The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
Synopsis: On the night of the new moon, the demons rise in force, seeking the deaths of two men, both of whom have the potential to become the fabled Deliverer, the man prophesied to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity in a final push to destroy the demon corelings once and for all.
Arlen Bales was once an ordinary man, but now he has become something more—the Warded Man, tattooed with eldritch wards so powerful they make him a match for any demon. Arlen denies he is the Deliverer at every turn, but the more he tries to be one with the common folk, the more fervently they believe. Many would follow him, but Arlen’s path threatens to lead to a dark place he alone can travel to, and from which there may be no returning.
The only one with hope of keeping Arlen in the world of men, or joining him in his descent into the world of demons, is Renna Tanner, a fierce young woman in danger of losing herself to the power of demon magic.
Ahmann Jardir has forged the warlike desert tribes of Krasia into a demon-killing army and proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer. He carries ancient weapons—a spear and a crown—that give credence to his claim, and already vast swaths of the green lands bow to his control.
But Jardir did not come to power on his own. His rise was engineered by his First Wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose formidable demon bone magic gives her the ability to glimpse the future. Inevera’s motives and past are shrouded in mystery, and even Jardir does not entirely trust her.
Once Arlen and Jardir were as close as brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies rise, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all—those lurking in the human heart.
Old Hill Road:
They galloped until dawn, then eased the horses into a walk as the sun burned their night strength away. Arlen took them off road, leading Twilight Dancer with confidence down a Messenger Way so overgrown and twisted it was almost invisible. The path beneath Renna’s feet never vanished, but it opened up suddenly before her and closed off quickly behind, like she was wandering through a thick fog.
Around midday, the path merged into a wide Messenger Road, and they were able to mount again after a break for lunch and necessaries. Like the roads in Riverbridge, the Old Hill Road was made of stone, but most of it was now cracked and eroded into enormous potholes, filled with dirt and thick with stunted patches of scrub and weed. In more than one place, a full tree had broken through, leaving great blocks of broken stone, moss-covered and filthy. In other places, the road ran for long stretches as if untouched by time, miles of gray stone, flat and uniform with nary a crack or seam.
“How’d they haul stones that big?” Renna asked in wonder.
“Din’t,” Arlen said. “They made a muddy porridge called crete, which hardens into solid rock. All roads used to be like this, wide and stone, sometimes hundreds of miles long.”
“What happened to them?” Renna asked.
Arlen spat. “World got too small for big roads. Now Old Hill Road’s one of the last of her kind. Nature doesn’t take them back quickly, but eventually, she does take ‘em back.”
“We’ll make good time here,” Renna said.
“Ay, but night will be a race,” Arlen warned. “Field demons are drawn here like pigs to the trough. Come up through the potholes.”
Renna smirked. “Who am I to worry? Got the Deliverer with me.” Arlen scowled, and she laughed.
* * * * *
Renna wasn’t laughing anymore. Promise had relented to take a few strips of braided leather as a girth, but it was still all Renna could do to hang on as the giant Angierian mustang galloped flat out over the ancient highway, leaping obstacles and barely keeping ahead of the reap of field demons at her heels.
Twilight Dancer fared no better, with as many of the corelings on his tail as Promise’s. The demons seemed bred for the road, their long tireless strides eating up the pavement.
Above, the raptor cries of wind demons filled the night sky. Renna glanced up and saw the demons clearly by the glow of their magic, massive wingspans blotting out the stars. Even wind demons weren’t quick enough to dive and take a galloping horse, but if they slowed…
“Do we fight?” Renna shouted to Arlen. Both their senses were far more acute in the night, but it was still hard to tell if he heard her over the thunder of hooves and the shriek of demons sensing a kill.
“Too many!” Arlen shouted back. “We stop to fight, more will catch up! Keep on!”
His face was clear as day to her night eyes, lined with worry. He was in no danger, of course. Nothing could harm Arlen in the night. But Renna had no such security. Her warded cloak would not shield her at a gallop, and while she had painted much of Promise’s splotchy coat, those wards wouldn’t last long in a pitched battle against an ever-increasing number of demons. Even Twilight Dancer’s warded barding had gaps necessary for mobility.
Renna’s hand itched to go to her knife, but she kept her arms tight around Promise’s powerful neck. A coreling nipped at the mare’s heels, and caught a hoof in the face for its efforts. The wards Renna had carved into it flared, and the coreling’s long, razor-sharp teeth shattered as the demon was thrown back.
Renna smirked, but the blow wasn’t worth the price. Promise stumbled, momentarily losing her stride, and the other corelings gained quickly, almost upon her. Back down the road, the demon she had kicked rolled to a stop and wobbled to its feet. Already its magic was repairing the damage. It would be back in the chase before long.
Arlen let go Twilight Dancer’s reins and turned, drawing a ward in the air. Renna felt a rush of air, and the corelings at her heels were thrown back like leaves in the wind.
Renna smiled and looked back at Arlen, but the curve fell from her lips as she saw how his glow had dimmed. He couldn’t keep using that trick, and the field demons at his own back were barely a stride behind. She cursed her own stubborn refusal to practice with the bow he had given her.
