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Ward Against Destruction

Ward Against Destruction, an epic fantasy / YA fantasy and the fourth and final book in the Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer series by Melanie CardCHRONICLES OF A RELUCTANT NECROMANCER
BOOK 4

High Fantasy
Entangled Publishing, October 2015
ISBN: 978-1-63375-452-2

Ward de’Ath used to think that nothing could be more terrible than death. Now he realizes there are worse things. Like his never-ending hunger for blood. Yet even if he conquers the unbearable cravings that drive him headlong toward destruction, he’s a wanted man with a bleak future.

Assassin Celia Carlyle learns she is the only one who can protect Ward from disaster. She loves him, she wants to help him, but no one can tell her how to save him from himself. And the confusing voices in her head scream to let him go.

 

But Ward’s dark trials keep mounting. A malevolent evil is rising in the land, threatening to unleash horror upon the world. The only way Ward can defeat it, and have the chance to marry Celia, is by accepting his fate and becoming the one thing he swore he would never become…

 

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CHAPTER ONE

Ward staggered down narrow passages lit with pale shimmering veins of witch-stone within the bowels of the mountain city of Dulthyne. He clutched Nazarius to keep upright while his mind whirled. This was wrong, all wrong.

Moments ago he’d been dead, stabbed in the chest, and then Celia had defied all the laws that were good, jeopardizing her soul as well as the balance between life and death, by bringing him back. Ahead, Celia and the Master of Brawenal’s Assassins’ Guild rushed around a corner. Nazarius followed, dragging Ward with him.

Goddess above, he was dead!

And his grandfather, one of the most powerful necromancers in the Union of Principalities, had tried to kill him…again. Without asking any questions, just attacked as if he were a monster.

They hurried through a door hidden in the rocky, rough-hewn granite and into another narrow passage. Ward’s body burned and trembled. Light snapped around him. No, not light—magic. His imagination had gone wild. The magic was more vivid and felt more real than it ever had before. It twisted the walls of the passage and churned his stomach. His mind whirled even faster, but all he could think about was that he was dead.

That dagger had plunged into his chest, the light and warmth of the Goddess had embraced him, and then…

Then ice and fire and agony.

He’d woken from the dead and Celia had just stared at him, her cheeks shimmering with tears while Grandfather had stormed in and denounced him as an abomination.

Then they’d been running—

“Jam the latch,” the all too familiar voice of the Master of Brawenal’s Assassins’ Guild said ahead of them.

Nazarius leaned Ward against the wall. The granite was cool, soothing, and yet flickering sparks of magic snapped within it, agonizing and mesmerizing at the same time.

Ward squeezed his eyes shut. Why couldn’t his mind understand that seeing magic was just his imagination? He was mystically blind, unable to see or sense it. Except that no longer explained what he now saw. He’d also used more magic in the last day than ever before. Goddess, he’d deflected his grandfather’s reverse wake—a spell that temporarily pushed out a person’s soul, knocking them unconscious—proving he had magical strength. His grandfather’s!

He pressed a shaky hand to his head. It hurt so much. Everything hurt. He should have stayed behind, let Celia and the others escape, and let his grandfather usher his soul back across the veil where it belonged.

Cool, soft fingers brushed his wrist. Celia’s fingers. He knew without looking. Something about her touch, her essence, tugged at his heart, called to him, drew him to her.

His breath caught in his throat. The tug to his heart was more than emotion now. It was a physical pull. But that was impossible. The only way he could sense her like that would be if they were bound to each other.

Compelled by that horrible thought, his gaze dropped, landing on a thick, magical gold chain, ghostly and pulsing in his chest, leading from him to her.

His heart and mind stuttered. A soul chain. He was soul chained to her, and that could only mean that through the strength of her will and the power in all the blood she’d used, Celia had somehow managed to cast a false resurrection to bring him back and magically bind his separated soul in his should-be-dead body.

She’d made him a vesperitti, a creature of darkness and evil. A monster who needed to consume souls through a victim’s blood to survive. The myths said their hunger was insatiable. He was a monster. He was going to kill people—

“We have to keep moving,” Celia said.

