Chapter 3

“What are you doing?!”

Caena rushed toward Cass’s burning house just as one of the merchants was tossing an ignited bottle of liquid through Cass’s bedroom window. In seconds, a thunderous boom rocked the ground as fire and smoke shot back through the window.

“We’re doing what we shoulda done years ago!”

“We told the elder this one’d bring the Goddess’s wrath as soon as we learned that she was the one who brought on the calamity!”

“This is where she plotted to defy the Goddess! We’ll destroy this bed of sin and beg the Goddess’s forgiveness!”

“It’s time for you lot to take your family and go!”

“Only then can we restore her favor!”

Caena’s eyes widened in horror. Women whose children she had delivered were setting the garden ablaze. Men whose wives’ care she had been charged with were destroying the home, with the rolstone structure itself the only object sturdy enough to stand in defiance of their rage.

Crackling sounds cascaded throughout the home. Every few seconds, another boom would shake the ground. The makeshift workshop Cass had culled together between her living area and kitchen was reacting, rallying against its imminent demise with every last burst of energy it could muster.

Cass stood in disbelief, still dazed by the stench of everything she had worked so hard to cultivate burning to the ground.

“Weren’t you going to set things right?”

The elder’s smug tone from behind Cass set chills down her spine. The elder had never been kind to her, but the current disdain in her voice was pointed and palpable.

Cass was shaking. She had long known how the villagers felt about her, but to have it lain bare in this way was weighing on her more than she expected. She knew she had to do something, but she no longer knew what. She willed her body to move, tried to find words, but nothing came. Her mind was blank. Her body was numb.

Finally, trembling, she lifted the staff toward the sky. Her throat was dry and hoarse, yet from the bottom of her gut, she croaked out a command:

Venakome, Deagotin Sel-en-Mina! Sites mer tul disea!

Come, Goddess Sel-en-Mina! Tell me your desire! The ritualistic words to call the Goddess after the staff had been pulled in order to hear what it was she willed of her current champion. Usually, the pulling of the staff was met by a natural sign of the Goddess’s favor – sunshine, a rainbow, the blossoming of native plant life.

At her words, the villagers who had set fire to her house turned her way. For a moment, all of the voices stopped. Aln and Crescia had joined the elder. All eyes were on Cass—or rather, the staff she had lifted toward the sky. Normally, the calling of the Goddess and the hearing of her will was done in private, only in the company of those who would join the champion on their journey to fulfill whatever it was the Goddess asked of them.

There was no break in the wind or the lightning. No sign of the Goddess clearing away the clouds nor ceasing her enraged assault.

Cass repeated the phrase again. And again, she was met with nothing more but the wind and the lightning. A bolt of lightning charged at the staff and ricocheted, striking and felling a tall, but slender tree into the main roadway of the village. Some retreated back to their homes to take shelter from the storm. But others remained, glaring at Cass who, unable to see their expressions, could feel the hatred nonetheless.

“She’s revoked her blessing!” a panicked voice broke in. “She’s angry at us for letting her near the staff!”

Cass clutched the staff harder. “Letting” her near it might not have been the right word. Even before this day, anytime Cass approached the staff after its arrival, if she were spotted by anyone, she was sure to be run off. Many feared she would “curse” the staff, the way many believed she had in the first calamity. She realized in that moment that no one had actually thought she might try to pull it. She lowered her head to hide the smile that was slithering its way across her lips, and try as she might, she found it difficult to keep her expression neutral.

They really did underestimate me…for all those years…

But another snap of lightning brought Cass to the present. Almost on instinct, she swung the staff in the direction of the strike and once again, the band of light appeared to shield her. Her heart pounded as she felt a violent tremor in her arm as the lightning connected with the band.

It was happening. Just as accounts of past victorious candidates had described. The staff was guiding her. Stories of victors with heightened reflexes and detection abilities following their connection with their Gift. Ballads of warriors who were peerless in battle because they simply could not be hit. Tales of heroes who, bonded with the Gift they had received, could crumple any foe with enviable synergy.

