BAVARIA, DECEMBER 1494

Ivanka could see the spires of Wurzburg in the distance. This was the farthest south she had ever been, but the bite of the winter was still ferocious.

She was wrapped in furs, but the cold of the morning stung her flesh without mercy. Trees laden with snow swayed in the wind, sending flourishes of white flakes to the ground in bursts. Ivanka was used to the cold winters of Bohemia, but the ice was just as frozen here as it was further north.

A wolf pack was prowling close to the town, their tracks fresh in the snow, but Ivanka had no fear of wolves.

Her companion stood next to her, also swaddled in fur and leather. The girl’s strangely shaped eyes were scanning the terrain, weighing their options.

When Ivanka had first met Mei, she had tried to kill her on sight, but Mei was difficult to kill. They had sensed each other, stalking one another for months, until finally, they had confronted one another and fought. Mei had won easily, which had shocked Ivanka, as she was a mercenary and no stranger to killing.

Mei had further shocked Ivanka by sparing her life when she could have taken it. Instead, she’d asked Ivanka for her help. Mei spoke in Latin, but she had a strange foreign accent. Ivanka had agreed, and an alliance was forged. In the years that followed, they’d become close like sisters.

“I feel them. They are in much fear,” Mei said in her broken Latin.

“I can feel them too, the Night Wraiths guard them,” Ivanka added.

“We wait until falling darkness,” Mei said.

Ivanka agreed, and they turned back on their horses, retreating to wait in the shelter they had built the night before.

*

The Wraiths sat at a table in the castle’s great dungeon, drinking wine. Disguised as monks under the protection of the Pope, they had traveled with an envoy from Rome.

Ivanka watched them from the shadows as they laughed in course voices. They were unaware of her presence, as her aura was indistinguishable from the three other Seers that already occupied the room.

Two of the Seers were locked in a large wooden cage, a boy of about fifteen years and a girl of about seventeen. Both were badly beaten. Two women, one about thirty and the other most likely in her early twenties, were each tied to hideous devices, their torture already in process. Those captive had been arrested and charged with witchcraft, a convenient claim that afforded the Wraiths the legitimate authority to hunt down and destroy their enemies in the open.

Their torturer lay asleep in a chair snoring, his irons still glowing in the furnace beside him.

Two guards lay dead at Ivanka’s feet.

She swept across the room silently and beheaded the first Wraith. She held her sword level with the chest of the second as he screamed and backed away, covered in sprays of his comrade’s blood.

“Your screaming won’t help you now. The guards are dead,” she said.

The Wraith’s hood fell back, revealing his deformed skull and hideous face. Ivanka resisted the urge to slash at him, keeping her sword steady.

“What do you want?” he hissed.

“I want you to open the cage and go inside,” she demanded.

“Never,” he protested, terrified.

She slashed deep across his cheek, and jabbed the sword into his shoulder, just hard enough to break skin.

He cried out and fumbled for his key.

The torturer awoke from his drunken sleep, but a knife was lodged in his throat before he was even aware of what was happening. He fell to his knees, dying, the blood gurgling in his throat and filling his lungs.

Ivanka kept her sword on the Wraith, simultaneously removing another knife from her belt.

The Seers watched in silent awe, ignoring the pain of their wounds, as the Wraith opened the cage.

The boy and girl scrambled out and hid behind Ivanka. The Wraith held a hand to his bleeding face and took their place in the cage, blood dripping through his fingers. He uttered curses at Ivanka as the door was closed behind him and the heavy lock secured.

The boy instantly sprang to life, hobbling over to release the others; the girl seemed too dazed to move.

“I am here to take you away from this madness, if you will come,” Ivanka said.

The girl stared at her with wide eyes and trembling lips. Ivanka had blue and black war paint smeared across her face and a string of bones around her neck, dressed as an old style Bohemian warrior from a time before metal plated armor.

“I am your friend,” she said in her own dialect.

The girl seemed to understand and limped away painfully to help the boy. Her toenails were missing, her feet blackened by flames.

Ivanka wondered how Mei was going to get these four gravely wounded prisoners out of this place, but Mei was full of surprises.

The Seers made a pathetic site, dirty, stinking and covered in wounds. The eldest woman seemed to be in better shape, but only marginally.

“What are you going to do with that creature?” she asked in Latin.

“Whatever you like,” Ivanka replied.

The woman’s face stretched into a devious smile as she bent over to gather up straw from the floor. She approached the cage and threw it at the Wraith, who hissed curses at her. The others followed her lead, bundling heaps of filthy, bloody straw together and throwing them at the wounded creature.

The woman removed a torch from the dungeon wall, and spat at the Wraith as she hurled it into the cage.

In seconds, the cage was an inferno; the Wraith’s clothes caught fire as it tried to kick away the straw with its feet. It screamed in agony as its skin bubbled and blistered. The four of them stood as close to the flames as they could bear and cackled at their captor, spitting and cursing into the raging fire.

When the smoke was too much for the chimney to remove, they followed Ivanka, coughing, speaking in a dialect similar to her own.

She led them away from the dungeon, passing where the slaughtered guards lay with their clothes drenched in fresh blood.

The woman touched her shoulder.

“There are many others,” she said.

Ivanka hesitated.

“We have only the time to save our own lives. Their lives are in their God’s hands,” she replied without apology.

The woman crossed herself, but did not argue.

An alarm bell tolled as they reached the courtyard. Shouts of panic rang out. Ivanka watched as soldiers rushed the courtyard, their vicious spears leveling towards her.

She stepped forward to greet them, her sword readied.

Out of nowhere, an explosion as bright as lightning took a cluster of the soldiers off their feet, sending them reeling, body parts detached, spinning through the air with flames and hot blood. Those touched by the falling flames began to burn, screaming in agony, unable to extinguish the tormenting fires.

Thank you Mei.

A second explosion, then a third, rocked the castle. She had heard Mei talk about white fire paste before, but she had never imagined its ferocity. It was a secret weapon from a distant land.

The nearing hooves of horses clanked against the stone ground. Mei was leading six horses. She cried out something in her own language as she galloped forward, her jet-black hair whipping behind her. The soldiers cowered in shadows, immobile with fear.

Mei stopped by the Seers, and Ivanka ordered them to mount, urging them quickly towards the horses. She lifted the girl with the burned feet, then the boy, onto their mounts. They mustered what strength they had left to hang on, understanding their lives depended on it.

Mei took two small urns from a leather bag, lighting them with the tinder she held. She threw them into groups of soldiers, still hollering in her incomprehensible language.

The explosions frightened the horses. Ivanka had to fight to control them as they tossed their heads and whinnied, their eyes wide in terror.

The soldiers cowered away from the flames, backing further into the shadows. Some cried out for God to save them, while others writhed in agony, their bodies ablaze on the frozen stones.

Ivanka mounted and led the other horses and their stunned riders through main gate, which lay smashed to pieces, burning ferociously.

They rode out into the frigid blackness. She knew that in the morning, when the assault the night before had been blamed on the work of Satan, the soldiers would follow. For now, however, they were safe, provided they could cover enough distance.

They had rescued four more of their kind, and now there were six.

The Rising had begun.

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