Lips once beautiful, now turned rotted black, curled up in a slight smile, showing teeth stained with clots of blood. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Aisling.”
Gooseflesh rippled down my body when that crackled, unearthly voice issued through dead lips. I swallowed, though my throat was dry and scratchy, and forced myself to look at her fully.
Her blonde curls were the same, though chopped shorter than I remembered. Her flesh, always pale, had taken on a greyish pallor with spidery veins so dark a red to nearly be black that were in thick bunches around the corners of her mouth and eyes. The blue eyes rimmed in unhealthy dark hadn’t changed, save for being a little more bloodshot than I remembered.
Her neck, long and graceful, now bore a thick, ugly line gaping open to reveal the layers of tissue beneath her flesh. It was rotted and black, with chunks of skin and blood just barely clinging to their decayed roost. Putrid flesh covered her neck, nearly reaching her chin and collar.
But it wasn’t her appearance that was so daunting—though I knew the sight of her would haunt my dreams.
All around her was the stink of death.
Her head jerked to the side, and I could see the muscles moving in the gaping slit in her neck. “What is it, Aisling?” she cooed. “Do you not like what you have made me?”
I caught my breath and tried to shuffle away, but I was trapped by the blankets and my own fatigue. “You… you should be dead,” I stammered, feeling tears of horror prickle my eyes. “I killed you.”
Her eyelids quivered as she tried to blink. Her whole body swayed slightly, but her purposeful motions were jerky and awkward. Her former beauty and grace was gone entirely. “You did. But I am not dead. Not really. Father Zdenek was not ready to lose another high apprentice so soon.”
The reek of his magic surrounded her in an aura. Seeing what it was capable of, I suddenly understood why people were so frightened of mages.
Her eyes widened, nearly bulging. “How am I alive? Let me tell you a tale, dear Sister, of my death and rebirth. After you so kindly slit my throat and forced an early retreat, I very nearly did die. Luckily the Father had been listening to the battles our people involved themselves in, and he knew I was injured. When it became clear healing wards would do little to save me, he used the combined power of his specialties. He learned a secret from studying you,” she added, voice lowering to a hiss. “He uses the same queer magic you do every new moon to keep me alive. I do not know what yours does, but mine renews the chronomancy that holds my time in place to the moment before my death, and the necromancy that keeps my flesh from dying.”
Zombie. The word flashed into my head as I heard her words; stories of reanimated corpses rising on their own accord that Alistair had heard as a boy. I had thought it foolish then, but I felt more inclined to believe him now that a creature on the cusp of life and death sat before me. Dying but not yet dead; alive but not living.
“You… you’re a monster.”
“I am new life. I am the future of immortality.” She stood. It was clear that she was trying to move slowly, but I could hear her bones cracking and shifting as her dying body fought to keep her upright. Her arms jerked back and head snapped up in a grotesque parody of life. Just watching her I felt ill.
“We have what you asked, Sister.” A few barbarians slipped into the tent, holding skins of water and a plate of bread. My mouth watered and stomach grumbled upon seeing them, betraying the revulsion I felt for what surrounded me.
Lacramioara—or what had once been her—spun her head around to see them, and a clot of rotting blood dangling from her neck fell and splatted on her breast. She didn’t even notice; the barbarians went white. “Good. Give her what she needs, and nothing more. I will be back later.” She walked to the tent entrance, her arms hanging uselessly at her sides. Once she was gone, the barbarians whispered to each other of unnatural life, and I felt inclined to agree with them.