The last gasp of a dying man whispered to Nadia as she slept. You're asleep, she told herself grumpily. But there were other half-remembered noises too—creaking wooden planks, the thud of heavy boots, and then a metallic clink. Like a hammer striking an anvil in the distance. Over and over. Clink... clink... clink.
Nadia sat up, brushing strands of her long hair away from her face. It was dark except for a few stubborn embers glowing in the fireplace across the room. A chill breeze seeped between the shutters and rustled the ivy leaves growing on the trellis outside her third-story window. Clink... clink... It's not the blacksmith's anvil, she chided herself. Not in the middle of the night. Besides, the noise was moving down the corridor toward her door.
She slipped out of bed, wincing as she jostled her wounded hand against the bed frame. She and her uncle—the infamous Master Bey—had destroyed a nest of devils on the border with Stensia two days earlier. Devils were small, but brutishly mean, and she'd taken a stout beating during the fight. She didn't mind. Pain was an expected part of both the training and the holy fight against darkness. But her uncle's disapproval was far worse than any injury. Can you justify your actions, Miss Bey? Crossbolts are ineffective at close range. Wards! Speak with faith, child, and Avacyn will protect you!
The noise had ceased, and Nadia relaxed her shoulders. It was nothing, of course. She was on the top floor of Bey Manor, surrounded by high walls and solid magic. Many would pay a handsome price for the safety she enjoyed. In the past, strong wards said in the name of the Archangel Avacyn could keep a lonely cottage safe even in the wilds of Kessig. But something had changed in the world. Even those lucky enough to live in walled villages were in constant fear of vampire attacks and marauding werewolves.
Whispers of doubt were growing louder among the people of Innistrad. When Nadia walked down to Gatstaf Village with her dog, Kasten, the Discontents spoke within earshot of her, casting sidelong looks in her direction. As if she was a conduit for her uncle. As if he was a direct conduit to the Angels. Their lack of faith frightened her. No, it was more complicated than that. Something was different, that was painfully clear. That she understood the villager's doubts frightened her most of all.
She whistled quietly for Kasten, who was sleeping at the foot of her bed. Nothing. Frowning, she whistled louder. But there was no rustle of the hound responding to its master's call. Kasten was not there. Nadia froze. Kasten was always at her side. The door was closed. He couldn't have slipped out on his own—not that he would have left her anyway. She had rescued him as a puppy from an open grave on the outskirts of a port town in Nephalia. He'd been with her every day since and would follow her into a breach of hell, if necessary.
A scratching on the roof above her head tore her eyes away from the door. It was a sound like leafless branches clawing against the roof, but there were no trees tall enough to reach the roof of the manor house. Nadia reached for her dagger on the bedside table. Her hand felt nothing—the table was bare. She had laid it there, as she always did before she went to sleep. So someone had been inside her room. And now someone was outside her door. Raspy breathing seeped through the crack on the door. Clink... clink... clink. Like a man with a metal finger demanding entrance. And Nadia alone was there to answer.
Shingles screeched as an unseen adversary tore at the roof above her head. The clink became a pounding and the door handle twisted violently, but the door mercifully remained closed. Nadia jumped to her feet as the window shutters slammed open with such force that a hinge ripped from the frame. The ghoul that appeared at the window was small and hunched, a desiccated hull of sinew and exposed, blackened bone. Nadia leapt across the room, kicking it in the head before it could drag itself into the room. Its brittle skull splintered, and it reeled backward and tumbled to the ground below. Nadia could hear the planks of the trellis cracking as another attacker climbed up toward her window.
With bits of timber raining down on her head from the assault to the roof, Nadia dove for the weapon chest under her bed. Yanking at the heavy wooden chest, she glanced worriedly at the door, which was still intact although undergoing substantial damage from whatever abomination was trying to demolish it. Funny that, Nadia thought grimly. Her door didn't have a lock. She fumbled with the latch of her chest, which she could open in the dark and blindfolded if necessary. But her hand hit something cold. A silver padlock.
The padlock. Her dagger. Kasten. Nadia's frantic thoughts didn't want to assemble the pieces. But the logic was all too obvious. Master Bey. Her uncle had set this up. With that realization, it felt like all the air was sucked out of the room. Was this a punishment for her failures with the Stensia devils? Anger and shame jerked her back to the dusty, dangerous present. Either way, she had to survive.
A larger ghoul crashed through the window, its misshapen shoulders splintering the frame as it lurched toward her. The sight of it made Nadia shudder with disgust. One of its eyes was missing, and black crud oozed from the socket. Filth crusted the patchy pits in what remained of its skin. A stinking army uniform hung in tatters on its gnarled torso. This fiend had once been a cathar, a soldier of the Avacynian Church. Her uncle said pity and revulsion were useless, but she couldn't help it.
With unexpected speed, Dead Cathar yanked off the loose shutter and swung it at her head. Nadia flipped backwards onto her bed, grabbing the edge of her quilt and sweeping it up with her. Uncle may be right, she thought, but did he have to lock my door from the outside? Dead Cathar swung wildly, missing her by a large margin. Nadia sprang off the bed and tackled the zombie, her slender frame just barely enough to upend it. The quilt hindered its flailing limbs—and kept that disgusting skin-crud off of her.
"There is no time for vanity in a contest between good and evil," her uncle chided her in her head.
