Bind the Soul (Steel & Stone Book 2) by Annette Marie

  She swallowed, her mouth dry as dust. “I don’t want to die.”

  His expression didn’t soften. “Death is easy. Living is difficult.” He rose to his feet. “Come.”

  “I—I’m not ready.”


  She stood on trembling legs. He pushed his chair aside and opened the door. She straightened her dress and followed him out. The hall was as barren as the room: plain stone interrupted by heavy wooden doors. Raum strode away, not bothering to check whether she followed. She glanced over her shoulder in the opposite direction, wondering if she dared run for it. Not in high heels. Why couldn’t he have kidnapped her after she’d changed clothes?

  At the end of the hallway was a heavy metal door. On either side stood a guard dressed entirely in black—similar to Raum’s soldiers. Both daemons. They didn’t react in any way as Raum opened the door and let Piper walk ahead of him. She ducked between the guards, half expecting them to lunge for her. A stone stairway spiraled tightly upward. Another metal door. Two more guards. On the other side of the door was a small, empty antechamber. Raum pushed open the last door—polished, carved oak—and walked out.

  Piper stepped from rustic barrenness into understated opulence.

  A dark brown carpet ran down the center of the wide hall. Massive oil paintings hung on the smooth stone walls, interspersed with heavy tapestries embroidered with elaborate scenes. Small tables held jeweled silver ornaments and marble figurines. Samael had apparently spared no expense.

  She looked around and saw Raum was ten steps away. Again, she considered bolting. But the draconian was hardly a fool. He wouldn’t have allowed her the option of running if there were anywhere to run to. Gritting her teeth, she trotted awkwardly to catch up.

  He stopped and faced a small alcove. Folding his arms, he nodded toward it. She turned to look. It was a wide bow window framed by heavy curtains. A low bench followed the curve of the window. The crystalline glass was almost invisible, offering an unbroken view of the countryside.

  Dizziness swept over her as she stared out the window. A harsh buzzing filled her ears. The floor disappeared from beneath her feet.

  Raum’s hand connected hard with the back of her head. She yelped, twisting away from the blow.

  “What the hell?” She pressed one hand to the throbbing spot on her skull.

  “Don’t faint,” he told her, crossing his arms again.

  Keeping a tight mental hold on herself, she turned back to the window.

  Beyond the glass, a narrow valley stretched. Black mountains rose on either side, massive and jagged, tipped with snow. Trees with twisting, ropey trunks reared dozens of yards into the air before sprouting hundreds of spindly branches with dark, spiky leaves. Instead of grass, a mossy carpet was dotted with tiny red spots—flowers or berries. She recognized nothing, but that wasn’t why she’d almost fainted.

  Rising above the mountains, filling a third of the sky, was a planet.

  It shimmered in the deep blue sky, vanishing behind the pale violet mist that clung to the peaks of the mountains. Swirls of white and gold clouds whisked its distant atmosphere. The brilliant glare of the low sun lit a glowing halo around the planet’s circumference.

  She realized she was edging toward hyperventilation and pulled in a desperate breath.

  Unable to look at the planet, she peered in the opposite direction. The sun hung between two regal mountains, casting long shadows through the valley. She squinted and felt the floor drop out again.

  “Two suns?” she whispered. One hovered above and to the left of the other.

  “I wasn’t lying,” Raum murmured.

  She turned stiffly away from the window and its terrifying sights.

  “This is Asphodel. In the Underworld.”

  She swallowed the “impossible” she desperately wanted to utter. The view out that window was no illusion. There was a freaking planet blotting out half the damn sky.

  “How am I here?” she asked instead, voice rasping in her dry throat. “Only daemons can come and go from the Underworld and Overworld.”

  He twitched one shoulder in a disinterested shrug. “A common misconception. Humans and haemons can’t pass the Void to reach our world.”

  “The what?”

  “The emptiness between worlds.”

  “So how did I?”

  “You were unconscious and I shielded you.”

  She licked her lips. “Why don’t people know about this?”

