Bloodmender – Chapter 3

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SERA TUMBLED, flailing, into a sky of purple clouds. Air ripped at her hair. Enormous thunderheads roiled below her, rising fast and crackling with energy.

As Sera plummeted into them, lightning impaled her from all directions. Blood boiled and bone split. Sera shrieked as her flesh cooked.

That horror ended in a flash that split her head open, and then Sera opened her eyes. New eyes. She hung once more among doppelganger husks.

Once more the pole descended, and once more her shoulder rings broke. An agony of twisting bone and flesh molded itself into a facsimile of Sera Valence. She stood, trembling, as Jorumand arrived.

“I despise you,” Sera whispered.

“Do come along, Miss Valence.” Jorumand hurried for the exit. “We’ve kept the mistress waiting long enough.”

Throwing herself off this island would lead only to death in charring clouds, but that didn’t mean there was no escape. Sera would try everything until she escaped. She would not let these demons steal her hope.

They exited the temple. They crossed the bridge of bone. They reached another island of charred black earth.

Slim forms burst from puffs of shadow. Each wore a cloak that stirred constantly, as if it were made of smoke. There were four figures, all children.

Sera trembled. She knew how these children came to be here. Demonkin mages tossed them into the Underside in exchange for defilers: demon servants. Only Hecata would offer such an unforgivable trade.

A single sob shook Sera’s body, for them, not her. “I’m so sorry.”

A short blond boy pulled back his hood. “Why sorry, miss? I’ve never had so much fun as I do down here!” He glanced at the tall, dark-haired girl to his left. “Fillet her? Please?

“No filleting,” the girl said sternly. She was perhaps a year older than the boy, perhaps twelve.

“Aww.” The boy sagged his shoulders.

“My name is Constance, miss,” the tall, dark-haired girl said, “and I lead Queen Hecata’s court guards. So long as you remain our queen’s guest, we will protect you.” She narrowed her eyes at Jorumand. “From everyone.”

Jorumand chittered. “She must learn.”

“There are other ways to teach her. You do not harm our guests, steward.”

Sera barely heard their argument. She ached for these children, the blond boy most of all. These children’s souls were lost to everyone, now.

“Name’s Cutter, miss.” The boy grinned wide enough to show a cracked front tooth. “If anyone touches you, I’ll rip the guts right out of them!” He spun a knife before vanishing it into his cloak. “Why, just yesterday, I yanked the intestines out of such a cheerful man—”

“Cutter will be at your side at all times,” Constance interrupted, eyes fixed on Sera. “If you need anything, tell him. He’ll obtain it—”

“Bugger that!” Cutter protested.

“—or he’ll find someone who will.”

As tears crept unbidden down her cheeks, Sera realized her new body could cry. Of course it could cry. Such displays would please the Mavoureen.

Through years of manipulation, Hecata had stamped out any empathy these poor children once possessed. They were hardened, gleeful killers now. Nothing could ever make that right.

Another boy with black hair and a narrow face offered Sera a fluffy blue robe. She wrapped the robe around herself because she feared what the boy might do if she refused it. She wiped at her eyes with one soft sleeve.

If these demons wanted to hurt her, they could do worse than offering a fluffy blue robe. The warmth it offered was real. The fabric felt soft against her skin.

“Lero,” Constance said, “inform Mistress Hecata that her guest is on her way.”

The boy who had given Sera the robe vanished like a shadow in bright light. The only court guard whom Constance had not introduced was a young girl with skin dark as olives. Was she from Rillan?

“Who are you?” Sera had nothing to lose by asking. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Don’t have a name, miss,” the dark-skinned girl said. “Don’t really need one down here.” She stepped back and vanished like Lero had.

“Oh, that’s the Giggler, miss!” Cutter said eagerly.

Constance rolled her eyes. “You’re the only one who calls her that.”

“But it’s just so perfect for her!” Cutter clenched his fists like he was tugging on an invisible rope. “You’ve never heard anyone who kills the way she does. The way she cackles when she—”

“Enough!” Constance glared at him. “Honestly, Cutter, you could learn a thing from Lero.”

“Lero never says anything.”

“Point made.” Constance bowed to Sera. “Call if you need us, Miss Valence. One of us is always watching.”

Constance vanished, and Cutter bowed mockingly before vanishing as well. Sera hugged the robe about her and trembled with rage. No one should do that to a child.

Jorumand skittered on. “Hecata’s palace is—”

Sera launched herself at Jorumand’s legs. “How could she do that?” She screamed and scratched and kicked. “Those were children, Jorumand! Children!”

The demon snatched her up and held her at arm’s length. “Not for a long time now.”

Sera thrashed and shrieked, but nothing she did made Jorumand release her. Nothing she could do would make those children human again. Once she accepted that, the fight went out of her.

She would never escape. Souls banished to the Underside never escaped. Once she had suffered enough, she would become like those children … or perhaps, she would become something much worse.

Jorumand set her down and skittered back, head tilted, like a handler might examine a panicked animal. Sera slumped and massaged her stinging arms. She pushed back sobs for those lost children, for her damned soul, and for Byn, whom she would never see or hold again.

Perhaps, when she met Hecata, she would claw the demon queen’s eyes out.

Sera followed Jorumand to a group of squat black huts that might be made of chitin. Their round, hive-like shapes reminded Sera of Solyr’s Earther-built cafeteria. Five take her, did more enslaved souls cower inside?

“Who lives here?” Sera asked.

Jorumand reared back and chittered loudly. As Sera watched, dozens of people shambled from their hives. All trembled, but none looked at her or raised their heads.

Each wore little more than tattered gray robes, a pittance that offered no warmth against the Underside’s chill. How many times had the Mavoureen hurt them, killed them, only to shove them into a new body and torture them anew? Is that what they were waiting for right now?

As Sera followed Jorumand past a wrinkled old woman, her heart broke. What must be frostbite darkened the woman’s fingers and toes. Sera stripped off her robe.

“Please,” she whispered, offering her robe and ignoring the goosebumps on her own flesh. “Take it.”

The woman didn’t move, so Sera pressed the robe into her hands. The woman dropped to her knees. She covered her face with her blackened hands and sobbed.

The old woman did not take Sera’s robe. Perhaps she no longer understood that Sera was offering a robe. Perhaps she only understood that when attention was paid to her, she was to be tortured again.

Sera backed away as the woman’s sobs cut her like a cold knife. She wrapped the fluffy blue robe around herself — no one would dare take it, she knew now — and followed Jorumand. They left the damned behind.

Hecata’s demon steward led Sera across another bridge, to another island. This held an obsidian palace of such scale that it looked like some sort of fever dream. No structure could be so massive, yet this structure was.

Dozens of towers grew from the one giant wall Sera could see, each wide enough that it might hold all of Solyr inside it. Those towers vanished into purple cloud. Dark stone walls scraped the sky of the Underside, each brick larger than her father’s house in Cyan.

Sera felt like an ant staring up at the royal palace in Tarna, an insect waiting to be crushed beneath a boot. That was certainly Hecata’s intent, and Sera didn’t fight the troubling sensation. She only had so much fight left. Best save it for something important.

Jorumand reached the towering wall of huge black bricks and skittered straight through it. Sera slowed. The wall must be illusion, but it looked disturbingly solid. Her breath misted before her face.

Sera touched the wall, and then she couldn’t stop touching it, couldn’t move or gasp or scream. Clutching hands, tiny like those of babies, marched from the wall down her arms, across her shoulders, into her ears and along her cheeks. A weight like deep water closed in on her, heavy and unrelenting, as her whole world went dark.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe! Was suffocation beneath baby hands better than burning alive in clouds? The small part of her mind that wasn’t shrieking struggled with this question.

Light returned. Sera clutched her knees, gulping air. She stood inside Hecata’s massive palace, facing Jorumand.

A vast hallway of black bricks stretched away on either side of her, with regular arches of huge bone supporting it like ribs. It looked like the inside of some impossibly large snake.

“A summoning is required to enter Hecata’s palace,” Jorumand said. “None may harm you inside these walls.”

Sera shuddered. “Except Hecata.”

Jorumand chittered again. “This way.” Leg tips clicked on stone tiles.

Sera followed the demon past recessed alcoves, past spiked metal cages holding skeletal remains, past horrors she dared not examine for fear of ruining her mind. Eventually, they reached a set of wrought-iron doors that looked entirely unremarkable save for their impressive size. Such doors seemed shockingly normal for this hell.

Jorumand pressed its clawed hand to the metal seal that united the doors: a pale white rose, twisted and thorny. Lines of yellow energy, like those that flowed up the body temple, spread from the clasp in all directions. The clasp unclicked itself, and then the doors swung open to reveal paradise.

Longing drew Sera into a flowering garden of exquisite beauty. She scarcely noticed the doors closing behind her. The sky in here was wide and open and blue, even though a sky inside a fortress should be impossible.

Rings of concentric dirt and stone descended before her. A dozen wildflowers Sera recognized and dozens she did not dotted the cultivated rings. The fragrant air warmed her chilled face.

After the horrors of the Underside, clean air and blue sky demanded fresh tears. A narrow cobblestone path cut through the rings of flowers, and Sera followed Jorumand down that path because she feared he might cast her out otherwise. She could remain in this garden forever.

Yet couldn’t that be the point? Knowing this was here made what waited outside all the more horrific. These demons could show her paradise, then snatch it away.

A stone well rose in the garden’s center. What kind of water did it hold? Sera felt no thirst or hunger, so perhaps these doppelganger bodies did not need to eat or drink. Perhaps they existed only to be tortured.

A soft voice spoke from behind her. “Sweet child, did you think my Underside all bone and char?”

Sera turned slowly, as if in a dream, to find Hecata striding down the path toward her. The queen of the Underside was an imposing, full-figured woman in a sheer dress of crimson silk, and her bare white feet walked without sound. She could be human if not for her deathly pale skin, perfect in every possible way.

Raven-colored curls drifted in Hecata’s wake, but it was Hecata’s eyes that drew Sera’s focus. Those solid black eyes paralyzed her, ancient and knowing and irresistible. Sera had never loved anyone as she loved Byn, but she knew she could grow to love Hecata, given time.

That made her tremble all over again.

Hecata stopped a pace away and stroked Sera’s cheek. “When a mortal soul is drawn into the Underside, it suffers. Such unfettered souls decay over time, like the dead leaves of your sad little world.”

The touch of Hecata’s finger filled Sera with urges. To lust after a demon was wrong, fiendishly wrong, and she hated this feeling as much as she had ever hated anything. She hated that she wanted to be touched again.

“Before we could speak,” Hecata said, “I had to place your soul in a body, where it would be safe.”

“I understand.” Sera needed to know her voice still worked. It was now frustratingly husky.

“I apologize for the pain.”

“Your steward tossed me off a bridge.” Memories of lightning gave Sera the rage she needed to resist Hecata’s charms. “Your children threatened to fillet me.” As Sera remembered their smiles, she imagined raking her nails down Hecata’s perfect cheeks.

She didn’t. The power now standing before her was immutable, immeasurable. Such empty gestures would only amuse this demon queen.

