"We have arrived."
She smirks, gets on her knees and grabs some shrubs, and even though they appear hooked to the surface, she moves them and reveals an entrance. The young noble looks into the hidden cave.
"Clever move; only a close examination could reveal the truth and this part of the mountain should be far away from usual hunt paths."
"Enter. I need to hide the entrance again."
Romantic obeys. Aria closes the entrance and the little light from the moon that illuminated the corridor disappears. In darkness, the only things that the young noble can see are the glaring eyes of Aria.
"Follow me. I am used to this place, I don’t need a light."
She grabs his hand and lures him. Romantic is surprised of how well she leads him, despite moving at a certain speed.
They leave behind a curve, then another. A faint glowing in the distance opens the darkness of the place. They have moved into a vast cave, whose walls and ceiling are studded with small phosphorescent stalactites.
"This cave is bigger than many of the vastest rooms of my mansion…and there are even other areas!" The young noble opens his mouth wide as the bluish luminescence reveals to him the entrances of many other corridors. "Do you really live here all alone?"
"This was the den of my pack, once. There were dozens of families and more than a hundred sabercats."
"Amazing…so, every cave was occupied by a different family?"
"Oh, no: many of them were used as common areas. There were warehouses, places reserved to work, rest, fun…even one where cubs could play together," she smiles. "I spent so much time there, fighting for fun or running everywhere."
Romantic smiles too. His hand tightens hers.
"And what about this hall? How did you use it?"
"This was the place where the pack gathered to make decisions. My father brought me here many times; he was one of the leaders and he said that I needed to learn how things worked, so I would have been able to make them work better."
"He was really wise…my father had the same idea, more or less, but he would have expressed this simple concept with a forty minutes speech…"
Aria looks to him.
"Are you able to understand human’s signs on paper?"
"You mean writing? I can read correctly Italian, English, Latin and even Greek," he smooths his chinstrap goatee. "Well…to be precise, I can read the ancient language, especially the one used in Attica. You know, there were substantial differences between doric dialect and ionic one that…"
"A “yes” would have been more than enough."
She grabs his right hand and start running, pulling him behind.
She jumps amongst the rocks with elegance. Romantic bumps on them with feet and knees, struggling to not scream.
"Where are we…ouch…going?"
"I have to show you something…"
She reaches the entrance of one of the caves and runs into it. Romantic slams his hand on the rocky wall to not fall on the ground, stopping the movement of his head just a couple of centimetres before it bumps on a stalagmite.
"Slow down! It’s even darker here!"
She just pulls him harder. There are no crystals in the corridor, so the young noble walks blind.
He feels she is leading him on quite a steep climb, while the sounds all around him suggest that the gallery is becoming smaller and smaller. She stops and he crashes into her.
Romantic grabs her to not fall on the ground, noticing that she seems to not have even noticed the bump.
"S-sorry…are you all right?"
She doesn’t answer. The young noble hears some metallic noises, then some light appears before him.
Romantic enters the new place and looks around him. Despite being a natural cave, the way the walls and the floor are modelled makes clear for him that some works have been done on them. The light in the room comes from crystals that have been cut and arranged in the most strategic spots. Some of them look carved in shapes that suggest deep artistic taste. There is a table…no, a sort of writing desk with a wooden stool in the centre of the room. One of the walls is covered by a huge bookshelf, full of books and papers.
"Is this…a studio?" He moves towards the books; "And these… they are ancient aren’t they?"
"This was my father's workplace. My parents knew a way to infiltrate amongst humans and he wrote everything he was able to learn from them in those diaries."
Aria moves closer to the library and caresses some books with trembling hands.
"They wanted our people to change and take from your kind what he thought it was good. He believed that it was our only chance to survive."
"It sounds like a good idea…did your people follow it?"
Aria's mouth folds into a grimace.
"They treated my parents like lunatics. The elders gathered an assembly of all the pack and accused them of being more human than sabercat and that we had to follow the traditions that our ancestors had passed on us; my mother answered them that if traditions do not change with the changing of times, they become useless and they have to be forgotten." She turns her head to Romantic. "They almost exiled us from the den…"
The gentleman hugs her, warming her back with his body.
"Your mother was a wise person. They should have listened to her."
