Excerpt for Shadows of Asphodel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Shadows of Asphodel

by Karen Kincy

Shadows of Asphodel – copyright © 2013 – Karen Kincy

Second edition

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.

Prisoner? Damn.

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 dead 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.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” said a medic-in-training, a reedy woman with suspicious eyes.

Ardis wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or flattered by the “ma’am,” so she put on a face that she hoped seemed friendly. “I’m here to see a man.”

“A man?” The woman thinned her lips. “Who?”

Ardis opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. She hadn’t told them his name. Would it be a giveaway? Necromancers were rare. Very rare.

“He’s… he’s pale,” Ardis said. “Long black hair. Green eyes.”

The woman shook her head and riffled pompously through papers on a clipboard. “I’m sorry, we don’t keep lists of physical attributes.”

Ardis sighed. “I’m going in to look for him.”

“I’m afraid you can’t—”

“I brought him here.” Ardis sidestepped past her and entered the tent.

Inside, faint light filtered through the canvas of the tent, supplemented by kerosene lamps. She wrinkled her nose at the stink of sickness and disinfectant. The wounded lay on makeshift cots, wrapped in bloody bandages, many of them lost in an opium haze that dulled their pain. A patient near her shrank back, whispering a fearful prayer, and she knew he must be a rebel. As if she would murder him in a place of healing.

There were only about a dozen cots in the tent, not all of them full. Ardis circled the tent, looking for the necromancer’s face.

He wasn’t here.

Ardis’s throat tightened, and she took a steadying breath. She should never have left him. Maybe he had died from so much blood loss after all, and they had taken his body away already. But they didn’t know he was a necromancer. How soon would he rise from the dead and come looking for her? Or… had he escaped?

Yes, he could have slipped from the tent. Maybe he was stronger than he looked.

She strode out, a sour taste in her mouth, and flagged down the reedy medic-in-training.

“Did any patients leave in the past two hours?” Ardis said.

The woman stared at her. “I don’t see why I should tell—”

Ardis shook her head and brushed past the medic-in-training. She would have to look for Wendel herself. She marched toward the perimeter of the camp, where the talismans twirled in the wind, and looked for footprints, blood, anything. Her tracking skills weren’t her strongest suit, but she would be damned if she lost the necromancer.

The sky above her darkened, and the wind died to a deceptive calm.

Ardis circled the camp twice before she saw a scrap of black in the whiteness. She cut across a snowy field, pushed past the whippy branches of willows, and came upon an ice-choked river. There, on the bank, was Wendel.

He had his back to her, and she crept closer to him, her hand on Chun Yi’s hilt.

What was Wendel doing? He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and she saw the pale skin of his back, and the bandage wrapped around him. He knelt at the riverside, reaching into the water, his shoulders flexing as he moved. She sidestepped through the willows to get a better look. He dipped his hands into the river and scrubbed them together, meticulously, shook the water from his fingers, and then did it all again.

She stepped forward, her boots crunching the snow. “Wendel.”

He glanced at her, apparently not startled, and clenched his hands. “Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“Washing my hands.”

Ardis frowned. “That water must be freezing. And you lost a lot of blood.”

“Concerned?” He held his hands up to inspect them. “Should I be touched?”

She sneered at him. “I didn’t drag your lifeless body all the way back to camp just so you could die of hypothermia.”

Wendel stood, drying his hands on his trousers. “I can’t stay here.”

“You’re my prisoner.”

He picked at a bandage in the crook of his arm, where they must have given him a blood transfusion. A clay amulet hung around his neck—for Aceso, the Greek goddess of healing—and he tugged it over his head and tossed it into the snow.

“I saw the slash on your ribs,” Ardis said. “You still need that amulet.”

Wendel shrugged. “I don’t believe in that brand of magic.”

Ardis clenched her jaw. “Just necromancy?”

He looked at her, his strange eyes catching the light of the fading sun.

“Yes,” he said.

Silence stretched between them. Ardis ran her thumb over the tassel on the pommel of Chun Yi, the familiar feeling a comfort. Wendel stood watching her, his face inscrutable, his raven-dark hair stirring in the wind.

Wendel took a slow breath, twisted his mouth, then got down on one knee.

“You saved my life,” he said. “I swear fealty to you until the debt is repaid.”


Ardis’s heartbeat thudded in her ears. The necromancer’s words sounded formal, like he had memorized them from a book. She stared at him until she found his eyes unnerving, and she glanced away to the snow.

“Fealty?” she said. “To me?”

She had never been promised life-or-death loyalty before. By anyone.

Wendel nodded, and his jaw tightened.

“No.” She backed away from him. “Don’t do that.”

He stayed kneeling. “I already did.”

“No!” Ardis growled the word. “You’re a necromancer.”

Wendel sighed, and she saw him bite his tongue. “And?”

“You can’t come with me. I—I have work to do.”

“Right.” He all but rolled his eyes. “Back to business killing for the highest bidder. I can help, you know. I’m good at killing.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

A corner of his mouth curved. “Out of curiosity, why did you save me?”

Because she was afraid to let him die, but he didn’t need to know the truth.

“To ransom you,” she said. “You must come from a rich family.”

“Ah.” He curled his lip. “Sorry to disappoint, but there will be no ransom.”

