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

  Twenty guards, ten on each side, stood at perfect attention, one positioned in front of each marble column. Unlike the rest of Kokytos’s inhabitants, they were all in glamour, creating an eerily uniform look.

  Clio blinked her asper into focus. A ward spanned the archway, so complex it triggered an instant headache. Its golden threads glowed with the reddish tinge of blood magic.

  This ward was the tower’s first security feature and it would stop most infiltrators dead—literally. Designed by Chrysalis, it was keyed to the blood of every daemon permitted inside the tower, from the lords and ladies down to the lowliest security agent.

  Clio kept her walk slow and sedate as she rapidly scanned the ward for a weakness. In front of her, Lyre and Ash closed in on the deadly spell. If either of them touched it, they would die—painfully, judging by the weave’s constructs. She had to find the “off” trigger before they reached it.

  The guards watched her pass, but she didn’t have to worry about them noticing something off about her expression. The illusory siren face was static, its eyes fixed straight ahead, its expression locked into a strict mask.

  She inspected the ward with growing urgency. Where was the trigger? She couldn’t see any weaknesses in the design, but there had to be a way to pause it or disable it. Coming up to the archway, Lyre and Ash stepped aside to let her go first. She glided between them, panic cutting into her lungs. Would they fail here, at the very first obstacle?

  As she took her final step, her toes inches from the glowing barrier, she scanned it one more time. There!

  Pretending to stumble on her skirt, she pressed a hand to the marble archway. A spark of magic fired deep into the weaving’s heart quieted the ward and its threads went dark.

  She walked beneath the arch, and Lyre and Ash followed without hesitation.

  Guards lined the columns of another identical grand hall. The only difference was two slim desks carved of matching marble, facing each other with another archway beyond them. Several daemons in tower livery stood watchfully behind the desks.

  As she paced forward, now in the lead, her panic levels rose again. The daemons at the desks looked like helpful receptionists, but they were as much a part of the security as the burly guards.

  Residents of the tower—or their attendants—were required to check in and out, no matter how brief their excursion. Choking back her nerves, she continued as though she had no reason to stop.

  “Lady Mare,” a receptionist—if the sleek, dangerous-looking daemon could be called that—greeted her. “We weren’t expecting you until the next cycle.”

  Clio kept walking. The illusion’s facial expression couldn’t change, and she dared not speak when she had no idea what the siren queen sounded like—or even what language to use.

  Instead, Lyre responded in an unfamiliar, guttural accent. “An interruption of plans. Did you not receive word?”

  “We haven’t heard anything about—”

  “We sent a message hours ago,” he snapped.

  “As I said, we didn’t receive—”

  “Your disorganization is not my concern.” He swept past the desk after Clio.

  The daemon cleared his throat. “Lady Mare, if I could trouble you to—”

  Clio didn’t look back but she heard Lyre stop.

  “Do you remember nothing of our message?” he hissed in a low tone. “We warned you not to bother her.”

  “But we didn’t—”

  “The lady is not pleased and I suggest you figure out the issue with your schedule on your own.”

  “I’m afraid that is not possible. Without confirmation from Lady Mare, I can’t allow—”

  With her heart pounding, Clio turned around. The daemon wouldn’t let them pass on Lyre’s word alone, but Clio couldn’t speak without giving them away. As she faced the desk, she focused on Ash in her peripheral vision. His dark aura rippled over his body like midnight flames.

  She brought the essence of his black power into her mind and body. Rich, intoxicating magic shivered in her veins. Holding on to her newly draconian aura, she looked at the daemon behind the desk and lifted her chin imperiously.

  The daemon shrank back, his face paling and eyes darkening with a shadow of fear. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find his voice.

  Lyre made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I’ll send someone down to sort it out once the lady is settled.”

  “That … that would be appreciated.”

  Clio turned back toward the archway, aware of how the other daemons in the room had gone rigid with the shivery dread inspired by a draconian’s presence. Pausing as though waiting for Lyre, she casually touched the marble. The second ward went dark. Unless another daemon examined it, they would have no idea the weaves weren’t functioning.