“What do you want from me?” Sera whispered.

“Why Sera,” Hecata said, “I want you.”

Those words twisted Sera’s insides in ways she knew would haunt her for the rest of her days. “For what?”

“I want the god chained inside you. I want Ruin.”

Sera drove her fingernails into her own palms. “Ruin’s gone. Cantrall banished him beneath Terras.”

“My dear Sera, no mere man can banish the Five.”

Hecata wasn’t lying, and Sera knew she wasn’t lying because Hecata owned her soul. The hope that rose inside her terrified her because it could so easily be crushed again. She might still find escape.

“Ruin is inside me?” Sera whispered.

“He never left.”

“Then why…?” The trauma of Sera’s arrival washed over her anew, because if this was true, these horrors came with Ruin’s permission. “Why would he abandon me? I served him.” The words tasted like ash in her mouth.

“You all serve your Five, as they serve the one who made them.” Hecata offered a breathy sigh. “I could claim Ruin let this happen because he no longer loves you, but that would be heartless. Ruin had no say in the matter.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Cantrall chained your gods inside you with ancient Mavoureen glyphs. The Five are not gone, not lost to you, but slumbering.” Hecata strode past her to the small stone well. “Kara Honuron is going to wake them up.”

Sera followed Hecata to the well, a ring of stones that rose to her waist. She stared into it, expecting inky black. “You think you can defeat Ruin?”

Molten yellow churned inside the well. This yellow was the same color as that flowing up the pyramid of bodies. It glowed like Mavoureen eyes.

“I could defeat Ruin,” Hecata said, and with a flourish, she held a gorgeous purple flower in her hand, “but I wish to make him my ally, instead.”

Sera pushed all her hate into her face. “You think we’d serve you? You corrupt children.”

“I do not wish you to serve me. I need you strong, capable, and angry. I need you beside me as we face our common foe.”

What was Hecata hinting at? Who down here could possibly challenge her power? Who would Hecata need Ruin’s aid to destroy, except…

“Paymon,” Sera whispered.

“You know me so well, sweet child.” Hecata beamed at Sera as she tossed her flower into the well. “We’re going to murder my husband together.”

Her flower ignited in a brilliant yellow flame.

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Bloodmender – Chapter 2

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Now…

EXCRUTIATING PAIN LANCED through Sera from neck to spine to toes, like someone had driven hooks into her bones. Like those hooks were pulling her apart. She couldn’t see, couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe.

Her soul was lost to the Underside.

She would never see Byn again, never see her world again. Yet if damnation was the cost of saving those she loved from this eternity, Sera would do it again in a heartbeat. Byn was alive, Kara was too, and that made this agony bearable for a moment.

Sera remembered sitting with her father on their wide back porch, staring at the stars. She remembered Byn brushing her hair from her forehead. She remembered laughing with Kara as they wrestled in Solyr, yet no moment, no memory, stopped the pain splitting her bones.

These metal hooks murdered good memories. They ripped her open to her soul. A bone-deep agony was wrecking her, killing her, except she could not die.

Sera forced open eyelids that were not hers. This was not her body. Extruded bone sprouted from this body’s shoulders and ringed the metal pole above her, suspending the flesh that kept her trapped.

Whatever she was now hung on a metal rod by her extruded shoulder bones. Dozens more bodies hung on either side of her, faceless, formless sacks of flesh. None breathed and none moved.

Countless hanging bodies hung from other metal poles, hundreds mounted inside a towering pyramid of black walls. Sera closed her eyes and tried to take the dream world, but her efforts yielded inky black. She had no power here.

The pole descended with a lurch that sent agony racing through her bones. Sera opened her eyes and trembled inside her own mind. A demon waited below, standing on a floor of alternating white and black tiles.

This Mavoureen had four spiked, angular legs, and a large body that closely resembled a giant tick. A torso that was almost human rose from that tick body, with disturbingly long arms covered in coal-black scales. The demon’s bull-shaped head had horns to match.

Its mouth could easily encircle her head, and its bared teeth were longer than her fingers. Its four yellow eyes glowed in the dusky light. One sharpened leg tip ticked rhythmically on tile, like a traveler impatient for a late carriage.

This demon would be her first torturer. Yet no matter how much these demons hurt her, Sera would not relinquish her grip on hope or sanity. At least … not all at once.

The pole lurched to a stop. Her extruded shoulder bones shattered. Sera’s arms flailed and her legs did too.

She broke her fall with shaking hands and trembling knees. She pushed up through muscles that ached as if she’d been rowing for days. Then agony dropped her once more, and this time, writhing, she felt her body change.

Bone snapped and muscle twisted. Skin stretched and folded. Teeth burst bloody from her gums.

The changes stopped. Sera breathed, treasuring a few moments without pain. Such respite, she suspected, would be all too brief in the eternity she now faced.

No one pulled her to her feet, so Sera gathered the strength to stand. She gathered the strength to speak. She glared at the demon before her.

“I.” Her tongue felt heavy as stone. “Won’t.” She pictured Byn’s smiling face. “Forget them.” She had come here to save those she loved, and that would keep her sane.

Sera stepped toward the four-legged demon. It did not move to strike her, so she took the opportunity to look down at the body … her body, now. She finally understood how this fleshy cage must work.

This doppelganger body had changed itself to approximate her mortal form. This must be how the Mavoureen tortured people. They shoved souls into bodies and tore those bodies apart, over, and over, and over.

“Well?” Sera looked up. “What happens next?”

The four-legged Mavoureen inclined its horned head like a tutor greeting a student. “I am Jorumand.” Its voice was pleasant, honestly. “I am not here to hurt you.”

“Really?” Sera trembled and told herself it was because of cold, not fear. “Why are you here, then?”

“To welcome you, honored guest, to Hecata’s kingdom.”

Sera remembered bone shifting and snapping inside her. “This isn’t a welcome I’d recommend to anyone.” She might have felt embarrassed by her nakedness, in other circumstances, but this wasn’t really her body.

“You have adapted to your husk quicker than most. My mistress was correct to transition you so rapidly. You will come with me now.”

“Why in the Six Seas would I do that?”

“You would prefer to remain in the body temple? You will become lonely.”

“No matter what you do to me,” Sera said, each breath burning in her strange lungs, “I’ll never serve you like Cantrall did. I swear on the Five. I swear on my soul.”

“Both lost to you. No, Miss Valence, you would break if we gave you endless pain. Your limited mortal mind would shatter with your body. If you truly think yourself unique, my mistress made a poor choice in saving you.”

Saving me?” The longer Sera kept this demon talking, the longer she had to regain her strength. “You tricked me, stole my soul, and shoved me into a corpse!”

“All true.”

“So tell me, demon. How did your mistress save me?”

A crack of light beyond Jorumand suggested an exit from this pyramid and possibly, freedom. Even if freedom was nothing more than leaping into a purple void and falling for eternity, Sera would take that over being tortured to death, repeatedly.

Jorumand chittered softly. “Mistress Hecata will explain everything.”

Sera recognized that name. Hecata was a demon goddess, queen of the Underside, and more ruthless than even her husband: Paymon the Patriarch. Sera wondered if Paymon was going to torture her, too.

“Who do you think brought you to us, Miss Valence?” Jorumand asked. “Who do you think claimed your soul?”

Sera remembered a seductive female voice speaking inside her head, soothing her, teaching her, tricking her. She had known it was a Mavoureen and known it meant her ill. Yet she had never imagined the demon was Hecata.

“Your mistress claimed my soul?” Sera asked. “Why?”

“That is what my mistress wishes to explain. It is why you will come with me, now, to speak with her.”

Sera could think of no reason to trust this demon, yet what choice did she have? She had no clothing, no weapons, and no blood glyphs. She would find no escape in this pyramid, but she might find it elsewhere.

“Fine,” Sera said. “Let’s go visit your mistress.”

Jorumand bowed, forelegs bending like those of a horse. “Follow me.” It rose and skittered away.

They emerged from the temple beneath a sky of roiling purple clouds, crackling with lightning. The coppery smell of blood suffused the Underside’s air, mixed with the lingering miasma of smoke and ash. Sera felt no wind, yet the chill of this place seeped through her.

What passed for sky here somewhat resembled that of the Unsettled Lands. Had Torn channeled some part of the Underside into his last great song? Yet unlike that sky, the sky in this place was other.

Charred black ground surrounded the temple and dropped off into nothing not far from its walls. They stood on an island, a huge one, and Sera suspected it floated like the others Kara had told her about. Did anything exist below, or was this whole realm void?

Sera looked up at the black pyramid, or body temple, as Jorumand had called it. Lines of glowing yellow flowed constantly up its walls, inching along the sleek surface like worms. A beacon of yellow crackled at the pyramid’s apex, bright as a tiny sun.

Sera squinted. “What do the yellow lines on the temple mean?” If she was to spend eternity here, she should learn how eternity worked.

Jorumand kept walking. “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” Sera strode after him. “Aren’t you the master of this place?”

“I am no one’s master. I am a servant of Hecata, like you.”

“I am not Hecata’s servant.”

Jorumand chittered in response. That must be its demonic equivalent of a chuckle. Sera hated the sound of it.

Once they reached the edge of the island, they found a bridge of bones stretching out across the purple void. Each bone was far too large to be human. What terror of a creature had bones so large?

Sera followed Jorumand onto bones lined up sideways, like those of a makeshift raft. As they walked, she remembered another detail of Kara’s story. Mavoureen turned into spiky balls and zipped about.

Sera looked to the sky. “You demons fly, don’t you?”

“Some of us,” Jorumand agreed.

“Why do you need bridges?”

“You need bridges.”

Naturally. The Mavoureen would never create flesh puppets that could fly. These bridges were designed to march bodies like hers from slaughter to slaughter.

Sera dropped her gaze to the rails. There was enough space between these bones that a small woman might wriggle through, if she pushed herself. Should she push herself?

“You think to escape by jumping.” Jorumand turned to her, leg tips clicking on bone.

Sera met its glowing eyes. “Do I?”

“I would not recommend it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it would be very painful, and you would return soon enough.” Before she could do anything else, it lifted her in vice-like hands.

“Stop that!” Sera kicked her dangling feet as her heart pounded. “Jorumand!”

“You seem the type who enjoys learning. Learn, Miss Valence.”

The demon tossed her over the boney rails.

Read Chapter 3

Bloodmender – Chapter 1

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Four Years Ago…

SERA VALENCE CREPT through a patch of twisted brambles, ignoring the tugs on her clothes and hair. A doe mehed pitifully eight paces away. It saw her.

“Ssh,” she whispered. “Don’t scare it.”

“You don’t scare it,” Byn whispered from behind her. “I’m the one keeping it calm, remember?”

Sera crawled from the brambles on hands and knees. The doe’s panicked eyes grew wider, wetter. If it tried to run, she might never be able to help it.

The crippled animal panted and blinked, but it did not scramble up on its ruined leg. Thanks to the complicated beast glyph Byn had scribed on Sera’s face — Staga — this doe saw her as another deer. It saw her as a friend.

