Bind the Soul by Annette Marie


  Shining gold formed a delicate torque, carved with a lovely swirling design. She held it in her hands, the magic in it sparking against her skin. It didn’t look anything like the magic-dampening collars the prefects used and even less like Eisheth’s torture collar. But it was a collar nonetheless, cleverly disguised as jewelry.

  “Your life is worthless to me if you are not reliable. This collar will prevent any use of magic that I do not allow. If you wish to live, you will demonstrate your commitment to me by placing the collar around your neck.”

  She looked at it, panic clawing at the corners of her mind. A collar. She had to wear a collar. Every particle of her being rebelled against it. She swallowed hard. It would prevent her from using magic, but she didn’t have any magic of her own. The collar would serve no purpose unless Samael managed to gain possession of the Sahar again. Wearing it wouldn’t kill her—she hoped—but putting it on would save her. If she wanted to live, she had no choice.

  Hands shaking, she turned the collar over until she found the hinge. It popped open like a gaping, toothless mouth. It took a long moment for her to force herself to raise it to her neck. She squeezed her eyes shut as she closed it with a snap.

  Magic flared, crackling through the metal. Then it burst into her. It tore through her like fire. She arched backward, mouth open in a silent scream as it burned through every nerve in her body. When the pain finally subsided, she found herself curled on her side on the floor. She sat up, wincing at the throbbing ache in every inch of her. Her arms and legs shook. Breathing hard, she steadied herself on the floor, wishing she had the strength to stand.

  “Excellent,” Samael murmured. “The seal accepted your surrender.”

  She closed her eyes again, hugging herself.

  “How do you know about the Sahar?” she asked hoarsely. “You didn’t before.”

  “Once I had the Sahar again, I of course took measures to ensure it would remain mine. My spells allow me to sense its location as well as listen through it as though I were standing in the Stone’s place. Any words spoken in the vicinity of the Sahar I can hear.”

  No. Impossible. She’d never heard of such magic. If the Sahar held a spell like that, then every word she’d spoken while holding it, Samael had listened to. Every word spoken since she’d given the Sahar to Miysis, Samael had heard. Their entire conversation about the Stone’s secrets had travelled straight to his ears, as well as everything Miysis was planning in defense against Samael’s forces.

  Sickening dread spread through her like venom. Samael would know exactly how many daemons were in the Consulate and how they planned to hold him off. He’d probably already arranged his own strategy to compensate. He would wipe them out.

  Her head spun. How could she have been so naive? Miysis had been right: her escape from Samael had been too easy. He’d known all along she hadn’t thrown the Sahar into the canyon. He’d let her believe her ruse had worked.

  “Why?” she choked. “Why did you let us escape in the first place?”

  His attention settled on her again and she felt her shoulders bow under the weight of his gaze. “You carried the Sahar straight to the Ra and convinced him to reveal its secrets. I could not have hoped for more ideal results.”

  No. All wrong. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

  “Now, Piper,” he said. “The collar around your neck took over a year to create. It’s entirely unique with many interesting facets.”

  Before fear could do more than spark in her belly, the collar heated against her skin, humming with a subtle vibration.

  She stood—but she hadn’t decided to stand. Her hands rose and neatly folded across her chest as she bowed deeply to Samael. She felt herself do it, felt her muscles contract and release with the motion. She couldn’t stop them. Couldn’t control them.

  Once she straightened, one of her arms lifted, palm raised toward the tent roof. She watched, silently horrified, as her other hand took a pinch of skin from the middle of her palm. And pinched. And pinched harder. Pain dug deep. Her fingernails cut in until blood ran and still her fingers squeezed harder. Squeezed until pain shot through the tendons in her hand.

  She couldn’t even scream.

  Blood pooled in her palm. Tears tracked down her face but no matter how she fought it, she couldn’t make a single muscle obey. Fire burned in her palm and arched through her hand. Her heart hammered with adrenaline. Her body continued to obey commands that weren’t her own.

