Bind the Soul by Annette Marie


  He obligingly reached back and found the top edge of the blanket. Pulling it back over them, he tucked it around her exposed shoulder. He adjusted the blanket to cover his bare back—she was trying really hard to ignore his shirtless condition—before carefully sliding an arm under her. He wrapped the other one around her and pulled her gently into the circle of his arms.

  Heart pounding, she turned into him, arms tucked between them, wonderfully warm. She hesitantly let her hands rest on his chest, fingers brushing his collarbones. He turned his head, resting his cheek on the top of her hair as he settled in. Feeling his whole body relax around her nearly made her dizzy.

  His arms tightened for a heartbeat, pulling her closer.

  “You saved my life, Piper,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

  She slid one hand up to touch his neck where the collar had burned him. “Sorry I took so long.”

  He made a quiet, annoyed sound. “No apologizing.”

  She huffed a laugh. Her heart continued to race. His face was so close. All she had to do was tip her head up. Just lift her head and she would find out whether he remembered that moment when he’d pinned her so ruthlessly, but touched her with such gentleness—and what it had meant.

  Hesitation chained her. What if he didn’t remember? Or worse, what if it hadn’t meant anything? What if it had simply been shaded instincts and hormones? But what if it did mean something? Did she even want that? Daemons were off limits. Nothing would change that.

  She drew in a deep breath—and realized that during the two minutes she’d spent agonizing over it, his breathing had evened out. He was asleep.

  Chance lost—she hadn’t made a decision anyway—she let herself relax. Her eyelids grew heavy. She fought it, wanting to enjoy their closeness, knowing it would end far too soon.

  Her body’s needs won out and she slid helplessly back into sleep.

  CHAPTER 14

  PIPER sat on a log outside the cabin in the cold evening air, watching Seiya pace. The girl was so petite and delicate that Piper wouldn’t have imagined she could look intimidating.

  But she was looking pretty intimidating now.

  Piper had forgotten about Seiya’s “emergency escape backpack,” but Seiya had held onto it throughout their entire escape. Not only were food and other necessities stashed inside it, but clothes for both her and Ash. Not just any clothes, though.

  Fitted, black leather hugged Seiya’s legs before disappearing under her boots, which, though stylish at first glance, had steel toes and plates hidden in the top halves for protection when kicking armored opponents. Her black top was a strange, heavy material that fit snugly all the way up to the base of her throat. The sleeves fit tightly over her arms, falling past her wrists and over the backs of her hands, where a loop of material over her ring finger held them in place. She wore fingerless fighting gauntlets with steel plates on the knuckles that covered her forearms.

  Her long, dark hair was pulled into a high ponytail. The red strip of silk she wore, twin to Ash’s, formed the tie. She had a sword on one hip, a gun on the other, and assorted daggers strapped to her thighs.

  Piper sighed wistfully, missing her own weapons. She still had one of Seiya’s guns and a dagger on her borrowed belt, but she was comparatively unprepared.

  Seiya threw another impatient glance at the door to the cabin. “How long does it take to get dressed?”

  Piper said nothing. Ash wasn’t just getting dressed, he was using the last of their water to get clean for the first time in—well, probably a while. Piper hadn’t noticed anything beyond the dried blood but he was probably in need of a good washing. After spending the majority of the last four days beside an open sewer, she didn’t have much sense of smell left.

  Almost on cue, the door opened and Ash stepped out.

  Piper swallowed. If Seiya looked intimidating, Ash looked downright menacing. His clothing was nearly identical to what Raum usually wore. Black pants similar to fatigues and a snug, sleeveless black shirt. Over the shirt was a sort of flexible black leather vest, probably plated with armor, with leather armguards protecting his forearms from knuckles to elbows. A black wrap like Raum’s hung around his neck, ready to be pulled over the lower half of his face.

  The thick belt circling his hips held two short swords with straps looped around his thighs to keep the sheaths from bouncing around. He wore no other visible weapons, but that didn’t mean he had none. The one time she’d gotten a good look at him without his glamour, he’d been holding a huge curved sword. The sheath had been strapped to him, along with a dozen other weapons that he somehow hid with glamour. She had no idea how it worked.

