For the majority of the night, Cass had slept in perfect peace. Everything was silent. It was like the silent slumber of death, but it suited her just fine.
Suddenly, Cass was standing on a platform, holding a glowing longsword. Its hilt was solid gold and the blade was made out of a strange material with the hardness of diamond and the opacity of platinum. It should have been the happiest moment of Cass’s life, the culmination of everything she had worked toward, yet it was anything but. The sky was so thick with malevolent clouds, it was almost black. The lightning rocketing through the sky was the only thing to illuminate the town square where everyone gathered for the ceremony stood. People were scattering in every direction, trying to take refuge. Even the knights who had stayed behind in the name of duty were now fleeing. The shrieks and cries that filled the air faded into the background as Cass’s own screams overshadowed them.
Blood streamed down her cheeks, but even after the initial shock, her anguish did not lessen. Something was happening inside of her. Like someone was tearing into her, trying to tear something out of her. Something as deeply rooted and vital as her heart.
Cass woke with a jolt. Her throat was raw – had she really been screaming? She was covered in sweat and something was streaming from her eyes. She touched a finger to her cheek. It was a thin liquid. Didn’t have the viscosity of blood, at least she hoped.
“Are you all right?” a voice called as a knock came at the door.
“I-I’m fine,” Cass responded, trying to identify the voice.
“May I come in?”
“O-okay, but I really am fine.”
Cass straightened her posture and felt for the staff by her bedside as the heavy door creaked open.
“It is Erina, Lady Cass,” the woman with the honey voiced said.
Cass let her hand fall.
“Er-Lady Erina,” Cass wondered what form of address she should use for what seemed to be a noblewoman, even if she was living in a manor in the woods. She had, however, called Cass “Lady”, a formality Cass hadn’t heard in a very long time, and even then on only a handful of occasions.
“I heard screaming. Are you all right?”
Damnit. Cass touched her hand to her lips.
“I’m embarrassed to say that I had a nightmare.”
“Oh my,” Erina sounded genuinely concerned. She walked over to Cass’s bed, her footsteps light. If it had been anyone else, someone who hadn’t come to rely on their hearing, they might not have even been noticeable. She settled at the foot of Cass’s bed and Cass could feel the minor indentation as the mattress gave way to its mistress. “What about?”
Cass’s face was red. But Erina’s voice was so comforting, it felt like she might not ridicule Cass for such a childish indulgence.
In all of the previous night’s conversations, not one person had mentioned Cass’s first run-in with the Goddess and her gift. Were they far enough away from the capital that they hadn’t known? No, it was naive to think so.
“It was a bad memory,” Cass finally offered, “one that’s replayed quite a lot for me lately, though not nearly as vividly as it did this night.”
“A bad memory?”
“Yes,” Cass said, “of a choice I once made. One I thought was right, even though no one else did.”
“I see,” Erina said and Cass could feel her adjusting her posture. “Sometimes, we must do what we believe is right, even if no one else does. Even if it is difficult.”
With that, Erina rose from the bed and walked up to Cass’s side. When she spoke, it was obvious that she wasn’t facing Cass. She was facing the wall. The staff.
“You have quite a burden resting upon your shoulders. I want to say that I do not envy your task. But you are not as alone as you might think. And I believe it is wise to accept help when it is given you.”
“No,” Erina said and turned to Cass, “but we can discuss that more tomorrow. For now, I think it is important that you rest. Will you be able to get back to sleep?”
Fatigue was already beginning to set in over Cass and she gave a yawn. “I think I’ll manage. Thank you, Lady Erina.”
Cass was asleep before Erina could tell her she was welcome. Erina gave her a coy smile and swept out of the room.
It was hysterical laughter that guided Cass out into the manor’s front yard. She had awoken to an empty house and, finding an outfit prepared for her at the foot of her bed, she dressed and set out into the house. It was disorienting, being in an unfamiliar location. Cass had forgotten what a difference it made after living in the same town for so long. She had been able to memorize her way to all major locations and had been able to navigate it without the aid of her familiar.
She placed a hand along the wall and stretched the other out at her side, feeling for the railing. Finding it, she made her way tentatively down the steps, hoping that no one was watching her with silent amusement.
When she made it outside, she realized the laughter was somewhat familiar. It was Crescia, facing away from Cass. And past her, Cass could hear Aln shouting and a horse whinnying. There were a few other voices nearby, ones Cass recognized from the evening prior, even if she could not place a name to them.
“What’s going on?” Cass asked.
“Well, good morning, Your Highness. Glad you could join us,” Crescia said between fits of giggles.
“What are you laughing at?” Cass walked toward Crescia’s voice.
“Sir Aln is regaling us with his animal taming talents,” Erina’s voice said with a hint of laughter.
“He is terrible. That horse is the one training him,” Crescia laughed. She then called to Aln, “How does one become a knight when he cannot even tame a horse?”
“I can tame a horse just fine, m’lady,” Aln said, a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Can you now? Then why are you out of carrots, sir?”
“The beast is just confused at the absence of his normal handler.”
“You are so full of excuses and so low on carrots,” Crescia teased and began laughing again as the horse was now helping himself to the contents of Aln’s satchel.
A smile broke across Cass’s face. It was the first time she had heard Crescia so playful and Aln so…lively.