Sera knelt beside the doe and took the dream world, a network of black lines and yellow sky filled with flashes of orange life. The doe glowed among that life. As Sera traced severed tendon and gnawed bone, she grimaced. This poor animal had chewed its own foot off, probably after days stuck in a trap, and that made her chest ache.

As a Bloodmender, a wielder of the power of the Five Who Had Made the World, Sera could harness her pure blood to heal fractured bones, even mend split flesh, but regrowing a leg was beyond her. As Senior Healer Landra said, no lesson was more difficult than accepting one’s limitations. Sera could not save this poor doe.

Yet she could ease the animal’s suffering. It would cost her, in blood and energy, but she would practice soothing glyphs today. She settled in front of the mehing doe, pictured the glyphs she had learned at Solyr, and waited until she had them firmly in mind.

Soon she split her index finger with one sharpened thumbnail. She took the doe’s ruined leg in one hand, gently, and Byn’s glyphs held. She scribed with her other finger, in her own blood, along its mangled fur.

Once certain her glyphs were correct, Sera ignited them. Blood left her body in a rush that made her light-headed. The doe’s orange form grew less turgid in the dream world, a sign the animal was relaxing.

Sera massaged its knee, searching for flashes suggesting pain. No flashes came. The doe breathed easy now, but she couldn’t let it relax.

If it relaxed, it might try to get up again, and nothing she could do would ease the pain of stepping on a ruined stump. She scribed another glyph on the doe’s head, just above its nose. She would make it sleep now.

“Sera,” Byn whispered.

She ignored him. Sleep was a tricky glyph, with a hooked curve on the tail end she always got wrong. Last time she got it wrong, the animal leapt up and almost bit her hand off.

“Sera!” Byn hissed. “Move!”

The urgency in his voice yanked her from the dream world. “Why?”

A mass of teeth and claws bolted from the woods. The doe hopped up, knocking Sera onto her back, and then a flurry of claws and teeth tore into it: a grayback, one of the Lorilan’s fierce wolves.

Sera gasped for breath as blood flew and the doe shrieked. It was dying and she couldn’t breathe. How could she help it if she couldn’t breathe?

Byn hauled her into his arms. Then he was charging through the forest, crashing through branches like a startled bear. Sera watched over his shoulder as the doe thrashed, as bone snapped, as that wolf ripped it open.

This was not the peaceful end she had hoped to give the poor creature, but it was an end. Worse happened every day in the Lorilan woods. Byn was still running, grunting, but the wolf was not coming after them.

Sera sucked in breath. “Byn.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. She pushed at him, trying to get his attention, but not so hard he might drop her. She did not want him to drop her while he sprinted through the woods.

“We’re safe!” she rasped, taking her voice back. “You can put me down now!”

He kept running, each breath ragged in his throat. How far had he carried her? He was going to hurt himself.

“Byn!” Sera thumped his chest. “Stop!”

He stumbled into a clearing and slowed, still clutching her in his arms. Leaves of red and brown carpeted the ground. He thumped to his knees, and that allowed Sera to finally wriggle free.

Byn gulped down air, chest heaving, as blood coursed down one cheek. Tiny scratches bled across his wide face, sweat glistened in his tousled brown hair, and his arms trembled. He had run himself ragged for her.

“You stupid jerk,” Sera whispered. Then her voice grew a great deal louder. “Why did you do that?”

His big brown eyes focused on her. “Drown me, that was terrifying.” He leaned close. “Are you hurt?”

“Am I…?” Was he serious?

“Did it scratch you?”

“I’m fine,” Sera said, pushing up and brushing leaves off her dress. “Byn, you have a serious cut on your face.” She took his head in healer’s hands and eased it left, then right. “Several cuts.”

She wanted to take the dream world and tend him, but her memory of that doe’s eyes challenged and haunted her. That poor animal had died alone, in agony, after chewing off its own foot.

Few deaths came without pain — that was why Sera became a Bloodmender, to make death less painful — but her failure to help the doe pass peacefully hurt. No one deserved to gnaw their own leg off in the woods. If this was the world the Five had made, maybe the Five were wrong.

“Hey.” Byn took her hand in his, gentle, like she’d been with the doe. “Come to the Harbor Day dance with me.”

Sera’s eyes snapped to his. “Excuse me?”

“We’ll dress up like snooty nobles.” Byn’s big hand swallowed hers, warm and calloused. “It’ll be fun.”

“And you decided now was the time to ask me?”

“Why not?”

“You’re covered in blood and a wolf tried to eat us!”

Byn grinned in the way that made Kara punch him in the arm. “So?”

“So isn’t this the wrong time to ask a girl to a dance with you?” Sera’s heart pounded like that grayback was chasing them.

Byn released her hand. “Honestly, all I thought, back there, was how empty I’d feel if something happened to you.”

The ache in Sera’s chest grew.

“I saw that grayback creeping up on you, and I thought ‘What if I lose Sera? What if it tears her throat out, and I never asked her to go to a dance with me?’“

He was serious. Sera knew he would ask this now because he was Byn, after all. Her Byn.

How many times had he come out here with her to practice glyphs? Why did she always go to the Lorilan with him and not Kara, her best friend? Kara made her feel welcome and warm, but Byn made her feel safe.

“I don’t think I could get past it,” Byn said, “if I lost the chance to tell you I like you. I like everything about you. The way you lean close to people when you’re worried about then, the way you frown when you’re concentrating, even your little snorts.”

Sera’s face burned like she had lingered too long in the sun. She liked Byn too, for many reasons, including his mad dash through the woods.

Byn wiped more blood from his cheek. “So? How about it? Go to the dance with me?”

Sera breathed, focused, decided. “All right.”

“All right!”

“But I’m going to fix your face first.”

Byn’s wide grin made her forget about the doe.

Read Chapter 2

Bloodmender

bloodmendercoversmall

From the Back Cover:

Challenged by Darkness and Light

Abducted by demons, Sera Valence damned herself to save those she loved. Now the queen who claimed her soul has conscripted her into a war she cannot win, against a foe she cannot possibly defeat. Trapped in a realm of madness and torture, Sera must fight for her soul and countless others.

Meanwhile, in the Five Provinces, a golden army from a divine otherworld seeks to unite the world by erasing its people. To stop them, all Kara Honuron must do is become a Soulmage, restore the power of broken gods, and recover the soul of her mortal enemy … a soul who does not want to be found.

Two friends must wage two wars, one against the darkness and one against the light, yet victory offers no salvation, only sacrifice. And defeat means the end of everything.

(Spoilers for Book 1 – Glyphbinder Follow)

(Spoilers for Book 2 – Demonkin Follow)

Read Chapter 1

Demonkin – Chapter 5

* * *

SERA KNEW THE TIME FOR LIES was over. The glyph was scribed, the deed done. Her father would understand.

“What,” Kara whispered, “did we just do?”

“I didn’t tell you what this glyph would do because I was afraid of how you’d react. But know this. I’m safe.”

Byn cursed. “This won’t break your curse, will it?”

“I did it for you, both of you, and our world. It was the only way I knew to keep you all safe.”

“Will this kill you?” Kara demanded.

“Not tonight. It will kill me two weeks from now, if I’m not cured. I’ll die before I turn into a demon.”

Byn gripped her wrist as hard as he could manage, a decent grip. “How do we remove it?” His eyes were wide.

“Together. You can break the glyph if I let you, but we must both agree.” Sera rested her other hand on top of his. “Once I’m cured, we’ll break it together, but if we can’t find a cure … I won’t turn.”

Kara sat down hard. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d agree with me. I won’t risk hurting anyone. I won’t let myself become a demon.”

“Foolish girl.” The demon inside her hissed. “Why waste your life?” It was angry, and that gave her hope.

Sera looked to Byn. “I wanted to tell you, love, but I didn’t think you could keep it from Kara, even if you tried. You’re not the best at lying.”

Byn drew her into his arms, and Sera pressed against him. He understood. He loved her. They fit together so well. The thought of losing him forever made her breath catch in her throat.

Kara rubbed her eyes. “Why make me do this?”

Byn nuzzled Sera’s hair and rested his chin on her head. “Because she’s not certain we can find a way to fix her.” He squeezed Sera tight. “I get it, honey. You couldn’t find a cure in the tomes Melyssa asked you to retrieve. Instead you found this, and you estimated how long it would take before the Mavoureen stole your soul.”

“Melyssa estimated.” A tremble shook Sera’s frame. “I confirmed it. We have two weeks.”

“That’s not enough time!” Kara hopped up and glared at them. “We can’t find a cure in two weeks!”

Sera pushed off Byn and stood. “Melyssa has been searching since we left Terras. Maybe she’s found something.” Sera grabbed Byn’s hand. “If there is a cure for the Demonkin curse, it has to be there.”

“How can you know that?”

“If the cure was in the libraries of Solyr, or Lunyr, or Tarna or Vortos, someone would have found it by now.”

“And if you don’t find it at Terras,” Kara said, “you’ll die.”

“Yes. I’ll die, even if we miscalculated, before I can harm anyone or devour any innocent souls.”

Cold clutched at Sera even as she held Byn’s warm hand. Her demon scratched at the inside of her mind. “If there was anyone else I could trust—”

“Enough.” Byn led Sera to the door and gripped Kara’s shoulder. “We can’t be angry with her. This was the only way.”

“I know.” Kara threw her arms around them with a quiet cry. “Five take me, I know. We can’t risk what might happen. You saw that, even if I didn’t.”

They hugged each other, and Sera no longer felt cold. She felt safe and warm and protected, at least until Kara let them go. Time was precious now.

“We leave tonight.” Sera focused on walking, breathing. “Byn’s already made arrangements for horses. We have the coin you gave us.”

“That Adept Anylus gave me.” Kara looked at the floor. “I stole it like I stole that magesand.”

“You’re doing the right thing. Just remember—”

“I know.” Kara’s mouth quirked. “I won’t betray you. It’s not the first time I’ve lied to everyone.”

Sera almost smiled. Kara had kept her Transference glyph secret for years, from her mother and everyone else. Kara would never betray them.

“Thank you. If Byn and I find a cure—”

“When.” Byn poked her.

“When we find a cure,” Sera agreed, so he wouldn’t worry about her, “we’ll turn ourselves in. Anylus will be too curious about how we cured it to execute us.”

“Let’s hope.” Byn brushed Sera’s hair from her ear. “I like your head right where it is.”

“That’s not funny.” Sera gave his hand a warning squeeze. “You be careful, Kara. Watch over Trell. War makes people do stupid things.”

“Don’t worry about me.” Kara stepped away from the door. “I’m the reason you’re in this mess.”

“You’re the reason the Mavoureen did not devour our world a week ago. You’re a hero.”

“I’m never going to see you again, am I?” A tear rolled down Kara’s cheek.

“Don’t say that!” Byn grabbed Kara’s shoulders and pulled her close. “Everyone’s being so dramatic. It’s stupid! We’ll find the cure, break the glyph, and go sailing outside Boon. Like old times.”

Fresh tears welled from Kara’s eyes.

“I swear to you,” Byn said softly. “We’ll come back.”