If the Goddess does not want me to have the staff, then why does the staff seem so intent on protecting me?

Cass was not given another moment to ponder that question, as she could feel something approaching, several somethings – or someones – all converging on her. This time, she readied the staff, held it defensively in front of her.

The furious villagers of Moorin who still remained outside charged her at once.

“It’s not yours!” one woman exclaimed.

Cass began sliding back, but they were fast and she could feel hands grabbing at her cloak, reaching for her wrists, her hands—the staff.

“Return the staff, woman!” roared another man.

“Leave me be!” she called, her hands moving with a rhythm her legs could not match.

“She’s not going to give it back!” another man’s voice called, “we gotta take it from her!”

And then she could feel a large, coarse, gloved hands trying to find purchase on the staff’s shaft. As her hand slid up against his, trying to push him off, she felt something cool and metallic. A band that sat at the base of his palm, one he used for smithing, to make impressions on the weapons he crafted to mark them as uniquely his work. His identity clicked for her. Though the blacksmith had never liked her per se, he had become more tolerant of her now that she had become a steady customer. She wondered if he had put two and two together now, if he realized that it was the equipment he sold her that had enabled her to make the item that allowed her to acquire the staff.

She wasn’t foolish enough to tell him, of course. Not now, when he was trying to rip the staff away violently, even as she held firm. He was much larger than she, and physically, much stronger. And yet her hands were clenched around the staff.

“Do not touch the Goddess’s Gift!” Cass yelled.

“Never in a thousand years would I buy that the Goddess wanted you to have it! Y-you’ve done something!”

Something strange began to rise within Cass. A feeling. A thought. A whisper, but in her own voice.

 I can get rid of him for you.

Cass gasped as the voice repeated its offer.

I can easily get rid of him for you. It would be effortless for me, for you, for us.

“Of course! That’s why the Goddess is punishing us!”

“She’s bewitched the staff!”

“Take it from her, Brelin!”

She wondered what the voice meant by it – get rid of him.

She had no time to find out.

Something hard slammed into her upper abdomen, knocking her off balance. Something that felt like the sole of a large boot. At the same moment, the blacksmith gave another hard tug on the staff.

“Stop it!” she cried out, her voice hollow as she struggled to maintain her hold on the staff.

“Just gimme the staff! Do something right for a change!” he yelled.

“Stopt, Brelin! You could be injured!” the elder called.

“It’s worth the risk! This is the only way to appease the Goddess!”

I can make him stop. The voice spoke again in a cool tone. He’ll never threaten you again.

“Then do it!” Cass cried. “Make this stop already!”

And it did.

A magnificent blast of light emanated from the staff, causing everyone to cover their eyes. White hot heat came from within the staff, and Brelin could feel it through his fingers. Cass could feel the steam rising from the staff, but her fingers detected no sensation of direct heat. Brelin let out an uncharacteristic cry and Cass could hear a sizzle, smell the stench of burning flesh.

“No, stop!” Cass cried. “I don’t want him to die!”

But you want him to stop? I’m making him stop like you said.

“Brelin! Please let go!” Cass pleaded.

Brelin’s only response was his continued cries. Cass could feel steam rising around both of them. She called his name, but he did not respond.

A moment later, the light from the staff faded. Everyone moved their hands and opened their eyes, unprepared for the sight that awaited them.

Cass was the only one left holding the staff. The other angry villagers had taken a step or two back. Brelin was nowhere to be found. All that remained of him was a burned impression on the dirt road and two scorched hand prints that were now fading from the shaft of the staff.

And without the slightest warning, the wind and lightning stopped. The clouds parted and the setting sun dyed the square a reddish-orange.


Author’s Note

Thanks as always to my awesome editor, Catherine and thanks to those of you who’ve been taking the time to read this! Pacing in a serialized novel is definitely a learning experience! There’s so much I want to share in the story, as I can imagine what you guys must be thinking, but I want it to come in at the right time. See you next week!

Chapter 4
Chapter 2