El Lucero Carmesí
The Will of the Gods
Once again, she was alone. She huddled close to the fire, trying to keep herself warm against the coming winter of Tulipe. She felt tears running down her cheek anew, and wiped them absentmindedly – they would keep coming, no matter what. Ever since she left in the middle of the night, she had cried. Ten days had come and gone, yet still the tears came.
She knew she had made the right decision. She knew the time would have come eventually, and had decided to act before it happened. She simply did not belong there, with him and his family. She did not deserve what she had. How long could she have staved off the unavoidable reckoning? Women like her did not get a chance for happiness, not with so much blood and suffering on her soul. She held her head in her hands, and sobbed.
They had been happy together, she knew. He had made her feel at peace, in spite of all that had happened. He had managed to make her feel like it was all behind her. And she felt she had helped him grow stronger. She had cared for his family, those loving girls that welcomed her with open arms. She was with them when he had to deal with his duties as a High Lord. She listened to him, counseled him, offered all she had. She had allowed herself to believe, as her beloved knight slept in the cold darkness of night, that someday, they would have children of their own.
She had been so naive.
When he rescued the Prince and Princess, she realized the wheels of fate were in motion – deep, deep inside, she knew the path he would take. She knew him, knew what he had in mind, what he needed to do. And, by all the Gods, she wanted to stay at his side– even though she dreaded the future. She travelled with him to meet – and recruit – the remnants of his Order. She had been there when the Eastern Lords knelt before the King in Exile. She even tended to his wounds after his first battle of the war, washed his tears away, and helped ease the pain in his soul.
But with each passing day, she knew her doom was approaching. Her past would catch up with her. And he would have paid the price. He would not have abandoned her. And he would have been destroyed, him and his beautiful family. He was the sort of man that believed he could stand against everything, and be victorious.
She knew better. A man cannot stand against Fate.
And so she had left. She waited until he rode away to the battle in the Nest – she could not have borne to see his eyes had she talked to him… and even doubted her resolve would stand against his words. No, her way was the coward’s way, slithering away in the night. She rode for hours without rest, as far as her mount could take her. Her meagre supplies would not last long, but she feared to set foot in a village, for she did not doubt he was foolish enough to try and find her. He would not let matters rest with a mere note…
She cried again, imagining his face in a mix of pain and confusion as he read her words. He would not understand. He would blame himself. And he would try to win her back, she knew. No matter how the war went… he would risk all for her.
Such arrogance!, a part of her said. To think that you are more important than his kingdom. You are nothing but a distraction to him! He will not follow – he will forget you and find a more suitable woman.
Good, she thought. He should find someone better. He should live a long and happy life with a woman he deserves, not the broken cultist of a false deity. A murderer, a thief, and a liar. He needed someone that –
“Cassandra…” rumbled a voice, breaking her thoughts. It was hollow, and seemingly far away. She jumped up, looking around trying to find the source. But to her eyes, every shadow was a suspect, every rocky outcrop a possible threat. Her muscles were strained, tense, and she felt a disturbing tingling between her shoulderblades – expecting a sudden knife soon.
“W-who… where are you?” she mouthed. She recognized the faint touch of magic around her. She was being watched through arcane means – but it was rough, untrained. Perhaps a scroll, words of power that would emulate a spell. Whoever was doing this, was not a practiced veteran. And yet… she could tell she was outmatched.
“How far have you fallen, old friend…” continued the strange voice, ignoring her question. There was something oddly familiar about it, something that shook her straight to her soul, but she refused to acknowledge it. Sweat clung to her skin, cold and clammy. “And yet you live – the same could not be said of many of our old brethren.”
She started to shiver. This was it. This was her past coming to get her. So many months expecting this day, and now that it was here, she was deathly afraid. “My life is punishment enough – the Gods will see to it that I pay my due,” she replied, without much conviction. “Mine was a crime that cannot be easily ignored.”