  The three of them passed through the archway and into a curving hall. Letting go of Ash’s aura, Clio breathed a relieved sigh.

  “I can’t believe that worked,” she whispered, picking up her pace.

  “Me neither.” Lyre pinched the bridge of his nose. “That guy is way too committed to his job.”

  They followed the curving hall until they reached a third archway—this one leading into a staircase.

  “Here we go,” Lyre muttered.

  Clio disarmed the ward and cautiously placed her foot on the first step. The Ivory Tower didn’t rely on magical defense alone. The building was its own defense. On the outside, it bore only thin slits for windows, too narrow for a person to squeeze through even if they flew to the top without being spotted.

  On the inside, it contained three spiral staircases, connected on each level by an interior corridor that followed the same circular shape as the tower. All three staircases rose the full length of the tower—but not all were equal. There was only one route to the top level, and it required using certain staircases on certain levels. Lyre had gotten the proper order from their informant and all three of them had memorized it, but any mistake would likely be fatal.

  “Main floor to third floor on jade,” she whispered, her eyes following the green inlay that ran through the center of each stair.

  They ascended the spiral steps to the first landing. Black marble inlaid in the floor formed an unfamiliar symbol that she assumed was a number.

  She glanced around cautiously. According to their source, the circular main corridor on each level that connected the three stairways was regularly patrolled. Seeing no one, she crossed the corridor and continued upward. They reached the second landing, continued past it, then stopped on the next one.

  Lyre glanced at the symbol on the landing. “Third floor.”

  “Three to seven on azure.” Clio glanced both ways. “Which way is azure?”

  “Left,” Ash said. “Going clockwise, it’s jade, azure, scarlet.”

  She headed left, keeping her walk swift but not too fast. The wide corridor was pristine white marble, interspersed with pillars and light crystals. Every inch of the walls was embedded with spells of varying purposes. Another archway held a ward she had to disable, and shortly after, they passed a broad, polished wood door that likely led into one of the tower suites.

  When the next staircase came into sight, a troop of guards marched onto the landing.

  Clio didn’t flinch and kept walking. The guards, identical to the ones on the main level, stepped aside for her and her two protectors. She swept up the next staircase and hoped no one had noticed her racing heartbeat.

  They ascended four long flights, each step adorned with a blue stripe, then circled to the jade stairs again. Exiting on the eleventh floor, Clio gulped air, her legs burning. Dropping glamour would have helped, but she couldn’t do that here—not unless things got really bad.

  They looped around to the scarlet stairs, passing another squad of guards that moved aside for her. Either the siren queen was so feared that no one dared to question her, or the security wasn’t as tight as rumors suggested. Then again, how could they have anticipated an Overworld mimic who
could disarm all their wards? Sneaking through the building without her disguise would have been near impossible. There was nowhere to hide in the brightly lit marble corridors, and every step echoed loudly. Not even Ash could move in silence.

  But their plan was working and she allowed herself the tiniest hope that maybe they could do this.

  They followed the scarlet stairs up to the fifteenth level. Clio stepped into another boring white corridor, identical to all the others.

  “Fifteen to eighteen on the azure stairs,” Lyre murmured. “Head right.”

  Another warded archway barely slowed them down, and they approached the azure stairs.

  From within the spiral staircase, a small creature jumped down into the corridor. It looked like a cross between a cat and a fox, with all its features exaggerated—ridiculously huge ears, a petite muzzle, long legs, and a giant bushy tail. Its spotted teal fur drifted around it, immune to gravity.

  It fixed huge eyes on Clio, Lyre, and Ash. It had no pupils or irises—just pure white eyes.

  With graceful hops, two more fox-cats joined the first. All three of them stared at Clio and the guys, motionless except for their gently floating fur.

  “Ah, shit,” Lyre muttered. “Pards.”

  She assumed “pard” was the creatures’ name but she didn’t get a chance to ask.