  “There are few daemons who can carry someone through; it takes too much power. And when we do, we never bring them back again.”

  She exhaled shakily. “What is that—that planet? In the sky?”

  “περίσκιος. You would say it ‘Periskios.’”

  “But then this—this is—”

  “A different world from yours,” he interrupted impassively. “And you can never go back. Accept it now and it will be easier.”

  She clamped down on thoughts of alien planets and bridges through space. Raum had started walking again. She stumbled after him, numb. She could still see the huge planet in the sky. Home had never been so lost to her.

  Raum led her through the building. She barely saw any of it. Her general impression was of massive size and flawless, old world sophistication. They passed others in the halls and foyers: richly dressed daemons, some who appeared almost human, some clearly without glamour, and more black-uniformed guards. She walked, lost in a numb haze of shock. She was in the Underworld. Or was it on the Underworld? It was too much to take in. She couldn’t think.

  Raum finally stopped before a set of double doors made of polished black wood. He lightly tapped on the door and stepped back. Piper glanced around her. The doors, flanked by velvet-cushioned seats, stood at the end of the wide hall.

  One door swung silently open.

  A monster stepped out—seven feet tall, hugely muscled, scaly black skin, glowing yellow eyes, massive horns on its head. Its nostrils flared. Glowing eyes snapped toward her. Her muscles seized with terror. It bared a mouthful of pointed, yellow fangs, drool dripping from its jowls. A clawed hand flashed for her throat before she could unlock her muscles.

  Raum shoved the creature’s arm away, stepping in front of Piper. “Move along,” he told it.

  The beast growled softly, the sound filled with rage and yearning. It reluctantly turned away and stalked off on clawed feet, its steps impossibly silent. Raum grabbed her arm, dragging her after him into the room. She didn’t shift her stare from the creature. And she’d been scared of Ash? She’d thought he looked like a monster without his glamour?

  Pushing her out of the way, Raum pulled the door shut. The snick of the lock snapped her back to the present. She turned around to face the room. It was an office—huge, opulent, lined with bookshelves. A large, delicate birdcage in the corner held three jewel-colored birds with flowing tails. She hardly noticed them. Her attention had locked on the daemon sitting at the wide desk and refused to shift.

  His face was handsome but average. Thirty years old, if that. Strange pale hair, almost white with an ashy undertone, was pulled over one shoulder in a loose braid that fell below his collarbone. He wore a dark red dress shirt with the first couple buttons casually undone. Even sitting, he was clearly a tall, solidly built man. But really nothing spectacular, even with the strange hair.

  His gaze lifted to meet hers. His eyes—dark irises with the faintest hint of red—came to rest on her with the weight of storm clouds low in the sky, heavy with a torrential downpour about to be shed, electric with lightning ready to be unleashed. That stare slid through her like cold steel, baring her mind and soul to his scrutiny.

  He briefly examined her while she stood paralyzed. His presence filled the room. His attention commanded obedience. She could barely breathe while he analyzed her, his eyes discerning her doubts, her fears, her sins, the judgment of a god laid upon her.

  Raum prodded her forward. She stumbled toward the single chair waiting in fro
nt of the desk and sank down. The draconian positioned himself directly behind her.

  Samael leaned back in his seat. The magnetic force of his gaze didn’t waver, impossible to ignore yet impossible to meet.

  “I’ve heard quite a bit about you, Piper,” he said.

  She worked to keep her breathing even as his voice rumbled in her bones, rich with undeniable authority. Confidence. Power.

  “I’ve heard a lot about you too,” she replied, barely managing to hide a quaver. “You’re not what I expected.”

  “Am I not?” His lips curved, but the smile held no humor. “Do you know why you’re here, Piper?”

  She opened her mouth to deny it—but that would be stupid. She’d already told Raum she knew why she was here and she had no delusions about his loyalty. Everything she’d told him would doubtlessly be repeated word for word.

  She clenched her hands around the seat of her chair. “The Sahar.”

  He nodded, waiting.

