Authors: Karen Kincy
Shadows of Asphodel – copyright © 2013 – Karen Kincy
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (or any other form), business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my beta readers,
for championing a diamond in the rough.
Ardis trudged across the blood-churned earth, blinking as the wind whipped spindrift snow into her eyes. Her arm ached, but she kept a good grip on Chun Yi, her sword. Above, the drone of zeppelins heralded the advance of the medics who would decide the fate of the men and women lying broken on the ground. Ardis tugged her scarf over her nose, trying not to gag at the stench of diesel and blood.
She should hurry. She couldn’t see the height of the sun behind the clouds.
The battle was over, but a storm was coming.
Ardis walked quietly among the wounded, giving distance to rebels in their ragtag uniforms. Her enemies looked helpless, but she could hear their groans and prayers. Her fingers tightened around the sharkskin hilt of Chun Yi, and she hoped—
Ardis spun with her sword ready and saw a man stagger to his feet. His mane of black hair flew in his face, hiding it, and his ragged breath fogged the air. He didn’t look like a soldier or a rebel, dressed in a fine coat of gray wool and wolverine fur, matted flat with blood. His hands hung empty at his sides.
What was a gentleman like him doing on the battlefield?
The man cleared his throat, clenched and unclenched his hands. “I’m unarmed.”
His words were at once smooth and rough, a honey-gravel voice. He spoke German without any trace of an accent.
“Hands on your head,” Ardis commanded.
The man did as she said, and the wind blew his hair from his face. Ardis had to stare.
He was starkly handsome, with an arrogant elegance only gentlemen have. Dark slivers of eyebrows, cheekbones so sharp you could cut yourself on them, and eyes exactly like those of a snow leopard, a stunning pale green.
A thin smile tugged at the man’s lips. “How are you going to kill me?”
She kept her face blank. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“I would prefer your dagger,” he said. “It looks sharp.”
“Sword,” she said.
“Ah. My apologies.”
Ardis narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t believe how glib he sounded, like they were in a fencing match and he had nearly lost.
No, not nearly. If he was unarmed, as he said, then he was her prisoner.
Ardis had never taken one of the enemy alive before. It had always been kill or be killed, but he wasn’t making this easy by acting so vulnerable. Now she would have to shackle him somehow and march him back to camp. Well, he was a gentleman, so perhaps there would be a hefty ransom involved, and she—
“My name is Wendel,” he said.
Ardis squinted at him. The battlefield seemed like an odd place for introductions.
“Thank you,” she said. “I will make sure it goes on your grave.”
He laughed, then clutched his ribs. His hand came away red with blood.
“You’re wounded,” she said.
“Very observant.” Wendel wasn’t looking at her now, and pain sharpened his voice. “I might die before you kill me.”
He laughed again, despite himself, and coughed up a spattering of blood in the snow.
Ardis frowned, her fingers even tighter on Chun Yi. She could let Wendel bleed out, but that might not be quick, and she would have to watch the whole thing. Or she could try to salvage him and collect that hypothetical ransom.
Wendel swayed on his feet. “May I sit?” he said. “I don’t think I can…”
He fell to his knees in one swift movement, like a glacier cracking, then crumpled on his side. He reached out, his fingers splayed, and grabbed a fistful of snow as if to claw himself upright. A war dog’s stiff corpse lay nearby, its blood melting the snow where Wendel had fallen. Wendel’s fine coat was altogether ruined now.
Ardis watched him, her jaw taut, and tried to make up her mind. “How bad is it?”
Wendel didn’t look at her. “Bad enough.”
She sheathed Chun Yi, her muscles shaking with fatigue. He reached out again, groping blindly, and his hand closed on the war dog’s paw.
“All right,” Ardis said. “I’m taking you—”
Wendel shuddered, and the dog kicked its legs. Adrenaline jolted into Ardis’s veins. She drew Chun Yi and stepped into a defensive stance. The dog climbed to its feet, its ruined throat gaping, and growled at her.
No breath fogged the winter air.
Ardis braced herself as the dog charged. Its paws thudded in the snow, its fangs glinted in the overcast sun. The dog veered for her left arm, jaws wide, and she dodged right. The dog remembered its training and spun, nimble for such a huge mastiff—for such a
mastiff. She retreated, blocking the dog with her sword.
