Bind the Soul by Annette Marie


  Her favorite times were when the three of them were together. Those were the most challenging, the most fun. Both her daemons were possessive. They didn’t want to share her with the other, neither her attention nor her affection. They competed for her. Sometimes she would provoke their competitiveness just to enjoy the resulting clash of tempers. They were so magnificent when they were angered and it gave her shivers to see them fight over her.

  It was dangerous, but she knew what it took to keep a daemon lover. Especially a powerful daemon lover. They needed to be challenged. Allow them to grow complacent and they would lose interest.

  Keeping two competing daemon lovers at the same time was an undeniable sign of her skill and intelligence. She knew what they wanted and she gave it to them. Created it for them. Challenged them, enticed them, entertained them, tested them. Foolish women tried to sway her lovers with their amorous charms but her daemons always returned to her. Other women didn’t understand daemons, their needs, their desires.

  Of course, there was only one reason her daemons hadn’t killed each other, or her, in their competition. Neither one would have tolerated her toying with their affections or desires for some insincere pleasure; they would kill her if they ever suspected such a thing. Had anyone else tried to stand equally between them, claimed by both, held by neither, blood would have been spilled.

  But no. They knew, as did she, that she wasn’t toying with them. Nor could she choose one over the other.

  She loved them both. Loved them irrevocably and indefinitely, and absolutely equally. She could no more choose one than she could divide herself in half. That was the only reason they tolerated sharing her. It wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later, one or both would move on to other entertainments. But for now, her lovers still wanted her and she would relish every moment she spent with them.

  Like tonight. All three of them together. It didn’t happen often anymore. Her daemons’ rivalry over her had grown too fierce. It was likely impossible now for a repeat of that one unforgettable night where she had teased them both into her bed. At the same time. It had been . . . glorious. She would never forget it.

  As she flounced toward the end of the hall, burgeoning desire mixing with her eagerness to see them, she heard voices. Her lovers were talking business, as usual. She pushed the door open and swept in.

  They turned in unison to face her. Sun and moon. Fire and ice. Both beautiful. Both deadly.

  “Natania,” her sun greeted her. His voice flowed like music, dancing across her skin, as beautiful as his flawless, ivory complexion and silky golden mane. His eyes caressed her, crystalline green more brilliant than gemstones.

  “Maahes,” she purred. She lowered her eyelashes and turned to her moon, waiting.

  His lucid gray eyes drifted across her face. “Natania,” he murmured, his voice smoother than silk, not lyrical like Maahes’s, but deep with a power that slid beneath her skin.

  “Nyrtaroth.” She let her eyes rove over him, absorbing his exotic shape as though she had never seen him before. But of course she had; he rarely used glamour, even when visiting her world. He was wilder than Maahes; not uncivilized, not at all, but he was like a surging mountain river: cold, unpredictable, unstoppable. Lethal. Maahes was a deep plains river—warmer on the surface, casually meandering, deceptively calm at first glance, but with a deadly undertow ready to drag the unsuspecting into his black depths.

  Smiling at Nyrtaroth, she lifted one hand and casually slid a finger down the outer edge of one folded wing. His breath caught slightly. His wings were very sensitive. Most never learned such an intimate detail about draconians, never daring to approach them, but it had been a long time since fear had touched her while in his presence. It amused her to see others quake in terror at the sight of him. He wasn’t terrifying; he was beautiful. Sets of three curved horns on either side of his head, glossy black scales, more intricate than any armor, with swirling patterns dancing across his skin . . . He took her breath away.

  “Natania,” Maahes said, not liking the way her attention lingered on Nyrtaroth. She immediately turned to him with a smile. “We have been waiting for you. Are you ready?”

  “Of course. Just tell me what you need.”

  “You will help us complete our ultimate lodestone?”

  “I am not sure how I can help,” she admitted, “but anything you need, I will do my best.”

  He smiled teasingly. “Anything?”

  She lowered her eyelashes and coyly returned his smile. “Anything.”

  His eyes shimmered like glowing jewels. “I knew we could put our faith in you, my heart.”

