Nadia cracked open yet another book, praying its pages would reveal how to kill an immortal sorcerer like Warrick. She’d done this countless times over the last four years.
She was beginning to feel hopeless.
The book she’d opened contained various accounts by Imperial Guard commanders. She leaned low over it, reading by the light of the library’s magical torches.
Most of the accounts were useless. They detailed tax collection, raids, and encounters with bandits. She was about to give up when she came across a strange account detailing a mission into the ruins of Woodsville, an ancient city haunted by evil spirits.
On the third day of September, Emperor Warrick gave us a very strange mission. It’s not my place to question the emperor, but I’ll admit that I was a bit concerned about this mission. He gave us a lone scroll, which he told us to take deep into the ruins of Woodsville.
Naturally, my men complained about this task. We all knew the stories about Woodsville. We all knew this mission might require us to surrender our own lives.
Whatever this scroll is, it must be important. But it’s not my place to understand why the emperor wants us to do something. I’m just an Imperial Guard commander, a man bound to his emperor. Through everything that follows in this account, I remained a steadfast supporter. No matter what we had to sacrifice, I knew that we were doing it in the name of the greater good.
Nadia felt a stab of anger. How could anyone believe Warrick was doing the right thing? She pushed her feelings aside, though. This account could be what she needed. After all, her mother had told her of a spell that could kill Warrick.
A spell known as White Fire.
Her mother had learned of the spell from Cyrus Middleton, a sorcerer as old as Warrick himself. Cyrus told Nadia’s mother that he knew the location of two parts of the spell. But the third and final scroll’s location had eluded him.
Could this account be the answer? Nadia kept reading, unable to sit still.
We set out for Woodsville early in the morning, taking a path to the southeast from Crayden. When we reached the city, I was overcome by a strange chill only I could feel. The city was also shrouded beneath a thick blanket of darkness that none of my men could see.
After a few minutes, I recovered enough to continue the march into the city. The whole time we walked, I felt like something was watching us. Shadows danced at the edges of my vision. That cold knifed into my bones like nothing I’d ever felt before.
But I forced myself through it. I had to do this for my emperor. He hadn’t given me much information about the scroll, only that it is highly dangerous. That was enough for me.
I won’t bore anyone reading this with accounts of every creature we faced in this evil place. Let’s just say we had a tough time. Two of my men were channelers. They defended us from the wraiths and skeletons and other creatures I don’t want to mention.
I still shudder just thinking of what we saw in Woodsville.
We fought our way deep into a temple located in the center of the cursed city. Along the way, we lost most of our party. In fact, I was the only man remaining. I survived through a strange ability to sense the evil in this place, which allowed me to avoid the worst of it.
I placed the scroll deep within the temple, praying I’d done enough to keep it hidden from those who might use it against the Empire. I made it out, but I’m not the same man I used to be.
My faith in Emperor Warrick remains. I’ve seen all the good he can do.
And now I’ve seen the horrors that existed before Emperor Warrick, the horrors he protects us from. Without him, the creatures in a place like this would run free. They would terrorize everybody, as the emperor tells us they have throughout the rest of the world.
It is my deepest fear that someone will find this scroll. Emperor Warrick will take this account into his protection, where he can protect it from prying eyes. There are times when I wonder why he asked me to write it, but again it is not my place to question the emperor.
I am his servant, always.
Nadia couldn’t believe what she’d read. She’d found the answer she needed, and she didn’t care how dangerous Woodsville was.
But how had this account come to be in her library? She’d been through everything on the shelf where she’d found it. Had someone placed it there so she would find it now?
Whatever the case, she couldn’t ignore this new information.
Later that day, Nadia met her friend Kara for sword training, but first Nadia had to tell Kara about this new information. Kara had always been skeptical of Nadia’s mission, but Kara couldn’t ignore such compelling evidence, could she?
They sat in a secluded corner of the vast library. Nadia flinched every time she heard a noise. Some in the castle, including her father, did not support her mission.
Once Nadia finished recounting her discovery, Kara said, “I know you want this to be true, but you don’t know for certain that there’s a connection between White Fire and this account.”
“I suppose not, but you have to admit it’s too much to be coincidence.”
“You’re talking about a very dangerous mission,” Kara said.
“Of course it’s dangerous! We’re talking about killing Warrick.”
“Let’s say you’re right about this scroll. How do you think you’ll find it? That account you read told of channelers, people with magic, and even with magic on their side, only one person made it out alive. Do you really want to go against such odds?”