The voice seemed to crack amidst the fire that lasted far too long; a disturbing sound that Cassandra eventually realized was laughter. Her fire was the source of the scrying, she now knew – the spell had mingled with a light source. A rather common focus, typical amongst novitiates – she needed only to smother the fire to break the speaker’s link. But she waited.
“No, no, dear Cassandra,” argued the voice, soothing in the manner of merciful death, “Nothing like that. All you have gone through has been the will of the Gods, yes – but not as punishment. Have you not grown stronger because of it? And yes, the Gods have need of that strength. They have a missi-”
“Be silent, fiend,” she interrupted, with an edge that surprised even her. She kicked some sand towards the fire, and was rewarded by a slight flickering in both the light, and the magic essence nearby. “I have heard those words before, and they led to a life of lies and deceit, full of suffering and regret. I have no desire for that.”
“But it was also a life of peace,” the voice replied, betraying no signs of being caught off-guard. Cassandra had the suspicion this conversation was one the mysterious speaker had much experience with. “Was it not a life of absolute certainty, of divine inspiration? The path was clear, and our place in the world was set. Surely you remember that.”
“It was all false.” Her voice trailed off, hoarse, broken and empty. The unbidden memories stormed forward, reminding her of everything she had tried to put behind. “We were dupes in service of a great lie. All of us, right up to Holy Abrachir.” She did not want to discuss her past – had she not avoided the very topic with her beloved? … But she could not avoid it now. The voice spoke the very words that hid in her heart, beneath a mountain of shame. This was her first chance to confront them, and truly think on what she had done. It may well be she would overcome.
“Perhaps – in the end, it was a lie. But for all our time together, it was Truth. It was all we needed. Do you not miss the certainty, Cassandra? Do you not miss the power that came with knowing, truly knowing our part in the great scheme of things? Of knowing your existence had meaning that could change the world?”
She said nothing. The memories came fast, too fast to ignore. Yes, she regretted all she did, with the benefit of hindsight. But back then… it had been such a life. A life she missed, sometimes. One full of the magnificence of ignorance, of blind faith in a higher power that led to eventual peace. The exhilarating feeling of being infused with truly divine power, the power to perform miracles… How she missed that! She had been able to bring healing and peace to all who needed it – she had felt the truly miraculous essence of True Magic, and she could wield it like it had been her birthright. Her destiny.
But now? Now she was nothing. Just a husk. The divine had left her, and she was not able to do anything. She was as plain and weak as before.
She hated the feeling. A wielder of the holy power of the Prisoner, reduced to a simple woman. In the dark corners of her mind, corners she was not willing to admit she had, lurked jealousy. Terrible, murderous jealousy. Of Renaud: his inner strength, his very clear purpose, self-defined. Of Nellid: her simple happiness, her ease of cheer, and her sunny outlook on life. But, most of all, she was jealous of young Neilrien. So young, and yet, already possessing a mighty and natural gift. A gift of the Gods, without a doubt. A mark of being chosen for something far beyond a simple mortal. If only Cassandra held that power…
“I have sought our old brethren, dear Cassandra,” continued the voice, perhaps sensing her reminiscing, and her doubt. This was no novitiate, the woman admitted. It was a trained speaker, someone used to crawl its way inside, and twist words to its benefit. “Far and wide, I have searched for those shattered remnants of the cult of the Prisoner. It has not been easy.”
“… Why? Why would you do such a thing?” she asked, almost in tears again, but now, tears of longing for days gone, for the power and direction she had lost, and had never really stopped yearning for. Was it not so easy, back then? Her days were bliss, her mind was focused, and her happiness unending. Her power without question. How she longed for those days…
“I have found a new purpose, old friend. I have walked the same path as you did, a path of self-destruction and misery, but I was saved. The Gods, you see, have a plan for us, for us strong enough to survive. We need only open our hearts to it.”
