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

  “The same way I charge mine all the damn time. Shut up and hand them over.”

  Setting his bowl on the floor, Lyre stripped off several bracelets and added them to his pouch of diamond lodestones. Ash pocketed it, then turned to Clio.

  “And yours?”

  “I, uh, don’t have any. I’ve never had the need for one before … all this.”

  “You have a need for them now.” Ash returned to his stack of boxes, dug around, then held out three large shards of pink corundum. “Channel some magic through these.”

  She took the stones with a frown.

  “They won’t be easy to use, but it’s better than nothing,” Lyre added. “Lodestones take weeks to properly attune.”

  Blowing her hair away from her face, she flooded magic through each stone, then handed them back. Ash slipped them into his pocket, indifferent about giving her three expensive lodestones, second in value only to diamonds.

  “I’ll be gone for a while.” He headed for the door. “A day at least, two if I have to scout Kokytos as well as Asphodel. Be ready to go when I return.”

  As he pulled the door open, Lyre straightened in his seat. “Ash.”

  The draconian looked back.

  “Thanks … for everything.”

  Ash’s eyes darkened, his expression hard. “Don’t turn this arrangement into something it isn’t, incubus. If you don’t start being useful, I’ll kill you myself.”

  The door snapped shut behind him and Clio shivered. Her appetite gone, she set her bowl on the empty chair beside the mattress.

  “Maybe,” she mumbled hesitantly, “we should be more careful with Ash. Trusting him seems … risky.”

  “Hmm?” Bowl in hand, Lyre eased off his chair and crossed to the sink. “If he was still seriously planning to kill me, he wouldn’t make threats. He’d just do it.”

  She frowned worriedly as he rinsed his bowl out, then filled the empty pot with water to soak. He retrieved her bowl and rinsed it out too.

  “Do you really think we can get the KLOC back from Lyceus?” she asked.

  Lyre stared into the sink. “I don’t know. If it was just me, no. But with you and Ash … maybe.”

  “I won’t be much use.” Her shoulders slumped. “I’m not a warrior like you or Ash.”

  Shutting off the tap, he crossed to the mattress and crouched, putting their faces on the same level. The ruby at the end of the braid hanging alongside his face glittered, and the family mark on his cheekbone looked even darker than usual against his pale complexion. With so little magic left, his true face wasn’t quite as hypnotizing as usual—but still breathtakingly stunning.

  “Clio, without you, we wouldn’t have a chance.”

  Her breath caught.

  “I could probably get through Chrysalis but if we have to break into the Ivory Tower? Ash and I wouldn’t make it ten steps without you to spot the traps and get through the wards. Ash and I will worry about the fighting stuff. You do what you do best.” A tired smile curved his lips and he brushed his fingers across her cheek. “How can you say you’re not much use when I’d be dead twenty times over if not for you?”

  Tears stung her eyes. “I couldn’t save my father, though.”

  His thumb stroked her cheek. “There was nothing you could have done, Clio. He made his choice.”

  The anguish she’d buried deep down was pushing through the stubborn walls she’d erected around it. What would happen to Irida? She tried not to think about it, but she couldn’t stop the thoughts from popping into her head—the royal council’s reaction, the city in mourning, the uncertainty and fear that would spread through the kingdom.

  And hardest to stop were thoughts of Petrina, alone in the palace, her father and brother dead. Her entire family, gone in a single night.

  With a shuddering breath, Clio focused on the amber eyes in front of her. Sliding one hand into Lyre’s hair, she pulled his mouth to hers. His kiss was soft, gentle, and too soon he pulled back.

  She tightened her hand in his hair, stopping his retreat. “Lyre, make me forget.”

  His brow furrowed. “What?”

  “Make me forget everything, just for a little while?” She pulled his face down again until their lips were touching. “I don’t want to think about anything but you.”

  He hesitated, then his mouth closed over hers. This time, his kiss was slow and deep and consuming. She held his head in place, never wanting the kiss to end. His hands slid gently over her, avoiding her sore shoulder.

