posted by Darth Krzysztof
The cat found Nastassia slumped at the roots of a mighty spruce, hugging her knees with her head down, and shivering. The thin silk fabric of her scarlet Tien-fashioned gown gave her negligible protection against the dusting of snow that had settled on her, and a rogue bramble had torn a gaping hole on the left side. Though the cat made no sound, the tiefling still glanced up as he approached. A fall breeze iced the wetness on her cheeks to remind her that she’d been crying. At least she’d persuaded the cut across her nose to stop bleeding, though it was sure to scar…
“Hi there,” the cat said, in a friendly voice. He was black as a raven’s wing, with green eyes that seemed to dance in what little light the dusk had to give them. Apart from the talking, he seemed as ordinary a cat as any Nastassia had seen before. He plopped his bottom down about ten feet away from her, looked at her with a slight tilt to his head. “What’s wrong? Are you lost?”
Perhaps I’m dying, Nastassia thought, and this is my brain thrashing around before she gives up. She didn’t know anything about these woods, though, so she couldn’t rule fey trickery out. Not yet, anyway. ”Yes,” she found herself telling the cat. Then: “No.” And, finally, “Kind of.”
“How can you be kind of lost?” She wasn’t sure if the cat’s mouth was moving at all, let alone in sync with his words. His black fur had an almost voidlike quality; the longer she looked, the less he looked like a cat, and the more a cat-shaped hole in reality. His edges seemed a little undefined. It almost hurt to look at him.
She only realized that she’d been staring when he spoke again: “What, you don’t want to tell your troubles to a talking cat you just met?”
She felt the corner of her mouth turn up against her will, and his spell over her snapped. “Sorry, it’s taking me a minute to process this. I’ve never met a talking cat. Or, at least, a cat’s never talked to me before. Do you have a name?” Nastassia considered this a fair question, for she’d once read a story where a talking cat insisted that cats didn’t need names because they knew who they were.
But the cat seemed unoffended. “Call me Canter.”
Her laugh caught Nastassia by surprise, too. “Canter? As in Count Aldus Aldon Canter, founder of the Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye? Who was forced to renounce his title when a mob interrupted his orgiastic rites?”
“I suppose.” Canter left it at that. Nastassia remembered another story that said the ancient elves learned the quality of “elven mystery” from cats.
He’s no cat, she thought. But I bet his fur is soft. And talking to him was better than sitting here sulking. “Well, Canter, I don’t know where I am, so I suppose I am lost. But, I have nowhere to go, and no reason to, so it doesn’t really matter, now does it?” Maybe she could talk and sulk at the same time.
“Nowhere to go? Where’s your home?”
“Haven’t got one. Not any more.”
“No family? Friends? Workplace acquaintances?” Something in Canter’s tone suggested that he wanted to cheer her up; something else said that he already knew the answer.
“You came from the city? Because you aren’t exactly dressed for forestry.” One velvet paw came up to wave at her gown, her fraying silk slippers. Nastassia noted that his toe beans were just gray enough to stand out against the void of his paw.
“No. I left in a hurry.” She had no weapon, no food, nothing – but leaving the music box behind hurt the most.
“Why did you leave at all?”
Nastassia shifted her legs to a cross-legged position so Canter could get a better look at her. “Do you see many people out here in the woods? Because there are thousands of people in Caliphas, and not ONE of them looks like me.” Her blood began to riot again, unbidden; she willed it to still. “They… the people where I lived didn’t want me around anymore, and I had nowhere else to go, so I left.”
Canter lowered his chest to sit on the forest floor in what Nastassia always thought of as the ‘loaf’ position. He must have decided that I’m not a threat. “Because you aren’t like them,” the cat said, evenly.
“No. I’m different.” It felt strange to say it aloud. Good? Did it feel good?
They sat in snow-damped silence for a moment.
“If you aren’t staying in the woods,” Canter asked, “then why were you going west?”
“It’s stupid.” Just a fantasy I’ve entertained since childhood.
“Yes. I – I get angry, Canter. Truth be told, I’m always angry. But sometimes it gets the better of me, and I do stupid things, like… head toward Vigil.”
Canter laughed until he sneezed, a sight adorable enough to pluck Nastassia’s heartstrings. “Vigil? Why would you want to go to Vigil?”
“See, I told you it was stupid. It’s just… I was told that the Knights of Ozem will accept anyone who’s willing to fight the undead. If that’s true, then I’m willing.” She’d also wanted to run away with the Celestial Menagerie, once, but a traveling carnival could be anywhere in the Inner Sea now…
“Fight them with what, exactly? Do you know how to fight?”
“Uh-huh. I know we just met, Nastassia, but sticking zombies with spears seems like a waste of your mind.” Canter blinked once, slowly, regarding the tiefling with those eyes that might have been green.
“What do you know about my mind?” Canter knows your name, “Nasti.” He is not a cat.
“I know that you’re imaginative, and creative, and you remember nearly everything you read. But the most important thing that you know is that you don’t know everything.”
“How is that important?”
“Because you’ll go through life with an empty cup, always trying to fill it with knowledge. You’re a seeker.” His tail swished in a manner that struck her as pleased. “You’re exactly what I – what we’ve been looking for.”