  “I—I think . . . I think I might have used it.”

  “You are not certain?”

  “No.” Her brow furrowed as she hunched her shoulders. “I—I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was trying to—to punch the harpy. The Sahar was in my fist. Next thing I knew, the Stone was glowing and this blast of power . . . It killed them. I didn’t actually do anything.”

  He appeared to consider her words. She hunched a little more, trying not to visibly tremble. She’d been determined to keep some secrets, but the moment his stare unraveled her, the moment his voice drove through her, commanding a response, the words had just come out.

  “I don’t have any magic,” she added, barely more than a whisper. “I don’t know anything about casting spells or using lodestones.”

  “Simple magic is by and large instinctive,” he murmured. He tapped a finger thoughtfully on his desk. “Even if the attack was instinctive, how did you commune with a lodestone that has been unusable for centuries?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “How did you bypass the normal synaptic bond in order to use it?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “How did you tap a lodestone without any inherent magical abilities?”

  “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I really, honestly have no idea at all.”

  He slowly nodded. “I see. Tell me exactly what happened when you used the Sahar. Every detail. Begin with the harpies’ arrival.”

  Haltingly, she outlined the entire sequence of events, from the harpies’ ambush, to being dragged into the air, to their interrogation, and to her eventual, unintentional use of the Stone. While she spoke, a small part of her brain kept asking her what the hell she was doing. She was trying her absolute hardest to remember every detail as Samael had requested. But why? Why was she cooperating? Why wasn’t she resisting? Why wasn’t she sitting there like a dumb mute?

  When she finished, Samael frowned slightly. “An enigma, certainly.” His attention drifted to an open folder on his desk. He flicked his fingers dismissively. “Take her away.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Raum’s hand closed around her upper arm, pulling her roughly out of her seat. She tried to jerk away.

  “What? That’s it?” she asked Samael sharply, fighting back her panic. “I thought you wanted to figure out the Sahar thing.” If she were going to be interrogated, she wanted to get it over with.

  Samael turned a page over without looking up. “Yes, we will resume tomorrow.”

  “Why not now?” she demanded.

  Raum squeezed her arm in warning.

  Slowly, Samael’s gaze lifted. Reddish black eyes raked her like icy knives. He flicked a glance at Raum. The draconian effortlessly dragged her away from the desk. She clenched her jaw against a tirade of insults. Raum shoved her out the door. The leader of the Hades family didn’t even glance up—just like her father.

  Back in the hallway, she yanked her arm again. Raum let go. She spun to face him.

  “What the hell?” she snapped at him. “I did what you said. I told him everything.”

  He shrugged, capturing her arm again as he turned toward the long hall. “Let’s go.”

  She strained against his grip. “Where are you taking me?”

  “The bastille.”

  Fear bubbled up in her. “What the hell is the bastille?”

  His eyes met hers. “The dungeon.”

  . . .

  Sometimes the mind was its own worst torturer.

  Jammed into a corner of her cell, Piper wrapped her arms tightly around her knees. Every few seconds, a violent shiver wracked her body. Her teeth ached from chattering. Her head hurt from lack of sleep. Her eyes burned from staring pointlessly at the solid wall of darkness before her, straining to make out a shape, any shape.

  The bastille wasn’t a dungeon in the traditional sense. It was an elaborate, modern prison. Her three-by-six-foot cell was made of solid steel, broken only by the equally solid steel door and a narrow band of grating in the floor, which ran along the back wall. A foot below the grate, water flowed in a noisy gurgle.

  She knew precisely how large her cell was because she’d painstakingly measured it by touch as something to do. She’d counted the bars on the grate. She’d blindly searched for seams or imperfections in the steel walls and floor, tracing every inch she could reach.

  It hadn’t used up nearly enough time.

  The sound of the water was making her crazy. They hadn’t given her anything to eat or drink. Thirst was driving her to distraction but the reek of the water was a semi-effective counter. She knew what the grate in the floor was for, but without any fluid intake, she had yet to need to use it. Sooner or later, though, she would.