  He reached out and stroked his fingers tenderly over her cheek.

  It was the tiniest flash of shadow in his eyes that warned her. She threw up a mental shield as his magic swept into her. His relentless power swallowed her meager protection, swamping her in the spell. Her body went limp. Nyrtaroth caught her, scooping her off her feet and laying her across their worktable.

  Her head spun. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t move. Maahes’s spell sucked at her mind, lapping at her mental shield as it tried to pull her into unconsciousness.

  “I will not wield the blade,” Nyrtaroth said above her, his deep voice flat and harsh.

  “Do not feign abhorrence now, Nyr,” Maahes retorted coldly. “It was you, not I, who developed the theory from which we will build our weapon.”

  “I did not theorize we use her. That brilliancy falls fully upon you.”

  “What else would you suggest? You understand this necessity as well as I do.”

  A tense heartbeat of silence.

  She fought hard against the spell but her shield was failing. Maahes’s magic was a hundred times stronger than her own—but he hadn’t anticipated her quick resistance. She suspected neither daemon realized she was still conscious and listening.

  “Yes,” Nyrtaroth finally agreed. “A lodestone without limit must be powered by a source without limit.”

  “Emotion is infinite,” Maahes replied, the smooth flow of his response hinting at an exchange repeated more than once between them. “And emotion is born from the soul.”

  “The strongest emotion from the soul of a human.”

  “And the strongest magic from the soul of a daemon. We will complete our lodestone weapon with a power source that will never expire: the dual soul of a half-breed.”

  A quiet sigh.

  “Nyr,” Maahes said impatiently, “we discussed it. Shed this sentimentality.”

  Nyrtaroth made a small, amused sound. “They call me a cold bastard but you deserve the title far more than I.”

  “She is the only half-daemon alive with dual bloodlines. It must be her.”

  “I know.”

  “It is a risk even using her. She may not love us enough. I would much prefer to wield a weapon fueled by love than one fed by eternal hatred, wouldn’t you?”

  “Agreed.”

  Panic rose in her, pushing through the cloud of Maahes’s spell. Her daemons. Her lovers. They were . . . they were going to kill her. Not out of love or jealousy, but for power. For their lodestone. How could they? How dared they?

  She threw all her strength and magic into breaking the spell. But it held. She strained until she could hold on no longer. Maahes’s magic spiraled tighter and tighter. Clouds of mist wrapped around her mind. Bitter fury twisted inside her, only to be sucked into the spell.

  The suffocating mist closed over her. Her last thought was of lonely sorrow that her love hadn’t meant more than their ambitions.

  . . .

  Piper’s eyes flew open. She still felt the choking clouds of the spell spinning in her head, dragging her toward unconsciousness. Panic shot through her and she jerked upright.

  Her head collided with something hard. Everything was dark. She reached up and discovered a huge flap of canvas on top of her and what felt like a chunk of bed frame overhanging where she lay. Her panic waned as she shook off the lingering remnants of the
—dream? Hallucination? Memory?

  Blindly feeling her way through the wreckage, she crawled out from under the broken cot and slid her hands along the tent until she found a tear large enough to wiggle through. Sunlight stabbed her eyes as she rolled out onto the grass.

  She stared at the wreckage of the tent. Only the pole near the back was still standing, part of the canvas clinging to it like a lopsided teepee. The rest was a pile of torn canvas, shattered wooden bed frames, and bits of stuffing from the cots. One booted foot stuck out from a pile of debris, but there were no other signs of the medics.

  Fingers trembling, she touched her neck. Her fingers met an aching burn but nothing else. The collar was gone.

  Relief made her knees go weak. She looked at the Sahar, still clutched in her hand. It had gone dark, back to its usual silver sheen, the power still and silent. For now. She rubbed a hand against her forehead. Her head ached but there didn’t seem to be any physical damage from the magic she’d channeled through her body.

  Other damage, though, she wasn’t sure about.

