the world was an inferno. Thick smoke. Ash. Blistering heat. Vhalla dashed between shadowed figures. Faster and faster, she ran through the night, from one horrific scene to the next, as though she was running toward the end of the world itself. The dark, faceless people began to close in around her, hindering her, smothering her. Tears already stained her cheeks when she reached out a hand to push away the first. The apparition gave a blood-curdling scream before being ripped apart, dissolving into wind-like smoke. Her fingertips rested upon the next—another scream. She didn’t want to go farther, but her heart drummed out a single word—faster, faster, faster. So Vhalla ran. She ran, and each shadowed apparition she came into contact with dissolved into the darkness that slowly encroached upon her. Nothing could hinder the dying cries of the shadow people, cries echoing to her very soul—not the palms pressed over her ears, not even her own screams. And suddenly, silence.
Vhalla lowered her hands slowly, peeling one eye open, and then the next. There was nothing behind her, nothing beside her; the path before her was illuminated by one last glittering flame, consuming a building that had collapsed in on itself. Pulled by an invisible force, her feet dragged one inch, then the next, toward the rubble. She was already too late. She was too late every time, every night. Vhalla began pulling the rubble aside, one large block at a time. The flames licked around her hands, but they didn’t burn her. They didn’t even feel hot. He was at the bottom, waiting for her, and Vhalla took the battered and bloody body of her dead friend into her arms, weeping until her throat was raw. “Sareem,” she sobbed into his gory shoulder.
“I promise, next time, I’ll be faster. Please, don’t wait for me.” His hands sprung to life, gripping her arms. With sudden force the man reversed their positions, slamming her down against the ground, his carcass pressing her to the cobblestone street. Half of his face was nothing more than a gory pulp that dripped blood onto her shoulder. “Vhalla,” he hissed. Part of his jaw was gone and the remaining bone moved at an awkward slant. “Why didn’t you come?” “I tried!” she cried, begging. “I’m sorry, Sareem, I’m sorry!” “You weren’t there.” The corpse of her friend leaned forward, nearly touching her face.
“You weren’t there, and I died because of you.” “I’m sorry!” Vhalla screamed. “You were with him.” His grip cut off the blood to her arms, and Vhalla’s fingers went numb. “You were with him!” He shook her. “Where is he now? Where is he now?” her childhood friend demanded, shaking her body like a ragdoll, her head slamming on the ground. Vhalla struggled against the arms holding her as they shook her again. “No, no! I tried to save you!” she sobbed. “Vhalla, wake up!” A different voice commanded, and Vhalla’s eyes shot open. Larel’s palms ran up and down Vhalla’s arms.
Her dark Western eyes were rife with concern. Vhalla blinked up at her, removing the image of her dead friend. The memory of Sareem sent her stomach heaving, and Vhalla rolled to the side of the bed, vomiting into a carefully placed bedpan. “This is the third night in a row,” said a voice from the door. The same voice she’d heard the past two nights. Vhalla looked up, wiping spittle from her chin. A sorcerer stood there, and he didn’t exactly look pleased. “Cut her some slack.” Larel was not amused. “Cut me some slack.
” The person yawned, but heeded the warning tones in Larel’s voice with one pointed glare back in Vhalla’s direction. A slamming of the door punctuated his departure. Vhalla coughed a final time, her mental and physical stability returning the longer she was out of the dream. Pulling herself into a seated position, Vhalla rubbed her palms against her eyes and blinked away the last remnants of the vision. “Vhalla,” Larel whispered softly, placing her palm on the crown of Vhalla’s head. The other woman sat on the bed and pulled Vhalla into her arms. “I’m okay. I’m fine, I’m fine,” Vhalla murmured into the soft comfort of her friend. “I’ll stay.” “No, you can’t stay every night.
” Vhalla shook her head, but didn’t shrug off the soothing palm stroking her tangled mess of brown hair. “Who says?” The woman assumed her position between Vhalla and the wall. It was cramped with the two of them, but Vhalla was too exhausted to object. They lay facing each other, hands held tightly. Vhalla squinted in the darkness, using the faint light of the moon to make out Larel’s face. The other woman stared back. As a Firebearer, Larel could summon a flame with a thought and give them light, but she didn’t. “Larel,” Vhalla whimpered softly. “You should get some sleep.” Larel knew of Vhalla’s imminent collapse just by the tone of her voice.
