The Blood Curse (Spell Weaver Book 3) by Annette Marie

  Her skin prickled. Where were Rouvin’s guards? Had he left to join a lightning fete with Miysis?

  She glanced around the empty junction. Weren’t there usually griffin soldiers posted here? And where were her guards?

  A spot on the white marble floor caught her eye—a streak of red near a narrow door, smeared as though someone had hastily wiped it up. The nervous weight in her stomach deepened into shivery apprehension.

  Blinking her asper into focus, she cautiously approached the door. The scent of blood and death reached her nose. One hand poised to cast a spell, she twisted the handle and yanked the door open.

  A storage room, filled with brooms, mops, and feather dusters. And, heaped on the floor in the middle, two griffins in uniform, blood drenching their feathered wings.

  Before she could react to the sight of the murdered guards, a boom exploded through the city—but this time, it wasn’t thunder.

  Reeling away from the closet, she flew to the window and grabbed the railing. Orange fire surged above the buildings, belching black smoke toward the dark sky. Green threads of magic flickered among the flames.

  Nymph magic. Bastian was here—and he was attacking the city.

  Rouvin. She had to get to Rouvin. Whirling on her heel, she bolted down the corridor toward her father’s room. He would know what to do. Skidding to a stop at his door, she reached for the handle.

  Orange magic webbed the doorknob: a lock spell with a powerful kickback if anyone touched it. She recognized the tangerine hue of chimera magic.

  She sucked in a breath, forcing herself to pause, to think. As dread twisted through her, she touched a weak spot in the weave and dissolved it. Instead of barging in, she carefully turned the handle and cracked the door open. A deep male voice that didn’t belong to her father was rumbling in complaint.

  “… boring as hell. Everyone else gets to have all the fun.”

  “Someone had to take babysitting duty,” another voice replied, his scaled tail snapping back and forth. “Be proud the prince trusted us for this job.”

  A grunt answered him.

  Holding her breath, Clio pushed the door open wider and stuck her head inside.

  Six chimeras in dark clothing stood in a loose half circle. In front of them, Rouvin was bound to a chair, his chin resting on his chest, wrapped in a sleep spell. His bodyguards were slumped in a corner, unconscious beneath similar spells.

  Babysitting duty. Bastian must have found out Rouvin was in Aldrendahar, so he’d sent a team of chimeras to keep the king out of the way. And Bastian had chosen chimeras for this job because he knew it would be impossible to convince nymph soldiers to attack their king.

  She scanned the six daemons. Heavily armed and shielded with magic. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on the nearest chimera’s defensive spells, embedded in lodestones on their belts. Why did that weave look so familiar? It was almost like …

  Like Lyre’s defensive weaves. An exact copy of his protective spells, one for magical defense and one for physical. Fury boiled in her blood. Bastian had stolen Lyre’s spells and duplicated them for his soldiers!

  Ducking back into the hallway, she detached the bulky sleeves of her outfit, then cast Lyre’s most powerful cloaking spell on herself. They weren’t the only ones who could draw on a master weaver’s arsenal.

  She eased the door open again and crept along the wall toward the corner where the chimeras had dumped Rouvin’s four unconscious guards. Since the nymphs were wrapped in simple sleep spells, the chimeras must have been under orders to avoid killing them if possible.

  No one glanced her way as the chimeras continued to gripe about all the excitement they were missing. Beneath the roll of thunder, cracks and detonations sounded with disturbing frequency.

  Ducking into the shadowy corner, she touched the nearest guard and dissolved the sleep spell. His eyes flew open and she clamped a hand over his mouth.

  “Don’t move,” she breathed in his ear. “Pretend you’re still unconscious.”

  He sucked in a sharp breath, the air hissing past her fingers, then closed his eyes most of the way, keeping his body limp. She woke the next guard, giving him the same command to stay still and silent. To reach the other two, she had to kneel on the first one but he didn’t react to her knees digging into his stomach.

  She woke the last two, then slid into the shadows again.

