Cateline had bid the twins a farewell shortly after lying through her teeth. They did not doubt her, which only fueled the theory that what they said was the cold, hard truth. Those two, as terrifying as they may be, welcomed her to the academy with such warm smiles—albeit, their sharpened canines did not exactly calm her nerves when they showed her hospitality.
Each step she took throughout this town made her feel further from reality. Her mind was so overwhelmed with the possibilities of being put under some magical comatose, ultimately no better than a puppet under the control of some wicked puppeteer. She could only wonder which sick mage would hunt her down in Axulran.
Sure, her family was infamous and cruel—so cruel that the guards were rumored to only see their family at the dead of night while her father slept soundly—but they were also resourceful. Family is blood, and blood runs deep.
As much as she loathed her father for the treatment she received as a kid, and for the countless beatings her mother received as a result of defending her children, she could not believe that he would simply allow her one and only daughter to be wisped away like smoke in the wind. Not because he loved her, but because she was an asset. A glorified chess piece in his master plan.
Cateline understood little about her experiences thus far in Traburg, nor did she understand how she was supposed to be involved in whatever magical ruse this puppeteer was orchestrating, but something loomed over her knowing how easy it was to put somebody under comatose, or to induce amnesia. Those poor twins—if it weren’t for them, Cateline would be just as clueless as she was when she arrived.
Now, she knew better. She knew that the merchant begging her to purchase his newly traded blanket was not to be trusted. She knew the scholars who stared at her from afar were rats waiting to throw her under the rug. She knew Jaspar was just as knowledgeable as he was willing to erase somebody's memory for convenience.
Moving away from the city center, Cateline hugged that basket close to her chest and kept her focus forward. The quiet was calming as she distanced herself from the mayhem of bartering and bickering. Now, all that surrounded her were patches of farmland and a still shoreline. The water hardly rippled.
To her right was the Liverstone household, with their decrepit wooden fence and wooden home propped with a crooked foundation. Although she kept her distance, she could hear Joseph grunt as he chopped wood around the back. In the window, Cateline saw a glimpse of Petunya kneading dough and wiping sweat from her brow.
Just when she was about to turn away to head back toward the academy, a man approached from the distance. He pushed a barrow full of hay, his tongue stuck between his front teeth as he maneuvered around the divots in the dirt and mud.
His back was turned to Cateline, but that physique and dark and messily tousled hair was unmistakable. Varin.
The last time they had spoken was days ago when he insulted her family name. It was instinctual to protect that, but she would be a fool if she refuted his claims.
King Airen was a mean man, but his kingdom was grand. Axulran had so much potential. Potential ruined by the blood shed all across Denzethea.
Cateline sucked in a breath and leaned on a big oak tree, putting the basket on a flattened root. Varin set the barrow down and knocked on the doorframe. Sweeping his hair back and out of his face, he stepped away and took a longing look around. Cateline valued how inquisitive of a man he was, but it was daunting how mysterious that made him. Strong willed, of course, but his cynicism and pragmatic approach to life was something she craved to understand.
Naturally, Cateline was the opposite. Growing up sheltered and locked away from most of the kingdom meant she saw things much more positively than others would. It was scary to be lost in a land she knew so little about, but there were things to keep her optimistic.
Such as her will to be as far away from her father as possible. In the same breath, she longed for her siblings and mother.
Oh, how she longed for her mother.
One day, that longing would be no more. Hopefully one day soon.
Approaching from the corner of the home was a bustling child, with her long, blonde strands of hair bouncing behind her. She wore a dress that had patches all around the end of her skirt, a sign that she was too rough while playing outside.
Senevia served no purpose as an orderly child. With that fire in her step, she would surely be a warrior. And Cateline could see Varin valued that in her.
Even from here, Cateline could see how Varin’s entire demeanor changed. His brooding and hunched stance straightened, and his lips curved into a smile that could brighten the shadows of any trench. He was happy—the type of happiness that made her heart tighten in her chest.
Varin kneeled down so he could be at Senevia’s level and nodded in response to the nonsense she was surely telling him. A childlike banter that would be never ending. He patted the girl on her shoulder before standing back up, grabbing hold of the barrow and gestured for Senevia to follow him. Eventually, they disappeared behind the home and Cateline was left with nothing to warm her soul.
She yearned to feel that happiness—to have somebody to consider family. Whether he admitted it or not, Varin saw that girl as somebody to care for. And with how Joseph was when Cateline washed up in Traburg weeks prior, it was easy to tell Senevia considered Varin more of a father than her own blood. With a trembling pout, Cateline grabbed hold of her basket once more and wiped some dirt from her corset.