  Still kissing her, he guided her back onto the mattress. Heat gathered deep inside her, warming the chill that had clung to her limbs since the drenching desert storm. Her fingers trailed down his neck and across his collarbones, his skin smooth and warm.

  Her breath caught with a sudden realization, and she opened her eyes. He raised his head, eyes darkened to bronze, his hot stare questioning.

  “What is it?” he asked, a hint of mesmerizing harmonics leaking into his voice.

  She touched his cheekbone where the family mark stood out against his skin, then traced one ear to its point. His real face. His real body, with no glamour disguising him.

  She pulled his mouth back to hers, renewed desire igniting through her. She wanted to touch and kiss and discover him all over again.

  Sensing the change in her, he growled softly, a hungry sound. Pushing her back into the mattress, he slid his hands over her and found the fabric belt of her outfit. As he pulled it apart, she tugged at his shirt, unable to figure out the ties on the unfamiliar style.

  He sat up and stripped it off in one move. Pressing both hands to his chest, she stroked hard muscle. Dried blood streaked his skin, but she didn’t care. Judging by the fire in his eyes, he didn’t care either that she was smudged with dirt and blood. He lowered himself down, pulled her mouth back to his, and did exactly as she’d asked—and more.

  She forgot about everything but him. She thought of nothing but him. She felt nothing but him. His touch, his kiss, his heat, his body, his strength. His fire consumed her, burning deeper and deeper until there was no room inside her for sorrow or fear.

  They eventually found their way to the shower, where he distracted her all over again beneath the pounding water, heated by a spell he’d added to the showerhead. Clean, satiated, and so relaxed she could barely stand, she stayed under the water to soak a little longer.

  After another luxurious ten minutes in the cramped shower, she dried off with a threadbare towel and pulled on the oversized shirt Ash had left her. It fell halfway down her thighs.

  When she drifted out of the bathroom, planning to join Lyre in bed for a long nap in his arms, she instead found him sitting on the floor, facing the kitchen chair. Perched on the seat was the vial of glowing quicksilver—the mirror spell she had helped him create.

  Lyre stared at it, his eyes strangely out of focus. Slowly, he raised his hand, tracing an unfathomable shape in the air as his lips moved soundlessly. Her stomach dropped, apprehension diving through her, but she had no idea why.

  “Lyre?” she murmured.

  He blinked, his gaze snapping to her, but almost immediately, his stare returned to the vial. He put one finger on the cork.

  “I figured it out,” he whispered. “I know how to make it work.”

  She said nothing, wondering why his words failed to trigger the expected rush of exhilaration or triumph. Instead, an even icier wave of dread spiraled through her core.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Inhaling slowly, Clio tasted the air.

  She hadn’t thought she would ever return. After her disastrous first visit, she’d been utterly content with the idea that it had also been her last visit. How wrong she’d been.

  Back again. In the Underworld.

  Tilting her head, she squinted at the overcast sky. Heavy clouds blocked any glimpse of the suns or the massive planet, and the earth beneath was dim and gloomy, almost like twilight—though, according to Ash, it was midmorning.

As if summoned by the thought, the draconian joined her on the boardwalk where she waited. He was in full warrior gear—all black, armored vest, protective bracers, heavy belts holding weapons and gear, the hilt of his giant sword jutting above his shoulder, and a wrap covering the lower half of his face. Zwi clung to his other shoulder, head swiveling on her graceful neck.

  Behind him, Lyre was adjusting his own gear and Clio couldn’t help but stare even though she’d already gotten a good look at his new attire—several extended good looks, if she was honest.

  His black, sleeveless shirt was a heavy, leather-like texture that offered some protection against attacks. Throwing knives were strapped to his upper arms, and his quiver, restocked and bristling with arrows, was belted over his shoulder. His restrung bow hung from a clip on the quiver, and an armguard covered his left arm, an archery glove on his right hand. Sets of knives were belted at his waist and around one thigh.