“Where is the horse’s handler?” Cass asked, hearing Aln shriek as the horse was now poking around, trying to locate the carrots its nose promised that he still had.
“One of the maids said he went missing this morning,” Crescia offered between giggles.
“It is nothing to worry about,” Erina said quickly, approaching Cass. “The nearest town is quite a distance away. Sometimes our servants go on urgent errands, though I would expect better manners than for him to leave without notifying someone. His chores cannot be neglected.”
Cass nodded in acknowledgement. She turned back toward Aln’s and Crescia’s voices and listened for awhile. Something clicked in her mind, a memory reignited.
“The Southern Point…is it here, by any chance?”
“Here?” A laugh escaped Erina’s lips. “My goodness, I wish.”
“While we were starting toward the Point, the staff guided us here.”
“So that is how you found us?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
Erina fell silent but Cass could hear her approaching. Crescia was still laughing and Aln and the horse still seemed to be carrying on their dance of dominance.
“Come with me,” Erina said, taking Cass’s hand. “I have something to discuss with you.”
The two women walked along for several minutes before Erina said anything. Cass had looped her arm through Erina’s as a type of guide. As they walked further from the display in the front yard, Cass could hear other sounds – livestock, people chattering – perhaps servants. Occasionally, a welcome shade would pass over Cass’s face.
When Erina finally spoke, it was direct in a way Cass could not anticipate.
“You’ve been severed from the aetheric flow.”
Cass released Erina’s arm, shocked.
“Wha..why would you say that?”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of with me,” Erina said evenly. “It happens to many people for many reasons. The only connection you have to it is through the staff.”
“Yes,” Cass said, lowering her head with a pang of guilt.
Erina sighed. “I cannot imagine how that must feel. Of course, I may not have to imagine it for much longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“You cannot tell me the Goddess’s Will. You and I both know that. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot share something with you about the Goddess.”
“Something about the Goddess?”
They paused and the way the shade overtook them, Cass could tell they were on the far side of a tall building.
“I wouldn’t feel right telling you what to do with this information, but I hope you will understand it has been shared only in limited capacities in the interest of mitigating hysteria.”
“I understand. Please tell me.”
Erina took a deep breath.
“The aetheric flow is growing weaker.”
Cass gasped. “Wh-what do you mean?”
“I learned of it through a confidant working at the Academy. The magic is drying up.”
“Everywhere. At least we have confirmed it from within Maehn and the country immediately to our south, but I can feel it. It is as if a cap has been applied to the flow. Once we exhaust what is already there, that will be the end of it.”
Cass pulled back from Erina.
“I don’t understand. How?”
“How indeed? Do you have any inclinations that might explain it, Lady Cass?”
Cass’s face went pale.
“H-how long has this been going on?”
“For the past few weeks, as far as I can confirm.”
Cass’s stomach turned. It had been about three weeks since the ceremony, since she pulled the staff. Since she reignited the Goddess’s rage.
The Goddess said it would fall to her to destroy the world. Was this what she meant?
“Cass,” Erina pressed gently, “do you know something? Is it part of your mission?”
“I-I can’t tell you that.”
Cass heard a heavy door creak open. “I’d like to show you something. I mean, share it with you.”
Cass followed Erina’s voice, her legs quaking. When she entered the building, Erina shut the door. Immediately, a heaviness pressed on Cass’s chest. She found it difficult to breathe. Her body wanted out. But something else, something deeper in, seemed to awaken. It wanted whatever was at the center of this enclosed room, with a hunger that had been languishing for a decade, unbeknownst to its owner.
“I’m sure you understand that the magic cannot be allowed to be extinguished from our world,” Erina whispered as she walked up behind Cass. “But if it got out that it were drying up…well, people are not exactly the most rational creatures.”
“What is this place?”
Sweat was dripping steadily from Cass’s brow. She felt dizzy, faint.
“I thought you said you had been severed.”
Erina placed an arm over Cass’s shoulders. “Tell me, how did it happen?”
“Th-the Goddess…the same day she blinded me.”
“The first time you pulled the staff?”
Cass felt cold and shaky, but she had no energy to resist. “Yes. You knew that?”
“Everyone knows that, Lady Cass.”
“But you were so kind to me.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Erina cooed.
“Why am I here?”
“Because our future relies on you, Cass. On what you choose to do, now that you have the Goddess’s Gift.”
“What I choose to do…”
Erina was the first person to talk about Cass’s path after pulling the staff like she had any sort of choice.
“I don’t know what exactly the Goddess said to you, but it is clear our world is changing in a profound way. And we need someone who is prepared to bear that weight. Go on, Cass. Follow that which is natural.”
Cass followed that insatiable pull from within. The center of the room was hot, the air thick and heavy. Something pulsed in a spiral pattern beneath her feet. Her fingers stretched out and she reached down, toward the center of the room, where the pull was greatest.
Something opened within her. It was euphoric almost, a long-held desire finally sated. And then, pain.
Erina watched dispassionately as the blind mage shoved her hand into the sigil. The energy pulsing through it formed a bubble around her hand. Erina watched with a patient smile as Cass’s cries filled the silo, then ceased as she fell to the ground, unconscious. Tears were running down her cheeks and her hand was bright red, the skin blistering. When she was sure the woman would not wake, she called for two servants to carry the guest as she followed behind.
Thanks as always to my editor Catherine and to everyone for taking the time to read. Apologies the post is late.