Home > The Core (Demon Cycle #5)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5)
Author: Peter V. Brett

PROLOGUE

GAOLERS

334 AR

“There will be swarm.”

Alagai Ka, the demon Consort, spoke with the lips of the human drone, the one they called Shanjat. The Consort lay bound within a circle of power, but he had shattered one of the locks and taken the drone before his captors could react.

His will crushed, Shanjat was little more than a puppet now, and the Consort took pleasure in the pain that caused his captors. He shifted the drone’s feet, getting a sense of the body. Not as useful as a mimic, but strong, armed with the primitive weapons of the surface stock and an emotional connection to his captors the Consort could exploit.

“What in the Core is that supposed to mean?” the Explorer demanded. The one the others called Arlen or Par’chin. He held influence over the others, but it was not true dominance.

The Consort accessed the drone’s language center, growing in fluency with the primitive grunts that passed for communication among humans. “The queen is close to laying.”

The Explorer met the drone’s eyes and crossed his arms. The wards inked into his flesh throbbed with power. “Know that. What’s it got to do with a swarm?”

“You have imprisoned me and killed my strongest brethren,” the Consort said. “There are none left in the mind court with power enough to keep the young queens from draining their mother of magic and maturing.”

The Explorer shrugged. “Queens’ll kill each other, won’t they? Right there in the whelping room, with the strongest one taking over the hive. Better a hatchling queen than a fully matured one.”

The Consort kept the drone’s eyes fixed on the Explorer as he watched the auras of the others in the room with his own eyes.

Armed with the cloak and spear and crown of the Mind Killer, the Heir—the one called Jardir—was easily the most dangerous. Chained in a warding circle, the Consort had few options if the Heir decided to kill him, and the subjugation of Shanjat enraged the Heir beyond measure.

But the Heir’s aura betrayed him. Much as he wanted to kill the Consort, he needed him alive.

More interesting was the web of emotions connecting the Heir to the Explorer. Love and hate, rivalry and respect. Anger. Guilt. It was a heady mix, and the Consort took pleasure as he studied it. The Heir was impatient for information. There was much the Explorer had not told him, and irritation crackled along his aura at having to follow another’s lead.

Less predictable was the Hunter, the one called Renna. The fierce female was hot with stolen core magic, her flesh stained with wards of power. She was less skilled in the use of her power, apt to lash out unless kept in check. She was tamped down, weapon in hand, ready to spring at the first break in the stalemate.

The last was a female drone, Shanvah. Like the puppet, she had no great magic about her. If she had not killed a demon prince with her weapons, the Consort would have dismissed her as irrelevant.

But while Shanvah was the weakest of his captors, her aura was exquisite. The puppet was her sire. Her will was strong, keeping her surface aura still, but beneath, her spirit was wracked with pain. The Consort would savor the memory of it when he sliced open her skull and bit into the soft meat of her mind.

The Consort made the puppet laugh, keeping the humans’ attention on the drone instead of him. “The young queens won’t have a chance to fight. With none of my brethren strong enough to dominate the others, each will steal an egg and flee.”

The Explorer paused at that, understanding dawning. “Start nests all over Thesa.”

“No doubt it has already begun.” He made the puppet wave its spear, and predictably the eyes of the humans followed. “You doom your own kind, keeping me here.”

Delicately, the Consort shifted its chains, probing for a weakness. The wards etched into the metal burned, pulling at his magic, but the Consort kept a tight grip on his power. Already he had shattered one of the locks and freed a limb. If he could break another, the puppet might disable the circles enough for the Consort to escape.

“How many minds are left in the hive?” the Explorer demanded. “We killed seven so far, not counting you. Reckon that ent nothing.”

“In the hive?” the Consort asked. “None, by now. No doubt they have already divided the breeding grounds and seek to pacify their new territories before the laying.”

“Breeding grounds?” the Hunter asked.

The puppet smiled. “The people of your Free Cities will soon find their walls and wards less secure than they have been led to believe.”

“Bold words, Alagai Ka,” the Heir said, “as you lie bound before us.”

The Consort found what he sought, at last. The tiny flaw in one of the locks, eroded slowly over the months of his imprisonment. Breaking it would allow the demon to slip the chain, but the power required would be bright, and his captors might notice before it was done.

“You were allowed your breeding grounds against this time.” The puppet took a step to the side, and their eyes went with it. “Hunting preserves for my brethren. They will take their drones and crack your walls like eggs, stocking their larders to satiate their hatchling queens.”

“And doom for Ala grow in their wombs,” the Heir said. “We must not allow this.”

“Free me,” the Consort said.

“Not a chance,” the Explorer growled.

“It is your only real choice,” the Consort said. “My return can still prevent swarm.”

“You are the Prince of Lies,” the Heir said. “We are not fools enough to trust your words. There is another choice. We will go to the abyss and kill Alagai’ting Ka once and for all.”

“You claim not to be fools,” the Consort said, “yet you believe you can survive the path to the hive? You will not even get as far as Kavri before he broke and fled back to the surface.”

The words had the intended effect as the Heir stiffened, tightening his grip on the spear. “More lies. Kaji defeated you.”

“Kavri killed many drones,” the Consort said. “Many princes. It took centuries to repopulate the hive, but his attempts to breach our domain failed. That is the best your kind can hope for. This is not the first cycle, nor shall it be the last.”

“Said you’d guide us to the Core,” the Explorer said.

“You might as well ask to go to the surface of the day star,” the Consort said. “You would be consumed long before you reached it. You know this.”

“To the hive, then,” the Explorer said. “The mind court. The ripping whelping room of the demon queen.”

“That will destroy you, as well.” The Consort edged the puppet another step.

“Take our chances,” the Hunter said.

At last, they were in position. The puppet raised its spear and threw it at the Explorer’s heart. As expected, he dissipated and it passed harmlessly through, flying straight at the Heir, who spun his weapon to bat it aside.

The puppet flung the shield with all its strength, the hard edge shattering one of the wardstones keeping the Consort imprisoned. The Hunter was moving fast to attack, but the female drone gave a cry, blocking the Hunter’s path to her sire.

It was time enough for the puppet to turn, taking the warded chain in hand as the Consort focused a burst of magic to shatter the weakened link. Like a spider picking apart a damaged web, the puppet unwove the chain. The silver wards burned the Consort’s skin, but the pain was a small price to pay for freedom.

He flicked a claw, using a burst of magic to fling a tiny piece of the shattered metal link through the air, striking the Heir’s crown and knocking it from his head, preventing him from raising the shield that had first trapped the Consort.

The Hunter cast the female drone aside, leaping to try to stop the puppet, but it was too late. The Consort dissipated even as she swung her weapons, leaving solid only a single claw to lay open her bowels as they passed. He slipped through the gap the puppet had made in the circle, rematerializing at the edge of the outer warding.

The Explorer rushed to his mate as she gasped, trying desperately to keep her intestines from spilling onto the floor. The Hunter did not have the focus to dissipate and heal herself, and the Explorer would waste valuable time and power healing her.

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