“It’s nothing but a message from Fate. A cruel and convoluted message, but one you cannot ignore.” Julian recalled these words, the last he’d received from his mother on the date of his exile. The weeks preceding had been rough, had been hell; being accused of that which you are certain is untrue is one thing: being guilty of that which you cannot fathom, of an evil you do not embrace, yet somehow practice, is humbling in a way Julian found surreal. He could not find his voice when the accusations rang in—for just what could he say? Of all those congregated at the funeral, of all those who witnessed the evil of dark, forbidden magic, none had a better view than the guilty himself: Julian. Of course he denied it, for he was no dark summoner, yet at heart he knew himself to be defeated. The exile wounded him, terrified him,but it was the layer beyond, the taint of his very soul that horrified him the most. The ruling came down; Julian was not surprised. The young man’s father was a Commission man, one of the few of the village who chose at a young age to pursue a life of financial gain over the town’s trade: magic. It was a decision that paid off from a fiscal standpoint: the Landers were, aside from the Magisters who governed the town, the most wealthy family in the village. But no amount of coin or clout could save Julian from his fate. On the day of his exile many regrets scurried around the young man’s mind, but the one that stood out ahead of the rest was the fact that his father was not present. He was an important man that, in exchange for a healthy salary, spent a great many days in Nixis’ capital. So not only could Julian not say goodbye, he could not even inform his father of the verdict and the terrible circumstances of its foundation. The gates closed at Julian’s back. Laid before him was an infinite expanse of snow, jagged rock and desolation. Even in the warmer months Julian’s tiny town suffered from cold, as it sat permanently in the shadow of Mount Eurias, a towering, jagged titan that served as one of Nixis’ most daunting peaks. And because months that should be warm were cold, the winters in this region were nightmares. Constant exposure gave its people tough skin, but none were completely impervious to it. The few proponents of Julian’s innocence used this aa a clutch: “The boy will surely freeze in the elements.” Pity reached none of the old Magisters; they remedied the suggestion of a certain death sentence by gifting the young exile a lavish coat of thick bearskin, plentiful in warmth and fur. Julian was indifferent. Die or not, the life he’d known had died the moment he’d inadvertently awoken the dead. And so the great gates of his village closed with a harrowing crash that soared over the silver landscape and echoed through the jagged corridors of rock that lay ahead. Julian, the oversized hood of the gift coat shrouding his face, did not delay. Although he had never ventured especially far from the village, he was not ignorant of direction. If he traveled southwest, a descent known for treacheries both living and landscape, Julian would reach Nixis’ capital. He knew for now, to keep his sanity and drive, he’d need a smalltime goal, and so he’d decided, or rather he’d been ordered by his mother, to seek out his father. He moved swiftly down the trade road, a route that in the spring was easily definable by the permanent scarring of horse-drawn carts and carriages. After two hours of travel, a light snow began. He didn’t worry. The third hour brought the woes of a darkening sky and the hungry howls of wolves. It was the first time since his venture began that Julian felt anxious. His stomach eased when, after a sharp descent along several curvy bends in the route, Julian spotted a stately cottage in the distance. Because of its size and the great number of mounts tied-up in the stalls on the side of the structure, Julian figured it to be a tavern or rest stop. It took less than twenty minutes to reach the tavern’s exterior. The wooden sign dangling from a post out front read, Agatha’s Stop; below the neat script was an insignia of two crossing sabers. Julian thought little of it. He knew the dangers of this new world, of being a wielder of forbidden magics. If all he had to brave were a few drunken roughians, he’d consider himself lucky. If he were to encounter a magic user on the other hand, one that was talented and sensitive to the arts, such as himself, and especially one in service of The Empire, he figured his journey would be coming to an end before it truly even began. But he hadn’t time to worry about the unknown. Julian slithered through the broad wooden door and did not stop to survey the crowd. The interior was filled with squabbling voices, both rough, calm, old and young. Although the space was fairly large, and although he’d yet to take a thorough look, Julian knew the place was hardly packed. He approached the long bar counter, took a seat and flipped off his hood. Julian Landers was a sharp-faced young man with shockingly bright blonde hair that slashed around his head like platinum daggers. When he was young it was hardly so bright, but as the years advanced and he became more and more reliant upon magic, his hair brightened. As it looked now, it was nearly white, but perhaps the snow had contributed. His eyes were slender and intelligent and vacuous, decently lashed and a strange mix-up of muddy greens and browns. When asked, he called them hazel. Finally seated, finally comfortable, he scanned the crowd because his stomach was tight—he couldn’t quite pinpoint it, and it may have been nothing more than a physical manifestation of his fears, but Julian felt magic in this tavern. Finding it wasn’t really his concern: it finding him was.