Whatever allied soldiers had survived the explosion had either fled back to camp or been slaughtered by barbarians. We had not come fast enough; no corpses could use our help.
We stood there, with no inkling of how much time had passed. Both aware we were needed elsewhere; both too shocked by the savagery of what was before us to leave.
Then something stirred the air. Hession grunted, sensing the shift in spirit as well, but before he could shout a warning or unsheathe his sword, or before I could cast a spell, something invisible and hard slammed into us, sending us flying into the ash and remains. We tumbled through the embers, burning bared flesh and inhaling dust and ash. I managed to stop myself with a blast of psychokinesis—which I recognized as being the spell that knocked us back—but Hession had no such luck and only stopped when he landed face-first in the mud.
Whirling around to our attacker, I snarled and curled my hands into fists. “Lacramioara.”
“Aisling.” She smiled and flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder. Behind her stood a flock of at least twenty Gabal Mages—men and women I had grown up with, who had all been treated to Father Zdenek’s cruelty and somehow remained. “I never expected to meet you here, of all places. I knew I smelled your spirit the night the prince left. We should have known you would not leave him to rot.”
“Father Zdenek would have killed him or have him locked away. His training needed to end.”
“Cute. Leave this battlefield now and we will spare your life,” she warned, and with a whisper of words and a flick of her fingers, the charred remains began to moan and shift around us. I grimaced, and behind me Hession let out a string of disgusted oaths. Necromancy was a filthy magic, and one I never favoured. “You know I am capable. My pets defeated you last we met. No prince is here to save you now.”
I used a minor mimicry spell to keep my face neutral. She was right, as much as I was loathe to admit it. I would have suffocated and died if Alistair hadn’t intervened and destroyed her undead creations, when we met in the woods before meeting Father Zdenek. She had been favoured in my absence.
Hession stumbled up beside me, battered and disoriented, but his sword was drawn and his healing was at work. Lifting a hand to wipe blood from a cut on his forehead, he fixed Lacramioara with a baleful glare and snapped, “Raisin’ the dead is sick magic.”
A cruel smile curled her lips. “And I learned from the best, Canton.”
As one, the bodies jerked toward us.
There is no doubt that, especially during war, necromancy was a useful, if foul, magic to practice. Turning the bodies of a general’s soldiers against him was useful, as Zdenek and Lacramioara liked to prove time and again.
However, as with most of the rare and difficult magic—chronomancy, psychometry, psychokinesis—it had a weakness, about as avoidable as the sunset.
In order to control a unit of soldiers, as Lacramioara was apt to do, a mage must know a series of command phrases in Old Helmenian—or Gabalic, in our case. Without these phrases, the corpses are reanimated but worthless. This leaves only a small margin for a Gabal Mage to cast any other spells, leaving her to rely almost solely on her undead army.
I knew from experience that Lacramioara was skilled enough to produce a volley of devastating attacks between commands but it was our only window of opportunity, and I planned on taking full advantage of it.
I lunged at Hession. As soon as I moved, Lacramioara pushed her corpses into movement. I enveloped Hession in camouflage, and as soon as he vanished from view I called white-hot fire between my palms and sent an arc of it around the clearing. It hungrily caught what was left of clothes and hair, but the bodies continued to shamble toward us.
One came close and snarled as its gnarled paws swiped toward me. In the moment between their approach and the beginnings of their attack, Lacramioara shouted another attack and a crackling storm materialized above me. The heat and electricity snapped the air, sending prickles of static through my skin. Before lightning could strike and spear my heart, I kicked the nearest corpse away and let my spirit swell within me to absorb and steal the power of Lacramioara’s attack. I gritted my teeth as the sudden jolt of power shot through me, but my spirit quelled it and pushed it down to my fingertips. Fingers splayed and hands flat, I ducked the attack of a shrivelled corpse and sent a wave of lightning through its body. The blinding blue-white flashes danced over the blackened flesh, then jumped to the one nearest and spread through the crowd.
Hession’s cry made me whirl around, just in time to see a fist of ice shooting toward me. I blasted it aside with a jet of fire before running to where I sensed Hession’s spirit. My camouflage was holding up, and he was moving silently and invisibly through the clearing. Undead fell as his sword cut through them without them knowing; Gabal Mages in Lacramioara’s troupe were swearing and trying vainly to find him and force him out of hiding.