Nadia took deep breaths, holding in her anger. Kara was only acting as the voice of reason, as she always did, and she didn’t deserve Nadia’s anger.
“You don’t understand,” Nadia said. “I don’t care about the risks. At least I’ll die trying to make a difference. That’s more than the Order can say.”
Kara looked away, as though she couldn’t deny the truth in Nadia’s words. “I don’t want to see you die, Nadia. You’re my closest friend. You’re like a sister to me. Believe me, I want Warrick dead too, but we can’t rush blindly into a foolish quest like this.”
“Then what do you propose we do?”
“We have to come up with a plan. The Order knows that staffs like these exist. They’re usually protected by Imperial Guards. Some Imperial Guards even carry them. If we can find one of these staffs, then maybe we’ll have a chance in Woodsville.”
Nadia’s chest felt lighter. “Then you actually think I’m right?”
“I don’t know, but maybe we need to take more drastic action. I’ll talk to Aric and Ander, and we’ll see what we can do.”
Nadia wrapped Kara in a tight embrace. “Thank you.”
Whatever differences they had, Kara would always stand by her side, in the end.
They decided they wouldn’t practice their swordplay. Instead, Kara went back to the city, leaving Nadia alone with her thoughts. Nadia’s father didn’t let her go out unless she gave him some warning first, and he’d been in a sour mood lately, so she didn’t want to test his patience.
Not when she was on the verge of fulfilling her life’s dream.
She went to the practice chamber and watched the guards train. If nothing else, she could learn from their techniques. There was also something comforting about the clunking of practice swords. She lost herself in thought.
How could she and Kara acquire these magical staffs? If they did, how would they reach Warrick’s palace and acquire the other two scrolls along the way? The journey across the Empire was long and dangerous, and the other scrolls had to be under similar protections.
A voice startled her. “May I sit here?”
It was Varek, one of the castle guards.
He sat beside her, running a hand through his dark beard. “I recognize the look in your eyes, Nadia. You’re thinking about killing Warrick again.”
“But there’s actually a chance now.”
She related her discovery and her subsequent conversation with Kara. As she talked, she tried to gauge his reaction, but he’d always had a strong poker face.
“I’ll admit that there’s some promise in this plan of yours,” he said, “but I’m still not so sure. I mean, if Warrick could be killed, wouldn’t someone have done it by now?”
“Not without White Fire. It’s the only thing that can kill him—well, other than real magic. But we won’t find any of that here in the Empire. Not with Warrick in charge.”
“But what makes you think you’re the person to kill him?” Varek asked. “This spell won’t protect you from his magic. It won’t keep Imperial Guards from killing you. It won’t get you through the Plain of Storms, or any of the other regions Warrick created to torment us.”
“I know that, but I’m prepared to face those risks.”
“I swore an oath to protect your family,” Varek said. “And I intend to stand by that oath, even if it means protecting you from yourself. You’re going down a dangerous road.”
She took a deep breath, reining in her temper. “Maybe you’re right.”
But she didn’t believe that. At the moment, however, she was in no mood to argue, not with one of her few friends. Four years ago, Varek had been the guard at her door. After her mother’s death, she refused to come out of her room. She didn’t talk to anyone.
Only Varek managed to get through the barriers she’d erected. He stood outside her door, talking to her for hours even though she never responded. Eventually, she let him in, and he helped her through the pain, helped her to understand her father’s betrayal—at least a little bit.
Varek’s voice startled Nadia out of thought. “You don’t believe a word I’m saying, do you?”
“Am I really that transparent?”
“I know you too well, Nadia. You’re a smart young woman. No one will deny that. But you have to stop letting your anger consume you. It blinds you to the truth of things. Warrick is as close to all-powerful as a man can be. Even if you somehow find this spell you’ve told me about, do you really think you’ll surprise him?”
“I don’t know, but I have to try. For my mother.”
“She wouldn’t want you to die,” Varek said.
“You don’t know that. I was close to my mother. I know what she’d want. Warrick’s death was her life’s ambition. Do you really think she’d want me to abandon that?”
“You’re also her daughter,” Varek said. “Don’t you think that means something?”
“Yes, but Warrick’s death is more important.” She ran a hand through her brown hair. “Look. I understand how much you care about me. In the time since my father betrayed us, you’ve been more like a father than he could ever hope to be. But you’re wrong about this.”
