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The Demonkeeper's Daughter

Summary

A displaced sorcerer's daughter must bind and seal a demon or lose her birthright forever....  Alethea is the Demonkeeper's Daughter; raised in luxury, surrounded by power, and taught to command the arcane forces. But none of that matters when she is forced to flee a devastating blight that strikes her land and takes the life of her father. Her country is destroyed, a demon is rampaging the countryside... and in order to stop him Alethea must claim her birthright. If she can.

Prologue

The Demonkeeper's Daughter

K. J. Joyner

This ebook is an ongoing project by K. J. Joyner, and she shares chapters as she completes them online for your feedback and enjoyment. When this book is finished, it will be available in bookstores nationwide. Yay! All rights reserved.

 

*****

Prologue

 

Belgrasi felt his chains break with a simple, inaudible chink.

He looked around. No one was near his bottle except for the demonkeeper, who was too engrossed in reading his book to notice. The demonkeeper looked up once out of habit, smiled fleetingly, and went back to his work.

Belgrasi pondered his situation. He was free for the first time in hundreds of years, and there with his guard completely down was... well, not the most hated of his keepers but he was a keeper. How to take his revenge? Should he do it swiftly and not give the demonkeeper a chance to react? Should he do it slowly, toying with the tiny man until he died of exhaustion? Or perhaps he could do it traditionally; taking out the man's next of kin one by one until there was no one left before driving the human mad with the power of a million chattering voices?

"Belgrasi," the demonkeeper said conversationally without looking up, "if you had the chance to be free, to go home to your family, would you take it?"

Belgrasi floated a little closer to his master. "Yes," he said.

"Would you like to?" the demonkeeper asked, oblivious to the danger that now hovered over his shoulder.

With the question, Belgrasi felt himself grow denser with hundreds of years of repressed rage. He was close enough to pinch the man's head off with his fingers, but he wasn't sure that was how he wanted to do it yet.

The demonkeeper lifted his head, noticing for the first time the change of atmosphere in the room. "Belgrasi?"

Belgrasi's eyes narrowed on the little man as he decided it was time to make his move.

There was an old saying: actions speak louder than words. Belgrasi decided he was going to make the message loud and clear.

Chapter One

Chapter One

I used to have a bed with the world’s softest mattress and poufy blankets that settled like clouds around me. My father used to sit beside the bed with a lantern and read to me until drowsiness claimed me to sleep.

And the magic! If I wanted to see a unicorn, Father summoned me one on the spot. Fairies? Yeah sure, I've danced with fairies. And do you know what it's like to take swimming lessons from a mermaid?

Okay, yeah. Don't take swimming lessons from a mermaid. I almost drowned.

Anyway, my childhood was no different than a million other childhoods when you really think about it. Like those other childhoods I took everything for granted. When I went out into the world, it was probably the thing I missed the most: the bed, the softness, the security of my parent watching over me into the night.

So one minute I lived in a big house with my father, and literally overnight I was walking down the road with only the contents of my belt pouch and the clothes on my back – just another hungry refugee with unkempt hair and a sweaty brow. Any tears I had to cry dried up in the heat and my heart withered with the shriveling countryside. At night I slept right by the side of the road with only my arms to pillow my head. When the sun rose I broke some hastily conjured bread and walked some more.

The landscape finally started to turn green again after weeks of walking. I had passed other refugees on the way. The ones that were still alive huddled in small groups and glared at me with untrusting eyes. There was safety in numbers, and I was a single maiden on my own. I should have been vulnerable, but it was obvious that I wasn't. No one bothered me, although they had no idea who I was. And if there was any other trouble on the road, I luckily did not come across it.

I reached the small town of Helmsworth sometime in the early afternoon when the heat was at its worst. It actually was more of an outpost with a sturdy gate, several sets of guards, and a house on a high hill where the governor and his family lived. I had been here a few times with my father but was not surprised when they made me wait outside the city walls with other refugees until finally allowed admittance. If my father had been with me, there would have been no waiting of course. There would also have been a lot of nervous bowing and declarations of good intentions, as well as various invitations to dinner and even a party thrown in my father’s honor.

“Market square is straight ahead,” said one of the guards in a disinterested tone as I walked passed him. “Curfew is at the witch’s hour. If any of you haven’t found lodgings by then and we find you, we’ll throw you out on your ear.”