“Go then.” Kara wiped her nose and kissed Byn’s cheek. “Go before I change my mind.” She shoved him. “Go before I punch you.”

“I’m going. We’re going.” Byn took Sera’s hand and led her up the stairs, and Sera let herself be led. “We’ll see you soon. Promise.”

Sera put one foot before the other and focused on the letter she would write to her father, tonight. Dared Valence would understand why she had scribed this glyph. He would mourn her, but he would understand.

Don’t be so certain of death, sweet child.” Her demon whispered in the darkness of the stairwell. “We still have a very long journey ahead.”

Sera clenched Byn’s hand. As much as she had hoped tonight would feel like a victory against the demon inside her, all she felt was cold.

BynAndSera

 

ARYN LOCKE WOKE to a feeling he had hoped never to experience again. Impossible hate. A demon had broken the warding bubble Aryn placed around Tania’s house. It was less than a hundred paces away.

He rolled out of the cot in Tania’s spare room and reached for his quarterstaff. Even as he stood a dream form slipped soundlessly into his room, so silent he flinched before he recognized her. “You felt it?”

“I did.” Tania already had her quarterstaff strapped across her back. “I saw no reason to trust in a single bubble. Is it here for you?”

Her steady voice held no hysteria, no accusation. She did not blame him for this demon’s arrival. She simply wanted to know.

“I don’t think so. I’ve seen no demons since…” Aryn felt knives tearing his skin and shuddered. “They’ve no reason to hunt me. Not anymore.”

“Then it must be here for me. If you head due north, you’ll find Dane soon enough. Warn them. I’ll do what I can to stop this demon here.”

“I’m not letting you face that monster alone.”

“You’ve experience fighting demons?” Tania led him to her front door, the only wooden part of her home. She had formed the rest of it with Earther glyphs, elegant and precise work that would make an elder proud.

“I know enough,” Aryn said.

“And what will you do to stop a demon?”

“I’ll give you my blood.” If he channeled his blood through her, she could make her glyphs that much stronger. “If nothing else, I’ll give you that.”

Tania cracked her door and peered out. “There’s no shame in running.”

“I’ve run enough.” Aryn clasped her hand and found it pleasantly warm. “I’m open to you.”

“I’ll take no more than I need.”

“If you don’t take all you need to kill that demon, we’re both dead. I’ve endured worse.”

Tania led him outside, still holding his hand. “I imagine you have.” The door closed behind them.

The night was cool, dry, and silent. Aryn focused his dream world vision and watched the twisted green form of a davenger crest a rise to the south. It strolled toward them like one traveler greeting another on a summer’s day.

Davengers were hunters that took many forms. Some, like the davengers Jyllith made as she hunted Kara, were ape-like monstrosities. Others were demon hounds with tracking abilities beyond anything that lived. The books in his father’s forbidden library even spoke of davengers who could fly.

This demon didn’t match any of those. It had legs like an ape, horns like a hound, and a head like a massive owl. It stood twice as tall as he did.

Tania slammed the tip of her quarterstaff into the ground, drawing blood from Aryn’s body through their joined hands. She scribed powerful glyphs down the length of her staff, and glyphs were one detail Aryn could see in the dream world. His body ached as his blood burned.

The davenger demon sauntered closer, each step as quiet as a cat’s. Nothing should move like that, demon or no. Tania finished scribing.

“Wait,” the davenger said.

“I’d rather not.” Tania ignited her glyphs.

A sinkhole opened beneath the davenger. It tumbled inside, and rock slammed together above it. Invisible needles poked Aryn’s veins as earth moved. Tania channeled blood like a Solyr elder.

Finally, Tania released his hand. Together, they stared at the rocky boil on the hill, all that remained of that terrifying davenger. An unexpected grin spread across Aryn’s face. “Drown me. You killed it.”

“Well.” Tania shrugged. “Every so often I—”

The demon burst from the earth and knocked Tania flying with a swipe of its long arm. She landed paces away and went still. The demon snorted and shook its head like a dog that had stumbled into a prickly plant.

Aryn smashed the davenger’s head with his quarterstaff. It felt like hitting oak, and the impact numbed his arms. The demon snatched his staff, snapped it like a twig, and tossed it aside.

Aryn backed away, frowning. He had rather liked that staff. He scribed four Fingers of Heat and covered his hand in rippling flame, but he didn’t send them at the davenger. They were a bluff.

His weak flames would not even singe the demon’s scales, but it did not know that. Until it figured that out, they had a standoff. He hoped.

“You are Aryn Locke,” the ape/hound/owl said in a raspy voice. “You are Heat’s Champion.”

“Once upon a time.” Aryn had not known davengers could talk, but he had not known they could stroll or burrow, either.

He backed down the hill. He had to draw this demon away from Tania. If he gave her time to recover, perhaps she could stop it.

“We faced the Five beneath Terras.” The davenger matched his pace. “Remember? You wielded Heat’s flame, and Life’s Champion dueled General Abaddon with his sword of ice.”

“That’s right.” Aryn bared his charred teeth and hoped that appeared threatening. “Trell cleaved your general right in half.”

“You misunderstand. We are Mavoureen. For us there is no death, only change.”

“Your general looked pretty dead to me.” Aryn glanced behind him. Clear ground, clumps of wildflowers, and a few stubborn trees. Nowhere to hide and impossible to run.

“The forms you fought at Terras … they were shells, not Mavoureen. Like you. Do you understand?”

“Sure.” So long as Aryn kept it talking, it would not make him dead. “When a Demonkin glyphs you on some poor bastard, you’re just here until that body dies. Then back to the Underside you go.”

“I remember you.” The davenger flexed its hands. “When Balazel tormented you, he gave you to me for a time.”

What few memories Melyssa had not wiped away came rushing back: the knives, the flames, the Underside. Aryn shuddered but forced himself to remember how he had escaped, pulled himself through fire and torment to return to the living world. Changed, charred, but alive.

“I survived your worst.” They were fifty paces from Tania. “I think I might have grabbed you in the Ranarok mountains and tossed you away like trash, while I was on fire.” Aryn shrugged off his hood and stopped backing up, smiling at the demon. “Shall we try that again?”

His heart hammered in his chest. This was lunacy. He did not wield Heat’s power, and he no longer had Balazel’s strength. Yet here he stood, acting as confident as if he were the incarnation of Heat himself. Smiling.

He was going to die a bloody fool.

The davenger tilted its owl-like head. “I seek no quarrel with you, Aryn Locke.”

Well. That was something.

“I have come under flag of parley to extend an invitation. Paymon, my master, invites you to his realm. I am to escort you to the Underside.”

Paymon was the king of the Mavoureen. He ruled the Underside. He was as powerful as the Five.

“What does your master want with me?” Aryn asked.

“He wants to make you scream.”

Of course it would be something like that. Screaming was what the Mavoureen made people do. “Why would I agree to join you?”

“Because you do not wish me to devour her soul.” The davenger caught a chunk of rock as big as Aryn’s chest and shattered it. Tania had tossed it!

The demon’s hand burst into a mass of clutching tendrils. Wind roared and Aryn spotted Tania tumbling through the air. She flew into the crook of the demon’s elbow and choked against it, trapped.

How could this demon wield Aerial glyphs? What was it?

“Should you refuse,” the demon said, “I will also devour the souls of every person in Dane.”

Tania urked. She thrashed, kicked, and wriggled, but the demon held her with little effort. It was also freakishly strong.

“Allow me to explain the great respect I accord you.” The demon extended its other arm, the one that was not strangling Tania. “You look upon me as none have looked in thousands of years.”

Aryn’s mouth went dry. “That’s not possible.”

“I am Davazet,” the demon said. “And you dare refuse me?”

This was impossible. The Mavoureen could not enter Aryn’s world in their true forms, and even if they could, Kara had closed the gate at Terras forever. How had Davazet come to be here? How had Paymon sent it?

“You slaughtered the people of Lared’s Row.” Aryn’s stomach knotted up. “I passed through there three days ago. You … tracked me?”

“I hungered. You would not stop moving.” Its free hand burst into more scattered tendrils, and those wrapped around Tania’s arm. “I tormented those people for some time. Like this.” Its tendrils twisted.

Tania’s arm snapped, a sickening sound of bone breaking. She screamed, muffled by more tendrils, and the unnatural bend in her arm made Aryn cringe. The demon had snapped her elbow backward.

“Come with me, Aryn Locke,” Davazet said, “or we will make music with her bones. She has so many.”

Aryn had already thrown himself into the Underside once — to save one person, not a hundred — and his memory of Balazel’s tortures terrified him. Yet heroes did not merely endure endless hardship. They also died, bravely, and dying was something Aryn could do.

Aryn launched his Fingers of Heat at Davazet’s head, eliciting a surprised snort. He lunged for Davazet’s eyes and clawed, rending nothing. He punched and kicked and screamed as he assaulted scaled flesh.

Tendrils snatched him up and choked him, ripping him right off his feet. His feet kicked and his spine screamed with pain. It felt like his head would pop right off.

“Malkavet insisted you’d come if I was polite.” Davazet now held Tania in one arm and him in the other. “We wagered twenty vacuous souls.”

Aryn couldn’t breathe.

“I’m so glad you attacked me. It’s been so long since I’ve tortured anyone while they were still alive.”

Aryn knew what a noose felt like now, wrapped around his neck. He knew what it felt like to be drawn and quartered. He couldn’t even scream.

“You remember my tortures, don’t you? Will her shrieking rival yours?”

Davazet adjusted its grip on Aryn, allowing him to breathe once more, and Aryn gasped. Breathing never felt so good! He stared as Davazet’s long dark tendrils melted into sharp knives.

“Tania,” Davazet said, rubbing its knives together, “in a moment I’m going to cut off your face. That will hurt you, very much. Please scream.”

A dozen glyphs passed through Aryn’s mind, all useless. One lingered, and a desperate plan consumed him. Even if it succeeded he would damn himself forever, but he couldn’t watch this demon cut off Tania’s face.

He scribed the glyph of Davazet on Davazet himself.

The Mavoureen dropped them both. It stared at its own chest as Aryn’s blood glyph glowed and grew. Purple tendrils spread across its skin.

“You.” It looked up. “What have you—”

Purple ivy burst from Aryn’s glowing glyph, eating its way across Davazet’s face and torso in a ravenous wave. That ivy consumed scales that regrew as fast as they were eaten. It consumed the whole of Davazet as the whole of Davazet grew right back.

Aryn dragged Tania to her feet. Her neck was purpled and her face was ashen, but she coughed and stumbled away with him. “What?” she managed.

“It’s a loop.” Aryn found himself laughing as they fled, laughter that sounded far from sane. He could not believe that worked!

When a mage scribed Davazet’s glyph on a person, Davazet remade that person’s body in its own image. It stopped remaking them once that transformation was complete. The glyph’s termination point.

Yet Davazet was already Davazet — it could not remake itself as itself — and so Davazet’s demon glyph would never reach its termination point. It would simply loop, remaking without end. Recursive glyphing.

