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

  Stay out of sight. Ash had been clear.

  When the daemon stuck her head in a crate, Clio darted out of her spot and ducked into the kitchen. She’d intended to hide in a cupboard nook, but the moment she came through the curtain, the cloven-hooved daemon almost fell over her.

  Snarling in annoyance, he shoved her out of his way. She stumbled backward, and when the other cooks turned to look, she dove for the nearest escape—the double doors into the restaurant.

  She froze two steps into the large room, no idea what to do next. She definitely didn’t want to disturb Lyre and the banshee. Squaring her shoulders, she strode purposefully toward the front doors. Two incubi flicked curious stares at her—why wasn’t the cloaking spell working on them?—but they didn’t stop her.

  Breezing past the host, she stepped into the entryway, set back from the street. She’d circle around and come in the rear entrance again. It couldn’t be that difficult to find a way into the alley, could it? She zipped out into the street, took a few steps, and saw that a heavy fog had rolled over Kokytos. A white haze blanketed the far end of the street—but that wasn’t what set her heart pounding.

  The street was empty. Silent. Tension hung in the air, thick and palpable.

  Then hands grabbed her.

  She was yanked into a narrow crevice between the incubi club and the next building. Twisting to see who held her, she half-expected Ash—but instead, she came nose to skull with Beak-face, the creepy daemon from the barge.

  She tried to jerk away, preparing to cast a defensive spell, but his grip on her shoulders tightened, talons threatening to break her skin.

  “Shhh,” he hissed. His skull mask bobbed as he nodded toward the street.

  Her stomach flipped with nerves but she took a chance and looked around. Only when she blinked her asper into focus did she see it—the auras of the daemons in the street. Every one was tucked into shadowy corners and doorways, still and silent.

  As she looked back at Beak-face’s ugly brown aura, she spotted the gleam of a deep purple aura behind him. Another daemon was lounging in the gap—tall and fit, his long black hair tied back, his dark clothes interspersed with light armor, and several weapons hanging from his belt.

  He arched an eyebrow above vibrant amethyst eyes and held a finger to his lips. Fighting to ignore the ekek’s taloned hands holding her shoulders, she peeked into the street again. Some sort of procession was moving slowly closer, but she couldn’t make out any details through the fog.

  “What is it?” she whispered.

  Beak-face squeezed her shoulders and croaked something in an unintelligible language. The violet-eyed daemon shifted closer.

  “New here?” he asked her in a rich, rumbling voice.

  She reluctantly nodded, seeing no point in pretending otherwise. She shrugged her shoulders, hoping Beak-face would let her go, but he tightened his grip again.

  The violet-eyed daemon leaned against the wall beside her and folded his arms. “One of the queens of Kokytos has deigned to descend from the palace. If you get in her way, you’ll be mincemeat before you can blink twice.”

  “The palace?” Clio repeated in confusion.

  “One of the towers.” He shrugged. “The Ivory, I think?”

  The ekek rattled off something else incomprehensible. The other daemon listened, then replied in the same language.

  “She’s taking her sweet time,” the daemon added, directing the quiet words at Clio. “I think they stopped for something and we’re all stuck waiting until she moves again.”

  Squinting into the fog, Clio tried to lean forward to get a better look but the ekek yanked her deeper into the shadows.

  She jerked her arms. “Let me go.”

  Beak-face didn’t move.

  The other daemon said something in the ekek’s language. Beak-face hissed angrily and the daemon spoke again with more emphasis. Growling softly, the ekek released her. She rolled her shoulders and inched forward, uncomfortable with him behind her but unwilling to turn her back on the street—or leave the dark nook. If all the nearby daemons thought it was too risky to be in the street with the “queen” on her way, Clio would follow their example.

  “Do you know him?” she asked the violet-eyed daemon, who was still leaning against the wall beside her and the ekek. The space was barely wide enough for the three of them.

  “Nope. Do you?”

  “We came in on the barge together.”

  The daemon arched his eyebrows again. “Interesting coincidence that you both ended up on the same street.”

