Once upon a time –
This is not a story that has happened once. It has unfolded over and over in many ways across the years. Parents have told it at their children’s bedsides; travelers have recounted it by firelight; and witches have whispered it on dark nights when there was no moon. This is but one version of that same story, the one I tell you now.
Once upon a time, there lived a girl who had everything she wanted in the world.
Or so she thought.
Her name was Adora, meaning “gift,” and from her birth, she was blessed with many. Adora was tall, with long, blonde hair that swept down to her waist, and her eyes were the light green color of seaglass. She was a fast runner, a natural reader, and a hard worker. But perhaps her most astonishing gift was that she could wield magic.
Adora lived in a desert city with her mother Shada, a powerful witch whose protective spells shielded the city from invaders. She taught Adora how to take care of her health, keep a clean home, use magical objects, and stay safe among strangers who had no love for witches. One might have thought that Adora felt isolated, but she had many friends. Shada was a fearsome weaver of curses, yet she commanded respect, and the city’s people were grateful to have her as their protector. Adora enjoyed the blessings of being her mother’s daughter, and for the first eighteen years of her life, she grew up happily.
Then the plague came.
Throughout the city, people fell sick with fever and a blistering rash. Shada, who knew healing magic, traveled through the city and tried to cure those afflicted by the illness. In the meantime, she made Adora stay within the tall tower they called home. Trapped inside, Adora forced herself to keep busy. She ran up and down the tower stairs for hours; she read every book in her mother’s library twice; she even cooked, although she was not good at it. While Adora was able to fill her days, she had never felt so lonely before. Every day, she dreamed of going into the city, plague be damned. At last, Adora had found something in the world that she longed for: companionship.
One night, a traveler arrived at the tower. Shada had just returned from the city, weary and frustrated. Try as she might, she had not been able to cure the plague. Adora was making her a cup of tea when they heard the knock. Shada stumbled to her feet, staggered over to the door, and opened it to find a monster staring back at them.
She was a tall, bony creature with enormous wings. Standing on her hind legs, she had the tail of a serpent, the body of a goat, and the head of a lion. When she crouched down to meet Shada’s gaze, the old witch could see that one of her eyes was blue and the other yellow.
“I am the Chimera of the North,” she said, “and I have a proposal for you. I will end the plague that besieges your people, if you will allow your daughter to live with me in my castle.”
“Go away,” Shada snapped. “We do not make deals with monsters in this city.”
Overhearing the conversation, Adora cautiously approached. She longed to leave the walls of the tower behind, and she was not afraid of the chimera, as strange as she looked. Brushing past her mother, she came face-to-face with the monster. Adora gazed into her eyes, and she knew that the creature was lonely.
“I will go with you,” the young witch said.
The chimera’s eyes twinkled, colorful and strange.
“You will not,” Shada insisted. “I doubt this beast can rid this city of the plague, and besides, no cure is worth taking you from me.”
“The blood of a chimera has healing powers,” said the monster, “with which I can heal the sick. The fire I breathe will kill the plague as it travels through the air. It will only take one week.”
Despite her mother’s protests, Adora agreed. She extended a hand, wrapping her fingers around the creature’s hoof, and shook it.
“You are now my companion,” the monster said.
Adora smiled, curious, and said,
“You are mine.”
The chimera stayed in the city to fulfill her bond. Adora soon learned that the chimera’s name was Catra, that she had once been human, and that magic truly coursed through her veins. Catra drew her own blood with her sharp fangs and left a healing bite on every man, woman, and child that suffered from the plague. Breathing fire into the sky, she burned away the pall of death that hung over the city. At the end of the week, Adora climbed atop her back and left with her. She did not know if she would ever see the city or her mother again, but she, like the chimera, kept her word.
The trip north was long. At first, Adora traveled on the chimera’s back, sitting quietly as the creature moved across the landscape. Over the coming days, she spent more time walking beside Catra, stroking her soft mane and asking questions about the castle where she lived. When they passed into colder lands, Catra swept into the sky on her vast wings and carried Adora in her arms, where the young woman stayed warm. Sometimes, drifting in and out of sleep, Adora would look up at Catra and see not the face of a lion, but that of a woman. Yet the image would flicker away like a candle extinguished by the cold, and Adora reasoned that she must have been dreaming.