  “There are six chimeras,” she whispered, hoping they could all hear her over the thunder, not daring to speak any louder. Her cloaking weave would only work if the chimeras weren’t actively looking for an intruder. “They’re protected by strong defensive weavings against magic and weapons.”

  She paused as one of the chimeras laughed at his comrade’s joke, then continued. “I know how to break the shields, so if you watch me you should be able to do the same yourself.”

  All nymphs had astral perception, but without the mimic ability, they didn’t have her instinctive talent for understanding magic—and seeing its weaknesses—but if she showed them how, they could break the weaves too. And she had no doubt these soldiers had the skill to learn the technique after a single demonstration—only the best of the best were given the honor of guarding the king’s life. They’d never have been taken unaware the first time if the chimeras hadn’t had master weaver spells to help them.

  “I’ll sneak around and distract them from the other side. Are you ready?”

  Four slight nods. She slunk away, keeping to the shadows. Timing her steps to overlap with the chimeras’ talking, she painstakingly circled around the room.

  Crouched low, she lifted a full pitcher of water off the round table, its ice melted but the polished exterior slick with cold droplets, then crept farther until she was directly behind the chimeras. Beside her, the drapes that surrounded the bed rippled in the breeze.

  She waited for the next thunderous boom, then slung the water across the marble floor. Setting the pitcher aside, she began two spells at once.

  The problem with magic in a dark room: it glowed.

  At the first flicker of green light, the six chimeras whirled toward her. The nearer two charged—and slipped on the slick floor. One daemon fell while the second flailed wildly for balance. She flung her first spell—a whip of force that struck their legs, taking the flailing chimera and another one down.

  Then she snapped out her second spell. The blade of power sliced across the top of the drapes and the sharp breeze blew them over the chimeras. They batted furiously at the tumbling fabric or leaped aside to stay clear, distracted only for a few seconds.

  And in those seconds, the four nymph guards launched at the chimeras from behind.

  Eight daemons clashed in a frenzy of gleaming weapons and flashing magic. Clio danced out of the way as the first chimera she’d downed lunged from under the drapes and grabbed her arm. She slipped on the wet marble and fell backward, but the chimera fell too, landing on top of her and crushing the air from her lungs.

  Wheezing, she slapped a hand to his side. She didn’t need to reexamine the weaving to learn how to break it; she’d found its weakness back in Asphodel when she’d faced Madrigal. She shredded the physical defense ward, then grabbed the nearby water pitcher. Not bothering with a spell, she smashed it into the side of his head.

  He jerked back and she scooted out from under him. Two chimeras were already down and the others were battling the four nymphs, while the unconscious king sat in the middle, blades flashing dangerously close.

  She sprang at the back of the nearest chimera. He spotted her and tried to dodge away but his nymph opponent threw a flare spell in his face—harmless, but the chimera flinched. It was just enough of a pause for her to shove a hand against the chimera’s back. This time, she didn’t break the physical defense weave. She broke his magical defense one.

  The nymph guard saw the shield fail, and green light blazed over his sword. The chimera was about to find this opponent a lot tougher to handle.

  Clio left the nymph to
it and raced for the next chimera. The moment he was distracted, she darted in and broke his magical defense weave. He whipped around to face her—and the nymph behind him conjured a glowing green spear and sank it into the daemon’s back.

  She went for the next chimera. His tail snapped out, striking her legs, and she hit the floor before she knew what had happened. The chimera cast a wall of orange flames at his opponents, then spun his sword down toward Clio.

  A nymph guard burst through the flames. His curved saber, the blade glowing, caught the chimera’s heavier sword, and at the same time, he jammed his fist into the daemon’s side. Light flashed and the chimera’s shield dissolved.

  Baring his teeth, the chimera tackled the nymph guard. They went down in a jumble of limbs, then the nymph rolled free, his spelled blade spinning, and he drove it into the chimera’s shoulder.

  Clio grabbed the injured chimera and spun a binding spell over him. “Help the others!”