“No.” He endangered everyone he was with.

“Now is not the time to argue.” She grabbed his sleeve and yanked.

He stumbled from the wall. His legs trembled, and the tunnel twisted around him.

Nazarius wrapped an arm around his chest and held him up. “Come on.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” he gasped. “I have to stay.”

“No.” Celia glared at Nazarius. “No one is staying behind.”

Nazarius draped Ward’s arm over his shoulders and took his weight.

“But—” Panic swirled within him. “I’m dead.”

“Yes.” The Master rolled his eyes as if they’d been over this before. He jerked his chin, and Nazarius hauled Ward down the tunnel. Celia let them pass, taking the last position to cover their retreat.

They scrambled through the tunnels, climbing over debris and through narrow cracks made by the earthquakes that had shaken the mountain and damaged Dulthyne’s underground passages. Ward strained to hear sounds of pursuit—except he wasn’t sure if that was him straining or Celia—he had a nagging feeling the sensation came from Celia. He wasn’t sure of anything save for Nazarius’s arm around him and the magic pulsing from his chest to Celia’s.

Minutes, hours…days?—no, it couldn’t have been days—later, they staggered to a stop. Nazarius leaned Ward against the wall and strode a few steps away.

Ward pressed his cheek against the rough granite, focusing on the stone digging into his flesh. Shards of witch-stone shimmered in the wall right beside his cheek, its magic light pulsing like a heartbeat. Like the heartbeat he wasn’t supposed to have. Ahead, something else—something like witch-stone but not witch-stone—also pulsed. Except he couldn’t say how one beating glow was different from another.

He tried to concentrate on that thought as a way to gain his bearings, but his eyes and head still hurt. His whole body hurt, and his attention kept jumping back to the soul chain flickering between Celia and him.

He inched closer to whatever lay ahead. His feet slid against the stone, the vibration of the movement shuddering through his body and the noise rasping over him.

Nazarius said something to the Master. Ward couldn’t make out the words, only the rumble of their voices. They mixed with everything else coursing through him, making the world spin.

He shuffled forward to the opening of the passage. The not–witch-stone glow surrounded him, blinding him, increasing his nausea. He squeezed his eyes shut, clutching the wall not just for physical balance but emotional and mental as well. Focus on the wall. Limit how much sensation he was taking in.

He slid his hand over the stone. It wasn’t rough like the granite of the tunnel. It was smooth. It felt polished. Gooseflesh rushed across his arms. The stone was smoother, slicker, more, than anything he’d felt before. A blast of air…no, it was just a tickle, not a blast…a breeze that felt stronger and more than just like the stone. It flitted across his face, his neck, and the ripped front of his shirt. When he focused beyond the roar of sensation, everything seemed stronger than, softer than, so much more than anything he’d experienced before.

A creak, a whoosh, a sigh, a gasp. He could feel the heat from Celia’s body, from Nazarius’s, and the Master’s, too, even though they stood a few feet away. He was also acutely aware of the burn in his chest where the soul chain bound him to Celia and imprisoned him unnaturally to this side of the veil.

His focus slipped. It was too much. Sensation surrounded him, engulfed him, and threatened to drown him. Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the light in front of him as bright as day, except he was sure he wasn’t looking at daylight.

“Ward.” Celia’s voice, no louder than a whisper, boomed through him, commanded him to pay attention, obey, worship.

He clenched his jaw against the urge to turn to her. If he could just get his bearings he could figure out—

What? How to get out of this mess?

He was an abomination, everything he and his necromancer family had sworn to destroy with their oath to maintain the balance between life and death. He was chained, and a vesperitti’s hunger would consume him soon. Except as much as he wanted it, he couldn’t let Grandfather kill him. The part of him chained to Celia wouldn’t allow her to be hurt like that, wouldn’t allow her the agony of a severed soul chain.

“Ward.” She’d never sounded so uncertain before. She inched closer. Heat from her body beat against his senses. Even with his eyes closed he knew she raised her hand but hesitated before touching him.

Goddess, she knew he was a monster. She’d made him into this, and she couldn’t bring herself to touch him.