Davazet shrieked as its arms burst into tendrils that burst into knives that burst into arms. Its head blew apart only to grow again, purple ivy bubbling over its black scales and destroying its flesh. Aryn almost felt sorry for it until he remembered it wanted to carve off Tania’s face.

“Run!” Aryn shouted.

“I am!” Tania shouted back.

They were in sight of her house when Aryn glanced behind them. The space Davazet occupied was now a globe of greenish energy as tall as a tree. It glowed bright, bright as the sun, and that was probably very bad.

Tania dashed inside her house. Aryn tried, but tripped on her front step. He went down hard and cracked his chin.

That was when Davazet decided to explode.

Demonkin – Chapter 4

* * *

ARYN SLIPPED AWAY from Tania’s first attack with a movement as reflexive as breathing, but she flowed into another and spun her staff around high, nearly taking his head off. He blocked the blow but staggered back.

Tania kept at him, each step like a dancer’s, every motion flowing into the next. He could find no opening. His staff bucked in his hands as he blocked her thrusts, over and over, and what few thrusts he launched met nothing but air. He was already breathing hard. Not good.

Tania did not seem at all winded, and Aryn had to do something about that. He feinted, drawing her right, and then spun his staff over and across his forearm. It whipped toward her unprotected left side.

She slapped his thrust away with the flat of her palm and spun her staff one-handed, balanced inside her arm. Her staff’s tip brushed the tip of Aryn’s nose and sent him stumbling. He barely kept his feet.

No follow up came. Tania stepped back, snorted softly, and returned to a low guard. She let him recover. That showed how little she thought of him.

The crowd cheered and yelled, thrilled by this display of martial prowess. Aryn edged forward, feinted twice, and thrust again and again. Tania laughed and stepped this way then that, toying with him.

Aryn’s breath burned in his lungs as he fought on, futilely. It reminded him of how it felt to crawl from the mouth of a demon. His lungs had burned like this as he emerged, weak and charred by flame, from a demonic underworld of spikes and torture. The Underside.

Tania chuckled and knocked away his latest strike. Aryn snarled, charged her, and one boot slid on treacherous mud. Her staff slammed the other, taking his feet out from under him, and the dream world spun around him just before he slammed down hard. Defeated.

“He’s no demon,” Tania said, breathing loudly as she withdrew her staff, “but he did take your goods and skulk around your homes like some monster out of a bard’s tale.” Her dream form head tilted. “He’s not evil. He just didn’t think through all the consequences.”

Aryn scowled at her from inside his lowered hood, but did not dare rise. He wanted to stand, puff out his chest and declare her mistaken, but he could not think of a single way she was wrong.

“So then…” Bart glanced at Zeb and the others with him. “Lady Tania?”

“What do we do now?” Zeb’s wife asked.

“Nothing.” Tania lowered her staff and slung it across her back. “This man is leaving. I’ll collect your payments and ensure he never troubles you again. Provided you’re agreeable?”

The mob murmured among themselves but none of them, even Zeb, expressed any disagreement.

“Thank you,” Zeb’s wife said for all of them. “Thank you for coming back to us. You’re a good woman.” The somewhat befuddled mob dispersed.

“I do try.” Tania casually waved off the villagers. “Five guard your souls.”

“Five guard your soul,” a few murmured back, before hurrying off to safe, warm homes.

“So.” Tania leaned forward and held out her hand. “Can I offer you something to eat?”

Aryn stared up at her. Her dream form appeared relaxed despite the cold night and the emptying road. Then again, he had not lost a quarterstaff contest in fifteen years. With Tania’s skill, she had little reason to worry.

“You’re offering me supper?” The cold mud all around him smelled like horse manure.

“It’s a bit late for supper. Consider it an early breakfast, one you won’t have to skulk away with.”

Aryn pushed up, clenched his jaw, and brushed dirt off the front of his robe. “You don’t want a meal with me.”

“Because of your burned and blistered skin? Or because of your missing eyes?”

Aryn stiffened. “I’d thought the robe—”

“It hides you well from other people.” Tania retrieved his quarterstaff from a stand of tall grass. “My neighbors didn’t see it, thank the Five, or there’d have been no stopping their accusations of demon and worse.”

Aryn’s damaged skin flushed as she returned holding his staff. At least he could still blush, even with all his skin charred. “So why doesn’t my appearance bother you? Why don’t you think I’m a demon, Lady Tania?”

“Because I see you in the dream world,” Tania told him, “as you must now see me.”

Aryn felt stupid all over again. “You’re a mage. Solyr?” He should have known.

“Now journeymage,” Tania said. “What rank are you?”

“Doesn’t matter.” At least he had lost to someone a rank above him. “The man I once was made Firebrand, but that man died.”

“Pity. He wasn’t all that bad looking.”

His head snapped up. “You’re insane to say that.”

“I’m not talking about the skin you wear today.” Tania offered his quarterstaff. “I’m talking about your soulform. That, as I can see it, hasn’t changed.”

Aryn took his staff, even though it was a clear reminder he had lost their duel. “You honestly expect me to believe you can see how I looked before I burned?”

“I don’t expect anything.” Tania leaned in and he smelled her, a mixture of grass and sweat. “But I could train you to see as I do, if you’re willing.”

“To do what? Become your apprentice?”

“How about my friend?” Tania crossed her arms and stepped back. “Though as you said, you are traveling. I doubt you’d have any interest in staying in a dry house with food you don’t have to sneak away with in the night.”

Aryn couldn’t trust this. It was too easy. “You don’t know what I’ve done or where I’ve been. You don’t know me. Why would you offer a complete stranger a warm meal or a bed under your roof?”

“Because I know how it feels to lose your sight.” Tania tapped one finger to the side of her head. “I’ve been blind for a very long time now.”

Aryn connected her blindness to her first name — Tania — and everything clicked. All the stories about Solyr’s blind Earther prodigy returned, the only student to ever challenge Elder Halde to a triptych duel. She had graduated shortly after he became an initiate.

“You’re Tania Lace.” She had lost her duel with Elder Halde handily, of course, but just challenging an elder had made her legend at Solyr. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my home. Where else would I be?”

Aryn had at least a dozen questions, but there was only one he couldn’t hold back. “How did you go blind?”

“Gradually,” Tania said. “The world started turning dark when I was six, just before a journeymage judged my blood strong enough to train at Solyr. By my eighth birthday it was all dark, but the elders made accommodations. Elder Cantrall taught me how to grasp the dream world. Elder Halde taught me how to see in it.”

“You know Halde’s dead.” Cantrall, Halde’s Mavoureen worshipping twin brother, had killed Halde when he infiltrated Solyr. Cantrall roasted Halde in phantom fire and took his place.

Tania stood silent for a moment. “That’s a terrible shame.”

“It was recent.” Aryn wondered just how much he should say about the events surrounding Kara’s journey to Tarna. “I’m not sure if the news has left Solyr.”

“How did Elder Halde die?”

“A demon did it.” That, or a man close enough.

“Those can be troublesome.” Tania sighed heavily. “Such a loss. Both brothers dead, good men gone.”

Aryn scowled at Tania calling Cantrall a good man, remembering all whom the resurrected elder maimed and killed in his quest to open the gates at Terras. Cantrall made him into a harvenger, a demon that summoned the dead and hungered for living flesh. Only Kara’s flames and the intervention of Heat saved Aryn’s soul from suffering forever in the Underside.

“I was there when Elder Cantrall burned,” Tania said softly. “It happened on Selection Day. None of us had ever seen so much phantom fire on a single man.”

Aryn thought back to the day Tania spoke of, the confusion that followed Cantrall’s murder. Alarms were raised across Solyr, and journeymages and apprentices rushed the fledglings to the safety of the dorms. Aryn had been herded along with his fellows. He remembered Elder Halde striding past them at the head of the Solyr Guard, his mouth a firm line and his cheeks wet with tears.

Mayor Dupret Locke, Aryn’s father, taught him that a ruler must never be seen crying. At the time, seeing such weakness in Solyr’s leader had disturbed Aryn, but now he understood Elder Halde just a bit better. He understood how it felt to lose all he cared about, how anger and grief merged into one emotion, an empty hole inside you.

“I was a fledgling,” Aryn said. “When it happened.”

“When did you lose your eyes?”

“That came later.”

“Ah.” Tania waited, but when Aryn did not offer anything else, she continued. “Well, you trained at Solyr, you’re not a demon, and you’ve lost your sight. Three things we have in common. That’s good for a meal and a night under a dry roof. I’ve a small spare room you can use for as long as you like.”

“You’re kinder and far more intelligent than I’d expect anyone in this backwoods to be.”

“These are good people.” Tania led him east down the road, away from the road leading up to Dane. “Don’t think otherwise. They’re scared, and scared people can be rash, but they’ve a right to be. The stories of Lared’s Row are legion. Some say a demon forced parents to watch it eat their children. Others say it made the children into demons, sent them after their own parents.”

Aryn shuddered as he walked, and not just from the night’s clinging cold. Scattered images of a flaming pit filled with knives and shrieking flooded his mind. Balazel tortured him there for a very long time, though Melyssa Honuron wiped away most of those memories.

“These people don’t know demons,” Aryn said.

“You’re right.” Tania led him down the quiet, muddy road. “I thank the Five for that every day.”

Aryn sighed. “It’s too late for this conversation. You’re a kind and generous host, and you bested me as we discussed. I’ll go to your dwelling and pay your fee, and yes, I’ll accept a meal and a night under a dry roof.”

“And what of my offer to help you see?”

“I’ll think about it. I don’t know if I’m ready to stop moving.” No, he was not ready for that at all.

“Fair enough. We’ll start with the meal, and your name.” Tania glanced over her shoulder at him, and Aryn wished he could see her face. See anything other than a featureless blob of dream world orange.

“It’s … Aryn.” He had not spoken his name aloud since leaving Kara and the others at Highridge Pass, despite their protestations. He needed to find his father. He needed to know if Dupret would take him back, even though Aryn had disappointed him in every way possible.

“That’s all?” Tania asked.

“That’s all I can give you,” Aryn said. “So for now, it’ll have to be enough.”

“It’ll have to be.” Tania looked back to the road. “My home is close. We’ll be there long before sunrise.”

“And does the Lady Tania live in a mud hut?” Even as he said it, Aryn cursed his glib tongue. He had lost his manners when he lost his skin.

Tania simply laughed. “More like a hovel of clay, wood, and stone, and it’s only Dane’s people who call me lady. They seem to think that’s the proper title for a journeymage, no matter how often I tell them otherwise.”

“I’m sure it’s a wonderful home.” Aryn’s shoulders sagged. “Forgive my ingratitude and my rude tongue. It’s been too long since I’ve had civil company.”

“It’s been too long since I’ve had the ear of a fellow mage.” Tania turned down a narrow animal trail. “I’ve been working with nature since I moved back after graduation, experimenting with glyphs to aid plants and crops, but I’ve had no mages to critique my work.”

“I was a Firebrand. The discipline doesn’t have a lot to do with making things grow.”

“You’re a student of magic. You’ll find that never changes, no matter what rank you attain. Glyphs are glyphs, and I’d welcome feedback.”