"It's not vanity! I just don't want skin-rot!" she stormed aloud, almost drowning out the sound of the board squealing above her head. Not shingles this time—it was the actual roof. They'd succeeded in making a ghoul-sized hole. Demons take them, she muttered, rolling off Dead Cathar just in time to avoid an undead girl in a bloody gown dropping down from the roof. It landed on the dead cathar with a satisfying crack, hopefully shattering its skull. Headless undead were easy enough to kill. But first she had she had to destroy the girl, which came equipped with blades stitched to the stubs of her fingers. Ugh, a skaab. Specially made by alchemists, skaabs were much worse than ordinary corpses raised by ghoulcallers. Her uncle insisted that was nonsense. But Nadia was sure that they were smarter, meaner, and a little bit faster.
She dodged a swipe from Stitched Girl and rolled toward the fireplace. A fireplace poker would have been quite handy, but even those tools were missing. Why, uncle, why?
"You rely too much on your martial skills," his voice echoed in her head. "Sometimes spells are the only way. Faith, not flesh, Miss Nadia."
Nadia wanted to scream. In moments like this, not a single spell would come to mind. All she could think of was scooping up the hot coals and flinging them into Stitched Girl's face. It wasn't that she'd hadn't studied the Avacynian wards. Oh, she studied them endlessly. But reciting the words while safe in a library was one thing. Now, down on the cold floor with a handful of ember and ashes, it was quite another.
The embers struck the skaab's eyes. Its unnatural shriek made Nadia clutch at her own ears while the embers tumbled down the Stitched Girl's bodice and caught the torn silk on fire. With its stringy hair smoking, Stitched Girl stared down at its smoking clothes with mindless calm—and then erupted into flames. Serves you right if your little lesson burns down the manor, Uncle. Nadia scrambled to her feet, searching for something to put the blaze out.
Suddenly, Stitched Girl charged headlong into the wall and crumpled in heap of flaming cloth and burned flesh. Nadia stumbled toward the wardrobe, where her cloak still hung. She felt something heavy in the pocket. A flask of holy water. So, Master Bey missed something.
But by itself, the water wouldn't be enough. She'd have to evoke Avacyn. Coughing on smoke, she gripped the flask like she was trying to shatter it in her fist. Ward. Think of a ward. Nadia stamped on the edge of the smoldering quilt as the flask warmed in her hand and light streamed out from between her fingers. Yanking out the cork, she splashed the water in an arc across the room. She felt a rush of wind, as if Avacyn's wings were beating the air itself. Thankfully, the flames shrank and blinked out. What would the faithless villager say about that?
Even before the flames fizzled, Nadia grabbed the nightstand and bashed the pitiful skaab repeatedly until it stumbled toward the window. Too brittle and burned to fight, Stitched Girl let itself be steered to the window frame, where it tumbled into the darkness without a fight. At Nadia's feet, the cathar writhed ineffectually under the blanket. There was no movement near the hole in the roof. No sounds coming from the trellis. No noise at all but the whistling of the wind.
Nadia leaned against the wall, trying to catch her breath, her eyes zeroing in on the splintered door. Where did that one go? In answer to her question, the door crashed to pieces under the weight of a massive skaab, its head protruding out of its chest, its bulging shoulders almost reaching the ceiling. Stitched together with jagged loops of metal, it was the largest skaab she had ever seen. And fear got the better of her.
She gaped up at her attacker like a frightened child who knew nothing of the world. The skaab picked her up by her throat and flung her into the wall. The impact had knocked the air out of her, and Nadia panicked. It felt like she was drowning. She struggled to her feet, but the skaab loomed above her, choking the life out of her, crushing her throat between its cold fingers.
To die at the hands of a skaab was the worst shame. Her father had died to a werewolf in the field near their house. He'd died fighting with an axe in his hand. Her brother had killed the vampire that killed her mother before dying of his wounds. Was she to die like this? A pathetic rag doll without the strength to fight?
"It's too late for wards, Miss Bey," her uncle's voice rang in her head. Clawing desperately at the skaab's meaty paws, she managed to work two fingers between its hands and her throat, buying her a few seconds of life. A holy spell was the last weapon she had. Nadia closed her eyes, blocking out the deformed body, the necrotic stench, and the shame of being helpless against a stronger foe.
Maybe if she understood how spells worked they might be easier, but it was all instinct. Magic is a bond between the earth and your soul. Or so her uncle said. So she struggled to remember her parent's farm with its fields of golden barley. The field where her father's blood had soaked into the earth. The moment she gave in to memory, energy pulsed through her body and seared her would-be murderer. The skaab roared in pain and jerked away. It stumbled back, but the spell consumed it. Nadia slumped on the ground as Avacyn's light killed it from the inside out, breaking through the gaps in its skin, obliterating the meat of its chest, and turning its stolen bones to grit on the floor.
Her uncle appeared grim faced in the ruined doorway, surveying the wreckage of her charred room. He stepped aside to let a frantic Kasten rush to her side. Both hound and master glared at Master Bey, who was not moved by their anger in the least.
"Stand up, Miss Bey," he said gruffly. He motioned two of his men inside the room. "Jorgson, please load any corpses in the wagon."
Painfully, Nadia stood up, steadying herself on Kasten's sturdy neck.
"A messenger from Thraben arrived," he told her. "There's a situation in Thraben. We leave in an hour."
"No. Help Jorgson take the bodies to the gravesite and give them a proper burial."
Master Bey headed for the door. At the threshold, he stopped and looked back at his niece. "Did I make my point clear, Miss Nadia?"
He turned away. "You did well."
Nadia smiled at the empty doorway. His praise was as uncommon as sunlight. I'll enjoy it while it lasts. She whistled for Kasten and went to honor the dead.