I stood by the open window of my room, gazing at the moonlit forest beyond the castle’s wall. The snow-covered trees of the Black Forest spread across the entire horizon, the moon a bright, full circle atop the sky.
Normally, I would enjoy the peace and the fresh winter breeze toying with my hair. But now, my gaze focused on the castle’s back door, through which Mother just walked out of the castle.
That happened once per week, at most, and she was never gone for more than a few hours.
An engine roared into the night and a black Ferrari bolted onto the road from the castle, diving into the forest.
I drew my phone, typed a message, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and sent it to the last number from which Elsha wrote me.
‘Don’t you want to meet me, Casey?’ came back as a reply from another number. For every exchange of messages, she wrote from a different number.
‘I do, but what if Mother comes back because she forgot something?’
‘Has that ever happened?’
No. Mother never forgot anything. But there could always be the first time. I looked over my room, a vast chamber that spanned half of the castle’s floor. I was born in this room and I had never slept anywhere else. And never in my life had I walked out of my chambers without Mother’s company.
With a swift look, I verified my parrots had enough seeds, that the food bowls of my three cats were full, that the hamsters had fresh water, and that none of my fish in their massive aquarium swam with its belly up.
Last, I looked at Gaheera. As usual, the Bengal tigress lay in my bed, ignoring its cot.
I gulped and motioned at her to come to me.
Gaheera jumped from the bed and rushed to me, rubbing herself on my leg, almost knocking me down.
I ducked, caught her head, and stroked her under the jaw as I placed my face in front of hers, “You are going to help me with something, okay?”
Gaheera licked my face, tongue rough and wet.
I giggled, and let her go, proceeding to use a nearby curtain to dry my face. I drew my phone, ‘Okay, I’m going.’
‘I will watch over you.’
Warmth spread through my chest. Mother gave me this phone with only one saved contact, hers. But one day, a message came from an unknown number. I wrote back. Message by message, over the past four years, Elsha kept writing to me.
And since the few servants Mother kept were all mindless thralls, Elsha was the only person other than Mother that I have ever talked with.
Swiftly, I changed from my usual princess-like dress into sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. I put on blue eye lenses to cover my eye’s natural, dark red, color, and I motioned Gaheera to follow me, which she did, and we ran out of my chambers.
I descended the stairs all the way to the courtyard and waited for Gaheera to catch up. She never liked stairs, always waiting for a moment before she ran down the next flight, as if she expected me to carry her. I opened the ground floor’s door and peeked out. No servants were in sight, the castle courtyard serene.
I ran out of the keep, all the way to the back door leading to the garage. As I approached, I felt Mother’s protective magic. It is to protect us from the humans, she always told me. To stop them from killing us. From killing you.
Inconveniently though, the magic would also detect me opening the door. Mother never told me that part, but I analyzed the protective patterns extensively enough to know that. But I also studied them enough to know they didn’t get triggered by animals.
“Okay, Gaheera,” I said, looking at the tigress. “Like we practiced, you jump on the handle.” I pointed at the door.
The tigress looked at me, not moving.
“Come on,” I ordered. “Jump like we’ve practiced.” I showed the motion with my hands of how I wanted her to jump on the handle with her paws.
She kept staring at me, not moving.
I drew a sharp breath, ducked, and grabbed the sides of her head. “Look, I need to go find something, and for that, I need you to open the door. Understand?”
Gaheera tried to lick my face, but I dodged.
“No playing around. Open the door, and I promise I will be back by dawn.”
After an intense moment of glaring into each other’s eyes, the tigress looked away. I let her go and rose.
Gaheera ran forward and jumped, both paws on the handle, opening the door.
Splendid. I smiled, saying, “Good girl. Now, go back to my chambers, and watch over the others. I will be back by dawn.”
She sat by the door, looking at me.
“No, you can’t come with me.” I aimed my arm at the tower. “Go.”
Reluctantly, Gaheera got up and walked toward the tower.
I didn’t want her to go. The tigress was the first pet I ever received from Mother, and I almost never went anywhere without her. But precisely because she was so precious to me, I couldn’t risk her getting harmed.
I waited for her to vanish inside the tower before I walked through the door to the garage.
Mother’s cars, all polished to perfection, parked in two rows, all painted in a combination of red and black colors. She taught me how to drive in the Maserati, so I chose that one. I sat inside, turned the keys Mother always left in the ignition, and the engine roared to life.
