Bind the Soul by Annette Marie


  “Wow, Ash,” she whispered.

  She’d never come close to achieving that degree of destruction. Nyrtaroth leveling an entire town no longer seemed like a stretch of the imagination.

  Ash didn’t answer. The Sahar scorched her palm. She spun to face him.

  He stood rigidly, wings quivering with the tension that gripped him. His head was thrown back, jaw clenched so tightly she could see the muscles flexing. He sucked in air like a drowning man. His eyes were squeezed shut.

  “Ash,” she gasped. He was losing control. Still fighting the Sahar’s possession—but not for long. “Ash, let it go!”

  She yanked on her hand but his grip was like a steel clamp. She grabbed his fingers and tried to pry them open. Ash’s hand clenched tighter. Agony speared her hand. She felt a bone snap.

  “Ash,” she yelled. “Control it! Think about someone you love!”

  He didn’t hear her. Wasn’t listening. His eyes opened and terror slammed through her, the Nightmare Effect kicking in with shocking strength. His eyes were empty pits of rage, solid black orbs, the whites gone. The Sahar was like a drop of fire in her hand, pumping power and hatred into Ash. She had to stop him before he went on a killing spree that wouldn’t end until he was dead. She couldn’t let that happen.

  “Ash,” she tried again. “Ash, please!”

  He didn’t hear her. Didn’t seem to see her. His lips peeled back, baring his pointed canines. He took a step forward, dragging her with him. She pointlessly dug in her heels. Stop him. How did she stop him?

  She quit resisting and jumped forward, planting herself in front of him. He snarled, black eyes snapping toward her, empty except for loathing and lust for violence. She reached with her free hand to push him back.

  His hand clamped around her wrist. His claws sank through her armguard and into flesh, biting deep. She choked back a scream. His grip tightened, threatening to snap her forearm. His eyes looked right through her, mindless, feral. His lips drew back, a growl rumbling from his throat. Lethal rage burned in his stare.

  He was going to kill her.

  A flash in her peripheral vision. Zwi, back in her dragonet form, dashed in at top speed. She sprang, grabbed onto Ash’s arm with her front claws, and sank her teeth into his hand. His hand spasmed—and his death grip on the Sahar loosened for the briefest moment.

  Piper tore the Stone out of his hand and flung it away.

  Ash’s whole body shuddered. He gasped. The black of his eyes shrunk and faded until wide, gray orbs stared at her. Zwi dropped to the ground, whining questioningly.

  “Ash?” she whispered.

  He released her wrist and closed both arms around her, crushing her against him. His mouth caught hers, wild and desperate. She grabbed his head, hooking her fingers over his horns, and ground her mouth against his, as equally out of control. Tears streaked her cheeks as she held him tighter. Kissed him harder. It wasn’t hard enough.

  He pulled back, his stare sweeping her face as though to check she was unharmed, and then pressed his face against the side of her neck, arms wrapped around her so tightly she couldn’t breathe. She squeezed him until her arms ached, ignoring the pain of her injuries.

  “I almost killed you,” he rasped. “I almost killed you.”

  She fisted her good hand in his hair as she started to shake with the cessation of adrenaline.

  “It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s over.” Her gaze shifted toward the blood-smeared remains of the battlefield. “It’s finally over.”

  CHAPTER 22

  PIPER knew she should get up but she couldn’t find the strength.

  Beside her, Ash leaned against a chunk of bridge, head tilted back, eyes closed. His face was white with exhaustion. She had his arm pulled in front of her so she could hug it against her chest. He didn’t seem to mind. His fingers were curled around her thigh above her knee, holding her leg against the side of his. Zwi was sprawled in his lap, crooning softly.

  They’d been heading back across the battlefield to find Seiya and Lyre. Barely halfway there, they’d given up and sat in the first spot with a potential backrest. Neither of them could walk anymore. They needed a breather. Or better yet, a week’s sleep.

  She rested her cheek against Ash’s shoulder. He was back in glamour so his shoulder was much comfier than the scale-armored version. Eyes closed, she drifted on waves of weariness. Seiya and Lyre would find them eventually. Her father would be looking for her too—and Miysis would come looking for the Sahar. She and Ash could just wait. They didn’t have to walk anywhere. The thought of standing made her shudder.

