“Hey!” Cass called out as she darted away from the rushing water, straining to hear. No response came, nor did another scream. Cass waited, placing a hand over the ear that faced the rushing water. She tried to focus. Her hearing was one thing she now prided herself on. But there was no sound, nothing that she could hear over the din of the water.
Cass waited a moment longer, her mind racing. Was that girl – Crescia, if Cass remembered correctly – dead? Had she been obliterated or eaten by some horrific monster? Not terribly fond of her, Cass had no inclination to mourn such a loss. Still…
“Crescia!” The name fell awkwardly from Cass’s tongue. It was so eloquent, the way the second-to-last syllable dripped from the extended tongue like morning dew. Cass hated it.
Cass thought for a moment and began the spell to summon her familiar. But she could not sense his presence. Whether it was the cave or her weakened state, she wasn’t sure.
Her fingers tapped on the staff. An uneasy feeling formed in the pit of her stomach.
What would be worse? Wandering this cave blindly or using the Goddess’s “curse” to “see”? Just as she was about to bring the staff to the ground, a faint sound caught her attention and she froze.
Shff shff shff.
Cass strained, even leaning forward in the futile hope it would help her hear better.
Shff shff shff.
It was too heavy to be footsteps. No, this was something else. Something heavy being dragged, but not steadily. It was in brief, successive tugs.
Cass turned her face in the direction of the sound and heard it once more. She stepped cautiously in that direction, but stopped. There was no earth ahead of her, only a drop-off. She felt nearby for a rock and found one, though it was smaller than she would have liked. She gave an underhanded throw. The rock landed several feet ahead of her, hitting perhaps the opposite side, then began to topple downward for some time before finally hitting what sounded like a shallow pool of water.
The dragging sound had not stopped. It had only grown fainter. Though it was in small increments, whoever was doing the dragging was making progress. Cass bit her bottom lip, raised the staff once more, and brought it down hard. An electric heat seized her once more. An energy pulsed through her mind. Every structure in the area was alive, buzzing with different sound frequencies and vibrations. These sounds and vibrations composed a shaky image in Cass’s mind. She could now “see” that the ravine before her was about ten feet deep, but it was not wide. Turning her head, she realized it became even more narrow further down – the same direction in which several tiny, round creatures were dragging what seemed to be a body.
Cass started to follow the ravine, but her head throbbed and her body shook. This was the consequence of using the staff for longer stretches. Using its magic in short bursts was hard enough, but using it like a guide, in an ongoing way such as this, was even more taxing.
On Sel, the body’s access to the aetheric flow – believed by some to be the source of all magic – was conducted in something of a line through the body. While not yet an exact science, most of the research so far pointed to the aetheric energy acting in conjunction with the nervous system, which made sense. Much of arcane magic use was said to be “of the mind”. Still, many of the Goddess’s most devout followers found such ideas to be blasphemy. To them, aetheric energy was something mystical, beyond comprehension or explanation via simple science. Its power was based in the heart, what they believed to be the seat of the soul.
The headache burgeoning in Cass’s mind was a more compelling argument for the former, but she had little time to think about that now. She had found a spot where the ravine had become what she deemed manageable. With a running start, she charged and jumped over it. Her left foot landed firmly on solid ground, but her right skidded a bit. Having removed the staff from the ground, her ability to “see” the area around her was gone.
A skittering sound enveloped her. Her body tensed, but before she could react, they were on her. Hundreds of venomous polplings. One bite from a few polplings was nothing. But this many could be serious if left unchecked within the body, even lethal. The staff began to glow hot and Cass spun it around, trying to deter or destroy as many polplings as she could without burning herself, but there were too many. Cass hunkered down, allowing the heat to flow inward, coursing through her body, before releasing it as an energy wave through every pore in her skin. Her body screamed with pain, but every last polpling fell away, most of them moving no more.
Remaining in that position for a few moments, Cass finally willed herself to move. Every inch of movement was painful. She touched her own face tentatively with her bare hand and was surprised to find that, other than it feeling hot to the touch, her skin was not damaged. The burst of heat had truly passed through her. The Goddess’s staff truly was a mystery. It was rumored that magic users of this caliber existed, but if they did, they were surely wizened masters of their craft. No matter how Cass had once prided herself on her magical abilities, she could never have fathomed pulling off such a burst of heat from within without burning herself alive without the aid of the staff.
