Aln tapped Cass’s chest with the tip of his sword.
“On top of everything else, it is your fault that we lost Lady Crescia for so long, wretched woman. I should drop you right here.”
“Then you would have no one who could use the staff and you know it, or you already would have,” Cass sneered.
“Aln,” Crescia interjected, hoping to preempt Aln making good on his threat, “just how long have you been looking for us?”
“We have been searching for thirteen moons for you, m’lady.”
Cass rolled her eyes. He didn’t need to make such a show. She already understood from the incidents in the village that no one cared whether she was found dead or alive. As long as she didn’t infuriate the Goddess, no one seemed to care.
“Wait,” Cass interrupted, “has anything happened since we’ve been gone?”
“Happened?” Aln stared at her.
“To the village?”
Aln snickered. “Mercifully no. In fact, things have become rather peaceful in your absence. The weather has returned to normal. It seems that, so long as you are gone, the Goddess smiles upon Moorin once more.”
Cass wanted to ask about Caena, but the prospect of bringing Caena into Aln’s sights so that he might disparage her sister made Cass uneasy. She had placed the spell of protection with the staff after all. Caena must surely be all right.
“Well, you got your ‘lady’ back, so you two can just scamper off back to the capital and have a nice life, whatever remains of it. I’ll be on my way.”
She had inched away from him but in one large stride, he was back within throat-slitting range of her once more.
“The staff. Surrender it to Lady Crescia.”
“Look,” Cass heaved a sigh, “we’ve already settled this. I’m the only one that can use it. It’s of no use to you, her, or anyone else for that matter.”
“But if it’s not with you,” Aln pulled the sword back, then brought it down just above Cass’s wrist, “then at least you can do no further harm.”
His hand tightened around the blade, but Crescia patted his arm.
“Stay your blade, Aln.”
He looked at her, baffled. But her pale eyes, brilliant even in the dim light of the cave, were serious. He obliged and lifted the sword away from Cass’s wrist. Relieved, Crescia turned her attention to Cass.
“You started to say something back there. About the Goddess’s Will, just before we were attacked.”
“Hm? I didn’t say anything. We wouldn’t want to anger the Goddess. After all, she’s forbidden us from sharing our tasks with anyone.”
“Anyone but those who would aid your cause,” Crescia pressed.
Cass’s eyes flickered and she lowered her head. It was true. The Goddess made exceptions for traveling companions, termed aima, those who would join the recipient of the Goddess’s gift on their journey and help them fulfill her Will. Naturally, they would need to be apprised of what exactly that Will was.
A traveling companion. Was Crescia really offering herself as one? Having someone sighted would mean Cass wouldn’t have to rely on the staff’s power. She had endeavored not to let it show, but deep down, Crescia’s observations of her suddenly greying hair had her worried. She had tried to avoid using the staff as much as possible, and yet its effects were already making themselves known. This too was the Goddess’ punishment. Someone who had been severed from the aetheric flow using the staff was going to have to pay a higher price than some master magic user.
But her? Really? Especially now that she’s got her little lapdog from the capital back? I’ve lived without sight for this long. Do I really need this? Surely I can manage on my own…
Then, there was the matter of the task itself…
“You do need me. Admit it,” Crescia cut in, taking Cass aback with how deftly she seemed to have read her expression. It was something Cass lamented. Having lost her sight also cost her the ability to read people. She was an open book, having never realized how difficult hiding her own tells was.
“Lady Crescia, no!” Aln cried out. “You cannot possibly mean to ally yourself with this witch!”
“If I will not have the staff, at least let me be near it. Follow its journey and behold the Will of the Goddess with my own eyes.”
“I don’t need to tell you it’s a dangerous journey,” Cass said, keeping her head low and her expression concealed.
“You do not. It was one I was willing to take up myself. And surely I must have proven my own ability to you by now?”
“What if I told you that you might not like what you find out? That the Goddess’s Will is not of the benevolent sort you imagine it to be?”
