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Ward Against Disaster
Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer
By Melanie Card, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Melanie Card
All rights reserved.
Ward crouched beside Celia and Nazarius in the underbrush. Sweat from the oppressive summer heat in the Red Mountains slicked his palms and plastered his shirt to his back, and he resisted the urge to scratch at a bug bite and make it worse.
Before them sat a squat, one-room farmhouse. Two chickens pecked at the hard, mountain dirt before the front door, and a goat grazed on a scraggly bush at the side. There wasn't a breath of breeze to rustle the leaves or cut the heat. Not even a hint to sway the small wheat field in the narrow strip of valley beyond the house.
"You're sure Allette's in there?" Celia asked, her voice low. Her black hair, so dark it had a blue sheen to it, was tied in a tight braid. Not even the curl that usually escaped and accentuated her pale, sculpted cheek was free.
Nazarius kept his gaze locked on the door. In this position, crouched and ready, his shirt strained against his broad chest and thickly muscled arms, making him look even more dangerous. "This is where her tracks lead."
Ward's insides squirmed. "We can't sit here long. She's a vesperitti, all her senses are enhanced. If she hasn't smelled our sweat, she's listening to us talk right now." She'd probably already heard them approach and could hear his heart trying to pound its way out of his chest.
Celia drew the silver knife—the only thing that could kill a vesperitti—from her dagger's sheath at her hip. "We need to get her into sunlight to blind her. Get your silver ready."
Nazarius drew his silver knife and stood.
Celia glanced at Ward, freezing him with her pale blue gaze. A hint of emotion swept through her expression but, like it had been since they'd started hunting Allette four days ago, he couldn't figure out what it meant. "Stay here."
Right. It meant he was a liability in a fight. And really, going up against a creature faster and stronger than a man, he was, without a doubt, a liability.
He opened his mouth to say something. Agree, disagree, wish her to stay safe? He didn't know what, but she leapt away and dashed across the small clearing to the farmhouse's front door before he could say anything.
Nazarius was a step behind her. She reached the door, threw it open, and Nazarius rushed inside, but he jerked back into the doorway, blocking Celia from entering.
Something was wrong. If Allette was inside she would have attacked. There was no place for her to go unless she wanted to run blind into the sunlight. They were supposed to have her cornered.
Ward scrambled out of the underbrush. "What's wrong?"
Celia rammed a finger into Nazarius's side. He jerked—she'd hit a nerve—and she shoved him aside but didn't enter farther into the house.
"By the Goddess." Her back tensed. Her whole body tensed, and cold twisted hard in Ward's gut.
"You don't want to look," Nazarius said. "It's bad."
But Ward had to. A part of him, the part that read books about the evil and bloodlust that drove vesperitti, already knew what to expect. Vesperitti survived on human souls and the easiest way to get that was through blood. They were beholden to the black necromancer, the Innecroestri, who made them, and while Allette no longer had a master, she was still a monster.
Celia grabbed his arm. "Ward, don't."
"I have to. This is my responsibility. I set her free."
"This has nothing to do with you," Nazarius said.
Ward tugged at Celia's grip. She let go and stepped aside to let him enter.
The room was dim, but clear, dark splashes of blood stained the pale plaster walls. fBloody speckles crept high, close to the ceiling. Spray from a major artery while the heart was pumping with panic. There was so much of it, as if Allette had painted all four walls with it like a manic artist.
Ward's gaze slid to the table. More blood. Then lower.
Bile burned his throat. He knew what he'd see. All that blood. It couldn't be from just one body.
His gaze landed on a dismembered arm first. It was so small that the hand, if curled into a fist, could have easily hidden in one of his.
His throat tightened and the bile rose higher. His pulse roared and panic clawed at his chest. This was his fault. He'd seen a corpse before. Many actually. He'd even dug a few from their graves to perform necropsies and further his illegal studies in medicine, but he'd never seen such carnage before and he couldn't dissociate from these victims like he could with the necropsies. Father, mother, half a dozen children, all murdered. Their blood, with the precious soul magic Allette needed to survive, slicked the floor, pooled in uneven spots on the hard-packed dirt, and splattered the furniture.
He couldn't catch his breath. "I did this."
Celia grabbed the back of his shirt and jerked him from the doorway. He stumbled, his heel catching on a rock, and she shoved him against the wall outside the house.
"This is not your fault."
"I knew she was a monster and I set her free." His stomach heaved, and tears burned his eyes with the effort not to throw up. All that blood was on his hands.
"You thought you were killing her," Celia said.
"But I didn't." His stomach heaved again. "And she's playing games with me."
Celia's eyes narrowed, her delicate black brows drawing in. "What does that mean?"