“Tomorrow’s the last day.” After the dream, her emotions were like an avalanche rushing toward the edge of a cliff. Vhalla was hopeless to do anything other than ride it out. She’d been hopeless at everything since her trial five days ago. “It is, and Major Reale will only work you harder.” Larel’s voice was an extension of her resolve, as immovable as a mountain. She was the only grounding rock Vhalla had left. “What’s the point?” Vhalla whispered through quivering lips. “I’m dead the moment we see real combat.” Originally, Vhalla had fantasized about what she would meet in the North—the war-torn land where she was commanded to march as a conscripted soldier of the Empire.
But dreams and guilt had worn at her resolve until only a husk remained. “You are not,” Larel insisted. “I can barely do anything!” Her voice was pathetic, even to her own ears. But Vhalla was beyond caring. She’d summoned a false strength to make it through her trial, but it was gone now. “Hush,” Larel ordered. The matter was no longer up for discussion. “You must sleep.” Vhalla pressed her lips together. “Will you wake me?” she asked finally.
“I will,” Larel responded, as she did every night. “I don’t know how I’ll sleep without you on the march,” Vhalla murmured softly. “Don’t worry about that now, just rest.” Larel kissed Vhalla’s knuckles softly, and Vhalla finally relented, closing her eyes. Sleep was short, but it happened. Larel only woke Vhalla once more. It was an improvement from the previous four nights. In the daylight Larel had the courtesy not to say anything about Vhalla’s night terrors. With the arrival of dawn, she departed Vhalla’s room quietly, leaving the Eastern woman to dress and prepare for the day. Vhalla’s whole body felt stiff and sore, which made dressing take twice as long as normal.
She rolled her shoulders and tilted her head from side to side as she shrugged on her black robe. Her reflection caught her attention: dark brown eyes flecked with gold were set upon a gaunt face and accentuated by dark circles. Even the usual Eastern tan of her skin had turned ashen. Vhalla raised a hand to her short hair, remembering the afternoon following her verdict when she’d cut it all off. “I hate it,” Vhalla declared, not sure if she was speaking to her hair or her reflection as a whole. Her feet carried her against the stream of people heading toward the kitchens. She wasn’t hungry. Vhalla didn’t think she’d manage a bite today. She had one day left before she’d march away from everything she had ever known. Her normally small appetite had shriveled to a rock hard pit.
She entered the training rooms of the Tower, which encompassed the center of an entire level. The circular room was lined with a low outer wall that acted as a barrier for spectators and waiting trainees. A woman already stood in the room behind a high desk. “Major,” Vhalla called as she entered. “Yarl.” Major Reale was a Southern woman who was built out of steel and was just as warm. A metal eyepatch had been melted directly onto her bone, covering her left eye. “You’re early.” “I can’t stay away,” Vhalla retorted with a sarcastic tone, a tone that was beginning to permanently slip between her words. Vhalla didn’t know where it came from, and she was too tired to care.
“Well, you’re not working with me today.” The major glanced up only briefly before returning to marking up the papers on the desk. “I’m not?” Vhalla didn’t know where else she’d go. She couldn’t leave the Tower per the Senate’s orders. She was still property of the crown until she saw the war in the North to its conclusion—or she died. “The minister wants to see you.” Vhalla knew a dismissal when she heard it, and Major Reale wasn’t exactly the friendliest of women to be around. With breakfast underway, the Tower hallway was empty. Most of the residents packed into the kitchens a few levels up. As she passed the mess hall, the noise washed over her, but Vhalla was too numb to hear it.
Past her room and almost at the top of the Tower was the Minister of Sorcery’s office and quarters. All other doors held a name plaque on their fronts bearing the resident’s name. But the one before her had the symbol of the Tower of Sorcerers cast in silver, a dragon curling in on itself split in two: the Broken Moon. Her eyes drifted upward. There was one more door, just visible on the curve of the sloping hallway. It was completely unmarked. And, while no one could confirm with any certainty, Vhalla could only suspect who it belonged to. She hadn’t seen or heard from her phantom in days and had no way of reaching out to him, no matter how badly her poorer judgment begged her to. Vhalla swallowed and knocked on the door in front of her before the bad idea to proceed to the next door could overcome her. “Just a moment,” a voice called from within.
