The throng of people that surrounded them had been nothing compared to the sheer number of people that streamed out of the mansion upon being beckoned by its owner, Erina. Crescia and Aln stood in shock as more and more people exited the mansion, all with excited curiosity. They were all dressed in varying degrees of finery as well. It surprised Crescia as she took in their outfits – not many of them fit what she would have expected people from an isolated estate in the middle of nowhere to look like. Among the people, some wore more subdued hues – blues, beiges, yellows, and browns, and coupled with that look of toughness that came from working in a more physical profession, Crescia was led to believe that these were perhaps the “rural elite”: village mayors and successful merchants. Then there were others, wearing vivd colors and more elaborate dress that, as far as Crescia knew, were primarily obtained within the capital. These people were the ones who roused her curiosity the most.
Cass was beginning to have questions of her own, but the assault on her senses was overwhelming any rational thought. Exclamations of what Cass was carrying seemed to have hastened the barrage. The people swarming around them, trying to get a look at the staff, seemed to cut off any incoming breathable air. It was made worse by the staggering amount and variety of perfumed scents, all to cover the perspiration and grime of summer’s pregnant heat. As they entered the house, it became unbearable and Cass feared she might suffocate. She compelled herself to breathe through her nose.
Before Cass could regain her wits, someone looped their arm with her right elbow. A second later, the same thing happened on her left. It alarmed Cass, but she was too tired to fight it at that point. Her body ached, her head pounded, and her stomach moaned. By the sounds of their voices, Cass’s enthusiastic guides were both women. The surrounding din fell into the background as both of them chattered away at Cass. They guided her clumsily up the front steps and made her way through the doorframe, somehow never losing either of her guides. Her foot caught on a coarse runner as their feet landed on the hard wood flooring, for which Erina, who was somehow right behind Cass, quickly apologized.
A thought crossed Cass’s mind, one that surprised her. She wondered where Crescia and Aln had gone. She strained to hear either of their voices amidst the din, her heart pounding, and only when she could make their voices out of the crowd did an odd feeling of comfort begin to wash over her.
“The Goddess’s Chosen,” Erina was saying. “You must allow us to extend our hospitality. I could never live with myself if I let you sleep outside another night.”
Cass wondered how filthy her clothes were to give away her recent sleeping arrangements.
At least the hospitality is a nice change.
It was how Cass had always suspected the Goddess’s Chosen was normally treated. Like a hero, a guest held in such esteem that even nobles couldn’t fathom it.
At the same time, Cass found herself acutely aware of the staff she clutched. She held it vertical and pressed it as close to her body as possible. Each jostle against her put her entire nervous system on high alert and she was sure it wasn’t just the crowding.
Their being so receptive to us is just a standard courtesy for my position, I’m sure, Cass thought, trying to steady her breathing. For once, she hoped the Goddess would respond, even with a snide remark, but no reply came.
Well, even if it weren’t, they couldn’t wield the staff, Cass reassured herself, if any harm came to me, it would only render the Goddess’s Gift inert and leave her Will incomplete. I can’t imagine anyone other than myself who could possibly want that.
This was a common exercise for her. Picking apart a tense situation until every relevant concern and worry were nothing but specks of dust absorbed in a cloud of logic and contingency plans. She had once heard Caena complain to Roan about how negative Cass was. Roan defended Cass by asking Caena how she would feel having her sight ripped away so suddenly. While Cass had appreciated Roan standing up for her, she realized then that even he didn’t understand. It had always been that way for Cass, even though she had never been fully sighted, she didn’t believe that to be the cause.
It was about control in a world that was increasingly chaotic. Being one step ahead of anything and everything was vital, yet impossible. And amidst all of that fruitless toil, Cass had worked long and hard to perfect her poker face. She would never be taken for a fool, taken advantage of, or have the proverbial carpet yanked out from under her, so to speak.