  His deep hood was pulled up, and a black scarf was slung around his neck, one end trailing behind him. As he stopped beside her and Ash, he tugged it over his mouth and nose, loosely hiding his face. His amber eyes gleamed from the shadows of the hood.

  It took effort to tear her gaze away from him and focus on Ash. “Are you sure we want to walk in there dressed like this?”

  She plucked at her shirt in emphasis. Her outfit was similar to Lyre’s, but her fitted top ran down her arms and cinched tight at her throat, leaving only her face and hands bare. Tight black pants, boots that were uncomfortable and heavy, and belted around her waist was the pair of daggers given to her by Rouvin’s bodyguard in Aldrendahar. Her hair was braided into a tight bun and a scarf hung around her neck, but no one here would recognize her face.

  Under her left sleeve, strapped to her forearm, was one more weapon: a small throwing knife Lyre had given her, hidden out of sight. “Just in case,” he had said.

  “Yes,” Ash answered shortly.


  “You’ll see why.” He started along the rickety boardwalk.

  She followed with a doubtful frown, Lyre trailing after her. The ground was a muddy tangle of marshland, with patches of tall plants interspersing still pools, their surfaces covered in green scum. Insects buzzed across the foul water, and the reek of rotting vegetation hung in the air, a palpable cloud.

  If not for the boardwalk, they would have come out of the ley line right into the mud, but she had to wonder how much longer the planks would last. They creaked alarmingly, the wood crumbling underfoot. Ash didn’t seem to notice as he led them up dilapidated stairs that climbed a small, steep hill.

  Puffing, she reached the crest and stopped, squinting across the landscape before her.

  The boardwalk continued down again, stretching another two hundred yards across marshes that grew increasingly waterlogged before the river absorbed them. The wide band of water was the largest she’d ever seen, stretching almost two miles across.

  The dull gray expanse of liquid was broken only by a series of jutting rock formations—and built upon them was a city.

  “Kokytos.” Lyre sighed. “I still can’t decide if this is better or worse than Asphodel.”

  Clio suppressed a shiver. When Ash had finally returned from his reconnaissance in the Underworld, she’d already known what he would say—where Lyceus had disappeared with the secret shadow weave.

  The city was built vertically, its horizontal sprawl limited by the size of the rocky islands. From this distance, she could see no rhyme or reason to the shapes and structures—no common theme, no matching architecture, not even visible streets or pathways. The only consistency was that most of the city seemed to be constructed of wood—probably gathered from the forest barely visible beyond the river’s far bank.

  Rising from the centermost island were three stone towers. They were completely different: one was black and ponderous, with aggressive bulwarks; one was narrow and elegant, constructed of shimmery gray stone, and one was deceptively simple, a featureless white cylinder broken only by narrow windows evenly spaced along its levels.

  The Ivory Tower. The haphazard wooden structures of the surrounding city looked dirty and pathetic around it.

  Ash lifted Zwi off his shoulder and threw her into the air. Her small wings snapped open and she sped toward the river, a speck of black that shrank as she drew ahead.

  “Let’s move,” he said, leading them down a ramp. “We don’t want to hang around near—”

  The power of the ley line, flowing serenely behind them, stuttered. Ash glanced back, eyes narrowing.

  With a clatter of talons, the new arrival from the ley line appeared on the hilltop. The daemon paused at the sight of them, then continued down. Clio didn’t even breathe as he stalked past her.

  His steps slowed. He stopped and looked back.

  Forcing herself to inhale, she lifted her chin in a silent challenge—anything to deny the fear shivering through her. He wore a bone-white skull with a protruding beak over his face, the empty eye sockets full of shadows, and a collection of bizarre, frightening skulls hung from his belt. His fingers flexed—each one ending in a long talon.

  Silent on the rotting boardwalk, Lyre stepped to her side, the deep hood pulled forward to hide his face.

  “Problem?” he crooned at the daemon.

  A shift of movement on her other side, and Ash appeared. He said nothing, but the threat was obvious.

  The daemon glanced between them, his bird-skull mask bobbing, then he shrugged and resumed his odd, clattering walk—his gait warped by the shape of his legs. His feet looked like a hawk’s instead of a human’s.