  “Yeah,” she muttered darkly.

  Behind her, Beak-face poked at her hair, tugging gently on the bun like he’d never seen one before. The procession was moving again, shadowy figures drawing closer. Two nondescript daemons in glamour and wearing black came first, followed by four creatures—heavyset lizard men with snake faces and scaled bodies—carrying a canopied litter on their shoulders.

  As they passed Clio’s hiding spot, the faint breeze lifted the curtains of the litter, revealing the woman sitting inside. Large fin-like appendages framed her face, and waves of turquoise hair flowed over her shoulders, decorated with fine gold chains. Her pale skin was flawless, and a turquoise stripe ran down her forehead and over her nose. Then the litter passed, and the small procession continued down the street.

  “Where is she going?” Clio asked.

  “Who knows? Probably to the ley line. Her type doesn’t leave the towers for many other reasons.”

  “Why does—”

  With a sharp tug, the ekek pulled her bun apart. Her braid tumbled loose and he lifted it under the beak of his mask, inhaling loudly.

  The other daemon snorted. “Barbarian. Don’t you have any manners?”

  The ekek croaked a long string of noises.

  “Whatever he said,” Clio growled through gritted teeth, “could you tell him to let go before I blast him right off the island?”

  The daemon smirked, humor lightening his eyes. “He said you smell of faraway places he’s never visited.”

  The ekek sniffed her hair again, then hissed something else.

  “He asks where you come from, and also if he can taste you.”

  “How thoughtful of him to ask this time.” She grabbed her hair and yanked it out of his hand, then whirled on the ekek. “No, you may not taste me.”

  The violet-eyed daemon repeated that in the other language. The ekek growled unhappily.

  “Tell him to stop following me as well.”

  He arched his eyebrows.

  “Please,” she added belatedly.

  Mouth quirked in a half smile, he turned to the ekek and spoke again. Beak-face hissed something back.

  “He says he followed you because someone is going to eat you soon and he will never find out why you smell so interesting.”

  She blinked and looked at the ekek. He hooked a talon under the beak of his skull mask and lifted it enough for the light to catch on iridescent jade eyes with slitted pupils—and the matching third eye in the center of his forehead, surrounded by dark markings with the texture of bone.

  In a sudden movement, he snapped the mask into place and sprang backward. An instant later, Ash dropped off a nearby rooftop and landed behind her, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

  “Making friends?” he muttered to her.

  “Kind of.”

  The violet-eyed daemon sidestepped out of the crevice and into the street, caution replacing his earlier good humor. “Draconian.”


  The tall daemon took another step away from Ash and his relaxed demeanor returned. He flashed a brief smile. “Daring choice in companions, pretty lady. Don’t get eaten.”

  Turning, he walked off, and she was surprised to see that his hair, tied into a thin ponytail, fell well past his waist. When she glanced back into the crevice, the ekek was already gone.

  Ash shook his head. “Can you stay out of trouble at all?”

  “I had to b
ail on my hiding spot because someone came in.” She twisted her hair back into a bun and tied it into place. “The ekek must have followed us.”

  “I know. Zwi was keeping an eye on him, but she lost his trail. Evasive rat.”

  Clio gave the draconian a look. “Is that what you went to check on? Looking for the ekek?”

  He nodded. “Where did the daeva come from?”

  “He was already there, waiting out the tower ‘queen.’”

  Grunting, Ash started forward and Clio hurried to keep up. The violet-eyed daemon had vanished in the fog.

  “Hey, wait.” Her head snapped up. “The guy was a daeva? As in the same caste as that skeevy warlord from Samael’s party you killed?”

  She shuddered at the memory of Suhul, the grossly obese warlord who’d been overly fascinated with her before making the mistake of trying to touch Ash in a show of superiority.

  Ash swung into a gap between buildings. The moment she stepped into the shadows after him, he whipped around and grabbed the front of her shirt, shoving her in front of him.