Quickly, I texted Elsha. ‘I’m heading out.’
A message came back almost in an instant, again from a different number. ‘God speed. Turn right on the first crossroad, get on the highway, pass through Switzerland, head toward Milan, and then to Florence. No one will stop you.’
I smiled and drove to the exit door, which started opening automatically. I read about all those cities, but Mother never took me outside of Germany.
She said it wasn’t safe even here, much less anywhere else. That everyone else wanted nothing other than to kill us.
But Mother said many things. And now, I was going to find out for myself. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor, and the car bolted out of the garage.
Through the forest, I passed quickly, and then I got onto the highway to Switzerland. As Elsha said, no one stopped me, even when I drove at over two hundred miles per hour. Thanks to it being the middle of the night, the highway was clear save for trucks, but those were all in the slow lane.
And I watched in amazement the world around me. With Mother next to me, I didn’t have many chances to do that. But now, I could see all the beautiful villages, the vast fields, and the bright lights of cities.
Everything was so beautiful, much more so than in the movies and TV shows I watched. I needed to ask Mother to go out of the castle much more often.
A few hours later, my gas control light lit up, but I saw the signs for Florence by the highway’s side. And my phone buzzed.
Holding the wheel with one hand, I looked at the message. From a new number, again, saying, ‘Almost there. Don’t worry about the gas, take the exit, and then follow the arrows.’
What arrows? Curious, I took the exit. And above the crossroad ahead, shone an arrow made from low, violet light, floating in the air.
Elsha was so amazing. As I took the turn, the arrow vanished, and I could already see the next arrow at the crossroad ahead.
The way I understood and practiced magic this was impossible. Yet this was far from the first time I had seen Elsha do something impossible. I had to meet her and find out how she did this.
Arrow by arrow, I dove into the city, all the way to the center. Finally, a violet square shone above place by a massive basilica. I stopped gas tank virtually empty.
As I did, my phone buzzed. ‘The Compass should be down in Galileo’s tomb. Underground floor, right, straight, straight, left, left.’
I pocketed the phone and stepped out of the car. And I instantly stopped. The air here differed from the castle. Instead of the pleasant smell of scented candles, this place stank of fumes, garbage, and human sweat.
I scrunched my nose, wishing I would soon return to my chambers. As I walked to the basilica, I pondered stopping my sense of smell. To begin with, my senses of smell and to taste were artificial, existing purely so I could better blend among humans in case of emergency, just like my chest moving as if I were breathing.
But even if the smells were foul, they were new, and I didn’t want to risk missing something new that could happen to be pleasant.
I walked to the building’s front entrance, reading Basilica de Santa Croce on the plate by the massive, wooden door. I tried the door, but it was locked.
Violet light flashed above the lock, and it clicked open.
Pleased with Elsha helping me, I opened the door and entered the basilica. The hall welcomed me, vast and serene, smelling of wood and incense.
I liked that. The Church may have spent most of its history inventing ways to kill my kind, but I did like this place. I imagined the priest standing by the altar at the front, the followers filling the nave, and music weaving through the air.
But I promised Gaheera I would be back by dawn, so I couldn’t linger. Tomorrow, I was going to ask Mother to take me to visit this place properly.
I turned to the side, walked through a smaller door that had a violet check sign shining on it, and headed down the stairs into the catacombs.
Those smelled a lot worse, moldy. and unclean. Dots of violet light shone on the floor, guiding me to one among the many tombs.
I stopped in front of a small door, reading the deceased’s name: Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaulti de Galilei. Mother taught me about him, the father of modern science, and also of observation astronomy.
I opened the door and entered the small but grandly decorated tomb. No violet light guided me, so I spread my magic around, touching everything with my mind.
The Compass I sought was supposed to be an ancient artifact crafted by Galileo himself. And anything that contained magic would resist my power from passing through.
I scanned the entire tomb, even the insides of the sarcophagus, but my magic met no resistance. Instantly, I drew my phone, and tested Elsha. ‘The compass isn’t here.’
‘Look again. It’s supposed to be there.’
I did as she asked, but the result was the same. ‘I can’t find it.’
For a moment, no message came, but then my phone vibrated in my hands, and at the same moment, a freezing chill crept up my spine. I read the text: ‘The Monster is coming. Hide!’
