The air was still thick with the smell of ash and smoke after the arsonist succumbed and vanished. She'd left behind the smoking remains of the gun powder barrels, and what little ventilation there was so deep down underground wasn't enough to clear the air quickly enough to make much of a difference. Kaho coughed; the bitter smell was making her eyes water and her throat string.
With a quick flash of steel the knightess sheathed her sword.
”Thank you for your assistance,” she said, stepping closer. Her cheeks were smudged gray with soot. ”Are you hurt?”
”No, I'm not,” the priestess said with a shake of her head. She put down the leaf, flexing her fingers. They were stiff from gripping the holy weapon for so long.
”It's my first time seeing a sacred leaf in action. Certainly an interesting way of fending off enemies...”
Kaho smiled despite herself. ”You are quite skilled with the sword yourself. A knightess of the kingdom, indeed.”
Cath returned her grin, but it soon became strained. ”Not quite. Not anymore.”
”What do you mean?”
The knightess considered her quietly, eyes narrowed. Then, as though making up her mind about something, she looked around quickly and spoke in a hushed voice. ”Since you're still around, perhaps you'll hear me out.”
Something about the urgency in her words caught the priestess' attention. ”I will.”
”Good. I've suspected something was amiss up there in the castle.” She squared her shoulders, fiddling with the pommel of her sword almost absent-mindedly. Her eyes had turned cold and hard as steel. ”The Queen I once served was noble and caring, but now she's turned into a morbid figure.”
Kaho listened intently. It was the Queen whose audience she sought, after all; every little detail could be of utmost importance for her mission.
”Anything under her direct control is lost, so I've deserted her order of knights.”
Cath lifted her hand and the priestess well silent. ”Here's my proposal: taking down the Queen. You mentioned her curse has reached your homeland. Should you choose to side with me, you're going to need a special crest.”
”You cannot break the seal and enter the castle without it. It was split into four pieces, and one of its fragments should be around here...” Cath gestured around in the open chamber. There was an opening at the far end where she'd burst out, battling the arsonist. ”Once you have the four parts, head to the locked door at the entrance of the city.”
”You would be willing to go against your own monarch?”
”What other choice is there?” the knightess said brusquely, taking off her gloves. She kicked the charred remains of an old barrel into a pile, knelt down and pulled out flint from the small pouch hanging from her belt. ”Nearly the entire population's been laid to waste because of her. She has a lot to answer for.”
Kaho could not think of anything to say to this, and she decided to take a look in the area the arsonist had come from. If what the knightess said was true, she had more work ahead of her than she'd thought. She knew exactly where the barrier began – she'd tried to breach it only shortly after her arrival in the city of Karst, but the magic blocking the entrance was too strong for her powers. It felt like the Queen's magic did not want to admit anyone or anything too close to its immediate centre, and Kaho decided to take it as a good sign. Dreadful though the curse was, perhaps it could indeed be broken if it was trying to shield itself from harm. She could always hope that was the case, at least.
Somehow, the news of the Queen being the one behind the curse had not come as a surprise to her. There had been something suspicious about such a strong spell spreading quickly and contaminating land so far away from its origin that had indicated it wasn't just a normal curse; it needed something physical to manifest through to become so powerful. If only she knew what on earth the Queen's motivations had been..
The walls were stained with soot in the next chambers, far worse than anywhere else underground. She could see burn marks and the odd scratches here and there – it seemed Cath had been battling the demon alone for quite some time. She looked around in the corners carefully, pushing aside piles of coals and ash with her shoe to check nothing was hidden beneath them. Finally, she reached the far end of the corridor, but there was nothing there, only a stone ledge and the collapsed remains of a ladder lying beneath it. Kaho looked up, standing on her toes; it was dark and she could not see anything standing down there. She sighed. This wouldn't be enjoyable.
She went to the ledge, jumped and managed to get her upper body on the ledge. She dragged herself up slowly. The damp stone was chilly even through her clothes and when she got up, there were soot marks all over her arms and her clothes.
”Right,” Kaho muttered. She swept the stone floor carefully, trying to feel if there was anything there. She didn't know how large this crest had been before splitting – the fragments could be nothing but tiny shards, undetectable to the naked eye. She felt around on the dusty, cinder-covered floor, and finally, her shoe met something hard. The priestess bent down, picking up the object.
There was nothing particularly impressive about the piece, nothing that spoke of importance. The bumps she could feel might have been engravings, or just signs of wear. But as soon as her fingertips had brushed the thing, she had felt a sudden rush of power that crawled up her skin like a current of magic, similar to the electrifying force she'd detected coming from the barrier itself. It sent invisible sparks around itself and Kaho closed her fist around it; it was like holding a fire cracker, except it didn't burn. It must be the fragment Cath had been looking for.
She got down from the ledge, making her way back towards the chamber where she'd left the other woman. As she got closer, she could see the glow of a fire, and for one wild second thought the arsonist had somehow returned. She rushed forwards, but soon noticed the knightess was sitting down on the floor, a camp fire crackling merrily in front of her.
”Were you in luck?” Cath asked, watching her closely.
Kaho slumped next to her and held out her hand. ”Yes. It wasn't particularly well-hidden, but it's nearly impossible to find anything in this darkness.”