“Ward.”

He cracked open one eye. Her white aura radiated around her as if she were fully alive. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—but he’d thought that before his soul had been chained to hers. They’d been through so much together, and he knew, in her heart, she couldn’t have just left him dead. He wouldn’t have been able to leave her to the Goddess’s embrace, either—no matter how much he should.

The Master cleared his throat and stepped closer, drawing Ward’s attention. The light from his aura, the white magic of his soul, had veins of gold sliding through it.

“You need to get cleaned up.” He nodded at the radiant light behind him.

Ward squinted at it, dragging his attention past the glow to what it really was: water. An underground stream, actually. Ten feet wide, it flowed fast in the center and lapped against the smooth-rock bank. No, not a bank, a dock. Two stone posts that came up to Ward’s waist, carved with swirling lines, stood sentinel on either side—places where a boat could be tied. More etchings edged the dock, and the witch-stone glowed—almost too bright for Ward to look at now with his too-sensitive sight—as if showing the way.

“You need to clean up,” the Master said again.

Celia stiffened, jerking Ward’s attention back to her. She rolled her shoulders—a small movement, but one that said she was ready for trouble. Her aura undulated with the action and rippled down her back in mesmerizing waves.

“So we’ve stopped running.” Celia narrowed her eyes at him. “Who are you?”

“A friend,” the Master said.

When Ward had first met the man he hadn’t been a friend at all. He’d threatened Ward and Celia’s lives. Now, Ward wasn’t sure about him. The Master had led them to safety from Ward’s grandfather, but without a doubt, the Master had something more planned.

Celia tightened her grip on her stolen dagger with her off hand—her other hand, impaired by a broken wrist from the fight in the bathing chamber, was held against her stomach to keep it still. Again, the movement of tightening her grip was so small Ward wouldn’t have noticed it save that her aura magnified everything, every little twitch of her muscles, every inflection in her voice, and every flash of emotion across her face. Her expression held such pain and grief and determination…or was all that emotion seeping through the soul chain?

“We’ve bought ourselves some time, but the necromancers will eventually find this place,” the Master said, his voice soft, indistinct.

Nazarius shifted. His aura, white but not as bright as Celia’s or the Master’s—indicating less innate magic within his soul?—also rippled. “We need to get cleaned up and find a safe place to recover.”

“There’s a boat with clothes waiting upstream.” The Master pointed into the darkness. “Nazarius, you’re the least in need of a bath.”

Nazarius narrowed his eyes.

“Nazarius,” the Master said, his tone darkening.

“Of course, my lord Seer.” Nazarius stormed upstream, his aura lighting him.

“Lord Seer?” Celia’s aura tensed and trembled. She was ready to pounce, kill, do whatever it took to protect them. She was ready to fight the Master of Brawenal’s Assassins’ Guild—even if she didn’t know this man was the Master. She thought the man was just a Seer, dangerous because of his ability to see the future and his political and religious power, but not supposedly a physical threat.

Why was the Master here? What was he planning? There were too many questions, all whirling, like everything else, within Ward. He needed time to think. Maybe if he had more time, the world would realign.

“We should get cleaned up,” Ward said.

Celia turned to him. Her pale blue eyes, lit with an icy fire, held him captive. He loved those eyes, loved their intensity and the intensity of the woman they belonged to. Only a few hours ago, back in the abandoned bathing chamber in the caverns under Dulthyne, he hadn’t cared if she was dead, or undead, or whatever she was. He hadn’t cared if the spell he’d cast to bring her back from the dead lasted forever or mere moments, he’d wanted to be with her for whatever time they had left.

Except he hadn’t counted on that time being the length of a too-short kiss and then an eternity of damnation.

Goddess, he wanted to hold her, run his hands through her hair, feel her skin pressed against his, feel her lips against his like he had in the chamber. The desire tugged from his very essence, wrapped around his soul, and pulled from his heart.

He held out a hand in invitation, in desire, in desperation. His fingers were dark, and a hint of red magic snapped across them. It was blood depleted of most of its magic. It caked his fingers, his wrist, and forearm. All of him. But it only stained her hands and forearms, and one thigh. “We should get cleaned up.”