  “Keep your voice down,” he hissed. “And don’t talk about Samael here—or anywhere. If you run your mouth off about anything you saw in Asphodel, I’ll permanently silence you.”

  Her blood chilled. That threat, unlike the one he’d directed at Lyre a couple days ago, rang with vicious intent.

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I won’t say anything else.”

  He took a step away from her, his eyes lightening from black to storm-cloud gray. “That warlord didn’t die. Lost a few fingers, though.”

  “So Suhul and that daemon are both daevas?” she asked as Ash continued down the alley. “They’re completely different.”

  “That daemon is a better representative of the caste. Their warlord is a pig and none of them like him.”

  They came to the door of the ladies’ club and Ash reached for the handle. Before he could touch it, the door flew open and Lyre fell out, still dressed in the white waiter “uniform” and his arms full of his clothes and weapons. Shouts burst from the building’s interior.

  “There you are!” Lyre blurted, wild-eyed. “Time to go.”

  “What happened?” Ash barked.

  Clio was still gawking when Lyre launched down the alley, leaving her and Ash to rush after him.

  “Some women react poorly to rejection,” Lyre explained breathlessly. “Especially when they’ve paid a lot of money to not be rejected.”

  “You blew your cover by rejecting her?” Ash snapped.

  They fled down several alleys before Lyre skidded to a stop and whirled on Ash, still clutching his belongings.

  “I’ll dress up in stupid costumes,” the incubus snarled with unexpected temper, “and I’ll pretend to be a paid whore, and I’ll even let a crucial informant pinch and paw at me.” He thrust an accusatory finger at Ash. “But I will not allow that nasty old hag’s tongue anywhere near me, not even to save the damn world!”

  Ash blinked.

  Scowling blackly, Lyre shoved his armload at Ash, then pulled a dagger from the pile and cut his leather-strap top off. “Next time, you can do the nasty stuff and I’ll kill people.”

  Ash blinked again, seemingly at a loss for words. Lyre continued to mutter angrily as he dragged the pants off and redressed in his black outfit. Clio stood a few steps away, her hand pressed over her mouth to hide her smile. Even with most of his face covered, Ash looked off-balance for the first time she could remember, a wrinkle between his dark eyebrows.

  “Was she that disgusting?” he ventured, sounding a lot less like a hardened mercenary than usual. He normally seemed years older than Clio, but she was pretty sure he was actually a little younger.

  “Worse,” Lyre growled. “Whatever you’re imagining as ‘disgusting,’ make it about ten times more revolting.”

  The draconian winced as though he had pictured it, and the mental image had hurt. “I never saw her myself.”

  Lyre slung his quiver over his shoulder and buckled it. “Be glad you didn’t.” His anger faded and he smirked. “It’s fine, Ash. Hardly the most scarring thing I’ve ever done. And”—his smile sharpened predatorily—“the banshee was a goldmine of information.”

  Ash straightened, all business again. “Did you get what we need?”

  “I think so.”

  “Good.” He started forward. “Then it’s time for phase two of the plan.”

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Lyre breathed deep, letting the rotting water stench of the city wash the odor of sickly perfume from his airways. Damn. He considered himself a professional in seduction—he could fake interest in almost anyone—but that had been a challenge.

  At least the brothel was well behind them. Ash once again led the way as they crossed the island to a nicer neighborhood. The three towers of Kokytos leaned over them, lurking in his peripheral vision no matter which way he turned. Soon, they would test their luck on the most impossible infiltration he’d ever heard of.

  Clio followed behind Ash, her scarf wrapped around her head and face like a shawl so only her eyes were visible. He watched her hips sway with each step, smiling to himself. He didn’t need to antagonize her anymore. She’d found her confidence again and fear no longer laced her scent as she gazed around with curiosity and only a hint of wariness. She was tougher than she realized.

  He glanced at the cylindrical Ivory Tower one more time, then put it out of his mind before he started giving off the wrong signals. He could quietly panic about the impossibility of their mission later.

  The street they followed hung on the island’s outer edge, a flimsy rail all that prevented a tumble off the brink. Below, more catwalks and bridges ran along the buildings before the gray water took over.

