* * *
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.