Two days after the Inferi army has broken the first line of defense at the western entrance of Mount Orün, news comes—all passes to Mount Orün have been sealed, and nobody besides the Vedäs themselves have the right to withdraw the order that no one is allowed in or out. When the message arrives in Fiska, its residents flood the front of Taara’s cottage, demanding an explanation.

Taara, only just hearing this news herself, guarantees nothing but that she will talk to the high priest of the Regional Temple to see what the matter is, and if anything can be done about it.

She thinks that it might have to do with the invasion of the dark creatures (which are likely to spread to Fiska, since the village leads to the southern entrance of Mount Orün). What Taara does not know is the reason why the Vedäs have ordered the mountain to be sealed.

What about the rest of us on the Iron Mountains? Have the Vedäs abandoned us? Taara thinks as she pushes the gate open. The high priest is saying prayers, kneeling below a grand statue of a female Vedä in the middle of the temple. The statue is still and silent, looking at him with a tender expression as she always does.

“No reason was given for the sealing of the mountain,” the priest says without turning to Taara, before she even asks.

“Alright.” Taara frowns at his arrogance. “With such a threat looming, at least allow me to transport the villagers to a safer place.”

“The oracle demands you, as well as the whole of Fiska, to garrison the southern defense line of Mount Orün.”

Taara is taken aback by his words. “There must be some mistake. They want us, humans, to fight against the dark creatures of the Inferi? That’s suicide!”

“You wish to act against the Vedäs?”

“But there are women and chil—”

“They should feel honored to serve the Vedäs,” he says flatly and glances at Taara. “You’ve begun to question your faith, Taara. Should I be worried?”

She bites her lip. The high priest is too blind to see, but she knows the truth. Indeed, the Vedäs have taught humans many things, from agriculture to metallurgy, from medicine to magic…but humans are nothing but tools to them. The Vedäs, sitting comfortably in the Temple of Light, never care if a man works so hard that he coughs blood; they are only concerned about the quality of the weaponry the people of Fiska produce and pay as tribute. The Vedäs only protect those who obey and believe in them. As for the others, there are a million ways to convert them (or if that fails, to list them as heretics and assign them excessive work until they can no longer think).

Seeing Taara not responding, the priest presses on: “I have placed a spell around the village. Anyone who tries to leave will be marked with an identifying stigma. When the mountain is opened again, the heretics will pay.”

In the corner of her eyes, darkening flames rise and threaten to devour any sense Taara has left. Her gauntlets squeak as she clenches her fists, but the sound eventually ceases.

There is nothing she can do now.

When Taara slams the gate, she does it so hard that the ground shakes. For the first time in her life, she feels that her strength is useless. The snowstorm grows louder; it howls as white flakes lock to her eyelashes. Taara lets the snow gradually freeze her feet outside the temple, lets the cold quench her impulse of fleeing this place with her people.

“Death no matter what, huh?” a sweet voice says from behind Taara. She turns to see a woman smiling at her. There is a pair of dark wings on her back and two huge horns on her forehead. Somehow in this weather she is wearing very little, but does not seem to feel the cold.

“You’re one of the dark creatures…” Taara takes a step back and strikes a pose.

The woman chuckles. “Oh, darling, no need to tense up. I didn’t mean to overhear your conversion with that old fogey, but it seems you need some help.”

“If what you want is my life or that of my people, you are in for disappointment.”

“Oh, please,” the woman says. “I am not that kind of devil.”

Taara shows disbelief.

“I’m the kind that can offer you a third choice, a choice that will grant everyone in Fiska their lives,” she smiles the most beautiful smile at Taara, “and their freedom.”