Crescia stood in the corner of Cass’s room. The chairs and the edge of the bed had been occupied by Erina, Marna, and Petra, the latter two having seized the task of seeing to her care. Crescia lingered near enough that she could keep an eye on her unconscious traveling companion, yet far enough away that she would not earn further protests from the noblewomen whose insistence that she keep her distance felt as if they felt she would only be in the way. Her pride had suffered many scrapes these past few weeks, but somehow, none had stung worse than having her palliative abilities called into question.
The sun made its trek across the sky, slowly rescinding its offer of light from the cerulean walls of the room. Cass remained unconscious for the remainder of the day, save for the periodic convulsions that would rack her body. Each time they came, Crescia noticed that she would wring her hands and cry out in pain. When the women managed to pry her hands apart, Crescia caught sight of those marks again. They were strange, like a rectangle missing its top and the two naked tips of the lines accented by three fanning lines each.
“What are those marks?” Crescia finally ventured.
“Marks?” Marna looked confused. She and her sister struggled to hold Cass down.
“On the backs of her hands,” Crescia pressed impatiently.
“What are you talking about?” Petra asked, forcibly turning Cass’s hands over for all to see. The marks were gone. All that remained were red patches, likely from Cass scratching and squeezing at them.
Crescia opened her mouth to protest, but Erina rose from the bed, smiling sweetly as her lithe body floated towards her.
“Lady Crescia, I do not think it would do for a young lady to be cooped up in a den of illness such as this. You might catch whatever ailment has befallen Cass yourself. Would you consider joining me for a walk?”
Crescia looked past Erina and watched the women rub soothing salves on Cass’s body’s vital points.
“We will return before long and you can resume your watch over her then.”
Marna looked up at Crescia. “It’s all right, m’lady, you have nothing to fear. We will watch over her.”
Crescia relented. “Alright. Just for a little bit.”
She followed Erina reluctantly from the room and down the hall toward the stairs. The walls were lined with portraits, some people who resembled Erina and others who didn’t appear to be any relation.
“I see you’ve taken to the portraits,” Erina said, causing Crescia to jump a little. “Some of them are relatives, but you know, kinship is not determined by blood alone, despite the importance our society places upon it.”
“Von Lin Franks,” Crescia read the plaque beneath a particularly unkempt looking portrait. “I’ve heard that name before.”
“No doubt in your time at the Academy. Von Lin Franks was one of the greatest mages ever to walk the surface of Sel.”
“This one looks newer,” Crescia noted beneath the portrait of a man with an almost snarling smile. “E’runa Cam.”
“Yes. It was commissioned only a few short years ago.”
Erina started toward the stairs and Crescia followed her.
“You know, I’m a transplant to this area.”
“I thought so, judging from how much knowledge of the Ciancina nobility you possess,” Crescia said evenly. “So, how is it that I’ve never heard of you?”
Erina laughed. “I had a different name back then.”
“What was your name?” Crescia asked hesitantly. Erima only continued to walk on in silence, out the front door, with Crescia following obediently behind. It was only once they were outside that she gave any sort of response over her shoulder.
“For as far as we humans believe ourselves to have come, you might be surprised to know that reputation is a far more powerful weapon than any sort of magic. That noble status you cling to, that prestige, it can all be wiped away in a moment.”
Erina turned right and headed toward a part of the farm Crescia had not yet explored. They were heading toward a massive hedge, two or three heads taller than they were. Crescia hesitated a bit, but Erina motioned her towards a wooden door in the hedge.
“It is the entrance to my personal garden,” Erina said gently. “I thought it might do us a bit of good to take in some of nature’s beauty.”
Crescia approached tentatively as Erina opened the door, but when she opened it, Crescia’s reservations seemed to immediately melt away.
Before her stretched acres of flowers and trees, impeccably manicured and meticulously positioned to create waves of color, each complimenting the next.
Erina seemed to float as they walked through the garden. Save her odd existence and mannerisms here in the isolated countryside, Crescia thought she was the very epitome of what a noblewoman should be.
“What is it?” Erina said, catching Crescia staring at her.
“Have we met before now?”
“I do not believe so.” Erina turned away. “I met your mother on many occasions, but I do not believe you were ever with her.”
Erina turned and began to pursue a path flanked on either side by flowering trees. Crescia followed obediently behind without giving it much thought.
“This all must be so difficult for you.”
Crescia glanced over at Erina in shock, trying to read her expression. “I beg your pardon?”
“I apologize, perhaps that was a bit forward of me. It’s just, you seem like the quintessential noble child. You follow the path your parents lay out for you, and you base your judgements on others on an antiquated value system handed you down through generation after generation. What is there in this world that you can truly call your own?”