A field demon leapt, its long hooked talons digging deep grooves into Twilight Dancer’s hindquarters just beneath the barding as it tried to pull the massive stallion down.
Dancer broke stride to kick back, his warded hooves crushing the demon’s skull, but the pause gave another of the demons time to climb atop an ancient pile of crete and hurl itself at Arlen.
Arlen twisted, catching a swiping paw in one hand and punching the demon hard in the head with the other. “Don’t slow!” he called as Promise ran past.
Magic flared from the wards on his fist as he struck again and again, leaving the demon’s face a ruined mass. He hurled the demon back into the reap, knocking others to the ground in a jumble, then kicked Dancer back into a gallop.
They soon caught up, but Dancer’s flanks were wet with running blood, and his speed began to lessen as the demons renewed their chase.
“Night!” Renna looked up the road, seeing another reap of demons charging at them from the opposite direction, spread as wide as the road. To either side the ground fell away in a thicketed ditch. There was no escape there.
Part of Renna longed to fight. The demon in her blood shrieked for the carnage, but the sense left to her knew it was a hopeless battle. If they couldn’t break the ring and outrun the pack, it was likely only Arlen would survive to see the dawn.
The thought gave her some comfort as she leaned in to the charge.
“Stomp right through,” she whispered in Promise’s ear.
“Follow my lead,” Arlen called. He had leached some power from the demon he’d killed, though it was still less than he’d started with. He drew a quick ward in the air, and the demons directly in front of the horses were knocked aside. He laid about with a long spear, jabbing at any demon that drew too close, but one was not fast enough and was trampled under Twilight Dancer’s hooves, magic flashing in the night. Renna followed right behind, trampling the hapless demon further, leaving it crushed and broken.
Left to itself, the demon might have recovered from even these grievous injuries, but its reapmates sensed its weakness and temporarily gave up the chase, falling upon it viciously, rending its armor with their long talons and tearing away large chunks of flesh in their teeth.
Renna bared her teeth, and for a second, imagined herself joining them, feasting on demon meat and reveling in the power it brought.
“Eyes in front!” Arlen snapped, breaking her from the trance. Renna shook her head and turned away from the grisly scene, putting her mind back to the business at hand.
It looked like they might clear the trap, but the clash had slowed them enough for a wind demon to chance a dive at Renna, talons leading to snatch her right from horseback and carry her off.
The blackstem wards on Renna’s arms and shoulders flared, forming a barrier that gave the demon’s talons no purchase, but the force of the rebound threw Renna from Promise’s back. She hit the ground hard, smashing her right shoulder with a pop and tasting dirt and blood in her mouth. The wind demon crashed shrieking down beside her, and she rolled, just barely avoiding the razor-sharp talon at the end of its massive wing.
Her shoulder screamed at her as she shoved herself to her feet, but Renna embraced the pain as wood embraces fire, awkwardly pulling her knife in her left hand. To lie still was to die.
Not that her chances of living were very good. Nearby, Promise reared and bucked, kicking at the field demons snapping and clawing at her from all sides. In a moment, they would be upon Renna as well.
“Renna!” Arlen wheeled Twilight Dancer about, but even he couldn’t be quick enough.
The wind demon struggled awkwardly to its feet. Wind demons were clumsy on land, and Renna used that to her advantage, kicking a leg out from under it and driving her warded knife deep into its throat as it fell. There was a hot splash if ichor on her hand, and she felt a wave of magic pump into her. Already, her injured shoulder felt stronger.
A field demon leapt upon Promise’s back, and Renna reached into her pouch for a handful of chestnuts. The heat wards she had painted activated when they struck the coreling, and the nuts exploded with a series of bangs and flashes, scorching its coarse armor. The demon wasn’t badly injured, but it was startled and stung, enabling Promise to buck it from its tenuous perch.
Renna didn’t have time to see what happened next, as the corelings took note of her and several raced her way. Renna sidestepped the first and kicked it in the belly, the blackstem impact wards on her shin and instep flashing with power. The demon was launched away like a child’s ball. Another hit her from behind, clawing through her tight-laced vest and scoring deep lines in her back. She fell to her knees as another came at her from the front, biting hard at her shoulder.
This time, her wards were not enough to turn the demon. Blood and filth had weakened them, and Renna screamed as the demon locked down, its four sets of talons raking at her. Some of her wards remained in effect, but others did not. The demons’ claws skittered along the flash of magic until they found openings and dug in hard.
But the pain and the magic both were a drug to Renna. In that moment, she didn’t care if she lived or died, she only knew that she would not die first. Again and again her arm pumped, stabbing her father’s knife into the coreling, bathing in its ichor. Her power intensified even as its weakened. Slowly, she began to force it back, feeling its talons slide back out of her flesh inch by agonizing inch.