  “I was afraid of this,” Ash muttered irritably. He glanced over her head at Lyre. “She has ‘prey’ written all over her.”

  “We could give her more weapons?” Lyre suggested dubiously.

  “Won’t help. The problem is her body language.”

  When they both frowned at her, she scowled back self-consciously. “What do you want me to do, strut around spitting like an angry cat?”

  “That might help,” Ash said seriously.

  “You can look tough when you want to,” Lyre added. “You’re actually kind of scary when you shade.”

  Her scowl deepened. “I can’t just shade on command.”

  Lyre and Ash exchanged another look.

  “What?” she demanded.

  With a slight shake of his head, Ash continued onward and Lyre fell into step behind her. A little ways ahead, the beak-mask daemon was bobbing toward the river. The boardwalk ended abruptly at the edge of the marsh, where a small, rectangular barge was moored to a post.

  Beak-face hopped onto the barge and strode to the far end, and Ash jumped from the boardwalk to the grimy barge deck with equal ease. Clio hesitated, then leaped. The barge shifted in the current and she stumbled on landing, but Ash casually caught her elbow, the movement smooth enough that Beak-face didn’t notice.

  Lyre jumped on last. As they all stood there, doing nothing, Clio looked around in confusion. Kokytos was almost a mile away across murky, rippling water, and the barge had no guide ropes, poles, or paddles. In fact, she realized, it wasn’t even moored to the dock. It was just … floating in place despite the current, tied to nothing.

  Just as she was about to whisper a question to Lyre, a splash broke the quiet.

  Something surged out of the river. Black, webbed hands grabbed the edge of the barge, and a humanoid torso rose out of the water, leaning on the edge. The daemon smiled at them, his dark hair dripping wet. His hands were black and shiny, with the darkness fading to gleaming scarlet farther up his arms. A pointed dorsal fin with red spines rose off his back.

  “Welcome aboard,” he drawled in a wet, slurring voice. His eyes were red and black to match his scales—black pupils, everything else cherry red. “Show your payment before you put it in the box.”

  Beak-face had already pulled out a handful of silver coins. He held them out to the water daemon, then dropped them through a slot in the
top of a small steel box bolted to the deck. Ash stepped forward, a coin pouch in his hands. He counted out some plats, displayed them for the daemon, then added them to the box.

  “Good, good,” the daemon slurred. “Anyone else coming?”

  “No,” Ash answered.

  “Where to?”

  “Main island.”

  Without a word, the daemon pushed off the edge and dove back into the river. As he went under, a black-scaled body ending in a broad fish tail flipped out of the water before vanishing after him.

  The barge lurched away from the boardwalk. Clio grabbed Lyre’s arm for balance, staring at the spot where the black- and red-scaled barge master had vanished.

  As the boat drifted mysteriously across the river, she craned her neck back to take in the three towers. From a distance, she hadn’t realized how tall the city was—tangles of structures on top of structures, linked with rope bridges and crooked, zigzagging catwalks. They drew even closer until the city blotted out half the sky, the island piled with buildings.

  The barge slid past a small island into a channel between rocky outcroppings. The river current, deceptively sluggish, revealed its true power as the ripples grew more pronounced and the heavy barge rocked sickeningly. But it held to its course, running beneath a multitude of rope bridges stretching between islands.

  The largest island reared out of the water ahead, the current pushing them toward it. It didn’t stretch as high as the Iridian capital, but it was so densely packed with wooden buildings that she couldn’t see the stone beneath.

  Gliding to a low dock, the barge bumped into the thick posts. No sooner did it make contact than Beak-face jumped off. Ash followed, and Lyre nudged her forward. She tried to look confident and graceful as she sprang onto the dock. Her nymph form would have helped, but dropping glamour was not something she wanted to do in this city.

  With a faint splash, the finned daemon popped his head out of the water, checking the dock for any returning passengers. Seeing her watching him, he grinned to reveal lines of pointed teeth.

  Shivering, she started to turn around.

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