Such was my welcome.

I could see the presence of Forge Mountain looming over us and the neighboring forest as I walked into the bright sunlight of the market square courtyard. For the first time since I left home, I stopped and took a deep breath. It was a welcome sight. My feet had never been so sore and I was having to wrap my belt tightly to keep my skirts from falling to my ankles. Soon, I thought, it would all be over.

Ahead of me was the farmer’s market.  The blight had touched even here a little bit. The farmer’s market had a limited fare to sample from, and that looked a little too dried to work with. Other refugees ghosted around market square while the farmers complained to each other about the lack of rain. I didn’t have to worry about standing out much with my ragged skirts, and that was a relief. I stopped to buy a small bag of potatoes from a stall near the end of the row. As an afterthought I also got a sticky sweet the farmer's wife had made.

Now that I think about it, I should never have paid for those things with my last golden coin. You can call it a belated psychic feeling. A creeping sensation, something coming from the farmer’s glance while he counted out my change. Between you and me, it was only a gold coin. I could have been any nobleperson down on my luck by what was becoming known as the Great Blight.

But also between you and me, it was a gold coin. I mean how many normal folks go around carrying gold coins to spend on a sack of potatoes? Not many. I'd say almost none at all. But it was also all I had on me. A sorceress can conjure bread from rocks, but we can't make small change from nothing. So either I stole it, or I was.. well... a nobleperson down on my luck.

We can't have noblemen running around down on their luck in the streets. It may encourage people who are really down on their luck to wander the streets. Some people think this would tear down the whole of society. I just think it might make the streets a bit more crowded.

I recall, he took the coin and bit into it to make sure it was real. I waited patiently for my change - a shilling is a shilling - while he checked my authenticity. Then he looked me in the face for the first time, as if having more money than the usual customer somehow made me less invisible. He looked me straight in the eye. I looked straight back because, well, that's what you do when someone looks you in the eye.

"Here you are, and I thank 'ee," he said while handing me my change. "Th'wife will sometimes make the family sweet rolls of a morning if you're still here by next week."

I had been walking nonstop with dust coating my tongue and magically conjured bread to eat every morning and every night - created from that same dust. I tried not to make a face, but I failed. The farmer's face froze.

"Sounds lovely," I managed to say, dreading the thought of ever having bread again for as long as I lived. "I will be sure to give it a try." The farmer looked a little relieved. I was barely paying attention, as I was already stuffing the sweet into my mouth as a delightful change from bread. "This is good."

"Thank you," the farmer said with a slight cough to clear his throat.

"By the way, can you direct me to the apothecary?"

This time I took good notice when his face froze. He pointed the way as if to say he knew what I was doing and didn't approve. I almost bought myself a second sweet but thought better of it. I only had a few coins left, and I still had to buy supplies for what the farmer seemed to think he knew what I was up to. I clutched my bag of potatoes to control my impulse.

As I walked away, I saw him lean over to his neighbor to say something.  A young boy sprinted across the square – the neighbor’s son, perhaps, there to run errands on this hot day I thought at the time.

The apothecary was a small shop nestled in a busy corner past the edge of the market square. It was a quaint little place. There were blossoms planted outside the front door and a tidy sign in the expensive glass window. I paused to admire a statuette placed by the front door. I noticed a bench by the street and sat. It felt good to sit in a real seat made for real human behinds. I leaned back and closed my eyes. It felt very good.

I wasn't inclined to move. Sometimes people walked past me, taking furtive peeks at the filthy refugee stinking up their clean city bench. I didn't care. My feet throbbed, but it was that thankful throb; the one that says, "Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you."  And I think taking that time to rest was my mistake. If I had gone straight inside, no one would have been able to find me. I could have bought my bag of salt and been gone.

Instead a polite, “Alethea?” brought my attention back toward the street behind me where two guards and a finely-dressed young man a little older than me stood together. Fear seized my throat and I stood, grabbing my potatoes in case I would have to dash for safety. I had been found and already they were calling out the guard!

The young man stepped forward, clearly a little excited. "I thought that was you, but we haven't seen you here in years. That is you, isn't it?"