Celia glared at the Master.

“I’ll check on Nazarius,” he said and turned.

She grabbed the Master and jerked him to face her. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“You don’t want to know who I am.”

Celia’s aura rippled. “No, I think I do.”

“Get cleaned up.” He turned again.

Celia jabbed at him, but he sidestepped her attack. The movement was fast and subtle. Just a few inches to the side, and Celia’s blade slid harmlessly under his arm along his chest. The Master twisted—the action fluid as if he were merely dancing. He grabbed Celia’s wrist, wrapped an arm around her waist, drew her close to his chest, and wrenched her hand and dagger up to her neck.

“You’re a better fighter than this, Celia Carlyle,” he growled.

She froze. Her eyes flashed wide, then they narrowed. “How would you know?”

“I’ve seen you fight. Ward can tell you my identity, if you have to know, but who I am isn’t important. It’s what I want.”

“And what do you want?”

Ice slid through Ward, hard and angry, like the crystalline shimmer now radiating from Celia’s aura.

“I want you to clean up and get on the boat. At the end of the ride you’ll find an Innecroestri. I want Ward to kill him.”

“Ward isn’t your servant.”

The Master snorted. “Sure he is. You both are. Kill the Innecroestri, Ward, or I’ll kill Celia.” He threw her off the dock into the water. “You have a day to do it. And this time obey me.”

“This time?” Celia growled, swiping water from her eyes.

“I told Ward to take you from Brawenal City.” The Master glared at Ward. “You didn’t, and you let something start that now you have to finish. I also told you to keep the locket, and now you’re dead. I’ve tried playing nice—”

“This is nice?” Celia asked.

“Yes. You don’t want to see me angry.” He strode upstream after Nazarius.

“Who in the Dark Son’s name was that?” Celia asked.

“The Master of Brawenal’s Assassins’ Guild.” This was a conversation he didn’t want to have, certainly not with his head hurting so much.

Celia’s gaze hardened. “But Nazarius called him ‘Lord Seer’?”

“He’s also the Seer of the House of Bralmoore.”

She swore. There were a lot of implications to that, and none were good—like how the man who was the prince of Brawenal’s prime counsel was also in charge of selling all the assassinations in the principality. “And he wants you to kill an Innecroestri for him?”

Ward sighed. “It would seem so.”

“Well, you’re not doing it.”

The urge to agree with her whipped through him, and he struggled to think straight. “If I don’t, he’ll kill you. You saw how easy it was for him to overcome you. For all I know he’s had a vision of the future and knows what you’ll do when he comes for you, making it impossible for you to fight him.”

“Always looking at the positive, Ward.” She climbed back onto the dock.

“Do you see another option?” Sudden rage burned through him. “Do you? Any options that don’t involve breaking divine law this time?”

“I did what I had to do.” Her aura rippled as a mix of emotions flashed through him: pain, fear, fury. “What would you have done?”

He held onto the anger. “I wouldn’t have done this. Goddess, Celia. Do you have any idea what using this kind of blood magic has done to the balance between life and death? Do you have any idea the jeopardy you’ve put your soul in?”

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care?” His voice cracked. He had not heard that right. She couldn’t have just said that. “I’m a vesperitti! You risked your soul to make a monster. How long do you think it’ll be before the hunger for blood overwhelms me?”

“We’ll deal with that when we get there.”

“I’ll kill people.” His heart pounded in fear at the thought.

“You don’t have to kill someone or even drink blood to survive. You’ll be able to control it.”

“You can’t guarantee that.”

“We will make it work.” Her emotions, too mixed for him to figure out what they were, bled over his rage, leaving him confused and cold and dizzy.

“I shouldn’t be alive.” The emotion turned hard and desperate, and all Ward wanted was to hold Celia and comfort her and take her pain.

“You shouldn’t be dead, either,” she said, her voice soft. “We just need some time to get our bearings.”

“Yeah.” But the Master would come after Celia tomorrow if Ward didn’t kill someone. Time wasn’t something they had.

 

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