At the southern edge of a moonlit city, a woman stood over an open grave. The blue edge of a tower’s long shadow sliced across the ground beside her feet and the grave yawned like an open throat, its headstone cracked in two, leaving only a broken piece of stone to mark the place where the dead still lay.
The lamp in her hand was hooded against the wind, and the ruby beads sewn along her dress sleeves shone and sparkled in its light. Shovelfuls of earth arched up through the air and she leaned out further, watching her companion slice into the ground, clearing the way to the coffin she knew would be waiting deep down in the dark.
‘Faster,’ she commanded.
The man obeyed, muddying his black robes as he worked.
A few late carriages rattled along a road in the distance but they were too far away to see anything but the lantern’s tiny light, and when the sharp crack of metal striking wood sounded through the night, only the woman could sense the spirits of the dead that gathered close around their digging place.
‘Open it,’ she said.
The man knelt down to clear the last patch of earth from the coffin’s face, then he snatched his hands back and stared down in horror. ‘I don’t think ya wanna do that,’ he said. ‘Take a look at this.’
He moved back, letting the lantern light spread all the way down to where a large symbol was burned deeply into the wood. It was a perfect circle, almost as wide as the coffin itself, and scorched into the very centre of it was a large snowflake, burned down to a finger’s width deep.
‘That is the mark of the Winters family,’ said the woman. ‘We are close. Now, open it!’
She glared at Kalen when he hesitated. The dead were close by - that mark meant that the coffin was protected by more than the eye could see - but she had waited too long for this moment to turn back now. ‘I have no time for superstition, Kalen,’ she said. ‘Get out of my way.’
‘My lady?’
The man clambered up on to the ground as the woman lowered herself into the grave, staining her dress with streaks of grass and moss. She did not care. She lifted the spade and smashed it straight into the centre of the symbol, releasing an invisible energy that spread out across the ground, making the hairs on Kalen’s neck bristle and forcing the spirits that had gathered around them to retreat at once.
Kalen stood warily over the hole as the lid of the coffin crunched and split beneath his mistress’s hands. The ruby beads on her sleeves alone could buy her ten teams of carriage horses, but she dropped to her knees and reached down into the dark void she had uncovered, scraping them carelessly against the broken wood and snapping them from their threads as if they were made of glass. The grave was old, the coffin lined with yellowing bones, and in the very centre - where it had remained for more than a hundred years - was the object the woman had come to find.
She slid it out into the open air: a small black box barely ten inches wide, made from gnarled wood and sealed with a silver clasp.
‘Give me your dagger,’ she said.
The clasp snapped easily with a twist of the blade and beneath the lid, which creaked and split when she lifted it, was a small leather-bound book.
The woman snatched it up, desperate to possess it at last, and inspected the edges of its discoloured pages as if they were the last ones left in the world. It was small, but the pages were packed tight - as thick as a fist - and folded inside its cover was an ancient document bearing a warning that had been ignored many times. There, in the hands of its discoverer, it was about to be ignored again.
Kalen held out a hand to help her climb out of the grave, where she read its words with eager eyes.
The ways of Wintercraft are not for the careless, the arrogant, nor the unwise.
You hold now a book of instructions which, if followed, shall allow the fearless mind to go beyond the boundaries of this world and step without restraint into the mysteries of another.
Keep it safe. Keep it secret. And follow its words with care. This path is more dangerous than you can know.
The woman smiled. After years of searching, she had found it. She opened the book to the first page, where a further warning was written in sharp black ink.
Those Who Wish To See The Dark,
Be Ready To Pay Your Price.
She nodded slowly, as if the book had spoken those thirteen words out loud. Whatever price was required, she would pay it gladly.
Kalen looked around warily as the woman ran her fingers along the title on the front of the book, its silver-leafed letters glinting in the moonlight.
‘This is only the beginning,’ she said.