After a week of travel, they finally reached the Castle in the North. Perched atop a snowy mountain, the castle was nearly inaccessible to outsiders. It looked as if it were made entirely of glass, but when Adora stepped inside, she understood that it was an illusion: the castle was made of marble, like those she had seen in storybook pictures. Elaborate tapestries and paintings adorned the walls, and each room had a sofa with a warm blanket, a perfect place to sit and read.
Upon arriving, Adora met a powerful spirit known as the Northern Wind, who lived amid the clouds that circled the highest turrets of the castle. Although the wind had no true form, it took the shape of a winged horse. The wind galloped up the castle staircase and had a room prepared for Adora on the second floor. Next to her room was a vast library, and Catra told Adora that she could read any of the books inside.
“Thank you,” Adora said, beaming. “This castle is a marvelous place.”
Catra shrugged her shoulders, wings lifting slightly.
“It’s quiet, but it’s home.”
Adora stroked her shoulder, reassuring.
“You’re not alone, now; we have each other. I promise.”
The chimera purred and nuzzled against her side, smiling when Adora wrapped her arms around her thin frame and hugged her.
For the first few weeks, Adora lived peacefully. During the day, she would sit with Catra and tell the chimera stories about her life or read to her in the library. Adora would travel around the mountain with Catra and soar high into the air on her back, with the Northern Wind shielding her from falling. She missed her mother, but Adora did not want to go home after being trapped in the tower for so long. This was a place where she could be happy and free.
Still, her memories caught up with her. At night, Adora dreamed of the plague: the suffering that filled the city; the dying children; the wails of their parents, which had traveled so far beyond the desert, even the Chimera of the North had heard them.
Startled, Adora woke. She went downstairs to clear her thoughts, but when she arrived in the parlor, she was surprised to see a woman sitting on the sofa. It was the woman she had seen in her dreams. She was smaller than Adora and had curly brown hair, dark skin, and a sharp profile. Silently, Adora stood in the doorway, watching her. She was reading a book, turning its pages with a practiced hand. Adora took a step closer, baffled. Suddenly, the woman turned to face Adora, her blue and yellow eyes unmistakable.
“Catra?” She whispered.
Adora blinked. The chimera now sat before her.
“Adora,” said the creature, in the low rasp she had come to know so well.
“I saw a woman here, but – she – was that you?”
Catra bowed her head, and Adora knew that meant, “Yes.”
“Sit with me,” the chimera breathed, holding out a hoof. Adora took it, obliging, and Catra told the story of her past.
Catra had not always lived in the Castle in the North. Long ago, when she was fully human, she had grown up in a different land: the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon. It was a place that no light touched, shielded from the outside world by dark magic. Catra’s father, who ruled the land, was a powerful warlock named Hordak, and he forbade his daughter from leaving the kingdom.
“I was cast out of my home because of my powers,” he had told her. “Humans without magic feared me and said I was a monster. You are like me, Catra; you’re a witch. Magic courses through your veins. If you leave this place, you will suffer the same fate as I did.”
Catra was skeptical, because she had heard of places where humans with magic were accepted. How could her father be sure that if she left the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon, she would suffer?
One day, when her father was away from the castle, Catra fled. What she did not realize was that Hordak had placed a curse on her. The moment she passed beyond the boundary of the kingdom, she became both human and chimera. When she was alone, she took human form, but when seen through other people’s eyes, she looked like a terrible beast.
Catra’s own magic was not powerful enough to lift the curse, and she was driven out of every land she sought to call home. Traveling to the North, Catra found an abandoned castle and befriended the Northern Wind, a spirit who did not care about her appearance and helped her take care of the castle. Catra never told her father where she was, for fear that he would force her to return.
“From then on, I have lived alone.”
Adora’s eyes filled with tears, and she pressed her face to the chimera’s shoulder and wept.
“That’s horrible,” she said, sniffling. “But then, how have I been able to see you? The real you?”
“You must have very powerful magic, to see beyond the curse.”
“Yes. I’m a witch, like you.”
Catra smiled sadly, her snake tail curling around her waist.
“I’m not a witch anymore. Only a monster.”
“No,” Adora whispered. “Now I understand.”
Closing her eyes, she put her hands on either side of Catra’s face.
“When I do this, I do not feel a lion’s mane, but a woman’s cheeks.”
She reached for Catra’s hand, holding it close.
