It took a few days before Crescia was up and moving around once more. At least that was how the passage of time felt to Cass. It could have been longer or shorter. She had explored the cave as much as she could, but most of her time was spent protecting Crescia from further visits by the polplings. Finally, Crescia was up and speaking clearly.
“I’ll thank you not to patronize me,” snarled Crescia.
Whether it was because of how Cass had reacted to finding her covered in polplings, or just Crescia’s general nature, she was as prickly as ever.
They were back near the flowing water. Cass hoped that once Crescia was well, they might follow it back to where she had heard the sounds of the forest.
Cass was turning two cave rats over a small flame, the first meat the girls had eaten in several days. On the opposite side of the fire, Crescia was shredding some plants she had found within the cave.
“I’m not accustomed to eating rat,” Crescia sighed.
“And I don’t know how comfortable I feel trusting a child from the capital to pick cave plants that won’t be poisonous,” Cass retorted.
“My father used to take me hiking through the caves in that mountain range just south of Ciancina. Again, do not presume to know me.”
Cass looked up instinctively. She could hear the rhythm of Crescia tearing the leaves off a larger plant.
“You went hiking? In the caves? Not the ones of the Alterei Mountains?”
“Yes, the Alterei Mountains. What of it?”
Cass sucked in a breath.
“Did you ever go to Mt. Tenlen?”
“All the time. But only about halfway, just like anyone else. And don’t burn my rat, please. It is bad enough I’m reduced to eating one at all.”
Cass pulled the two rats from the fire and gave them a sniff. They were definitely cooked. She handed one to Crescia.
“Have you ever seen the First Moon from Mt. Tenlen?”
Crescia laughed. “Of course not. It’s far too treacherous to go at night. We always watched from the square in the capital. Why would anyone go up there?”
“Because it’s beautiful,” Cass said with a hint of longing in her voice.
“How would you know?”
“I’ve seen the First Moon from Mt. Tenlen. Just once. It’s worth the hike all the way up. Maybe you and your father can go next ti-”
Cass stopped herself. According to the Goddess, there wouldn’t be another First Moon. No matter how she felt about Crescia, she couldn’t set her up for something that might never be.
The thought tugged at Cass’s stomach. Her hunger began to wane, yet she took a big bite of the rat meat nonetheless, hoping it would spare her from any follow-up questions.
“I don’t believe that opportunity will come again, thanks to you,” Crescia said, wrapping several of the shredded plants in a large leaf and placing it in front of Cass. “I won’t be welcomed back, not even in my own home.”
“Finish chewing your food,” Crescia chastised. She took a bite of the cooked rat and gagged. Forcing it down, she continued.
“My parents tried to persuade me to pursue other specialties, even on the side, but I refused. They sacrificed a great deal by allowing their daughter and sole heir to proceed down such a single-minded path and that gamble failed to pay off…”
Having finished her cave rat, Cass reached in front of her, feeling hungrily for the makeshift vegetable dish Crescia had concocted.
Crescia gave a light laugh. “It’s right next to your left knee. Apologies, I forgot to show you where it was.”
“It’s fine,” Cass said, her face flushed with embarrassment. It was a moment of what she perceived as weakness, certainly not something she cared for Crescia – or anyone – to see.
“I suppose,” Crescia said tentatively, “you must feel you too have lost something in your pursuit of the Goddess’s gift, even if you did deserve to be punished.”
“I would never expect you to understand,” Cass said, sniffing one of the leaves.
“They’re not poisonous. Please Cass, if I wanted to kill you, I would have by now.”
After a few seconds of hesitation, Cass took a bite from one of the leaves. It unleashed a minty aftertaste in her mouth.
“Cave cress. Not bad.”
Cass tilted her head in Crescia’s direction. “So what?”
“Aren’t you going to defend yourself? Say you have some profound reason for defying the Goddess?”
‘You wouldn’t want to hear it even if I did.”
“That girl,” Crescia started, moving closer, “back in the village. She was your sister, right?”
“Well, what of your parents?”
“My parents are gone,” Cass said flatly, “Caena is all I have left.”
And maybe not even Caena anymore. Cass’s heart tightened, thinking of her sister. The one person who, in spite of all that had happened, had stood by her. Were Caena and her family safe? Would they ever want to see Cass again?