Crescia stopped, the blood rising in her face.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Erina, but I won’t have you speak to me that way. You have no idea about me or what I’ve been through.”
Erina kept walking, a sly smile working its way across her face.
“I endured nothing but judgement and doubt when I chose to focus exclusively on becoming the Goddess’s Chosen. I staked everything I had on this…and I…”
“And you lost,” Erina said over her shoulder, not stopping her stride. “Don’t you see? This was inevitable.”
Crescia’s shoulders sagged and she began trudging after the woman. “What do you mean?”
“It’s not your fault, my dear. It’s the world you were born into. Call it the weight of privilege.”
Crescia remained silent, merely walking following Erina.
“Everyone has placed such importance upon being the Goddess’s Chosen, but what a gamble it is indeed. What if you don’t succeed? Only one candidate can successfully pull the gift, yes?”
“But there is an even worse outcome than that.”
Crescia raised her head to look at Erina. “What?”
The two stopped walking. They had reached a dead end in the path. Before them was a circular tract of dirt and at its center, a sigil.
“You needn’t play coy with me, Crescia. Tell me, how did it feel watching one rejected by the Goddess pull her Gift when you could not?”
Crescia stared at her in disbelief.
“For such a studied mage,” Erina said in a snide tone, “you certainly have no concept of just what is happening just beneath the planet’s surface.”
Erina lifted a hand and the sigil began to glow. She placed her free arm around Crescia.
“I could help you though. I could train you. I could even offer you another chance at that staff.”
Crescia pulled away and looked up at Erina. Their eyes locked.
“The staff…another chance…”
“Lady Erina,” a voice called from behind them. Erina glared over her shoulder, perturbed, as the glow faded from the sigil. She loosened her grip on Crescia. A maid was standing at the entrance to the tree-lined path. “Lady Marna has requested your aid.”
“I see.” Erina started toward the entrance to the path with Crescia in tow, but Erina rounded on her. “Why don’t you stay here, my dear, and see what else the garden has to offer? I believe you’ll be rather impressed with its cabaret of secrets. And perhaps, give further thought to my offer?”
Much as she wanted to object, Crescia found she couldn’t. She remained transfixed in place as Erina joined the maid at the head of the path and the two of them disappeared beyond the hedge. Finally, Crescia found the will to move again. She wanted to put as much distance as she could between herself and that strange sigil on the ground. But the closer she got to the entrance of the wooded path, the further away it seemed to get.
Finally, Crescia broke into a run. She charged at that seemingly unattainable end with every ounce of energy she had. Yet it never seemed to get any closer. Sweat broke out on her brow, making a slow cascade along her long locks. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears as she pressed on. When she reached her breaking point, able to run no longer, she collapsed to the ground. After a moment of rest, she tried again and found herself in the exact same spot. She looked back at the sigil on the ground with abject terror seeping into every pore of her body. Racking her brain, she began to try every counter spell she could think of. Spells to remove curses, spells to heal illnesses caused by interacting with the undead, spells to bless a person and grant them protection. She tried them all, to no avail.
Finally, with tears welling up in her eyes, Crescia let out a high-pitched cry.
“Still, it’s beyond me how you made it all this way by yourself,” the old man said to Aln, taking another gulp of his frothy drink. He slammed the mug down and called for another. Aln’s still remained untouched in front of him. In the hour since they’d arrived in the modest-sized tavern, its wooden walls discolored from years of patrons who partook in recreational smoking and its tables chipped and scarred from more than a few nightly brawls, the man had gone through three mugs and a plate of beef already. Aln had barely been able to force down his own dinner, but for once, couldn’t bring himself to drink. His head pounded, his mind full, and he didn’t feel that fizzing it all away after a couple of rounds would make the morning any more palatable.
The man had refused to take Aln back to Erina’s estate, or even in that direction, as he insisted that there was no such place and Aln must be delirious from a long journey. Even after Aln offered the few actual coins he had from Crescia, the man declined. The man, a travelling merchant and former airsmith by the name of Pyne, had insisted Aln use his coins to stay a night in town. He might be more equipped to deal with things in the morning.
But all Aln could think about was getting back to Crescia. He had tried time and again to wrap his head around what had happened, about the horse and the coins, with no success. None of it made sense.
“Think you oughta take a lesson from your friend and ease off the drink, yeah, Pyne?” someone said over Aln’s shoulder. Aln went rigid and looked over his shoulder to see a burly man, several years younger than Pyne.