We? “Canter? What do you mean?”
Another long blink. “Do you believe in fate, Nastassia?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Prophecy’s been broken ever since the man-god died.” It served the humans right, to put their faith in Aroden. Humans were good at being disappointing, even the ones that became gods.
“Oh, I don’t mean prophecy. I mean fate.”
She recognized the distinction, wondered why Aroden had come to her mind ahead of the actual god of fate. Perhaps it was because she didn’t believe in it. “No,” she told Canter.
His tail swished lazily. “Really? In this vast forest, on this particular night, you’ve happened across a talking cat who happens to be named for the founder of your super-secret order, and he just happens to know your name. I know you’re too smart to think that any of this is a coincidence.” She couldn’t see his mouth, but she knew that Canter was smiling.
“I guess not. That doesn’t make it fate, though.”
Canter made a tsk noise. “She’s had her eyes on you for a long time, Nastassia. We knew this would be the right time to meet you. Maybe your head didn’t know the path, but your feet knew where to take you. You do have feet, don’t you? I know some tieflings have hooves and-”
“I have feet, Canter.” She lifted her knees to prove it to the cat-not-cat.
“Okay, okay. At any rate, they’ve brought you to the beginning of your path to power.”
“What power? I don’t have the… The discipline for wizardry, or alchemy, or… And I’ve never found a god that I cared to worship. Most of them just piss me off, really.” Calistria’s agenda of lust, trickery, and vengeance certainly appealed to her, but the Savored Sting had no temples in Caliphas, as far as she knew. She wasn’t the sort of tiefling who had innate magic of any kind, either.
“There are other roads to power, Nastassia. Tell me, what do you know of the Eldest?”
“The rulers of the First World? They’re something of a gap in my education; occultism doesn’t concern itself with the fey as much as I… but… wait.“ She felt her pulse quicken as her mind arrived at the conclusion before the rest of her did. “If you’re talking about the Eldest, and about fate, then you must be talking about Magdh.”
Now she could see Canter’s grin. “Your insight serves you well. Magdh the Three sees the threads of existence, lives and events from their beginnings to their ends. She has measured your thread, Nastassia, and she has an offer for you, if you’ll hear it.”
“A witch’s pact. You’re offering me a witch’s pact.” Nastassia suddenly felt very warm in this cold, darkening forest. She knew more than most about witchcraft from her occult studies, of course, but had never considered pledging herself to the dark powers that served as witches’ patrons – never dared to give people another reason to fear and hate her.
But not all patrons were dark, were they? The fey were fickle and alien creatures, mercurial and dangerous to know – and the Eldest most of all – but they weren’t evil. Magdh wasn’t, at least.
“Yes,” Canter said. “Don’t mistake me, Nastassia; it won’t be easy. You will gain great and terrible power and knowledge, but you will wield it in Magdh’s service. I can tell you from my many long years of service, there’s nothing more maddening or mysterious than trying to understand the meanings and motives of an Eldest. I can promise you this, though: your life will never be the same after this moment, whether you come with me or not.”
“Come with you? To the … the place where it will happen?”
The cat nodded.
Nastassia’s head swam through an ocean of possible futures, raced through a cosmos of realities, but the decision still took less than three seconds.
“Show me,” she said.
“Great!” Canter said, raising up his front end, then arching his middle as he fully stood up. Turning toward the heart of the woods, he said: “Follow me.”
Fighting pins and needles in her legs, Nastassia backed against the tree to get to her feet and followed Canter as the horizon swallowed the last of the day’s light.
Her pitborn eyes needed no light to see, but she still welcomed the sight of the waning crescent moon winking at her from beyond the forest canopy, for she began to wonder if she’d passed into the First World itself as the assurance of time and distance eroded. Canter took care to keep a pace she could follow, though the path grew ever wilder as they walked.
Canter half-sung a Sylvan poem as they walked; Nastassia knew it from her youth, but it seemed much more ominous in this setting. Loosely translated, it read:
if we were planning
to harm you, do you think
we’d be lurking here
beside the path
in the very darkest
The stars blazed in the sky by the time Nastassia and Canter finally reached the little clearing. Nastassia saw nine great stones, each larger than herself, encircling a pile of smaller stones arranged by lost and ancient hands to form a crude pool.
As the cold autumn breeze found her again, Nastassia beheld the woman standing behind the pool – at least, Nastassia’s mind tried to classify her as a woman, though she stood nearly three times the tiefling’s height. Clad in a flowing green robe, the giant’s hair hung in long, blond braids. She carried a spool of golden thread in one hand, and a shining pair of shears in the other. Her great head bowed in acknowledgment of the newcomers, and Nastassia dropped to her knees in awe and supplication.
“That’s – she’s a norn!” Nastassia exclaimed. The norns held the literal, physical manifestations of destiny in their hands and were among the most powerful of the fey – among the most powerful creatures in all of creation. Even someone as distrustful of authority as Nastassia knew that such a creature demanded respect.