I tried to mask it by doing a quick curtsy and smoothing my skirts. This isn't so easy when you're struggling with a bag of potatoes. The farmer’s boy, I realized, must have been sent to tell the local law I was here. I wasn't sure how I had been recognized so quickly, but it had happened. I mean, it's one thing to be pegged for nobility. It's quite another to have a perfect stranger flanked by two armed guards call you by name. With my head politely bowed low, I carefully looked for ways to escape. I didn't have time for any political nonsense. I needed my supplies and to keep going.

“I beg your pardon,” I murmured, caught between wondering what was going to happen to me and hoping I would just be banished after a speedy trial, “but you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

“Don’t you remember me?” the young man said, taking another step forward. He put out his hand. Automatically I gave him my own hand to kiss as he bowed. Or at least, I tried to. It wasn't a very big bag of potatoes, but I had to carry it with both arms. “It’s me, Gavin. Your dear cousin.”

Cousin? I had no cousins, at least not that I knew of. My father had no family and my mother's I knew nothing about. If she even had family. I did not know this boy. Or at least, I was pretty sure I didn't know the boy as such. He did look familiar.

I had not been to Helmsworth in years, but I would have bet my last shilling I encountered this boy previously through some business of my father's. Now if only I could remember what business that was. Then I would know how to react: was this boy beneath me, above me, or just one of the many star-crossed would-be apprentices always turned away from our door? I tried to demur but I probably looked like a fish on land with my mouth silently open as I searched for something to say. Gavin in proper gentleman fashion rescued me from this disgrace by taking charge of the situation.

“You’re obviously exhausted,” he said while taking me by the arm and guiding me firmly away from the apothecary door. I looked back longingly, trying to change direction, but he either did not notice or would have none of my feminine wiles. “Come home with me. Did you walk the entire way from your house? Why didn’t you come to us first in the last place?"

"I.. just got here..." I wanted to beg, please let me get my salt. The apothecary door retreated behind me; so close and yet forbidden by inches and a young man's hospitality. Meanwhile, the prudish part of me was shouting in repeat, Come home with him? We don't even know him!

"And you probably didn’t want to impose. Am I right? We’ll get you washed up and find you a change of clothing – please by the gods – and then you can tell us what happened.”

He had a pleasant face. It reminded me a little of home, although I couldn't say why. His arm was firmly around my shoulders as he guided me down the sidewalk. Inside my prudish side was still shouting. Hey! What are you doing?!? You get his arm off of you, young lady!

"What... happened?" I repeated dumbly.  I swallowed with fresh fear and forgot all about the apothecary.

By that point he had successfully brought me to a small nobleman's carriage. It came complete with a smartly dressed driver, who stepped down from his seat to open one of the carriage doors for us. The guards, who had fallen in step behind us, smartly saluted him and walked away. I watched them go, then looked at my captor. Should I use magic to protect myself?

That's what I'm talking about! Seer the pervert's eyebrows off!

The driver took my potatoes away - not without a bit of a struggle on my part. He had grabbed the bag, and I had automatically held on. He tugged politely but firmly. I tugged back.

"Milady," he said when he realized I wasn't giving up my potatoes, "I should like to stow your belongings in the luggage compartment. I promise this will make your trip a lot more comfortable."

Trip? Crap, this Gavin was serious about taking me somewhere. I turned to Gavin to demure once again, and the driver used my distraction as the perfect opportunity. He had my potatoes out of my arms and safely shoved into a small area beneath the driver's bench before I knew it. Now I was really wondering if I was going to have to use magic to protect myself - and rescue my potatoes.

Gavin finally took note of my hesitation and took his arm away to give me space. "I'm sorry," he said. "I suppose I do come off as a bit pushy." He blushed and gave me a crooked smile. "You could say it's a personality flaw... but the entire family is simply overjoyed to know you're here. You'll forgive me for being so happy to see my only cousin, right?"

There he was, talking about family and cousins again. "I'm afraid, I don't-" I began.

"At least let us feed you a good dinner," Gavin offered hurriedly. "You have got to be starving. You look as if you have walked the entire way from Demonskeep."

My mouth snapped shut. A real meal would be nice. I decided there couldn't possibly be any harm in accepting a little hospitality.

