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Ward Against Darkness
Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer
By Melanie Card, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Melanie Card
All rights reserved.
Ward scrambled behind the tree trunk and crouched beside Celia, who somehow blended into the hazy moonlight and shadows with her pale skin and black hair. It had to be her assassin training, but he couldn't help wonder if her state of unlife also had something to do with it.
Except, he wasn't completely sure what exactly her state of unlife was. When he'd first met her only a few weeks ago, she'd been dead, and he'd cast a Jam de'U, which had brought her soul back, making her body think it was, more or less, alive again. She didn't look dead. The livor mortis was gone, her hair had a healthy sheen, her skin still held a pink hue. If he hadn't known the truth, he would have thought she was alive.
Except, she wasn't.
"Do you think we've lost them?" he asked. It was a futile wish, but maybe, just maybe, they had escaped their pursuers.
She snorted. "I doubt it."
The cold mountain air, heavy with moisture from the last few days of summer downpour and pungent with pine, burned his lungs, and he struggled to catch his breath. It was just one more pain to add to the list, along with his aching body and the half- healed hole in his throbbing left arm.
They hadn't even had a day's reprieve from trouble. But it seemed the Goddess and her two Sons had something more in mind. Of course the Goddess and the Light Son had nothing to do with his bad luck. It was all the Dark Son's doing—the vengeful, fickle, cruel, passionate god who played with the fates of mankind.
From the moment they'd left Brawenal City a week ago, the Gentilica—the source of most crime within the Union of Principalities—had sent bounty hunters after them. All because they'd been involved in the murder of the Dominus—the leader of the Gentilica and Celia's father. They hadn't been responsible—the man now in charge had been—they just made easy targets for the blame.
They'd been running ever since. Even avoiding roads and traveling through the forest covering the northwest side of the Red Mountains hadn't been enough to hide their trail.
All Ward wanted was something normal. He was a normal man, maybe a little clumsy. But a scholar and a physician, even a necromancer, didn't need to be quick on his feet. Books couldn't kill you. At least, he hadn't thought they could until he'd met Celia Carlyle.
A crossbow bolt slammed into the trunk inches above Ward's head. He jerked down and swallowed back a yelp, squeezing the hilt of his dagger to ensure he still held it.
Celia growled a curse. "We're running out of options."
More like they were running out of running. Their supplies had run out yesterday morning, and if they didn't lose the bounty hunters soon, they'd starve—and as a trained physician, he knew too well how painful death by starvation could be.
Another bolt flew by, whizzing through the leaves above his head and showering him with water. His heart raced faster.
Celia leaned close, her warm breath washing over his neck.
If she were any closer, her lips would brush his cheek.
So close, and yet impossibly far away. She was dead, he was alive ... for now. Up until now, he'd managed to avoid talking about anything that had happened to them—particularly, their kiss in the cavern in Brawenal City. Besides, he wasn't even sure they were friends.
"Still looks like the eight I counted yesterday. Where are those other two?" she whispered.
A bulky man lunged out of the thick underbrush, swinging a heavy sword. Ward lurched out of the way, catching his heel on a root, and tumbled onto his sore arm. Fire swept over his shoulder and up his neck. Mud squished between his fingers, and dead leaves clung to his wet clothes. He scrambled to his feet and held out the dagger.
Another man, his white shirt soaked and stained, rushed at them, while two more men followed close behind. They crashed out of the scrub without bothering to keep their movements silent.
One of the men jabbed at Ward. He hopped back, pointing his dagger at the man's face. The tip shook, and Ward clamped his other hand on top of the first. His assailant jabbed again, forcing him back against a tree. Someone yelled, the tone too deep to be Celia. Metal clanged against metal. Moonlight flashed on steel.
Something moved at the edge of Ward's sight. Shadow swooping through shadow. He dropped to his knees. A blade passed over his head with a whoosh. Celia shoved her opponent into the man in front of Ward, and they tumbled to the ground.
"Come on," Celia said.
She parried a swing from yet another thug. Ward didn't bother asking where she'd gotten her sword. She'd probably done something amazing to steal it from one of the men on the ground.
More men barreled toward them. They had to keep running. Ward pushed away from the tree, his feet slipping on the wet leaves and mud. His rucksack pounded against his hip, his illegal book on surgery and equally illegal case of surgical implements a weight pulling not just on his body, but his soul, as well.
Of course, it hadn't been surgery that had gotten him into this mess, but necromancy.
It had been his only career option after getting kicked out of the physician's academy, and his first job, to wake Celia, had turned his life upside down and set it on fire for good measure.