She was afraid of that, and afraid her face betrayed her intentions.

“They haven’t seen me since I was eleven years old,” he said, “and they certainly wouldn’t pay for me to come home.”

“But you have superiors, don’t you?” she said. “They must want you back.”

All the emotion went from Wendel’s face.

“They do,” he said.

“Then they will pay your ransom.”

Wendel’s face remained cold. “You don’t know, do you? About them?”

Ardis shook her head. There was no use lying.

“I see,” he said, and he looked away. “They won’t pay you. Kill you, yes.”

She squared her shoulders. “Enlighten me.”

“You may have heard of them as the Order of the Asphodel.”

“I haven’t. Who do they fight for?”

“Themselves.” Wendel’s mouth curled into something between a sneer and a smile. “They come from Constantinople, though they claim to be older than the Ottoman Empire itself, and will likely outlast it at this rate.”

“Constantinople,” she repeated. She had never been there.

“Yes.” He met her gaze again, his eyes glinting. “You’re a mercenary? A sellsword?”

She assumed it was obvious, since she wore no uniform. “What do you think?”

“Who do you fight for?”

Ardis straightened her jacket’s lapel and showed him a golden flower pin—an edelweiss, the mountain blossom of the Alps.

“Oh, the Archmages of Vienna?” Wendel arched an eyebrow. “My compliments on the Hex. Really keeps these rebels in line. Though the Transylvanians have a knack with scythes.” He gestured at his wound.

She winced. “I’m not an archmage. I’m here as a peacekeeper.”

“A peacekeeper?” He loaded the word with scorn. “Is that what they call it now?”

She shrugged, not taking the bait. “Just doing my job.”

“The last time I checked, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary were allies. Which means, conveniently, we’re allies.”

Ardis narrowed her eyes. “Right.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Her smile was frosty. “As my prisoner.”

Wendel returned her smile, and his was even icier. “Fine,” he said, “so long as you don’t waste your time trying to ransom me.”

She scoffed. “Prisoners don’t give orders.”

He stared at her, his jaw taut, and his fingers curled into fists. He was angry. Good. She knew angry. She could work with that.

“If I tell you to kill someone,” she said, “will you do it?”

He nodded.


He nodded again, and his mouth twitched. “Though I prefer to work with the dead.”

She made a neutral noise in the back of her throat. “Then get up. We’re going.”

Wendel winced as he climbed to his feet, and for a half-second Ardis offered her hand to help him stand. But her disgust got the better of her and she crossed her arms. He pressed his hand over his ribs, then swore under his breath.

“I told you to keep that amulet,” Ardis said.

“I’m all right,” he said, “it just hurts like a bitch.”

Ardis turned her back on him, to prove she wasn’t afraid, and started walking. “Keep up, or I’ll leave you behind.”

“Why the hurry?” he said, following her. “The battle is over.”

“The rebellion isn’t. Transylvania is still crawling with peasants armed with pitchforks.” She glanced sideways at him. “And scythes.”

“Almost makes me miss guns.” Wendel sighed. “I was a good shot, you know.”

She snorted at his bravado and kept walking.

He hurried to catch up. “Where are you going?”

“I’m done here. I need to return to Vienna.”

“Vienna,” he said. “That sounds good to me.”

“You don’t get an opinion.”

That provoked a hint of a smile out of him. “Do I get your name?”

“Ardis,” she said, and for some reason she found it hard to meet his eyes.

They crossed the field together. A bitter wind stung Ardis’s skin and flung her hair into her eyes. She stopped, frowning, and braided her hair over her shoulder. Wendel studied her face, and her fingers felt clumsy under his gaze.

“Where are you from?” he said.

Ardis stared at her braid. She never thought her hair was very remarkable, though it was probably the contrast that made him curious. She had tawny lion-colored hair, unmistakably Chinese eyes, and skin a shade or two darker than his.

“I’m from America,” she said. “I’d rather not get into long and boring genealogy.”

Wendel arched his eyebrows. “Oh, I’m sure your genealogy isn’t boring.”

“If you think that’s flattering, it’s not. And you’re wasting your time trying to flatter me.” She gave him a look. “Prisoner.”

He laughed, then doubled over, his hair in his face.

Ardis sighed. “Are you sure you can walk? You’re half dead.”

He gave her a pained smile. “Not half dead. Only a quarter dead.” He gingerly rubbed his side. “That bastard must have cracked my ribs.”

She shook her head. “That would hurt much more. You wouldn’t be laughing at all.”

“I take it you have experienced cracked ribs before?”

“You shouldn’t be travelling,” she said. “You should stay with the medics.”

Wendel’s face went emotionless again. “No, thank you.”

Ardis continued walking. Her feet ached, and she could do with a drink before hitting the road. The necromancer matched her stride. Ardis was tall, but Wendel was at least a few inches taller than her. She studied the lean muscles in his torso and the length of his limbs. He would likely have the advantage of reach in a fight, if nothing else.

“You need a shirt,” she said. “And a coat.”

“Ah, well, I ruined mine.” He glanced sideways at her. “Were you staring?”

Her cheeks warmed. “You’re very pale.”

“Blood loss will do that to a man,” he said. “That, and an inability to tan.”

