“Southern Maehn? I had no idea we were that far from Moorin,” Crescia said, smiling up at Aln. The three shadows moved steadily through the pale moonlight, following the reflective, almost luminescent river through the brush.
“The Moorin River is long,” Cass interjected, “and who knows how far down the river you and I got swept that first night.”
Aln looked as if he had a remark to make, but Crescia shook her head in warning. She looked back at Cass, who was trailing behind.
“So, where are you going to go? Are you going to fulfill the Goddess’s Will?”
“I don’t know. To complete the Goddess’s Will, I’m supposed to hit the four cardinal points surrounding the capital, then finish at the altar therein.”
“So which point is first? The Southern one?” Aln asked.
“Most likely. The Eastern point was closer to Moorin.”
“So how do we find the Southern Point?”
“Well…” Cass paused and tilted her head thoughtfully.
“Don’t you know how to locate the Points? You must have done it during your first quest. Don’t tell me-“
“I never got that far,” Cass said, trying not to think too deeply about it. She removed her gloves and grabbed at the staff with both hands. Her injured hand had begun to heal and she had stopped adding multiple layers of bandages. Still she was reluctant to let her hand be completely bare. The charred, rough patches were mostly gone, leaving peeling skin here and there, but she couldn’t be sure what the flesh there now looked like. She preferred gloves whenever possible, but connectivity with the staff was best achieved through skin contact with its surface.
Cass held the staff out in front of her like a divining rod, hoping it would point the way. It looked awkward, the overly large top of the staff weighing it down.
Aln sighed. “Well if you are unsure, then I believe we should rest. I’m sure Lady Crescia is tired.”
“No, I’m fine,” Crescia said, “I’ve been resting for days. Besides, I’m so happy to be out of the cave, I just want to walk around for a bit.”
“Crescia’s right, both of us are well-rested. Not only that, but with it being just the three of us, it might be safer to rest for part of the day and move at night. The further south we go, the hotter it’ll be during the day and we wouldn’t want to be surprised by bandits or wolves at night.”
“But if you’re tired, Aln, we could stand watch while you slept. We are excellent protectors,” Crescia said with a giggle.
“Lady Crescia, I-I am fine. I do not need rest.”
“That’s good,” Cass said, “I’m sure that sword of yours will come in handy.”
The trio wound their way along the river. The rhythm of their footsteps fell in an odd sync with the flow of the river. Crickets chirping and distant howling created a melody. As night gave way to the first tinges of dawn, the trees and plants became more sparse. The river narrowed into a stream and grass became the primary terrain for them to traverse. As the sun made its ascent, the green meadow grass took on a yellow hue.
“Let’s find a shady spot and take a break,” Cass said finally, beads of sweat dripping from her hair. She had bundled up her emerald cloak and was carrying it with her one free arm. She wore a burgundy blouse made of light cloth, but the thick, leather tunic that went over one shoulder and was belted at the waste over a pair of tan pants seemed to trap heat. Still, it felt like her only protection against both random attackers and so-called traveling companions, so she could not bring herself to take it off.
“I do wish you had said that earlier, when trees were more abundant,” Crescia breathed, wiping sweat from her own brow. She still wore the same clothes she had the day of the ceremony, but the elegant, long wisps of fabric were now dirtied and clung to her body. Her hair and skin were somewhat cleaner, as she had insisted on stopping to wash off.
“Well, you know, being observant isn’t exactly my forte.”
“So says the woman who lectured me about ‘knowing one’s surroundings’.”
They continued on a little further before Crescia let out a protracted sigh.
“Shelter would certainly be nice. I think I’ve had my fill of sleeping on the ground for now.”
“I cannot imagine,” Aln said gently, pulling a map from his satchel. “If my sense of direction is accurate, there should be a town southeast of here.”
“That would move us away from the Southern Point,” Crescia called over her shoulder to Cass.
“That’s fine. We might as well take a break before heading into the desert,” Cass conceded.
The trio headed in the direction that Aln said was southeast, but the scenery scarcely changed for some time. Trees occasionally dotted the landscape that was otherwise wide stretches of grass.
Cass began to feel a heaviness, almost like a pull from the staff. Without saying a word, she turned and allowed the staff to guide her.
“Hey!” Aln called, “Where are you going?”
“It is discourteous to leave behind your traveling companions!” Crescia scolded.
“I think I’ve got something!” Cass called without turning back. “You can go on without me if you want.”
Crescia groaned and pursued Cass, Aln right behind her, muttering a curse under his breath.