The trees opened up, and beyond lay the hint of black sky dotted with stars. But the sky, framed by gray clouds, was too low. It lay in front of him, not just above him. With a jolt, a single word formed on the tip of his tongue.
The sky meant a cliff.
He skidded to a halt, smashing into a jagged stone outcrop. Pain shot up his leg, and he bit back another cry. Celia slammed into his back. He stumbled forward, grasping at the outcrop and teetering on the edge.
Far below, water rushed gray and frothy, spilling over its banks, swollen from the days and nights of summer downpour. The cliff face was sheer. Not much hope for finding handholds to climb down, even if it weren't slippery with rainfall. And they'd be exposed during the descent. Easy targets for the bounty hunters and their arrows.
He turned to Celia. She was already scanning the area but hadn't dragged him in a different direction because there were no other paths—they'd run through a break in the rock wall hidden by shadows and thick pines onto a wide ledge. Steep granite towered above them. Not even a bush or scrubby tree clung to its side. They could try going up, but faced the same problem either way: target practice.
There was no place to go.
She grabbed his arm. "Cast something."
"What?" The last time he'd tried to use necromancy to stop someone, nothing had happened.
"There's no other option. Cast something." She lengthened her stance and held her sword ready. "I can hold them off for a little while."
"I can't." Just because he wanted something didn't make it possible. He wanted to go to Gyja, have another kiss with Celia, live a long life, and myriad other things the Dark Son was denying him.
"Try," she said with a growl.
Three thugs stormed through the break, swords drawn. In the moonlight, they looked like demons, with pale faces and wild eyes. Their shirts clung to well-muscled bodies, their wet hair hung limp about their faces. Ward's heart thudded against still painfully bruised ribs. He drew a breath. For what? He didn't know—to cry, fight, beg, or cast a reverse wake that would never work. There was no way he'd be able to shove the men's souls from their bodies. But Celia was going to die ... again ... and he along with her.
The closest man swung at Celia's head. She blocked the strike, dropping to one knee from the force of the blow.
Goddess, their options were death or the impossible.
She shoved her assailant's sword to the side and kicked him in the gut. He stumbled back, but another man rushed into his place with the third man at his side and two more crowding behind. There were too many. The only place to go was over the cliff.
Of course. The cliff.
They might not survive the fall, but they wouldn't survive at all if they stayed.
Ward seized the back of Celia's shirt and leapt. She slammed into him. The demon men, the rock face, the pines, and the scrubby bushes fell away. All that remained was him with Celia cradled against his chest immersed in rushing air.
For a moment, just a heartbeat, the heat from her body warmed him. He had his arms around her, his cheek close to hers. He was in control, his life wasn't a complete disaster, and—
They hit the water with a crack. Air burst from his lungs. Cold brown froth engulfed him. Celia slipped from his grasp, and the water tossed him end-over-end. He thrashed against it, desperate to escape the depths. His chest burned, and he couldn't hold his breath much longer.
He kicked up and broke the surface, gasping for air and struggling to get his bearings. A wave washed over him, spinning him around. He kicked up again, blinking silty water from his eyes.
The bank rushed past, a blur of uneven shadows, mounds of rock, shrubs, and trees. A flash of something pale caught his eye downstream. He thrashed toward it, praying it was Celia.
Another wave swept over him, and the pale object disappeared. The water surged, dark and fierce. Something shot into the air. A hand. It had to be Celia.
With renewed energy, he swam toward her. Her head bobbed, and she looked around. She seemed calm, but her eyes were wide, as if she were taking in everything with a glance. Their gazes met as a wave pushed him under.
He surfaced. They were closer. If he could get to her, they might just survive. He reached out, straining. Their fingers brushed.
Just a little farther.
Their fingers touched again, and he slammed against something. Pain shot up the right side of his body and across his head. The bank twisted, and the current pulled him under. When he broke through the surface, Celia wasn't in sight. Only froth, shadows, and rushing water surrounded him.
A low hanging branch grazed the top of his head. He seized it, but the current ripped it from his hand and threw him into a rock. A sharp edge scraped his ribs. He gasped, sucking in more water than air. Coughing, he hit something else and clawed at it, digging his fingers into its hard surface and hauling himself onto the bank.
All his muscles burned. All the old aches and pains from his week in Brawenal, still half-healed, shook him. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to calm his racing heart. If he could rest for just a moment.
Someone yelled nearby. He struggled to raise his head, but it was too heavy. His left arm pulsed with what could only be an infection. If he didn't do something soon, it could claim his arm, or worse, his life. And if he didn't get up and run, the bounty hunters would kill him before his arm did.
Was normal just too much to ask for?
