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


  “Hey!”

  Lyre’s snarl came out of nowhere, and his bow snapped down, the wood cracking against Beak-face’s hand. She sprang back, shocked to find the daemon right there, reaching for her.

  Clutching his taloned fingers, Beak-face hopped away, hissing. His head swung toward her and a long, thin tongue snaked out of his mouth from beneath the bone mask. She jerked back another step—and her heel slipped on the dock’s edge. She pitched backward.

  A hand thumped on her butt and shoved her forward again.

  “Careful, careful,” the water daemon slurred as she stumbled onto solid footing. His red eyes fixed on Beak-face. “No trouble on the dock, yes?”

  Beak-face hissed again and his skull mask turned to Lyre. He said something in a sibilant language she’d never heard before, then he turned and clattered along the dock and up a steep flight of stairs, the skulls on his belt clacking together.

  “What did he say?” she whispered faintly. She expected Lyre or Ash to answer, but a different voice spoke first.

  “Ahhhh,” the water daemon drawled. “Not for lady ears, those words. But a good warning, yes? Tasty morsels are eaten swiftly in hungry places like this.”

  Cackling with what could have been amusement or malice, he pushed away from the dock and vanished beneath the surface.

  Pulling Clio toward the stairs, Lyre shot an irritated glare at the water. “I bet he’d make a ‘tasty morsel.’”

  “Grilled on an open fire,” Ash agreed, taking the lead again.

  “Served over lemon rice.” Noticing her horrified stare, Lyre snickered. “Kidding, Clio. We don’t eat daemons.”

  “Some daemons eat other daemons,” Ash pointed out tonelessly as he climbed the steps.

  “Let’s not get into that.”

  “The water daemon wasn’t as freaky as Beak-face,” she mumbled.

  “The ekek was just curious,” Ash said. “The water daemon is the one who’d eat you without a second thought, if he didn’t have his barge to worry about.”

  She resisted the urge to look back at the water. “I see.”

  At the top of the stairs, Ash stopped and looked down at her. “I can smell your fear. That means other daemons can smell it too. Toughen up, or I’m taking you back to the ley line.”

  Alarm shot through her. “No. I’m not going back.”

  “If you smell like fear, every predator who crosses your path will hunt you.”

  And that would put Lyre and Ash at risk protecting her. Her shoulders wilted, but she forced them straight again. “I won’t be afraid.”

  Ash’s forehead crinkled skeptically.

  “She’ll be fine,” Lyre said. “She’ll be too busy tripping everywhere to be afraid.”

  She bristled. “Excuse me?”

  “Don’t play dumb.” He rolled his eyes. “We all know you can’t walk twenty steps through a new location without falling down.”

  “What? That’s not—”

  “How many times have you almost fallen since we got here?” He prodded her up the steps again. “You’re graceful as a cat in the night out of glamour, but in glamour, you flop around like a fish out of water.”

  “I what?” She tried to turn on him but he pushed her to the top of the stairs. Growling angrily, she stomped after Ash. The towering wooden structures closed over them, buildings and walkways stacked on top of each other as high as she could see. Some paths were alarmingly narrow, but Ash seemed to be following a main route.

  They moved through the twisting catwalks and across bridges that made her stomach plunge. Though the dock area had been mostly empty, Ash was leading them deeper into Kokytos. And it was no longer deserted.

  Daemons moved through the streets, and glamour—which most daemons used in Asphodel—was a rarity. The walkways and bridges were so narrow that avoiding the other residents was impossible.

  A painfully thin, boyish daemon with skin so white it had the bluish tinge of ice drifted past them without issue, not even glancing their way as his huge, solid blue eyes stared without blinking. But halfway across a bridge, they met a seven-foot-tall beast with a thick mane and gray-blue fur, walking on two stocky legs and massive paws.

  The beast couldn’t fit past Ash, and the draconian faced off with the creature, the wooden planks creaking under their weight. Clio clutched the rope railing.

  “Out of the way,” the beast growled, the words mangled by his bear-like muzzle.

  Instead of answering, Ash settled his hand on the hilt of his sword.