I was practically pushed inside the carriage by my enthusiastic benefactor. The interior was plush, fit for someone less than a king. . Gavin bounced into the seat next to me and waved his hand out the window. I seriously thought about jumping out and making a run for it, but where would I go? I was hungry and sore. I knew I wouldn't get very far. For the moment, I resigned myself to Fate.

Yeah, it'll be fine. Maybe he'll feed me and I can seer his eyebrows off later.

The driver snapped the reins and the horses started walking. I sighed and gazed out the window.

"By the by," Gavin said into the awkward silence. "Your father is in town as well, correct? Normally when he arrives, we're sent word from the local hostel that he's here. You know we always insist he stay with us even though he declines, right. But with you here, maybe all is forgiven and we'll laugh over old times. I suppose we should swing by there and..." His voice trailed away when I choked a little.

"How do you... how do you.." I stammered, trying to concentrate on the fact that he very clearly knew or at least thought he knew my father while I still had no idea who he was. But I guess sitting in a strange person's carriage being dragged away from buying a bag of salt you desperately had to get from probably the only apothecary in town can be a little much. I felt the tears trekking down my face, and I knew I was going to explode at any minute.

Gavin took my hands into his. I let him, although I couldn't tell you why. Maybe he did or did not know my father. I could tell he at least had an idea of what was going on. I looked into his soft brown eyes, feeling very small.

"The Blight got him as well," Gavin said for me. I nodded, feeling my sweaty bangs slap my forehead with the motion. "How did it happen?"

"A demon did it," I said. Normally I wouldn't have offered any part of the story to a complete stranger, but I'd been keeping my feelings bottled up for so long they began to pour out on their own. "I don't know how, but I barely got out just in time. And that's only because Dad... he..." My voice didn't fade away so much as choked to a stop. There was no way I could tell him the truth. He wouldn't understand. Most "normal" people knew nothing about my father's craft and assumed the worst about us. I wasn't ready to face anyone's misjudgment.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I should have known, given your obvious state of distress. We hoped, is all."

I didn't hope, but I wished. I had wished it every day, every hour on the road, and more than ever sitting in that carriage as it wound its way up the hill overlooking the little town. I wished my father wasn't dead. More than anything.

My father; the great and powerful magician. Court assigned guardian of the arcane for this province. The master of who knew how many demons, tamer of unicorns, fantastical maker of potions... the works. The Demonkeeper.

When I said I conjured up bread for breakfast, I meant that I literally was conjuring up bread. Dad had taught me the trick when I burned dinner one too many times. Magical bread was a little bland, but it beat trying to eat blackened brick of bread any day.

I walked the entire way to Helmsworth because conjuring bread was about all I could do. I wasn't the worker of arcane mystery that my father was. I couldn't make horses out of thin air or bring a wind strong enough to carry me. I wouldn't starve. I wouldn't get fat and lazy either.

So yeah, Dad was dead... and I was a little perplexed as to why. I was pretty sure I hadn't left a spell running, and the house hadn't been on fire per se... not unless you count weird green demonic flames. All I knew for sure was that he had shaken me awake, thrust his book into my arms, and lowered me down from a second story window. He shouted that he would catch up with me later just as his prize demon, Belgrasi, demolished the roof in a clear fit of rage while leaping into the sky.

Demons are kept bound with powerful incantations built on oaths manifested as 'chains.' Some were so strong they were bound with thousands of incantations. If ever let loose, they tended to be a little cranky . I mean wouldn't you be irate that someone had kept you tied and even gagged for their convenience for thousands of years? Belgrasi had been an heirloom, too. So he was pretty mad. I guess if he was going back home to The Pit, he was taking someone with him. My father just happened to be conveniently nearby, chanting new charms to bind Belgrasi back into obedience, so that probably made him it.

I'm ashamed to admit that I ran for my life. I should have stayed by my father's side. Belgrasi and I were friends - or so I thought. He had even babysat me a few times, and he had always been kind. But that thing rising up out of the flames of our house with shingles falling off his massive shoulders and leathery wings illuminated by the glow of his fiery wrath was no friend of mine.