  Her hands dropped. The collar hummed against her neck.

  “I have full control, Piper,” Samael told her, “over your body and, once the Sahar is returned to me, your magic. I can see and hear everything as you do.”

  Sobs rose in her chest, burning her throat in a howl of despair she couldn’t release.

  The hum of the collar changed pitch. It released her body and she collapsed to the floor, choking back tears. Samael may hear and see what she did, but he hadn’t mentioned feeling what she felt. Why would he want to feel the burn of the collar against her skin?

  “You will find,” he informed her, “there are many actions the collar will not allow. You cannot remove it. You cannot attack anyone I consider an ally. You cannot harm yourself in any way. Anything I decide you should not do, the collar will prevent.”

  The collar forced her sit up. She panted, trying to find some composure.

  “Now let’s discuss your intent when you returned to me. What was your plan?”

  She answered. She couldn’t stop herself. The collar burned against her neck, forcing the words out. She told him everything, every detail she and Ash had discussed. How he would be waiting for her in less than three hours. How he would try again when Samael attacked the Consulate if the first rescue attempt failed. How he would keep trying. How Lyre would tell Miysis where she was so the Ra could help with her rescue, if possible. Everything.

  “I see. Very interesting.” Samael stepped away from the desk. “Get up.”

  She stood. Her legs shook, threatening to buckle.

  “Follow me.”

  He strode out of the tent. She stumbled after him, her whole body trembling. She’d told Samael when and where Ash would be waiting for her. He would no doubt set a trap for Ash. Her fault. This was all her fault. She couldn’t let this happen. Somehow, she had to find a way to warn Ash before he walked into an ambush.

  Samael, his guards following discreetly, walked through the camp. Piper followed in his shadow, fighting the compulsion that kept her legs moving. It was as though someone else were moving her legs. Nothing she did could stop them. Choking despair rose in her. She barely noticed the soldiers who bowed as Samael passed them.

  A large tent stationed near the far end of the camp had its cloth doors pinned open. A dozen bare cots awaited the wounded. Samael led her to the back of the tent. Several daemons, these ones in black uniforms with white bands around their upper arms, bowed deeply to him. Samael stopped beside a table with several chests and other medical supplies sitting on it.

  The Hades Warlord touched the lock on the middle chest. It clicked loudly. He lifted the lid. Narrow shelves unfolded, all holding tiny jars of colorful fluids. Not one of the jars was labeled. He selected a small jar full of a thick, white gel and unscrewed the top. He lifted it to his nose and inhaled.

  “Blood Kiss,” he murmured. “Odorless. Virtually undetectable. Too deadly even for a draconian’s resistance to poisons.”

  As he spoke, he picked up a tiny throwing knife from the bottom of the chest. The blade was barely two and a half inches long and came with a black sheath designed to be strapped to a wrist or ankle. An assassin’s weapon. He unsheathed the knife, dipped the tip of the blade into the jar, and scooped out a pearl-sized dollop. Using a rag, he carefully smoothed the white poison evenly over the blade until the entire surface was coated. Spread thin, the poison was invisible, nothing more than a wet sheen on metal.

  Samael admired his work then shea
thed the knife and dropped it into the bottom of the chest. He replaced the jar of Blood Kiss and selected an even smaller jar of clear fluid. She glanced into the chest, counting at least eight other jars with clear liquid in them. How did he know he had the right one?

  He unscrewed the cap. The acidic smell of vinegar assaulted her nose. Samael held out his hand to one of the medic daemons. She handed him a tiny syringe complete with a needle. He loaded the syringe and turned to Piper.

  “Your arm.”

  She extended it. He jabbed the needle in, sinking its entire two-inch length through her shirtsleeve into the muscle of her upper arm, and injected the antidote. She flinched, trying hard to hold still. He pulled out the needle and passed it back to the medic. She hoped they didn’t plan to reuse it—and that it had never been used before.

  Samael tugged his sleeves straight then gestured at his guards. They followed him as he walked out of the tent without another word.