“I’ll offer whatever I can.” Aryn watched the back of her dream form as she walked. “Just don’t expect much.”

“I don’t expect anything save a bit of company and talk of Solyr. I miss it, as much as I missed Dane when I was there. One day, when I know my people are safe, I’ll visit.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t be so sure. Your body may have changed, but your life isn’t over.”

Aryn raised his blackened hands and held them out before his charred eye sockets. “You call this a life?”

“I call it a quiet night when nothing is trying to kill me.” Tania paused and stared up at the sky. “It’s enough.” She started off again.

Her sudden melancholy tone surprised him. There was more to her time in Dane than experiments with Earther glyphs. Had Tania faced demons as well?

They both had more than enough secrets. Whatever Tania hid about her past, she seemed no threat. For tonight, Aryn had a meal and a bed under a dry roof.

Tania was right. It was enough.

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KARA HONURON WOKE when a thump echoed through the cavernous hidden hallway. The sturdy door to the royal infirmary had opened, finally, and she hopped up so fast spots danced before her eyes. The royal infirmary hid in a tunnel of gray stones beneath King Haven’s palace, reserved for royalty and nobility. And the people they didn’t want anyone to see.

Trell emerged without a Bloodmender escort, and that was a good sign. His steps remained cautious and measured. His face was pale and his thin beard looked ragged, but he wasn’t coughing any longer. Not yet.

“Hey,” Kara said. Trying to smile.

“Hey.” Trell did smile, a real smile, and it warmed her. “Shouldn’t you be studying?”

“I’m done with that for today.” Kara guided Trell to the bench where she had dozed far longer than she liked. “Relax. Sit.” After he sat down, she sat beside him. “What did the Bloodmenders say?”

Trell ran his hands through his sweat-matted hair, trailing fingers along his thick black ponytail. “Bloodmender Pula gave me a tonic to ease the coughing. I should be able to sleep tonight.”

The infirmary door closed with a thump that echoed through the tunnel, startling them both. When it faded, Kara leaned as close as she dared. “You know that’s not what I meant. What’s wrong with you?”

“No one knows.”

“That’s ridiculous. Someone has to know.”

“Perhaps we’ll learn more tomorrow. We can hope.”

Kara wanted to hug him, but knew that wasn’t a good idea. She loved Trell — she was certain of that now, having had more than a week to consider everything he had done for her on their journey to Terras — but she did not know if he loved her. She didn’t know if he could. It had only been a month since the Mavoureen murdered his wife.

“Is it because of what Life did to you?” Kara whispered. They were alone in this dark tunnel, and could speak freely of the Five Who Had Made the World.

“Perhaps.”

“Then we’re going to tell them everything.” Kara stood and marched for the infirmary door.

Trell’s hand snatched hers. She looked back at him, surprised by the strength in his grip. “No.”

“If they knew that Life brought you back from the dead, that she made you her champion—”

“No,” Trell repeated, as he gently pulled her back to the bench. “No one can know you are Torn’s great-granddaughter. Someone else might try Cantrall’s plan.”

Kara sat and pulled her hand away. “It wouldn’t matter. Torn sealed the gate. Nothing can open it.”

“That doesn’t mean a Mavoureen servant won’t come after you. And besides, you could not tell them about Life without telling them about Ruin. About Sera.”

Trell was right. He was always right. The Five Who Had Made the World all took champions in their quest to stop Cantrall — Life for Trell, Heat for Aryn, Land for Byn and Breath for Jyllith — but the most powerful among them took someone else. Ruin took Sera.

Ruin could only possess someone who had scribed demon glyphs — Kara read that in one of Solyr’s many histories of the All Province War — and Kara could not reveal Trell’s possession without revealing them all. The Five had left them, banished by Cantrall in the bowels of Terras, but the trauma inflicted on everyone Kara cared for remained.

Heat had burned off Aryn’s skin, and losing Land’s strength had left Byn weak as a child. Sera had two weeks until the Demonkin curse devoured her soul, and now whatever Life had done to Trell in their final battle with the Mavoureen was killing him.

Trell took her hand again. “This is not your fault.”

“Right.” Everyone kept saying that.

“Now. How are you studies going?”

Kara rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to hear about that.” He was still holding her hand.

“Is something wrong? Is Adept Anylus not pleased with your progress?” He leaned closer, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Did you accidentally blow something up?”

“Of course not!” He was teasing her now, and she was not sure she liked that. “Don’t change the subject.”

“I’d never dare, but you’re an amazing mage. Have you learned any new glyphs from Anylus this week?”

A smile reached Kara’s face. “You’re horrible at distracting people. Seriously. It’s blatant.”

“But did it work?”

A laugh bubbled up before she could stop it. “Fine.” Kara stood and pulled him up. “We’ll stop talking about your problems, but only because I need to meet Sera soon. Your legionnaires must be getting anxious.”

“Yes.” Trell could not forget the two Mynt soldiers who had shadowed him every moment since he entered Tarna. “We should not keep them waiting. It’s rude.”

Kara led Trell to the rising stairs at the end of the tunnel. “I’ll talk to Prince Beren about that.”

“Again?”

“As many times as it takes. You saved my life, saved all of us. You should be a guest, not a prisoner.”

“At least I’m alive.”

“Yes.” Kara took a breath. “There is that.”

Trell was Tellvan and she was Mynt, two provinces now engaged in genuine warfare. Cantrall had started it, leading his army of davengers and revenants to slaughter towns on both sides of the border under false flags. The chaos he had begun now spiraled out of control.

Inciting the Five Provinces to war had been the Mavoureen’s plan all along, of course. They wanted the provinces divided, so they could invade after each army shattered the other. Just because Kara had stopped the Mavoureen didn’t fix the damage they had done.

If only that was the worst she had to worry about.

KaraPortrait

 

SERA VALENCE HAD A DEMON inside her head, and she could not make it stop talking.

“Why do you deny the truth?” The demon whispered, an alluring female voice that was impossible to ignore. “You understand me.”

“I understand you’re evil,” Sera thought back. “You want to take my soul and torture me forever.”

Sera always felt her demon’s presence more keenly at night, and tonight’s moon was high. She crouched amidst the gray stone columns that surrounded the Imperial Library of Tarna, a cathedral-esque building at the base of the royal palace complex. The sprawl that housed the Mynt government was impressive, amphitheaters of domed stone and stone towers that scraped the sky.

“All lies, my sweet child.” Her demon sounded hurt. “Slander from those who fear our protection. I want to take you to a better world.”

“Stop talking!” Sera focused on making the voice go quiet, put all her will into it, and it faded. She collapsed against a column and gasped for breath.

With each passing day, the Mavoureen that had latched onto her soul grew harder to suppress. With each passing day, she wanted to listen just a bit more. How long would it be until she lost the will to take her own life?

Byn would not let her. It was Byn who kept her going, Byn who held her in the night and made the voice go quiet. He assured her they would find a cure, yet there were no tales of a cure in any history Sera had ever read.

She stared at the dark sky and wondered if her father was watching the stars in Cyan. Dared had often pointed out shapes and patterns as Sera’s mother once pointed them out to him. Her mother was dead fifteen years now, and Sera was all Dared Valence had left. He had written twice in the last week, but she had not written back.

What could she tell him? Your daughter is a monster? Your daughter is going to kill herself? She just wanted one more day on their back porch, with him, beneath the real sky. The great lamps of Tarna dampened all but the brightest stars.

Byn and Kara should have joined her already. Had they been caught sneaking onto the library grounds? Sera huffed and searched the library plaza for anyone or anything.

In front of her, mottled stone steps descended to a wide plaza. Cobblestone roads bordered by waist-high hedges cut through green grass, all immaculately trimmed. It seemed wasteful to devote such a large area to grass when it could grow wheat or hold animal paddocks, but most of what Tarna consumed came in from the vast expanse of the Martial Steppes beyond its walls. Those inside the walls enjoyed the luxury of beauty without purpose.

Voices murmured and light flickered, and Sera pressed against a column. Her astral concealment glyph held, one of many she had learned this week. Her demon insisted her unnatural aptitude for absorbing new glyphs was one of its many gifts, and Sera was terrified it might be right.

Yet what harm was there in learning? Why fail to improve herself, even if a demon aided her in that improvement? Every glyph Sera learned and mastered was another chance to stop the monster inside her.

Two Mynt soldiers walked by without seeing her, armored plates clanking. The patrol had no sooner rounded the corner before two shadows darted across the empty plaza and up the library steps, one figure lagging behind the other and running with an odd gait. Byn. Sera stood and beckoned them over.

She recognized Kara’s jawline beneath the hood that topped her heavy cloak. Byn was with her, but running remained difficult for him, one cost among many others they had both paid to keep Kara alive on their journey to Tarna.

Before Byn died in Highridge Pass, he often lifted Sera in a single arm. He easily dragged massive boats ashore. After surviving a davenger’s fierce poison, Byn now had difficulty walking down the street. Everyone had lost so much, but Sera refused to question any sacrifice.

They had, after all, saved the world.

Kara carried a leather satchel, but didn’t open it. Instead she pulled a long key from her brown cloak, copper faded with age. Hers for tonight only.

Kara slipped that key into the lock and turned it with a click that echoed in Sera’s sensitive ears. Once inside, they closed the great doors with only a moderate racket. Those soldiers would not hear it.

“I’m sorry we’re late.” Kara tucked the key back into the pocket of her cloak, then pulled back her hood to reveal her flushed face. “I went to Prince Beren again, to talk about Trell. We argued a bit too long.”

Sera still wasn’t used to seeing Kara’s brown hair cut short. It hung to just above Kara’s shoulders now, yet Kara had worn her hair in a long braid for as long as they had known each other. Sera supposed a week of fleeing demons with frazzled hair changed one’s priorities.

At least Kara’s hair still had its color. Sera’s once dark hair grew grayer by the day, ever since Sera channeled her blood into Kara’s body to defeat Jyllith. Sera wished the worst she had to worry about was going gray.

Byn pushed back his hood, his round face pinched with worry. “Won’t they hear us?” Sweat clumped his sandy-brown hair. “What if they—”

Sera put two fingers to Byn’s lips and offered a warm smile. Five take her, she loved him so damn much. He was the reason she wouldn’t kill herself. Not yet, anyway.

“These doors and walls are thick.” Sera stepped back. “We will not be disturbed until morning.” She was going to lie a lot tonight. “Did you bring the magesand?”

Kara fiddled with her leather satchel. “I want to go over this again, first. I don’t understand why this glyph requires three of us, or magesand. I just want to—”

“Has anything changed?”

Kara’s mouth stayed open, but she did not respond. Sera spoke again before she could.

“Melyssa was very clear about how long I have until the curse consumes me. Two more weeks. Now. Did you bring the magesand?”

“Yes.” Kara’s voice held real shame.

“Then we’re doing this,” Sera told them. “Tonight.”

She led them between rows of massive wooden shelves, walking a plush red rug that stretched from the doors to the back wall. Sera heard the scuff of Kara’s sandals, the shuffle of Byn’s walk. She would not have been able to hear those sounds a week ago, but the demon kept enhancing her senses. Another sign of its growing influence.

