UNEDITED EXCERPT. Confidential. Unrevised and unpublished proof. Please do not quote until verified with finished book.

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He put out a trembling hand, his fingers awkward as he gripped the much-worn corner of the page and turned it. New words, new precise lines of written magic glared up at him. These were both harsher and more confident than the first page. The power of the spell grew with every line he read.

Hours or minutes or mere seconds passed. It hardly mattered. He fell into a rhythm almost like a dance. A dance of magic whirling in his soul. He gathered the energies to himself and sent them out again, and with every beat, every give and take, his heart stuttered, and he wondered if tonight would be the night his mortal body finally broke under the strain.

Shadows deepened along the edges of the room, pooling together. They gathered in a mass, crept across the floor, crawled over the basin, trailing through the pool of oil, causing ripples where there should be stillness. They closed in on the mage at his desk and mounded together before shooting out tendrils to climb his chair, to snake up his legs and wind around his waist.

He gasped. Knifelike protrusions cut through the thick fabric of his robe, slicing into his skin. But he could not be distracted, he could not be swayed from his purpose. With a grimace, he bowed closer to the book and read on. Shadow thorns wound round his neck, crawled through his beard, his hair, and pulled at his hood until it fell back across his shoulders. The perfume of roses intensified.

She was there. Standing just at his back. Her hands gripped his shoulders, fingers digging through flesh down to the bone.

Let me visit you tonight, my love.

Her voice was sweet, poisonous. His skin prickled at her breath against his ear, at the warmth of soft, rose-petal lips teasing gently at his earlobe. The sensation was almost enough to distract from the thorns biting into his flesh.

You are lonely. I can feel it. Let me come to you. Let me care for you, satisfy you. What am I but your most perfect dream come true?

Her hands moved from his shoulders, sliding down to pull at the front laces of his shirt, parting the fabric. Her fingers reached inside, tearing his skin, lacing his body with pain. But through the pain, he felt the delight she promised, and his body responded with a pulse of need that shamed him.