They followed Cass, guided by the staff, across the seemingly endless grasslands. As the sun made its trek across the sky, something of interest finally appeared on the horizon. Cass finally came to a stop.
“Is that a house?” Crescia squinted.
“It appears to be some sort of manor,” Aln commented.
As they drew closer, “manor” was certainly the way to describe it. The three-story wooden house bore ten windows just on the first floor of its front, with a wraparound porch. It was flanked on either side by trees. A short distance away stood a farm and stables. Further away from that was an annex house, like a miniature version of the manor property sans the porch. A man was walking a horse through the pasture, but when he caught sight of the approaching trio, he pulled fiercely on the horse, forcing it back toward the stable.
“Good day, sir!”
Aln called after him, but the man quickened his pace as much as he could, practically dragging the horse.
“Sir! Please! Allow my companions and I to make our introductions and share our plight!” Aln said, giving pursuit. Crescia watched with a bemused expression as the knight, in his bulky armor, gave chase to the slender farmhand, who somehow still managed to outmaneuver him. The man hastily looped the horse’s reins around a tree in front of the annex house and charged inside, slamming the door behind him. The horse kicked in anger at being affixed to one spot.
“What was that about?” Cass asked, tilting her head.
“He was certainly less than welcoming,” Crescia said with a laugh, patting Aln on the shoulder, “but as long as I live, I shall never forget seeing you chase a man away with pleasantries like that, Aln.”
“It doesn’t sit well with me,” Aln said, his expression hard.
“The man running away?”
Aln looked around and nodded to himself.
“It is more than that. By all appearances, this house stands alone. I do not see any other homes nearby. And yet, every building on these premises is built with wood. Why? I do not understand. Anyone who lives here is all but defenseless to any bandits who might be passing through.”
“Perhaps they do not have the money for a stone home?” Crescia offered.
“If Moorin is any example to go by, stone homes are affordable even to the most unfortunate of circumstances.”
“Hey!” Cass snapped, “I happened to like my rolstone house, thank you. It was perfect for-well, for my purposes.”
Cass thought back. She had been grateful when Caena had chosen to settle in Moorin, where rolstone houses were the norm. Rolstone was known for slowing the aetheric flow of any magic that touched it. Cass could conduct experiments all day long, but if anything went wrong, she could be sure no explosions would spread to the town at large. It would, of course, make her escape harder if anything went wrong. She could always try to flee through a window or a door, but she honestly hadn’t cared much about her own life in those intervening years. She just didn’t want to be the reason anyone else was killed.
She thought back to the scent of her garden burning, the sound of someone tossing something through her windows, the scent of everything inside going up in flames. The rolstone would remain, the sole reminder of Moorin’s most hated former resident.
“Hello!” Aln was right in front of her, yelling down at her.
Cass jumped back, shaken from her thoughts. “What? What!? You don’t need to yell at me. I’m blind, not deaf.”
“Well, you failed to respond the first three times I spoke to you, what else was I to do?”
Cass’s face was red. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“I was asking what it was that you sensed that brought us here?”
Cass thought for a moment, wondering how to explain what she had felt to the other two.
“It’s strange,” she said, “it was such a strong feeling coming from the staff. And now that we’re here, it’s everywhere. It’s so thick, it’s dizzying, suffocating.”
“I feel it too,” Crescia breathed, “I didn’t when we were following you, not until we got close. But there’s something here, something I’ve never felt before. It’s flowing all through my body.”
“I do not feel any different,” Aln said, almost regretfully, then ventured, hopefully, “do you think it’s the Southern point?”
“I-I don’t know. If it was, that would be nice, it would mean we wouldn’t have to go into the desert,” Cass said hopefully, “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”
Following the slight pull from the staff, Cass turned toward the mansion and slowly started in that direction, Aln and Crescia started to follow, but stopped.
“Cass, wait!” Crescia called.
The sun was making its final descent behind the house, in an almost uncanny fashion. Many of the windows were now filled with light and the front door had opened. A woman in a subdued blue dress was making her way toward them. There were at least ten people filing out behind her in silence, all in fairly fine dress for being isolated in the countryside. The woman stopped in front of Cass, as the group that had trailed her made a horseshoe shape around the trio. Cass tensed up at the feeling of being surrounded so suddenly. Aln must have felt the same, as his hand slid to the hilt of his sword.
“Please do not be afraid,” the woman said in a cool voice, “I am Erina. I have come to welcome you to my humble home.”