  Her hand tightened on the rope. Wouldn’t it be better to yield to the huge furred monstrosity?

  “You know, this bridge reminds me of Irida,” Lyre whispered in her ear, leaning in from behind her. “Have you ever fallen off a boardwalk there?”

  “Shut up!” she hissed under her breath.

  “I was just wondering,” he replied, all innocence. “Don’t you think it’d be fun to keep a tally of your wipeouts?”

  She gritted her teeth and focused on Ash’s confrontation, but she must have missed something, because the furred beast was awkwardly backing down the bridge as Ash advanced, menace oozing from him with each step.

  With the beast out of their way, they continued on. She kept her eyes on Ash’s back as much as possible, but that didn’t stop her from spotting creatures that would haunt her nightmares. Thankfully, they soon came out on a wider street, the wooden planks thunking hollowly underfoot, and Ash didn’t have to challenge anyone else for the right of way.

  Flimsy doors and tarnished windows lined the thoroughfare, nothing labeled with a sign or address, but daemons were coming in and out as though the buildings were open businesses. A humid miasma that smelled vaguely of rotting fish hung over the island.

  Just as she wondered how Ash could possibly navigate this maze, he came to an intersection and stopped, glancing one way then the other. Was he lost?

  The thud of hooves interrupted her anxious wondering. A daemon strode past, his naked upper body human, but his lower body that of a horse—four legs and all. Except it wasn’t quite a horse body, because it was plated with shining black scales the size of her outstretched hand.

  Deciding on a direction, Ash swung left and headed down a narrower street. Once again, he ended up challenging various daemons to get out of his way, winning every time without having to draw a weapon. Only once did he give ground, suddenly stepping to the side of the street. Clio hastily followed his lead, Lyre shadowing her.

  A woman glided sedately down the center of the wooden path—and every daemon cleared the way for her. She didn’t look at anyone, her pale eyes gazing straight ahead. Sprouting from the sides of her skull was a pair of magnificent antlers, woven with living vines that hung almost to the ground. Her long green hair and flowing dress trailed after her, and she seemed to float more than walk.

  After she had passed, Ash cut back onto a wider street and Clio breathed a sigh of relief. She again focused on his back, ignoring the intermittent flow of daemons.

  A shadow moved in her peripheral vision, and she glanced around Ash. Ahead on the street, a dark figure moved toward them. The creature drifted with a sort of directionless languor, cloaked in black with ragged strips of ghostly fabric hanging from his body. Curved horns adorned his forehead and a shaggy mess of dark hair was tangled across his face, hiding his eyes.

  Her nerves prickled as the dark daemon drew closer. He came level with Ash—and stopped.

  “Son of dragons.” The singsong voice was soft and light, at complete odds with his nightmarish mien. “Blood of the blood.”

  “Keep walking, wraith,” Ash said, his voice quiet but edged with steel.

  “Seek your fate in my shadows.” The daemon lifted his arms, his flesh black as night. Then the tatters of his cloak shifted—except it wasn’t a cloak. Ragged feathers fluttered as he spread dark wings. “I will lay your future bare, Ashtaroth.”

  “Not interested.”

  The wraith smiled—a maniacal upturning o
f his lips, his eyes still hidden. “Perhaps another time, then.”

  His wings pulled in again, resuming their camouflage as a tattered cloak, and he drifted into motion. Clio didn’t move as his pale face, the only break in his dark form, turned to her. Three short black horns protruded from his forehead between the larger two, almost invisible in his tangled hair. That same deranged smile pulled at his mouth, but he said nothing to her as he glided past.

  Ash waited until the wraith was a safe distance away before speaking. “I can smell her fear again.”

  “Yeah, well,” Lyre muttered. “Riling her up is more difficult when I’m freaked out too. What the hell was that thing?”

  “A wraith,” Ash said with an unhelpful shrug. “We’re almost there. Come on.”

  “What about what he said to you?” Lyre asked, taking Clio’s arm as he hurried after Ash. “What he called you?”

  “Everything a wraith says is nonsensical garbage.”