  The nymph rushed toward his companions while she finished the binding. Still fighting to breathe after her hard fall, she jumped to her feet.

  The last chimera collapsed, caught between two spells. The nymph nearest to Clio turned to the chimera she’d bound, and before she realized what he intended, he thrust his sword down into the helpless daemon’s chest. She backed away, her stomach twisting. No mercy for traitors.

  One nymph guard lay unmoving with a puddle of blood slowly spreading beneath him. His sword was still embedded in his opponent’s torso.

  Clio stumbled to Rouvin and touched his chest. A spark of magic dissolved the sleep spell, and his eyes flew open. He jerked upright and she hurriedly broke the binding spells.

  Rouvin’s face paled as he scanned the bloody scene. When he saw his fallen guard, grief flashed in his eyes but he didn’t let the emotion touch his expression. Of his remaining protectors, one had hastened to defend the door, while the other performed a fast healing on an ugly slice in his comrade’s leg.

  “Clio,” Rouvin whispered hoarsely. “Is Bastian here?”

  “Maybe.” She swallowed hard. “Those chimeras mentioned ‘the prince’ and I saw—”

  A roaring detonation rattled the room, followed by another roll of thunder. The wind whipped through the windows, blowing the torn bedroom drapes across the floor. Rouvin pushed to his feet and strode to the open arches. Clio followed, her legs weak from fading adrenaline and growing dread. Together with her father, she looked across the city.

  Fires burned everywhere, the flames reaching for the orange-tinted sky where lightning raged. Flames ran along the citadel walls and chunks were missing from the stone parapets.

  “I thought he would choose an easier target,” Rouvin said bleakly. “But he chose the best-defended town to show his strength.”

  “He can’t use the KLOC here.” She pressed her hands against the stone rail. “There’s a ley line only half a mile away.”

  “I wish I could say he’s not that reckless, but I don’t know anymore.”

  His two guards approached, the third still covering the door. “Your Majesty, what do you want to do?”

  “You should stay here,” Clio said. “Your other guards must be nearby—I bet the chimeras incapacitated them too. If you can wake them up, you’ll be well protected. I’ll find Miysis and—”

  “You need to find Bastian,” Rouvin interrupted. “Clio, he must be stopped. The damage he’s inflicted could be irreparable.” He glanced at the soldier who had perished protecting him. “Some damage already cannot be reversed.”

  “But … where is he?” She turned to the violent city vista, ravaged by fires on the ground with the storm threatening from above. Chaos reigned, dark shadows darting in every direction as Aldrendahar’s inhabitants fled the attacks.

  As she looked across the destruction, she knew Bastian was there somewhere. He wouldn’t let this important phase of his plan unfold without him. Her gaze darted from fire to fire but the darkness and distance were enough to defeat even her asper. Bastian could be anywhere.

  In the city’s center, the shadow of its tallest tower rose above everything—the narrow watchtower whose guiding lights had blazed brightly through the storm when she’d last looked out at the vista.

  But now the tower was dark, its lights extinguished.

  Her hands tightened on the stone railing. The watchtower was in the center of Aldrendahar, a strategic point from which the city’s guardians could spot any danger—or from which an enemy could oversee their invasion.

  She pushed back from the window. “I’ll find him.”

  Rouvin nodded, not questioning her sudden determination. “Be careful.”

  “You as well.” She glanced at his two guards, catching their eyes, then added, “Stay here. If I see Miysis or his soldiers, I’ll tell them where you are.”

  The guards nodded, their dark eyes alert and simmering with protective fury.

  She rushed across the room. As she reached the door, the third guard held out a hand to stop her. He pulled off a belt and reached around her to buckle it over her hips. She looked down at the two long, lightweight daggers.

  “You should be armed with more than magic,” he said quietly. “Just in case.”

  “Thank you,” she murmured. “Protect the king.”

  “With my life.”

  Hoping it wouldn’t come to that, she sprinted away from the room. The halls sped by. As she dashed down the grand staircase and into the sprawling main level foyer, the statues of griffin matrons stared down at her disapprovingly.