Anyway. As part of his responsibilities, my father took a three month long tour every year to visit the local ruling classes to hear any complaints, dispel any relatives who would not stay quietly dead, or turn dangerous dragons into kittens. My father's duties would have brought him to Helmsworth a few times. That was probably how Gavin knew him. Which meant I was being carried to the governor's house, where I would have to make nice with Gavin's family and endure daily condolences and probably even a funeral party. Oh joy, to share your grief with perfect strangers.

Time for a change of subject. "How did you know who I was?" I asked, wiping tears from my eyes with a sleeve. "It's not like I was going around announcing who I was." I could see it now - me standing in the middle of the farmer's market shouting, "DEMONKEEPER'S DAUGHTER WANT DESERT!"

"We didn't," Gavin said in a matter-of-fact voice. We were told a nobleman's daughter had arrived like a common refugee, and Mother sent me to investigate. You could have been anybody."

I felt my eyes narrow on my carriage companion. "So you lied to me? Your family has no idea I'm coming home with you?"

"I sent someone ahead to let them know," Gavin said with a smile. "They're going to be overjoyed. So I'm pretty sure I wasn't lying."

More like assuming, I thought. I wasn't comfortable with the idea of imposing myself onto a house as a last minute surprise. Gavin looked too pleased with himself. He was practically preening as he looked out the window while trying not to stare at me. It should have come off as a little creepy, but strangely I didn't feel threatened at all.

We sat silently in the carriage as we were carried down the cobblestone streets and up the hill to the governor’s manor. The silence allowed me to get my emotions back in control. Riding in this familiar comfort allowed my recent trials to settle more firmly on my shoulders. I'm not afraid to admit it; I was pretty tired. I hadn't had a proper night's sleep since the accident and walking cross-country didn't help much. I literally could feel the exhaustion settle in my bone marrow, staking little flags and declaring my body for king and country. I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I knew, Gavin was gently shaking my shoulder to wake me.

I mumbled some apology or another and wiped the sleep from my eyes. He smiled sweetly and let me take my time getting out of the carriage. I looked around myself at the governor’s home.

It was your typical manor house of luxury with numerous windows, fancy gables, and more than two stories. Chimney stacks made their way across the roof  one after the other. I wasn't sure but I thought there might be a hedge maze in the back next to some sort of swimming pool. Nothing looked familiar, but I supposed it shouldn’t have.

"This way," Gavin said, taking my elbow and gently guiding me towards the front doors. They looked heavy and fit to hold back an army of undead. If that's what it took to make them feel safe, I thought to myself.

Before Gavin could reach the door handle, one of the doors swung open soundlessly. A gaunt looking man in black stood just inside to greet us. He bowed slightly while managing to simultaneously look down his nose at me. He smiled, and where it was meant to be a friendly smile it came off as false.

"Welcome home, master," the man said. "Please, sir, don't leave the young lady standing there. Let's get her inside."

“Reginald,” Gavin said as we stepped over the threshold, "I need a room prepared for my cousin here immediately. Find a maid about her size and have her some proper clothes prepared. I expect she’ll want to wash up and rest until it’s time for dinner.” He smiled at me again as if to reassure me. I tried very hard to smile back.

“Yes sir, but-“

“I’m sorry, Reginald, share any concerns you may have with me later. Mother! Father! Alethea is here! Hallooo!" Gavin walked away, calling loudly.

He didn't get far. Someone was approaching at almost a dead run with light footsteps. I could hear the swish of a waterfall of cloth. From around a nearby corner an elderly woman rushed in. Gavin stopped walking.

"Mother, this is Alethea," he started to say. The woman swept right by him and practically ran me over as she grasped me into a strong embrace. I was so shocked I froze.

The woman squeezed for a very long time. She sniffled quietly, and I realized that she was crying into my hair. Gently she pushed me away, keeping her hands on my shoulders. "Oh, look at you," she said with glistening green eyes full of tears. "You've gotten so big. You've gotten so beautiful. The last time I saw you, you still carried around that little doll and couldn't say the word spaghetti properly."

"I... " I didn't know how to react to this. I didn't know what to do. "Ma'am," I decided to resort to polite behavior in a desperate attempt to regain my composure. "I'm sorry but I don't know who you are."

"Posh!" the woman said. "None of that polite reserve nonsense. We're family, and we don't do that with family. I'm your Auntie Rose."