  The silver lining to the sound of the water was that it obscured the other sounds of the bastille. The walls were thick but not thick enough. Somewhere nearby, someone was crying hoarsely, the sound ripping from a throat so brutalized it barely sounded human. Another voice mumbled in a desperate, breathless chant, continuously running through the same three prayers.

  A little farther off, screams echoed with gruesome regularity.

  She tried not to listen, but it was hard. Several times, she caught herself whispering the words along with the praying prisoner. At that point, she would inevitably start pacing again. Her cell was exactly the wrong size—too narrow to pace for long without getting dizzy, big enough to tempt her to keep trying.

  Time was meaningless in the unbroken darkness. She had no idea how long she’d been in the cell but it had already been hours too long. She stayed curled in a trembling ball and tried hard not to think. She’d already done way too much thinking.

  It’d be easier to avoid her thoughts once the rats came back.

  She didn’t know what had drawn them to her cell, but a few hours ago, they’d climbed through the grate. She’d heard them squeaking in the darkness. She’d smelled the rotting stench of them, coated in the filthy water. At least five. Possibly ten. No more than twelve—she hoped.

  She’d tried ignoring them. Live and let live, right? For a little while, the rats had shuffled around at the opposite end of the cell. Eventually they’d gotten bolder. They’d squeaked their way closer. And closer.

  Rats, it turned out, had a taste for flesh.

  If she held still too long, the rats would creep over and start biting her. Her toes, her ankles, her fingers. She’d yell and kick at them in the dark, driving them toward the other end of the cell. A couple times, she’d chased them back down the grate. Eventually, though, they came back. And snuck closer. And started biting her again.

  If it hadn’t been for the rats, she might’ve tried to sleep. Aside from the rats, the stench, the nightmare sounds, the hunger, and the thirst, she was cold. Freezing. The bastille was underground and the steel walls and floor leached damp cold from the earth. The metal was icy to the touch. She couldn’t escape it. Her body heat barely warmed it. She’d been shivering for hours. Nothing she could do to warm up.

  The basti
lle jailors had taken her clothes. Lilith’s pendant. Even the pins in her hair. The shapeless pants and long-sleeved shirt were standard prison orange. She’d never understood the orange until she’d had to put the clothes on. They were horrible, ugly, and humiliating. They irrevocably labeled her as a prisoner. She had nothing of her life to cling to. No ties to comfort herself with.

  Eventually, Samael would want to see her again to work on figuring out the Sahar. She was so desperate to leave her cell that she would have gladly promised him almost anything. She now knew why he’d sent her here.

  With nothing to do, her only occupation was thinking: thinking about her discomfort, the rats, what horrible things were being done to the other prisoners in the bastille—and what might be done to her.

  Was Ash down here somewhere with her? She’d been dying to ask Samael during their conversation but had resisted. Asking about Ash would only confirm that she cared about him, and Samael would no doubt use it against her. But the thought of Ash being so close was driving her mad. The realization that this horrible place was his involuntary home made her sick. She wondered how many nights he’d spent in a tiny cell like hers. Maybe the very cell she was in. Maybe it was his fist that had made the dent in the door below the tiny barred window.

  Maybe the screams she heard were his.

  She tried not to think about him. There was nothing she could do to help him. She had to figure out how to keep Samael from killing her first. She had to stay useful to him, and that meant making sure he had trouble unraveling the mystery of the Sahar. But seeing as how she didn’t know the answers either, hiding information from him was pretty much impossible.

  She hugged her knees and tried hard to think of a plan, because if she didn’t, she might as well lie down and wait for the end to come. No one was coming to rescue her. Her father and uncle couldn’t enter the Underworld. Miysis wouldn’t even try; a Ra setting foot in Hades territory was equivalent to an injured rabbit walking into a wolf’s den. Lyre couldn’t get into Hades when he’d tried weeks ago in his search for Ash; that probably hadn’t changed.

  She was on her own. Her only possible ally was Ash—and he’d been trapped here long before her.

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