“Stop blaspheming the Goddess in this mann—“ Aln protested, but Crescia held up a hand.
“You know I do not believe such a thing to be possible, but if it must be so,” Crescia paused and took a breath, “then let me behold it with my own eyes.”
Both Cass and Aln stood in stunned silence. Crescia continued.
“There is nothing waiting for me back in the capital. They won’t send me again to try for the staff now that I’ve failed. You already know that dozens of candidates are desperate to succeed me. I have given my everything for this purpose. My hopes and dreams, the honor of my family, all of it was riding on this one task. And now…”
Crescia gulped. Cass could hear shuffling, like armor against leather. She imagined the knight embracing his lady. She could hear sniffling and then sobs. But soon, Crescia spoke again.
“This is all I have left. I will join you on your journey. So make me an aima, so long as the Goddess permits. But know that if an opportunity to take the staff does arise, I will not hesitate.”
“You can have it and everything that comes with it. But if this is what you really want…”
“It is,” Crescia said and approached Cass, dropping to one knee.
Crescia ignored Aln’s horrified protests and remained in position.
“Dona mi aidest en aima, Sel-en-Mina,” Cass said coolly and brought the staff down upon Crescia’s head as lightly as she could, tapping the top of the head first, then each shoulder. The motion was not something she had consciously done. Rather, it was if she had been guided by the staff to do.
A soft glow enveloped Crescia and a warmth filled the staff. As it died down, Cass pulled the staff away and Crescia rose to her feet. She looked at Cass.
“Do you need Aln to leave? So you can share it with me?”
“No,” Cass said, the answer suddenly present in her mind. “Just place your hands on the staff.”
Crescia complied and within a matter of seconds, all of the color had drained from her face. Cass’s face too became pale. Aln watched, first with curiosity, but then with intense concern.
Crescia did not move. Aln put a hand on her shoulder and yet she remained still. Her lips were parted, but it did not appear that she was breathing. It was as if she were frozen.
Just as Aln was about to start shaking her, she exhaled and dropped the staff, backing away.
She collapsed into his waiting arms, but her eyes were still fixed on Cass, who had not moved.
“That cannot be true,” she sputtered.
Aln shot Cass a look. “What trickery have you wrought upon the Goddess’s Gift?!”
“I have done nothing to this staff,” Cass hissed, “and I’m tired of your accusations. Crescia, you asked for the truth. You got it. Now if you’re coming, let’s go. I’m not going to sit here and listen to this nonsense.”
Cass slipped past Crescia and tried to keep her face from showing her true uncertainty. Just as she hoped, she heard footsteps starting behind her own.
Aln’s voice caused Crescia to stop, but Cass kept walking, listening for the increasingly loud flow of water.
“Lady Crescia, what happened?”
“You know I cannot tell you,” Crescia said, her voice steeped in sorrow.
“Then make me an aima! I will share Lady Crescia’s burden!”
Cass stopped, sincerely surprised. She slowly turned back to face him, her face darkened, the light from above casting exaggerated shadows over her features.
With that, she turned and shuffled onward. Crescia rushed ahead of her and grabbed her elbow.
“You’re heading the wrong way. The exit’s further left. Come with me.”
She tugged on Cass’s elbow, gruffly steering her toward a stone path sloping upward into the moonlight. Vines and overly large plant leaves dangled from a stone overhang, causing Crescia and Cass to move with extra caution and care.
Aln watched them for a moment, then chased after them.
“Lady Crescia! Wait for me!”
As the three silhouettes ascended into the moonlight, a set of tapered paws slowly crept into the dim, obscured light of the cave. One of the wolves who had survived the confrontation with Crescia and Cass earlier watched the trio with intense interest.
Thanks as always to Catherine for editing this chapter and thanks to everyone for reading! I will be at Dover Comic Con this weekend! Feel free to stop by my booth. Thanks as always for reading and sharing!