  A week ago, the sight of him approaching, each step flowing with subtle, intrinsic threat, would have had her heart pounding with nervous tension. But that was before she’d seen him, and faced him, in his darkest and most dangerous state of mind. Now she watched him approach with her heart pounding for a completely different reason. Strength and power radiated from him, the decisive determination she’d come to admire during their struggles five—almost six—weeks ago.

  Seeing that look in his eyes, she figured he would be fine. Vejovis had been uncertain whether the weeks of torture had caused Ash any permanent damage, but it sure didn’t look like it.

  As he strode out the door, Zwi appeared on the roof of the building and leaped, landing on his shoulder and trilling happily. Seiya turned toward her brother, flashing him a tight smile. Piper rose to her feet, trying to get a grip before someone noticed her swooning.

  “Are you ready?” he asked.

  She nodded.

  Seiya folded her arms. “Where are we going?”

  Piper’s breath caught. Ash had only been awake for a little under two hours. Somehow, between the emotional sibling reunion and worried discussion about how close Samael’s scouts might be, they hadn’t discussed their actual destination.

  “Out of Hades territory,” Ash answered. “Back to Earth.”

  “To the Consulate,” Piper specified. Her father and uncle were probably wondering when her body would turn up.

  “Then what?” Seiya pressed. “We need to vanish before Samael catches our trail. Do you have any idea where we can go?”

  “I already have some places prepared on Earth. They’re secure.”

  Seiya nodded.

  Piper worked to keep her expression neutral even though her guts were twisting. She hadn’t planned beyond rescuing Ash and getting him out of the Underworld. Of course Ash and Seiya would need to go into hiding. Samael wouldn’t just ignore them now that they’d successfully slipped from his clutches.

  She’d only just got Ash back. She didn’t want to lose him again so quickly. It wasn’t like he could come visit once he went underground.

  His gaze slid toward her. “You should consider coming with us, Piper,” he said.

  Her mouth fell open. “What? Why?”

  His eyebrows rose. He used one finger to give the neckline of her shirt a small tug where the Sahar was tucked out of sight.

  “Because you’re the only one who can use the Sahar, remember?” He gave her a thoughtful look. “Can you use it again if we need it?”

  She shook her head. “That’s not a good idea.”

  “Why not?”

  “Um . . .” She pulled it out of her shirt and rolled it between her fingers. It felt like a heavy, cool bit of silver, but only because she wasn’t thinking any violent thoughts. “Are lodestones supposed to be sort of—alive?”

  Silence met her question. Ash and Seiya stared at her.

  “Lodestones are just stones,” Ash finally said. “Pulling power out of them is difficult at first, but not because the stone is resisting in a sentient way. It’s similar to breaking in leather boots. You have to wear a mental path to the power in the lodestone. Once the path is made, the lodestone is simple to use.”

  “I didn’t wear any mental paths,” Piper said, having no idea what that even entailed. “I—Look, I know this sounds
crazy, but I never really used the Sahar. All those attacks . . . the Sahar was doing it, not me.”

  Ash and Seiya exchanged glances.

  “That’s not possible,” Seiya said. “You were the one using it. You directed the magic with gestures like most magicians using battle spells do. Whatever attack you were thinking of, you subconsciously created.”

  Piper licked her lips. “It’s more than that.”

  “Piper . . .” Ash hesitated. “I think it seemed like something else because you’ve never used magic before and suddenly you had access to an unlimited source.”

  That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be, because if it hadn’t been the Sahar, then all that bloodthirsty violence had come from her.

  “It messes with my head, Ash,” she whispered. “It made me crazy. By the end, I couldn’t control it at all.”

  Ash met her gaze, studying her.

  “Power corrupts, Piper,” Seiya said, surprisingly kind. “Normally you would come into your power in stages. So much at once is going to do things to your mind.”

  She shook her head. It couldn’t be her. She didn’t revel in destruction and death, even while drunk on power.

