Bind the Soul by Annette Marie

  After the darkness outside, the white, brightly lit hallway blinded her. Zwi chirped urgently, rushing ahead. Piper followed, passing door after door. Windows revealed small rooms full of laboratory equipment and strange metal devices. One room was filled with shelves containing different kinds of collars. She ran past them. Another stairway. She charged down it.

  They reached the building’s main entrance. Zwi darted straight across the spacious, professional foyer. The building was empty of any signs of life. Piper glanced around nervously at the abandoned space. A sign directed clients to ring the bell on the reception desk for service. Since Chrysalis was a business—versus, say, the bastille—it made sense for the employees to go home at night.

  She followed Zwi out of the foyer. The bright, clinical halls were replaced by a dark, metal stairway leading down to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs was a security entrance. Piper slowed; the reinforced metal door was opened a crack. Zwi stopped in front it, teeth bared and mane standing on end.

  Piper pulled the gun from her belt, breathing hard from running. Weapon raised, she toed the door open and slid through. The dark hallway beyond was still and silent. She glanced around for a light switch. Nothing.

  “Damn it,” she whispered. She didn’t know how to make a light with magic and if she tried, the Sahar would probably blow up the hallway. “I guess we’ll have to go slow. Come on, Zwi.”

  The dragonet whined. Piper looked back. Zwi stood on the other side of the opened door, wings quivering and tail lashing with agitation. She paced along the line of the threshold and whined again.

  “Zwi? Come on.”

  Zwi sat in the middle of the doorway and mewled.

  “You can’t get through?” Piper swallowed hard. It must be warded. “Okay. I’ll get Ash. You wait for me here, okay?”

  Zwi whimpered. She laid her head on her front paws, staring at Piper with miserable gold eyes.

  Steeling herself, Piper set out by herself, moving as fast as she could through the dark. The glow from the Sahar cast just enough light to navigate. Gun raised and ready, she pushed open a metal door at the end of the hall. Silently, it swung open into a junction of sorts. A large desk filled half the room, a single lamp glowing above it. Several halls led off the room, conveniently labeled with large signs: Examination Rooms. Equipment and Supplies. Subject Occupancy.

  She rushed toward the third one. As she passed the end of the desk, something lightly struck her lower back.

  Pain exploded up her spine. She screamed as her body convulsed. She hit the floor, arms and legs jerking in a helpless seizure. The gun skittered across the floor. Something tapped her back between her shoulders. Agony slammed through her, lighting every nerve on fire. The scream that ripped out of her nearly tore her lungs.

  “Fancy seeing you here, Piper,” a female voice crooned delightedly. A boot hooked under Piper’s shoulder, turning her over. She squinted through her tears.

  Eisheth smiled at her, her red reaper eyes alight. She leaned forward and pressed her black rod against Piper’s stomach.

  Lightning blasted through her belly. She retched, choking on bile before managing to flip over to gag onto the floor. Blood dripped from her mouth as she gasped for air.

  “That hurt, didn’t it?” Eisheth purred. “How about this?” Her boot landed on Piper’s back, pinning her, and the tip of the rod dug into her lower spine.

  She screamed as blackness swept over her vision. Before she could pass out, Eisheth lifted the rod.

  “Tsk tsk. You can’t handle much, can you? Not even ten seconds. Pathetic. Ash can take that for five minutes before he blacks out.”

  Piper tried to figure out which way was up. Her head spun and her body ached. Her arms and legs barely responded.

  “Samael will be quite pleased with me for catching you. I figured you would come for Ash. Children are so easy to predict.”

  So Samael was still alive? Piper squeezed her eyes shut against the stabbing regret.

  “It was completely pointless, you know,” Eisheth went on with cruel humor. “You should have run for it. It’s too late for him. Ash isn’t worth saving now.”

  Piper’s throat constricted. She slowly drew one arm closer so she could push herself over onto her back.

  The rod jabbed her in the back again. She screamed and convulsed. Eisheth laughed, her good humor returning.

