“Caena! Truss! Roan! Wait for me!”
Cass rushed up the hill, trying to keep pace with the others. Even at 17, her legs were short and her body stout. And as they moved over increasingly challenging terrain, even with her right eye still able to see, Cass found she only fell further behind.
“Cass!” Caena hissed. “Come on, hurry up!”
“I’m trying!” Cass said, flailing as she hesitated to jump the distance between two halves of a broken log on opposite sides of a rushing river. The others stood watching her, Caena and Truss in frustration and Roan with mild amusement. Finally, he approached the log opposite Cass and extended his hand.
“Come on! Jump!”
Cass inched back, then charged toward Roan.
“Cass, it’s not that big of a ga-”
But Cass was already airborne and Roan was preparing himself for impact. Somehow, Roan managed to catch Cass by the upper arms and prevent the full impact of her body from knocking him back. He pulled her into a straight standing position and guided her off the log, his back still to the others.
“I-it looked really far,” Cass said sheepishly, not looking him in the eye.
“It usually does for you,” Roan said gently. “It’s all right, you just have a problem with depth.”
“And distance.” Cass added, frustrated.
“And distance,” Roan laughed. “Thank you for reminding me.”
“Cass, why did you come? We told you we’re in a hurry,” Caena bustled up to her.
“Yeah,” Truss said, trailing behind Caena, “shouldn’t you be with your Academy friends?”
“I didn’t wanna miss it. The First Moon only comes once a year,” Cass looked at her sister, then shot a look in Truss’s direction, “and just because I go to the Academy doesn’t mean you guys aren’t my friends.”
“Come on, we don’t have time to wait on you,” Truss said and made his way past his brother and down to Cass. He took her hand and tugged her along behind him, as if she were an oversized doll.
Cass let her hand hang limply in his. He held her hand tightly and even though he wore smith’s gloves, she was certain she could feel the warmth of his hand pulsing through. As they passed Caena, she fell in behind them, walking in step with Roan. Cass glanced back. Roan was always nice to her, much gentler than Truss, but even back then, she thought there was something between him and Caena. An energy there, something that felt just right. She envied it. She wished Truss would treat her with the same warmth his brother did.
The hike up the mountainside was long, but uneventful for the remainder. Many people in the capital would be trying to get a good view of the First Moon, but it was unlikely anyone else would brave this particular mountainside. The rocky base and collapsed bridges along the way deterred most, and with most of the mining resources harvested, there was little interest in actually repairing any of the paths. Still, over the years, the group of friends had found ways around the obstacles that blocked their paths.
Old trees jutted out from the mountainside as they reached the plateau that marked the summit. The green of the leaves and earthen brown of the trunks were illuminated in an ethereal glow. The sky, too, was illuminated, glowing a beautiful sapphire blue with a hypnotic azure band stretching out just below and beyond the moon. The rings of Sel were illuminated by the Goddess as a reward for the world producing a champion who could pull her Gift and receive her will.
Cass let out a breath and finally pulled her hand from Truss’s, coming up beside him.
“You guys were right…. It really is something to behold.”
“We told you,” Caena said, clapping Cass on the shoulder. She gave her sister a wry smile. In years past, their parents had kept Cass home, for fear she would be injured on the mountain. They hadn’t been thrilled when their eldest daughter had made the trip for the first time a few years ago, but they had been firm when Cass insisted on going, telling her it was “too dangerous”.
But seeing it so high, away from all the light pollution in Ciancina, was a different experience altogether. It was almost spiritual. Without thinking about what she was doing, Cass reached for Truss’s hand again, wanting to squeeze it, to know someone else was feeling the way she did, in awe of all that stretched beyond them, above them. The sky, the rings, the stars—it was all so much bigger than they were. No matter how strong her magical abilities were, Cass realized how she would never be able to make something like this happen. How little she was, they all were, beneath something so grand.
As Cass’s fingers brushed Truss’s hand, slowly, gently trying to entwine themselves through his fingers, he pulled his hand away. He said nothing, but she could feel him take a step over and clear his throat. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She just kept her eyes fixed straight forward and tried not to think, tried to silence the thoughts that summoned the tears to her eyes.
“Come on,” Truss said, stepping forward without looking back, “we can all get a better view up here.”
Caena and Roan had gone silent behind them, but as she moved forward,
Cass could hear their footsteps almost in time with hers. She dared not look back. She knew they were basking in the cosmic glow—and in the warmth of mutual love.
She followed Truss close to the edge, but kept her distance from him.
“Hey, don’t get that close to the edge,” he boomed and her eye twitched.
“What are you, my father?”
“Your old man’s the one who’s gonna have my hide if you fall from there. Mine and Caena’s.”
Cass grumbled but she stepped back and knelt down on the ground, peering over the edge.
Right on time, a beam of light shot out from a small village west of the capital. As it passed into the stars, the moon and the rings began glowing even brighter. The sky lit up. The stars glistened even more magnificently.
Cass thought about the celebration going on in Ciancina. It had been another Capital champion. There would be dancing in the streets, all the vendors would be at their stalls in the marketplace. Lightblooms would be set off from the docks. Just thinking about it, Cass could smell all the sweet pastries being baked for sale. She wondered if they’d make it back in time to buy some.
And at the center of it all, the champion would be carried around inside a palanquin. Their name would be chanted over and over again. The King and Queen would both be giving speeches about the champion’s accomplishments. It didn’t matter that they likely learned most of that information secondhand or even that someone from the Academy likely wrote the speeches for them. To have the King and Queen espousing what a credit to the kingdom you were? Cass could only imagine.
To be lauded by the King and Queen. To have legends of your skill, your deeds, spread far and wide. The moment you pulled the staff retold in perpetuity. And your name chanted over and over.
To not be seen as a nuisance or a thing to be protected. To have all that shined within you on display for the world, to have people see your true value.
I may not be able to compare with a Goddess who can illuminate the sky and the rings and make the stars to dance upon the veil of night, but I’m in the Academy. I have a shot of pulling the Goddess’ Gift.
No. I don’t just have a shot. I will do it.
Cass sat up suddenly. She looked up at Truss, whose gaze was fixed straight ahead, who wasn’t looking at her as she did him, who might never look at her that way.
She followed his transfixed stare out to the night sky and there, on her eighteenth First Moon, she vowed that she wouldn’t just get him to look at her like that. She would get everyone to look at her that way.
The songs of insects, blending an odd disharmony that was perfect in its own way, surrounded Cass. She pulled herself into a sitting position. The chorus of the night had lulled her into an easy slumber.
She lifted her face to the sky, but the moon refused to provide the same tactile cues to its position that the sun offered. There was no heat beating down on her from one direction or another.
She sighed. “So much for my big night.”
The image of that fateful First Moon still hung as fresh in her mind as it had in her dreams. It had been one thing that had kept her going, a final vision of her future victory. And yet she sat alone in the woods, crumpled against the tree, and not wanting anything to do with that wretched staff.
But she could feel it tingling beside her.
Almost on instinct, Cass’s hand drifted over to the staff. She slid her palm down to its center, then finally lifted it high in the air. She could feel it heat up, could sense the the blast of light as it shot into the sky. She tried to imagine the skies lighting up, people standing outside to observe.
Would anyone know yet? Would they care that it was her?
Cass hoped not. If they knew what she knew, that the Goddess intended this to be the final First Moon, the final everything, they might prefer to hold their loved ones close while they were still able.
Thank you as always to the wonderful Catherine for your insightful editing. I hope you guys enjoyed this week’s look back into Cass’s past. Cass now knows the will of the Goddess, it’s time to figure out what to do about it!