As Cass tried to calm her anxious mind, she was led to and seated in a high-backed chair. The table before her was made of a sturdy wood. Cass propped the staff against, preferring to be able to feel if anyone tried to touch it. The woman to her right commented on it, but Cass ignored her. She placed her hands upon the table and found a cool, porcelain plate situated atop a lace table runner. Metal silverware was situated on either side of her plate. She kept her movements nimble, trying to draw as little attention as possible as she acquainted herself with what lie on the table before her.
“If you’ll permit me to be so bold,” the woman at Cass’s right said, “it is rather incredible to think that the Goddess would choose someone who is…well, devoid of vision.”
Conversation around Cass seemed to quiet almost immediately. She pivoted in the woman’s direction, unsure of how to respond.
“Marna,” Erina scolded. Her voice was nearby. “How incredibly rude.”
“I meant no offense by it. It was merely an assessment of how magnanimous your magical prowess must be.”
Cass could detect the supplication in the woman’s voice. She was appealing to Cass’s ego. Still, Cass was struggling for a response, when the woman to her left came to her rescue.
“So have you received the Goddess’s will yet?”
“I have,” Cass said, relieved and quickly sliding into a coy tone, “but you know I can’t tell you.”
“Aww, now, you could whisper it to me. I wouldn’t tell. Please, a lady of the country like myself might never interact with one chosen by the Goddess again in all my days. ”
That’s probably bound to be true anyway, Cass thought ruefully.
“Leeta, you should know better,” Marna, the woman at her right, chastised and seized on the opportunity to redeem herself. “So, what is the Goddess like? I’ve heard her voice is delicate like the ringing of a bell.”
More like the creaking of an old door, Cass smirked as the thought crossed her mind, almost daring the Goddess to respond, but again, she did not.
“It’s…difficult to describe,” Cass finally said in a placating tone.
Before the two women could respond, Cass could feel other people beginning to surround her as other voices jumped in.
“How long do you believe your journey will take?”
“What can we expect to see as a result?”
“Just how old are you?”
“Could you restore the Goddess’s favor to the southern villages?”
“What will you do after? Retire to the capital like the others?”
Cass found herself increasingly tongue-tied amid the flurry of questions, until finally, the tingling of a bell broke up the volleying of inquiries.
“Everyone, please, settle into your seats and give our guests some room to breathe.”
The group that had amassed around Cass slowly began to drift away. The sound of chairs scooting along the floor finally gave her some semblance of relief.
“Honored guests, tonight is truly a special occasion, as we have in our midst the Goddess’s Chosen and her traveling companions.”
A round of fervent applause rose, even from Crescia and Aln, though they were naturally less than enthusiastic.
“We expected to have a splendid soiree this evening, but who could expected a fortuitous surprise of this nature?”
Murmurs of agreement echoed throughout. The rhythm of dishes clattering and glasses clinking and melody of happily chatting voices filled the room as a hearty feast was placed upon the table. The maids offered to serve Cass, but the two women flanking her were already piling her plate high with anything they could reach. Across the table, Aln and Crescia were also being served by the maids and butlers, of which there were a staggering number.
“What were you all celebrating before we arrived?” Aln ventured to a petite, elderly man seated next to him. The man wore a deep blue vest adorned with gold over a pale blouse and navy trousers. The dress of a man who worked a job that had once been physical, perhaps military or merchant, but who had escalated to the highest ranks in his profession and had spent much of the past decade or so in a comfortable office.
“We were celebrating the serendipity of life,” the man answered in a jovial tone. Aln looked puzzled at his response, so he added, “Does one need a reason to celebrate, young man? Life itself should be a celebration.”
“Are you all from this area?”
Laughter echoed throughout the table.
“No,” the man replied, “We are from throughout Maehn.”
“But Lady Erina throws the most splendid parties,” a woman seated next to him chimed in, “so it is worth the trip.”
Crescia thought back to the stables. Unlike the scene in Moorin, where horses and coaches and wagons had been plentiful and finding space for them had been difficult, there was no such sight here when they had approached. In fact, the only horse she remembered seeing was the one led around by the frightened man Aln had tried to approach. Crescia opened her mouth to ask about the man, but Aln’s neighbor had changed the topic to inquire about Aln’s position in the Capital Guard.