  Lyre pressed his lips together, and when he glanced at Clio, she saw her own questions reflected in his eyes.

  She didn’t have time to wonder about the encounter, because Ash finally selected a building from among the endless blank doors and swept inside. Gulping down her nerves, she followed him in. This was it.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Or this wasn’t it at all. As a sickly-sweet food smell almost as foul as the stagnant water odor hit her, Ash passed the bar and tables, cutting straight through the restaurant and out the back door.

  They came out into a crooked, narrow path between buildings, barely wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other. Luckily, there was no one else in sight. He strode swiftly down the rows of back entrances, then stopped at one on the opposite side of the alley to the restaurant they’d cut through.

  Pulling his face wrap down, he knocked twice on the door. A moment later, it opened a crack.

  “You’re late,” a voice hissed from within. “Did you bring the incubus?”

  “He’s here.”

  The door swung wide. Ash vanished into the dark interior, and Clio cautiously followed. Inside, there wasn’t much to see—just a dusty backroom stacked with wooden crates.

  The daemon muttering to Ash had huge furred ears, pierced with multiple gold and silver hoops, and his feet ended in cloven hooves. He tugged absently at his apron as he scrutinized Lyre, ears perked forward.

  “Thirty minutes. That’s it. Make him change first.” The daemon gestured at a stack of white fabric waiting on a crate. “If he’s caught, I don’t know any of you.”

  “Of course,” Ash agreed. He handed the daemon a small pouch that clanked with coins. “Where is she?”

  “In the private dining hall. I’ll have the boys step out in five minutes.” The daemon thudded toward a curtained doorway. “Don’t make me regret this, draconian.”

  “We’ll be done and gone in half an hour.”

  Grunting, the daemon pushed through the curtain and vanished.

  “Uh.” Lyre arched his eyebrows at Ash. “You told me I’d be charming a female informant, but I’m thinking you left out key details.”

  Ash pointed at the folded white garments. “Hurry up and change.”

  With an annoyed grumble, Lyre investigated the clothing, then sighed and started unbuckling weapons.

  “Your mark is the assistant to the head of a top security group,” Ash explained in a low voice. “They’re employed by the most exclusive daemon families in the city, including some in the Ivory Tower.”

  “Is there anything in particular I’m supposed to get out of this woman?” Lyre stripped down to his undershorts and shook out a pair of white leather pants. He started to yank them on and almost fell over. “Damn, these are tight.”

  “Everything you can learn about the Ivory Tower,” Ash answered. “I can’t get much out of anyone about its security, and if I ask too many questions, someone will notice.”

  Frowning, Clio picked up another piece of the white outfit—an incomprehensible contraption of white leather straps. “What is this? How is it supposed to go on? Where does it go on?”

  Lyre finished squeezing into the skintight pants and buckled the belt. It clung scandalously low on his hips. “What the hell have you volunteered me for, Ash?”

  The draconian plucked the leather straps from her hands. “Clio, check in the main room to see how he’s supposed to wear this.” He turned to Lyre. “Your mark is a banshee. She’s been working for …”

  His low voice grew inaudible, his rundown of the banshee target lost as Clio stepped through the curtained doorway. On the other side was a grungy industrial kitchen where half a dozen daemons worked over sizzling pans and magical fires. The cloven-hoofed daemon who’d let them in was yelling at another guy, a puddle of pink sauce staining the floor between them.

  No one looked at her, so she quickly crossed to a pair of swinging doors and cracked one open.

  The room beyond couldn’t have been more different from the grubby kitchen. Polished wood floors gleamed, the timber pillars rimmed with tasteful gold accents. Soft white curtains partitioned the space into a series of small, private rooms. Waiters—at least, she thought they were waiters—breezed between the rooms, carrying trays of drinks or food.

  And every single one was an incubus.

  They wore identical uniforms, and the weird leather thing Lyre was supposed to put on wrapped around their shoulders and crisscrossed their toned chests. They were all in glamour, and with the matching outfits, they looked like a bunch of identical twins.