“And I do not take a goat’s hoof, but a woman’s hand.”
Adora’s own hand slipped down to Catra’s waist, where she had seen the snake tail.
“And I do not hold a snake’s tail, but a woman’s waist.”
Carefully, Adora opened her eyes. A human face stared back at her in shock and wonder.
“And I do not see a monster,” she said, voice trembling, “But you, Catra.”
The woman began to cry, reaching for her companion. Taking Catra into her arms, Adora wiped away her tears.
“I think I had begun to see myself as a monster, too.”
Adora smiled and kissed the sweet curve of her mouth.
“Let me care for you the way you deserve,” she said.
“And I will do the same for you,” Catra agreed.
She helped Adora to her feet, drawing her forward with a slow kiss, and led her upstairs.
So it was that two lonely people – one who thought she had everything she ever wanted, and one who had never had anything she wanted – found love.
But this story does not end here.
Months later, Adora and Catra continued to live together in the Castle in the North. They spent their days exploring the snow-tipped mountains and their nights in the same bed. Catra no longer needed the Northern Wind to help her with the castle, now that she and her companion took care of it together, but the spirit continued to visit them as a friend.
On occasion, Adora’s thoughts would drift back to her mother and the desert city. She longed to see her childhood home and tell her mother about her happiness with Catra. Yet when Adora proposed that she and Catra visit her mother for a few days, Catra refused.
“I have heard that my father is looking for me. His spies often travel beyond the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I do not dare venture too far from the North, where the Wind protects me.”
“Then I will go alone,” Adora said.
“Your mother did not want you to leave, before. She is like my father; she would have kept you in that tower forever, if she had the chance.”
“If I tell her what has happened, then she will be happy for me,” Adora insisted.
“I am not so sure,” Catra said. “I do not think you should go at all.”
“Do not fear,” Adora murmured, holding her close. “I will be back in three weeks’ time.”
Catra’s blood rippled with fear, but she agreed. She would not become her father, who sought to control the people he loved.
“I will take you to where the warmer climate begins. The Northern Wind will protect us both. If you ever need help, call for it.”
In private, Catra told the Northern Wind that if her companion fell into trouble, then it should leave Catra’s side and use all its power to help Adora. The spirit whinnied a serene song, to show that it understood. So Catra and the Northern Wind brought Adora to the land where the colder climate grew temperate. With the promise that she and Adora would meet again, Catra took her leave.
Adora walked for a few days, until she reached the desert city where she’d grown up. Since the plague, it had once more grown lively. Street vendors and merchants had set up shop in the marketplace, and children ran through the streets. Adora wandered through the city, but wherever she went, she was met with fearful stares that she could not understand.
At last, she arrived at the tower she had called home and knocked on the door. Shada quickly came to open it. Upon seeing Adora, she recoiled in disgust.
“Another one of you!” The old witch exclaimed. “What do you want? Haven’t you already taken enough?”
“Mother, it’s me,” Adora said, baffled.
Shada examined her very closely, then clasped a hand over her mouth in fright.
“Adora… You look monstrous. Quickly, come inside.”
Opening the door for her daughter, Shada led Adora into the tower and gestured toward a large mirror. Adora feared that when she peered into the mirror, she would see a chimera. But she took a steadying breath, and as she looked at her reflection, she saw only herself.
“What has that chimera done to you?” Shada said, pitying.
“She has done nothing,” Adora argued. “I don’t know what you think has happened, but I am very happy living in the Castle in the North.”
“Oh, Adora,” her mother murmured. “Don’t you see? She’s turned you into a beast, and you don’t even realize it.”
Adora lowered her head in anger. She did not understand or care whether the curse upon Catra had touched her as well, because she saw beyond the dark magic that had created the illusion. But she now understood why Catra had not wanted Adora to go to the desert city. This was no longer a place where she belonged.
“I cannot let you leave again,” Shada said, grabbing her wrist. “To go out into the world like this! My daughter, a monster.”
Protesting, Adora struggled to break free, but the witch’s grip was too powerful. She led Adora upstairs to her old room, where she had waited out the plague. After living in the Castle in the North, this place felt smaller than she remembered it. Shada pushed her inside and locked the door with a spell. Adora rushed to the window, only to find that it was also locked. Looking around, she began to sob. Adora was alone again.