“No… I… I could not walk that path again.” Could she not? It had been so simple, so clear. No doubt, no confusion. No pain. What was wrong with desiring such a life, in service to a greater cause?
“Yes, you can, Cassandra!” replied the voice, with great conviction. It was growing clearer, and Cassandra could now recognize the speaker. She felt weak, and her mouth was dry. Yes, she knew the speaker, and she knew how utterly dangerous he was. But she could not help but listen to him. Was she so weak? Had this moment been what she was waiting for, the moment to go back into something that gave her purpose of mind and soul? Her terror at realizing just how lacking she was drove her to silence.
The voice continued. “You are strong, you always were. You had a gift many of our brethren envied. And what have you done with your gift? You have squandered it, living amongst peasants. I am giving you the chance to use it again, for the betterment of the world.”
She laughed weakly. She was afraid, oh so very afraid. And, damn her heart, tempted. But she still had a sliver of courage. “That sounds remarkably similar to the Words of Holy Abrachir, Esaiah.” She could almost feel how she had dealt a precise blow – the speaker had clearly not expected her to recognize him, not yet, at least. “Tell me – what does the betterment of the world involve this time?” she asked, with great and unexpected strength. Perhaps she was stronger than she had believed. “What horrors would we perform this time? How many need to suffer for your so-called Purpose?”
Silence was the reward for her challenge. It appeared that Esaiah was too startled to reply. Cassandra let out a long sigh, and felt her muscles relaxing for a second. She had won! She had faced her past, and came out victorious! This was, perhaps, a first step towards a new life.
“They are no worse than the horrors of the war in Tulipe,” replied Esaiah suddenly, the somber and shrouded voice gone, replaced by the cultist’s honeyed and poisonous tone. In the flickering flames, Cassandra could almost see his face, intense in concentration, and focused on malice. Even when she had been part of the Worshippers of the Prisoner, Esaiah had terrified her. He had a single-minded intent, and delighted in the unsavory. While a great part of the Worshippers saw the pain and suffering related to the Branding as a regrettable but necessary part of their belief, Esaiah found great pleasure in it. She had even heard rumors that Holy Abrachir himself had deep doubts about this man’s sanity. But he was as strong a believer as any, and his faith could not be questioned.
“It is almost silly, do you not agree?” he continued, pensively. “It is nothing more than a squabble between two brothers that will only breed slaughter and death. Ah, but how easily are the noble fools made to war in the name of Kings. What I offer, sweetest Cassandra, is a chance to stop this – and indeed, all other conflicts!”
The fires cracked, and danced macabrely, each tongue of flame moving with his words. “For this war is but one amongst hundreds. Xi Mian burns as the fury of the Dragon of the West engulfs it. The Desert of the Four Winds runs red with the spilt, boiling blood of thousands. And the fires will spread, perhaps consume us all. Will you not help me stop it? Will you not aid me in making sure this madness ends forever?”
Esaiah spoke with great vehemence and conviction, so much strength and belief in his words; she could not help but be enthralled by what he said. He truly had found something worth devoting oneself to. She envied that.
“… Go on,” she said, almost against her will. Her skin crawled, half in terror, and half in exhilarating excitement. She could not fight it – she wanted what he had, to feel how he felt. And yet, a deep, buried and utterly silent part of her was trying to focus on something – what did he say, about a dragon in the west? A faint memory lingered in her mind, but she had no time to dwell on it, as Esaiah continued.
“There is power in the lands of the tulip, Cassandra. Great and terrible power, left here by the Gods themselves. Their wisdom is eternal, and their foresight unmatched. They knew our world would face a devastating menace – ourselves. Our own greed and thirst for dominion would drive us to destruction. But they believe in mortal-kind! They know that amongst our scattered peoples, there are shining examples of the best of us. Thus, they have prepared the way for one being to bring peace to our world.”
