Entangled Publishing, January 2015
Ward de’Ath should be dead by now. Instead, he’s chasing after a soul-eating creature—that he unleashed— and is bent on stopping her before she slaughters more innocents. Fortunately, Celia Carlyle remains by his side, a nobleman’s gorgeous and deadly daughter, who is…well, dead.
Celia claims she’ll champion Ward wherever he goes, even when she thinks his quest is hopeless. He can only hope her pledge comes from her heart, and not because she’s bound to him through his magic.
When they enter Dulthyne, they stumble upon a dark power that threatens the entire town. Ward, with his unreliable necromancy, is determined to help but finds himself ensnared in the lure of white-hot magic…blood magic he struggles to resist. But if Celia’s love is a lie, it might just doom his soul to the dark arts forever.
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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. ƒBloody 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.”
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