Blood is blood. But, by the Heavens, Cateline wished and hoped to have somebody that cared for her like blood should.
Cateline fidgeted in her seat, tapping her hands against the fabric of her dress with shaky fingers. She was sitting on a bench in the lobby, ignoring each passerby as the few scholars walked toward the courtyard. Apparently a sacred period of time was approaching, and each scholar was expected to join the headmistress and Jaspar in the courtyard to discuss it.
She hoped to find Aiora, or even Varin. Either of them would serve as a healthy distraction. Instead, she met the gaze of the twins.
“Cateline!” They both greeted her as they approached. They bowed mockingly, and although she realized this was merely out of good fun, and less as a formal greeting, it made her muscles tense.
Standing to her feet, she stifled a chuckle. “Please, don’t bow.”
The two grinned up at her, raising their eyebrows before nodding and straightening their stance. “Of course, Cateline. We were only kidding.”
Percyphoni nodded and interlocked one arm with Cateline’s elbow, the other with her twin. Melydi nodded and led the way to the courtyard. “Tell us, Cateline,” Percyphoni began, “do you know what we are all called to meet about?”
“I do, and let me tell you… great fun!” Melydi smiled.
“I do not,” Cateline responded and lowered her stare to the ground. What else are they to expect? I know nothing.
“Come along, then. I won’t spoil the fun!” Percyphoni giggled.
“You do that naturally,” her twin retorted.
Cateline smiled at their bickering, eventually letting their conversations fade into the background.
Once they exited into the courtyard, the groups of scholars filled the air. Their conversations drowned into one another, groups segregated by race. The elves stood near the front, their attire royal and proper. They stuck their noses up at the groups that got too close, otherwise uninterested in what their companions had to say.
The dwarves sat at a table by the Fountain of Runes, some carving into blocks of wood with a chipper, others occupying the outdoors with their throaty laughs. Most of them lacked hair on their heads, but each made up for it with beards that fell to their knees. She found them intriguing—in Axulran, Cateline had been exposed to a few elves before they were entirely banished, excluding her mentor Alleyn, but never had she seen a dwarf.
Her late mentor told her stories of their existence. Often, they made settlements at the peaks of valleys in hopes to find dungeons and caves that housed treasures. They were feisty things, ones that would slaughter their foe and hang the head over a fire.
Ruthless, but admirable. Alleyn was convinced they would create some of the richest settlements known to man in the coming years, but Cateline had her doubts. Afterall, that was nearly eight years ago and they were nothing but murderous nomads, at least as far as she could tell. She was always quick to judge, regardless of her kind nature.
Mindlessly looking around, she yearned to find her friends. If she could call them that, at least. She still wasn’t sure what she should consider friendly, and what she should consider hostile. The line was still gray and blurry—she worried it always would be.
Varin was nowhere to be found, as was Aiora. The only essence of familiarity stood in the corner, arms crossed over his chest and hair tousled around two curly horns. Although she had never met him in person, she was certain that it was Thaddius.
Or, better known as the other man who saved her that night the drunkards tried to publicly execute her. He was a tall man, his shoulders broad and tufts of hair poking out the collar of his tunic and ends of his pants. He looked overwhelmly bored, eyes also roaming over the courtyard.
Turning to the twins, she tried to catch up on what they were saying.
“...and that Jaspar has looked pale ever since!” Meldyi said with a huff.
“I agree, I agree. Something isn’t right with him,” Percyphoni responded without missing a beat.
Dropping her hands to her side, Cateline cleared her throat. “I think I got distracted, why is Jaspar looking pale?”
Melydi smirked. “Ever since the headmistress has been sneaking him away into her chambers!”
“Been weeks, it has!” Percyphoni agreed.
“Really?” Cateline raised her brow, turning her attention to where the two of them stood. They were talking amongst themselves, hardly paying mind to the growing crowd as they conversed. Jaspar was ghastly, truly—his cheekbones as pronounced as Leolina’s but the hollows of his cheeks were so much more defined than hers. Where the headmistress aged with beauty, Jaspar reflected the unfortunate consequence of time. His eyes were just as golden as hers, and each time light reflected on either of their irises, the yellow hues flickered in visibility even from where she currently stood. It was difficult to understand how somebody could find him attractive—pureblood elf or not.
“How many weeks?” Cateline continued.
“Roughly three, maybe a little more,” Melydi said.
