Bind the Soul by Annette Marie

  Vejovis looked up as they ran up to him. “I’ve partially disabled the collar,” he said gruffly. “It will take more time than we have right now to get it off without damaging him. I know of a safe place that’s not too far.”

  Piper nodded tersely, glancing at Ash. He was unconscious, the collar still glowing faintly around his neck. The dragons shifted closer, ready to carry them to safety.

  She almost looked back at the other side of the canyon—but checked herself. Samael wasn’t worth a last glance. Determined, she helped Vejovis lift Ash onto Zwi’s back. She wasn’t yet relieved by their escape. She wouldn’t feel any relief until she knew, for sure, that Ash would be okay.

  . . .

  Piper sat in front of the leaping flames, trying hard to stay awake as the heat bathed her face. Seiya sat beside her, as rigid as Piper was wearily slumped. A single blanket was pulled over them, keeping their backs warm while they huddled in front of the small fireplace. Their hideaway was a tiny log cabin deep in the mountains surrounding Asphodel, probably some kind of forgotten guard post. They were still within Hades territory, but it was as safe a place as any.

  The downside of their high altitude was the cold. Only the roaring fire made it bearable. Piper suspected some of her shivering was more from exhaustion than the temperature, but she still would have traded the Sahar for a warm pair of pants. Leggings were not mountain appropriate. Nor were off-the-shoulder t-shirts.

  Even in her sheer, long-sleeved shirt and red camisole, Seiya wasn’t fazed, but then daemons were hardier than haemons and humans by a fair stretch.

  Piper and the draconian girl hadn’t spoken much since arriving at the cabin. Only when they’d finally gotten the fire going had Seiya spoken about anything besides the immediate tasks at hand.

  “So how do you know my brother?” she’d queried.

  The question seemed casual enough, but the girl’s blue eyes had been sharp.

  Piper sighed. As briefly as she could, she described the events that had begun with Ash as an intimidating, infrequent interloper of the Consulate and had ended with him as a friend for whom she would risk everything to save.

  Seiya listened in silence, nodding occasionally. “I see. Thank you for trying to find him.”

  She and Seiya had fallen silent after that, lost in their own thoughts. Every few minutes, they would glance over their shoulders. Against the opposite wall in the one-room cabin was a simple double bed where Ash lay unconscious while Vejovis worked on unraveling the collar’s magic. Minutes slipped by, becoming hours. Despite her exhaustion, Piper didn’t sleep. Didn’t even try. She wouldn’t until she knew.

  One of the Underworld’s two suns was peeking over the mountains when a soft footstep made Piper look up from the fire. Vejovis walked around their low, crude bench and sank cross-legged to the floor beside the fireplace. In each hand, he held one half of the collar. He looked at the pieces, then threw them into the fire.

  “As long as Ash has suffered no permanent mental trauma,” he said, his deep voice hoarse with exhaustion, “he should be fine.”

  “Thank you,” Seiya said, the words hushed with relief.

  Vejovis nodded. “I couldn’t fully heal his other wounds; he doesn’t have the physical strength to endure it right now. But I healed them enough. As long as he’s careful, he should be fit again within a week. He’ll need a lot of rest and food.”

  Piper and Seiya both nodded earnestly. They glanced in unison at Ash, almost hidden beneath the rest of the blankets, face pale and cheeks hollow.

  Vejovis shook his head ruefully, looking toward Ash as well. “He has the constitution of a bear. He’s remarkably healthy, all things considered. The superficial wounds should heal fairly quickly. The two cracked ribs are mended but it will take a while longer before the bones return to their full strength again, especially the broken ankle.”

  Piper felt lightheaded. “His ankle was broken? He—I didn’t even realize . . .”

  “I think it broke four or five weeks ago, then broke again a day or two ago. Probably for the best as it wasn’t healing well without a cast or splint. I’ve mended the bone now.”

  She stared at nothing. Five weeks ago, he had been limping after his battle with the choronzon outside the Gaian’s headquarters. His ankle must have gotten broken in that fight and he’d gone all this time without proper care for it.

