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

  It’s not me, she screamed in her head. Ash, it’s not me!

  He loosened his hold, shifting his grip to her shoulders as he leaned back to take in her face. He touched her tear-streaked cheek.

  “Why are you crying? Are you hurt?” He glanced past her. “Is anyone following you?”

  Samael made her shake her head.

  “Zwi, check for pursuit,” he said. He pulled her deeper into the shadow of the tree. “How did you get away?”

  She didn’t answer. Maybe Samael didn’t trust his ability to perfectly impersonate her if he talked too much. Instead, her hand rose and gripped his wrist. “Where is Seiya?”

  “She’s safe, hiding with Lyre. They’re waiting for us. We need to go.”

  “Where?” The question came out a little too forceful.

  Ash looked at her and wariness flickered in his gaze. “How did you escape, Piper?” he asked again.

  I didn’t. She tried to communicate the words with every ounce of intensity she had.

  “I—” Samael made her gasp. Her shoulders hunched as a sob made her chest heave. Her legs went limp and she fell forward—

  —and Ash caught her.

  No, she screamed. No!

  Her hand contorted, hooking a finger through the hole in the handle of the hidden knife. It slid silently from its sheath.

  Ash pulled her up, propping her against his side. He trusted her. He didn’t think she would hurt him. It didn’t even occur to him that she was a danger to him.

  She turned the knife in her hand as she leaned helplessly against him, keeping his hands occupied with holding her up.

  He trusted her. Why did he trust her so much?

  “Ash,” Samael whispered in her voice, looking up to meet his worried gaze.

  She pressed the knife against his thigh. His eyes widened with surprise when he felt the sharp point through his pants.

  Ash! she silently screamed.

  She shoved the blade into his leg.

  He threw her off him and sprang backward. She landed hard on her back, her lips smiling as she watched him jerk the knife out of his thigh and stare at it. His stare turned to her, eyes blacker than pitch.

  She’d killed him. Oh God, she’d killed him.

  “Did you think it would be that easy?” Samael asked him, the words smooth and cool as he smiled with her mouth.

  Ash dropped the knife. He took a staggering step sideways, leaning against the tree as he pressed a hand to the wound. His face had gone white.

  “Works fast, doesn’t it?” Slowly, more gracefully than Piper had ever moved in her life, she rose to her feet. “You could kill me. Do you want to kill me, Ash?” Her arms spread open, inviting his attack.

  His face tightened as his stare swept over her, trying to determine if the person in front of him was Piper or an imposter. His nostrils flared as he inhaled her scent. Draconians had acute senses; Ash could recognize Piper’s individual scent, the one telltale that couldn’t be faked with illusion.

  Piper’s hand lifted and she pulled down the collar of her shirt, revealing the band of gold around her neck.

  “You should be grateful, Ash,” her voice commented coolly. “This collar was originally intended for you. Such a shame you are no longer useful.”

  Ash’s chest rose and fell too rapidly. He leaned against the tree a little more. “Such a shame it would have taken all your magic to control me with something like that. It’s only working on Piper because she doesn’t have magic.”

  “You underestimate the collar.”

  Ash looked as though he were having trouble standing. Agony twisted inside her as she was forced to watch the poison work its way through his system. Her fault. All her fault.

  “Your pain will end soon,” Samael told Ash through her. Her lips smiled. “I think it fitting you die alone and forgotten.”

  Ash didn’t answer as he slid a little farther down the tree, his strength beginning to fail.

  “Goodbye, Ash.”

  Her body turned. She fought pointlessly, trying to turn back, desperate to run to him, hold him, tell him how sorry she was, how pathetic she was. Her legs moved, carrying her away from him.

  She sensed more than heard movement behind her. Before she—meaning Samael—could turn, Ash slammed into her back. His hand closed tightly around her throat, forcing her head up and back until she could see nothing but sky. At the same time, she felt him shove his other hand into the front pocket of her shirt.

  “Piper will kill you, Samael, you bastard,” he snarled in her ear. “Sooner or later, she will.”

