“Finally! The Gift of the Goddess I was owed all those years ago!”
Cass struggled to hold the staff high and steady.
The village elder’s shrill voice ripped through the emerging mutters and whispers. She marched toward the platform and almost in time with her steps, the sky began to cloud over. The brilliance of the staff’s glow became even more pronounced against the darkened sky, which went from azure to grey to navy in a matter of seconds.
The audience first reacted with awe, but their awe quickly devolved into cries of terror.
A fierce wind began to blow. It was immediately followed by a lightning strike directly behind the platform, then another right on it. It looked as if it were trying to hit the staff – or perhaps Cass herself. Yet each time the lightning charged for Cass and the staff, a band of light appeared like a shield above Cass and her staff, causing the lightning to bounce off and into the crowd.
“It’s the Goddess’s wrath!”
“But why? Didn’t the staff choose her?”
“No way! She ain’t no 22. The Goddess was clear on that. She’s doomed us all!”
The crowd had begun to flee. Moorin villagers were rushing to their homes. Visiting candidates and those who had travelled with them rushed the inn or the Great Hall. Stray animals were darting into the woods.
“You wretch!” the village elder snarled. “You’re coming with me!”
The elder grabbed Cass by the back of her cloak, digging her nails in so they scratched at the back of Cass’s tunic. Cass tried to pull away, but began to falter, her balance off due to the prodigious weight of the staff. In spite of her age and petite frame, the village elder was able to make use of this imbalance and drag Cass off the platform toward her manor.
Aln glanced back at Crescia, who was watching Cass in disbelief. Suddenly, before his own protective instincts could even kick back in, Crescia grabbed his hand and started marching after the village elder and the reluctant Cass.
“Come!” Crescia barked.
“Yes, milady!” Aln replied quickly, the corners of his lips twitching at this sudden display of spunk.
Back out in the crowd, Caena was fighting the throngs of people trying to get away from the square. She looked down at her eldest.
“Jalen, take your brother and go find Papa!”
“No, Mommy!” her youngest, a little boy, cried out to her.
“Go with Jalen, Olin!” Caena insisted. “I have to go help Aunt Cass!”
Jalen, had pulled away from their mother and was now holding Olin with both arms around him. She was trying with all her might to tug him away from their mother. Knocked around by the throngs of people disinterested in anything but getting their own families to safety, the two children were quickly grabbed by Roan, who scooped Olin into his arms and firmly grasped Jalen’s little hand.
“I’ll be home as soon as I can!” Caena called over her shoulder to them, trying to muster what confidence she could. The truth was, she had no idea what she was walking into. The only thing she knew for sure was that it wasn’t good.
“What have you done?!”
The village elder threw Cass into the foyer of her manor and stepped in behind her. Crescia and Aln slipped in. The elder didn’t even acknowledge them, facing Cass, who was on her backside, stunned and clutching the staff with both hands.
“I pulled the staff…” Cass breathed, then slowly used the staff to pull herself to her feet.
“Which you had no right to pull!” the village elder snarled. “You’re past the age of maturity. And now the Goddess is raining down punishment on all of us for your sins!”
Aln’s eyes widened. It was as if finally, all the pieces were clicking together in his mind. He thought of the stories he had heard the first time Cass had tried to pull one of the gifts ten years ago. That, instead of sending down her blessing and her will, the Goddess had set lightning and floods upon the town where the gift had been enshrined. That bolts of lightning almost seemed to target Cass and her caravan. While most of the knights who had accompanied her had survived, they quit en masse. Aln had never understood why the Goddess had reacted as she did at that time and he had learned not to ask those who had been there, but this was different. Cass’s age was in direct violation of the Goddess’s edict, and defying the Goddess so blatantly was enough to incur her deadly wrath. As he thought it through, Aln’s blood began to boil. And then, his thoughts turned to Crescia.
However, before Aln could say anything, Crescia was sweeping past him. She marched past the elder with such rage and defiance of any sort of custom due the leader of a town. She headed straight for Cass, reared back her small, slender hand, and brought it down hard across Cass’s cheek with an audible smack!
“You selfish oaf! You buffoon! You… you… I can think of no better ways to describe your foolish actions,” Crescia said, her body quivering.
“I had heard of your arrogance, of your insolence, from the chancellor. It’s even become something of an admonition around the Ciancina Magic Academy. ‘Whatever you do, don’t become another Cass TeLindhun.’ But to think that, after all this time, you still have learned nothing… you’re every bit as loathsome as they say you are.”