  “It honestly amazes me what that daemon can survive,” Vejovis murmured. “This is the third time I’ve healed him while he’s been on death’s doorstep.”

  “He’s tough,” Seiya said quietly. “That’s how he’s survived Samael all these years.”

  “I’ve always wondered why Samael didn’t kill him,” Vejovis admitted.

  “Because so few of us are left,” she said. “Eliya and Ezran, they were brothers. They were killed two years ago in the Black Valley War. Nir was assassinated by the Ras while on a mission on Earth last winter. Yaron was poisoned somehow. We don’t even know how. He died in early spring. That leaves Raum and Ash as the last adult male draconians. Kiev and Sivan are too young; they’re still being trained.”

  Staring into the fire, she tapped a finger thoughtfully against her bottom lip. “Of the females, Coby is pregnant and Ivria has had three miscarriages in a row. Raum is cousins with the other three. I haven’t been bred yet, mostly because the only option is Raum, and Ash would kill him if he touched me.”

  Piper stared, floored by Seiya’s matter-of-fact tone. Miysis had scoffed at the idea of Samael breeding an army of captive draconians. Either Samael was very good at keeping secrets, or other daemons didn’t want to believe the worst of Samael—though they seemed more than happy to believe the worst of draconians.

  Seiya focused again. “Samael counts on draconian soldiers to pull off his most dangerous, suicidal missions, and for the politically sensitive assignments where he can wiggle out of the blame if a draconian is caught instead of a reaper. There used to be a lot more of us here, but Samael has fought too many wars in the past few decades. He can’t breed us fast enough to keep up with the death rate.”

  Vejovis’s expression was grim. “If Samael is struggling to rebuild his forces, I can understand why free draconians stay well and far away from Hades territory.”

  Seiya nodded. “Yes, Samael and his predecessors used to do that quite often—capture ‘wild’ draconians. Our free cousins stay far away. Especially after what happened with Ash’s father.”

  Piper leaned forward. “His father?”

  Seiya nodded. “He was the last wild draconian Samael caught. Part of the Hades army stumbled on a colony of draconians living in a secluded valley. While the rest of them fled, Ash’s father faced the entire army alone to buy them time to escape. I think he intended to die fighting, but the sheer number of soldiers wore him down and they took him alive.”

  She smiled faintly. “Ash’s father was a menace. He killed guards and jailors left and right. He broke every collar they put on him; Ash inherited that ability.”

  “It is a rare skill,” Vejovis said.

  Seiya nodded. “They only managed to breed him to our mother by drugging him senseless then bringing in a succubus to add aphrodisia magic. He maimed the succubus afterward, or so I’ve heard. At that point, Samael locked him up, hoping to wear down his resistance until he was docile enough to be bred again. But it didn’t work. Six months after capturing him, Samael had him executed.”

  Vejovis exhaled. “What was his name?”

  “We don’t know,” Seiya whispered. “He never told anyone. But he did tell our mother what to name Ash, only a few days before he was killed. Whether he was even sane at that point . . .” She shrugged. “Either way, Mother always said Ash is very much like his father.”

  Piper dragged her eyes off Seiya and stared into the fire, the story swimming through her mind. Five hundred years ago, the Taroth family had rivaled the Hades family in power until the Hades family had wiped them out. It was common knowledge that the Taroth bloodli
ne had been extinct for several generations. And yet, Ash’s mysterious father had given Ash the Taroth name. Had it been wishful thinking on the part of a dying man? Or had Ash’s father really been a Taroth descendent passing on his name to his son?

  “So, um.” Piper stared determinedly into the flames. “Did Samael have Ash . . . breed . . . any of the draconian women?”

  “He tried,” Seiya replied with a kind of hard pride, “but he could never make Ash cooperate.”

  “Oh. That’s good.”

  Seiya shrugged. “I was beaten to punish Ash every time he refused but I didn’t mind because I knew how much it mattered to him.”

  Piper opened and closed her mouth, feeling like an insensitive jerk. “So Samael kept you locked in that building while he tried to find a draconian to—to—”

  “To breed me?” she finished unflinchingly. “No, not entirely. Samael uses female draconians on some assignments as well—not the same kind as the males though.” She shrugged and touched her dark hair, the red tint almost invisible. “He thought I might be useful because I don’t look as draconian as the others. I was in training until I was thirteen. He didn’t start locking me up all the time until after . . . after our failed escape.”