I closed the door behind me, focused, and turned to mist. I floated by the tomb’s walls until I found a crack in the wall. I compressed myself into the crack, filling it with my mist.
In this form, I couldn’t see anything, but intuitively, I knew what happened in the radius around me. And hopefully, the Monster wouldn’t spot me. Mother had to have returned to the castle, found out I was missing, and sent the Monster after me.
The door burst open and a swarm of bats flew into the tomb. Screeching, they circled through the tomb before flying out. I stretched my consciousness further, detecting thousands of bats swarming through the basilica. The Monster usually took the form of a bat swarm when traveling far.
I didn’t dare to move an inch since the Monster could see through their eyes and feel through their senses. The bats checked the building’s every corner, breaking open any door they needed to, but they weren’t terribly good at detecting mist. In about fifteen minutes, they started flying out through the window they broke to enter.
I remained hidden, waiting for five more minutes to make sure the bats didn’t return. If the Monster caught me, she would drag me back to the castle, which I couldn’t allow to happen until I got the Compass.
Yes, Mother would be angry, but as Elsha always said, forgiveness was easier obtained than allowance.
Carefully, I floated from my hiding spot, and returned to my original form. My phone buzzed, receiving a message sent minutes ago. It read: ‘They should have a book of records somewhere.’
Great, but how was I supposed to find that? I stared at the phone, wondering if Elsha didn’t mean this message for someone else. No correction came, so I sighed, and turned into mist.
I seeped over the ground up to the basilica’s nave. A dozen bats remained inside, hanging from the ceiling, watching. But spotting a strangely floating puff of mist in nearly absolute darkness was beyond their means.
I advanced up the stairs, searching for an archive or something along those lines. Since the bats broke all doors, nothing stopped me, and after half an hour of searching, I found a room full of large tomes.
Any of these could be the book of records. I stretched out my consciousness, searching for any hiding bats. Nothing popped into my mind, so I rematerialized.
Not waiting for anything, I combed through the tomes. And I found one named ‘Libro dei Registri.’
Mother never taught me Italian, but this looked promising. I flipped a few pages, and saw I had what I sought. I skimmed through the text until I found the page of Galileo’s Compass. And to my satisfaction, the records were written in English:
1902, April: Moved to Basilica of Santa Croce study
1914, November: Stolen, perpetrator unidentified
1946, July: Returned to Basilica of Santa Croce
2014, March: Traded to Mage Guild of New York
New York? That was on the wrong continent. How was I supposed to get there?
My phone buzzed, message arriving as if Elsha had read my mind. The text said: ‘I’m getting you tickets to New York from Milan Airport. The flight leaves in two hours.’
I instantly wrote back. ‘I can’t fly to New York!’
‘You are the mighty Unliving Queen. You can do whatever you please.’
Elsha liked to call me that, and I loved it, but that was just a fantasy. ‘I promised Gaheera I’ll be back by sunrise.’
‘She’s a big cat and has enough food to last the Roman Empire for a thousand years. She will manage.’
But what I about my parrots? I wanted to argue but realized the pointlessness. This may have been the first time I ever left the castle without Mother’s company, but if I went back now, it would be the last time for a very long time. Since the Monster was already hunting me, Mother knew I had left, and she would make sure I had no opportunity to do that again for years to come.
And the Great Conjunction, the second requirement for me meeting Elsha, was happening in less than a week, and wouldn’t come again for another twenty years. If I didn’t bring the Compass, if I couldn’t meet Elsha, I would spend all those years regretting it.
I closed my eyes and turned into mist. I left the basilica, and floated right above the ground, all the way to where I left my car. And it was there, except that six bats stuck to its hood, waiting.
Panic washed over my mind. I had no way to get out of here. Swiftly, I floated around the corner, and materialized, hiding behind the basilica’s back wall. I drew my phone and texted Elsha: ‘They’re watching the car. What do I do?’
A message came back in an instant. ‘I prepared another one for you.’
As I read the text, a violet dot shone in front of me, and more dots followed through the park, leading me. Amazed, I followed them, passing through the park, across the street, and to a black Audi that awaited me at a small parking lot, violet checkmark shining on its driver’s door.
I took the handle, and the door opened. Inside, I found the keys in the ignition. When I closed the door, my phone buzzed.
‘Next stop: Milan Airport. I will guide you.’
With a soft smile, I returned my phone into my pocket. I lied to Gaheera.
I was not going to be back by sunrise.