Markus sat at the edge of his straw bed, listening to his uncle’s faint snoring in the next room. Uncle Theo had been asleep long enough that Markus could sneak away and manage the escape he’d planned for years.
He grabbed the leather sack of supplies he’d hidden under his bed and the sword he’d stolen from his uncle’s weapons cache.
Markus left his room, avoiding the cabin’s creakiest floorboards, then crossed the cluttered living room. When he reached the front door, he stopped and looked back. This cabin had always been his home. He had to leave, but he also had fond memories of the place.
It wasn’t this life he was escaping. It was his future.
In a week, on his eighteenth birthday, he had to become an Imperial Guard. His uncle, a former Imperial Guard, had prepared that life for him. A life in chains. Markus’s uncle would say life as an Imperial Guard wasn’t terrible. Consciously, Markus knew Uncle Theo was right, but Markus felt an instinctual objection to that life.
As Markus stepped out into the muggy air, he stopped. Were his issues so bad he needed to run away?
Of course they are, he told himself as he walked across the small clearing surrounding the cabin, twigs crunching beneath his leather shoes. He had no future in the Empire. Wherever Markus went, Imperial Guards would find him and force him to join them.
Well, there was Mountainside, but the journey there was too difficult.
His only choice was to cross the ring of mountains surrounding the Empire. Everyone said that was impossible, but Markus had to believe it wasn’t. He could never serve evil. No matter what Uncle Theo said, Warrick was evil. If he wasn’t evil, why had he created these mountains to trap his subjects, and why had he created dangerous regions infested with monsters, keeping the people from traveling freely?
No good emperor would do those things.
Markus trudged along a narrow, winding path through the forest’s vegetation. A calm wind rustled the leaves around him—a sound he knew he’d miss. A sound of home, of stability and comfort.
Soon the cabin’s outline receded from view.
After a few minutes, the air felt suddenly cold, and Markus pulled his traveling cloak from his sack. Even covered in the thick fabric, he shivered.
The longer he walked, passing through thicker vegetation now, the colder the air felt.
All summer, he’d felt the occasional nighttime chill. Before, he’d thought it strange, but now he worried something supernatural lurked behind it. He didn’t live far from the ruins of Woodsville.
Had Warrick’s magical barrier around that site failed?
Shoving these doubts aside, Markus pushed through low-hanging branches and emerged in the next clearing, where his friend Rik waited in front of his family’s cabin. Rik’s red hair stood out like a small fire in the moonlit forest.
“About time you got here,” Rik said.
“Had to wait for my uncle to fall asleep,” Markus said as he dropped his leather sack on the forest floor.
“Don’t worry. I’m only giving you trouble.”
“I know.” Markus punched Rik lightly on the shoulder. “You’re more trouble than a hundred people put together.”
“But what would you do without me?”
“Live a much safer and saner life,” Markus muttered.
“Hey, I heard that!”
Markus picked up his leather sack, ignoring Rik’s remark. “You sure about this? You don’t have to come.”
“Of course I’m sure. Friends stick together.”
Markus loved that part of Rik’s personality. Many friends would have found an apprenticeship in Crayden by now or used their skills as a woodsman to make a living. But not Rik. He’d pledged to remain around until Markus turned eighteen.
But was Rik only doing so to avoid real responsibility?
“You ready to go?” Rik shifted his own leather sack to a different position. “Why the cloak?”
“You don’t feel how cold it is?”
“No, it’s kind of muggy out.”
“Well, I’m freezing,” Markus said.
“That makes no sense. You sure you aren’t sick?” Rik moved as though he was about to put a hand on Markus’s forehead, but Markus backed away.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Markus said. “But, look, I can see my breath! I’m not imagining things.”
As they started traveling, Rik said, “That’s strange. I can see it too, but I don’t see my own. Could it be related to Woodsville in some way?”
Markus walked beside Rik. “I already thought of that. It’s as good a theory as any. Since we’re heading in that general direction—”
“I’ve always wanted to see Woodsville!”
“I’d rather not.”
“Come on,” Rik said. “You know it would be a fun adventure.”
“Maybe I’m not as keen on adventure as you are.”
They traveled through the night, following familiar paths at first, passing places from their childhoods. The lake where Markus used to skip rocks. The trees he used to climb. The stream he and Rik dared each other to swim in late one autumn.
He and Rik had done a lot of stupid things. Once, they’d dared each other to get close to a sleeping bear. Another time, Rik had challenged Markus to eat some green berries, and Markus spent the next day vomiting. There was also the time they’d seen who could shoot an apple off the other’s head with an arrow. Rik won that dare.
Unfortunately, Uncle Theo found out about it. Markus still had scars on his butt from his uncle’s leather belt. It was the only time his uncle had ever hurt him like that.