  That vision. Dream. Or was it a memory? A memory of . . . the Sahar. Of the soul inside the Sahar. Natania, a haemon who’d lived and died five hundred years ago. Died so Maahes and Nyrtaroth could bind her soul to their lodestone to give it limitless power. Natania’s bitterness over her lovers’ betrayal would explain the seething hatred and violence that filled the Sahar. Five hundred years of imprisonment in a bit of rock could have only exacerbated her hate.

  A hunk of wood slid off a pile of debris with a loud crash, making Piper jump. She shoved the Stone in her pocket and looked around. Fear pounded in her head as she scoured the wreckage of the tent. The collar breaking must have released a lot of magic. It had blown the tent apart.

  The antidote was somewhere in that wreckage.

  She staggered into motion, scrambling over the canvas toward the back of the tent. Dropping onto her hands and knees, she shoveled aside the rubble until she uncovered the collapsed table where the chest of poisons and antidotes had sat. The chest was on the ground on its side, the lid splintered, the lock gone entirely. She grabbed it. As she righted it, its contents sloshed and clinked ominously. Heart in her throat, she pushed up the lid and moaned.

  The bottom was full of shattered glass and a murky mix of liquids.

  “No,” she whispered. “No.”

  Gritting her teeth, she carefully turned the chest over on its side and dumped the contents on the ground. Grabbing a handful of bandages to protect her skin, she quickly sorted out the unbroken bottles. Three of them held clear liquids. No way to tell which was the right one.

  She unscrewed the first lid. The liquid could have been water for all she could tell. She capped it and tried the next. The stench of rotting vegetation assaulted her. She capped it too and set it aside. Last one. She twisted off the lid.

  The sharp scent of vinegar burned her nose.

  “Yes!”

  She screwed on the cap, carefully slid the bottle into her front pocket with the Sahar, and dug through the broken shelving until she found a syringe. It went into her pocket too, the capped needle sticking out the top.

  How long had it been? How long had she been lying there having visions of the past?

  She ran through the debris, leaping over tent poles. When she’d cleared the mess, she turned east toward the valley where she’d left Ash—and paused. Swallowed hard. She needed to get to him as fast as possible.

  A dozen yards from the shattered tent, two of the Hades horse-beasts were tied to a tree, already saddled.

  Taking deep breaths, she warily approached. One ignored her, dozing with one hoof canted, totally unconcerned by the violent destruction of the tent. The other, its coat an odd speckled white, watched her with a reddish-orange eye as she came closer. Its ears flicked forward and back.

  If she pretended not to notice the different shape of its jaw and the bits of pointy teeth that overlapped the lower lip, it really did look like a horse. Its eyes were closer to the front of its head than the sides and its body was more muscular, built for attacking rather than fleeing.

  “Hey there, big boy,” she cooed. “Think you could give me a ride?”

  Watching it warily, she untied the reins from the tree and stepped back. The horse didn’t move. She tugged the reins. Its ears flattened to its head, but it shuffled into motion. Urgency pounded in her as she led it into a clear spot and pulled the reins over its head and into position. She stepped to its side and gave it one more mistrustful look. It turned its head and looked back with one eye.

  “Now or never,” she muttered and heaved herself into the saddle.

  The horse immediately launched forward. Piper grabbed at the saddle, biting back a squeal. The horse took a couple running steps then pranced on the spot, head up, ears forward, tail lashing. It was excited. It hadn’t liked waiting. It wanted to join the fight.

  “Okay,” she panted, settling herself in the saddle and wishing she had a clue what she was doing. “Okay. You want to run?”

  She pulled on the reins, turning the horse’s head toward the morning sun.

  “Then let’s run.”

  She tapped her heels against its sides. It gathered itself and sprang into motion, leaping into a full gallop as though it intended to chase the sun itself out of the sky.

  CHAPTER 20

  SHE NEVER would have found Ash again if not for Zwi. She heard the dragonet’s soft, high-pitched whimpering as she rode by on the horse. Leaping off the beast, she rushed into the trees. Half hidden beside a fallen tree, Ash lay on his side. Zwi was curled under his arm, shaking with whimpering cries. As Piper burst into view, Zwi’s head came up, her golden eyes dull. She let out a long wail when she saw Piper.