The dog leapt high, aiming for her throat, and she brought Chun Yi up to meet him.
With gritted teeth, she sliced through the dog’s thick neck and beheaded it cleanly. The animal crashed into the snow, dead again.
Ardis’s heartbeat raced. She wiped the blood from her blade.
“Well,” Wendel said. “It was worth a try.”
She turned to face him, but didn’t stand so close this time. Wendel huddled sideways on the ground, his teeth chattering, clearly weaker for having used some of his magic. A widening bloom of blood stained the snow.
“A necromancer?” she said.
There was something remarkably similar to fear in his eyes, but he smiled.
“Yes,” he said.
Wendel’s eyes flickered shut, and he collapsed in the snow. She edged closer to him and nudged him with the flat of her blade. This could be another trick, though she doubted it. If she were lucky, maybe he was already dead.
Ardis sheathed Chun Yi and looked down at him, waiting.
She crouched beside him and felt for a pulse in his neck. There, beneath her fingers, a faint heartbeat thumped. He was still handsome, even unconscious, even covered in filth and blood. His skin felt warm and soft enough, like any other person’s. Not like a necromancer’s. She shuddered and wiped her hand on the snow.
The burning cold almost erased the feeling of having touched an abomination.
Ardis waited for the medics to come. The necromancer lay still and silent in the snow, but he was alive; she held Chun Yi near Wendel’s mouth and waited for his breath to fog the blade. She wouldn’t touch him again, not unless necessary.
You didn’t want to kill a necromancer. If you killed him, he would come back ten times stronger. If you killed him, he would lose the last traces of his humanity and become a monster that mercilessly hunted you down in revenge.
That’s what Ardis had heard, though she had never seen a necromancer before.
She didn’t want to risk him dying.
Wendel was still breathing at her feet, but he wouldn’t last much longer bleeding like that. She scanned the battlefield and saw the medics in their beige uniforms, trudging toward the wounded with backpacks of medical supplies.
Ardis raised her arms above her head. “Over here!”
A medic glanced at the others, then broke into a trot. He was a twitchy man with wide eyes behind his glasses, and he wasn’t much older than her, at most in his late twenties. When he saw Wendel, he instantly got to work.
Ardis watched the medic strip the necromancer’s ruined coat and shirt. A narrow wound ran from Wendel’s left shoulder across his chest. She judged that a blade must have slashed across his ribs without slicing much deeper, so Wendel had a fair chance of surviving. If he stopped bleeding. If his wound healed cleanly.
And if the medics didn’t know he was a necromancer.
“Did you do this?” the medic said, with a thick Hungarian accent.
Ardis blinked. “What?”
The reflection in the medic’s glasses hid his eyes. “Did you wound this man?”
“No,” she said, “but he’s my prisoner. I want his ransom.”
The medic made a grunt of disapproval. Medics were impartial, healing both friends and foes, but this was in theory. Ardis doubted they would keep treating a necromancer, if they knew, unless they also feared him dying.
She felt her stomach tighten into a knot. She would have to protect him now.
“How long ago was it?” the medic said, clearly impatient. “The wound?”
Ardis frowned. “I don’t know. I just found him here.”
The medic swore under his breath. “Then he must have walked here. He’s missing a lot more blood than what’s on the ground.”
“Fix him,” Ardis said.
The medic ignored her.
She sighed and sat on a nearby boulder. Snowflakes started drifting from the sky. They fell on Wendel’s face and melted, slowly, as if his skin was growing colder. The medic finished bandaging him and stood.
“Shouldn’t we move him somewhere warmer?” Ardis said.
The medic glowered at her. “Listen,” he said. “This isn’t your job. If you didn’t damage so many people I wouldn’t have so much work. So if you want to help, be quiet and do as I say. We need to move him out of here. All right?”
She nodded, her face impassive. She was used to taking orders.
Ardis rested at the edge of camp, toying with a talisman. It wasn’t much more than a twist of horsehair rope and a piece of wood painted with a blue-and-white eye. The medics had hung the talismans around the perimeter of camp to ward off evil. Clearly the superstition had done nothing to stop the necromancer.
She climbed to her feet and walked back to the tent where they had taken Wendel.
It had been two hours since she had last seen him, but the medics hadn’t let her inside the tent. They had important work to do, they said, in a tone that invited no argument. Surely by now they had patched him up, and she could see him.