Crescia’s eyes darted around, looking for Erina. She had plenty of questions for her hostess. She caught sight of Erina whispering something into a maid’s ear. The maid had a solemn expression on her face as she bowed low and retreated.
“Lady Erina,” Crescia called. Erina looked a little startled, but the smile quickly returned to her face and she made her way over to her guest.
“Yes…Crescia, was it?”
“Your mother, Falna, she was a mage for the Ciancina military, correct?”
Crescia was shocked. “Yes, ma’am. How did you know?”
“I am not unfamiliar with the Ciancina elite,” Erina said, a slight edge to her voice.
Someone called to Erina and she gave a bow, seeing to her other guest. Crescia watched as she swept away. The night seemed to pass quickly. Cass, Aln, and Crescia never found themselves without conversation partners, especially Cass. Her misgivings quickly faded as her conversation partners seemed to hang on her every word, whether it was about the ceremony in Moorin (in an abridged, selectively detailed form) or her recipe for Wyrmwillow Extract. Aln remained locked in conversation with the petite man at his side, whose son had a storied military career. The conversation only ended when the man assured Aln they could speak more tomorrow. Crescia had been regaled with the experiences the women present had meeting her rather intimidating mother and, by their estimations, “pleasant to look at” father.
By the time Erina rose to thank everyone for coming and signal the end of the evening’s festivities, the trio found themselves exhausted. After she bade goodnight to the guests who were not remaining in the manor, she turned her attention on them.
“I have had my servants prepare rooms for the three of you. Please, follow me.”
The rooms were extravagant for a house in the middle of the country, but neither Cass, Crescia, or Aln had the presence of mind to question it. Crescia offered to share a room with Cass, but Erina insisted that her guests be shown the upmost hospitality. Each of them would have their own, spacious bedroom. Erina supervised as the maids and butlers ensured each guest had everything they needed, including fresh nightclothes. As they changed, the servants retrieved their clothes for cleaning. Satisfied, Erina finally said good night and returned to her own room.
As Cass laid down in the middle of her spacious bed, she reflected on the day’s events. But nothing seemed to connect in her mind and before long, she gave herself over to the softness enveloping her. She could have been lying on a hard cot and still it would have been more welcoming than the ground, but this luxury was incomparable. Before long, she was snoring, the lamp on her bedside table still ablaze. She didn’t even stir when, several minutes later, Erina slipped back into her room.
The woman sized up the staff propped by Cass’s bed, allowing her hands to trace the length of it, but did not touch it. She whispered something and the staff began to glow and vibrate. With another whisper, the glow disappeared and the staff settled. Smiling with satisfaction, she extinguished the light, gave Cass a gentle glance, and slipped out of the room once more.
Moonlight streamed in through the windows as Erina made her way through the house. The silky white nightdress she wore was illuminated in blue, giving her an ethereal appearance. She swept into the kitchen and took one final glance around before pulling a rug back to reveal a rectangle in the floor. With a movement of her free hand, the rectangle began to separate from the rest of the floor. Hinges appeared at the back and a small, brass ring appeared at the front, which Erina grabbed and lifted with ease, despite her petite build. She descended the stairs, pulling the door down behind her. As soon as the door shut, it disappeared into the floor and the rug fell back into place neatly over it.
While the house’s basement level would normally have been pitch black, candles hung along a corridor trailing out from the stairs to guide her path. She traced her hand along the railing as she descended and moved deftly through the long corridor flanked by stone walls, quickly approaching what sounded like a muffled scream. At the end of the corridor was a wide, circular room with moonlight streaming in from above and a ring of candles around a raised wooden platform in the center, something squirming atop of it wrapped it an almost luminescent shroud. Many of Erina’s dinner party guests stood, scattered among the candles.
“Are we all here?” she asked in a cool tone.
“Everyone who is to participate, mistress,” the petite, elder man who had spoken with Aln all night responded in a cold tone.
“Good,” Erina said and the people at the nearest edge of the circle moved aside, granting her access to the raised platform at the center of the room. The squirming figure was strapped down to the platform, with a burlap sack over its face. Erina approached and untied the sack, revealing the face of the stablehand whom Aln had first spotted upon their arrival.
