First Page: The Demon Woods
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Mirai was abandoned by her mother and raised by demons cursed never to leave the Demon Woods. She knows that the brother she’s never met is out there somewhere beyond the trees, bound to her by their mother’s last spell. But when she finally meets him, not only does he know nothing about her, he’s become a Guardian, sworn to kill demons and eradicate magic. Kier has grown up in the shadow of his infamous late mother, who left the Guardians to practice heretical magic and traffic with demons. He must choose between his duty and the chance to salve his family’s reputation, and the sister he didn’t know he had–who was harmed even more than he was by their mother’s actions. Can Mirai free the demons from their curse and herself and her brother from their mother’s spell before the Guardians destroy them all?
An ant was crawling over Mirai’s foot, slow progress tickling her. The leaves at her neck, which she’d hardly noticed when she picked her hiding place in the tree, now itched. She leaned to the side. The leaves itched more. She didn’t dare move much more than that. Like any predator, Taggath noticed movement, and if he saw her, she would suffer.
It had been safer last time, when it had been Haset coming to the bridge. Since Taggath had bloodied her, he took every opportunity to torment her. Still, she couldn’t resist. It wasn’t often she got to see her mother’s people.
The tree she perched in offered a good view of the old bridge. Once, the bridge had been the main thoroughfare onto the island in the center of the river. The constant assault of the river’s currents had eroded the stone pillars of the supports, and holes gapped the cobbled stones over the top after centuries of neglect. People still came here occasionally. That was what she hoped to see.
Taggath stood on the near side of the bridge, barely visible in the strong sunlight. She could see the stones of the bridge through his torso. He didn’t look back, but stayed focused on the traces of the old road on the river’s other bank. An insect hummed somewhere over Mirai’s shoulder. Her neck itched.
Taggath straightened. A moment later, Mirai heard it too: someone crashing through the growth across the river. A woman emerged from the brush, face flushed and shiny with sweat. She looked much like the other humans Mirai had seen, dressed in homespun and leather. Mirai thought she’d seen her here before, trading with firalim now and again. Her face had settled into lines of age, which Mirai had never and would never see on any of the people of the forest. Her gray hair still had a few strands of black. She straightened as she came into the clearing around her end of the bridge, and lowered the knife she’d been using to clear the brush. The one who had come to trade with Haset had been a man, and younger.
“There you are, demon.” She put one foot on the bridge, eyes trained on Taggath. A breeze off the water ruffled her cropped hair. She spoke the human language, Ifflin. Mirai silently thanked Yan for the lessons in her mother’s language.
“I said I’d be.” The wind didn’t touch him. Mirai couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine his predatory smile. She’d seen it often enough.
“Let’s get this over with.” Taggath glided forward to meet her. Mirai glanced at the crumbling ruin of the wall on the opposite bank of the river. This close to the wards, he had to be uncomfortable, but he showed no sign of it.
“Are you ready?” Tension edged his voice.
“Your word,” the woman said. “You’ll go past the Ring and leave these villages alone.”
“I swear it, may the wards chain me forever if I lie.”
She lifted her knife and ran the blade along the edge of her palm. Red drops sprang up along the cut.
Taggath ran an insubstantial hand over her bared skin, and she shivered. His ghostly head bent over the woman’s arm. It happened suddenly, like a rush of blood into water. One moment, he was a ghost, the next he lifted a solid head from the woman’s hand, the wind tousling his hair.
She pulled her hand back, a smear of red darkening line of the knife wound. “My turn.”