Crescia moaned and Cass was yanked from her thoughts. She made her way over to the young woman and knelt down. Extending a hand, she felt cautiously for any residual polplings, but there were none. Her hand landed on Crescia’s face and found it covered in squishy lumps, each with a hard center.
“Damnit,” Cass breathed.
Crescia’s lips scarcely moved. Cass could only imagine the pain she was in. Though she had only been bitten by a few before she fought back, her own bite wounds were already stinging, the painful venom coursing about and causing the skin around the wound to swell.
Cass scooted backward and felt for one of the polplings. Her hand found several. They were still tiny, their round bodies smaller than the palm of her hand. Their thick fur was damp, likely from a recent birth. She could see their characteristic white or pastel fur in her memory. If she still had her vision, they might be a feast for the eyes. It was what lured in their prey. Their fur was lightly pigmented and their bodies had the capacity to emit a bioluminescent glow at will, making them a bright spot in the dank cave.
“If only I had my kit,” Cass groaned, turning the polpling over in her hand, squeezing it. It was limp, still hot from the blast of heat. Cass felt a pang of guilt, but she merely tightened her expression. Her fingers travelled about its body, finding its mouth, its teeth, and further in, its venom sac. In spite of its lifeless nature, she was still gentle as she squeezed the venom sac. It gave multiple drops.
“You’re a healer,” Cass said gently, “do you have a flask and some hamenth weedin your pouch?”
“Trust me when I say I’m not doing this for my own enjoyment,” Cass said and felt around for the pouch. Finding a large lump, she slid her free hand into Crescia’s robe. Locating it under the uppermost robe and teased the fastener opened. She felt the open mouth of a flask first and pulled it free. Next she reached back in and felt around for hamenth weed. Crescia carried a variety of dried plants in her pouch, many of them with similar coarse texture to the hamenth weed. Cass sighed, probing to determine the right one. She settled on two and pulled them out.
“Which one is the hamenth?” she asked, “you’re going to have to be my eyes since you insist on keeping so many plants so close together.”
Crescia moaned and Cass leaned in close.
“The right one? Okay.”
Cass crushed up the right one as best she could, letting the remains fall into the flask. She then squeezed the venom from the polpling into the flask, but there was little reaction when she shook it. She grabbed another and added its venom into the mixture. She swished it around once more.
Removing one of Crescia’s gloves, she placed the flask in it, but Crescia’s hand would not close around the flask. Her breathing was labored. Cass put her hands around Crescia’s.
“We’re almost there, but it’s you who’s going to have to do the last part.”
After a soft groan, Crescia’s hand glowed faintly and as it did, so did the flask. Once it stopped glowing, Cass took the flask from Crescia’s hand. She sat Crescia up and guided the flask to her lips. The flask drained, Crescia remained unmoving in Cass’s arms.
Cass thought back to times when she sat with Caena’s children, on days when Caena had to deliver a baby or perhaps one of the children had been sick and Cass was asked to help. She had always felt stiff around their seemingly ceaseless energy, never sure how to handle the children. But sometimes, it would kick in, that feeling of empathy, or perhaps even love, for someone so small who was in so much discomfort, snuggling up to her for any relief.
Crescia felt small now, smaller than even before, like a child’s. Her body was so puffy and cold. Feeling suddenly compelled, Cass awkwardly reached up and stroked the side of her head. She could remember Olin and his short, thin hair, like a bundle of broken twigs. How he would cry when he had earaches. He was the reason Cass had learned to mix holprom grass with a touch of wyrmwillow. Or how Jalen would have terrible nightmares, but if Cass sang to her, she would slowly drift off to sleep, even though Cass had never been lauded on her musical abilities.
Crescia gave a moan and tried to pull away, causing Cass to immediately remove her arm, embarrassed.
“Sorry, sometimes I forget that you’re not a child, even if you act like one,” Cass said quickly and laid Crescia’s body flat, scooting away. She listened to the sounds of the cave, which had, for the most part, returned to a normal rhythm.
The voice was hoarse and soft. Cass had barely heard it. She turned back to look at Crescia.
Cass smiled and fought the temptation to ask her to repeat the words once more.
Thanks as always to Catherine for the editing! Within the next two weeks, we’ll be moving into the story’s first major arc and I can’t wait! I’ve been anticipating writing this part and I hope you all enjoy it. Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing!