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Honnleath is overrun with darkspawn.
A little girl watches through a crack in the front door as genlocks gut the butcher’s husband. She’s holding her breath and hoping she won’t be next, and maybe she won’t, because now the butcher turns her cleaver on the horde. She is strong and fast with the blade, knows just where to part each bone from its joint. The genlocks fall, one after another, and the little girl remembers to breathe.
But then an ogre crests the hill, and the butcher is torn in two. Amalia can’t stop from screaming, and fear builds fire in her palms. It doesn’t burn, yet it’s burning, flames flying through the only home she’s ever known, turning all to ash, and she knows she has to run, but it’s chaos. Darkspawn swarm in every direction. The sheep have escaped pens. The whole village is aflame, and it’s all her fault. Papa will be so, so angry.
Smoke forces her outside, and it takes a minute for Amalia to realize the sheep aren’t the ones bleating terror across the open square. No. It’s the shepherd boy who taught her to swim, it’s her auntie, it’s the baker, it’s the family next door. Maker have mercy, it’s the whole village.
Papa must never know.
So Amalia tears up the hill, unsteady on cobblestones slicked with blood, and straight into the heart of the scariest place she’s ever known: Grandpa Wilhelm’s basement where Papa warned her to never go. Because maybe, just maybe, even the darkspawn will be too scared to follow.
She doesn’t stop in the parlor, she doesn’t stop in the library, she doesn’t stop in the cellar, or until she’s thundering down the stairs to the lowest level, into the farthest corner, the darkest shadow, because maybe, just maybe, they won’t find her like they found the shepherd boy. Though to her ears, it sounds like they’re trying.
Amalia presses one hand over her mouth, then the other, choking back the sound of her crying. She can’t stop shaking, and she can’t stop seeing everything she saw.
And then there’s something warm and soft brushing against her leg, a wet nose bumping up under her chin, and a purr that rumbles louder than the darkspawn upstairs.
“Oh, Kitty,” she sobs, and no demon has ever been more glad of a name.
Amalia clutches the orange tabby to her chest and simply weeps. She’s delirious, hiccupping with terror as she babbles out every dreaded thought, every fear, every hope she thinks she’s lost. Kitty nuzzles her cheek and licks away the tears until she can’t help laughing, a sound it has never heard before but wants to hear again. It dips into her mind, holding wonder: what is a cookie?
Kitty has never seen the waking world beyond the basement walls, but this little thing has seen it all: a field, and a lake, and a forest; the sun, the moon, and the stars. And cookies! Candy, and Wintersend songs. Not echoed across the Veil, but real. Real.
It curls up in Amelia’s lap when she falls asleep, and it is enchanted by the slow rise and fall of her chest, the steady beat of her little heart—the bright, clean pool of her mana that makes it want to drink, and drink, and drink. It never knew humans could be so small or vulnerable or innocent; Wilhelm was large and powerful and cruel. She changes everything; there will be no returning to the Fade.
Wherever Amalia goes, Kitty will follow. Whoever Momma is, Kitty will find her. Whenever templars come, Kitty will stop them. Whatever happens, Papa must never know.
Hours later, Amalia wakes with a start.
“Don’t be scared,” says Kitty. “I will keep you safe.”
Amalia’s eyes go round. “You can talk!”
“Of course I can talk. I am your grandfather’s magical cat.”
“Oh! I love you, Kitty!”
Beloved to a human girl. It is dizzy with joy, and the realization brims with promise, purpose. If it keeps Amalia safe, it need never be alone.
Never.“Amalia,” it purrs, slitting its eyes to appraise what enchantments bar the door. “Would you like to play a game?”