Ardis bit back a smile.

Wendel stopped halfway across the field and shaded his eyes with his hand.

“I lost my dagger out there,” he muttered.

He hurried toward the edge of the battlefield, or hurried as well as he could, limping and holding his side. Ardis sighed and followed him. She supposed it was a good idea to let the necromancer have his weapon back. It wasn’t like she could stop him from raising the dead. That was touch magic, skin-to-skin.

Wendel stopped next to a Transylvanian soldier in a bloodstained blue uniform. The man had died fairly recently, from the looks of it, but the snow had already begun to bury his body. Beside him lay a scythe with a wicked blade.

“I don’t see any dagger,” Ardis said.

Wendel’s eyes sharpened. He crouched beside the man and studied his face.

“He would know,” he said.

“What?” she said.

Wendel was ignoring her. He laid his hand on the soldier’s neck, then blew out his breath. All the muscles in Wendel’s shoulder and arm tensed.

The soldier blinked his unseeing eyes, and sat upright.

Ardis unsheathed Chun Yi, her nausea peaking. “What are you doing?”

Wendel didn’t let go of the man, and his face was etched with concentration, or pain.

“Where is my dagger?” he said.

The soldier’s blue lips moved, and a gurgling noise came from his throat. He wasn’t breathing; or perhaps the air moving through his lungs was as cold as the winter sky. He stared at Wendel with clouded eyes.

“You remember,” Wendel whispered, “I know you do. You tried to kill me.”

Ardis’s hand clenched tight around Chun Yi.

“The dagger—is by—the tree.” The soldier lifted his arm and pointed toward a pine tree. His gaze never left the necromancer’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Wendel said.

He let go of the soldier, and the man collapsed back into the snow. Dead again. Ardis couldn’t help staring at the scythe.

“That was the man who wounded you?” she said, slightly queasy.

“Yes,” Wendel said.

He had a disgusted, disdainful look, one she had seen before on the faces of cats. He scooped up a handful of snow and scrubbed his fingers clean. Ardis doubted you could ever forget touching a dead man, but she suspected she knew why he was washing his hands so religiously in the river.

“Was that necessary?” she said.

“Yes,” he said, clearly no longer a man of many words.

Wendel climbed to his feet and strode toward the pine tree identified by the undead soldier. He pawed at the snow, then held a blade high—a black dagger with ornate silver engravings of flowers on the hilt.

“Very necessary,” he murmured.

He tilted the dagger so it caught the sun. Ripples swirled through the black metal, the mark of Damascus steel, an art lost centuries ago.

“This is Amarant,” Wendel said. “Do you know what that means?”

“No,” Ardis said.


She heard satisfaction in his voice, and she was afraid to ask what foul curse imbued his dagger. Ever since the Hex, hundreds of enchanted blades had materialized on the European black market. The Archmages of Vienna had anticipated this, though not the breadth of cruel creativity—a thousand and one ways to die.

Ardis’s hand found Chun Yi again. At least her blade was honest metal.

“It’s late,” Ardis said. “We’re catching the next train out of here.”

Wendel slid his thumb along the flat of Amarant as if polishing away a fleck of blood.

Ardis was tired of waiting, and still nauseated from his little show of necromancy. She began to walk to camp. She didn’t care if she left the necromancer behind on the battlefield. Silence pressed on her ears, broken only by the slow hushing of her breath. The snowfall thickened around her as the wind quickened.

A crow cawed in a nearby pine, and Ardis flinched. Fatigue always frayed her nerves.

Footsteps crunched the snow, running fast, catching up. “Ardis.”

Hearing her name in his voice felt odd. Like she should have never given her name to a necromancer. But that wasn’t how magic worked, not really. That was just fairytales and nursery rhymes. So why was she still off balance?

“What train?” Wendel said.

“The train in Petroseni,” she said. “It leaves in about an hour.”

He moved alongside her, struggling to breathe steadily. “We’re walking there?”

“No,” she said.

Ardis nodded in the direction of camp, shadowed by the zeppelins of the medics.

“We’re flying.”


Wendel leaned against the wall of the zeppelin’s utilitarian cargo hold, his eyes closed, as diesel engines powered the airship skyward. Ardis studied him more closely, now that he wasn’t looking. He wore a borrowed shirt and black long coat that were slightly too big for him. The sleeves of the coat partly covered his clenched fingers.

“You!” A man whistled at her, like she was a dog. “Can you hear me?”

It was the medic who had cured Wendel on the battlefield.

Ardis narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“Make sure he gets plenty of fluids,” he said. “He may need another blood transfusion.”

She glared at the medic. “I’m a mercenary, not a nurse.”

“I’ll do it,” Wendel said, without opening his eyes. “I’ll get the blood and the whatnot.”

The medic took a step back, startled, but recovered quickly. “And apply a fresh bandage to the wound in a few hours.”

Wendel opened his eyes a sliver. “Yes, sir.”

The medic didn’t seem to detect any sarcasm in his voice, so he nodded and walked away.

Ardis glanced at Wendel. She wanted to ask how he was feeling, but she didn’t want to sound like she cared, not like that.

“I’m fine,” he said to her, and he looked into her eyes. “I’m not going to die.”