  “When I hand you and the Sahar over to Samael, he’ll be very pleased with me, don’t you think? Where’s the Sahar, Piper? I think I should remove it before we continue with your punishment. Ah, there it is.” She grabbed Piper’s wrist, twisting her arm around painfully, and tugged on the chain until it unraveled. She kicked Piper in the side, making her gasp. “Roll over, girl. I want to see your face.”

  Piper whimpered as she rolled onto her back.

  Eisheth swung her prize like a pendulum, smiling cattily. “You lose, little girl. Did you really think you could escape?”

  She swallowed to get some moisture into her throat. “Actually,” she rasped, “you lose.”

  She lifted her other hand. The Sahar flashed brightly, hanging on its chain from her other wrist.

  Eisheth’s eyes widened.

  Piper hooked her fingers and raked them through the air. White blades ripped through the air. Eisheth lacked Raum’s shielding skills. Piper flinched as blood splattered the desk and floor. She rolled onto her hands and knees, pulling herself together. Spotting a glint of silver, she crawled a few feet over and lifted Lilith’s pendant from the slowly spreading pool of red. Similar in size and shape, also silver, it did look a lot like the Sahar. Thankful that the room had been too dim to tell the difference, Piper tied the pendant back around her wrist and staggered to her feet.

  Covering her mouth with one hand, she approached Eisheth’s remains. There, on a chain around her neck, was a set of keys. Swallowing the need to gag, she yanked the keys free and backed away. Collecting her gun, she turned toward the entrance of the third hall.

  Somewhere down there, Ash was imprisoned. And there was a good chance it was already too late to save him.


  IT WAS a hallway of nightmares.

  Every door had a large window revealing its occupant. Probably for the sake of “scientific” observation. Their occupants would haunt Piper’s dreams for a long time to come. She didn’t want to know what horrible experiments were being conducted on them. How long they’d been there. What they’d done to deserve such a terrible fate, if they’d done anything at all.

  She had no choice but to look in each window as she jogged down the hall: A man with some kind of metal contraption in the place of his left arm, the wires glowing with bright blue magic. A girl with tubes sticking out of her body, an iridescent gold liquid flowing through them. By the fifth window, the horrible sights were blurring in her mind. She kept going, ignoring her shaking hands and trembling knees. Her back and stomach still hurt from Eisheth’s attacks, the pain a welcomed distraction. The Sahar glowed faintly, but the awful split feeling in her head had lessened.

  With each room she checked, the edges of panic sharpened. She stopped in front of the last window and stared at the daemon on a metal hospital bed; wires that crackled with electricity ran from his body to machinery. Ash wasn’t there. He wasn’t there. She’d already been in the building for way too long. Now what? He had to be here somewhere. Eisheth’s presence had confirmed it. But where?

  She turned away from the window and pressed both hands to her face for a brief moment. As she dropped them, the glowing Sahar swung on its chain and its light caught on a shiny metal edge. Piper stepped closer to the end of the hall—an obvious dead end.

  Or not.

  Tucked in the shadows was one last door—solid, uninterrupted steel with a massive, locking deadbolt.

  She shook out the keys she’d taken from Eisheth and picked the largest one. The lock clacked loudly. She slid the bolt across and, heart pounding, cracked the door open. A narrow strip of l
ight from the hallway cut into the empty room beyond.

  Empty except for Ash.

  He sat against the far wall, shoulders hunched, head hanging forward. As the light fell across him, he slowly raised his head. His eyes—two black pits of hate—met hers.

  She swallowed hard, searching for a sign of recognition. Of sentience. Scabbed wounds from a lash or whip crisscrossed his bare chest. Dried blood ran from under the heavy collar around his neck. Dark bruises stained one side of his jaw.

  Taking deep, steadying breaths, she pushed the door wide open and cautiously stepped into the room. Her heart pounded, urging her to hurry, but she didn’t dare rush. Ash watched her, his face an emotionless mask, his eyes black as ever. Something was clearly missing from his stare. The wolf-like intensity was the same, but she’d never seen him—or any daemon—so deeply shaded. Was Vejovis right? Had the collar driven Ash into madness? Fighting panic as she tried to figure out what to do, she stepped closer.

  He lunged for her.

