There was a loud hissing sound. Air, breath, life, but not strong and steady. Raspy, wheezing, strained. It enveloped Cass in the void, becoming louder, more menacing as it did. Screams. Shrill, so high they were practically inaudible. Then, nothing again.
A smell filled Cass’s nose. Hot, metallic. At first, she wondered if this was the burning celestial wrath that the most devout worshippers of the Goddess spoke of, sent to cleanse the sinful, the arrogant, and the disobedient.
That’s definitely me.
But the smell became localized. It was familiar. It was accompanied by a rhythmic clanging. A hammer coming down on metal, followed by a brief follow-up clink.
“You gonna spend all day fondling that thing, woman? Make a purchase or leave. I ain’t got time to be entertaining the likes of you.”
Cass ran her hands along the object she held. It was the staff one second, but not the next. The next it was a reed rod Cass had gone in to appraise one day.
Brelin’s heavy boots clopped across the stone floor.
“Every second you’re in here, I lose revenue. Customers don’t wanna be where you patronize. ‘S bad luck.”
“I’ll take three,” Cass heard herself say without hesitation.
Brelin clicked his tongue. “Don’t know what you’ll be needin’ one of these for, let alone three.”
He scoffed and what he said next was muffled. Like he thought she couldn’t hear. Like being blind somehow also made her deaf.
“Ain’t a lick of magic left in her after the Goddess got done with her. These are little more than children’s toys in her hands.”
Cass’ face burned, but it was no mere rerun of her past indignation. It burned anew.
Then she remembered those last seconds with Brelin, his hands angrily trying to relieve her of the staff. Her pleas. The savory stench of fried flesh, like fatty pork, as Brelin had literally been snuffed out.
The scent of tempered metal, the rhythmic clanging, the stone floor beneath Cass’s feet all disappeared. But something remained.
You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could ya?
Brelin was behind her, his mouth inches from her ear.
You brought destruction upon this world twice.
I know you’re gonna fail again. If the world survives your bumbling inability to carry out the Goddess’s will, I’ll be sure you won’t be around to do any worse…
The violent shrieking and wheezing enveloped Cass once more, carrying her up and away.
That was the first thing Cass was aware of when she awoke. Her whole body, from her head to her toes, was soaked. Not only soaked on the surface, but all through her, as if she had been in the water for days. She felt like a rag, one that had yet to be wrung out, one that might require several tries before the dripping stopped. Her short, usually frenetic locks now clung to her scalp. Her cloak sagged heavily around her, weighing her down. She moved her toes and could hear the slick sound of water sloshing around in her boots. She was lying face-up. Her backside still felt like it was in water. She could feel slight waves bobbing against her body. There wasn’t an ounce of energy left in her. She desperately wanted to remain lying down, to surrender herself to fatigue. But she knew she had to get up.
Her right hand was still clenched around the staff. Trying to open her hand was an exercise in futility. It was clenched so tightly, the movement and attempt to release the tension was painful. Slowly, Cass strained against the pain and began to stretch her extremities. The staff finally slid from her grasp and into the shallow pool at her side.
She felt for it and pulled it onto the smooth, hard earth next to her. The tinny clink it made as it hit the ground echoed around Cass. Then, a squeaking off in the distance. Skittering, fortunately in the opposite direction.
Stiffly pulling herself into a sitting position, Cass’s hand suddenly swept across something soft, squishy, something uneven. Fabric, covering a petite form. Cass yanked her hand away in shock. Then she scooted closer.
She smelled something sweet like perfume, but it was eclipsed by the dank, oppressive air of the cave.
Cass reached out and ran her hand along the person’s face. Delicate features. Feminine. A jolt of realization ran through her. Was it the girl? The one who had attacked her at the cliff? Crescia…was that her name?
She wasn’t moving. Cass’s hand trailed down to her neck and she held it steady, waiting for a heartbeat, but could feel nothing. She placed an ear on the girl’s chest. She was breathing, but it was shallow. Cass sat in silent thought for a moment. Her hand slid into her cloak and emerged with a small jagged leaf. She pinched it between the index finger and thumb of both hands, then rubbed the fine remnants against the band she wore. It began to emanate a soft glow.
Cass swept the hand over the girl’s body. Suddenly, the girl began coughing violently. Cass jumped. The girl was spewing fluid. Frantic, Cass pressed on her chest hard. The girl spewed a watery patch of webbed leaves and they slapped Cass’s cheek, sliding off. Cass wiped them away with the back of her hand.
“Hmm?” the girl hummed, the coughing having subsided.
Her voice gargled.
“Where am I?”
“Not sure. Seems to be a cave along the Moor River.”
Crescia shrieked. She flung her hand frantically, shoving Cass away.
“You! What are you doing?”
She flailed and tried to sit upright, but fell back weakly. She moaned.
“I won’t allow you to slander the Goddess and her gift under the ruse of ‘healing me’. Forgiveness, Sel-en-Mina, to think this wretch would pervert her gift so.”
“I didn’t use the staff to heal you,” Cass growled, “and the words you’re looking for are “thank you, Cass’.”
“I would never!”
“Never what? Display manners? Act in accordance with your supposed upbringing?”
Cass wasn’t sure, but she thought she could hear Crescia gritting her teeth.
“I meant I would never thank you. I would thank a venomous polp for its bite before I’d thank you for anything.”
“Keep talking like that and you may get the chance. The polp feed off damp cave moss.”
Crescia’s gasp was satisfaction enough for Cass.
Notably, Crescia made no efforts to stop Cass as she swept the band across Crescia’s body. Cass could feel the salve mixing with the band, fusing and creating its own aetheric flow. It was like using real healing magic. Like it, but not the same thing. It felt as good to Cass as it probably did to Crescia. Like a pleasant breeze. Fresh air. Cass could feel the rough patches of dried blood disappearing as she swept closer to the skin’s surface.
“So what did you do then?” Crescia asked as Cass finally pulled her hand away.
“It’s my secret.”
“That band you’re wearing, that is how you pulled the staff, is it not?”
Cass finally relented. “It is.”
“Magitechnology. I should have known.”
Cass was not surprised by her derision. Most natural-born magic users looked upon magitechnology with disgust. Cass herself had felt that way her whole life, right up until the day the Goddess had severed her connection to the arcane.
“It’s so easy for a spoiled noble like you to judge things you know nothing about.”
“Know nothing about?” Crescia pulled away from Cass and began rubbing her hands together. A ball of light began to emerge from her hands, slowly fanning out to consume her body. Cass could feel the strange energy waves radiate outward and scooted back. “You know nothing about me or my life, so don’t speak as if you do.”
Cass could feel the muscles in her face tightening, particularly around her eyes. She hoped the glare she was making at Crescia came across as menacing as she meant it. Crescia was right; she knew nothing about her. Nor did she care to. To Cass, she was just another facet of the capital elite who had been so content to cast Cass aside without ever attempting to hear her side. She could be a mountain boar for all Cass cared.
“Where are you going?” Crescia asked sharply as Cass pulled herself to her feet.
“To get you that venomous polp you wanted.”
Thanks as always to the wonderful Catherine and to the wonderful folks I met at NeshiCon this past weekend!