The Night Realm teaser excerpt
Outside, darkness lay thick and heavy over the land. Scarcely glancing skyward, he tucked the cloth bag under his arm, shoved his hands in his pockets, and strode away from the complex of small houses, each with a peaked roof and small courtyard in the back. Identical, just like their occupants. He followed the twisting streets without thought, inhaling the crisp air while he had the chance. The buildings seemed to lean over the road, some windows dark, others glowing with yellow light. A deep, narrow canal cut through the streets and he crossed the footbridge, the hollow thump of his steps the only sound besides the slosh of slow-moving water. On the other side, the buildings changed from wood and tile to flat, ugly concrete. They grew in size until he rounded a corner and the largest structure yet sprawled across an entire block. He ignored the official entrance and instead headed for a side door. A drum of his fingers across the metal unkeyed the defensive spells and he yanked the door open. Stale air that smelled faintly of blood replaced the cool breeze. His feet carried him where he needed to go without any input from him. The closer he got to his destination, the more his steps slowed and his shoulders hunched. Finally, he stood in the familiar white corridor, its floors covered in bleached tile, the ceiling equally colorless. A door waited, shut tight, the window reflecting the harsh florescent lights above. Fidgeting with the drawstring of the cloth bag, he glanced along the empty hall. She was late, as usual. Bang. He jumped, almost dropping his bag. His wide eyes darted toward the door. Bang. The door rattled from the impact—something striking it from within. Lyre cringed, his pulse drumming a little too fast for his pride. Bang. Tensing, he stepped up to the window. Inside the small, barren room, a man lay on his back on the cot. Arms tucked behind his head, one knee propped up, casual and relaxed. Black hair with a wine-red sheen fell across his forehead and one side was braided alongside his head, a scarlet ribbon woven into the plait. His stormy gray eyes rose, locking on Lyre’s. Still relaxed, he lifted his other leg and slammed the heel of his boot into the window. Lyre sprang back. Cracks webbed across the glass. The spells on the door should have made it near-indestructible, but the regular rules of magic didn’t seem to apply to this daemon. Rubbing his chest, he retreated from the door. He didn’t need to have another non-staring contest with the daemon on the other side. The glass was still a one-way mirror, the walls and door were still heavily spelled, and Lyre still hadn’t figured out how that daemon always knew when someone was watching him. He leaned back against the opposite wall, hands in his pockets again. The first time he’d seen the daemon in this room, his impression had been that the boy was dangerous. The past three years, in which the youth had rapidly matured into the young adult now nonchalantly kicking the door down, had only cemented that opinion. The snap of heels hitting the tiled floor grew louder and Eisheth came around the corner, hips swaying and thigh-high leather boots gleaming. Four black-clad guards followed her, walking in a line like obedient ducklings. Lyre straightened from the wall and tried not to sneer. Eisheth’s lips thinned angrily before she even reached him. Oops. Guess he’d sneered after all. “Lyre.” “Eisheth. How considerate of you to be late. Again.” She raised her dark, severe eyebrows. Her hair was braided, the long tail falling down her back. “I’m sure you didn’t miss anything important.” He pulled the cloth bag from under his arm and held it out. “Here it is. Fixed the problem from last time.” Instead of taking it, she folded her arms. “This is your sixth prototype now, isn’t it?” “About that, yeah.” He gave the bag a twitch, encouraging her to take it so he could leave. “Despite the fact that this project is supposed to be a priority, it seems to take you half a season each time to produce a new version. Amazing how regular your timing is.” “You can’t rush genius. If you don’t want it, I can bring it back in another half-season.” She kept her arms crossed. “Your last five collars have all failed—quite spectacularly. Why should I believe this one is any different?” “A new, complex weaving like this is a trial and error process. I can only test it so much without activating the spell on its intended subject.” He rolled his eyes. “And, maybe you hadn’t noticed, but I don’t have access to Hades’s