  “Illusion magic.” The three small beasts spoke in perfect unison, their shrill animal voices almost unintelligible. “Foreign magic. Deception. Intruders.”

  Clio’s blood went cold. Lyre and Ash launched ahead of her, already shimmering out of glamour—but not fast enough.

  Glowing spots of light manifested in front of the three pards’ foreheads. The orbs spun, expanding—then shot at Clio, Lyre, and Ash.

  The center orb smashed into Clio’s chest, blasting her off her feet. As Lyre went down beside her, she hit the floor on her back, wheezing painfully. Ash skidded from the impact but, with his tail snapping for balance, he kept on his feet and drew the two short swords strapped to his thighs.

  Ignoring the panic his daemon form triggered, Clio jumped up. Her illusion spell had disintegrated.

  On his feet again too, Lyre activated his defensive weaves and pulled an arrow. As the pards surrounded Ash, Lyre drew the bowstring and fired.

  The pard’s body rippled, going semitransparent. The arrow flashed right through it without slowing, hit the floor, and ricocheted into the air. It flipped end over end, then hit the marble wall. Magic pulsed through the wards, then the entire corridor lit with crimson light.

  Lyre lowered his bow. “Oops.”

  “Fucking genius,” Ash snarled as he swiped his sword at a pard. The creature leaped clear with absurd agility.

  Running to the wall, Clio pressed her hand to it. The ward—and the red light—went dark, but it was too late to undo the damage.

  “I—can’t—hit—these!” Ash growled, finally catching a pard with his sword, only for it to turn semitransparent. His blade passed right through. “Damn it!”

  The three pards leaped into the center of the corridor, shoulder to shoulder. White magic sparked again, but instead of three separate orbs, they conjured one huge one. Wind rushed through the hall as the sphere spun.

  Shifting both swords into one hand, Ash conjured a handful of black fire. He hurled it as the pards launched their attack and the two forces collided in midair. Power exploded outward, almost throwing Clio off her feet again. The pards tumbled across the floor and launched up, unharmed.

  Then Lyre’s arrow hit them, skewering two on the same shaft.

  The third one screamed, the sound piercing Clio’s ears like knives. It bolted away but Lyre already had a second arrow nocked. It struck the pard in the back and the creature slid across the floor, leaving a streak of blood in its wake.

  Stepping over to Ash, Lyre slapped a hand against the chain around the draconian’s neck and activated two of the three gems. Defensive weaves whooshed over Ash’s body.

  “I made you shield spells, damn it. Use them.”

  Since her disguise was ruined, Clio dropped glamour. The siren dress vanished, replaced by her black outfit—swapped with her nymph clothes, since skirts weren’t appropriate for a deadly infiltration mission. She touched the chain hidden under her shirt and activated her own defensive weaves.

  Ash’s head tilted. “I hear daemons coming. At least a dozen.”

  “We’ll outrun them.” Lyre’s hypnotic incubus voice caressed her skin. “No more sneaking around. Just race for the top.”

  Ash nodded and took a step—then a dull boom rocked the tower. The floor trembled.

  “Wha—” Lyre began.

  Shouts erupted from the direction of the scarlet stairs, then another crashing boom from somewhere outside the tower.

  “Ah.” Ash pulled his wings tight against his back. “Eliya and Ezran have started their diversion.”

  Clio’s eyes widened as another tremor shook the floor. How powerful were their attacks that they were making this tower tremble too?

  “Let’s go,” Ash said.

  Clio took the center position as Ash charged up the azure stairs, his tail snapping side to side. With each breath, she had to fight the dread his daemon form caused. Lyre kept to the rear, bow in hand and an arrow nocked.

  They made it to the eighteenth floor, then ran for the jade stairs. Halfway there, a squad of guards blocked their path. Clio braced herself to fight but Lyre and Ash shot ahead of her. Protected by master-weaver shields, Ash charged in more carelessly than usual, his huge sword coated in black fire and cleaving through their adversaries.

