Cass’s heart thundered in her ears. At first, she could hear nothing else. No birds or crickets chirping, no human voices, nothing.
Then a scream. But it was muffled, distant, as if it were outside the village somehow. But it wasn’t. Cass knew in her heart it was right there. She could feel the minor vibrations in the ground that corresponded with the rushing of feet, but could hardly hear anything.
Cass, you’re not going to thank me?
The voice echoed loud and clear in her mind. All other voices sounded muffled beyond it. The voice still sounded like her own, but there was something else to it, something snide and yet familiar.
Not only did I oblige your second request, but you didn’t even notice that I had responded to your first.
“My first…?” Cass mumbled in confusion.
You called me here, did you not?
Any similarities to Cass’s voice had fallen away. What remained was a saccharine, but taunting voice. One she had definitely heard before. Ten years earlier.
Yes. Come on, Cass. You’re supposed to be bright, remember? Blinding your other eye didn’t damage your brain too, did it?
The Goddess’s mocking laughter ricocheted through Cass’s mind.
Cass had rehearsed the moment she would confront the Goddess over and over again. She would gloat her victory over the fate the Goddess had tried in vain to curse her with. She would demand to know why the Goddess turned against her. She would show the Goddess once and for all what exactly she was made of.
But now, her legs felt wobbly, gelatinous. Her chest was tight and heavy. Her face was hot and the tears that had gathered in the corners of her eyes were blazing steamy trails down her cheeks.
What’s wrong, Cass? Didn’t you have something you wanted to say to me? After all, you must have had some reason for undermining me a second time.
“Undermining you…a second time…?”
The swell of muffled sounds around Cass seemed to be shifting, the tenor changing. There were pockets of silence and other pockets of determined conversation.
Did you think I didn’t notice? Did you think I didn’t see you squirreling away equipment in that dilapidated hovel of yours? Collecting weeds in some pathetic attempt to distill their minerals? Those burns on your hand from trying to bond that ill-fashioned imitation of a holy band you made. Cass, you’re entirely too predictable.
“You knew…but you didn’t stop me…”
Cass lifted her head.
Yes, I suppose I’m no better at learning lessons than you are. I had faith that snotty little waif from the capital would pull the staff and proceed to carry out my will with no problem…just as I had faith in you ten years earlier.
“You wanted…the girl from the capital…”
She did seem like a good choice. But she was all style and no substance, for lack of a better term. I like my winners to have a bit more brains than that shell. But she’s a lot like you in a way. You’re both far too arrogant for your own good.
I like arrogant.
“Cass! Cass, what are you saying?!”
Caena’s muffled voice broke through the rumbling in Cass’s head. She could feel her sister’s slender hands shaking her shoulders.
I can use arrogant.
Cass gasped. Caena continued to shake her.
And I’m going to use you, Cass…
The village square was blood red. At first, it was completely silent. No birds or crickets chirping, no human voices, nothing. But as Caena glanced around her, she could see realization setting in on the faces of those who remained outside. Their faces were slowly dyed with terror. Eyes opening wide, mouths slowly gaping.
Then a scream. One that pierced the silence. Brelin’s wife had been among those who torched Cass’s garden. She was shrieking. But she wasn’t moving. No one was. Everyone maintained their distance from Cass, who remained in the same spot, showing no sign of movement. Her bangs dangled over her face, obscuring her eyes.
Finally, Brelin’s wife fell to the ground. As if that single sudden movement had released some sort of hold on everyone present, everyone else began to react quickly. A few women rushed to Brelin’s wife and pulled her into a nearby house. Others took off for their own homes. Those who had been grabbing at Cass earlier were putting as much distance as possible between themselves and Cass.
Only the elder, Aln, Crescia, Cass, Caena, and a handful of guards remained on the square. Glynn, the tall airsmith who had been so cordial with Caena and Roan that morning, slipped behind the stone fence that surrounded the elder’s home. From there, he watched with keen interest.
Cass was mumbling something to herself, scarcely audible.
“Sir,” one of the capital guards called to Aln, “what would you have us do?”
Aln looked to the elder, who shot him back a mortified look.
“Why are you looking at me?”
“This is your town, Elder. We defer to you.”
The elder glanced around at the one or two Moorin guards who had remained on the scene. They looked uncertain, even fearful. A major difference from the armor-clad knights from the capital who were trying to look brave, or at least stoic.
“Naturally, I would want you retrieve the staff back from her.”
A few of the knights unsheathed their swords.
“You’re going to kill her?” Caena whispered.
“That would be an exercise in futility,” Crescia’s voice broke in. Everyone turned to face her. “I really don’t care what happens to her, but it’s obvious that the Goddess, for one reason or another, has permitted the bonding process with the staff to proceed. It’s doubtful that the staff will actually allow you to get near her. You’ll just be sacrificing yourselves for nothing.”