most notorious rogue mercenaries. I’m sure you get plenty of time with him down in your dungeon though.” Eisheth glanced from the bag back to Lyre’s face. “So you believe this collar can contain that daemon’s magic? That it will seal his power and he won’t be able to break it off, as he has every other collar that’s ever been put on him?” He shrugged. “Reasonably sure. Like I said, it still needs to be tested.” “But you’re confident it’s ready for testing? That it won’t mysteriously fail?” Keeping his expression open and guileless, he shrugged again. “Pretty confident.” Eisheth’s answering smile was viciously sweet. “I’m glad to hear it. I had begun to think you weren’t properly applying yourself to this project. I’d even begun to wonder if you might be engineering your prototypes to fail.” “That would be stupid.” Very stupid. Epically stupid. He should probably reconsider his decision-making process in the future. Eisheth nodded. “Excellent. In that case …” She grabbed his arm and yanked him toward the door. “You won’t have any objections to testing this prototype yourself.” “Wait, what?” He dug in his heels, but she’d already grabbed the handle. “Eisheth, I can’t—” She swung the door open. “Have fun, Lyre.” Then she shoved him inside and slammed the door shut. He stumbled two steps, then jerked backward. His back hit the door with a thump. Well, shit. At his appearance, the daemon’s cutting gray eyes slid down Lyre and back up, clearly unimpressed. To his relief, the daemon didn’t immediately leap up and try to rip out any throats—namely, Lyre’s throat, which he would prefer remain unsavaged. Damn that bitch. This was not Lyre’s job. “Um.” He coughed awkwardly. “Hi?” The daemon said nothing. Lyre cautiously sidled away from the door, daring to approach a little closer. The daemon, had he been standing, would have been a couple inches taller than Lyre, with broader shoulders and a more muscular build. Lyre wasn’t a total lightweight himself, but the other daemon had enough of a weight advantage that Lyre preferred to keep a cautious distance between them. Not that there was much space in the tiny room. And, really, he was deluding himself if he thought he stood any chance against a trained killer. This wasn’t the teenager he’d first seen in here. The daemon was an adult now, or close enough to make Lyre very nervous. A long minute ticked past where neither of them moved. “What do you want?” the daemon finally asked. Lyre shivered slightly. Huh, well. As an incubus who continuously appraised the sex appeal of pretty much everyone—targets and rivals both—he had to admit he’d never heard a voice quite like that. The daemon’s deep tones seemed to get under his skin somehow. Interesting. As for how to answer the question . . . Lyre sighed. “Look, I don’t want to do this, but orders and all that.” He pulled open the drawstrings and reached in the bag. “I’m supposed to put this on you, just to make sure it works.” The moment he withdrew the steel collar, the daemon on his feet, menace clinging to him like shadows. Okay. Someone really didn’t like collars. Not that Lyre could blame him. “Seriously, I just need to test it, nothing more . . .” He held up the collar hopefully, and the daemon smiled. It wasn’t a friendly expression. It was a brutal promise—probably to break as many of Lyre’s bones as possible if he was stupid enough to try to apply the collar. Wonderful. He glanced at the door, but Eisheth wouldn’t be letting him out any time soon. She was probably enjoying the show. He heaved another sigh and let his hand, still holding the collar, fall to his side. The daemon didn’t relax, too practiced a warrior to believe that sign of surrender. Smart man. Lyre slipped his other hand into his pocket. Gems clinked softly together as he selected one and pinched it between his forefinger and thumb. The daemon’s gaze snapped toward his pocket. Lyre pulled out the stone, added a spark of magic, and tossed it toward the daemon’s feet. The daemon jerked back reflexively, but there was no space to retreat. The embedded spell activated and crackling light burst from the gem. Thin bolts of electricity snaked across the floor and surged over the daemon, paralyzing him where he stood. Popping the collar open so the two halves swung on a hinge, Lyre lunged forward. He shoved the thick metal ring against the daemon’s neck, clamped it shut, and sent a shot of magic into it, engaging the weaving. A blast of magic erupted from the daemon, scattering the paralysis spell and flinging Lyre back into the wall. He