  Oh God. He was dead. She was too late.

  She ran to his side and dropped to her knees. His shoulders moved with fast, harsh breaths.

  “Ash,” she gasped.

  Grabbing his shoulder, she pulled him onto his back. His face was white except for a bright, unnatural flush of fever across his cheeks. Perspiration shone on his skin. He didn’t so much as stir as she turned him.

  “Ash, can you hear me? Ash?”

  No reaction. Zwi pawed at his shoulder, mewling softly. The dragonet obviously had no idea who had stabbed her master and left him for dead. Piper fumbled for the antidote. She loaded the syringe with every drop of liquid in the bottle, squirted out the bubbles, and lined it up with his bicep. Was she supposed to aim for anything in particular? With no way to find out, she pushed the needle in and injected every last drop into his arm.

  Pulling it out and throwing it aside, she pressed her wrist to his forehead. His skin was scorching hot. She was pretty sure a human would already be dead from a fever that high. She pulled up one of his eyelids but saw only the whites of his eyes. He was deeply unconscious. Maybe even—maybe even already in the fatal coma, the last stage of the poison.

  “Come on, Ash,” she muttered. How fast would the antidote work—if it worked? Once the symptoms set in, there was no guarantee that the antidote could counteract the poison in time.

  She checked the stab wound on his leg. Though it had mostly stopped bleeding, she used one of his short swords to cut a strip off her shirt and bound the wound anyway. Zwi watched her, still making quiet sounds of distress.

  “It’s okay, Zwi,” she said shakily. “He’ll be okay. I gave him the antidote. He’ll pull through.”

  She looked at him. No sign at all of improvement. The antidote had worked quickly on her but she’d only been lightly dosed and the fever had barely begun.

  “Ash,” she whispered. Exhausted by the weight of fear and guilt, she curled up against his side. “Please, Ash. Don’t give up.”

  Seconds dragged into minutes as she lay beside him, breaking inside because she couldn’t help him. Couldn’t save him. Couldn’t do anything but wait and hope. She listened to his breathing. It wasn’t growing any stronger. If anything, it was harsher and more irregular
. She refused to believe she’d been too late. He was strong. Tough. He was a draconian, resistant to venoms and poisons of all kinds. He would pull through.

  Back in the trees, the horse-beast whinnied impatiently. Slowly and stiffly, Piper sat up. She wiped away her tears and took a deep breath. There was nothing more she could do for Ash. But there was something she could do to help her father, Miysis, and the others, if it wasn’t too late for them too. She had to try. This was her fault. If she could do anything at all to prevent more deaths, she had to try.

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Ash. She touched his cheek, feeling the heat of the fever, undiminished. “I have to go, but I’ll come back. I promise to come back . . . if I can.”

  She turned to Zwi. “Stay with him, okay? Protect him until—until he wakes up.”

  Zwi made a soft trill of agreement and curled up against Ash’s side. Piper gazed at him, knowing she would probably never see him again. Her fingers touched the braid on the side of his head. She’d never asked him where his strip of red silk had gone. Or why he and Seiya wore them. There was so much she’d never asked. And now she never would. The chances of them both surviving the morning were too slim. This was it.

  Biting hard on her bottom lip, she rose to her feet and walked away as fast as she could. If she looked back, she would never be able to leave him.

  With a deep, steadying breath, she set off to find her horse and ride into war.

  . . .

  She heard the battle before she could see it.

  She squinted at the curving highway. The horse-beast had run at a tireless canter for the better part of an hour but she couldn’t be at the Consulate yet. The wide avenue of long grass with the narrow, paved road running down the center didn’t offer her a wide view of what came beyond the bend ahead. A hundred years ago, the highway had probably been smooth and safe to travel on at high speed. Now it was a cracked, crumbling shadow of a road with great tufts of grass growing out of it and whole chunks missing from its edges.

 
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