Viviana Amaris had served on the Wizards’ Council for twenty years. An esteemed and well-respected member, she had since retired and was enjoying a peaceful life on the coast. She thought she had left her years of political involvement, leadership, and arcane study behind her, but the rumors she’d heard about Praetoria were concerning.
Apparently, not all was well on the island-turned-continent. A blight was spreading out of control. She knew Praetoria to be a hotbed of magical energy, but she was curious what exactly could cause such eldritch disturbances. Since the elders of the Wizards’ Council had gone missing, there were few who were equipped to look into the matter.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this line of work, she thought to herself.
She certainly did not move with the same spring of youth in her step. She gasped for breath as she walked up the slopes of Mount Praetorous, the Mountain of Ash, a towering volcano at the center of Praetoria. Heavy storm clouds hung overhead, and a stiff wind whipped at her layered purple robes and the dreadlocks bound behind her head. She could smell rain on the air. Despite the physical exertion, it was still nice to get away from the city.
A month ago, Viviana had left by the port of Anenon on Azmare, and she found the open sea suited her well. The sun had warmed her dark skin, and the endless stars at night renewed her imagination—an imagination and curiosity that had carried her far as a young mage seeking to join the Wizards’ Council. She had served faithfully, protecting the Splinterlands, responding to arcane threats, and mentoring the new generation of mage leaders.
But she was an older woman now, and this new generation often dismissed her ideas as too traditional and not with “the current times.” Perhaps they were right. But her age had its advantages, after all. Now, she was free to travel as she pleased on her own authority.
And that was what brought her to Praetoria.
But when she had arrived through the Northern Bay, she’d learned more details about this blight, and it troubled her. An unexplained plague that was running through villages. Stories of people vanishing, communications with towns cutting off... and a man. A man in black, wearing a raven’s mask and using a walking stick that was topped with a skull. He was known only as Doctor Blight.
Viviana had spoken to townspeople and villagers before venturing off on her own toward the Mountain of Ash. The volcano was a powerful nexus of ley lines, and it was her first point of interest in determining what was happening.
She was now almost at its summit. She leaned heavily on her staff as she walked. She had carried it since graduating from her university. Five feet tall, it was made of smooth, dark wood, its curved top elegantly forming a circular design covered in softly-glowing arcane runes. The symbols glowed a soft blue, pulling mana from the air to lend her the necessary strength and endurance. It was her conduit of magic and a focus for her spells.
The wind picked up, and with it, a light rain began to fall. It was cold, but Viviana ignored it. She was close enough to the top now to see the great crater and the red glow that emanated from within it. She made her way to the edge and peered over it, squinting into the light.
To the untrained eye, nothing would seem amiss. But Viviana could see a network of arcane wards ringing the vent. They glimmered slightly with enchantments. But there was something wrong. Someone—or something—had tampered with them. Not all the wards were intact.
From behind her, a laugh rang out, echoing like a breeze that rattled tree branches, and a voice behind her crooned, “You are a long way from home, mage!”
Viviana gave a start, then turned slowly, chin held high. Despite her surprise, she was not afraid.
Stalking toward her was a man dressed in black. One gloved hand gripped a skull-topped walking stick, and a wide-brimmed hat shaded his raven-masked face. He teetered as he walked, as if unable to fully control his body. And as he staggered in a zig-zag toward her, green magic seeped from his clothes and mask. The grass at his feet, wet from the rain, withered and died.
“Doctor Blight,” Viviana said. “I’ve heard tales about you.”
He laughed again. “Have you? What do you know? What do you know?”
“That everywhere you go, blight follows. That whenever a plague reaches a village, you’re seen leaving it.”
“The board is set, yes it is! And I am a piece. A little piece. One of many!”
Viviana narrowed her eyes. The circle of death around his feet gradually spread, the greenery wilting and shriveling. It was a strange magic. Something she had never seen before.
“If you are only a piece,” she said, “then who is the player?”
His crazed, erratic movements came to an abrupt halt. He slowly straightened, a shadow even darker than the surrounding night. The voice that issued from his mask was deep, echoing, and almost demonic.