hit the concrete, pain ricocheting through his spine. He only had a chance to wheeze before a hand closed around his throat. The daemon lifted him off the floor and slammed him into the wall a second time, his pitch-black eyes, burning with fury, locked on Lyre’s. The door to the room opened and Eisheth sauntered in, hips swaying. “Now, Ash. I have to advise against killing a master weaver.” The daemon released him and Lyre’s feet hit the floor. His legs almost buckled but he managed to stay upright as he gasped for air. “I’m pleased, Lyre,” Eisheth continued, stepping closer. “This collar didn’t immediately explode upon activation. And it appears to be dampening his magic.” Lyre didn’t respond, too busy counting down in his head and wondering if he could squeeze past Eisheth and out the door in the next thirty seconds. “Well, Ash? Can you break this collar? Why don’t you give it a try?” “I can’t break it,” Ash replied dismissively. “Congratulations.” “You haven’t tried. I would like you to try. Do you need extra motivation?” Eisheth’s eyes brightened in a manic way as her hand drifted toward the black rod hanging from her belt, its hoop-like tip crackling with blue light. Seeing that he wouldn’t be getting past Eisheth, Lyre backed into the furthest corner of the room, still counting. Nine, eight, seven . . . “Just imagine how much fun we can have, Ash,” Eisheth cooed with sugary venom, stroking the weapon at her hip. Four, three, two . . . “Without your magic, you’ll be just as helpless as—” Lyre cast a bubble shield over himself, and the collar around Ash’s neck exploded. The force hit his shield and shattered it, hurling him into the wall for a third time. He slumped to the floor, his head throbbing from the impact and his ears ringing. Shouting erupted and Lyre squinted. Eisheth had been blasted right out the door and into the hall, where she lay unmoving. Ash, having been at the center of the concussion, stood unharmed as the four guards charged in. Ash lunged to meet them. Lyre couldn’t quite follow his movements, but twenty seconds later, all four guards were down, some bleeding, some unconscious. The daemon straightened, rolled his shoulders, then turned around. He and Lyre stared at each other. Then, without a word, the daemon walked out of the tiny room. Wincing as he pushed to his feet, Lyre stepped over the moaning guards and into the corridor where Eisheth’s limp form was sprawled. Ash stood a few steps away, watching Lyre with analyzing eyes that were back to their usual gray. Lyre nodded toward Eisheth. “She’s alive.” Ash glanced at woman. “I know.” “Are you sure you don’t want to fix that?” He raised an eyebrow. “I’ll finish her if you take credit for the kill.” Lyre winced. “Er. I’ll pass.” Ash rubbed his neck where the steel ring had been. “Your collars don’t last long.” “Well, you know, spell weaving isn’t the easiest thing.” “She called you a master weaver.” He shrugged. The daemon gave him a long look. “Your collars explode quite well.” “Faulty weave, I guess.” “Yet you knew exactly when to shield.” Lyre kept his expression blank. Ash obviously suspected, but Lyre wasn’t about to confirm he’d been sabotaging his own work. His head throbbed mercilessly and he kind of thought he might need to throw up soon. After another long silence, Ash again walked away. Lyre watched the daemon stride down the corridor and disappear around the corner, then glanced at the guards sprawled in and around the small room. Was a rogue mercenary allowed to just wander around unescorted? Oh well. It wasn’t like Lyre could have stopped him. At least, not without wasting some perfectly good magic that he’d rather save for a real emergency. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, wincing at the ache in his skull. When he’d engineered the collar weaving to explode, he hadn’t intended to be standing two feet away at the time. He needed to plan these things better. Dropping his hand, he stared hazily at the carnage, then shrugged and followed Ash’s path down the corridor. A smart man would have stayed to check on Eisheth and the guards. A smart man would have summoned healers and alerted someone that Ash had taken off. A smart man might even have pretended he was also knocked unconscious by the blast. He pushed the side door open, stepped into the crisp night air, and smiled grimly. There were a lot of things a smart man would have done, but if he were a smart man, he wouldn’t have woven the spell to explode in the first place.
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