The door swung open and a Southern man with short-cut blonde hair and icy blue eyes greeted her, the goatee around his mouth curling into a smile. “Vhalla, come in, come in,” Minister Victor ushered. She was welcomed into the lavish office; it was a level of wealth that she was still unaccustomed to. Plush cerulean carpet beneath her booted feet reminded her of the Imperial Library in a physically painful way. Vhalla quickly sat at one of the three chairs situated before the desk. “I was just finishing my breakfast. Are you hungry?” He motioned to a plate filled with an assortment of pastries. “No.” Vhalla shook her head, bringing her hands together and wringing her fingers. “No?” The minister cocked his head.
“You couldn’t have eaten.” “I’m not hungry.” “Now, Vhalla,” he scolded in a familial tone. “You need to keep up your strength.” She stared at the muffin in his extended hand. Her training won out, and Vhalla listened to the man above her station. She picked at it listlessly, but that seemed to be enough for the minister. “So tomorrow is the day,” he stated obviously. “It is.” Vhalla nodded.
“I’d like to go over one or two things with you, before you march.” Vhalla continued to pick at her food as he spoke. “Foremost, I want you to know that no one in the Tower harbors any ill will toward you.” Vhalla had a few bruises from Major Reale’s training that could beg to differ, but she busied her mouth with the muffin. “I have informed all of the Black Legion that you are to be kept under close watch and be defended at all times,” Victor continued. “As the first Windwalker in nearly a hundred and fifty years I’d like to see you live long enough to study in the Tower.” “Have you informed the Senate of this decision? I’m fairly certain they want me dead,” Vhalla replied numbly. “Resentment doesn’t suit you.” The minister leaned back in his chair, pressing his fingers together. “Excuse me,” Vhalla mumbled a half-hearted apology and snuck the partly eaten muffin back onto the minister’s plate.
“You need to return alive, Vhalla.” Minister Victor regarded her thoughtfully. “I need you to believe that you will be able to do this.” Vhalla didn’t know how she could be expected to keep herself alive when she could barely manage magic. Mother, she could barely manage to close her eyes for more than a few minutes without horrors haunting her. “Very well,” Vhalla feigned agreement. The minister only sighed at her response. “Will it help you if I give purpose to your days?” Minister Victor leaned forward, his elbows on his desk as though he was to impart a great secret upon her. “There is something I need . and only you, as a Windwalker, can retrieve it.
” Vhalla instinctually sat straighter. “What?” She finally asked as the words were left hovering in the air. “There is something very powerful hidden in the North. The longer it sits unattended, the greater the likelihood of it falling into the wrong hands or being used against our forces, should the Northern clans understand what they possess.” Vhalla wondered how this was supposed to help her. “What is it?” Curiosity won the war of her emotions. “It’s an ancient weapon from a different time, a time when magic was wilder and more divine.” He paused, mulling over his next words. “It is an axe that is said to be able to sever anything, even a soul.” “Why would such a thing exist?” Vhalla struggled to think of a reason.
“Well, the latest records of it read as much fact as fiction.” The minister rubbed his goatee in thought. “How are you sure it’s real?” “I have it on very good faith it is.” The minister returned to the point, “I need you to retrieve it and bring it back here.” He tapped his desk. “But if it’s so dangerous . ” Vhalla mused aloud. She felt like she was missing an important piece of information, but the minister was uninterested in imparting it to her. “As I said, we want to keep it from the wrong hands. Beyond that, it would make the wielder nearly invincible.
” Minister Victor let that hang and Vhalla was smart enough to piece together what he was trying to tell her. If the wielder was nearly invincible, and she managed to find it, then perhaps she could make it out of the North alive. “Will you help me with this, Vhalla?” She hesitated for one last, long moment. Vhalla stared into the minister’s icy blue eyes, the eyes of the man who had kidnapped her when they had first met. But they were also the eyes of a man who had harbored her, healed her, and protected her when the world was ready to tear her limb from limb. The Tower was a mysterious place, but she knew sincerity when she saw it. “Of course, minister,” Vhalla said obediently. The Tower took care of its own.