A forest stood here once, before men crossed the sea and burned it to the ground. For five long years these men lived in the shadow of the horror they had created, all of them clutched by terror at the thought of walking among the stakes that remained of the trees. For five years, the settlers lived on the edge of the withered forest. Tents were replaced with cabins as time went on. And always the shadow of the forest prevented any from entering. Life could have continued in this way, possibly forever. High towers and citadels would have replaced cabins. Walls would have been erected that hid the woods from sight.
But one day, without warning, the sky burst open over the forest, and rain fell upon the land for days. The water cleansed the trees and washed away the soot. This dark mud flowed downhill, into the makeshift town. The sludge blanketed everything, and no matter how hard the women of the town scrubbed and swept, they cold not wipe it from the earth.
The men realized that they could wait no longer. With their heavy hearts guarded against all fear, they gathered on the very edge of the forest, and, together, they began to chop the trees. Though the trees were no longer black with ash, they were sickly and dead, and they rose high above the men’s heads, pricking the sky with their tips.
The ruined wood was carted away, and those first five years stricken from history, the forest blotted from all their original maps. Few care to look for the books that tell the true story, and just as few care to wonder about the city’s name. For their shining city of white, the crown-jewel of the kingdom of men, was named Dedwood, and proved that all things, no matter how good, have their roots in evil.
Now, hundreds of years after its founding, Dedwood remains a shining capital, divided militarily, united under God. The DedGuard has defended this city since its founding, patrolling the walls and the forest beyond. For hundreds of years DedGuards have stared off into the night, for hundreds of years they have held the wall against corruption. Grim and dark, they’re seen as gargoyles, fixtures in the night, unglamorous but necessary, who do each day as they always did: wait.
The Knighthood has existed just as long, and for as many years they have marched away in order to keep war from the city’s gates. In times of peace, they are little more than glorified policemen, and glorified they are. Favored because of their attachment to the church, those who wear the red star of knighthood are considered the highest of the high, commended for their holy service and sacrifice in service of the state.
But peace has lasted too long. Even when war is but a distant memory, the DedGuards report each night for their shift upon the wall, and stare into the darkness until morning splits the sky. They lie in wait, wrap their cloaks around them in the pounding rain, squint their eyes beneath the harvest moon, walk the miles of road between Dedwood and the nearest town. The people call them obsolete, their mission foolish. Peace has come, to stay, they say, and thank God for the blessing.
Peace has lasted too long, when the knights train by day and drink by night, when they laugh and play and hoard their glory for deeds they have not done, for the victories of the past, in the years before they were even born.
Vetessa Ward is born into this, into a time when the Church is at its highest power, the line between Church and state blurred until it is entirely forgotten. When the rich are the pious, when the knights are commended for nothing and the DedGuard reviled for their loyalty, in a world where those who earn success are considered less than those who claim it was a gift from God.
Seven years after her mother’s untimely death, Vetessa is the youngest knight the Knighthood has ever seen, over a decade younger than any of the others. A woman, as skilled as any of them, who took the Test alongside them and passed with flying colors, she is resented and scorned. But that is not why they hate her, why civilians on the street turn away and pulls their children from her path. The heartless one, they call her, the faithless wrecked and ruined one, because Vetessa does not believe in God.
The Knighthood is a religious organization, elevated as much by the faith of it’s members as by their skill with a blade. But then again no one doesn’t believe in God, at least until Vetessa. She trained, she lost, she one, she broke bones alongside all the others. She fell, she rose, and bled and wept and screamed. She went home covered in dust. She battled men into the dirt. She prepared to take the Test, and Gavin Venglory went before the Kingpriest and begged him not to let her test.
Devil, he called her. Evil little demon witch. He oversaw her training, and never in all his years has he seen a child act like this.
She is nineteen, the Kingpriest said. Not a child.
She was fourteen when we started training, Gavin said. And she has always been this hard and cold and skilled. There was magic involved, he swore, but the Kingpriest let her take the Test, and she passed. Of that there was never any doubt. There was magic involved, Gavin would always swear, and of course there was, but not in the way that he suspected.
She studied in private, in secret, alone in the library. She made her second home in the highest tower, unfolding and inhaling texts that no one had touched in years. It was amazing what she could find in the places that no one wanted her to look, and look she did, digging deeper, digging darker, unlocking secret knowledge that it could never hurt to have.
They were calling her a witch for years before she was one, but her magic was a private pursuit, which cost her more than she had to gain. Her Knighthood was something else, earned through her strength and speed in the field, earned through hard work and perseverance, not from the grace of God or any secret black magic she possessed.
Now, with the taunts fading to murmurs and the angry stares to frightened looks, Vetessa thinks that they are right: she is heartless. But I was not always. This they have done to me.
But this is all before the peace is shattered by disease, which rips through their city with shattering force. This is a foe the DedGuard cannot deter, an enemy that cannot be defeated by a brave knight’s sword. Men are dying, women are dying, children and knights and religious royalty as well. The civilians pray for relief. None comes.
Now the Knighthood heads to war, Gavin at their head. They leave the plagued city undefended, but for the DedGuard they claim to scorn and Vetessa, whom they have openly called witch for years. As the Knights ride East to meet a foe that they do not know, a foe that might not even exist, Vetessa is hopeless, helpless, charged with the fate of far too many.
Even as she struggles to understand the cause of the sickness, the religious hierarchy on which the city is built begins to crumble and break apart. How can she save their army from destruction when leagues gather between them by the day? And how long can she keep herself alive, when the people she has been assigned to protect decide that she is the source of all the chaos? All she has to prove her innocence is a broken city, a body count that rises by the day and a little orphan girl who isn’t sick.
There is rebellion in the underground, corruption in the Church, loyalty within the DedGuard and resentment building there as well. There is fire in the sky, dead who walk the earth, and days and days and days when Vetessa sits and waits for word that Gavin is not dead.
Come home, she prays, and the irony is far from lost. Come home so I can punch you in the face, and then we will defend this city.
But it’s doubtless that she will see the day. A different sort of sickness has begun to consume her body now, as well as her soul. A price that she must pay for the magic flowing through her veins; her bones have begun to turn to dust.