  “Keep your mouths shut for this,” Ash warned as they approached a door. “I don’t want anyone guessing who you are. Especially you,” he added to Lyre.

  Lyre tugged his hood lower and made sure his scarf was covering as much of his face as possible. “My lips are sealed.”

  The new establishment was far more to Lyre’s liking than the last. Dim interior, rough wooden tables, a bar at the back, and a big fire pit in the center that vented out the peaked ceiling, giving the room a pervasive but pleasant wood-smoke scent. Beneath that, the aroma of simmering broth made his stomach rumble.

  Ash wound between the tables, heading straight for the back corner. At a table tucked almost out of sight, two daemons were already seated, empty bowls and plates in front of them. Ash dropped into a seat, then used his foot to push the second chair out for Clio. Dragging a nearby chair closer, Lyre sat and casually slung his arm over the back.

  The two draconians at the table watched the new arrivals with cold, pale blue eyes.

  They resembled Ash only superficially. Similar black clothes and heavy weapons. Their shoulder-length hair was tied back, the black waves shimmering in the firelight. The two draconians were identical except that one had a scar cutting diagonally across his left eye, the eyelid twisted and permanently closed.

  “Ezran,” Ash murmured in greeting, pulling his wrap down around his neck. “Eliya.”

  “Ash,” the one-eyed draconian replied, his deep, sepulchral voice making Lyre’s bones itch. “This better be good.”

  The other draconian reclined in his chair, his pale eyes scrutinizing Ash. “Why are you even here? Aren’t you on a contract?”

  “I have a job for you two,” Ash said, ignoring the questions. “A one-night bang and burn.”

  The one-eyed guy snorted. “We’re not taking jobs from you.”

  “Besides, we’re already on assignment, which you damn well know.”

  “Fine.” Ash shrugged. “Go back to whatever boring shit you were doing.”

  The two draconians stared him down, and Lyre didn’t envy Ash being on the receiving end. They were taller than him, broader in the shoulders and heavy with hard muscle. The real difference was in their faces though—the lines around their mouths,
the stiffness of their jaws, and the hollow emptiness in their expressions.

  With a snarl, one of them waved his hand. “Tell us the job, then.”

  “Not unless you agree to take it.” Ash reached into his pocket, then flicked something small toward the daemons. “Four of those for payment.”

  The one-eyed guy caught it and held it up between his finger and thumb. The large, rough-cut diamond sparkled prettily in the firelight, and Lyre suppressed a wistful sigh. Losing half his best lodestones was a blow, but he hadn’t been able to refuse when Ash had asked him to donate the “fee.”

  The twins examined the diamond, then their stares turned to Lyre and Clio.

  “Your clients paying for this?” one growled.

  “Do you want the job?” Ash replied.

  “We don’t even know what it is.”

  Ash leaned back, saying nothing. The draconian pair glowered at him.

  The one-eyed guy closed his fist around the diamond. “Fine. Payment up front.”

  “Half now, half on completion.”

  “Bastard.” He folded his arms. “What’s the job?”

  “Attack the Black Tower.”

  “What?” the one-eyed guy barked. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

  The other draconian shook his head. “If this is your idea of humor—”

  “Attack the Black Tower,” Ash repeated. “Don’t enter it. As loud and flashy as possible, but strictly black ops. No one sees you and you leave nothing that could link the attack to draconians. Thirty minutes of noise, then you disappear.”

  The twins exchanged a long look. “You want a half-hour distraction outside the tower?”

  Ash nodded.

  The one-eyed guy thought about it. “You’re not insisting on zero casualties, are you?”

  “Hell no. But I’ll throw in one more diamond if you make the attack look like another caste is behind it.”

  “Humph,” the other one grunted. “Harpies, then. Those buzzards will take any job. Imitating their attack style won’t be difficult.”

  The one-eyed draconian grinned—a bloodthirsty expression that sent a cold prickle down Lyre’s neck. “This could be fun.”

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