She didn’t blink. “Don’t. That would be counterproductive.”

Wendel’s smile was startlingly swift and genuine. He was even more handsome when he smiled, not that it surprised her.

“You Americans,” he said. “Always so tactful.”

Ardis was aware of her fast heartbeat, but she didn’t look away. “Always.”

Wendel’s smile faded, and she was sad to see it go. Why did someone as bad as a necromancer have to look so good?

“How long of a flight is this going to be?” he said.

“About thirty minutes,” she said, “in this weather. Do you hate flying?”

He shrugged. “I’m indifferent to flying.” He tilted his head. “Is thirty minutes long enough for me to hear your long and boring genealogy?”

Ardis wrinkled her nose. “Why do you want to know?”

“You intrigue me.”

She would have sworn he was trying to charm her, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

Ardis fidgeted against the cold steel of the zeppelin, then folded her legs under herself.

“You first,” she said.

Wendel let his head fall back against the wall. “I come from a long line of Prussian nobility, but I still managed to inherit bad blood.”

Prussian. Well, that explained the flawless German.

“It’s inherited? The necromancy?”

He shrugged. “Apparently a great-great-great grandfather of mine had the talent, but he didn’t live for long. We rarely do.”

Ardis was afraid to ask why.

“You said nobility,” she said. “What family?”

Wendel’s jaw tightened, and he narrowed his eyes. “They aren’t my family now. They disinherited me years ago.”

“For being what you are?”

He arched his eyebrows, and she felt stupid for even asking. “Yes.”

She wondered if he sounded so bitter because he had been the heir to a great fortune. Prussian nobles were all rich, even younger sons.

“And you?” His voice sounded lighter now, almost bantering. “Your family?”

A knot tightened in her stomach. “My mother came from China.”

“And your father?”

She shrugged. “I never met him. He wasn’t Chinese. Obviously.”

Wendel nodded and glanced at her hair. She felt her cheeks warm, and she wished she didn’t look foreign wherever she went.

“I assume your sword also came from China,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s called a jian.”

Ardis drew Chun Yi halfway and let the light glint off the battered old blade, highlighting the two characters engraved just below the crossguard. She couldn’t read Chinese, but she knew they must be name of the sword.

“These are the characters for Chun Yi,” she said. “Pure Justice.”

Wendel raised one eyebrow with an impeccably sardonic look.

“And how exactly,” he said, “did Pure Justice happen to fall into your hands?”

“Family heirloom,” she said, which wasn’t entirely a lie.

“Heirloom?” His eyes glinted. “Shouldn’t that sword be hanging over a mantelpiece?”

Might as well tell him the truth. It might even intimidate the necromancer.

“It was,” she said. “Until I killed a man with it.”

He laughed, then grimaced. “Don’t make me laugh.”

Wendel’s hand hovered over his ribs. Ardis could see how much it hurt him just to breathe. His lips looked vaguely blue.

“I’m not joking,” she said. “I didn’t think I could kill anyone until he was dead.”

That caught his attention.

“Did he deserve to die?” he said.

She stared fiercely at him. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

He narrowed his eyes, then closed them and shivered.

“Are you cold?” she said.

His eyes stayed shut. “It’s winter. We’re all cold.”

“Cold from the blood loss.” She balled her hands into fists and slid closer to him. “I could get a medic for you now.”

Wendel opened his eyes. “Ardis,” he said quietly. “The medics have done enough.”

“But he was right. You need a new bandage, and—”


Ardis started to stand. “Let me—”

The necromancer caught her by the wrist, and his icy fingers shocked her. The fact that he was touching her shocked her even more.

“No,” he whispered. “They will only ask more questions.”

Ardis stared at his hand on her skin, felt the pressure of his grasp on her wrist bones, and her heart drummed in her chest.

“They don’t know who you are,” she said.

His stare was intense, his eyes vivid with determination.

“It isn’t too hard,” he said, “for them to find out.”

Ardis swallowed hard and glanced around the zeppelin. Nobody seemed to notice them, or the way Wendel’s touch was making her feel. She had to pretend it didn’t bother her. His hands were strong and slightly calloused. She could imagine they belonged to a normal man, but she had seen what he had done with them.

“Fine,” she said.

Wendel let go of her, and her skin tingled where his fingers had been. She wanted to rub her hand, but she didn’t want him to see.

“If it bothers you,” he said in a low voice, “my hands are clean.”

Ardis forced herself to meet his eyes. “You know what bothers me.”

Before he could reply, she climbed to her feet and left him leaning against the wall. She busied herself by scanning out the window, though she was only pretending to pay attention to how close they were to their destination.

It didn’t matter how many miles away they were. The necromancer was with her now.


By the time the zeppelin landed in Petroseni, the sky had darkened to plum purple. Ardis’s boots clomped on the landing ramp as she exited the zeppelin and looked around the Transylvanian town. Half-timbered medieval townhouses clustered around the cobblestoned town square. The most modern building here was a train station of soot-blackened red brick, where plumes of smoke muddled the clouds.

“Ready?” Ardis asked Wendel.

The necromancer nodded. He still looked pale, but at least he was steady on his feet. He hadn’t spoken since he had touched her.