  Piper stood there, staring after them. She looked at the healers, who pointedly ignored her. Heart hammering, she took a step toward the tent’s doorway. Nothing happened. She bolted for the opening.

  Fire burst through every nerve in her body. She fell, screaming. Writhing, she scrambled away from the entrance. The fire slowly died the farther she got from escape. Shuddering and sobbing, she crawled between two cots and curled into a ball, waiting for the pain to stop.

  Samael didn’t want her to leave the tent. And with the collar locked around her neck, she couldn’t even try to get away.

  Escape had never been so impossible.

  . . .

  Piper didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t find the strength for it, the willpower. She stayed curled in the fetal position, body locked in the tightest ball possible.

  Time slipped by, excruciatingly slow. She hadn’t been able to resist trying to escape. Trying to remove the collar. Trying anything to get free.

  With every attempt, the collar had punished her with pain.

  She didn’t move from her ball. Her arms and legs shook. Everything ached. The collar had reached deep into her nerves, lighting them on fire, and the magic still burned. She’d run out of tears. She didn’t have the energy to cry.

  The collar around her neck hummed, radiating unpleasant warmth against her skin. She hated it. For as long as she wore it, she would never escape. She could touch it, but her muscles refused to obey if she tried to pull on it or open it, and the pain immobilized her almost immediately afterward.

  She squeezed her eyes shut, shuddering. She should have let the poison kill her. How could she have thought this was the better choice? How could she have let this happen?

  “Girl.”

  Piper squinted. A guard had entered the tent and now stood over her.

  “Girl. Get up.”

  She started to uncoil—too slowly. He grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet. She gasped in pain. Every muscle screamed in protest.

  “Move.”

  He shoved her in the back. She bit her lip until she tasted blood and focused on moving her feet one step at a time. The more she walked, the more strength seeped into her legs, even though every step was agonizing. Her hands shook uncontrollably but her mind began to clear. The change in the camp around her was immediately obvious in the orange light of dawn. Soldiers moved in quick, purposeful strides as they broke camp with worrying efficiency—an ordered chaos. She didn’t like seeing further confirmation of their competence. She remembered the disorganized mayhem of the guards at Asphodel when they’d been chasing her. Compared to them, these soldiers were like night and day.

  The flaps of Samael’s command tent were tied open. The guard stopped in the doorway. She walked in alone, her heart pounding faster with each step. Samael stood at the desk, which was now acting as a map table, surrounded by his generals.

  “—whoever broke my spells could move the Sahar at any time,” Samael was saying as she came to a stop inside. Anger thrummed in his voice. “I can no longer track it. We must move squads into position immediately, circling the Consulate before the Sahar can be relocated. It may already be outside the grounds but we won’t know until every body has been searched.”

  “The spells broke a quarter of an hour ago?” one of the other Hades daemons asked, a reaper judging by his red eyes. “The Ra brat had hours to notice the spells. Did he give the Sahar to someone else who identified your workings?”

  “Impossible to say,” Samael said. “I want him alive. He has information about the Sahar. Send out as many scouts as necessary. I want any movement near the Consulate tracked.”

  “Yes, sir. I will alert the squad leaders we want the Ra alive. Anyone else?”

  “No. Kill them all.”

  The reaper saluted and left, brushing past Piper without looking at her. Samael turned to her. No anger showed on his face but he had to be furious.

  “Piper.” His gaze flicked down her and back again. He seemed satisfied by what he saw. She tried to hide her shaking.

  “Unforeseen circumstances have prevented me from indulging in my planned entertainment for the morning,” he said, a flat note in his tone hinting again at great anger. He turned back to the map table. “Do you know what time it is, Piper?”

  “No,” she croaked. She would’ve guessed seven in the morning.

  “The hour itself doesn’t matter,” he told her, picking up a small black object from the table. He faced her, turning the object over in his hands. “But it has been nearly three hours since you were first found waiting in the path of my army.”