  The reception hall wasn’t empty like the guest wing. Griffins were streaming in from outside as they sought shelter, some panicking or injured, others attempting to direct the new arrivals. Soldiers and citadel guards were controlling the chaos as best they could.

  Slowing so she didn’t crash into anyone, Clio wove through the refugees. She passed women, children, and teenagers dressed for the lightning fetes, their fancy outfits charred or torn. Beside a pillar, one of the body artists who’d dressed Clio for the state dinner was crouched over a teenager with blood coating her arm and half her wing feathers bent the wrong way.

  Clio’s throat tightened. These daemons weren’t soldiers. They weren’t warriors. They were regular civilians who’d just wanted to enjoy a special night in their harsh desert town.

  Something close to loathing bubbled up in her as she flew through the citadel’s front doors past more injured and frightened griffins. Many daemons had no combat training, only survival instincts, and those instincts did little good when the enemy was attacking from the shadows. What else could they do but flee?

  As she ran down the steps, she corrected her assumption. Fleeing might have been the reaction for some, but for every daemon who sought shelter in the citadel, two more were outside. And they weren’t terrified.

  They were enraged.

  She slapped a hand to her chest and reinforced her cloaking spell, unsure if the griffins might target her. Some clustered in snarling groups while others perched on rooftops or coasted on the rough winds, carrying weapons or ready to fight with nothing but magic and fists.

  Had Bastian anticipated that griffins, a caste inherently more aggressive than nymphs, would react with violence instead of fear?

  When she saw the citadel gates were open, she sighed in relief. Twenty griffin soldiers and a dozen civilians guarded it, but they were allowing a flood of injured and frightened daemons into the fortified citadel walls. Keeping to the shadows, Clio darted past them and out into the street. If the soldiers saw her, they didn’t care about a lone daemon fleeing in the wrong direction.

  She cut into an alley, heading toward the watchtower. As she sped through the streets, she passed magic-fueled fires from the detonations she’d heard. Green and orange magic splayed across the ground, glowing in her asper, and frustrated griffins tried to extinguish the flames while others circled the areas as though hoping the culprits would return to the scene.

  As she neared the watchtower, th
e streets emptied. No fires burned here, reinforcing her guess on where to search. Bastian wouldn’t want to draw attention to his location. Slowing to a careful jog, she passed a small bazaar with wooden stalls, miraculously unburned, then ducked down a narrow street between buildings.

  Ahead, the alley opened into a wide square, and at the farthest end, the narrow watchtower rose high. Lush palm trees formed a circle around a crystalline spring in the square’s center, the bench-like edges of the pool carved from marble.

  In the shadow of the tower, green and orange auras were huddled together. A large ring of glowing green, filled with runes, had been drawn across the ground beneath them. She scanned the spell from across the square, squinting to make out the details, then blinked her asper away. Without it to show her the magic, she saw nothing but deep shadows that the lightning failed to illuminate.

  An illusion spell. She hadn’t seen this exact weaving before, but she’d seen—and used—a similar invention of Lyre’s to evade archers during her escape from the bastille in Asphodel.

  Blinking back her asper, she counted the daemon auras. Thirty soldiers, and as she watched, two more appeared from inside the tower. One of those green auras was Bastian. She was sure of it.

  She backed out of sight, hoping none of the nymphs had spotted her aura. What now? She couldn’t take on thirty soldiers alone. She couldn’t even approach without being seen.

  Squeezing her eyes shut, she calmed her frantic thoughts. The constant flash and flicker of lightning blazed through her eyelids, and the cacophony of thunder and shouting, interspersed with fiery detonations, continued ceaselessly.

  With a crackling rumble, the sky opened. Torrential rain hit the city, pouring from the raging heavens. It drenched Clio in seconds, the cool wind cutting like ice.

  She squinted through the downpour. She couldn’t fight this alone, but she was in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood and with the storm and rain, no one would find her. She needed help and she needed it now, before Bastian could flee or move on to the next phase of his plan—whatever that was.

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