“We should be able to catch the eight o’clock train,” she said, “if we hurry.”

He nodded again.

She strode through the town at a brisk pace. He kept up with her, but she noticed he was still breathing much too shallowly.

He had coughed up blood earlier. That was never good.

The eight o’clock train idled on the track. Its sleek chrome sides gleamed in the last of the evening light, and the sharp aroma of diesel punctuated the air. Ardis found the ticket booth, nodded at the elderly man inside, and fetched her wallet.

“How much for two sleeper tickets to Vienna?” she said.

“Coach or first class, ma’am?” the ticket-seller said.


But then Wendel was at her side, a bundle of koronas in his hand. “First class.”

The ticket-seller raised his bushy white eyebrows. “Are the two of you together?”

“Yes.” Wendel peeled off a few bills. “A hundred and fifty koronas should cover it?”

“Certainly, sir.”

Ardis looked sideways at Wendel. She never travelled first class, since it drew too much attention. None of the other passengers ever looked at her like she belonged there, with her American accent and her Chinese eyes.

Wendel took the tickets, then walked to the first class cars on the train.

“Coming?” he called back to Ardis.

She hurried to his side as he handed the tickets to the conductor, who glanced between them with obvious curiosity on his face.

“Your cabin is number seven,” the conductor said, “down the hallway on the right.”

Cabin? Singular?

Wendel offered his arm to help Ardis up, playing the part of gentleman, but she shook her head and climbed on without him.

First class was indeed luxurious, with wood paneling on the walls and elaborate cut-glass shades on the lamps. Ardis found their cabin and slid open the door. Two bench seats in paisley velveteen faced each other. She fiddled with one until it folded out into a berth. At least they would be sleeping opposite each other.

If she could even manage to fall asleep tonight.

Her jaw taut, she folded the berth back into a seat once more and glared at it. Then she sank onto the seat and rubbed her face as if she could erase her fatigue. Her dirty boots looked out of place on the plush carpet.

Wendel stood in the doorway of the cabin. His face was unreadable.

“Nice little stunt back there,” she said.

“Stunt?” he said.

“If you want to lie low, first class isn’t the way to do it.”

“I always travel first class.”

She narrowed her eyes. “How lucky of you.”

“If I suddenly travelled coach,” he said, “it would look suspicious.”

“Suspicious to who?”

Wendel walked into the cabin, and slid the door shut behind himself. He sidestepped past her and drew the curtains on the window. He was standing awfully close to her. It made her want to leave the room, but she kept a poker face. Wincing, he sat on the seat opposite her and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.

With a whistle, the train jolted into motion and chugged from the station.

“Suspicious to who?” Ardis repeated.

Wendel bowed his head, and his hair shadowed his face.

“The Order of the Asphodel,” he said, “among others.”

“Are you a wanted man?” Ardis said.

“I’m not wanted by very many,” he said dryly. “But once they question my loyalty, they won’t stop until they have found me.”

She clenched her jaw. Things were beginning to make more sense now.

“You swore fealty to me,” she said.

“I did.”

Ardis climbed to her feet and looked down at him.

“Don’t try to use me,” she said, “for your own devices. I’m not an idiot, and I’m not blind. I won’t be your alibi while you go rogue.”

He lifted his head. “I’m not their puppet, and I won’t let them hurt you.”

She laughed scathingly. “As if you could protect me.”

Wendel stood, his face only inches from her own. The smoldering in his eyes made her mouth go dry. He didn’t smell like blood and death, as she had expected, but like rain on pines. The train swayed along a curve in the tracks, and she gripped the table beneath the windows, afraid she would lean on him.

“I promised you,” he whispered, “that I would repay my debt to you. I owe you the courtesy of saving your life in return.”

She didn’t blink. “And after you save my life?”

“After?” He furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“Will you turn on me, and kill me in my sleep?”

His eyebrows arched. “Why?”

“I have no reason to trust you,” she said.

“Then I will earn your trust.” He met her eyes. “Will you let me do that?”

“Damn,” she sighed, and she sank back into her seat. “I don’t want to deal with this. I just want to do my job and get paid.”

Wendel tilted his head. “Why do you kill for profit?”

His question knocked her off balance. She stared at him.

“Why do you?” she said.

“I don’t.”

She laughed derisively. “But you’re a necromancer.”

He lifted one shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “I don’t get paid.”

“Then is killing a labor of love?”

As soon as she had said it, she regretted how callous it sounded. But Wendel didn’t flinch. He looked at her with ice in his eyes.

“A matter of survival,” he said.

“Then we understand each other,” she said.

The cold in Wendel’s eyes melted. He seemed to be studying her face, and she felt her cheeks betray her with a blush.

“You must be more than a mercenary,” he said.

She frowned. “Are you more than a necromancer?”

His face sharpened, and he didn’t speak for a long moment.

“I want to be.”

When she saw the hope in his eyes, the knot of anger inside her unraveled. Either he was a very good liar, or she was beginning to believe him.


The warm glow of the dining car contrasted with the wind-driven sleet outside the train’s windows. Ardis leaned back in her chair, her spine aching, and relished this hard-won moment of rest. The polite murmur of conversation and the clink of silverware on china were a far cry from the sounds of the battlefield.