  “Show me,” Ash said softly.

  “Now?”

  “Yes. We need to know whether you can control it. If it’s influencing you, then we’ll know not to count on it.”

  She looked at the Sahar in her hand. Dared she? Ash was right. They needed to know whether she was a reliable backup. She needed to know if the Sahar was screwing up her mind, or if her mind was already screwed up.

  “If I start acting crazy,” she said, “take it away from me right away. Don’t wait.”

  They both nodded. Seiya looked dubious but also a little nervous; she obviously remembered what Piper had done with the Stone the last time.

  Piper loosely held the Sahar in her fist, hand halfway extended toward the two draconians so they could easily take it from her. Closing her eyes, she thought about Samael. Hate instantly coated her soul. She thought about what she would have done to that bastard if she’d had the chance. She would have paid him back for every moment of pain he’d inflicted on Ash.

  Power sizzled up her arm and raced down her spine. Ash inhaled sharply.

  Eyes opening, she turned and flung her hand toward the nearby trees. The resulting explosion shook the earth. Tree trunks flew through the air in a rain of shattered branches and dirt. Leaves fluttered wildly, dancing back to the ground as quiet settled over the valley again.

  “Well, fuck,” Ash muttered.

  She turned toward him. He stared at the crater where a dozen massive trees had been seconds before. Hate pounded through her. Her mind hadn’t split in two. This time, it was all swirling rage and euphoric power.

  “Ash? Ash, her eyes are turning black again,” Seiya said urgently.

  His attention whipped back to Piper. She smiled smoothly at the flash of alarm in his gaze. Was he scared? She wanted him to be scared. He was always so strong. Well, she was the strong one now. She lifted her hand again, Sahar glowing like a miniature sun in her fist.

  His speed took her by surprise. He caught her wrist, stopping the movement of her arm as his other hand forced her fist open. He grabbed at the Sahar.

  For a brief second, the Stone was squeezed between their hands as he tried to pull it from her grasp. The flow of power through her body went still.

  And then it rushed out of her.

  The Sahar was still in her hand, caught between her palm and Ash’s—but the power was gone. The violent bubble in her head had popped. She blinked, bewildered, as Ash crushed her fingers in his grip, no longer trying to pull the Sahar away. He stood rigidly, staring sightlessly past her—and that’s when she realized something was wrong. Really wrong.

  The Sahar was still glowing.

  It only glowed when Piper was tapping its power. But she wasn’t anymore. Not a hint of power or unnatural violence flowed inside her. But the Stone was still glowing. Her terrified stare lifted toward Ash’s face.

  The tendons in his neck stood out sharply as his head slowly tilted back. Jaw clenched, sucking in air, his eyes rolled halfway up as they darkened from gray to midnight black. Mindless rapture slid across his face.

  The air around him sizzled. The atmosphere felt thick, heavy, a thunderstorm about to be unleashed. His hand clenched around hers as his chest heaved. She knew exactly what was happening to him: the Sahar was flooding power through his body, lifting him on its addictive high as it poisoned his mind with an unquenchable lust for violence and blood.

  Panic arced through her. She tried to yank the Sahar away but his impossible strength held it, and her hand, like a steel vice.

  “Ash,” she yelled. “Ash, let it go!”

  He didn’t hear her. His form shimmered as he lost all control and began slip out of his glamour.

  “Ash,” she screamed desperately.

  Seiya shoved herself between them, clapped both hands together, and flung them wide open. Magic exploded in both directions. The blast of air hit Piper like a punch to the chest, tearing her hand from Ash’s grip as she was flung backward. The Sahar flew out of her hand. She landed hard on her back. Ignoring the ache in her chest, she immediately sat up.

  On Seiya’s other side, Ash lay on his back. Piper scrambled to her feet and ran to him, kneeling beside him across from Seiya.

  Ash’s eyes opened, reassuringly gray, and he gulped for air.

  “Piper,” he panted. “You were right.”

  “What?” Seiya demanded.

