chair with it in her lap. The cat did not protest. Some part of her old feline self felt safe and comfortable being manhandled by this woman, and she was hardly self-assured enough in that moment to refuse.
“But, think about what you are saying,” the woman continued, “You suddenly understand. Is that such a bad thing? It sounds to me more like a gift than a curse.”
To be continued…