  Exhaling a shaky breath, she tightened her fingers around Ash’s bicep. His skin was warm, no longer dangerously hot with fever. The antidote had worked, helped along by his natural resistance to poisons. Thank God she hadn’t killed him.

  “I can’t believe you all came after me like that,” she said softly. “You could have all been killed.”

  He huffed. “It wasn’t my idea.”

  “What do you mean?”

  He answered without opening his eyes. “I was only half conscious when Seiya and Lyre found me. They were supposed to wait for me to come back.” He shook his head. “They got me on Zwi and we went looking for you. When we found you with Samael, they slapped together a plan and ordered me to wait it out.”

  “Which you didn’t.”

  He cracked an eye open. “It worked out in the end. Things would have gone a little better if I’d been in better shape.”

  She flinched.

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry I—”

  His hand tightened on her leg. “It wasn’t you, Piper. I know that. You saved my life—again.”

  “You saved mine—again.” She smiled weakly. “And you stole the Sahar from Miysis! You’re the one who broke the spells on it, aren’t you?”

  “Yeah. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the tracking spell earlier—or that Miysis didn’t. Idiot. My original thought was to trade the Sahar for you if the first rescue didn’t work out. Glad I didn’t have to.”

  “Be very glad, because Samael knows how to use it now.”

  Ash’s eyes opened. She explained what Samael’s second spell had done and how he now knew everything they knew of the Sahar’s secrets.

  When she finished, Ash sighed and let his head fall back again. “Devious bastard. I wish Seiya had managed to kill him.”

  Piper sighed too. “I thought it looked like he’d teleported away in time. Damn it.”

  Fear coiled in her belly. Samael was still alive and more dangerous than ever. She’d been happier hoping he was dead.

  “He’ll be after the Sahar again in no time,” she said. “He doesn’t need me anymore; maybe he’ll leave me alone.”

  Ash didn’t answer, kindly allowing her delusion to continue.

  She hugged his arm closer. “I hope Miysis does a better job protecting the Sahar from Samael than he did from you.”

  “Miysis is an overconfident, spoiled fool. He hasn’t got a damn clue. He thinks his sheltered, pampered life is the way the world works.”

  Piper nodded even though she wasn’t sure that was accurate. Miysis had seemed to know what he was doing during that battle, for the most part anyway. Then again, compared to Ash, Miysis was ridiculously coddled. He didn’t go anywhere without a horde of bodyguards. Ash had been on his own since day one.

  Zwi’s head came up. A moment later, Zala trotted out from behind the boulder they were leaning against. She jumped into Ash’s lap with Zwi and chittered a greeting.

  Gravel crunched under approaching feet. Seiya appeared as she circled the rock, her black eyes searching. Piper sucked in a breath as terror rushed through her; Seiya hadn’t put her glamour back into place. When she spotted the two of them, tail flicking side to side, the tension visibly released from her shoulders.

  “There you are,” she said. Her daemon voice was alien but beautiful.

  The second set of footsteps revealed Lyre
as he came into sight after Seiya. At least, Piper was pretty sure it was Lyre. He wasn’t in glamour either.

  Her heart started to pound and she completely forgot about Seiya’s Nightmare Effect.

  Lyre’s hair was the same tousled, pale blond, nearly white, but it shone, almost radiant. Bangs swept across his forehead, almost in his eyes, and a thin braid of longer hair fell alongside the left side of his face, the end brushing his shoulder, with a gold band and a red jewel decorating it. Gold loops pierced his pointed ears. His skin, honey-gold, seemed to glow, utterly flawless. A dark design was tattooed beneath his right eye over his cheekbone.

  His clothes had changed too but her befuddled brain only skimmed past them before focusing on the bow in his hand—polished wood with red and gold designs. A quiver hung over his shoulder, three feathered arrows left. She tried to observe more but her eyes were drawn irresistibly back to his face. His black eyes were like magnets, sucking her in. He was luminous, beautiful beyond description, perfect, too compelling to resist—

  Seiya stepped between her and the incubus, spreading her wings to block him from view.