And he’d deserved it.
Rik sure had a way of bringing out Markus’s foolish side, and Markus feared that was the case now. Leaving the Empire had been Rik’s suggestion. Most of their plans started with Rik’s creative idiocy—or genius, as he would call it.
As they walked, the chill intensified, and Markus felt on edge. He wished he’d brought a heavier cloak. It was summer for God’s sake. What the hell was wrong with the forest?
Trees crowded their path. Twigs and leaves crunched beneath their leather shoes, the sounds echoing eerily. Markus felt as though something were watching them, something evil hovering in the air. He didn’t voice these concerns, though, because Rik wouldn’t believe him. Or worse, Rik might believe him and want to investigate more thoroughly.
The path narrowed further, winding in snakelike patterns. Markus parted low-hanging branches with his sword while Rik had his axe ready for thicker branches. Why Rik had to carry an axe, Markus had no idea. Even though he was stronger than Rik, he’d always found axes unwieldy. A sword flowed in his hand, almost like artwork.
As morning neared, the chill remained, like icy daggers hitting Markus from every side. He tried to ignore it by talking, but his teeth were chattering too much. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a good omen.
Hours later, the sun rose, and the cold vanished as if it had never existed.
“That’s strange.” Markus removed his cloak. “It’s not cold anymore.”
“Interesting. So only you can feel it, and it only happens at night. I don’t know what to make of that. Maybe ghosts are more active at night.”
It didn’t take long for Markus to miss the chill. After a few minutes, his light tunic stuck to his back, and sweat trickled down his forehead, into his eyes. His dark blond hair was soaked.
As the morning warmed, they marched through tighter and tighter paths, finding only the occasional clearing. This was a part of the forest people didn’t enter because of its proximity to Woodsville, and it showed. Vines covered everything, looking as though no one had touched them in hundreds of years.
Markus and Rik had planned a path that would lead them southwest through the forest, toward the riverside city of Levine. From there, they’d hire a boat and take the river south to Tate City, avoiding the dangerous Black Swamp.
Then they would stand at the base of the mountains, Markus realized with a jolt of fear.
He pushed through some low-hanging vines. “This really is crazy. What are the chances that we’ll actually make it?”
“We have to stay positive. Who knows? Maybe Warrick creates the myth that no one can escape so no one will ever try. I mean, nobody who got out would come back to tell us.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Markus said, but he didn’t trust Rik’s logic. Imperial Guards were alerted whenever anyone set foot on the mountains, and then the Imperial Guards could teleport to the other side of the mountain.
And wait to kill the unfortunate travelers.
But was there a chance? A magical barrier at the edge of the mountains prevented Imperial Guards from crossing, but maybe others could pass through. Imperial Guards were so efficient that no one had ever reached the barrier, or at least no one had lived to tell the tale.
Markus shoved aside another low-hanging branch. “I still don’t see how we’re gonna get past the Imperial Guards. What makes us any different from anyone else?”
“What choice do you have? You said yourself you’d rather die than become an Imperial Guard.”
“But you don’t have to die with me. You have a future. I don’t.”
“What future?” Rik said. “Do you really see me living in a cabin the rest of my life? Or do you think I should become an apprentice blacksmith like Tomas? I’m sorry. I don’t care what people think. That’s not the type of life I want.”
“So you’d rather die instead?”
“Maybe I have a bit more confidence in our chances.”
“Or maybe you’re just insane.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Rik said. “But I already told you. Friends stick together.”
* * * * *
Darien Warrick sat once again at the table where he read the Webs of Fate. This time, he was more frustrated than ever. He’d spent many years directing Markus’s life, but Markus had made an unexpected decision, choosing a path of lower probability.
Darien had known it might happen, but it still angered him. Now he had to adjust his plans, and they were too delicate to survive unexpected changes like these.
He took a few deep breaths, willing himself to relax. All was not lost. It never was.
He was in control.
But how could he correct Markus’s divergent choice? Nearly fifteen years ago, Darien had ordered the killing of Markus’s parents, members of the Order. They had faced no choice but to flee the Empire, taking their three-year-old son with them.
However, this had been different from Darien’s manipulation of Nadia’s life. He’d never wanted Markus to resent him. He’d wanted Markus to serve him.
But Theo had failed to turn Markus into the right kind of man. Had Darien missed something with his magic, leaving traces of memory in Markus’s head? That wouldn’t have surprised Darien. He’d always been better at creating than destroying.
Something must have driven Markus to hate him.
No use lamenting it now. Darien couldn’t change the past.
In truth, this possibility had been growing more likely with every passing day. It wasn’t the path Darien would have chosen, but he could make something out of it.
It might even turn out better.