“Ma’am?” said a waiter in a white uniform. “Could I start you with something to drink?”

“Just water,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Very well, ma’am. Please let me know if you need anything else.”

She had to admit, she could get used to this first-class service.

At the table nearby, a woman wrapped in furs giggled at her companion, a portly man in a top hat. She doubted they had started their journey in Transylvania. More likely they were just passing through on their way to Budapest. They likely couldn’t even see the rebel skirmishes from the railways.

And where was Wendel?

She hadn’t seen him since their conversation in the cabin, when he had excused himself and vanished elsewhere on the train. She could only hope he hadn’t passed out, considering how he was still looking poorly.

“May I join you?”

Ardis glanced to her side, a sarcastic comment armed and ready—but it wasn’t Wendel.

A slender man with sandy curls and a neatly-trimmed beard stood there. He wore a well-cut charcoal suit with an edelweiss pin at his lapel. He looked a bit sunburned, and she wondered if he had been somewhere faraway.

“Oh,” Ardis said, flustered, “yes, I suppose so.”

“Allow me to introduce myself.” The man smiled at her and bowed. “I’m Konstantin Falkenrath. And I didn’t mean to be so presumptuous, but I’m afraid this dining car is rather popular at this time of night.”

“It’s fine.” Ardis unfolded her napkin. “I haven’t ordered yet.”

“Are you dining alone?” Konstantin said.

She hesitated, then wondered why. It wasn’t as if her and Wendel were going to dine together every night, or at all.

“Yes,” she said. “Please, sit. And my name is Ardis.”

“What a pretty name,” Konstantin said, and he looked at her when he said it.

Ardis noticed the archmage’s eyes were sky blue, a shade that reminded her of summer.

Ardis is derived from the same root as ardent,” he said, “if I’m not mistaken.”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said.

She had chosen the name because it sounded right. But even after living for three years as Ardis, she would never forget her birth name. She was still Yu Lan inside, Jade Orchid, the Chinese word for the magnolia flower.

“Where are you from?” Konstantin said.

“America,” she said, since that was vague enough.

“Oh? Which part?”

Chinatown, San Francisco was the address she called home. She could still remember standing in the street and breathing in the confused perfume of fried restaurant food and cigar smoke and ever-present sandalwood incense.

Ardis blinked away the memories. “California.”

Konstantin nodded, and thankfully didn’t question her more.

The waiter returned with Ardis’s water. “Anything for you, sir?”

“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” Konstantin said, without even looking at the menu. “And I hear the asparagus and trout is excellent tonight.”

“And you, ma’am?” said the waiter.

Ardis opened the menu and stared at it, but it might as well have been written in ancient Greek. She put on a confident look.

“The asparagus and trout as well,” she said.

“Good choice,” Konstantin said.

He had a warm smile, the kind that made Ardis return it without a thought.

She nodded at his edelweiss pin. “You work for the archmages?”

“I am an archmage,” he said.

Konstantin steepled his fingers on the table, and Ardis sipped her water to cool her blush. To think that the man sitting across from her was one of her employers. Though she couldn’t remember hearing of Falkenrath.

“Or I will be,” Konstantin said, “once I arrive in Vienna. Then it will all be official.”

Ardis raised her eyebrows. “You must be one of the youngest archmages there.”

He laughed and looked down at his fingers. “Yes,” he said. “Is it that obvious? I had hoped the beard would help.”

“It does,” she said.

He stroked his goatee and made a face. “Do you think I should aim for long and gray?”

She laughed. “No.”

“I have a few good decades left in me before that, I should hope.”

She cocked her head. “I’m curious,” she said, “where you got that sunburn.”

He smiled. “The Dodecanese.”

“The what?”

“The where.”

Konstantin flipped the menu over. On the back, there was a map of European railways. His fingertip rested on the Mediterranean.

“There,” he said, “in the Aegean Sea. Twelve marvelous islands called the Dodecanese. The water there is a remarkable turquoise.” He furrowed his brow. “Unfortunately, of course, the islands are still occupied by Italy.”

“Why were you there?” Ardis said.

He broke into a boyish grin. “The Hex.”

She didn’t want to look ignorant, but she had to ask. “The Hex reaches that far?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Last year, when Italy invaded Tripoli, the Ottoman Empire turned to Austria-Hungary for help. The archmages pledged their aid and have been hard at work constructing the magic of the Hex.”

Ardis leaned forward in her chair. “The entire Ottoman Empire?”

“Almost! We’re fortifying it here and there, like along the Dodecanese.”

Shaking her head, she leaned back. “Amazing.”

Konstantin ran his finger along the borders of the Kingdom of Serbia.

“Everyone can keep fighting like dogs,” he said, “over the scraps of the Ottoman Empire. We will muzzle them until they obey.”

The Hex did deaden gunpowder and render guns useless, but that hadn’t ended hostilities.

“Hopefully,” Ardis said, frowning.

The waiter returned with Konstantin’s gin and tonic. Ardis glanced around the dining car. Her gaze locked with Wendel’s. He stood in the doorway behind the archmage. His face was shadowed, his body tight like a cat about to spring.

“Have you been to Vienna before?” Konstantin said.