  She bit back a scream as she jerked away. He hit the end of the chain that connected his manacles to the wall and snapped back. A low, tearing snarl ripped from his chest as he bared his teeth at her. Adrenaline pounded through her. He’d moved so fast. One second he’d been on the floor, and the next, he was going for her throat.

  “Ash?” she said softly. She swallowed and tried again, more firmly. “Ash?”

  He lurched for her again. The chain snapped taut, yanking him half a step back. He growled around the metal gag. His eyes stayed locked on hers, too intense, too empty, too black.

  Her knees gave out as despair swept through her. She sat hard on the floor, tears spilling over to steam down her cheeks. She pressed both hands to her face and stopped fighting the hopelessness and terror. Emotions swamped her and sobs shook her shoulders.

  “Why did you give up?” she cried, pressing her hands hard to her face. “I told you to hold on. Why didn’t you wait for me?”

  He slowly sank into a crouch, leveling his stare with hers. He didn’t react to her words. Lost. Unreachable. Nothing but wild, raging daemon left. Her heart twisted in her chest, rending itself apart. She couldn’t just sit there. Seiya was waiting for her—for both of them. She gathered her strength.

  Surging into motion, she leaped up and jumped him. He fell into the wall as she grabbed the straps of the metal gag and held his head still so she could glare at him. He growled, but with his hands chained and her sitting on his knees, there wasn’t much he could do.

  “Come back,” she told him furiously, jerking hard on the straps.

  Blood ran down his chin as the metal bit cut his mouth. She instantly regretted adding to his pain.

  “Ash!” His name ended in a strangled sob as she fought not to cry again.

  She slumped forward until her forehead touched his shoulder, tears streaking her cheeks. She would have to leave him. If she unchained him, he would attack her. She couldn’t escape with him. He was too strong to control.

  Her fingers dug into his biceps in desperate denial. If she were a real friend . . . if she really cared . . . she would kill him. End his suffering. Free him in the only way she could before Samael enacted some other horrifying punishment on him. Choking on a sob, she imagined how easy it would be. All she had to do was hold the Sahar and swipe her fingers through the air. He would die as fast as Eisheth had. Just . . . bloody pieces on the floor. Hysteria threatened to overwhelm her. She couldn’t do it. She knew she couldn’t.

  She gasped for breath, trying to calm down. She had to pull herself together. Seiya was waiting. The least Piper could do for Ash was make sure his sister got away. That’s all he’d ever truly wanted—to protect the only family he had left. Seiya needed Piper and the Stone to escape Hades, if it wasn’t already too late.

  As she released a shuddering exhalation, she realized Ash’s breaths were coming fast and harsh. His chest rose and fell rapidly, moving her with each harsh inhale. She lifted her head.

  His head was tilted back, resting against the wall as he sucked in air. Tension made the tendons in his neck stand out sharply. He gradually tensed under her, muscles bunching and quivering. Alarmed, she rose to her knees and grabbed his head, pulling his face down.

  His face was twisted, teeth bared . . . but this time in pain. He stared sightlessly at the ceiling, eyes glassy and distant—eyes that were a lucid, stormy-gray.

  “Ash?” she gasped.

  His eyelids flickered. He groaned quietly, the sound catching in the back of his throat. Hope and panic twisted her gut. She pulled his head onto her shoulder and fumbled with the buckle at the back of the gag. Ash slumped into her, his weight almost pushing her over. She jerked at the stiff leather until the end came loose. Gently pushing him back against the wall, she slid the cruel gag out of his mouth.

  His eyes opened halfway. “Piper,” he breathed.

  “Ash,” she choked. She grabbed him around the neck and hugged him hard. “I thought you were lost.”

  “Me too,” he whispered. His breath came faster. She leaned back, terror gripping her as his eyes glazed even as they paled closer to their normal gray. The pain from the collar still tormented him.

  “Hold on, Ash. You can hold on.” She yanked Eisheth’s keys from her pocket. Shifting beside him, she fumbled around until she fit a key into the manacle on his left wrist. It popped off and hit the steel floor with a loud clank. She unlocked the other one.

  “Come on, Ash. Let’s get out of here.” She crouched beside him and pulled his arm over her shoulders. “Please, Ash.”