Cassandra laughed, in spite of herself. She had been engrossed in his words, but this last phrase broke the spell-like trance she was in. Him? A bringer of peace? Ridiculous. Her throat felt the disgusting taste of bile, as she realized just how close she had come to actually letting herself believe, so close to betraying all the trust given by her beloved. “By all the Gods, Esaiah, you have really lost all semblance of sanity,” she said, her strength of old returning. If this was to be her death, she would face it with pride and steel in her heart, not doubt and miserable jealousy. She would not hide her past or her actions amidst more lies. “Do you honestly believe yourself chosen by the divine will?”
“No – never me,” he replied, with a humble and sincere voice. He had taken no offense to her tone or meaning. For some reason, this truly shocked Cassandra.“* I am, have always been, a follower, an eternal follower. I know this now. I have been enlightened. But the one I serve? He is blessed beyond reason. He is above every man I have ever met, beyond Abrachir himself. Ah, Cassandra, how I wish you could meet him! He has a clear vision of the future, and the will to bring it to fruition. He is temperate, and just. He welcomes all with open arms, and asks only for loyalty. He is not rash to action, but no stranger to conflict.”*
Esaiah’s words were those of a man possessed – no, more than that. There was devotion, fanaticism. As he went on, the fire seemed to grow, its tongues flicking higher and wilder. Cassandra had to take a step back to avoid being burned.
“I ask only that you give him a chance, Cassandra, no more”, he added, his voice subdued now – but the flames did not recede. “Talk to him. Listen to his voice, his plans, his vision. Make no choice until after you have met him. Please. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”
She was dumbfounded. Esaiah – pleading? This was not the cultist she had met. Was the man he served truly that impressive? Or was this just another trick? No, Esaiah sounded far too honest, his voice betrayed no misdirection. He wholeheartedly believed in this new leader. Perhaps… perhaps it was something to look into, after all.
She stayed silent for several minutes. The flames danced in their newfound strength, but Esaiah did not speak. Had he learned patience, now?
“… Very well, Esaiah. I will hear what your master has to say. But no more,” she replied, finally. If there was a man of such voice and power in these lands, then her beloved was in danger. She had to know, had to warn him, if need be. She owed him that, at the very least. “Where should I go? Where is this great leader?”
“I am right here, Miss Cassandra,” said a voice beyond the fire, smooth as Arattan silk.
The fires began to die down, revealing two figures: one, thin and tall, standing a few meters away; the second, one step behind. The first was clothed in the finest materials, with a very regal aspect. A man, perhaps in his mid-forties. He had a well-trimmed beard, and deep, blue eyes. His face was proud. The dim light reflected on his jewelry, adding more evidence to his ostentatious wealth. Oddly enough, he held two glasses on one hand, and a bottle on the other. The second figure was robed, breathing heavily and clutching a staff laboriously. Cassandra could see the remains of a now-disintegrating parchment – a scroll? – silently falling to the ground. It was without a doubt a teleport spell – a very well-written teleport spell. She had not even felt the build-up, nor their arrival.
“I thank you for the opportunity to listen to what I have to say,” he continued. He walked around the fire slowly, measuring her response. She was far too shocked to act. He made a gesture of disdain towards their surroundings, and let out a much practiced sigh. “I regret to have our little conversation in such places as these, but I did not believe you would appreciate being summoned without your consent – a consent I very much doubt you would have given. You are, after all, a very careful woman. A particularly valuable trait, if I do say so myself.”
There was a vast difference between Esaiah’s voice, and this newcomer’s. When Esaiah had intensity and devotion, this one had a calm confidence and strength. He spoke in the easy way of a man used to dialogue, used to being heard. But there was also a tone of implied superiority – this man knew his place, and expected respect.
As he walked, his companion, in ragged steps, hurriedly took what appeared to be a portable table and very simple chairs out of his robes. He caught up with the tall man, and set up the furniture a meter away from the tall man, and stepped away.
“Please – sit with me. I hope you accept a drink. We have much to talk about.”