* * *
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.
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.