The Daylight War: Book Three of The Demon Cycle
:: 333 AR Summer ::
30 Dawns Before New Moon
Renna kissed Arlen again. A gentle breeze swept across the thin sheen of sweat on their bodies, cooling them as they panted on the hot night.
“Been wonderin’ if you were tattooed under that cloth nappy,” she said, nestling in next to him and putting her head on his bare chest, listening to his heart.
Arlen laughed and put his arm around her. “It’s called a bido. And even my obsession has limits.”
Renna lifted her head, putting her lips to his ear. “Maybe you just need a Warder you trust. It’s a wife’s duty to take good care of what’s in her husband’s bido. I could paint you with blackstem . . .”
Arlen swallowed, and she could see his skin flush. “The wards would distort even as you drew them.”
Renna laughed, wrapping him in her arms and dropping her head back to his chest.
“Wonder sometimes if I’m cracked,” she said.
“How’s that?” Arlen asked.
“Like I’m still sitting in Selia Barren’s spinning room, staring off into space. Everything since has been like a dream. Wonder if my mind just took me to a sunny place and left me there.”
“You’ve a poor imagination if this is your sunny place,” Arlen said.
“Why?” Renna asked. “I’m rid of Harl and that corespawned farm, stronger than I ever imagined, and dancing in the naked night.” She swept a hand around her. “Everything’s awash in color and glow.” She looked at him. “And I’m with Arlen Bales. How could my sunny place be anywhere else?”
Renna bit her lip as the words rushed to them. Words she had thought to herself many times, but never dared say aloud. Part of her hesitation was fear of Arlen’s reaction, but much of it was her own doubt. All the Tanner sisters had been willing to run to the bed of the first decent man they met, but had any of them ever been in love?
Renna had thought she loved Arlen when they were children, but she only knew him from afar, and understood now that much of what she cherished had been her imagination of what he was like in close, rather than the boy himself.
Renna had convinced herself that she loved Cobie Fisher this past spring, but she saw the lie of that now. Cobie hadn’t been a bad sort, but if any other man had come to Harl’s farm, Renna knew she would likely have seduced him, too. Anything to get away, because anywhere was better than that farm, and any man in creation was better than her da.
But Renna was done lying. And done biting her tongue.
“Love you, Arlen Bales,” she said.
Her courage fled as the words left her lips and she held her breath, but there was no hesitation as Arlen tightened his arms around her. “Love you, Renna Tanner.”
She exhaled, and all the fear and doubt left her.
Charged as she was with magic, Renna found no sleep as they lay, but she would not have wished for any. Warm and safe, she wondered almost idly how she and Arlen could have been fighting a demon prince and its servants on this very spot a few hours before. It seemed a different world. A different life. For a short time, they had escaped.
But as the sweat dried and the glow of passion faded, the real world began to creep back into focus, terrible and frightening. They were surrounded by the bodies of dead corelings, black ichor splattered all over the clearing. One, the shape-shifting demon, still wore her form, its head neatly severed and leaking ichor. Not far off, Twilight Dancer still lay with his legs in splints after nearly being killed by a mimic demon.
“Going to need to heal Dancer again before he can walk,” Arlen said. “Even then, it might be another night or two before he’s at full strength.”
Renna looked around the clearing. “Don’t like the idea of staying here another night.”
“Me neither,” Arlen said. “Corelings will be drawn here tomorrow like worms to a rain puddle. I have a safehold nearby with a cart big enough to carry Dancer. I can fetch it and be back not long past sunrise.”
“Still have to wait for nightfall,” Renna said.
Arlen tilted his head at her. “Why?”
“Horse weighs more’n your da’s house,” Renna said. “How we gonna get him in the cart without night strength? Who’ll pull the thing, for that matter?”
Arlen looked at her, and even through the wards tattooed all over his face, his expression told all. “Stop that,” she snapped.
“What?” Arlen asked.
“Deciding whether or not to lie to me,” Renna said. “We’re promised now, and there oughtn’t be lies ’tween man and wife.”
Arlen looked at her in surprise, then shook his head. “Wan’t gonna lie, exactly. Just tryin’ to decide if it’s time to talk about it.”
“Is if you value your skin,” Renna said. Arlen squinted at her, but she met his eyes and after a moment he shrugged.
“Don’t lose all my strength in the day,” he said. “Even under the noon sun I reckon I could pick up a milk cow and throw it farther than you can skip a brook stone.”
“What makes you so special?” Renna asked.
Arlen gave her that look again, and she scowled, shaking a fist at him only half mockingly.
Arlen laughed. “Tell you all once we get to my safehold. Honest word.”
Renna smirked. “Kiss on it, and it’s a deal.”
While she waited, Renna took out the warding kit Arlen had given her, placing a clean cloth on the ground and laying the tools out in a neat row. She took out her brook stone necklace and her knife, and slowly, carefully, lovingly, began to clean them.
The necklace was a promise gift from Cobie Fisher, a stout cord strung through dozens of smooth, polished stones. It was so long Renna needed to loop it twice, and it still fell below her breasts.
The knife had belonged to her father, Harl Tanner. He’d always kept it at his belt, sharp as a razor. He’d used it to murder Cobie when she ran away to be with him, and she in turn had used it to kill him.
If that hadn’t happened, Renna and Cobie would have been man and wife when Arlen came back to Tibbet’s Brook. The necklace was a symbol of her failure to be true to Arlen, a promise gift from another man. The knife was a reminder of a man who had kept her in a private Core her entire life.
But Renna could bring herself to part with neither. For better or worse, they were the only things in the world that were truly hers, the only parts of her day life that had come into the night. She had warded them both, the necklace with defensive wards, and the knife with offensive. The necklace could serve as a ward circle in need, but proved an even more effective garrote. And the knife . . .
The knife had punched through the chest of a coreling prince. Even now, its magic shone brightly to her warded eyes. Not just the wards—the entire blade had a dull glow to it. It drew blood on her finger at the barest touch.
She knew the power would burn away with the sun, but at the moment, the weapon seemed invincible. Even in the day, it would be stronger. Magic always left things better than it found them. Likewise, the barest brush of the polishing cloth brought the necklace back to a shine, the cord even tougher than when it was made.
Renna stood guard over Twilight Dancer until dawn. The morning sun struck the scattered bodies of the corelings, setting them ablaze. It was a sight she never tired of, though it came at a heavy price. Even as the demons burned, the blackstem wards on her skin began to tingle as their magic faded. The knife grew hot in its sheath, burning her leg. She had to lean against a tree for support, feeling like a Jongleur’s puppet with the strings cut, weak and half blind.
The disorientation passed quickly, and Renna took a deep breath. With a few hours’ rest, she would feel fitter than the best day of her life, but even that was but a pale shadow of how she felt in the night.
How did Arlen retain his power in the sunlight? Was it that his wards were permanent tattoos rather than blackstem stains? If so, she would take a needle and ink to her skin that very day.
The demon corpses burned hot and fast, in seconds leaving only scorched ground and ash. Renna stamped out the last few scrub fires before they had a chance to grow, and then finally gave in to her exhaustion, curling next to Twilight Dancer and falling asleep.