"All that blood is a waste. She needs it to survive, and out here in the middle of nowhere the odds of coming across someone else could be slim." Ward clenched his jaw and prayed his stomach would stop churning. "It also makes it pretty clear she was here. If she needed to replenish the soul magic keeping her alive, she could have enthralled any one of these people and taken their soul magic without drawing a drop of blood."
"But we know she's a monster. Remember how she killed Macerio?"
Ward shuddered. Allette had stabbed her Innecroestri master over and over again and then ripped out his heart. If there had been any part of her capable of redemption, Macerio had long ago destroyed it.
"Well, we know she can't go running around in the sunlight. So she had to have done this last night and moved on." Nazarius's gaze dropped to the ground and he took a few steps away from the farmhouse. "She could have only gotten so far."
Celia sheathed her knife and joined him. "All that blood—"
"She's got to be covered in it," Ward said. All three of them, Ward as a physician, Celia as an assassin, and Nazarius as a Quayestri Tracker, knew how messy severing an artery could get.
"Makes it easier to track her." The muscle in Nazarius's jaw clenched. "I've got a trail."
He strode past the goat, around a large granite rock, and back into the forest. Celia followed, giving him enough space to track and her enough space to fight. Ward held back even farther. He peered into the deepest shadows. Were they dark enough for a vesperitti to hide in? Sunlight didn't burn them up like the myths said, it only hurt their eyes, blinding them, that's why they preferred the night.
Allette could be laying a trap. They'd been hunting her since Macerio had died, four days ago. She had to know Ward was never going to give up until he'd fixed his mistake. Especially since she was also in possession of a part of Habil's grimoire, one of the most powerful black necromantic spell books the Union of Principalities had ever seen.
Ward knew he might not be a very powerful necromancer, but he could at least be a good one and do his duty. Even if he'd been forced to use blood magic to create a vesperitti for a very short time and that technically made him an Innecroestri, he could still live by his family's necromancer code. He shuddered at the memory of ripping that man's soul back from across the veil and chaining it to his corpse to make him a monster like Allette.
The trees parted, opening up to a road. It ran parallel to a valley, the walls falling away into sheer cliffs dotted with scrubby pines clinging to whatever purchase they could find. A few feet away stood the wide, gleaming white bridge crossing a deep valley to a city. The towering city poured down the cliff face like a carved, frozen waterfall, as if the mountain itself had once been liquid stone.
It had to be Dulthyne. There was only one city in the Red Mountains like it.
"Where to?" Celia asked.
Nazarius knelt and pursed his lips.
Celia glanced down the road. "Don't tell me you've lost her."
Ward's heart stuttered. They couldn't afford to lose her. She could kill someone else.
The image of that too-small hand lying in a puddle of blood flashed through Ward's mind's eye, and the sweat on his body turned cold. "We can't lose her."CHAPTER 2
"We can't lose her, Nazarius," Ward said, panic surging through him. If they lost her, she could keep killing. More innocent lives would be lost. More children murdered. "We can't—"
"I know," Nazarius said, his voice sharp.
"I'd say she's gone to that city." Celia's pale blue eyes were icy and filled with a chilling rage. Ward couldn't blame her. He felt the same way. Furious and frustrated and desperate.
"That's Dulthyne. There's only one way in and out. It doesn't make sense for her to trap herself," Nazarius said.
"Everything I've heard about Dulthyne says it's a maze—the city and the mines," Celia said, her attention on the city. "I'm betting she needs to replenish the magic sustaining her unnatural existence, and she needs people to do that. She can't guarantee she'll stumble across another farm, but she can hide in Dulthyne, at least until she can come up with a new plan."
Nazarius followed her gaze. "I want to check down the road first before we commit to the city. I don't like the idea of guessing on Dulthyne without exploring all our options."
"Fine." Celia huffed and her gaze slid to Ward, sending a shiver sweeping up his spine. "I know it hasn't worked before, but can you try that essence-seeking spell again?"
He nodded, his body agreeing while his mind said no. It was too risky, and it hadn't worked all the other times he'd tried it.
"Good. We'll be back in a few minutes." Nazarius headed down the road away from Dulthyne.
Celia shot Ward one last look, then followed the Tracker. They disappeared around the curve and Ward blew out a heavy breath, his insides churning with a new fear. If they couldn't figure out where Allette had gone, Ward was their only option and that meant he needed to cast the essence-seeking spell and have it work this time. But to do that, he needed to use blood magic.
Except, casting too frequently without the proper meditations before and after was dangerous. It would put him at risk to the blood magic lure, a compulsion to cast again and again with more and more blood no matter whatever—or whoever—the sacrifice. Which ultimately led to insanity.