She tried to shake off the painful thoughts. Her face grew hot and she could feel a stinging in her eyes. She turned away from Crescia and sniffed the air, trying to keep her face expressionless.
“Are you going to finish that cave rat?”
Crescia gasped. “What, this? Are you serious?”
“Ugh. Yes, I’m going to finish it. Don’t be a pig.”
“Just don’t let it go to waste is all I’m saying.”
“Of course you would enjoy eating something so vile.”
Cass laughed, the distraction settling the emotion swelling within her. She reached hastily for her canteen and hopped to her feet.
“Where are you going?” Crescia asked.
“To get more water. Do you need some?”
“No, I still have some. Hold on a second.”
Crescia rose wearily and made her way stiffly around the fire. She approached Cass and took a good look at her face illuminated by the flames.
“What are you doi-ow!”
Crescia plucked a hair from the side of Cass’s head. First one, then another.
“What are you doing?” Cass snapped and pulled away.
“Hold on, just a few more,” Crescia said and reached in, plucking a few more before Cass took several steps back.
“Is this what we’re doing now? Pulling hair?” Cass growled.
“You had several grey hairs. I could see them in the flames.”
“Okay, so I’m not as young as you-”
“That’s not it,” Crescia protested, “I don’t think you had those a few days ago.”
“Are you paying that much attention?” Cass teased, though it really unsettled her. What did someone who seemed to have such distaste for her care about her hair? “So it’s been a stressful few days.”
Crescia stood there for a moment, her brows furrowed. Finally, she took Cass’s hand and set the strands in it. “I just thought you’d want to fix the problem. Here, you’ll need them for the spell. You can manage a small magical feat such as that without the staff, can’t you?”
“Of course I can manage it…but I’m not that kind of girl. I always said once I went grey, I would stick with it.”
Cass fumbled with the strands, then tossed them into the fire. There were spells that, using one’s grey hairs, could lessen the loss of pigmentation. It didn’t last forever, but the spell could stave it off over seven-to-ten years, maybe fifteen or twenty if the magic user was particularly talented.
“Have you been using the staff?” Crescia asked.
“Of course. How do you think I tracked you down?”
Crescia turned away from Cass to hide her darkening expression. “So what is it the Goddess has requested of you, anyway? You know that receiving her Will is just as grand an honor.”
“Her Will…” Cass breathed, “Her Will was the worst part of this whole deal.”
“How can you say that?”
“Look, I appreciate your blind devotion to the Goddess, but if you had any idea what she was really like-”
Cass held her breath. People like Crescia structured their entire lives around Sel-en-Mina. But Sel-en-Mina said she intended to destroy the very people who worshipped her so.
“I’ll never have that opportunity, now will I? So you might as well at least indulge me. You owe me that much.”
“I can’t. She-“”
A growl interrupted their conversation. Both women turned in its direction. A wolf, with cloudy grey fur that would have blended completely into the darkness of the cave if not for the flames illuminating his silhouette, was approaching. Each step was slow, calculating. He had been on the prowl and surely found what he believed to be the perfect prey. As he bore his fangs at them, Crescia felt as if the blood in her veins had gone cold. There was what felt like a whole in the pit of her stomach and she wished for nothing more in that moment than to disappear. It would surely be preferable to what the wolf had in mind.
“Cass,” Crescia whispered, “don’t move.”
“A Moorin river wolf, right?” Cass said coolly.
“How did you know?”
“I’m blind, not stupid. I’ve learned to adapt and know my surroundings. These wolves are everywhere along the Moorin River after dark.”
The growling was growing louder.
“We have to get out of here,” Crescia whispered.
“You still got that cave rat?”
“Not for me, fool. For the wolf.”
“Throw it at him, then run. I’ll be right behind you.”
“But how will you-”
“The sound of your footsteps. I can use them to gauge distance and direction. Plus I have the staff. If I have to fend him off, I can use the staff.”
Crescia shuddered at the thought of defiling the staff for such a menial task, but the approaching snarling carnivore kept her present. They had no choice.
“Alright, get ready…and RUN!”
Crescia tossed the rat at the wolf and took off as fast as she could. Her movements were slowed by her compounded injuries. Every muscle in her legs screamed, but she pushed forward. Her hands found the wall of the cave and she made her way along it. She could hear Cass behind her, surprisingly keeping pace.
“I hear it, the rushing water is up ahead!” Cass called.