Aria relaxes between his arms, letting her head falling on his shoulders. They eyes meet and both blush.
The girl gets free from his hug, grabs the last book in the library and gives it to him.
"Can you read it?"
Romantic nods and opens the book: the pages creak in his hands, but do not break.
"It’s ecclesiastical latin. I should be able to easily translate it in the language we are talking…" The young noble shows her a page: "I think there is a mistake; this page it’s dated 14th of March 1507…"
Aria shrugs. Romantic raises an eyebrow.
"How… how old are you?"
"Hey! That’s a thing you should not ask a woman…" She lowers her eyes, smiles and whispers: "Five hundred and 26 moon circles."
Romantic keeps the book tight in his hands to not let it fall on the ground. Is she lying? How can she be older than five hundred years? Yet, she looks so young… and sensual…
"I am just a young lady, but I didn’t think it was a problem for you…" She twists a lock of hairs on a finger. "I mean, you look so mature and…"
"Wait… mature? I am young! I am just cough…cough…years old!" He blushes. "I-it it’s clear that our species have a different idea of ageing…ehm…maybe it’s better if I keep reading."
He clears his throat and continue following the page.
“The magic we learned from the rulers of Athenia has proved quite useful. Illusions can hide fur, claws and even our tails if we are careful. Thanks to these tricks, we have been able to infiltrate amongst humans and study them for months. My beloved Kira is fascinated by their tools and instruments. She spends hours studying even the simplest of them and preparing projects. I studied humans themselves, instead: their society, their thoughts, their behaviours. It has been not easy, since they didn’t trust me at the beginning, but I have soon learned how to make them more friendly. I was just a newcomer from afar, like many others, and they had no real reason to keep their secrets from me.
"My people talk about humans like they are monsters, abominations who like to ruin the equilibrium of nature, but they are just like us. The way they do things can be different, but the reasons they do them are the same. They love like us. They hate like us. And they are desperate like us.
"It’s always the same thing: a group of humans comes here from afar, just wanting to escape from misery and war. They build a village and cut trees to make space for crops and pastures. Then winter comes and the pack of sabercats that lives in that part of the woods finds out that there is no more game around and that they have less space to hunt. They are hungry and human’s livestock looks so easy to take…what happens next, it’s just desperation against desperation: maybe my people are able to sack the village, killing everyone who tries to stop them, or maybe humans are numerous enough to win, condemning what is left of the pack to die of starvation. Both cases, hate and fear spread amongst both species and the next year the fight will become bloodier. It’s like a perpetual circle of desperation that gets stronger and stronger: it cannot be stopped and it will only end when one of the two species will be erased by these lands."
The note ends. Noticing that Aria is trembling, Romantic hugs her again.
"It’s nothing, do not worry" She grabs his hands. "It’s just…for an instant it was like I was hearing his voice again. Is this the power of the signs you humans make on paper?"
"Yes, it is."
"Please, go on. I want to hear it more."
Romantic starts leafing through the next pages: they are full of drawings of tools, mechanisms and even buildings. The details are precise, like the ones of technical models, but there is clearly an artistic touch in them.
"These are some of my mother's works."
"She was really good at drawing."
The drawing on the next page is different: it shows some figures in a room. Three are clearly sabercats, since they have tails and triangular ears, while the other three look like humans. The trait is way more childish that the previous ones.
"That is not of my mother…that was mine…"
"It’s nice. It’s clear you have inherited her skills." He points to the smaller figures: "This cute cub is clearly you, but who is the other one?"
"My sister Anna…well, she was not truly related to me, since she wasn’t even a sabercat but we grew up together in the years my family stayed in Athenia and we were as close as we were true sisters."
Romantic turns more pages: there are more notes from Aria's father.
“The mansion it’s three days' walk away from the forest. The greatest building I have ever seen, surrounded by walls of stone higher than the highest trees of the wood. The perfect lair for the human lords of these lands.
"Me and Kira offered ourselves as servants, and they gave us rooms in that place. We spent three months there before returning to the den and to our beloved Aria. Now, we are scared.
"In that place lives a kind of human that we have never seen before. They do not sow or build or breed: all they do is killing and training for it. They wear clothes made of iron and use death tools that can kill a sabercat from many meters away. My mate trembles every time she tries to draw them. Still, this is not what scares me the most.