  “If you keep staring at him,” she told Piper, “you’ll end up completely in his power.”

  She blinked, feeling as if she were waking up. “Huh?”

  Seiya rolled her eyes. “Incubus aphrodisia. Without glamour, it gets you just from looking at them.”

  “It—oh.” She blinked again. Fear kicked back in from the Nightmare Effect, clearing her head.

  “Lyre?” she asked hesitantly.

  “Hey there, beautiful.”

  The voice that drifted from behind Seiya’s wings was the softest murmur, beautiful as music. A subtle, impossible layering of harmonics transformed his words into sounds more like an instrument than anything a human throat could produce. His name suddenly made a lot more sense.

  A hard tug on her arm. Her butt hit the ground, jarring her out of a daze. She blinked at Ash. She hadn’t even realized she’d started to stand, drawn irresistibly toward Lyre’s voice.

  “He’s not going to say anything else until he’s back in glamour,” Seiya said firmly. “Same reason.”

  “Oh,” she said weakly. Between Seiya’s Nightmare Effect and Lyre’s aphrodisia, her brain felt like mush.

  “We need to go,” Seiya said. “It’s not safe here.”

  Piper looked between them, her heart squeezing. They were leaving? Already? She swallowed hard.

  “Will you be able to stay safe from Samael?” she asked, trying to sound neutral.

  “I’ve been preparing hideouts for years,” Ash said. “I have dozens set up here and in the Underworld. I hadn’t planned on fitting four people in them, but we can make it work. Lyre will have to come. After all the soldiers he obliterated, he’ll be on Samael’s hit list too.”

  She nodded, chewing her bottom lip. Ash shifted and she felt his gaze fall on her.

  “Piper?” A pause. “You’ve changed your mind.”

  She nodded again, staring at her lap.

  “The Consulate isn’t safe for you. Samael wants you dead.”

  “I know.” She exhaled slowly. “My father already set up a safe place for me. A school for rich kids with top notch security. I think—I think that would be the better place for me.”

  When Ash didn’t answer, she squeezed his arm.

  “It’s not that I don’t want to come with you. I just—I’m afraid I’ll put you in danger. Again,” she finished in a whisper. “Samael used me to try to kill you. It almost worked. I’m not strong enough, Ash. I’ll get you killed protecting me.”

  “I can keep you safe.”

  “But you don’t need to. You three can move faster and hide better without me. You’re all tougher and stronger. I’ll slow you down and limit your options and make everything harder. This school has the best protection available; it’s where politicians and billionaires send their kids. I’ll be perfectly safe, especially since Samael doesn’t need me anymore. How can I put you all at risk when I have a safe place to go already?”

  He watched her, his eyes searching hers. “Are you sure?”

  She bit her lip. No, she wanted to cry. No, she wanted to go with him. Be with him, know he was safe, guard his back. Once he went into hiding, he would be gone. People hiding from murderous warlords couldn’t pop by for social visits. If he went into hiding without her, she wouldn’t see him again. Possibly ever again.

  But how could she justify going with them? Raum had been right: she wasn’t strong enough for their world. Ash would get hurt or killed protecting her, or his enemies would use her against him like Samael had. He was safer without her to protect and for that reason alone she would let him go.

  “You’ll have to figure out a way to send me messages,” she whispered. “So I know you’re doing okay.”

  He nodded. Heaving a sigh, he shooed the dragonets out of his lap and got painfully to his feet. Piper forced her weary body to stand as well. Ash had deemed the puncture wound in her back shallow and non-life-threatening but it still hurt like—well, like she’d been stabbed in the damn back. She hadn’t mentioned the broken bone in her hand; she didn’t want to make him feel even guiltier about hurting her.

  Zwi and Zala suddenly looked toward the unseen half of the battlefield and let out warning chirps.

  “Someone is coming,” Seiya said. “We should—”

  Before she could finish, Miysis and six of his bodyguards appeared from amidst the crumbled remains of the bridges. Seiya sighed in displeasure, their departure now delayed. When the Ras drew level with Piper and the three daemons, Miysis stopped. His gaze moved across the leveled expanse of ground that stretched for a hundred yards, nothing but gravel and blood.

