The moisture in the cave was thick, clinging to every inch of Cass’s body. Shivers racked her entire being as she reached for a wall to steady herself. It was cold, mossy, and slick. Something skittered across her fingers, but her shivering quickly frightened it away.
The sound of steadily flowing water guided her onward, clumsily using the staff as a walking stick. She could hear the rush of water growing louder. There were other sounds too. The cawing of a bird, maybe. As she strained to listen, the toe of her shoe banged against something. She swore, biting her tongue, and knelt down to feel the obstruction.
“Perfect,” she said through gritted teeth. Her foot had caught a bundle of sticks and branches. It was wet. No surprise there. But with the staff, Cass was sure she could still light it, even in its current state. She scooped up as much of the wet wood as she could and turned back.
“What’s that?” She heard Crescia’s voice as she approached the spot where they had both first landed. “Where did you find that?”
“In another part of the cave. I want to say further in, but I heard rushing water and other sounds. Maybe close to an exit. How are your wounds?”
“Healing. Slowly,” Crescia added and Cass heard her pull herself to her feet with a groan. Crescia took a few steps and stopped. She heaved a sigh.
“Why have you brought back that wood? It’s soaked. We’ll never be able to light it.”
“I have the staff,” Cass said flatly, adding, “And I’m sorry, they were fresh out of venomous polps.”
Crescia sighed. “Enough of that already. Do you need me to go find firewood? Honestly, I shouldn’t have sent a–” Cass could hear her bite her tongue.
“A what? A blind woman? Well, I may be blind, but I’m a blind woman with the Goddess’s staff, so just shut up, sit there with your injured leg, and watch me light this bundle of wood.”
With that, Cass dumped the wood on the ground and kicked it into what she felt was a respectable bundle. She raised the staff then quickly brought it down, setting the bundle ablaze. As the flames licked at her legs, she took a step back, beaming in Crescia’s direction.
“Don’t look so smug. You have the Goddess’s divine blessing on your side.”
Cass ignored her, prodding the branches into place with the staff.
“Stop defiling her gift by treating it like a common stick!” Crescia scolded and Cass could hear her making an effort to approach. She grabbed for Cass’s wrist, but the band was hot and she instantly yanked her hand away. Cass could hear the hiss and smell the burning flesh from her contact with the band.
“What is this treachery anyway?”
“Magitechnology,” Cass said plainly, “like you said before.”
“I still do not understand how you superseded the Goddess’s rule. You most certainly are not 22.”
Cass laughed. “I don’t look that old, do I?”
No response from Crescia, so Cass continued.
“The band is actually a wyrmwillow circlet, covered in gold.”
“That’s right. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a renowned healer would understand the arcane properties of wyrmwillow and gold.”
“But they told us at the Academy, as punishment for your transgressions, the Goddess cut you off from the aetheric flow. Simple gold and wyrmwillow would not change that. There’s no reason you should have been able to grab that staff. Only someone who fits the Goddess’s requirements should have been able to pull the staff.”
Cass stepped away from Crescia. She took small, calculated steps around the fire, teasing at stray sticks as she went.
“That’s right, someone who fit the Goddess’s requirements.”
Crescia stared for a moment. Cass couldn’t see the shades of recognition cascading across her face, but as Crescia drew in a deep breath, she knew what was coming just the same.
“You went after me. You were the last. A late arrival. Someone never intended to be there.”
Crescia charged at Cass, yanking her by the cloak. Cass gave no resistance, allowing Crescia to turn her around, in spite of Crescia’s tiny arms.
“It was true then? You truly did steal the Gift from me!”
“That’s not exactly correct.”
“What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?! Wyrmwillow, gold. They amplify arcane properties by attracting and trapping aetheric particles, such as–”
“–the ones exerted when someone uses magic, like you did when you were trying to coax the staff out.”
“You stole my staff!”
Cass’s expression was hard in the direction of Crescia’s voice. Crescia’s nails dug into Cass’s cloak, pulling it tight around the back of her neck. There was a difference in build between them; Crescia was petite and lithe, while Cass had a thicker build, a more masculine form. If Crescia intended to kill Cass, brute force wasn’t going to be her best strategy and Cass knew that.
“I stole nothing from you,” Cass said sternly. “If the Goddess had intended you to pull the staff, you would have done it in the time you stood there. Yes, I mimicked your aetheric flow, as I did that of the others when I went to the staff, but it would not have eclipsed my identity completely. I pulled the staff. And you’ll have to accept that fact and learn to live on in spite of it. Things don’t always go the way we plan. I’m living proof of that. It’s just how life is.”
Crescia shrieked and slapped Cass. The sound of her hand landing on Cass’s face echoed throughout the cave. Cass stumbled back, bracing herself to avoid stepping in the fire. As she heard Crescia’s slow but heavy footsteps trudging off, the smell of smoke began to fill Cass’s nose and sting her eyes. She slid her hand down the side of her leg and felt a rising heat.
Cass ripped the cloak from her body and threw it away from the fire. She stomped on it repeatedly, then slammed the staff down on it for good measure. A self-satisfied grin crept across her face as she imagined the horror Crescia might feel at such sacrilege.
Cass continued to savor that thought until a shriek emanated from somewhere within the cave, bouncing about hollowly in repeated terror. Cass lifted her head in the direction it came from and took up the staff.
Thank you, as always, to my editor, Catherine, and to everyone for reading.