But perhaps she wasn’t. Through a small crack in the window shutters, Adora could see the city, the desert sands, and the sky. She leaned in, willing all her magic into her voice, and called for the Northern Wind.
“Northern Wind, please open the door!”
At first, silence. Then Adora heard a shout downstairs and a whooshing sound that grew louder with every passing moment.
The Northern Wind burst open the windows, unlocked all the doors, and swept through the tall tower to find Adora standing in her room.
“Come, we have little time,” the wind whispered.
“Just a moment,” called Adora. She had seen her mother’s magical objects in the living room, and she wished to take them with her in case they would be useful. She hurried downstairs, the wind quickening her steps. In the living room, Adora found a bow, a staff, and a trident. She gathered them into her arms and swiftly ran toward the door when she saw her mother lying on the floor, hands shaking in anger.
“After all that I have done for you,” Shada said, “You remain ungrateful. This is no longer your home. Leave, and never return.”
Adora stared into the witch’s dark eyes, and at last, she spoke.
“You have only ever been happy with me when I did what you wanted. But I am no longer a child, and this will be the last time I obey you. I will leave.”
She rushed out of the tower and leapt onto the wings of the Northern Wind, which carried her high into the air. At last, Adora felt unburdened, and her shoulders trembled as she cried.
“Do not shed tears,” said the wind. “You must gather your strength, for your quest is not over.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Chimera of the North has been kidnapped. Her father’s spies have stolen her away to the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
Adora felt her heart sink into her stomach.
“But she said that you would protect her!”
The Northern Wind whistled a soft apology.
“Forgive me. She also said that if you summoned me, I should leave her side immediately to protect you.”
Despite her worry, Adora managed a smile.
“Northern Wind, will you take me to the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon?”
With a rumbling sigh, the wind agreed.
“I once blew an aspen leaf there, and it was exhausting. But I will take you. Be warned: the journey is long and bitterly cold. East of the Sun and West of the Moon, there will be no light to guide us. Only with magic can we chart a path.”
Adora agreed, and they set off on their journey. The Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon was high up in the sky, unreachable except by wind spirits and humans with magic. Adora and the Northern Wind had that advantage. As they traveled, violent storms assailed the wind, and a chill sunk deep into Adora’s bones. She tried to use her mother’s enchanted objects to ward off the storms and the cold, but she feared that they would slip out of her grip and tumble down toward the earth. When they made it to the border of the kingdom, it felt like an age had already passed.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, all was dark. Adora held her mother’s staff aloft, and it shone with enchanted light. Carried by the wind, she navigated the darkness. Finally, Adora came upon a castle that appeared to be made of night, indistinguishable from the sky around it.
“That is Lord Hordak’s castle,” breathed the wind.
Adora began to think of a way to sneak in, but then she reconsidered. After all, she was Catra’s companion. Gritting her teeth, she steeled her nerves. As dangerous as it was, she would walk through the front door or not at all.
The guards allowed her to enter, for they could sense that she was a witch. Led down the corridor by a guard, Adora arrived at the throne room. It was a cavernous hall that resembled the inside of a cave. At the far end sat the warlock Hordak, surveying her.
“And who might you be?”
“I am Adora, your daughter’s companion.”
The warlock rose from his throne. Approaching her, Adora could see that he was very tall, with paper skin, windburnt cheeks, and reddish-brown eyes. When he spoke, his words resounded like stones dropped into a still pond.
“My daughter has no companion, and she does not welcome visitors.”
“Sir, I am a witch. I come with magical gifts for you, if only you will allow me to see your daughter.” She held out the bow with its quiver of arrows, enchanted to always hit their target.
Upon seeing the gift, Hordak approached Adora. His gaze burned like a spark lit against her skin.
“I will accept your bow,” the warlock said, with a nod. “You may visit my daughter for a night.”
A guard brought Adora to Catra’s bedroom and asked her to wait outside while he informed the warlock’s daughter of her visitor. Soon after, Adora was permitted to enter. Catra was asleep in her bed, and the gentle rise and fall of her chest filled Adora with warmth.
“My love?” Adora whispered in her ear.
Yet she received no answer. As Adora tried to wake her, Catra remained asleep. What curse had her father cast upon her now? Eyes brimming with tears, Adora fell onto the bed, taking Catra’s hand between her own, and slept.
The next day, Adora returned to Lord Hordak and offered her staff, which was powerful enough to illuminate any darkness.