“Louin,” Erina stroked his face as she spoke. He struggled against his restraints and tried in vain to pull his face out of her reach.
“Please, let me go!” his voice cracked as he spoke, “I’ve done everything you asked! I’ve worked hard for you.”
“Indeed you have,” Erina cooed, “you’ve been one of my best servants.”
“So let me go!”
Erina stood up straight and began walking around Louin. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. Louin, you’ve proven yourself and for that, I think it’s obvious that wasting you and your unique talents on this plane would be criminal.”
Murmurs of agreement echoed throughout the room.
“You are about to become part of something so much greater. Some might even call the sacrifice you’re about to make heroic.”
“I don’t want to make a sacrifice!”
“Oh, Louin, sometimes we must do the thing we wish not to do for the good of the cause.”
Erina approached a shelf at the edge of the room and plucked a vial from it. Louin began screaming for help as Erina returned to him, kissed his forehead, and began splashing his body with the contents of the vial. The people standing in the circle began chanting.
The flames atop the candles began to take on sickly green and blue hues. A sigil on the ground began to glow and the room began to fill with mist. Louin continued struggling against his restraints and shouted once more, but this time, a burning filled his throat and he clamped his mouth shut on instinct.
The stoic faces of the people standing around him began to swirl, their chanting becoming a steady hum. Erina stood just over his head, leading the chant.
Louin chanced one more scream, his lungs burning and his vocal chords aching as he frantically forced air up through his throat and out his mouth. It was no use, however, as the scream and the air that bore it out in the open was swallowed by the howling green and blue mists.
No, he was being swallowed by those mists.
They were sucking the very breath from his body. When he had no more air to expel, motionless, his eyes wide, he begged the Goddess to end his suffering, but death would not come. Not yet.
He laid there, strapped to the table, as the mists engulfed him. His skin tingled and burned and then, slowly, it was sucked away. His very flesh was stripped away from the sinew and muscle and joints and tendons it was meant to protect. But it didn’t go in one pull or even in neat, sizable chunks. It was pulled in such microbial bits from his body that it looked like a cloud of tanned particles were dissipating into the mist. Yet his consciousness remained. He wondered bitterly what sort of malevolent magic would force a man to continue to experience such torture. But he could do nothing more than watch with morbid fascination as his muscles went next. He felt everything until finally his nerve endings were stripped away. Each piece of him was being stripped away until, finally, the faces swirling began to move in, their features angular, snarling, hungry.
Just before the veil of darkness swept across Louin’s mind, he felt something pulling, yanking on a part of his deepest self that he would never have been able to easily articulate. He knew what it was immediately and an abyssal sadness filled him. He wanted to fight, to prevent himself from being severed from the divine, from the aetheric flow. But those faces were hovering so close. He was no longer sure if he even had tear ducts, but his eyes felt heavy, blurry. And then, he felt it. That piece deep in him that seemed to glow and fill with heat whenever he used magic was being pulled apart. Pulled in a thousand different direction. Everything magical within him became part of the mists and was inhaled deeply by everyone in that room. He was no longer one. He was everyone in that room. He was everywhere in that room. Then he was nowhere.
The bones were the last to go. It always took longer to break them down. In more than forty attempts, Erina still hadn’t figured out how to make the mists strong enough to break the bones down quicker. But none of her guests seemed in a hurry to leave. They all stood there, inhaling deeply of the green and blue mists that filled the room. They drank heartily of their prey. The looks on their faces were slack, euphoric. Their bodies likely tingled as hers did in the early days, every cell filling with the magical prowess of another. The sigil drawn into the floor glowed brilliantly, changing colors every few seconds. The floor seemed to quiver and quake with the same ecstasy that filled each attendee.
A sharp, pleased smile seized Erina’s lips as they dipped into a crescent. Her face became sharp, malevolent, and overcome with glee. She released the laugh that teased at her vocal chords.
Thank you as always to Catherine for the editing and to everyone who took the time to read this week’s chapter.