  Vejovis sighed, perhaps regretting his choice from years ago.

  “Samael decided he had to keep me under guard at all times if he intended to keep control of Ash. So I spent most of my time in the draconian compound while Samael was home, but as soon as he left Asphodel, he’d take me along. Otherwise, he knew he might come back to find both Ash and me gone. To be safe, he sent Ash away on as many assignments as possible. I’ve barely seen him in the last two years.” Her gaze drifted toward the bed where her brother slept.

  Piper pressed a hand to her stomach. She kind of felt like throwing up. She remembered Lyre telling her once that she was looking out a window thinking she could see the whole world. Well, there was no window now. The whole wall had been blown open, offering a perspective that made her sick with her own narrow-minded naivety. It seemed ridiculous for her to have been in tears because her father wanted to send her to a safe, fancy boarding school, when Seiya and Ash had spent every day fighting to survive. Piper had barely made it through four days as Samael’s prisoner. Seiya and Ash had endured it their whole lives.

  Vejovis let out a slow breath and rose wearily to his feet. “I must take my leave now,” he told them.

  Piper suppressed a surge of fear. She didn’t want him to go; their escape wasn’t complete.

  “I’ve cloaked this site in enough wards to keep Samael’s searchers away for another twenty-four hours. Let Ash sleep as long as possible before you move on, but don’t wait too long.”

  “Can’t you stay?” Piper said hesitantly. “How will we get out of the Underworld?”

  “Ash will know how to get you back to Earth,” Vejovis said, a hint of apology in his voice. “I cannot stay any longer. I can take you back with me if you’d prefer not to wait.”

  Piper glanced at Ash, prone on the bed. “No, I’ll stay.”

  He nodded.

  “We’ll be fine,” Seiya said. “Thank you, Vejovis.”

  Piper pushed the blanket off and stood. “Yes, thank you, Vejovis.”

  Before she could chicken out, she stepped forward and gave the daemon a tight hug around the middle. He seemed startled, but gave her a gentle squeeze back.

  “Take care, Piper,” he said. “And be careful with the Sahar. It’s far more dangerous than you realize.”

  She met his somber stare. “I think I got a glimpse of that earlier.”

  He nodded. After a final check on Ash, he bid them goodbye and slipped out into the chilly morning. Piper watched him go, nerves twisting in her belly. They were on their own—again.

  Seiya came to stand beside her, the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “Why don’t you sleep? You look ready to pass out.”

  She was. “What about you?”

  “I slept the night before last. I’ll be fine for a while yet.”

  “Well . . . Yeah, I could use some rest.”

  Seiya nodded. “I know Vejovis said he warded this place, but I think I’ll keep watch anyway. Just in case.”

  Zwi and Zala were already patrolling outside but upon seeing the hardness in her face, Piper knew Seiya wasn’t taking any chances with her newfound freedom. She nodded as the girl followed Vejovis out the wooden door, shutting it quietly behind her. Silence but for the crackling of the fire enveloped the small room. Heaving a sigh, Piper turned toward the bed.

  Ash lay on his back, blankets pulled up to his chin. He was still so pale. Piper sat on the edge of the bed and slid the covers down to check his neck. The only sign left by the collar was a ring of pink skin where the burn had been healed. She slid the blankets down a little farther and saw that the lash-like slices on his chest had been healed to red-rimmed lines. Blood still smeared his skin and had dried on the side of his face and in his hair.

  Ignoring the heaviness of her eyelids and her aching head, Piper went over to a small barrel of rainwater she and Seiya had brought in earlier. Locating a hand towel in the closet, she wet it with water and returned to Ash. She carefully cleaned the dried blood from his face and torso. He didn’t even stir.

  Finished, she rinsed out the towel and laid it to dry in front of the fire. Then, shaking with exhaustion, she pulled off the painful hiking boots, crawled over Ash to the roomier half of the bed, and slid under the covers.

