The symphony of the forest was all around Cass, the percussive flow of water providing the rhythm off in the distance. She had stopped using the staff to guide her long ago. It drained her body and left her feeling weak. She had wandered off the dirt path and into the brush, where thorns and dead branches clawed at her clothes and skin. But it didn’t matter. Anything to put distance between her and the village.
Cass felt them approaching long before the first blast landed, missing her and striking the ground. A group of them. Heavy footfalls. She hadn’t bothered to use the staff’s abilities. She didn’t need to waste the energy. She could hear them. Before one of them dared to even speak, she could hear their heavy metallic footfalls.
The soldiers from the capital hadn’t bothered to remove their armor before coming after her.
“Surrender the staff, woman. We heard what you said back in the village. That staff was not meant for you.”
The leader of the guards spoke with an edge to his voice.
“You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
“If that is your wish.”
She could hear them lift their weapons. She too set the staff into an attack position. The staff became warm in her hands and suddenly, her mind was racing. Words and images filled it. An energy raced through her body. She was a conduit now. All she needed to do was release.
It would be so easy. Having been at everyone else’s mercy for all these years, being treated as an abomination, as a failure, as worthless. Now Cass could finally turn the tables. Show them what she was made of.
Show me what you’re made of.
The Goddess’s voice echoed in her mind and her body went rigid.
Drawing in a deep breath, Cass fixed her mind on one thought, in hopes it would reach the Goddess loud and clear.
You won’t choose this for me.
So, now you’re claiming the moral high ground? After everything you’ve done today, Cass?
I’m not claiming anything. But you won’t use me like this.
You hate them though. They hate you. The outcome should be black and white.
I won’t do this.
Cass clenched her hands and locked her body up tight. Every inch of muscle, every magical pool in her being. She allowed the new energy to run its course through her but gave it no outlet. Allowed it to pulse around her body. Inhale, exhale. Ebb, flow. She already knew what the outcome would be if she released.
Cass waited for the soldier’s attack, but it never came. A second later, the ground at her feet trembled and, before she could move, she was ensnared by vines – or at least, she hoped they were vines. They were prehensile, creeping their way up her body and squeezing. The staff was pressed against her. As the vines attempted to curl around it, there was a quick pssh and the vines that had tried to steal away the staff recoiled.
They could feel pain.
“I didn’t hear you there. Impressive,” Cass said, trying to maintain an even tone. The look on her face was a hard one. Humiliation tinged with fear.
“I’ve perfected spell-casting with a silent incantation. My affinity with the arcane runs deep,” Crescia sneered.
“It does? If your affinity is that strong, then tell me, why couldn’t you pull the staff?”
Cass could feel the vines tighten. She struggled to hold back her smug grin. She could hear the clanging of metal. This girl’s nerves weren’t the only ones she had touched.
“And here I thought you were the pride and joy of the academy,” Cass sneered.
“Are you jealous? You could have been too, had you simply fulfilled your task.”
Cass drew in a breath. “Well, maybe I didn’t feel like it.”
The vines tightened once more, carefully avoiding the staff. Heat began to rise in Cass, from somewhere deeper this time. Her cheeks burned. She could feel the tension in her own face and wondered how it looked to those around her.
She knows nothing of me, of what I’ve been through. Arrogant, insolent, spoiled little capital bitch. Maybe I should just let her have it after all.
That’s it, Cass! Now you’re beginning to see things my way. It’s not all bad.
A shiver went down Cass’s spine.
I didn’t mean that. Leave me alone. Get out of my head.
This is the life you chose by pulling the staff, Cass. Remember, this is about my will. And I’ll be with you until it’s been carried out. Finish them so we can move on.
“No!” Cass shouted.
She pointed her staff at the ground and released the energy building within her. It was hot, so much so that for a second, she feared she had hit her own feet. The vines dissipated. She could hear the soldiers shouting. She jumped back, catching her foot on an exposed tree root and almost falling backward. She grabbed the tree trunk, felt her way around it, and, once her feet found a clean path, she took off running.
Her body was hot. And the corners of her mouth were twitching. Cass tried to prevent coherent thought from congregating in her brain. She didn’t want to think about how good that release had felt. That direct connection to the arcane. And that burst of power. She didn’t want to give the idea purchase in her brain, let alone give the Goddess the satisfaction of knowing she was right. But it had felt good, right, and it was the first time in ten years that she had felt anything so close.
A burst of hot energy zipped past her cheek, singeing it before impacting a nearby tree. The force of the blast was so great, it caused Cass to lose her footing. She staggered and grabbed for a nearby tree. It was gnarled and Cass’s body almost folded back into it. A nearby sound caused Cass’s heart to pound with terror.
Water. The Moor River was below.
Cass turned to face the direction the blast had come from, lifting the staff and pointing. It began to heat up once more.
“I said stay away!”
“Give me the staff and I shall happily oblige!”
She could feel the girl getting close, the soldiers not far behind. She was within striking distance with the staff. But the staff was scalding even through the gloves. She was sure that merely tapping the girl would cause the impacted clothing and skin to melt instantly.
Cass took another step backward. Crescia again moved to close the distance.
“Lady Crescia, move aside!”
Cass heard the man, Aln’s, voice and felt Crescia step to the left. Cass leapt to the right and a blast shot between them.
It barely missed her face and struck the gnarled tree behind her. The cliffside shook. She heard another crackle. Another blast was inbound. Cass had no time to dodge; it was aimed at her chest this time. Her hands shot out, placing the staff in the blast’s path. She spun it and it deflected the blast at the ground.
The brittle ground quaked beneath her feet. Then it was gone and she – they – were falling. Crescia’s screams filled her ears, only quieting when they were drowned out by the approaching roar of the river.
Whether of her own will or not, she wasn’t sure, but Cass’s hand shot out and directed the staff’s energy at the water below. Something cold surged around them. Before Cass could grasp what was happening, they impacted the water hard.
And then, there was nothing.
Thanks as always to my wonderful editor, Catherine! It was fun writing a battle scene this time around. Thank you guys as always for reading!