"I have seen the leader of the humans of these lands once, talking to the gathering of the men dressed in iron: he wore the same kind of clothes, but with the pelt of a sabercat on his shoulders as cape. I didn’t understand much of his speech, but the hate that I was able to perceive from every single word…it still shocks me to this day. And the way his men responded to him, made me understand that they shared this emotion with him. They see evil in my kind, something that must be purged while they think of themselves as the saviours of these lands. Me and Kira were so scared by all of this that we ran away from that place that same night.
"We tried to convince the other elders of the danger, that we must leave the den and move the pack beyond the mountains, where humans will never be able to reach us. They refused and menaced once more to exile my family. Their blind attachment to traditions will condemn us all.
"I am worried for my family, maybe we should leave the woods, like others have already done, but we are not able to do so. After all, we came back from Athenia to make sure that Aria could know the place she belongs to. How could we leave now?”
After the notes, there are more drawings. This time they are about weapons. Swords, halberds, arquebuses, cannons and even figures wearing complete suits of armour. Despite them still being technical works, there is something threatening in them, and Romantic feels the unpleasant sensation that the men wearing armour are looking at him with hate.
The young noble turns another page. He gets pale. His hands tremble.
"What…what is this drawing?"
The girl looks the page. She bars her teeth.
"It’s their symbol. The men who destroyed my pack and killed my family had it on their banners and clothes."
She scratches the page, moving her claws on the drawing of a red rose with the stem full of thorns.
"Do you know this symbol?"
Romantic does not answer. His hands start to tremble more.
"You know it!" She grabs his coat and shakes him. "Where have you seen it? What does it mean? Who were those men?"
"I…Aria, please, don’t…"
"Don’t lie to me!" The girl pushes him against the bookshelf. Some books fall on the ground, but her eyes remain fixed on his.
Romantic's eyes fill with tears as he starts to remove his coat.
"I…I am sorry, Aria…I didn’t know…you must believe me."
The coat falls on the ground. Aria opens her mouth wide. On the black jacket that Romantic is wearing, at heart level, is sewn a coat of arms identical to the one on the book.
"This is my family’s heraldry. We have used it since the Middle Age, so…if those men used it, it can only mean that they were Malaspina soldiers."
Aria moves a few steps away from him. She starts to breath harder. Her chin trembles.
"I had no idea about what had happened to your kind." Romantic moves towards her; "More than five hundred years have passes since then…for us humans it’s a lot of time! Many stories of the past look like legends and fairy tales."
"Fairy tales? Does the death of my parents look like a fairy tale to you?!" She slams him against the bookshelf again. She pants hard. Her claws sink in Romantic’s jacket, reaching his skin. "Do you know how many times I have thought about revenge? How many times I broke the bones of a deer or a wild boar, thinking that they were the ones of the men who had killed my parents?"
One of her claws reach his throat. The sharp edge moves on his skin.
"I am the last one of my kind…the only one that can give justice to the tormented souls of my species."
"And I am the last heir of the Malaspina family. The last bringer of their sin."
Romantic raise his head, offering the neck to the claws. Aria raises an eyebrow.
"What are you doing? Why don’t you fight back?"
"It’s like your father said: a circle of desperation and hate that cannot be stopped," he looks in her eyes. "We can end this tonight: it’s like we were born to do this."
Aria looks back into his eyes. The claw on the man’s throat presses on the skin…then moves away, without leaving a scratch. The hands of the girl move on Romantic’s face, caressing it.
"No, he was wrong. There is another way to end this."
She moves her face closer to Romantic’s, hugs him tight and kisses him.
"I don’t want to end the circle. I want to break it."
· I know, I know…I said that “Hunter and prey” will have been a two part story… but there were too many things to talk about, so I was forced to split it in three. I am already working on the last part and I hope to give it to you soon.
· The idea of the Malaspina family being responsible for the extermination of sabercats is pretty recent and we can consider the fact that Aria and Roma discovered it soon as another “retcon” that the stories are doing on the original roleplays;
· I know the lyrics of this song are about something else, but it showed up in my playlist while I was writing about a cave full of crystals, so… why not? Enjoy it.
· Well, more news in the third part, marvellous people of EF: see you soon!!