  For a full minute, she shivered on the far side of the bed, unable to throw off enough body heat to warm the chilled blankets. Giving up, she scooched over and tucked herself against Ash’s warm side. Snuggling in, she hugged his arm against her chest and closed her eyes.

  Safe . . . for now. She savored the realization. A moment later, she was asleep.

  . . .

  Piper stirred, waking groggily. For a long minute, she wondered what had woken her. The fire snapped, crackling loudly. She lifted her head and squinted at her surroundings. The room was colder than before, but three large logs were just starting to catch in the fireplace. Seiya must have come in to build up the fire.

  Piper sank back into the bed, burrowing under the covers and wiggling in closer to Ash. The sky beyond the small window was oddly dim, too bright for dusk yet too dark for cloud cover. The dark shape in the sky was the silhouetted planet eclipsing one of the two suns that lit the Underworld. Settling back down, she closed her eyes. Every muscle ached. Her thoughts drifted, sliding back into sleep.

  One of the new logs in the fire popped like a gunshot. Piper started violently—and so did Ash.

  He jerked halfway up with a gasp. In almost the same motion, he rolled, coming down on top of her. She caught a glimpse of his black eyes and wild expression before he grabbed her by the throat.

  “Ash—” His name ended in a gargle as his fingers cut off her air.

  He stilled. Recognition flickered in his eyes and he jerked his hand away. She gasped in a breath. He blinked rapidly, then raised his head, looking one way then the other. Slowly, the shadows in his eyes lifted. One elbow braced on either side of her, he didn’t move, expression wary as he surveyed their surroundings.

  “Ash,” she whispered. “It’s okay. You’re safe.”

  He looked at her. His gray eyes, clear and bright, not hazed with suffering or torment, was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen.

  “Piper?” he mumbled. His gaze flicked back across the room. “Where . . .?”

  “A safe place,” she told him soothingly. “We’re safe here for hours yet. Seiya is here too.”

  His gaze flashed back to her.

  “She’s outside. We did it, Ash.” She smiled encouragingly. “We escaped.”

  He stared at her, breathing in and out with careful precision. Then his eyes closed and he sank down, half on top of her, and hid his face in the crook of her neck and shoulder. The muscles in his arms bunched with whatever emotion he didn’t want her to see. Understandi
ng his need for a private moment, she slid her arms around him, winding one hand into his hair. She gently combed her fingers through it.

  Notch by notch, the tension released from his muscles. He exhaled slowly as he settled into the bed again. She swallowed hard, continuing to stroke the back of his neck in an attempt to relax him. She tried not to show any signs of how hyper-aware she was of him lying partly on top of her, one arm across her middle, their legs tangled together. His body, warm against hers, was way too reminiscent of the way he’d pressed her into the wall as his mouth moved over her neck.

  She swallowed again. Better to not think about that.

  Another sigh slid from him, his breath warming her bare shoulder. She closed her eyes, reveling in the knowledge that he was okay. He was safe. After five weeks of worrying, she could finally relax.

  His fingers brushed her arm, sending a wave of gooseflesh across her skin. He rubbed his thumb over her shoulder.

  “I owe you big,” he mumbled.

  She smiled at the mix of gratitude and reluctance in his voice. “Considering how many times you’ve saved me, I’d say we’re even.”

  “No . . . I don’t think we are.”

  His voice gave her shivers as it slid down to her bones. She covered her reaction with a little shrug, not wanting to argue. She was more focused on his thumb tracing tingly little circles on her shoulder.

  “Are you sure Seiya is outside?” he asked, sounding worried. The words came out thick; he was starting to drift off again already.

  “Yes. She was in here a minute ago putting more wood on the fire.”


  She shifted slightly, dying to ask what he remembered from their escape, because she didn’t know what those little circles meant. She suspected he didn’t even realize he was doing it.

  As soon as she moved, his head lifted. He made a sleepy, apologetic noise and started to move off her. Without thinking, she tightened her arms like a vice and yanked him back down. He made a surprised oomph as she squashed him against her.

  Her cheeks heated. “It’s cold,” she said quickly, loosening her grip just as fast.

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