  “Is that—?”

  “Samael’s army?” Ash cut in tonelessly, sounding disconcertingly like Raum. “Yes.”

  Miysis faced the draconian. His face was studiously blank. “We killed at least fifty. That leaves one hundred and fifty elite knights.”

  Ash’s expression didn’t change. “Yes.”

  “You used the Sahar.” Miysis exhaled carefully. “I see you’re following in your ancestor’s footsteps, Ashtaroth.”

  Piper stiffened. “Ash wasn’t killing innocent townspeople,” she snapped. “You should be thanking him.”

  Miysis ignored her, locked in a staring contest with Ash. She rolled her eyes. Men.

  “Where’s the Sahar?” Miysis asked abruptly.

  She folded her arms. “I dropped it over there somewhere.” She nodded toward the field of gravel.

  Shadows slid across Miysis’s eyes as he checked her truthfulness. He glanced in the direction she’d indicated then back to her. “Do you need a healer? There’s blood on your face and arm.”

  She touched her head where something had hit her during the fight. Her hair was matted with dried blood. “Yeah, but not this second.”

  Miysis turned to Ash. “Piper said you were probably dead.”

  “Probably was,” Ash retorted tonelessly. “Why do you care?”

  Miysis pressed his lips together. “You stole the Sahar from me.”

  “Yep.”

  “Why?”

  “Needed it.”

  “For what?”

  Ash raised his eyebrows and shot a pointed look at the wasted remains of the battlefield. Miysis’s jaw clenched.

  Ash tilted his head to one side, popping his neck. “Look, Ra,” he said, “it wasn’t personal. I needed to borrow it. Saved the damn day, so I don’t know why you’re complaining, but I can pay you back for the loan if it’ll comfort your ego.”

  “Pay me back?” Miysis repeated suspiciously.

  “Yes or no, Ra. I’m not waiting all day.”

  “What—”

  “Yes,” Piper interrupted. “Ash will pay you back. Something nice.”

  Ash made a face at her as though she’d foiled his plan. Facing Miysis, he stepped forward. Miysis stepped back just as fast. His bodyguards tensed.

&
nbsp; “Grow a backbone, cat-boy.”

  Ash reached out and hooked two fingers through the magic-dampening collar around Miysis’s neck. The Ra’s eyes widened. Magic sizzled the air, sparking around Ash. A quiet popping sound accompanied by the smell of scorched metal. With a fizzle, the collar crumbled.

  Ash dropped his hand. Miysis pressed both hands to his throat.

  “It’s gone,” he stuttered. “That’s it? That’s all it took? I’ve been wearing that thing for six goddamn weeks and you could have had it off in ten seconds?”

  Piper snorted back a laugh at Miysis’s expression, all signs of princely composure gone.

  “Go get your Sahar, Miysis,” she told him. “You can complain later.”

  Still muttering, Miysis turned and stalked away with his bodyguards. Piper shook her head and turned to Ash.

  “That was a nice thing to do,” she told him.

  “Don’t say that. You’ll ruin my reputation.”

  “Your reputation sucks anyway.”

  Seiya glanced toward Miysis and his searching soldiers. “We really need to go.”

  Ash nodded, then glanced at Piper. “You two get started. I’ll be right behind you.”

  Seiya scowled but turned. Piper caught one more glimpse of Lyre—his mesmerizing black eyes making her knees go weak—before they quickly moved toward the trees. Ash turned back to her and stepped closer. His thumb brushed her cheek, wiping away an escaped tear.

  “Did I ever tell you why I wore that piece of red silk?” he asked softly.

  She shook her head.

  “After I tried to escape with Seiya and we were caught, Samael decided to keep us separated. As his soldiers dragged us apart for the last time, I grabbed a handful of her dress and that piece tore free.” He touched a hand to the braid along the side of his head. “I started wearing that piece of silk so she would see it and know I hadn’t given up. It was my promise to her that someday we would be free. She started wearing her own so I would see she was still fighting too.”

  “That’s why you aren’t wearing it anymore,” she guessed. “Because you fulfilled your promise.”

  He nodded. “Now I’m making a new promise.”

 
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