Ardis nodded and opened her mouth to invite Wendel over to their table. But the necromancer shook his head, and she glimpsed a look of loathing on his face before he backed out of the doorway and disappeared again.

Why did he look so repulsed? Did he have a history with the archmage?

“Ardis?” Konstantin said.

“I have been to Vienna,” she said. “Believe it or not, I work for the archmages.”

“Is that so?” he said.

The waiter delivered their plates with a flourish. On each, a tiny filet of trout rested in a sea of sauce, with no more than six grilled spears of asparagus on the side. Tender white asparagus, the kind they called spargel in German.

It was hardly a dinner. Ardis resisted the urge to grimace.

Konstantin shook his napkin loose, and inclined his head in her direction. “Please, tell me more. Are you one of the peacekeepers?”

Peacekeepers. Now she couldn’t stop thinking of how scornfully Wendel said that word.

“Yes,” she said, and she impaled a spear of asparagus on her fork.

“The rebels in Transylvania really are troublesome, aren’t they?”

Ardis chewed for a minute. “Not so much after you behead them.”

Konstantin laughed nervously. “Beheadings are hardly proper dinner conversation.”

“You asked.” She finished her trout in one bite.

“It was a rhetorical question.”

Ardis stared at her empty plate. “If I can speak freely, I’m not sure we’re winning. More and more of the Transylvanians have learned how to fight with bows and spears. I’m even seeing decent swords out there.”

Konstantin dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “An unfortunate consequence of the Hex.”

“Unfortunate consequence isn’t how I would put it,” she said.

The archmage looked directly at her, his eyes keen with interest. “And how would you put it? As a peacekeeper?”

Ardis knew how close she was to insulting one of the very architects of the Hex.

“There will be a war,” she said, “and all the magic in the world can’t stop it.”

Konstantin sipped his gin and tonic pensively. He peered out the window as they rocketed through the dark forests of Transylvania.

Ardis dropped her napkin on the table and stood. “I think I’m done for tonight.”

“No dessert?” Konstantin said.

She shook her head, since she suspected it would be equally miniscule.

“Then good evening,” he said, “I hope to see you again.”

She mustered a polite smile. “Thank you for the company.”

On the way back to their cabin, the train rattled over a bridge, and Ardis’s meager dinner squirmed in her stomach. The lights in the cabin were on, and the train’s staff had converted their seats to berths, folded down the blankets, and even left a mint on each of their pillows. She shrugged and swallowed her mint whole.

The door to the tiny bathroom stood ajar. She rapped on the wall.

“Yes?” Wendel said.

“It’s me,” she said, and she peeked inside.

Wendel was bent over the sink, bracing himself with his hands, breathing shallowly. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror, his face etched with pain. Then she saw why. His wound was bare and bleeding again.


Wendel met her eyes in the mirror. “Ardis.”

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Doctoring myself.” He held out his hand. “Could you pass me the alcohol?”

Ugly black sutures ran the length of his wound, and blood still seeped past the stitches and trickled down his chest.

“The alcohol?” Wendel repeated. “To clean the wound?”

Ardis glared at him. “You don’t use alcohol to clean wounds. It’s too strong. And why did you take the bandage off?”

Wendel’s outstretched fingers twitched. “The medic told me to apply a new one.”

“But you haven’t stopped bleeding. You need to put it on the old one.” She shook her head. “You shouldn’t have been running around.”

He lowered his head and made a noise between a growl and a sigh. “I’ll fix it.”

“Have you never bandaged yourself?” she said.


Ardis grabbed the first aid kit from the counter. “That’s it. I’m taking over.”

“I said, I’ll—”

“Shut up and let me do this before you pass out.”

“I’m not going to—”

Ardis dabbed at the wound with a damp towel, and he sucked in his breath. He wasn’t bleeding too badly, but she wasn’t sure he had any more blood to spare. She was impressed he had lasted this long without keeling over.

“Hold still,” she said.

“I am,” he said. “It’s this train swaying back and forth.”

Ardis finished cleaning the blood, then washed her hands and unwrapped the gauze. She tore off a piece, then taped it over the wound. Wendel clenched his hands when she touched him, but he let her continue. She reached around him to wrap a bandage around his chest, and he grimaced when she tugged it tight.

“Are you always this sadistic?” he said.

She glanced at him. “Are you always this delicate?”

He scowled. “I’m so glad you aren’t a nurse.”

“Me, too.”

Ardis fastened the bandage and stepped back to inspect her work. Wendel looked at himself in the mirror, his face white.

“Damn cold in here,” he muttered.

The train jolted on the tracks, and Wendel stumbled forward, catching himself on the edge of the sink. He didn’t look like he was going to stay upright much longer, so Ardis grabbed him by the arm and hauled him out of the bathroom. She let him drop onto his berth. He fell back in a slump, propping himself with his elbows.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Not going to pass out?” she said, though her voice didn’t have as much bite in it.

He mustered enough strength for a sarcastic smile. “God, maybe I will. This berth is comfortable. And look, two pillows.”

Ardis raised her eyebrows. She was not going to go there.

Wendel’s smile twisted into something nasty. “How was dinner with the archmage?”

“Do you know him?” she said.

He snorted. “I think not.”

“Then how could you tell—?”