“So you’re saying the Goddess wants her to have it now?” Caena’s voice quivered with hope.
“I do not know. As you can see, the Goddess did not choose—“
“You wanted…the girl from the capital…”
Cass’s voice was louder than before. Everyone in the square heard her perfectly clear. Crescia’s eyes flicked to Cass.
“What…did she just say…?”
“I believe we all heard her,” Aln announced, drawing his sword.
Horrified, Caena rushed toward her sister.
“Cass! Cass, what are you saying?!”
She shook Cass, trying to get an answer out of her.
Crescia’s hand shot out in front of Aln, stopping him from moving in on Cass. When he glanced up at her, he could see a twisted smile stretching across her face.
“It is obvious that she has received the Goddess’s will. And she has made that will clear for all of us to hear. Now she just needs to give the staff to its rightful owner or face the consequences.”
“Cass!” Caena cried, “Cass, you have to snap out of it! You’re going to be killed!”
Cass was facing Caena straight on, though her eyes still had a far-away look to them. Her arms began to relax and she lowered the staff to one side. Holding it now appeared to be effortless.
“Are you going to hand the staff over to its rightful owner then?” Crescia called and began approaching Cass and Caena. Aln moved into position behind her.
“The staff is with its rightful owner,” Cass said matter-of-factly.
“Everyone present just heard you say that the Goddess wanted the ‘girl from the capital’ to have it.” Aln yelled.
“She did,” Cass responded coolly, “but that’s not how things played out and the Goddess knows that.”
“Give me the staff,” Crescia shouted.
Cass could hear the clattering of swords.
“She wanted you to have it, but you were too weak. If you really want to take it from me, then come find me in the forest once the moon is at its peak.”
“What?” Caena whispered.
“Why don’t we just take it from her now?” one of the capital soldiers called.
“I think the elder would prefer her village spared from any further damage,” Cass stated. “If you really want it and you’re willing to risk your life for it, then come find me tonight. I am departing from the village immediately, and to what I’m sure will be the elder’s relief, I will not return.”
Caena glanced over at the elder. Her face was stony and hostile. Caena saw no hint of the snide joy she had expected from Cass’s announcement.
“I should tell you, I am disappointed at the fools who chose to burn my home and my garden. I had intended to leave my garden to the village. You might have made use of the plants contained within. But you are the ones who will have to live with that folly. With the exception of my sister and her family, I wash my hands of all of you. ”
“Enough with your impudence already!” Aln yelled.
“If you want a try at the staff so bad, then come find me. But I suggest you make your peace first. I can no longer guarantee your safety if you insist on trying to separate me from this staff.”
Cass broke away from Caena and held the staff high. “You will allow me safe exit from this village. And you will do no harm to my sister and her family.”
“Cass…” Caena’s eyes widened with terror as a beam of light shot down from the sky, enveloping the pair. When the light dissipated, both were enveloped in a soft glow.
“Caena, I’m so sorry,” Cass whispered, “I never thought it would end up like this.”
“What are you doing, Cass? They’re going to kill you.”
“They won’t be able to. The Goddess has lain protection upon me and upon all of you. It won’t last forever. You need to get out of here within a week’s time.”
“I’m so sorry, Caena. I’ve been so selfish. All these years that you guys have looked after me. I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking about you and your family. I should have.”
“Cass, you don’t have to do this.”
“I do, Caena.”
Cass was shaking.
“I’ll come with you, Cass.”
“No, you can’t.”
“We look out for each other, Cass. I’ll go with you, I’ll help you fulfill the Goddess’s will, whatever it is. Then we’ll all go, we’ll find someplace new.”
“You can’t come with me, Caena. I can’t let you be involved with this.”
Cass pulled back from Caena and planted the staff in the ground. Caena noticed that light was radiating along the ground in ripples spreading out from the staff. She looked up and saw that for once, Cass’s eyes appeared to be following something. Cass began moving past Caena with an intent Caena had not seen in ten years. As the ripples spread, Caena noticed the grass was starting to turn brown in the areas they had touched.
“Cass! What’s happening to you??”
Cass’s legs broke into a run. Caena chased her all the way to the village gates, where Cass finally pulled the staff off the ground and grabbed for the gate to the village in an effort to support herself. She was swaying, unsteady on her feet.
Cass reached out for her sister and Caena touched the hand that was planted on the wall. Cass spun around and pulled her sister into a tight embrace. Tears trickled from Cass’s once again unfocused eyes. Her entire body was quaking.
“You can’t go with me. If I fail, I don’t want you to be there to witness me destroying the world.”
I’m going to use you, Cass…to destroy this pitiful excuse for a world, just as I intended to ten years ago…
Apologies for the brief hiatus, everyone. Thank you as always to Catherine, who is an amazing editor!