It was dead when Twilight Dancer scattered its reapmates to stand over her and Arlen leapt down, his robe cast aside. His wards flared bright as he pried open the snout of the demon and pulled it off her, hurling it into several others, all of them going down in a heap. Another came at him, but he took it down in a sharusahkpivot and stabbed a finger that sizzled like a hot poker through the coreling’s eye.
Renna growled, raising her knife. Her body screamed at her, but the magic that gripped her was stronger. The night was a dizzy haze of blurred figures, but she could make out Promise’s huge form, and the demons surrounding her. One swung wildly from her neck, grasping for purchase. If it found its grip, Promise would be pulled down. Renna gave a mad howl and ran her way.
“Renna, corespawn it!” Arlen shouted, but Renna ignored him and waded into the demons’ midst, kicking and shoving corelings aside and laying about with her knife as she struggled to Promise’s side. Every blow sent a shock of magic thrilling through her, making her stronger, faster—invincible. She leapt up and caught one of the scrabbling hind limbs of the demon on Promise’s back, pulling it into position as she stabbed it in the heart.
Arlen ran after her, collapsing into smoke as demons struck at him, only to turn deadly solid a split-second later, striking hard with warded fists and feet, knees and elbows, even the top of his shaved head. He was beside her in an instant and gave a shrill whistle, calling Dancer to them.
The great stallion scattered another group of demons on the way, giving Arlen time to draw large field demon wards in the air around them. With her warded eyes, Renna could see the thin trail of magic he left to hold each symbol together. A field demon leapt at them, and two of the wards flared, throwing it back. The wards would only grow stronger the more they were struck. Arlen moved in a steady line, forming a circle around them, but ahead of him, several demons barred his path, continuing to snap and claw at Promise’s flank. She moved for them, knife leading.
Arlen grabbed her arm, yanking her back. “You stay put.”
“I can fight,” Renna growled. She tried to pull her arm free, but even with her night strength, he held her in place like a petulant infant. He turned and drew a series of impact wards in the air, knocking the demons away from Promise one by one.
As he did, his grip weakened, and Renna used the opportunity to pull away from him with a snarl. “You don’t get to tell me what to do, Arlen Bales!”
“Don’t make me slap the fool out of you, Ren!” Arlen snapped. “Look at yourself!”
Renna looked down, gasping at the deep wounds gaping in her skin. Blood ran freely in a dozen places, and her back and shoulder were on fire. The mad night strength left her, and her knife dropped, too heavy to lift. Her legs gave way.
Arlen was there in an instant, easing her to the ground, and then moved off to complete the wardnet around and above them. More and more field demons came racing down the, surrounding them like an endless field of grass, but even that great host could not pierce Arlen’s wards, nor the flight of wind demons circling in the sky.
He was back at her side as soon as the net was complete, cleaning the dirt and blood from her wounds. There was a fallen demon inside the forbidding, and he dipped a finger in its ichor like a quill in an inkwell, writing wards on her skin. She could feel her flesh tightening, pulling as it knit back together. It was incredibly painful, but Renna accepted it as the cost of life and breathed deep, embracing it.
“Put your cloak on while I tend the horses,” Arlen said when he had done all he could. Renna nodded, pulling her warded cloak from the pouch at her waist. Lighter and finer than any cloth Renna had ever felt, it was covered in intricate embroidered wards of unsight. When drawn about her, it rendered Renna invisible to corespawn. She had never cared for the cloak, preferring to let the demons see her coming, but she couldn’t deny its usefulness.
Lacking the warded barding of Twilight Dancer, Promise was easily the more wounded of the two horses, but she stamped and snorted at Arlen’s approach, teeth bared and snapping. Arlen ignored the posturing, moving almost too fast to see as he swept in and took a great handful of Promise’s mane. The mare tried to pull away, but Arlen handled her like a mother changing a struggling baby’s diaper. Eventually, Promise relented and let him tend her, perhaps realizing at last that he was trying to help her.
The casual display of power might have surprised her a few days ago, but Renna was used to surprises from Arlen now, and it barely registered. Again and again, she saw her gaping wounds in her mind’s eye, terrified to think she’d been ignoring them as her life’s blood drained away.
“That what happens to you?” Renna asked when he returned. “Feel so alive you don’t even realize it’s killing you?”
Arlen nodded. “Forget to breathe sometimes. Get so drunk on the power it feels like I shouldn’t need to do something so… mundane. Then I suddenly break out gasping for air. Almost got me cored more’n once.”
He looked up, meeting her eyes. “The magic will trick you into thinking you’re immortal, Ren, but you ent. No one is, not even the corelings.” He pointed at the field demon carcass beside her. “And the struggle never goes away. It’s a new fight, every time you taste the power.”
Renna shuddered, thinking of the irresistible pull of the magic. “How do you keep from losing yourself?”
Arlen chuckled. “Started keeping Renna Tanner around to remind me I’m just a dumb Bales from Tibbet’s Brook, and ent too good to breathe.”
Renna smiled. “Then you got nothing to fear, Arlen Bales. You’re stuck with me.”
Excerpted from The Daylight War: Book Three of The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett. Copyright © 2013 by Peter V. Brett