Task Failed Successfully by J. Alexandria

Summer’s scent shifted as Cassie left the woods, lighter and breezier than the comforting earthiness of the trees. It wasn’t far to the village from here, so she moved to shift her pack…then remembered she didn’t have one anymore. It was still sitting in her room in Harald Nadelos’ palace, and she doubted the guards were going to let her back in to get it anytime soon. At least Cassie was relatively unburdened as she strolled onwards, carrying only her short sword on her hip. First order of business was finding a signpost. Then-

Her stomach growled.

Okay, first order of business was hitting the tavern for lunch. Then the signpost.  

The villagers were taking a similarly leisurely attitude today. Cassie passed some children playing in the grass, their parents supervising from the shade of their little wooden houses. Nobody seemed bothered by the sword-wielding stranger, which suited Cassie fine. She made a beeline towards the tavern, where some roughly hewn tables had been set up outside, and… she stopped, squinting.

Wait… is that… fuck!

Cassie turned on her heel and started walking in the opposite direction. This was fine. He hadn’t spotted her–

“Ah, Cassandra, finally! You’re a rather long way from where you should be, aren’t you?”

Cassie groaned, pivoting again, and sloping back towards the tavern. Of course. It was a gorgeous day, she’d been in a great mood, there had been good food and drink to look forward to… and instead, she had to deal with the inordinate hassle of a visit from God.

The God in question was Wotan, Father of Lies, Healer of Wounds, and God of Wisdom, who was reclining on an unevenly carved stool, sipping from a tankard. Shorter than her by about a head, his walking stick and pack lay by his feet, and his one eye, piercing blue, shone mischievously. He sat straight, unbowed by his age, which was written plainly across his bearded face. Or perhaps not. Cassie knew that Wotan was far older than he looked. He smiled as she approached, pushing another tankard towards her.

“You look thirsty, my dear. Sit, have a drink! We need to catch up, you and I.”

Cassie pulled over another stool, and took the proffered drink, raising it and knocking back the cool ale in one go. Finally, she gasped, setting the empty tankard down.

“By the Goddess, that cheap crap is awful,” she sighed happily.

Wotan raised an eyebrow, still smiling, but a little more serious now.

“You’re lucky I’m buying you a drink at all, Cassandra, considering you’re supposed to be around two hundred miles that way” – he pointed north – “protecting King Harald the Pious.”

“Listen, in my defence–”

“Who, I remind you, was on the verge of consolidating several kingdoms into a theocracy dedicated to my glorious and divine self, with himself at the head. So, I’m a little worried about his safety, as his bodyguard has just… wandered off.”

Cassie paused for several seconds, thinking carefully about how to break the news.

“Well… you don’t need to worry anymore!” she smiled, making a pair of finger guns at Wotan.

“Oh? On account of what?” Wotan asked, taking another drink.

“On account of I set him on fire.”

Wotan’s eye widened, and he spat out his ale.

“You what? Why?! Did he survive?”

Cassie held up her hand and waggled it noncommittally, making an ehhhh noise.

“He survived the fire up until I stabbed him in the heart. And if he managed to survive that, I don’t think he survived being decapitated right afterwards.”

Wotan’s expression turned stony, and Cassie held his gaze. She was expecting a dressing down, some divine rage, maybe having her bloodline cursed for a few generations. Instead, God jumped to his feet, crying “Hot damn!”, pumping his fist and letting out an undignified whoop of happiness that drew several stares.

“Two more ales for myself and my accomplished acolyte here!” he called through the open door of the tavern, before sitting back down opposite a stunned Cassie.

“Uh… you’re taking this well,” she remarked, leaning back so the barmaid could set down the new tankards, before picking one up to awkwardly clink against Wotan’s.

“Of course! I couldn’t have asked for a better job, my dear.”

“But I killed him!”

“Which was what I wanted! I mean, you met the man, didn’t you? He was a mindless brute! Any empire he founded would have fallen apart in less than a decade. His son, now that’s someone who founds a dynasty to last a thousand years!”

“Wait… so you…” Cassie was relieved he wasn’t angry, but that feeling was quickly replaced by furious indignation.

“Wait, I told you, I don’t do assassinations, you old coot!”

Wotan cackled, extracting a pipe from one of his many pockets.

“I know, so I sent you in as a bodyguard, and just let you do it yourself! It was only a matter of time before you found out about the slaving, war crimes, human sacrifices… oh, would you mind?” he asked, clenching the pipe between his teeth, and leaning towards Cassie.

She smiled back at him sweetly, before holding up her hand and snapping her fingers, producing a bright flash of fire that was rather larger than what was needed to light the pipe.

“Well, that was uncalled for,” Wotan grumbled, patting his eyebrows out.

“I disagree,” Cassie sighed.

“Whatever. At least I can get paid now. How much was it? Fifteen hundred denarii?”

Wotan looked confused.

“Why would I pay you?”

“Because you hired me!”

“I hired you to protect Harald the Pious, not immolate and decapitate him!”

“But you wanted me to kill him!”

Wotan shrugged, standing up.

“You’re the one who swore to serve the Father of Lies, my dear,” he smirked. He picked up his things, and pulled a small pouch from his bag, his expression softening as he tossed it to Cassie with a clink.

“That’s seven hundred denarii, and I’ve paid for your room and board at this charming little inn for the week. Rest, relax, congratulate yourself on a job well done, however indirectly. I’ll be in touch soon.”

 And with that, he was gone. Cassie leaned back, breathing a sigh of relief. Well. The old git had stiffed her more than half her fee, but seven hundred denarii was still nothing to sneeze at. Plus, he hadn’t smitten her into a steaming puddle, so Cassie decided, as she called for another drink, and shaded her eyes against the summer sun, that she had probably broken even on this one.

About this piece

This short prose extract is an early part of a longer, as-yet unfinished novel. Here, I have attempted to introduce and characterise the two main characters and establish their relationship as one of prickly but mutual respect, with an undertone of tension between Cassie’s wilful and defiant attitude, and Wotan’s self-serving manipulations. While it very much serves as the opening act of a larger narrative, I hope that in isolation it’s a fun time, and that the world and characters are intriguing enough on their face that readers can enjoy speculating about it, even if there aren’t concrete answers available yet.

            A consistent piece of criticism my prose has gotten in the past has been my tendency to slip into passive voice. I attempted to address this by emphasising that the text is from Cassie’s perspective, by writing through her senses, and by matching the tone of the narration more closely to the tone of Cassie’s dialogue. Additionally, I tried to make Cassie an active character in a literal sense, ensuring that she communicates her feelings through her body language and actions, as well as through dialogue.

Tonally, the primary inspiration is the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, with a focus on balancing enjoyable, funny, and sweet character interactions with bleak and violent story content, while the way that Wotan interacts with the story and world is inspired by the Greek pantheon from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

About the author

J. Alexandria is a sci-fi and fantasy author who enjoys writing about themes of identity and powerlessness, and also how cool it is when large things explode. She can be contacted by email at j.alexandria.writer@gmail.com or by twitter @JAlexandria69.

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