He staggered to his feet, and the mountain meadow around him whirled. Pain shot through his temple, and he struggled to keep his balance. He sucked in a slow breath but it didn't steady him, and the warm breeze rippling the tall grass did little to make the ground level.
The grass, broken only by a few trees, rolled in waves along the river and up a hill to an enormous house. Tiny lights danced at irregular intervals within the dark shape, and the uneven peaks of its roof cut into the night sky. The weak moonlight cast just enough light to see, and the clouds that had blotted out the stars and dumped days of seemingly endless rain on them since leaving Brawenal City had broken up. Maybe the Goddess had finally taken pity on him.
With luck, it would take the bounty hunters a while to find a way across the river and—
A deep voice called from somewhere upriver, and Ward realized he stood in full view. Damn.
He ducked below the grass, making the world pitch with the sudden movement. Celia would kill him if she knew he'd been standing out in the open like an idiot. He needed to find her.
She'd swept past him, so she had to be somewhere downriver—and, thankfully, away from the owner of the voice. He could only hope she'd escaped the torrent and wasn't far away.
The man called out, and another masculine voice responded. They sounded close.
Ward peeked out of the grass. Two burly men stood a half-dozen yards away, the moonlight catching on their drawn swords. How had they gotten to this side of the river so fast?
Something rustled a few feet from them, and a figure leapt up, lithe and beautiful. She yanked one man forward, and they disappeared into the grass. He screamed. His companion lunged, jabbing his blade where Celia had last been.
Metal clanged against metal. Celia's head and shoulders rose from the tall stalks. Her blade knocked her assailant's sword aside, and she rammed her body against his arm, knocking him off balance. He stumbled forward, and she sliced her weapon across his neck.
Ward bit back a gasp. In the last week, he'd seen more than he'd ever wanted of violence, but he could never get used to how terrifying and beautiful Celia was when she practiced her craft.
She slunk through the grass to his side. "You all right?"
Blood was splattered across her cheek, dark against her skin. Her hair hung limp around her face, and her wet shirt clung to her body, revealing her well-muscled figure. She was so beautiful and so deadly ... and so very dead. He couldn't figure out why she hadn't left him. She had more than enough skill to evade the bounty hunters, and he was fully aware he was a liability. But she was still there, her icy blue gaze filled with concern, and all that concern was focused on him.
"Are you all right?" she asked again.
He blinked, dragging his attention away from the cold depths of her eyes.
"I am?" He brushed his hand along his throbbing temple into something damp and sticky and glanced at his fingers. Blood. But his dizziness had passed, so it couldn't be too bad. Even shallow cuts on the head could bleed a lot, and with the water still in his hair, the scratch probably looked worse that it was. "I'm fine."
Celia's eyes narrowed.
"Really. How about you?" Not that she'd tell him. She didn't look hurt. All the blood on her was splattered, indicating she wasn't cut. With dark circles under her eyes, she did, however, look exhausted.
She glanced back to where the two men lay hidden in the grass. "It looks like we found the two missing bounty hunters. They must have been told to cross the river in case we evaded the others. So that leaves ... I killed three in the forest, there were five back on the cliff—although one of them probably won't be walking anytime soon. That leaves four."
"If there aren't more sneaking around."
"Not yet, at least." Her gaze traveled up the hill to the house. A wry smile pulled at her lips. "You know what? I'm hungry."
"Excuse me? We can't just barge in on whoever lives there, with who knows how many bounty hunters after us."
"There are only four, and we'll only visit long enough to get food. Once we have supplies, I can deal with the hunters, and then we'll have a head start on any others. You got a better idea?"
He wished he did, but he couldn't argue with Celia's plan. As if to punctuate her words, his stomach growled. "Fine."
Keeping low in the grass, she made for the house. Ward followed, his head pounding with each step.
At the top of the hill, the house hunched like a misshapen monster, all sharp edges and shadow, dotted with spots of light from behind smoky-glass windows. They skirted around the long arm of a three-story wing and eased out of sight of the river and anyone combing the bank for them.
Before them lay a gravel courtyard with a fountain in the center. The statue of a woman draped in voluminous folds of stone cloth poured water from a jug into the fountain's bowl. Beyond stood a massive front door painted dark red with a bronze crest above it, flush with the bricks. The crest looked familiar, but Ward couldn't place it. Massive wrought-iron lanterns hung from hooks in the wall on either side, casting a bright pool of light on the door, and the three wide steps leading up to it.
His toe caught on a stone hidden in the grass, and he stumbled. Celia grabbed his hand, steadying him, her touch personal, comfortable, and all wrong.
Excerpted from Ward Against Darkness by Melanie Card, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Melanie Card. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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