  Lyre picked off three daemons with arrows, then tossed his bow to her, pulled two long knives that glowed with weaves, and dove in after Ash. The guards were not easy opponents but Ash and Lyre cut through them, the screams of the dying shattering the haunting silence of the tower.

  The moment the last one fell, Lyre yelled at her to hurry. Joining them, she passed Lyre his bow, wishing she could do more, but the guys had been clear. She was supposed to stay back in the fights. They couldn’t risk losing her asper.

  She disarmed another ward, then they were racing up the jade steps to the twentieth level. Ash whipped out of the spiral stairway, then lurched to a stop. Clio skidded into his back.

  Waiting in the corridor was a lone daemon. His skin and hair were the same shade of grayish alabaster, his eyes the pale red of an albino. A thick, shiny white rope was coiled around his neck and over his shoulders.

  He swayed from foot to foot, then lifted two curved blades. In response, Ash sheathed his large sword and pulled out his twin short swords.

  Lips stretching wide, the daemon hissed loudly. The rope around his neck slid sinuously, then a diamond-shaped head emerged. The snake’s tongue flicked out.

  Lyre yelped in surprise and his bow clattered to the floor. He fell to his knees with a massive white snake coiling rapidly over him.

  As he grabbed at a scaly loop constricting around his neck, Clio took a running step toward him—then a cool weight dropped onto her back. The impact knocked her onto her knees but she jumped up in a panic as the slippery coils of the snake wound around her shoulders.

  The snake daemon launched at Ash. The draconian met the charge in a clash of blades, throwing his assailant back, but he had no chance to help Lyre or Clio before the daemon darted in again, his movements as quick as the striking snakes he commanded.

  With her free hand, Clio dug her fingers into the snake’s side and cast a sleep spell. The reptile went limp, its heavy body slipping off her. She turned toward Lyre—and found herself face to face with an even larger snake.

  She instinctively cast a shield. The reptile struck, its huge fangs scraping the barrier in a splatter of purple venom—and her weave dissolved like threads dipped in acid.

  The spell burst apart and the reptile spun around her legs. Losing her balance, she fell. The moment she landed on the floor, the snake coiled its body over her. She writhed, but the harder s
he struggled, the tighter the snake constricted.

  Too far to help, Ash fought the agile snake master. The daemon was quicker than a nymph, his darting movements forcing Ash to retreat.

  The draconian parried a swift strike then cast a wide band of black flames. Diving beneath the fire, the snake master flung a magic attack. Ash stumbled, his tail whipping to the side for balance. The daemon lunged in, blades flashing, but Ash jumped back with a snap of his wings. His blade caught the daemon’s sword and flung it away.

  From around the daemon’s shoulders, the white snake shot out, mouth gaping. It bit Ash’s arm, its fangs sinking right through his shields.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Lyre had designed his defensive shields to counteract most attacks—but not something like this. Death-by-giant-snake hadn’t even occurred to him.

  The reptile squeezed tighter and tighter around his shield weaves—built to deflect impacts, not prevent compression. He desperately held back the coil around his neck, fighting the reptile’s overwhelming strength. Nearby, Clio was down with another snake wrapped around her.

  He needed a free hand to cast a spell, but no matter how hard he pulled, he couldn’t shift the snake off his neck long enough to weave something. Pain built in his chest and his bones creaked under the pressure. He couldn’t breathe.

  A flash of black fire. Farther down the corridor, Ash stumbled. The naga daemon—slithery little bastard—attacked with his blades and the draconian countered, knocking a sword away with impressive speed.

  But he wasn’t fast enough to evade the striking snake.

  The venomous fangs pierced Ash’s arm just above his armguard. His sword whipped down again, lopping the reptile’s head off too late. The naga laughed triumphantly.

  Ash spun his blade in his hand, then slashed the point across the inner crook of his own elbow. Blood gushed down his arm.

  The naga’s eyes bugged out in disbelief, but his shock didn’t last long. He sprang at Ash, who caught the enemy blade with his own, ignoring his bleeding arm—but whether he’d successfully purged the poison from his bloodstream or not, he wouldn’t last long with that wound.

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