“He’s the one who could take a lesson from me,” Pyne protested, swiping his refilled mug from the barmaid. “He’s about lost his head, if you know what I mean. Been out there in the hot sun a little too long. Says he was staying on a farm out in the middle of the Leycan Meadowlands. I found him trying to ride a dead horse into town.”
The burly man raised an eyebrow. “Leycan Meadowlands, you say?”
“Oh, here we go again,” the barmaid groaned. “Pyne, when are you gonna learn to keep your mouth shut?”
“Why?” he asked innocently. “What did I say?”
“Leycan Meadowlands is where my brother went missing five years ago,” the burly man said. “Said he got a well-paying job as a farmhand one day from some woman. Never saw him again after that.”
Aln and Pyne were both staring at the man, transfixed. Nobody else in the bar seemed nearly as interested. A few snickers echoed throughout the room before it returned to its normal din. Pyne gave an incredulous laugh.
“Son, don’t take this lump of meat at what he says. He’s been too long in the sun like you. Mason, I been all over Leycan Meadowlands and not once have I seen a farm or house or even a cow. Your brother just ran off somewhere or maybe, Sel-en-Mina carry him, got himself killed.”
Mason yanked Pyne up by his jacket. The room quieted again.
“Watch your tongue! I know Louin wasn’t making it up!”
“Wait, what!?” Aln leapt to his feet. “Sir, did you just say your brother’s name was Louin?”
Mason, still gripping Pyne tight, turned his gaze on Aln. “I did.”
Aln began to feel something off in the pit of his stomach. He looked Mason right in the eye. “That’s the missing farmhand I was sent here to find.”
“Our guest of honor has quite a night ahead of her,” Erina said coolly, staring out the bedroom window, watching Crescia struggle in vain to move forward, her state increasingly frantic.
“What would you have us do?” Marna asked.
“We could help the process along.”
“No,” Erina hissed, “we can’t risk it. It needs to happen organically.”
“How can we be sure it will though?” Petra’s piercing blue eyes were fixed on her.
“I find your questioning me to be rather tiresome,” Erina said, locking eyes with Petra. Before Petra could cut in to voice her displeasure, Erina continued; “Do you remember what happened to the Feigne twins?”
“No,” Petra said, her eyes still locked on Erina with suspicion. Marna, however, looked up with interest.
“Dante Feigne was the name of a victorious candidate who died fifteen or so years back, yes?”
“That’s right, Marna. Do you know what happened after he died?”
Marna shook her head.
“His twin brother, Quin, tried to take possession of the gift, which had been rendered inert upon Dante’s death. After all, they were identical twins. They were both accomplished mages in the offensive arts. Quin knew all the spells that Dante had used to win the gift.
“But when Quin attempted to take possession of the gift, he received a mighty shock. Many believe this was a warning from the Goddess herself. When he persisted, he was incinerated, along with the gift proper.”
Petra leaned back against the sleeping Cass’s legs. “We’ve already confirmed that the Goddess can’t influence the staff here.”
“Yes, hence why it’s become inert without the Chosen to use it. But what do you expect will happen when you attempt to leave the confines of this estate with it?”
Petra merely stared at Erina, her eyes illuminating as the realization seemed to set in.
“What makes you think this method will make any difference then?”
Erina smiled and approached Cass. “This time, we’ll be able to send whoever takes possession of that staff out as its new champion.”
“What about that little noble girl?” Marna asked, “the one from the capital?”
Erina shook her head. “She puts on a good front, but she lacks her mother’s spine or her wit.”
Marna giggled. “So I see living in the country has made you no better at handling people.”
Erina shot her a look that immediately silenced her. Petra scoffed, gave a laugh, and rose from the bed.
“Well, the two of you can remain here and watch this woman sleep herself to death. I’m going to get something to eat.”
“I’ll come too-”
“Marna!” Erina snapped. Marna stopped in her tracks and lowered her head.
“Apologies, Lady Erina.”
A voice was calling to Cass through the darkness. One she hadn’t heard in a long time.
Slowly, wearily, she opened her eyes.
A girl was standing over her, her long locks brushing Cass’s face.
“Crescia? Lady Erina?”
Cass blinked a few times. And then a few more. A strange realization dawned upon her.
She could see. But how? The last place she had been was with Erina in that strange, round building with the sigil at its center. That building where-
Try as she might, Cass couldn’t remember. She and Erina were talking. Erina said the world’s magic was drying up. That Cass had a burden on her shoulders. That was it.
“Cass, what are you doing? You’re going to be late if you don’t hurry.”
Cass kept her eyes fixed on the girl as she sat up. And then it hit her. How could she ever have forgotten?
Thank you as always to Catherine for the editing and to everyone who took the time to read this week’s chapter!