Viviana searched her memory. Endless hours in libraries, listening to lectures, and discourse with leaders across the Splinterlands. But that name, the Voice, was not familiar.
“Who’s voice?” she asked. “Who would cause such death?”
Doctor Blight laughed again and flung his arms out as he spun around. “Our leader! The leader of a legion that brings chaos. The Voice. He CALLED to me. He MADE me.”
The man was mad. Whatever sanity he had once possessed had been shattered. But he could still be dangerous, sane or not. “A legion of chaos? And what does he intend to do when he comes here?”
“Exactly what he’s done with all the other worlds. Conquer and control.”
A knot settled in Viviana’s stomach. This was worse than she had imagined. If she were to believe Doctor Blight, not only was Praetoria suffering, but it had caught the attention of someone with immense power.
She knew what must be done.
Viviana clutched her staff tightly and squared her shoulders. “You’ll come with me and tell me everything. It will go much easier if you cooperate. For if you don’t,” her gaze hardened, “I will not hesitate to take you by force.”
Doctor Blight waved a hand in a lazy gesture, shoulders hunched, and green, smoky magic rolled out from under his glove. “Try then, mage. Just try.”
A strong wind flung Viviana’s purple cloak out behind her. She glared. Doctor Blight’s long coat rippled around his legs. The two faced off, sizing one another up.
Then Viviana whirled her staff with a shout, and a jagged line of rocks ripped up from the ground and toward the Doctor. He brought his hand up, and a stream of black-green energy sliced out like a blade and split her rocks in two.
He wasted no time, spinning his own staff and sending a burst of strange, chaotic energy at her. She slammed her staff into the dirt. A wall of rock erupted in front of her. The concussive force of his magic hit her shield, and it shook the ground around her. Her earthen shield held, but his deathly magic slowly ate through it, corroding its very essence.
With a cry, Viviana spun aside, and his magic crushed her shield. She then turned in another attack as the wind and rain lashed around them.
She was not sure how long they fought. Minutes? Hours? The slopes of the Mountain of Ash were alight with their magic as they battled. He moved with a strange, erratic energy, as if someone else was pulling the strings, and he was only the puppet. She called upon the earth to aid her—shaking the ground, launching boulders, and raising shields to protect her. His magic was death itself, eating everything around it. Her stomach cramped and heaved, and dizziness took hold. He was simply wrong.
They were destroying the surrounding mountainside. Her magic ripped the ground apart like an earthquake, and he killed everything around him. The grass was all dead now. Even the trees were withering and shedding their leaves. Soon, there was no more life around Viviana Amaris. There was only death.
A spectral dagger sliced across Viviana’s arm, drawing blood. She hissed in pain and stumbled backwards. She knew she was dangerously close to the edge of the volcano’s crater. Its heat beat against her sweat-soaked back. Breathing hard, she didn’t dare take her gaze off Doctor Blight.
He was also hunched over, panting. His clothes were cut, but where there should have been blood, instead green smoke drifted from his wounds. Despite the mask hiding his face, she could feel the manic grin behind it. She knew this man would happily die in service of the Voice.
The Doctor laughed. “There will be no dawn when the Legion of Chaos arrives! Only Darkness.”
Viviana breathed raggedly. “That darkness will have to go through me. I am a protector of these lands.”
He raised his staff and twisted a hand, and an eruption of necrotic magic barreled toward her. It ripped through the air, seeming to disrupt the fabric of reality itself. Viviana slammed her own staff into the earth, raising a wall of rock and mud.
But the blight that seeped from this Doctor had weakened her, sucking the very essence of her life and draining her strength and vitality. When his magic collided with hers, she could not hold the spell.
Her shield imploded, the rock and the mud slamming into her. Her staff slipped from her grasp as she flew backward, over the edge of the crater and into the maw of the Mountain of Ash.
A window of sky. A glimpse of stars. The heat grew stronger as it rushed up to meet her. The last thing Viviana Amaris saw was Doctor Blight’s silhouette as he staggered up to the crater’s lip to watch her fall.
Then her world was consumed by fire.
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