  She stared at him blankly. Three hours? What was so special about it being three—

  Ash. Ash was supposed to wait nearby for her after three hours. How could she have forgotten? Samael was planning some kind of trap for Ash. She hadn’t found a way to warn him. Pain had driven everything else from her mind, leaving her thoughts hazed and slow. Panic spun through her, adrenaline washing away the lingering aches.

  “I very much wanted to kill him,” Samael murmured to himself. “I wanted to see the rage in his eyes as I finally took his life. I created him. It is my right to kill him.”

  “You—you’re not going to kill him?” she whispered, barely daring to hope.

  Samael wanted the Sahar and someone had broken his tracking spell. He had to locate it quickly before it got too far out of his reach. He didn’t have time to set a trap for Ash.

  Samael smiled at her. He reached out and took her hand. Turning it over, he pressed the small object into her palm. It was a tiny assassin’s knife—the same knife he had coated with Blood Kiss back in the medic tent.

  “I’m not going to kill Ash, my dear,” he told her. “You are.”

  CHAPTER 19

  SHE WALKED into the sunrise.

  Every step she took, she fought. The collar vibrated against her neck—nearly hot enough to burn her—out of sight behind the lapel of the black soldier’s shirt she wore. Strapped to her wrist, cool against her skin, was the poisoned dagger. The long, bulky sleeves of the shirt hid it perfectly.

  Her insides writhed with frustration and rage. On the outside, she walked at a hurried, nervous pace, half jogging every few steps as though she really had escaped the army. Her head swiveled, scanning the deep shadows beneath the trees lining the narrow valley. The army was out of sight beyond the rise behind her as the squads prepared to split up and circle the Consulate, an hour’s hard travel away.

  Adrenaline pounded through her. Terror made it hard to breathe. Neither reaction would be enough to tip off Ash that something was wrong. Of course she was frightened. She’d been Samael’s prisoner and barely escaped—or so he’d think.

  With every particle of her being, she willed herself to stop walking. She willed her heart to stop beating, willed herself to die before it was too late. But Samael’s control over her body was absolute. She couldn’t stop. Couldn’t do a damn thing to change what was coming.

  Tears streamed down her face. Sobs built in her chest but she coul
dn’t release them. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t happen.

  Don’t come, Ash, she cried desperately in her head. Stay away. Just stay away.

  Her traitorous feet carried her toward the rising sun. It blinded her, the very reason Ash had chosen to wait in the east, where he would be impossible for the sentries to spot through the sunlight. All his precautions, useless. It wasn’t the sentries he had to worry about.

  A quiet chirp sounded at her feet. Piper stopped and looked down.

  Zwi’s head poked out of the long grass, wings quivering with excitement. She trilled happily and dashed to Piper, leaping onto her shoulder and nuzzling her cheek.

  “Zwi.” The name came out in a hoarse whisper, so convincingly emotional. Samael was a talented puppeteer.

  In her head, Piper screamed warnings that Zwi would never hear. The collar. Notice the collar. See it, smell it, something!

  Zwi didn’t notice. She jumped to the ground, checked that Piper was following, and took off through the grass. Piper broke into a limping run after her. Stop, she silently wept, please stop. Stop stop stop!

  Zwi led her into the trees. Piper unwillingly followed, ducking branches as the shadows closed around her. The woods were so dark after the blinding morning sun that she almost didn’t see him.

  Ash stood at the base of a towering tree, half hidden in its shadow, but not hidden enough that she couldn’t identify the shine of wet blood splattered on his clothes. The lack of damage to the dark garments told her the blood wasn’t his. Both short swords were sheathed along his legs.

  As she crashed through a low bush, his gaze flicked up and met hers. Relief swept across his features.

  “Piper.” He quickly stepped away from the tree. His voice was nearly as hoarse as hers. “You did it. You escaped.”

  Her headlong rush didn’t slow, a perfect imitation of what she normally would have done. She flung her arms out and threw herself at him. He easily caught her and crushed her to him in a hug that nearly cracked her ribs.

 
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