  Soft sounds of pain escaped him with each ragged breath. He gathered himself and she heaved him up. He staggered into her. They shuffled three steps before his legs gave out. She cried out as he fell to his knees.

  “I can’t . . . I can’t do it,” he rasped, barely able to stay sitting. “Go, Piper. Just go.”

  She grabbed his jaw and forced his eyes to hers. They were hazy with pain and fading consciousness. “Ash, you are not giving up. Do you hear me? I won’t let you!”

  A spasm of adrenaline made her fingers twitch, her nails biting into his cheek. A shadow slid across his eyes and he straightened abruptly. She immediately let go, opening her mouth to apologize—and then she figured it out.

  “Ash, you have to shade again.”

  “What?” he asked blurrily.

  “You handle pain better when you’re shaded, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” he croaked.

  “Shade again. Otherwise we’ll never get out of here.”

  His shoulders hunched. His whole body trembled. “Can’t. I’ll hurt you.”

  “You didn’t hurt me before.”

  He breathed in sharp gasps, fighting to stay aware. “You . . . got lucky.”

  “Stop arguing and do it!”

  He listed to one side. She grabbed his arm and pulled him upright.

  “Do it, Ash. I’m not leaving without you, so you have nothing to lose.”

  Resignation slid across his features. He exhaled—and his eyes flashed to black so fast she realized how hard he’d been working not to shade while she was beside him.

  “Finally,” she said.

  A low growl rumbled in his chest. Adrenaline surged as she wondered if maybe he didn’t have the ability to stay out of the shaded red-zone anymore.

  “Let’s go.” She pushed to her feet—and he flowed to his just as quickly and far more fluidly. Oh shit. “Ash?”

  He studied her with lethal, wolf-like intensity. She swallowed hard and straightened her spine. “This way.”

  She started to turn toward the door and saw his muscles tense—as though he were getting ready to attack.

  She whipped back to face him. His lips curled in a silent snarl. With a deep breath, she backed toward the door. He let her get two steps away before he melted into motion after her. She backed into the hallway, only taking her eyes off his to sneak rapid glances at where she was going. He followed her every move, keeping the same two-ste
p distance between them—exactly the right distance to make an attack or an evasion equally effective. He was one-hundred-percent in predator mode.

  She backtracked in an awkward trot down the hall and out into the room with the desk. Ash only looked away from her to glance at the bloody mess that had previously been his torturer. He didn’t seem to care as his stare returned to Piper. He prowled after her, each step calculated, constrained violence in motion.

  He stalked her to the security door. She glanced around and saw Zwi, wings plastered tightly against her body. She made no sound as they reached her. Instead, she nervously backed away from her master. Piper mentally cringed. If Zwi was afraid, maybe Ash was even more shaded than she’d thought.

  Up the stairs, through the dark halls, and out into the sleek, wide-open foyer. As Piper backed past the reception desk, Zwi let out a warning trill. A moment later, Piper heard a jumble of approaching voices.

  She swore and scanned the room. Beside the reception desk was a filing cabinet. A potted tree filled the gap between the cabinet and the nearby wall. With a wild look at Ash, Piper ran for the cabinet.

  As she’d feared, as soon as her back was turned, he lunged for her.

  He barely missed her as she slid across the tiled floor and grabbed the plant. Shoving it out of the way, she backed into the gap between the cabinet and the wall. Ash came up short as he reached her, hesitating as his attention turned toward the voices. She reached out and grabbed his arm, heaving him into the gap with her.

  For a second, he crushed her against the wall and she thought he would kill her on the spot. His hands clamped below her ribcage, biting into soft flesh before loosening to just shy of painful. She turned so her back was to the wall with his to the cabinet, then grabbed the tree and slid it in front of them as a whole squad of black-uniformed guards came around the corner from some other part of the building.

  Ash appeared to forget about her as he watched the guards gather in the middle of the room. One began calling orders, splitting the group to search multiple wings. Piper’s heart pounded as she tried to keep still, hardly daring to breathe. The seconds ticked by, their precious time wasting away. A few of the guards were standing dangerously close to the reception desk. She leaned slightly to the side to catch a better glimpse, hoping they weren’t looking her way.

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