  Her elbow cocked and flew back. The attack grazed his ribs as he shoved her away. She fell on her hands and knees before leaping up and spinning around. Ash had already backed away. As she faced him, he slowly sank to the ground, breathing hard. A sheen of perspiration shone on his face; the lethal fever was setting in.

  “I doubt she will,” Samael said calmly in Piper’s voice. “But either way, you will not live to know.”

  Ash didn’t respond as he slumped against a tree trunk. He watched her with unfocused gray eyes as she turned. Wordless anguish tore through her as she walked away, leaving him to die. As she stepped out of the trees and into the bright morning sun, a panicked, animal wail rose from behind her as Zwi found her dying master.

  The tears kept falling, running pointlessly down her cheeks as Samael turned her toward the camp and brought her back to him.

  . . .

  The camp was nearly deserted by the time she staggered past the last remaining tent. Samael had forced her to run the entire way back. She was pretty sure she had torn muscles. Her legs burned and a stitch stabbed her ribs with each gasp. But the pain didn’t come close to competing with the agony inside her.

  Samael was waiting for her. He sat atop his white horse, one of a dozen his army had brought through the Void to Earth. The pale beast looked even less like a horse up close; it was far more carnivorous. A dozen of his elite guards surrounded him, each on their own horse-beast, watching her approach with impatience.

  “Piper. Well done.”

  She stared at him. She had no choice because he still hadn’t released his control over her body. Maybe he realized she would collapse if he did.

  “You will remain in the medic tent until I return.”

  She backed away from him, her body moving without her command. Samael and his soldiers set out, their mounts’ hooves thundering against the earth as they pushed straight into a gallop. Her trembling legs staggered toward the tent. The flaps were drawn back and the cots were ready to accept the wounded. Only a dozen. Samael wasn’t expecting many wounded.

  The moment she crossed the threshold, the collar released its hold on her body. Her legs gave out. She collapsed with a scream of anguish. Doubling over, clutching her stomach, she wept uncontrollably. She gripped her upper arms with enough force to bruise, trying to squeeze out the feeling of Samael inside her, controlling her. Her last sight of Ash was burned into her memory. The sobs came hard and wild, ripping through her. A failure. She was a complete failure. Instead of accepting her fate and letting the poison kill her, she’d kept her life in exchange for Ash’s.

  “Hey. Hey!”

  She raised her head and saw, through a blur of tears, someone standing over her.

  “Get out of the way,” the medic snapped. “You’re in the middle of the entryway. And shut up!”

  The female medic wandered over. “Give her a tranq shot, Aleph. She’s hysterical.”

  “I’m not wasting drugs on her. We might need them.”

  The woman snorted harshly. “No, we won’t. Two hundred of our elite knights against less than half that many Ra soldiers? We’ll wipe them out in an hour.”

  Piper’s sobs caught in her chest. Her wide eyes whipped toward the medics. Two hundred elite knights? But Miysis’s scouts had counted only a dozen elites. The rest were regular soldiers. Unless Samael had disguised them so Miysis would underestimate his force—so Miysis would try
to defend instead of flee.

  Aleph noticed her staring at them. “Get out of the way,” he barked.

  His boot slammed into her ribs. She rolled with it, tumbling over until she smacked into the base of a cot. Fumbling onto her hands and knees, she crawled into the corner behind the cot and curled into a ball. Aleph yelled at her to be quiet. She struggled to keep silent as sobs wracked her entire body. It took her a long time to regain a shadow of control.

  Two hundred of Samael’s best knights against her father, Miysis, and eighty soldiers, not elite warriors trained in the art of killing. The only daemon who might’ve had power and skills on par with Samael’s knights was Ash—and Piper had killed him.

  She couldn’t think. The pain in her legs barely touched her consciousness. All she could see, all she could think, all she could feel was that they were all dead. Miysis. Her father. Ash. And each one was her fault.

  She couldn’t stop the tears but the sobs slowly diminished as exhaustion took its toll. She slumped alone in the corner, face resting on the rough floor mats, fists clenched around handfuls of her shirt so tightly it hurt. Grief held her immobile on the floor, leaving room for nothing else.