  Tittering laughter erupted from a curtained room near Clio. An incubus backed out, a tray of empty drinks balanced easily on one hand, and blew a kiss back into the room. More giggles answered. As he turned, letting the curtain fall again, his sultry smile vanished, and he rolled his eyes at a passing coworker. The other incubus mimed gagging, then pulled a smile onto his face before slipping through a different curtain.

  Clio retreated to the backroom. Lyre was holding the strap thing as he listened to Ash’s history on the banshee.

  “What is this place?” she blurted as soon as she was through the curtain. “An incubus restaurant?”

  “A ladies’ club,” Ash corrected.

  “Oh.” Lyre snorted. “An incubus whorehouse, then. Lovely. Thanks, Ash. Really appreciate the heads up.”

  “I didn’t want to listen to you whine about it the whole way here.” Ash shrugged and gestured to Clio. “Can you put that on him?”

  Shooting the draconian an annoyed look, she took the leather straps, turned them around, and helped Lyre into them. As she buckled the straps over his chest, she noted her tension level must be off the charts, because Lyre’s mouthwatering near-nakedness wasn’t distracting her.

  Well, wasn’t distracting her much.

  “There,” she said, stepping back. “You look just like the incubus clones out there.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Incubi don’t look that alike.”

  “Yes, you do,” Ash said. “And we’re counting on most daemons not being able to tell incubi apart. The banshee always takes the room in the corner to your right. You have twenty-five minutes.”

  Lyre drew in a deep breath, the inflexible leather pressing against his shoulders and chest. Clio watched, fascinated, as he straightened and relaxed, a new fluidity imbuing his body language. An invisible mask slid over him, his shrewd intelligence disappearing behind a charmingly seductive smile, a mischievous sparkle in his bright amber eyes.

  This playful, harmless version of the deadly master weaver gave her a teasing wink, then sauntered past Ash without a hint of self-consciousness and disappeared through the curtain. It fluttered into place behind him, and she puffed out a breath.

  “Disconcerting,” Ash muttered, frowning at the curtain.

  “Huh?”

  He waved vaguely in Lyre’s direction.

  She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I think it works because it’s not entirely an act. That’s one side of his personalit
y. He just makes the other side … disappear somehow. Do you think he’s always had that ability, or if he taught himself how to do it?”

  “No idea,” Ash grunted. “Either way, it’s a useful talent.”

  “I don’t think you could do it,” she told him dryly.

  He snorted. “Not even going to try.”

  “Ash …” Her humor faded. “Are you sure we can do this?”

  His dark, stormy eyes slid over her, making her shiver. “I’m not sure about anything.”

  Dread doused her veins, leaving her cold all over. “Is this a suicide mission?”

  “Maybe. Maybe not. We won’t know until we make the attempt.” He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned by the prospect of likely death. “I need to check on something. Wait here and stay out of sight. I won’t be long.”

  Pulling his wrap over his face, he slipped out the door, leaving her alone. Fidgeting nervously, she glanced at the curtained threshold. She wouldn’t have much warning if someone came in. Collecting Lyre’s weapons and clothes, she stuffed them behind a stack of crates, then crouched in the shadows and cast a cloaking spell over herself.

  The minutes crawled by as she waited, wondering how Lyre’s banshee questioning was going. How far would he have to go to seduce information out of the woman? Would she realize he wasn’t one of the incubi who worked here?

  An incubi whorehouse, Lyre had called it. If that was an accurate description, the restaurant couldn’t be the entire business. He’d told her before that many incubi monetized their sex appeal. If he hadn’t been born into a spell weaver family, would Lyre have ended up in a place like this?

  “I don’t care!” someone shouted from the kitchen. “Save your excuses and go get some more!”

  The curtain jerked open and a short daemon with neon-pink hair stormed through, her face twisted with anger. Clio froze in her corner, not daring to move as the daemon stalked to a stack of crates and opened the top one, muttering under her breath.

  Not finding what she was looking for, the daemon moved on to the next stack, working her way closer to Clio’s hiding spot. If the woman got too close, Clio’s cloaking spell would fail. There was nowhere else to hide, and the door to the alley was closed.

 
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