She heard Canter’s voice beside her: “I know, right? Skuld here has served Magdh since Azlant was young, and you could count the mortals who’ve laid eyes on her without taking your shoes off.” He regarded Nastassia’s odd number of fingers. “I dunno. Maybe.”
The norn began to move around the pool, one bare foot stealing out from beneath her robe, then the other, leaving long, narrow prints in the fresh snow behind her.
“Canter? What happens now?” Nastassia asked, but the cat shushed her.
Reaching the front of the pool, Skuld leaned down and set a wooden cup at the lip of the pool. Nastassia hadn’t seen the cup in the norn’s hand, wasn’t sure how she had managed it while holding the shears, decided it wasn’t worth worrying about right now.
Once Skuld resumed her full height, Canter said, “Now, I ask you three questions. You answer each one, and you drink after each answer. Then, you’re hired.”
“That‘s it?” She finally looked from Skuld to Canter. “Three questions?”
“That’s it. The universe likes threes. The universe loves threes. And Magdh … forget about it.“
“Just questions, though? No blood, or…”
“Yep, yep, yep. Hey, I’m sorry if you’re disappointed, but we hardly ever do orgies anymore. Tonight’s a big night for witches in Irrisen, though.”
She shook her head, assuming that Canter was teasing her. Standing, she crossed the clearing, eclipsed by the norn’s moonshadow as she reached the pool. Clear, still water filled it to the brim. Nastassia uncinched her sash and let her gown slide off her shoulders to pool around her.
“You don’t have to do that,” Canter said, as he sat beside Nastassia.
“But I want to. I guess I want to show Magdh that I have nothing to hide from her.” And she wasn’t cold, not anymore. She kneeled before the pool and picked up the cup. “I’m ready.”
“Okay, then. Three questions. Here we go.” Canter cleared his throat and switched to the Sylvan tongue. “One. Nastassia Rainstrider-Kaneshiro, have you come to this sacred place freely and of your own will?” When Nastassia failed to answer right away, he added, “I know, it’s a harder question than it seems, especially when I’ve been talking about fate all night. Is this really what you want, or is it what the universe wants for you, or…?” Realizing that the tiefling was staring at him, Canter stopped and waved a paw. “Did you come here willingly?” he asked, again, flatly.
Nastassia’s proficiency in Sylvan was adequate for conversations like this. “Yes,” she said.
She dipped the cup into the pool and brought it to her lips, finding it nearly cold enough to seize her throat, but refreshing. “Is one cup enough for this part?”
Canter nodded. “Two. Having come here freely, Nastassia, do you wish to learn the art of primal magic from me? And, in doing so, learn the very mysteries of the universe itself?”
“Yes.” No hesitation this time.
This cupful was sweet as mead and seemed to burn going down, blooming inside her stomach. Was each drink going to be different?
“Three. In exchange for this knowledge, Nastassia, do you pledge yourself to Magdh the Three, to enforce her inscrutable will in Golarion and worlds beyond, until she deigns to release you, or upon the inevitable occasion where Pharasma claims you in everlasting death?”
The third cup was bitter and sour, like a mummified lemon. A bit spilled from her mouth, but she swallowed the rest and set the cup down. “I don’t feel any different,” she said after a few deep breaths, switching back to the common Taldane.
You wouldn’t, Canter said, inside her head. That was different. I haven’t imparted any spells to you yet.
But you can? she thought-sent. *Already?”
The cat who was not a cat grinned broadly.
* * *
She found Pietrek in the kitchen in the long afternoon between lunch and dinner, sneaking one of his beloved garlic sausages. Slippery Kamilla was also there; of Bazyli, there was no sign. Nastassia willed her four-fingered left hand into a corona of flame as she dashed through the room and seized Pietrek by the tunic with her right hand. Kamilla shrieked and nearly tripped over Canter, who gave her an enthusiastic, fang-baring hiss as she fled the room.
“Things are different now, Pietrek!” Nastassia announced to the whimpering man who’d closed his eyes in anticipation of his death. “Open your eyes. OPEN YOUR EYES AND LOOK AT ME.”
He peeked at her with one eye then the other. “If you’re going to kill me,” he managed in a voice that broke like a teenager’s, “please, do it quickly.” Nastassia could smell his piss streaming down his trouser legs.
“Don’t be stupid,” the tiefling growled. “I’m not going to kill you. I told you before you HURT me, that you have a role to play here, the same as me. And my new master has bid me to return to Harady Theater, for my work here isn’t done yet.” She released the fire from her hand but brought her glowing nails within inches of his eyes. “But if you ever, ever threaten me again, you’ll have Canter here to answer to.”
Canter sauntered into view and plopped his bottom down. “S’up?” he said, clearly savoring Pietrek’s horrified reaction.
“You, on the other hand … you will have to sleep, sooner or later. And the nightmares I visit upon you will make you beg for death. You’re very lucky that I’ve chosen to forgive you. Aren’t you, Pietrek?”
When he didn’t answer, Canter said, “You’d better answer the witch, buddy.”
“Yes! Yes, thank you for your mercy. Thank you, Nastassia.”
She released him, gave him a dangerous grin. “Please. Call me Nasti.”