  She eventually opened her aching eyes, staring sightlessly at the sunny entrance to the tent. Samael had forbidden her from leaving it. She could do nothing but wait to find out how many more would die that morning. Her fault. Her failure. She’d led Samael here. She’d doomed them. The tearing anguish gripped her again, threatening to overwhelm her. Her stare darted around the tent for a distraction, anything to hold back the agony for one more minute.

  Her gaze landed on the heavy chest sitting on the long table at the back of the tent—and her breath caught.

  The chest held the deadly little jar of Blood Kiss—and its antidote. A large dose of Blood Kiss could kill in two hours. It had been maybe half an hour since she’d stabbed Ash with the poisoned blade. Her heart squeezed. The antidote lost its effectiveness after the fever kicked in and required a larger dose the longer the poison was in the victim’s system. It was a long shot. A huge long shot.

  But she had to try. If she could get the antidote to Ash in time, maybe she could save him.

  Carefully, she stood. The medics were still occupied in a discussion at the other end of the tent. She took a cautious step toward the chest. Fire ripped through her body.

  Her knees gave out and she collapsed, choking back a scream. She turned away from the chest and the pain faded. Damn it all. Samael must have decided she shouldn’t go near the chest, probably to prevent her from poisoning herself to escape him. Despair crushed her hope into nothing. A way to save Ash, right in front of her, and she couldn’t touch it. And even if she could get the antidote, she couldn’t leave the tent. Samael had commanded her to wait here for him.

  She had to get the collar off. How? How?

  Ash could have done it. He could break almost any collar. He’d even said the collar wouldn’t have worked on him because he had too much magic. Why didn’t she have magic? Why was she so helpless, so completely useless? She squeezed her eyes shut against the fresh sobs rising in her chest.

  And remembered.

  Adrenaline flooded her body but she didn’t allow herself to react. She’d forgotten. The horror and agony of what she’d done to him had blinded her to everything. She’d forgotten about him grabbing her before she’d left. He’d squeezed her throat, half choking her, forcing her head back—and he’d put his other hand in her pocket.

  He’d forced her head up so she wouldn’t see what he was doing—so Samael wouldn’t see. And Samael couldn’t feel what she felt. Samael had no idea what Ash had done.

  But what exactly had he done with her pocket?

  She closed her eyes tightly so she wouldn’t be tempted to look; who knew whether Samael was watching? Breathing deeply, she slipped a trembling hand into the left breast pocket of her shirt. For a second, it felt empty and she almost howled with soul-tearing desolation. Then her fingers brushed something small, smooth, and cool. A stone?

  Her hand closed around it and she felt the uncanny weight of it, the alien buzz of power against her skin.

  Not a stone. The Stone.

  Ash had given her the Sahar Stone. How had he gotten it? When? What the hell?

  Someone had broken the spells Samael had cast on the Sahar. Had it been Ash? He’d seen the Stone and hadn’t noticed anything odd, but he hadn’t handled it either. Ash must have . . . somehow talked Miysis into giving him the Sahar? No, Miysis would never have given it up willingly, especially not to Ash. Samael didn’t know who had it, which meant Ash had never confronted Miysis. That meant Ash . . .

  Ash had stolen the Sahar from Miysis.

  He’d stolen the Sahar. Again!

  She had no idea why he’d done it but she knew why he’d given her the Stone. So she could kill Samael. He’d said so as he’d shoved it into her pocket. He was dying and couldn’t use it anyway. He’d stolen it . . . for her. In case he couldn’t free her. So she had a way to free herself.

  That stupid draconian had risked the whole damn world by giving her the Sahar with the hope that Samael wouldn’t find out she had it before she could kill him.

  Her hand clenched convulsively around it. Samael hadn’t forbidden her from using magic. And Ash had told her the collar she wore couldn’t withstand much magic. She allowed herself a moment to be amazed. Had he deliberately given her all the tools and information she needed after she had betrayed him, while he was poisoned, and without clueing in Samael?

  Goddamn it all, she had to save him. Time was running out—if it wasn’t already too late.