“Very well, I accept your gift. You may visit the Princess tonight.”
Adora returned, but again she found Catra asleep, and she could not wake her.
On the third night, Adora offered the warlock her trident, which could part even the deepest ocean.
“I accept your trident. You may visit the Princess tonight, but this will be the last time you are allowed to see her.”
Adora bowed her head in assent, for she had a plan. This time, when Hordak’s guard asked her to wait outside Catra’s bedroom, she did not oblige. She struck him in the head, barged past him, and found Catra sitting up in bed, wide-eyed and alert.
“The guard gave me a sleeping draught. I thought you had been here, but I could not tell if it was real or a dream.”
Reaching for her, Adora felt the slow curl of Catra’s arms around her shoulders, the press of her lips against her neck, and at last, she found solace.
“We need to go now,” Adora insisted.
The guard was slowly recovering outside. Running past him, Adora and Catra made their way downstairs to the throne room. Lord Hordak was not there, but the gifts Adora had given him lay at the foot of his throne. Adora handed the bow to Catra, holding the trident in one hand and the staff in the other. Together, they made for the palace gates. The guard ran after them, followed by Lord Hordak’s spies. Suddenly, they heard the warlock roar,
“Don’t let them leave!”
“Northern Wind, please open the gates!” Adora called.
With one hand, Adora lifted the enchanted staff, its light a beacon that signaled to the wind. Around them, the women heard the whinny of the wind as it rattled and burst the gates open. The wind lifted Adora and Catra onto its wings just as the guard and her father’s spies emerged from the dark castle. Behind them stood Hordak, a wicked smile on his face.
“I thank you for returning my daughter to me, young witch. She has been missing for many years. If I had not sent that plague down to the desert city, she might never have left her hiding place, and my spies would not have found her in the end.” Adora’s entire body stiffened.
“You sent the plague?”
“Yes. My daughter may look like a monster, but she does not have a monster’s heart. I knew that I could only lure her out by appealing to her greatest weakness: her compassion.”
“You are the monster,” said Adora, her eyes wide with horror. “And you will not touch her.”
She stepped in front of Catra as the guards came closer, but Catra was prepared. When the guard reached for her, she shot him with the enchanted bow and arrow. A spy tried to grab her legs, and she made his chest her target. It was only when her father approached that she hesitated. They were as good as safe already; the wind was speeding them away, and how could one warlock outrun the wind?
But Hordak floated into the air, screaming as he pursued them.
“Faster,” Adora whispered, guiding the wind with her staff.
Up ahead, a great storm approached. If they reached it before Hordak did, they could lose him in the blinding rain and freezing cold. Yet Catra had another plan. She took the trident from her companion’s hands and poured her magic into it, willing the rainclouds to part. Opening a path through the storm, she told the wind to gallop through it as quickly as possible.
“Come back, daughter!” Hordak roared, his voice echoing behind her. “Don’t be a fool! Stay safe in this kingdom, or become a beast forever!”
Catra turned to look upon her father’s face for the final time.
“Then let me be a beast,” she said.
Waving the trident, Catra closed the path through the rainclouds. Behind her, she heard the warlock roar as the wind and rain sent him hurtling down to the earth. She did not look back.
And so it was that Adora and Catra left the Kingdom East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Upon reaching the North, they thanked the Northern Wind and assured the spirit that they would ask nothing more of it. But the wind, forever their friend, continued to live in the clouds above the castle, and it visited the women often. Together, Adora and Catra returned to their castle, where they lived in happiness for the rest of their lives and wanted for nothing.
Often, Adora and Catra would visit other kingdoms. Now that they were free to travel the world, they wanted to see everything. Wherever they went, they did not hide that they were witches and did magic freely, for that was their nature. They did not forget the horrors of the plague; instead, where they encountered the sick, they did their best to help them. They became healers, known across distant lands for their powers.
And the women thought little of the curse that Catra’s father had cast upon her. After that fateful moment when Adora had looked past the curse, she had never again seen Catra as a chimera. As for Adora, she did not wonder whether the curse had truly passed to her all those years ago. When seen through her mother’s eyes, she had looked like a terrible beast. Yet to Catra, the most important person in the world to her, Adora had only ever been human.
But you may wonder: did the women ever break the curse, or would the people around them forever see them as monsters?
And I ask you: does it matter?