  “The Sahar is—hell, I don’t even know. That was—” He broke off, pressing one hand to his face. “Piper? Do me a favor. Don’t let me near that thing again. Ever.”

  “That bad?” Piper asked.

  He dropped his hand. “You don’t even know. I could feel the power in it, like a bottomless well. It wanted me to use it. I wasn’t even drawing on it. It just . . . threw power at me. So much power that I was seconds away from losing control of it entirely.”

  Piper nodded her agreement but really didn’t like the undertone of awe in his voice. Understandable since he’d never before held that much magic at once, but that power came with dangerous strings attached.

  “Yes, it did that to me too,” she told him.

  He sat up carefully, running his hands through his hair and pushing his bangs off his face. “I’m not sure if it was quite the same. You can only hold so much power in your body at once. I can hold significantly more.”

  “Is that bad?” Seiya asked carefully. “We could use some extra power.”

  He shook his head.

  “It got in your head too, didn’t it?” Piper whispered. “It made you want to kill people.”

  “People, animals, trees, anything alive. The whole mountain.” He lifted his gaze to hers. “How in the Nine Circles of Hell did you manage to use it for so long without going berserk?”

  She shrugged. “It took over gradually, and I only lost it completely right at the end when I blew up the bridge.”

  He went a little pale. “You blew up—the bridge? The one—?”

  Seiya nodded.

  He took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “Well, shit. Maybe you shouldn’t be touching it either.”

  “I agree,” Piper said. “It got me right off this time. But it can’t do anything unless I trigger it, so I think I’m okay to carry it around.”

  As one, the three of them looked at the Sahar lying in the leaf litter, glinting innocently in the light of the setting sun.

  “How did you manage to tap it, Ash?” she asked worriedly. “You tried before, didn’t you?”

  He nodded, eyes narrowed as he studied the Stone. “I did. Last time I couldn’t get through that mental pathway I mentioned. It was completely different when I touched it while you were already communing with it. Somehow, you opened the door and it made the power wholly accessible. Has anyone else touched the Sahar while you were using it?”

  Piper looked at Seiya.


  She shook her head. “I only touched the chain.”

  Frowning, Piper sat back on her heels. “No, no one. Do you think anyone who touches it while I’m using it can use it too?”

  “I didn’t use it with you,” he said thoughtfully. “It was like it cut you off. I have no idea why. I wonder if the connection would have broken had you let go and left me holding the Stone?”

  “I don’t really want to find out.”

  “Me neither.”

  Ash rose, moving stiffly. Piper winced as she stood as well. Seiya hadn’t been gentle with her attack—not that Piper was complaining.

  “We should get moving,” Ash murmured. “That wasn’t exactly a quiet explosion.”

  Piper walked over to the Sahar. She stood over it, trying to calm the butterflies in her stomach. Thinking serene thoughts, she plucked it out of the leaves. It was once again a harmless bit of bluish silver. Relieved, she tucked it down her shirt and rejoined Ash and Seiya. She didn’t like the way his gaze lingered on the neckline of her shirt. She would have preferred him rudely ogling her chest instead of looking at the hidden Sahar.

  Maybe he had another reason for telling her to keep the Stone away from him. Power corrupts, Seiya had said. Piper was pretty sure Ash had very much enjoyed the Sahar’s power—and part of him still craved it. But she also suspected he’d succumbed to the violent influence of the Sahar so much faster than her because he was, by nature, more violent. Shaded, he was more aggressive, dominating, and brutally fierce than Piper could ever be. And shaded is exactly where the Sahar had taken him seconds after latching onto him.

  She exhaled shakily. She’d have to make sure to never use the Sahar while near him. Or better yet, never use it again period.

  Somehow, she doubted she’d be that lucky.

  CHAPTER 15

  ONLY when they left the protection of Vejovis’s wards did they realize they’d waited a little too long. Half of Samael’s army seemed to be scattered through the trees—and they had solved the problem of how to get a dragon out of the air without killing its passengers. Dragons weren’t the only flying creatures in the Underworld.

 
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