“How is Trell doing?” Byn whispered.

“Getting worse,” Kara whispered back. “He’s coughing all the time, walking slower each day, and Beren’s legionnaires won’t let him out of their sight.”

“That’s so stupid. Tellvan or no, I’d trust him with my life. He’s one King Haven should trust.”

They passed tall shelves filled with tomes both new and musty. The Imperial Library mixed ancient books with fresh material requested by the public, popular ballads and heroic tales. Even sappy love poems.

Soon they reached an unremarkable locked door on the eastern wall. “My sweet child,” Sera’s demon whispered. “Do you remember our glyph?”

Sera slashed her index finger with her thumbnail. She drew the glyph from last night’s dark dreams and ignited it. The door popped open with a quiet click.

“I don’t recognize that one,” Kara said quietly. “What was it?”

“It unlocks things.” Sera dared not reveal where she learned it. “I’ll show you how to scribe it when we have more time.” Lying to those she loved grew easier every day. What did that say about her demon?

Sera scribed Flaryen. A small ball of light appeared inside her open hand, and then she led her friends down a narrow flight of winding stairs. Byn shut the door behind them, a sensible precaution.

“She’s been learning everything,” Byn whispered to Kara, but Sera heard him even over their shuffling footsteps. “All the schools, more than I can follow. She’s a fast learner.”

“I know,” Kara whispered back. “Drown me, I know how fast she learns.”

Sera resisted the urge to hunch her shoulders. What had Kara expected her to do as a maniac hunted them, murdered them one by one? Just watch those she loved die?

Scribing Davazet on that Sentinel corpse had been the only way to find Jyllith and stop her harvenger, even if it cost Sera’s soul. Byn had just been murdered, and Kara might soon join him. Then the Five resurrected Byn and returned him to her safe, alive, and lost until he tried to sell his soul, too.

Sera wondered if there were any sappy love poems in the Imperial library about that.

The stairs descended without end, winding around and around until Sera lost track of how deep they might be. Just how vast a network of tunnels existed beneath the Imperial library? Sera almost asked the demon inside her, then bit her tongue instead.

If only she could tell Byn about the demon speaking in her head, warn him and Kara of the danger! Yet Sera could not speak of the voice. The demon would not let her, and that was why she had decided to lie to her friends tonight.

At least the demon could not read her mind … at least not yet. It could only hear what she thought directly to it, and Sera had to take permanent action before that changed. Before it knew everything.

The stairs ended. Sera scribed and unlocked another door, this one ancient and iron. “We’re here.” She hurried in before hesitation could make anyone suspicious.

Flaryen lit the musty interior of a circular room with walls of wet brown stone. Kara shut the small door and closed them inside a perfect circle — perfect, Sera knew, because perfection was necessary for the grim rituals Mynt’s mages conducted after the All Province War.

“Torches.” Sera pointed to four sticks set into wall holders. “They’ll only light with phantom fire. Light three and bring the last one to me.”

Byn grasped a torch with one hand. He pulled against its rusted bracket again, and again. His muscular arm trembled.

“Here.” Sera pressed her slim body against Byn’s and wrapped an arm around his waist. She slid her other arm down the length of his. She gripped the torch and tugged it free.

Byn hung his head and Sera bit back frustration. She kissed his ear, his cheek. She lifted his chin with two fingers and kissed him gently on the mouth. She kissed him until Kara’s feet shifted on the stone.

“Everything you’ve lost,” Sera whispered, “you gave up for Kara, and for me.” She squeezed Byn’s hand. “We’d never think less of you for that, and I love you, Byn Meris, with all my heart.”

Byn smiled. It lit up her world. Sera took the torch from Byn, ignited it with Flaryen, and filled the circular room with flickering white light. Sera gave Kara a glance and pointed to the other torches.

Kara lit torches one after the other, mouth a firm line. Sera reminded herself why she was lying so much. Kara and Byn thought tonight’s glyph would cure Sera of her Demonkin curse, and it would … in a sense.

“The glyphing ritual is straightforward but complex.” Sera sat with knees spread in the center of the room as Byn held a torch near the ceiling. “It begins with the contact mage … that will be you tonight, Kara … scribing a containment glyph around the soul to be cleansed. Me.”

Kara nodded. “Where do I begin?”

Sera reached into her dress pocket and pulled out a single page of fresh parchment. She flattened it on the floor so they could all see the patterns.

“I copied this from one of the tomes Melyssa sent us here to retrieve. I didn’t want to damage the original.” In truth, Sera did not want Byn or Kara to read the dire warnings surrounding the original glyph. “Use the magesand you brought to make the containment glyph shown here.”

Kara examined the page in the even light of the phantom fire torches. Sera calmed herself with deep breaths. They would believe her.

“I’ve got it,” Kara said.

“While you do that,” Sera said, “I’ll scribe a blood glyph in the center of the circle.” She retrieved the second, hand-copied page. “Byn, this is for you. Once we begin, you’ll need to scribe your glyph along with mine, at the same rate. So memorize every line.”

“Got it.” Byn sat down to study the page, brow furrowed and brown eyes intent.

Sera smiled as she watched him. Some might think Byn’s large farmer frame made him slow and ignorant, but those people were idiots. Byn would follow the instructions without error because he was a mage of Solyr, and a good one. He soon handed the page back.

“The execution is the most straightforward part,” Sera said, “but also the most difficult and precise. Kara, you must start the containment glyph at the same time Byn and I start the glyphs at its center. Just move along at a steady pace. We’ll follow your scribing with ours.”

“This glyph will cure you?” Byn asked.

“Of course.” It was harder to lie when she looked into Byn’s eyes, so she didn’t. “It’s a mirror, love. We’ll mirror each other’s scribing as Kara encircles us from without, and then I’ll be safe from this Demonkin curse.” That was the truth, shaded as it must be.

“Foolish lies,” the demon whispered, yet Sera detected something else in its tone. “Our union is not a curse, but a blessing.” Was it nervous? “Embrace me, child.”

Sera looked to Kara. “Ready?”

“Ready.” Kara stuck a steel spout in a hole in the jar of magesand and prepared to pour. “Give the word.”

Sera’s thumbnail cut her index finger. Once her blood welled up sufficiently, she glanced at Byn. His finger bled as well.

“On three,” Sera said, “we begin. One. Two. Three.”

As Sera and Byn scribed Kara poured a line of magesand, glowing orange inside the dream world. Years of study at Solyr allowed Sera to forget everything as she scribed, seeing the complex glyph in her mind. Kara’s pouring matched Sera’s scribing as, along with Byn, they completed a circular glyph of interlocking lines. Once they finished, Sera ignited it.

The containment glyph glowed bright red.

Read Chapter 5

Demonkin – Chapter 3

* * *

JYLLITH FELT LIKE SOMEONE had punched her in the stomach. “No.” She couldn’t breathe. “You’re mad, you old crone.” She stood, stepped back, and raised her hands.

“Mad or not, you still serve me.” Melyssa coughed blood on cushions and blanket. “You swore an oath.”

Jyllith trembled as Melyssa traced glyphs Jyllith knew well on her pale skin, strengthening her own limbs, and those were the last glyphs she would ever scribe. No Bloodmender could thin her own blood to this degree. Melyssa had just murdered herself.

Melyssa reached into her robes, produced a dagger, and offered it to Jyllith hilt first. “Take it.” The old woman looked strong, now, but she would die the moment her enhancement ended.

“Please don’t make me.” Jyllith remembered the first man she murdered begging for his life. “Make me do anything but this.”

“This struggle is bigger than either of us. Presenting that cult with the head of Torn’s wife will convince them to accept you.”

Jyllith had done all she could to help Melyssa, but what the old woman asked now was unfair, evil. Insane.

“I’ve lived a long, lonely life,” Melyssa said, “without the man I love. Torn is free from the Underside, and I want to be free too.”

Jyllith took deep breaths, forced herself to think and speak. “You’re dying already. Why make me murder you?”

“Demonkin can use a person’s blood to see how they died. They will do that with my head, and they must see you murder me.”

Jyllith knew Melyssa was right. She knew that glyph, because Cantrall had taught it to her. She wanted to take that knife and jam it into her own heart.

“There is a cure,” Melyssa said. “For the Demonkin curse.”

“What?” Jyllith wanted to scream at her. “Why didn’t you tell me? We’ve been looking for a week!”

“I had hoped you would find another way.”

“Why? What’s the cost of this cure?”

“Those cursed must trade another’s soul for theirs.”

Jyllith sagged in place, an empty pit opening in her stomach. Sera would never send another soul to the Underside, yet there was a possibility there. One hope.

“What if I went in place of Sera?”

“Oh, child.” Melyssa smiled at her, like her mother smiled when Jyllith answered a question right. “You can’t. Only an uncursed soul may be given in trade.”

Uncursed. Well. Jyllith was far from that.

“Now, while I can still stand.” Melyssa stepped closer. “Kill me and take my head.”

“I hate you for this.” Jyllith took the dagger and gripped it so hard it hurt. “I’ll never forgive you.”

“Just forgive yourself.”

Melyssa had trusted and forgiven her. Melyssa had saved her when no one else would. Melyssa even made her happy, sometimes, when she knew the old woman wasn’t looking.

Jyllith drove the dagger right between Melyssa’s ribs.

Melyssa gasped, eyes wide. She fell and Jyllith caught her. She held Melyssa as she trembled, shook, and choked on her own blood.

“Thank you,” Melyssa whispered.

Jyllith refused to cry. Melyssa didn’t deserve to see that. “I’ll stop them. I won’t fail you. Thank you for everything.” She kissed Melyssa’s forehead. “I wish we had more time.”

Melyssa smiled at her. Her face relaxed. For a moment Jyllith felt like she had always felt when her mother smiled at her, warm and safe and happy. It felt like holding her mother again.

Then Melyssa died.

Jyllith held Melyssa on the cold stone floor and wept. She hugged the old woman’s still warm body. Finally, she set Melyssa beside her cot and closed the woman’s sightless eyes.

“Wherever you are, I hope you found Torn.” Jyllith raised the bloody dagger. “Five guard your soul.”

It took some time to saw through Melyssa’s neck. Most daggers balked at bone, and when it was done her hands were slick with blood. Numb and messy, she took her gruesome trophy and left the library for the first time in a week.

She was all alone now.

The gloss-stone walls surrounding the academy were charred and cracked. The plain white cobblestones that formed the ground were broken and choked by hard black scrub. Brilliant clouds roiled in the sky, the spectral storms Torn had summoned raging still.

It did not take Jyllith long to find supplies. No looters had ever reached Terras, and the belongings of the departed dead were bountiful. She found a bucket and heated some pitch. She lifted Melyssa’s head by its long white hair and dipped it.

The pitch smelled terrible. She whispered an apology. Then she went inside to pick up Melyssa’s headless body.

It took her an hour to dig the grave and another hour to put Melyssa to rest. She had no time to leave a marker. It was already mid-afternoon, and with only two weeks before this Demonkin curse consumed her, she needed every hour.