“Tell me why I’m wrong. Logically. I don’t care how you feel about things.”
Nadia tried to think of the right words. “I’m doing this for everyone. It isn’t just for me.”
“A lot of people are happy with Warrick’s rule. Hell, a lot of my comrades are only here because they weren’t talented enough to be Imperial Guards. Even if you did kill Warrick, do you really think you’d make the world a perfect place?”
“There’s no such thing as perfection,” Nadia said, growing irritated. “But I can make a better world. A world without Imperial Guards. A world where we can travel freely, where we don’t have to live in fear of Warrick’s magic.”
“And what happens when we lose the order Warrick has established? How many people will hate you because you killed the man giving them a stable life?”
“I don’t understand,” Nadia said. “You’re part of the Order. You’re fighting against Warrick.”
“I’m fighting for the people. I accepted long ago that fighting against Warrick is pointless.”
“Then you’ve accepted defeat,” Nadia said.
“Maybe I have.” He rose from the bench, his chainmail rattling, then resumed practicing with the other guards.
She watched him for a minute or two before placing her sword on the rack and leaving the chamber. As she walked up the spiral staircase leading to her room, she thought again of her mother. The execution came back in a rush, like fire sweeping across dry vegetation.
She stopped on the stairs, willing herself not to cry. No one would blame her, but that didn’t matter. As long as she pretended she was strong, as long as she maintained a perfect stone mask, she could fool even herself.
Once she composed herself, she walked the rest of the way to her room.
“Is everything all right?” asked Len, the guard at her door. He was three years older than Nadia with a few wisps of beard the other guards mocked. She considered him a friend, and possibly more than a friend, so she liked to tease him.
Not today, though.
“Don’t worry about me.”
She nodded and entered her room, avoiding his concerned gaze. Then she knocked on the wood door to an adjoining room. Her maidservant Avia answered the knock.
“What do you need, my lady?” Avia asked. Her expression was kind, as always.
“I would like you to prepare a bath for me,” Nadia said, forcing a smile. “A cool bath. It’s very warm today.”
“Of course, my lady.”
Nadia could have prepared the bath herself, but Avia liked to feel helpful. The bathing chamber was on this same floor, so it wasn’t an undue burden on Avia’s aging bones.
While Avia prepared the bath, Nadia found a change of clothes in her closet. She passed all the elegant dresses and opted instead for a simpler shirt and comfortable pants. Yes, people expected a future high lady to wear nice clothes, but Nadia didn’t care. She dressed as society dictated only when necessary.
Nadia left her room and crossed the hall to enter the bathing chamber, where the full stone tub waited for her. She had to remind herself she wouldn’t have such luxuries when she set out to kill Warrick. Ordinary people didn’t have indoor plumbing. Only the wealthy. Only those who swore allegiance to Warrick’s regime. People like her father, like many of Crayden’s lords.
People who sold their souls.
“Is everything all right?” Avia asked as she hung Nadia’s clothes on a nearby rack. “You look like something’s troubling you.”
“It’s nothing. Kara and I had an argument, that’s all.”
“All right,” Avia said with a knowing expression before leaving the room.
Nadia disrobed and slipped into the lukewarm water, trying to ease her many concerns. She hated lying to the people who cared about her most, and now doubt had crept in.
Did she stand any chance against Warrick?
* * * * *
Darien Warrick leaned on the table where he read the Webs of Fate. For four years now, there’d been little to control, but he’d remained vigilant, and now the time had come.
He’d left Nadia a trail of clues that would lead her to White Fire, and eventually to him—or so he hoped. The strands within those webs left many things to chance. There were countless places where Nadia could meet with an untimely end. Some he could prevent. Others he could only hope Nadia would survive on her own talents.
Talents he had instilled in her, indirectly.
He massaged his temples, trying to relieve the headache he always got when he read the Webs for too long, or when he tried to peer too far into the future.
Or when he looked upon the dark strands, as he’d come to call them.
There, his visions failed him, and it angered him to no end. Most of these dark strands related directly to him. Why could he not see his own future? He had rarely encountered dark strands concerning anyone else.
Was something or someone out there hiding the future from him?
No, that’s a worry for another time, he told himself before turning his gaze back to Nadia. She had rough times ahead of her. Every reading of the Webs showed countless dangers in her path. Darien would have loved to find another way, but none existed.
For the moment, he needed to keep her alive. Amazing how easy it was to kill someone.
Much easier than keeping a person alive.