“I’d pay money on four!” Percyphoni said with a giggle. “Who knows, could be longer for all we know…”
Cateline hummed, letting her curious stare fall to the ground. “I suppose that would be quite the scandal. I will catch you two at a later time, though—I have never been a fan of crowds.”
“Sure, Cateline, but please find us soon. I must know what you think about the announcement!” Melydi said with a mischievous smile.
Peryphoni mimicked this expression, waving goodbye as Cateline walked away. She moved through the sparse crowds until she was on the same side as Thaddius, holding her breath as his eyes caught hers. With a narrowed gaze, he nodded his head in greeting, a welcoming signal that it was okay to approach him.
“Thaddius, is it?” she said just loud enough to be heard.
“And you are Cateline. Aiora and Varin haven’t shut up about you.”
“I hope all good things.”
“That is subjective, sure, but I would say so…”
Cateline flashed her eyes before shrugging her shoulders, holding her hands in front of her torso. “Good, good. Listen, Varin told me you were the other gentleman who saved me the other night.”
“Gentleman? Honorable title.”
“Is it true?”
Thaddius pursed his lips and nodded. “‘Tis nothing but the truth. I wouldn’t let those drunkards execute a girl—even ones that were clearly lost and out of their realm. Were you intoxicated that night?”
Cateline felt her cheeks flushed, shaking her head wildly. “No! Of course not! It is not a lady’s place to—”
“Relax, relax. All in good fun, Cateline.”
Taking a breath, she smiled awkwardly before curtsying. “I wanted to thank you, genuinely. Without the two of you, I wouldn’t have found my way to Lighthelm.”
“Still no clue how you’ve found your way to Traburg. That said, it is no worry Cateline. I would do it for anybody. Besides, Varin told me you had been taking occupancy in the Liverstone residency. I wouldn’t make you stay with that good-for-nothing farmer. He’s absolutely mad!”
Stifling a chuckle, she turned her head to the headmistress as sparks flew into the air, clapping above the heads of the Lighthelm scholars. Without a moment of hesitation, everybody grew silent and their attention was turned to the front. Jaspar stood aside Leolina, his hands folded behind his back and a judgemental stare crawling across each resident. Eventually, it landed on her and she could have sworn he stared for a moment too long.
“Welcome, scholars,” Leolina said with a strong voice. “I thank you for coming out this afternoon, I understand there are pressing matters each of you have to attend to, so I shall keep this quick. In the coming weeks, our Blood Moon will rise and the powers of the firstborn will flow through our veins. Another year of celebration for Lunarseve!”
The crowd cheered, although Cateline did not know what for. She decided to play along, clapping for exactly how long Thaddius did. How is it possible for the firstborn’s energy to flow through their veins if they were dead?
Leolina held out her hands to hush the cheers, a smile creeping across her features. She continued.
“This is an important year, you see. The Blood Moon will rise over our horizon and be the brightest it has ever been, as prophesied, and it is rumored that one of the many mages across the land will be blessed with the immortal powers of the Firstborn.
"I know everybody has their own reservations, but I have reason to believe it will be here. Soon, each of the scholars who have shown potential will receive an invitation. Should this arrive to you, I expect nothing less than your attendance and obedience throughout this ceremonial event.”
Cateline furrowed her brow, a knot growing in her chest. She knew well and good that magic was daunting enough to her already, but the premise of a long-dead witch overtaking the soul of a mage to give immortality seemed far too dangerous to be considered ceremonial and celebratory. Regardless, the men and women around her cheered and smiled once more.
“Lastly,” Jaspar chimed in, “we want the residents of Traburg to witness our power and pride. This year's Lunarseve Banquet will be the first public celebration. We will be opening our doors to the citizens of our kingdom, including our royal family.”
“As such, Lighthelm scholars should expect to be well dressed and ready to impress. With that in mind, we bid you a farewell as you prepare for this exciting Lunarseve.”
As the scholars around her dispersed across the courtyard, some walking toward the headmistress and others back into the academy, Cateline stood still. The world around her was blurring in and out of focus, so much so that she leaned on the wall near her and Thaddius to balance herself.
“Are you alright, Cateline?” Thaddius asked.
Nodding, she reached up to rub her forehead and forced a smile. “Quite alright, just a little headache. Probably need some water.”
As she looked up, back toward Jaspar and Leolina, her breath hitched in her throat as her vision cleared just enough to catch sight of a blonde woman standing behind the two of them. Although it was difficult to separate reality from fantasy, she was certain that woman—with her golden eyes and sinister sneer—was the very entity that attacked her in the bath house no more than a week prior.