Even with a horse, the journey out of the Unsettled Lands and then to Pale Lake would take eight days. More than half of what remained to her. Her demon’s whispers would grow louder all the while, and listening even once would be the end of her.

Any mage who dared scribe demon glyphs, as she and Sera had done on the journey to Terras, allowed the Mavoureen to latch onto their souls. Those demons consumed them, slowly driving them mad, until nothing was left but a demonic shell and endless hate.

That was the Demonkin curse. That was her fate if she did not kill herself before two weeks elapsed. It would be Sera’s fate, too.

Jyllith gathered a heavy oak quarterstaff, a travel pack with a blanket, flint and steel, and coins of various denominations. It was enough for a horse and supplies at the first town she reached. By the time she finished foraging, Melyssa’s head was ready.

She dropped the pitch-covered thing inside a waterproof sack and tied the top tight. Her final task was to pen a note for Sera and Byn. She detailed Melyssa’s cure for the Demonkin curse.

She knew Sera would not use it, but they deserved to know. She signed it with Melyssa’s name — they would never trust hers — and slid it into a weatherproof parchment tube from the library.

Finally, she strapped her quarterstaff across her back and took up travel pack, tube, and sack. She walked for the Terras gates. The sun closed on the horizon, and a stiff wind rose as she stepped off the academy grounds. It chilled even through lined leather.

She pulled out the weatherproof tube. It had a long metal spike on one end. She jammed that spike into the ground as hard as she could, driving it until she was certain it was secure. It would not come free, and anyone returning here could not miss it.

One way or the other, Sera Valence had her cure.

Jyllith straightened. A long road waited, and she would walk it without any friends. Kara had endured much as Jyllith and Cantrall hunted her, but she had people she loved, relied upon, trusted. Byn Meris. Sera Valence. Aryn Locke and Jair Deymartin.

Jyllith had no one. Everyone she loved was dead. Her family was somewhere wonderful, but even if she stopped this cult and saved the world, she would never go where her family was.

She would go somewhere else.

Jyllith stopped at Jair’s grave. She and Melyssa had buried him beside the Terras gates a week ago. She almost imagined she could feel him standing by, watching her.

“I don’t know if you can hear me.” Jair had been a Soulmage as well, and he had given his life to give Kara hers. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this. It doesn’t seem possible.”

Jair had been under Cantrall’s thrall for a brief time, done horrible things for reasons not his own. She imagined he understood her, just a little bit. He had been a kind and patient soul.

“Watch over me,” Jyllith whispered. “Don’t let me fail.”

She looked out over the empty gray earth and made herself stop feeling anything. She made herself numb. She had to once more become the hard, vindictive woman she hated.

She had to deliver Melyssa’s severed head.

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ARYN LOCKE HALTED on the meandering muddy road and cursed under his breath. A horde of people surrounded him, but he could make out nothing but their shapes in dream world orange. With his skin charred black and his eyes gone, dream world sight was all he had.

“There he is!” one man shouted. “The thief! The monster! Don’t let it escape!”

Why couldn’t anything ever be easy? Aryn was going home — he needed to go home — and this stupid mob stood in his way. What if he just sprinted past them? Would anyone actually try to stop him?

He stood on a muddy, wheel-cut road drawn in the jagged black lines of the dream world. It ran between a mess of orange oak shapes, interspersed with what Aryn assumed was grass and wildflowers. The mob hemmed him in, the dead black sticks in their hands ranging from torches to pitchforks.

Aryn pulled his cowl closer around his blackened, ruined face, and stood straight. He had no hair, no fine clothes, and barely enough copper left to buy bread, but none of that mattered now. He was of noble blood, and no mere peasant could question his honor.

“I’m no thief.” He spoke with every ounce of eloquence he could muster, drawing on years of training in public speechmaking. “I’m just a traveler on his way to seek work in Locke.” He tried to remember life before fire burned away his skin. “Do the honorable stonemasons of Dane greet all travelers like this?”

Aryn had hoped to bypass their little village, starting his journey as soon as the sun set. Dane was a quarry town in the shadow of the Ranarok mountains a few day’s walk from Highridge Pass. It was only on the most complete maps, and its stonemasons were not well known. Sometimes flattery worked.

“Liar!” an orange dream form shouted, this one holding a pitchfork. “He stole apples from my orchard not an hour after sunset, free as you please!”

“Bread from my porch!” another man yelled.

“Milk from my stoop!” a third added.

Aryn huffed loudly for their benefit. “If you had bothered to look on your stoops, you’d find the payment I left. Is copper not enough? Do you require blood?”

“It’s demon coin, no doubt!” the pitchfork-wielding man yelled, gesturing to his fellows. “Payment to entice us into abiding the presence of this … monster!”

The others nodded, murmuring among themselves. Aryn took another look at the mob, but saw no easy way out. He might glyph up some flames, but would that frighten the mob away, or convince them to attack?

“When I yelled from my house, he turned on me,” pitchfork man continued. “I saw black holes where his eyes should be, pools black as the Underside.” The man pointed at Aryn. “He’ll leave us coins, all right, for everything he steals. He’ll pay us for our children next!”

The mob’s shouting grew into an uproar even as Aryn shouted back, lost in the clamor. “I was only hungry!”

“We can’t let it live!” another man shouted, brave as could be with all these others around him. “You heard what Zeb said about the eyes!”

“It’s a demon!” the third man yelled. “Same as the monster that tore up Lared’s Row last week. Murdered the women and devoured the kids!”

Several men advanced, pitchforks raised as the shouts grew in volume and frequency.

“Not here!”

“Not among the good people of Dane!”

“Kill it! Kill the demon!”

Aryn reached for the quarterstaff strapped across his back, over his gray travel cloak, and took a firm grip. He had saved Sera, saved Kara, saved the bloody world, and now a mob of inbred commoners were going to beat him to death with their black sticks. How had it come to this?

Jyllith. She was the reason this was happening to him. Two weeks ago, her gnarls captured him, captured Sera. Two weeks ago Jyllith and Cantrall gave Aryn to the demon Balazel, tossed him into the Underside to be torn apart. Two weeks ago, the Five brought Aryn back.

This was not two weeks ago. This was now, and he didn’t really feel like dying again. Aryn unslung his quarterstaff and spun it twice. He ended his impressive maneuver in a low guard, hands together just below his waist and staff tilted toward the sky.

“Seeing as you have convicted me already, I won’t belabor the point.” He could swing his dead stick about too. “Do you know what a good solid swing can do to a man’s skull? It pops open like a ripe melon.”

The men with the pitchforks stepped back. A traveler who knew how to use a quarterstaff was far harder to lynch than one who did not. Aryn had just made this already unpleasant encounter quite a bit more complicated.

Aryn moved from a low guard to a middle guard, staff straight, then to a high guard, arms raised and staff tilted to the ground. It shocked him how good his weapon felt in his hands. Fighting with a staff was the one thing at Solyr he had been very good at.

The time since he parted from the others at Highridge Pass was a blur, days shuffling from place to place in his gray cloak and hood. He traveled only at night, avoiding passing travelers, taking what food and drink he required and leaving payment. He had to get home. He had to see if his family would take him back.

Aryn heard the tale of Lared’s Row from an old peddler too blind to see his charred skin. Some thing tore the town apart and fifty were dead, children among them. Given the hysteria sweeping through Mynt, it was only a matter of time before Aryn’s blackened skin got him mobbed.

“I’m no demon,” he told them. “I’m no thief. But if you won’t let me go my own way tonight, more than a few of you won’t be going home.” Aryn slipped into a low guard, the safest stance, and glanced at each of them in turn. “So. Who’ll be the first to have his skull caved in?”

“The first?” A new voice rose over the murmuring mob, female and far more amused than she had any right to be. “That’d be me, I suppose.”

Aryn turned his staff toward the newcomer. Her slim dream form was small compared to the men who stepped aside to allow her through, but the way she walked and held himself reminded him of Kara Honuron. She carried a quarterstaff easily in both hands.

“Lady Tania, you shouldn’t be here tonight,” pitchfork man complained. “You know what we do with thieves in Dane, and this one’s far more than that.”

“A demon, yes. You mentioned that.” Tania’s tone revealed nothing of what she thought about that claim. “Well, what does the demon have to say for itself?”

Aryn spun his staff and settled it vertically by his side. “I’m just a traveler passing by your town.”

“Liar!” a woman shouted, and soon the mob took it up. “Thief! Demon!”

Tania raised a slim hand and silenced them. That impressed Aryn. They respected her.

“Say he is a demon,” Tania said into the silence. “Zeb, you brought us the story of Lared’s Row.”

The pitchfork-wielding mob leader — now Zeb — offered a nod. “I did.”

“So what makes you think,” Tania swept her staff to indicate the crowd, “what makes any of you think you can stop something that tore through trained militia and all of the brave people in Lared’s Row?”

Some of the men shuffled their feet, and a few women shifted closer to their men. Aryn smiled to himself. Tania was fast convincing them to leave him alone. His only question now was why. Why would she help him?

“Lady Tania, we can’t just turn around,” another man said, a bigger man than Zeb. “It’ll come for our children next.” Unlike Zeb, this man seemed genuinely concerned for his people’s welfare. “Beggin’ your pardon, but even if it’s like to kill me, I can’t let it slip away.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Tania agreed. “Demon or no, anyone skulking about must be dealt with.”

Aryn ground his teeth. “I’ve already told you I’m no demon. Must you hold me on this road while you debate how best to murder me?”

The big man who spoke last stepped forward, but Tania put a hand on his arm.

“Peace, Bart. I’ll handle this.” Tania glanced at Aryn and settled into a low guard, staff raised with her right foot forward. “I know how to handle demons, if this traveler is indeed among their number. Either way, I will ensure he leaves here and never troubles you again.”

She nodded to Aryn. “How about it, stranger? We’ll have a friendly duel. Should you win, you walk out of here, never to return. Should I win, you’ll pay twice for the things you’ve taken while skulking about … and then you’ll walk out of here, never to return.”

Either way, it sounded like he walked out of here. “You’ve set fair terms.” Aryn liked her way of thinking. He matched her stance, testing the slip of his boots against muddy ground. “I accept.”

“Now hold on a moment—” Zeb started, but the woman behind him cuffed his head.

“Enough!” that woman shouted. “You got us together and told us there was a demon we needed to find and stop. Well, we found it, and now Lady Tania’s going to stop it. Don’t you dare question her.”

Aryn smirked inside his lowered hood. Folk might be more simple on the fringes of Mynt, but couples were the same everywhere. Tania offered a small, graceful bow, and Aryn reflexively returned it. It almost felt like a triptych duel at Solyr, what felt like years ago in a life long burned away.

“How does our duel end?” Aryn asked.

“If you knock me on my ass, I’ll cede victory.” Tania edged closer. “If I put you on yours…”

Aryn almost laughed. “Simple and direct. One caution, my lady. I don’t often lose.”

“Something we have in common.” Tania’s right foot crept forward. Then she moved and thrust.

Read Chapter 4