Chapter 1. <The Border Forest (1)>
Cassandra Hattings was taking a much-needed nap inside the prison wagon when the wagon was hit by a fireball. The wagon promptly toppled over to its side, making Cassandra crash against the wall, and she dazedly took note of the savage violet flames eating into the metal structure.
“Magicians,” Cassandra said. The word was shaped like a curse in her mouth.
She looked left, then right. Her hands were still bound, and the flames were approaching quickly. Smoke filled the interior of the prison wagon, and Cassandra had no choice but to inch herself like a worm toward the backdoor of the wagon, hoping that the heavy impact had jostled the locks. At least it was easier to breathe closer to the floor—or the wall, as it were.
When she leaned against the wall to brace herself up, she could hear the yelling of the wagoneer who had escorted her thus far.
She smiled grimly.
The man was of sadistic stock and had mocked her the entire grip. He had taken joy in elaborating in gory detail what the Senecian heathens would do to her. It was ironic that he would wind up in their hands first.
She threw herself forward. Luckily, the door gave way, and Cassandra tumbled out to the dirt road.
Cassandra took a deep breath once she was free from the stifling hot air. The full moon illuminated the orange and gold foliage of the surrounding forest, but Cassandra had no time to admire the leaves. She was focused on the cloaked figure before her. The magician—and it had to be one of those horrid people, didn’t it?—loomed over the wagoneer.
“P-please spare me,” begged the wagoneer. “I can give you money, the prisoner—”
The wagoneer’s eyes flicked toward the burning prison wagon and widened as he saw Cassandra.
“There! She’s there! Take her!”
Cassandra could only take two steps away before a wind pulled her back and into the grasp of the magician. A large hand held her by the neck.
Cassandra gasped for air, and the magician let her down. Then, he turned to face the wagoneer again.
“Detestable being,” said the magician. “As if I needed any more reason to kill you.”
His words were spoken in Senecian instead of her native Ulran. It was fortunate that Cassandra had taken the elective class when she went to finishing school.1
“I don’t understand!” wailed the wagoneer.
“What do you want?” Cassandra asked the magician. “What is your goal?”
The magician tilted his head at Cassandra in interest. It was then that she saw his features for the first time: luscious silver hair, unblemished dark skin, and purple eyes the same hue as the eerie fire behind them. He would have been beautiful if he didn’t stand for everything she was against.
“This caravan is not authorized to enter Senecy,” answered the magician.
“It’s top-secret, but it has been authorized by your republic,” said Cassandra. She raised her cuffed arms to clue him in.
Luckily, he understood. “A prisoner exchange? Or are you a hostage?”
Cassandra smiled thinly before the magician opened his mouth again.
“But nonetheless, my duties are to eliminate all enemies in the Border Forest. I would rather not take my chances.”2
The magician waved his hand, and the wagoneer was dragged back from where he had tried to sneak away. Damn. Cassandra had hoped that at least one of them would make it, even if it was the good-for-nothing wagon driver.
The two knights who had accompanied them on this trip, as well as all the horses, were nowhere to be seen. There were only rumpled piles of armor and cloth and reins scattered on the ground, as if the ones wearing them had simply disappeared.
She found out what happened to them soon enough.
The magician began to chant esoteric words that were neither Ulran, Senecian, or any other language she recognized. Maybe they weren’t words at all but nature itself, given a voice. Wind wrapped around the wagoneer like a tornado, and something like steam seemed to escape from his pores. Before her eyes, the wagoneer reversed in age—a young man, entering his teenage years, childhood, a babe. He screamed, loudly and horribly. Then, there was nothing.
The forest was silent but for the owls and nighthawks, and the wagoneer’s clothes fell to the ground. A small, separate pile, just like the rest.
Cassandra could only watch in horror. Her legs refused to move, and the screaming filled her head until she couldn’t think at all.
“Now, for you.”
Her legs unfroze for an instant as she scrambled back. “Don’t come near me!” she yelled. “Witch, begone!”
The magician sighed. “Know that I take no joy from this,” he said.
He stepped closer to her and touched the tips of her long hair. It was greasy, she knew, but the magician seemed not to care as he pressed his lips to the black locks.
“A lady deserves better. I’ll try to be quick.”
Then, the chanting began anew.
It was one thing to witness the terrible wizardry. It was another to be subject to it. The tornado she had observed was suffocating her, pushing inward like a tunnel. Cassandra was being squeezed from all sides, and even worse, something was being squeezed out: her life itself.
She couldn’t breathe in, but she could scream. Her neck did not grow hoarse as it should have because it continued to reverse in time.
Then, from afar, there was a gunshot. It was a signaling shot intended to draw attention to a location rather than to hit anyone. Someone had probably noticed the flames.
It was enough to startle the magician into dropping her.
“Damn it all,” cursed the magician.
The cloaked man disappeared.
Cassandra dry-heaved on the ground, trying to process what had happened. Her own scream was ringing in her ears. She registered how her clothes pooled like lava below her legs and the handcuffs were loose around her wrists.
They didn’t fit anymore.
Her body automatically began to move, not giving her mind a chance to catch up. There was no time to be confused by what was happening. What was important was that she was alive and that she had the chance to continue being alive.
Efficiency and pragmatism had been drilled into her from childhood.
She changed into the dead—the no-longer existing?—wagoneer’s clothes, which looked less remarkable than a prisoner’s uniform. In the process, she found his knife, and she rushedly cut and folded the clothes to be a better fit.
When her hair got into her eyes, she paused. It was much too long, and even worse, it had been touched by the magician… And it’d be troublesome if her hair were to leave a trail of her presence. She hacked it off with the knife and tossed it and her old clothes into the violet flames. The acrid smell of burning hair reached her nostrils.
Cassandra finished taking care of her appearance just in time. Muddled voices approached from a distance.
Evidence erased, Cassandra ran into the woods before the soldiers of either country arrived.
1. The Benedictus School for Young Ladies, at this period in time, was the most renowned finishing school in all of Ulra. The school offered two whole language electives, which was much better than the 0.5 languages that most Ulran girls were taught: Many peasants, especially women, were unable to read. 🠘 Return
2. This may seem overly harsh, but the magician had slept nearly as poorly as Cassandra had. As such, he fell back on what he understood—the orders he had been given. It didn’t help that Cassandra looked so annoyingly smug. 🠘 Return
Thank you for taking the time to read the first chapter!