He hadn't had much time to rest, let alone do the precautionary meditations, since he'd set Allette free, and had used a lot of blood magic in a short period of time. The memory of all that blood—
It was so strong, his stomach heaved as if he'd walked into the farmhouse again.
The lure didn't matter. He had to stop her. Whatever the cost. He had to set it right.
He opened his rucksack. Inside, wrapped in his only change of clothes, was the bowl with Allette's dried blood. His heart sped up, and he glanced back down the road where Celia and Nazarius had gone. Please don't let them come back too soon. Yes, Celia had asked him to try, but he didn't want them to watch him fail again.
He scraped a fleck of Allette's blood from the bowl with the tip of his knife and wiped it into the palm of his hand.
If he failed more people would die.
He held the memory of the farmhouse tight. It made him nauseated and terrified and even more furious. This time he'd get the essence-seeking spell right and stop her. Even if all his attempts before had been failures, this time something would happen. All he needed to do was use his imagination like Allette had taught him ...
But Allette hadn't taught him anything. He'd been a fool to think his mystic blindness could just disappear. She'd tricked him into believing he possessed necromantic strength, but in truth, she'd only needed him to channel her own magic. He'd only been her tool to manipulate it.
Except that didn't explain the spell he'd cast on Celia when this had all started—boy, that seemed like a lifetime ago. In a way it had been. So much had happened since then. Maybe, just maybe, there was magic within him, more magic than the glimmer of necromantic power he needed to wake a person from the dead for fifteen minutes or open the veil to help usher souls across.
Goddess, he wanted so desperately to believe that. Surely the Goddess and Her Sons would grant him the strength, if only for a little while, to fix his mistake of setting Allette free, retrieve the dangerous grimoire she'd stolen, and save lives.
Hope and fear swelled, hot and cold, across his chest, sinking low in his gut into a painful knot. Clutching at hope, he shoved his fear aside and stabbed his finger. Blood swelled over the tip and he pressed it against the fleck of Allette's blood in his palm. Most spells required a chant and items like herbs and crystals to focus the power, but they weren't necessary if the necromancer's will and magical gift was strong enough.
He could only hope his desperation and determination made up for his lack of everything else. Basically, the spell created a magical trail leading to the person whose essence was being used. In this case, Allette, through her blood.
His heart raced even faster, and he sucked in a steadying breath.
This time something would happen.
If he just focused hard enough and put all of his will into the spell, he'd defy everything he knew to be true about himself.
But nothing happened. He couldn't draw an imagined image of his magic to mind. There were no swirling lights, no balls of energy whirling through his mind's eye like when Allette had manipulated him. He was powerless and surrounded by the darkness behind his lids. His chest ached at the emptiness within him.
Goddess, it was ridiculous of him to think he could get the spell to work. He couldn't see, feel, or sense magic in any way before. What made him think he could do so now?
No. He squeezed his eyes tighter. He could do this. There was no need to see magic to manipulate it. He didn't see it when he cast wakes, and he'd never failed at binding a soul back in a deceased's body for the short duration of that spell. This was a simple connecting of his magic to Allette's essence. Even those without a magical gift could cast blood magic if enough blood was used.
Something nearby snapped. He jumped toward the sound. Celia and Nazarius strode toward him, the Tracker's height and broad chest making Celia appear fragile, but between the two, she was far more dangerous. Her loose shirt and pants hid a lithe, muscled form honed into a deadly weapon, and if it weren't for her skill as an assassin, Ward would be dead ten times over. She was so beautiful, so captivating, and still so dead. Looking at her made him ache with a wild jumble of feelings that he didn't know how to accept and the feelings had gotten more confusing over the last four days.
Nazarius ran his fingers through his dark, short-cropped hair and then rested his hands on the hilts of his matched sword and long dagger. "I'd say no one's gone down that road for at least two days. Which leaves us hoping we'll pick up a trail farther down the road or going into Dulthyne." Nazarius didn't sound happy about either prospect.
Ward scanned the area. He didn't know how much magic Allette needed to maintain the spell anchoring her soul in her body. But the farmhouse made it clear more than just sustenance was compelling her now. With over a hundred years of being tormented at her master's hands, her rage had to be insatiable.
"If Dulthyne isn't Allette's final destination, joining one of the ore caravans leaving the city could ensure she won't starve." Which still led them to Dulthyne. Ward stepped toward the bridge. If he closed his eyes, he felt drawn to cross it, a tugging at his heart. But was that the spell he'd just tried to cast or his imagination?
Excerpted from Ward Against Disaster by Melanie Card, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Melanie Card. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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