Crescia strained her ears. “Which way?”
The wolf was on Cass. Crescia looked over her shoulder to see it’s claws digging into her left shoulder. She let out a scream and slammed the sharpened tip of the staff into its side. The wolf showed no hint of pain, instead lunging at her once more. She held the staff horizontal with both hands, attempting to thrust the beast away. It was relentless. Its jaws snapped fiercely at her shoulders, her chest, anywhere it thought it could get a taste.
“Keep going!” she called on hearing Crescia’s footsteps stop, “find the exit!”
The wolf took advantage of the momentary distraction and lunged at Cass, sinking its teeth into her forearm. She gave a shriek and tried to knock it off of her, determined not to use the staff’s magic.
Crescia placed her hands together and began rubbing them. Slowly, a white hot ball of light emerged. When it was the size of a pomegranate, she drew her hands in, then gave it a hard push out.
“Dodge left!” she called and Cass obliged, still trying to keep the wolf at bay. The ball of light slammed into the wolf’s left side, knocking it over with a yelp. Blood began to emerge at the point of impact and both women could smell the scent of burnt fur.
“Let’s go, Cass!”
Crescia turned and broke into a limping stride. She could hear Cass behind her. The sound of rushing water was growing nearer and Crescia could see light up ahead. It was pale, likely the moon, and seemed to be filtered through something, perhaps a waterfall.
A growl caused both Crescia and Cass to freeze. Crescia couldn’t tell where it had come from, it was almost all-consuming.
Cass trembled. “I don’t think there’s only one this time.”
Crescia looked around and realized Cass was right. Before she saw them, that hollow glint in their eyes, she could hear their claws on the earth. Two of them stood before Crescia. And when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw two more were approaching Cass. Cass had turned to face them, her back now to Crescia.
“Think you can do whatever it was you did before?”
Crescia was tired, but she nodded instinctively. “You take care of your side of things. I can handle myself.”
Another growl caught their attention. Crescia looked to her right to see three more wolves approaching, one of them particularly large. Likely the matriarch of the pack.
“Seven of them in total,” she whispered to Cass.
“Gotta be honest, I don’t like those odds.”
“You have the staff. What have you to worry about?”
Cass switched the staff to her right hand. Crescia could smell the blood oozing out of Cass’s wounds.
Just as the wolves were coming within lunging range, something leapt in front of Crescia. A bright flash of metal swooped down as two of the wolves leapt for her, knocking them to the ground in a burst of crimson. Another wolf came at her from the side and as she was concocting a spell, her protector pivoted his large body around to intercept the beast, thrusting the sword’s hilt upwards into its stomach and knocking the wind out of it. To ensure it would not rise again, he slammed the blade’s point into its side, causing one final yelp.
The stranger turned back, his face filling Crescia with relief.
“Lady Crescia, how wonderful to see you are safe!”
“Hey, a little help here!” Cass called.
Cass was practically on her back, with two wolves snapping at her and a third lying on the ground, obviously burned by the staff. As Aln approached, one of the wolves leapt at him and he slashed it across the throat. It fell to the ground, twitching.
A somber silence fell upon the cave. For a moment, the sound of the water seemed so far away.
Another sound echoed through Cass’s mind. A whispering. Words she couldn’t make out and yet she suddenly felt compelled to act. She stopped herself long enough to bow her head and whisper something that neither Aln nor Crescia could hear. She then lifted her head and picked up the staff. Touching the point of it to the wolves she had felled, their bodies disintegrated. A burst of glowing particles encircled the staff, then appeared to fuse with it.
Crescia looked back to Aln to see the horrified expression on his face. Anger slowly made its way across his face and he opened his mouth to speak. She stepped in front of him, blocking his view.
“It is good to see you again,” she said gently.
Aln’s eyes were still locked on Cass and the staff. Seeing that Crescia was not moving, his expression finally softened. He turned away and took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure.
“I am truly pleased to see you safe. The Goddess truly smiles upon us.”
He pulled Crescia into a quick embrace. Setting her down, he moved around her and made his way over to Cass. Perhaps having sensed him, Cass lifted her head. He planted himself in front of her and pointed his blade at her.
“It’s time for you to pay for all you have wrought upon us, once and for all.”
Thanks as always to my wonderful editor, Catherine, and to everyone who has taken the time to read this far.