The knightess picked up the piece from her, inspecting it in the firelight. ”It's the real deal. Well done, Kaho. One fragment down.”
”And three to go,” she said, pulling her legs closer to herself. It was chilly in the chamber, but the glow of fire felt pleasant on her skin. She hadn't had the chance to properly sit down and rest since she'd arrived at the Ordalia Grove. It had been too dangerous to be idle.
”We'll find them,” Cath said, handing the fragment back to her. ”Once the barrier is broken, we can make for the castle and ambush the Queen.”
”Do you think we'll meet resistance?”
”From whom? Apart from the dead there's no one there. Hardly anyone survives from the court.”
”When I set out on my journey to meet the Queen, I didn't even imagine the situation was this serious...” Kaho muttered, staring into the fire. Sure, the news of Karst's demise had reached their land, too, but the fatality count had come as a shock to her. Perhaps it wasn't so surprising. With the country fallen into utter chaos, there didn't seem to be official informants left anywhere to send news to other countries. What they knew in Lun was little more than gossip in comparison to the reality the remaining Karstians now lived with, and secretly, Kaho was glad it was so. The others did not need to know the gravity of the situation.
”I never thought they'd sent someone all the way from Lun to check up on us,” Cath said with a shake of her head. ”I've never been that far in the west. What's it like?”
”Beautiful,” Kaho said simply. Her voice betrayed an edge of sadness. ”I can't let our land fall into ruin, too.”
”No,” the knightess agreed sombrely. ”No, you can't. We have to stop it.”
Kaho observed the blonde woman quietly. She looked so serious with her jaw set, her eyes glowing in the firelight like embers; the priestess remembered her mentioning that she'd lost her sister. Perhaps it was the curse that had claimed her life, too. She wondered if Cath had been a different person before the calamity had struck her country, less uptight, more relaxed. All the surviving people Kaho had met since her arrival carried the same aura as Cath – they were people who had seen too much and had nothing left to lose.
Cath seemed shaken out of her reverie when she noticed the priestess staring at her. ”What are you looking at?”
”You have soot on your face,” Kaho pointed out. She reached out, rubbing her cheek with a finger. The knightess laughed, trying to push her hand away.
”Have you looked at yourself recently? I can barely make out your face underneath all that dirt!” she grinned. Kaho felt breathless; the expression had transformed her being entirely, her eyes sparking with sudden humour, the smile tugging at her lips only enhancing her beauty. Cath rubbed her cheek in turn, and with such vigour that the priestess felt her skin would come off. ”Will you look at that? There's a blush underneath all that ash.”
Their faces were very close to one another, so close that Kaho could soon have counted the other woman's eyelashes. She didn't know how that had happened – she had no memory of leaning closer. Cath was still rubbing her cheek, but so softly now that it was more a caress.
”Cath...” the priestess murmured, and then the distance between them was gone. She didn't know which one of them had leaned in first, but she could feel Cath's arms snaking around her and hers crawling into the knight's hair, and it no longer mattered who'd started it.
The roughness of the blonde's lips was disarming and Kaho gave in easily to her affections, answering her kisses with an eagerness of her own. She'd no memory of ever being kissed so; with such fervour and need, with such unhindered passion that it made her toes curl. Her hood fell off as Cath's fingers found their way into her auburn hair. Many thought her fragile just because she was a priestess, her faith their excuse for needing to handle her like she were a saint. The knightess had thought similarly upon their first meeting – clearly, she had shed such delusions ever since.
They were both out of breath when they broke apart, and for a while, they simply beheld each other. Kaho thought the knightess looked more alive now than she'd seen her before. The light in her eyes seemed to dance, and even through the layer of dirt her skin appeared flushed. The priestess traced her lips thoughtfully.
”You're clearly capable with more than just a sword,” she said approvingly. The knightess kissed her fingertip.
”I could say the same about you, my lady,” Cath replied, sounding amused. ”You're like no priestess I've ever seen before.”
Kaho poked her cheek teasingly. ”I don't know what your nuns of Esselin are supposed to be like, but I can guarantee you, in my country faith does not exclude anything else.”
”No, it clearly doesn't.”
Kaho shifted on her lap, trying to find a more comfortable position in her arms. ”All this armour makes you difficult to embrace, Cath.”
”Am I to take it that you want me to take it off?”
The knightess removed her long cloak, wrapping it around the brunette's shoulders. Like it everything else, it carried a distinct smell of smoke, but it was soft and warm all the same.
”Much better,” Kaho said, leaning her back against the other woman's breast plate. The warmth from the fire, the arms around her – they were making her sleepy. She could feel exhaustion settling in her body irresistibly. Cath's breath was hot in her hair, and despite what awaited in her future, she felt quite safe.
”We should continue looking for the fragments,” the priestess suggested meekly.
”Surely, you can afford a moment's rest?”
The arms around her had tightened momentarily, but Kaho had noticed it nevertheless. She smiled, obliging her heavy eyelids and letting her eyes slip closed. It was quite possible to fool her sleepy mind into believing all was well, just for a moment.
”Yes, I can.”
Whatever came after, it could wait a little longer.