“Anyone who stinks of so much foul magic must be at least an archmage.”

Ardis stifled a laugh. “A necromancer, complaining of foul magic?”

Wendel gave the ceiling a look of cool disdain.

“Necromancy,” he said, “is a natural magic. The archmages toy around with spells and tricks memorized from books.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think there’s anything natural about raising the dead.”

He glanced sideways at her. “Natural meaning inborn. Inherited.”


“I know you think necromancers are monsters,” he said.

Ardis’s throat tightened, and she couldn’t meet his eyes. Yes, that was what she thought, but hearing him say it sounded… unfair?

“But believe me,” he said, “that’s a fraction of the hatred archmages have for us.”

“Is Konstantin your enemy?” she said.

“Konstantin? Is that his name?”

She nodded.

Wendel let himself fall back on the berth. “Perhaps all this blood loss is a good thing. It will make me that much harder to find.”

Ardis made an impatient noise. “Why?”

“My magic is very weak now,” he muttered. “But that won’t stop Konstantin if he blunders too near to me. I should lie low until we arrive in Vienna. Hell, why did that bastard have to take the same train?”

“What happens if he finds you?” she said.

But Wendel didn’t reply, a distant look in his eyes.

“Great,” she said, “two days on a train with a necromancer and an archmage. And I don’t even know why you hate him so much.”

He looked at her, finally, and there was a strange questioning look in his eyes.

“There is a lot to tell you,” he said, “that I would rather not.”


The train rattled further into the forest and deeper into the gathering night. Ardis rested in her berth with her pillow against the wall, watching Wendel sleep. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he had tossed off his blankets despite the chilly air. She wondered if he felt feverish. His skin looked ghostly in the weak moonlight.

Ardis rolled over in her berth and stared at the ceiling.

In the back of her mind, a thought lingered like a primitive fear. Don’t close your eyes with a necromancer so near. She knew too little about Wendel, and she never liked the unknown. She should question him in the morning.

Although she had liked their earlier banter.

Damn, had she been alone for so long? Was she that desperate for camaraderie? Sometimes, on her missions, she had gone for days without speaking to another soul. It scared her. Like being a mercenary had made her less human, but she hadn’t noticed until now. Until the necromancer.

Exhaustion muddled her thoughts, and her eyelids drifted lower.


There was a great lurch, and a screeching that hurt her ears.


She opened her eyes and jolted upright. Wendel stood by the window, a handful of curtains clenched in his hand, and stared outside at the gray forest. Then she identified the screeching as the brakes of the train.

“Why are we stopping?” she said.

“I don’t know.”

Ardis leapt out of her berth and yanked on her jacket. The train shuddered, and she stumbled toward Wendel. He caught her by the arm to steady her. Momentum swung her against him, and her shoulder hit him in the chest.

“Sorry!” she said.

He released her and backed away. “I’ll live.”

Ardis hadn’t meant to be so clumsy, or to sound so concerned. But judging by the roughness in his voice, she had hurt him.

“What’s happening outside?” she said.

Wendel looked back out the window, one hand pressed above his bandage. “We must have found one of the holes in the Hex.”

“Holes?” she said. “I thought those didn’t exist.”

He looked at her with a thin smile. “Ah, but I heard gunshots.”

There was a definite note of satisfaction in his voice, like he was pleased that the magic of the archmages had failed in this area.

“Get dressed,” she said. “We’re going outside.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said sardonically.

Ardis tugged on a pair of trousers and yanked on her boots, then grabbed Chun Yi and hurried out the door. She glanced back and saw Wendel slipping that strange black dagger of his into the pocket of his borrowed long coat.

In the hallway, a conductor stopped them. “Ma’am, sir, there’s no cause for alarm.”

“Gunshots?” Wendel said, and he sounded gleeful.

“I’m a mercenary with the archmages,” Ardis said, “and it sounds like there’s been a problem with the Hex here. Let me take a look.”

The conductor hesitated, then nodded and stepped out of their way.

“Impressive,” Wendel said. “You pull off the voice of authority thing well.”

Ardis marched down the hallway and entered the swaying passageway between cars. She slid open the door and walked onto the narrow steel platform just as the train chugged to a halt, hissing and puffing diesel smoke.

Beside her, Wendel leaned over the railing. “So that’s why we stopped.”

Ardis peered into the darkness and saw a truck illuminated in the headlights of the train. It was parked directly across the tracks. A scattering of people stood around the truck, the unmistakable silhouettes of guns in their hands. The beams of their flashlights and lanterns crisscrossed the chilly fog.

“Rebels,” Ardis said. “Do they think they can hijack this train?”

“Apparently,” Wendel said. “There are a lot of wealthy passengers.”

Her stomach squirmed. “And the archmage.”

“Oh?” He gave her a look. “Don’t tell me you plan to protect him from those—”

We are,” she said. “You work for me now, remember? And you better be good for a fight, because it looks like they want one.”

He sighed a long-suffering sigh. “Whatever you say.”

One of the conductors hopped off the train and landed in the snow. He approached the rebels with his hands held high. His words were unintelligible to Ardis. The rebels aimed their lights at the conductor’s face. Then their guns.

“What is he doing?” she muttered.

“Negotiating?” Wendel suggested.