These people were very determined that I was part of their family. I couldn't decide if I should correct them before or after the dinner I was promised.

"Of course you won't remember me," Rose said with a heavy sigh. "But you will. We'll show you, so we shall!" With that oath, she drew herself up and titled her chin proudly. "You've found your family again, and that's what matters most."

"Where is Father?" Gavin asked, stepping forward a bit as a way to reclaim a spot in the conversation.

Rose waved one hand in the air. "Oh, you know your Father. He's off handling some... governor business or some such. Work work work, even when something as important as this is happening." She sighed again, clasping her hands in front of her abdomen. "I can't imagine what you've been through, my dear." Her attention had returned to me and only me.

"I'm fine, and I do thank you for your concern," I said politely. What did you say to someone like this? What did you talk about?

How did you get them to start talking about dinner already?

"I told you," Rose said. "We will have none of this overly polite business between us."

"I'm sure she's just overly fatigued," Gavin said, intentionally coming to my rescue. "Mother, she's family but we are little more than strangers to her. Perhaps we should talk after she's had a chance to rest."

His mother was the emotional sort, but she was also astute. She nodded. "I'm sorry, dear," she said to me. "I was so caught up in my own melodrama, I've been completely disregarding your feelings. Gavin is correct, of course.

"It's fine," I said, but I don't think I was heard.

"Reginald, please show my darling niece to her room. Help her to get settled properly, now! We must make her feel completely at home."

"Yes, Madame," Reginald said with a slight bow. Rose touched my cheek timidly, as if she couldn't quite believe I was there. "I'm going to find your uncle," she said to me. "He may work too much, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care. He's going to be happy you're here. Maybe even more than myself."

She excused herself, floating out of the room on her skirts like a fairy creature. Gavin bowed and followed her. This left me with Reginald, who I faced because I had nowhere else to turn. Behind me, the front door shut with a soft and ominous click. Reginald - who I realized must be the butler - swung his attention from watching his employers leave the room to directly on me.  I clasped my hands in front of me and stared him in the eye.

“This way,” he drawled.

He lead a fast pace that was hard to follow in my exhausted state, but I managed. I followed him up the stairs to the second floor, then down a hall filled with family portraits and forgotten works of art. His back was immense and silent, but I refused to feel small. I studied the house as we walked, making note of any escape routes or possible hiding places. Before I knew it he was opening a door and gesturing me inside.

"I'm sorry, but for now this room will have to do," he said coldly. "This is the room we usually reserve for your father, and it already has been prepared. When your father arrives, we'll simply have to put him somewhere else I suppose."

“Thank you,” I said tightly. "But, my father will not be coming."

Reginald the butler flared his nostrils at the news. I couldn't tell by his expression if he was happy or upset. He said, "A maid will be along soon, and I’ll have someone draw you up a bath. Will there be anything you need?”

“No, but thank you,” I murmured and started to close the door on him. I would have slammed it if I were any less polite. He bowed curtly. Just as he started to walk away, I called him back.

“I’m sorry to impose upon this house,” I said. “Please be assured I have nothing but good will by being here. I’m not even sure why I’m here, and as soon as I can I’ll be gone.”

“Well at least there’s that,” Reginald said with an especially nasal tone. “You and I both know who you really are, but I am not one to go against the wishes of any master of this house. So long as you remember who the real master here is and mind your manners, I think we’ll be able to tolerate one another.” And the sooner I was gone, the better. In fact, he would help me leave right now if there was a way to do it without Master Gavin downstairs raising any questions.

His back was turned to me and he was walking away before he had completely finished his last sentence. The hair on my neck bristled and my face flushed. I stepped out into the hall after him. “And who do you think I really am?” I spat after his retreating back.

He turned just enough to look at me. The profile of his nose was foreshadowed by the darkening gloom. I rather thought it looked like a vulture’s beak. “A problem,” he said. “The sickening product of a man’s ambition. The destruction of a family. And the harbinger of a blight upon our land. Have you ever been anything else?”

I could only stand there with my fists clinched in impotent rage as he continued his retreat from me. I wanted to shout at him, to curse his existence into a bubbling puddle soaking into the wood of the polished floor. What I did do was sputter to myself for a few minutes before going back into my room, closing the door softly behind me.