  Squeezing the Sahar in her fist, she backed into the farthest corner of the tent. She still hadn’t looked at it and couldn’t until she got the collar off. If Samael saw through her eyes that she had it . . . she couldn’t risk it. Closing her eyes, she pressed the Sahar against her chest.

  The last time she’d tapped the Stone, the lust for violence had instantly possessed her. She could not allow that. Somehow, she had to prevent the Sahar from overwhelming her. Or at the very least, she had to channel the violence where she wanted it to go. Before, she’d used her hatred of Samael to wake the Stone. This time she filled her mind with thoughts of Ash. She had to save him. She had to protect him. She would destroy anyone who threatened him.

  To save him, she had to destroy the collar. It controlled her. It was evil. She hated it. She would destroy it.

  Help me, she thought to the Sahar. Help me destroy this evil thing.

  Heat sparked in her palm with growing speed. Hate for the collar rose inside her. Before she went mad with it, she thought about Ash. Held him in her mind like a life preserver in an ocean of violence. She couldn’t lose sight of her purpose: Saving him. Protecting him. She would destroy the collar so she could save him.

  Her mind split, violence on one side, determination to save Ash on the other. With the Stone tight in one hand, she closed the other around the collar. The muscles in her arms seized, but she was already touching it. Destroying it would take nothing more than concentration and willpower now.

  She had no idea how Ash broke collars. Maybe there was a trick to it, some kind of strategy or spell. She didn’t know how to do any of that. So she gathered the power thundering through her body and threw it at the collar.

  The ring of gold hummed like a wild thing, vibrating impossibly fast as magic rushed into it. Violent desire bubbled in her head. Ash. This was for him. The collar, she thought at the Sahar. The collar!

  Power burned through her, a rushing wave of euphoria that threatened to wipe her mind blank. She concentrated on the collar. She hated it. Only it. It was the target of all the rage and violence churning through her. The Stone flared hotter. She pressed it harder to her chest, knowing it must be glowing. Power surged from her and into the collar. It vibrated harder. Not enough. It wasn’t breaking.

  “What are you doing?” The shout came from somewhere nearby. Aleph. Too close. “What
the hell are you doing?”

  Panic flared. She mentally grabbed for the Sahar, demanding more—and it responded.

  Magic flooded her body like a thousand blades of fire. Ecstasy turned into agony. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as it ripped through her and drove into the collar. A maelstrom of magic screamed inside her. She could feel things within her tearing, but whether physical or metaphysical she couldn’t tell. Pain raged through her every nerve. Fire exploded in her skull, agony turning her vision white.

  The collar was burning her. It vibrated so hard she could barely keep her grip on it. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t breaking.

  More, she commanded the Stone.

  Power blasted into her. Her lungs unlocked and she screamed. Agonizing, snapping pain split her head as something in her splintered apart. She couldn’t think. The collar. She had to destroy the collar.

  The magic tore through her and slammed into the collar.

  The gold ring shattered in an explosion of magic that turned the world white.

  . . .

  The hall was long and dimly lit but comfortably familiar. Excitement quivered along her nerves. She allowed a little skip to enter her step as she walked. It had been nearly six months since she’d seen them. Too long. She paused to comb her fingers through her golden hair, arranging the loose curls to frame her face, and smiled.

  Sometimes her luck amazed her. Her, a dual-blooded half-breed, had somehow captured the interest of the two most powerful daemons in all the worlds. Astounding. It had been three years since she’d first met them and sometimes it caught her by surprise during unguarded moments. After so long, they still welcomed her company.

  Well, usually they did. Some days were more difficult than others. They were opposites, her two daemons. Sun and moon, heat and cold. Their friendship was at best uneasy, their alliance precarious at the same time it was solid as stone. They were so alike, yet their differences were irreconcilable. Both powerful. Regal. Brilliant. And of course, beautiful.

  She slowed her steps, humming to herself. Not one, but two gorgeous, powerful daemons wanted her . . . what did that say about her? She was most certainly desirable. She was powerful in her own right, her unique dual bloodlines giving her enough magic to rival a full-blooded daemon. Not daemons of their caliber, of course, but nevertheless, she was not weak. They liked that. Her fire. Her confidence. They could not intimidate her—not much anyway.

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