With a sigh, I rode deeper into the old forest. Here was a scene fit for a fairy tale. My elegant horse. Woods in the summertime. And me, a girl with pale skin, dark hair, and a flowing white gown: the innocent young maiden.
What a lie.
In truth, I was one of the realm’s most deadly Necromancers. Mages like me wielded powerful magick over spirit and bone. Most people were terrified of us and for good reason. Necromancers were known for summoning ghosts and reanimating the dead. Not that I dabbled in that kind of thing personally. Ghosts whined for ages before doing even the smallest task. And decaying bodies? When reanimated, they became just as petulant as any ghost, only they smelled something awful. Not worth the effort of casting, in my opinion. There were other spells that I preferred.
My horse let out a high-pitched whinny. My poor Smoke. She so wanted to gallop. As did I, for that matter. But my plan called for me to ride slowly while looking innocent. The reason? I sought out sensitive information from the brigands who hid in these woods. Of course, I could just lure them to me with a spell. However, that meant projecting magick over long distances. Not too clever. That kind of casting could easily be detected by my enemies and used to track me down. I needed to be careful.
No, the scum of the forest had to approach me of their own free will. And that could only happen if I looked harmless.
Please, let me look harmless.
A weight of worry settled on my shoulders. I needed information and badly. My Sister mages from the Midnight Cloister were still missing. The desire to find them constricted my heart, tight as a vise.
As did my need for Rowan, if I allowed myself to think about him.
Suddenly, the tree branches rustled with extra force. I tilted my head, every sense in my body going on alert. Was someone finally approaching?
Seconds passed. No one appeared. I tried to hide my disappointment and kept riding along at an inching pace. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. The monotony made me wish to pull my hair out.
Images flickered through my mind. I pictured the Necromancer girls that I’d met in the Midnight Cloister. My Sisters. They’d all looked so wide-eyed and innocent as the evil Vicomte led them off to his secret prison. And these were no ordinary dungeons either. The Vicomte had a mysterious device that siphoned off Necromancer power. I shivered at the thought. My Sisters would writhe in agony as their magick was removed. And once their powers were fully drained, my young friends would transform into withered husks of skin. Dead. The thought made my stomach churn.
Sadly, the treachery against my people didn’t end with my Sisters. Over the past five years, thousands of Necromancers had been imprisoned and marked for death. It was the Tsar who began all the abductions. Three months ago, I put that villain into exile, trapping him on a random magickal plane. Afterward, I assumed that our worries were over. How foolish of me. The moment the Tsar was gone, one of his main followers, the Vicomte, took up the heinous plans against my people.
Since then, things have only become worse.
The Vicomte has expanded the Tsar’s program of abduction and murder, killing far more Necromancers than the Tsar ever did. No one has found any bodies, though.
By the Sire, please let that mean some of my people are still alive.
I could only hope that when I found my lost Sisters, I would discover some trained Necromancers along with them. So few of us remained. My Cloister, the Zelle, was the last of its kind, and it now held less than a dozen expert Necromancers. All were over ninety and could no longer cast any serious spells.
Footsteps rustled in a nearby thicket. Someone’s close. My heart thrummed in my rib cage. Only certain travelers stole through the shrubbery.
Thieves. How perfect.
A hulking brute of a man lurched out from the trees and grasped my horse’s reins with his meaty fist. Any other lady would have screamed. I could have cheered for joy.
“Afternoon, my lovely. I’m Bartley.” His voice had the deep rasp of someone who enjoyed far too much whiskey. Like the other thieves I’d met, Bartley wore a mishmash of whatever clothing he’d claimed from his latest kills. In this case, Bartley donned a gentleman’s longcoat over ragged pants and a patched-up shirt. He rubbed his thick hand over his bald head, a movement that showed off his small black eyes.
A warm sense of satisfaction bloomed through my chest. Someone this evil looking was certain to have good information. “Hello. I’m Elea.”
“Call me Bartley. Are you alone?”