“And yet, still, I can’t fathom how you managed to pull it off,” Crescia said, her eyes softening the slightest bit as she seemed to be thinking it over.
Cass, who had made no attempt to dodge Crescia’s hand (whether because she was unable or unwilling, Aln wasn’t sure), finally lifted her head. Her eyes were unfocused and haunted, but without a hint of tears. She slid her uninjured hand off the staff, massaging the bandaged one. She spoke, not to Crescia or the elder, but seemingly to the room as a whole. Her voice was soft and it wavered a bit as she spoke.
“You’re angry with me, and I suppose you have a right to be, considering what is happening outside right now. The Goddess is angry with me, and I am angry with her. Who can say whether that is right? But right now, you need to let me go outside and deal with this, before the village is destroyed.”
“Deal with this?!” the elder squawked. “After you claim to be angry at our benevolent Goddess?! She’s done nothing but bless our village, despite the fact that we allowed you and your family to live here. I should have followed my instincts and turned you lot away.”
“You should have.” Crescia spoke with a condemnation that shocked Aln.
“Elder!” a voice broke in. Aln, Crescia, and the elder turned to face Caena, who stood in front of the doorway.
“Caena,” the elder gave her a stern look, tinged with pity. “I do hope you’ve not come to make excuses for her once more. I feel as if it’s all you’ve done ever since you arrived.”
Caena looked horrified. “Is that my only contribution to your village then? Did delivering your children mean nothing to you?”
The elder gestured out the window. “I’d say this catastrophe has a way of planting itself front and center in one’s mind, wouldn’t you?”
“Then let Cass fix it! If the Goddess is angry, if this isn’t what she wanted, then it’s Cass’s responsibility to find out. After all, it’s Cass’s responsibility to obtain her will as part of receiving the staff.”
Before anyone could respond, Caena strode over to Cass and put both hands on her shoulders, bringing her face close to her sister’s.
“Cass, you have to fix this. People are going to die if this keeps up. Go out there and face the Goddess. I’ll…I’ll go with you.”
Caena struggled with those last words. The realization that the Goddess might actually kill her and Cass was dawning on her rapidly.
“Your sister is right,” the elder said, “you owe us at least that much.”
An anger flashed in Cass’s eyes and Caena tightened her grip on her sister’s shoulders. Cass, in turn, tightened her grip on the staff.
“This is not the time,” Caena hissed, “Cass, think about what’s happening outside. Whatever’s come before, the truth still remains that you’ve put the people of this village in mortal danger.”
“I’m going outside,” Cass finally said in a low growl that was barely audible to anyone but Caena. “You don’t have to come with me though.”
Cass pulled away from Caena, then started past her. Her cloak brushed Caena as she underestimated the distance between them.
“You’re not going to summon that mutt familiar of yours?” the elder sneered.
“No,” Cass responded flatly. She bumped into the silent Crescia as she passed but managed to navigate around the elder.
Caena hesitated, an array of emotions working their way across her face. Finally, as her sister was headed for an nondescript wall, she rushed to her side, looping her left arm into Cass’s right. Cass stopped and spoke in a low tone.
“I was going the wrong way, wasn’t I?”
“You were only a little off. Then again, we don’t exactly get invited here for tea very often.”
“You’re really calm about the fact that we might be facing certain death.”
“So are you.”
Cass’s body went still and her face was obscured by unkempt locks of hair, but when Caena looked closer, she thought she saw the corners of Cass’s mouth twitching into a smirk.
“You don’t have to go out with me, Caena. Take me to the door and then stay here.”
Caena glanced over her shoulder. “My chances might be better with the Goddess.”
With that, Caena guided Cass to the door and pulled it open for her. Cass stepped outside and lifted the staff to protect herself. As she opened her mouth and raised her head to the boisterous sky-
An acrid smell caused her body to go rigid, the words catching in her throat, clawing around inside of it. No, not her words. Something else was agitating her throat, something dry and irritating.
As the other scents filled Cass’s nostrils, tears began to accumulate at the corners of her eyes. Even as Caena rushed out past her, yelling, “Stop!” and charging forward, it was that mix of scents, the shrill, tinny stench of burning selenias and halprom grass that smelled the way high-pitched screaming sounded; the deep, mournful stench of incinerated lostas and purple dewdragons, and the magnified olfactory assault of the scorching wyrmwillow that had finally cut through into the deepest parts of Cass’s heart.