Another wave of Lacramioara’s monsters rushed me. I sent out a blast of flames, but it only kept them at bay for several seconds.
Hession and I would be overwhelmed if we didn’t escape or do something drastic. I doubted he would back down from a fight, and I had too much pride to let Lacramioara win like this.
Drastic measures must be taken.
A blast of psychokinesis sent the corpses sprawling away, and left a neat round crater in the already ravaged ground. “Hession, keep me safe!” I shouted, then dropped to my knees and cupped my hands together.
I would need utter silence and serenity to do this. But I had neither, and would have to make do.
It was a delicate manipulation of the spirit that allowed chronomancy. Ancient Helmenian scholars once surmised that the gods only allowed a small handful of born chronomancers to walk the earth at one time, due to the dangerous nature of the magic. Father Zdenek had been one of those lucky ones, and his powerful time-alteration had been passed down through the children.
Gods do not wish the fingers of mere mortals to touch the hands of time.
My spirit slowed and nearly ceased all movement. It itched to rush through me, ready to jump at a chance for practice—a side effect of being pyrophoric—but I forced it to relax.
Calm passed over me.
Then with an intricate phrase that flowed from my lips like a tangled web that smoothed itself out into a flat braid with each added syllable, it seemed to ooze through me and pulsed.
The beat nearly rent my soul in two, with its bottled energy unleashed. I felt the warm rush of it pass through me, escape through my pores, and wash over the battlefield. It was just powerful enough to affect the clearing where we fought; any further, and the only indication would be a tingle of spirits in nearby mages.
Then I opened my eyes, and time stood still.
Hession’s spirit stood nearby, and as I stood I tentatively reached out and brushed what should have been thin air—but instead felt the rough material of his armour. Around us lay the battered bodies of Lacramioara’s risen army; the air was thick with the stench of their rotted death and lingering fire and ash. Several Gabal Mages were dead or dying, hunched in the mud where they fell. Moving slowly, too exhausted by the effort of casting the spell, I walked past the wreckage, to the spot where Lacramioara stood.
Her long blonde curls were spread behind her, frozen in a gust of wind. Her face wore an expression of hatred and determination, matched by the thin blue tongues wrapped around her arms. I reached out, fingers just millimetres from the frozen lightning. Had I cast the spell a moment later, I might not have survived.
A shiver passed through me. I very rarely tampered with time, but it always left me uneasy. I was not nearly skilled enough to stop my own aging as Zdenek did, but even just stopping time for a moment was uncomfortable. Unnatural.
I scoffed and rounded on Lacramioara. I had once fancied the idea of agelessness. It would be useless now.
With trembling fingers, I unsheathed the small blade on my hip. I whispered a small prayer and plea for redemption from the Druid, then drew the sharpened edge of the blade across the thin, unprotected flesh of her neck. The skin parted, but no blood fell quite yet.
My stomach squirmed as I slipped the sword back into its scabbard and walked back across the clearing. The air started to shift and morph around me; I froze and held back my nausea as the world suddenly tilted and time resumed.
The noise and stench hit me like a boulder and brought me to my knees. Something crackled and fizzled behind me, then voices began to screech and snarl oaths in Gabalic. Clutching my roiling stomach, I whirled around just in time to see Lacramioara collapse. Blood soaked her front and turned the ground beneath her to mud. Hands and bodies whirled around her, shouting for help and hurrying her away.
Breath stirred my hair. “What happened?” Hession’s voice was exhausted and out of breath, and thick with confusion. “I feel sick.”
I reached behind me and rested my hand on his sleeve. I murmured a soft word, and the camouflage melted off him. “We should go,” I whispered, and turned back the way we came. I kept my head down as we walked back to the hospital tent and our side of the battlefield. The sounds of battle were all around us, but our allies kept the barbarians at bay. We returned to the tent tired but unmolested, only to find no time for rest; survivors of the earlier fiery explosion were being tended to by Chard and Maks, but the two were overwhelmed.
Numb, I rolled up my sleeves and accepted a fresh rag offered by Maks, and followed him to a group of moaning soldiers, each coated in fresh magical burns.
I had never once toyed with the thought of ending Lacramioara’s life. Zdenek’s wrath would have kept me at bay, but I was no murderer.
When had I become so ruthless?