Feed the Flames (Steel & Stone) by Annette Marie


  “Go!” he shouted. “Go before it’s too late.”

  “I’m not leaving you!”

  “I can’t come with you,” he snarled. “You can escape. You need to go. You—”

  His face went even whiter and he sank to his knees, wrapping his arms around his middle. She jumped to his side, kneeling as she gripped his shoulder.

  “Let me see,” she said, her voice crackling in her throat. “Let me heal you.”

  “You can’t heal this.” He hunched further. “Go. Just go.”

  “I’m not leaving you.”

  He listed sideways. She grabbed for him, but he fell before she could, landing on his side on the gravel with one wing crushed under him.

  “Ash!”

  She pulled on his shoulder to turn him onto his back. His eyes were shut, face contorted in pain. Panic pounded through her as she touched his chest and felt the blood drenching his shirt.

  His eyes cracked open. “Go, Seiya. You need to go.”

  “I can’t.”

  “You have to.”

  She took his hand, crushing it in hers. “I can’t leave you!”

  His chest rose and fell with rough breaths. His eyelids flickered.

  “Please, Seiya,” he whispered. “I swore you’d be free. Don’t ... don’t let me die for nothing.”

  “You’re not dying.” Her voice broke as tears spilled over. “You can’t die.”

  “Please, Seiya.”

  The words came out breathless, almost soundless. His eyes rolled back then focused again as he fought to stay conscious. Sobs rose in her chest, threatening to tear her apart, but she held them in as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Blood soaked her clothes.

  “Ash, don’t die. Don’t leave me. We’re almost there. The ley line is right there.”

  His eyes closed. His chest rose with effort, the breath dragging.

  “Ash,” she wept. “Don’t. Please don’t.”

  His lips moved, forming a silent word. Please.

  “I can’t, Ash,” she cried, clutching him as her heart ripped apart with each passing second. “I can’t leave you. You need to stay with me. We’ll escape together. It’s—it’s right there.”

  She crushed him against her as though she could hold him together and keep him alive with nothing but the strength of her embrace. He couldn’t die. He couldn’t. He was invincible. He was her protector, her guardian. He would always be with her. They would always be together.

  Blood continued to seep into her clothes as his breaths grew faster and shallower. She held him tighter as she broke inside. Her fault. This was her fault. Why hadn’t she been stronger? Why hadn’t she been there to fight by his side, to protect his back?

  The stream gurgled, splashing loudly against the gravelly bank. Seiya’s eyes, blurred by tears, lifted to the water. It shimmered and rippled like a mirage.

  Gravel crunched under a heavy footstep. She looked around sharply.

  A man stood half a dozen paces away downstream—tall, brown hair, unremarkable, and wearing civilian clothing. He wasn’t a soldier. He wasn’t even a reaper. She should have been afraid, but there was no room left inside her for anything but agony and grief.

  “Who are you?” she rasped.

  His eyes travelled across her then over Ash, lingering on his chest where the lethal wounds wept his blood for the earth to absorb. Despite facing two draconians out of glamour, he showed no signs of fear.

  His gaze rose to hers again, and when he spoke, his voice was like the soft caress of an angel’s hand across her cheek.

  “I am Vejovis.”

  CHAPTER 3

  SEIYA shuddered and opened her eyes. Remembered grief constricted her heart and squeezed her lungs. She could still feel Ash’s blood on her hands and resisted the urge to look. Though nothing stained her skin, in her mind the blood was always there.

  Glancing around the barren cells of her prison, she tried to relax again. She’d only intended to close her eyes for a moment to rest, but she must have drifted off. How many times had she relived that night?

  She was a different person from the thirteen-year-old who had held her brother and cried as he’d bled out in her arms. As a child under Samael’s rule, she’d endured the abuse and punishments by latching on to her brother’s strength. She’d been weak, timid, pathetic. Her confidence had come from Ash. When he’d been near, she’d felt proud and strong. When he hadn’t been, she would hide, cry, and beg for mercy from her jailors.

  But that night had changed everything.

  Before that night, she’d always believed, on some level, that Ash could survive anything. She’d seen him hurt many times. He would always come back stronger. He would protect her. He would save her.

  That night, she’d learned the hardest lesson of her life: no one was invincible. Death was one mistake away for them all, and her brother was no exception.

  Barely a week later, after Samael had permanently separated them and with the wounds from her punishment still healing, she’d gone to Raum and asked him to train her to fight—to kill. If death was one mistake away, she would make sure beyond any doubt that she wouldn’t be the mistake that ended up costing Ash his life.

  She let out a deep breath, pushing the past out of her mind. Turning around, she studied Lyre again, watching his slow, shallow breathing. Although the dim light outside the tiny window never changed, she was guessing over a day had passed since she’d first woken. She had no idea how long they’d been unconscious before that, but judging by the raw, dry thirst in her throat and the hollow ache in her belly, it had been several days at least.

  Stretching an arm through the bars again, she grabbed his elbow.

  “Lyre?” She shook his arm. “Lyre! Wake up!”

  He let out a soft groan. Hope shot through her. She shook him again. “Come on, Lyre. Open your eyes.”

  Another muffled noise. His head turned and bleary golden eyes squinted at her.

  “Seiya?” he croaked.

  She heaved a huge sigh. “You’re awake.”

  He looked around. “Where are we?”

  “The Ra embassy.”

  His gaze focused a little as it travelled across the barred cells.

  “First class ...” he mumbled, rubbing a hand over his face. Slowly, and with lots of wincing, he sat up. “What happened? I don’t remember a damn thing.”

  “Do you remember going through the ley line? We were ambushed on the other side. They used drugs.” Rage hoarsened her voice on the last words. She swallowed, searching for a semblance of calm. “Ash didn’t come through after us. Something must have happened to him.”

  He dug his fingers into his temples as though he were trying to massage his brain awake. “What about Piper?”

  “What about Piper?”

  He shot her a cold look. “Did she come through the ley line?”

  “Zala didn’t see her. If she did come through, it was after they took us away.”

  “Damn.” He let out a long breath. “How long have we been here?”

  “I can only guess, but I think three to four days.”

  “Damn,” he said again. “I would kill for a drink of water. Have you seen any of our Ra friends since arriving?”

  “Not a soul.”

  “Hmph. Well, they should know we’re awake now. Maybe they’ll swing by for a visit.”

  Seiya’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

  He nodded toward the corner of the room. She squinted. A small, dark rectangle near the ceiling—a camera. Her jaw clenched with chagrin. She hadn’t noticed the cameras in each corner. She was too used to the bastille, which didn’t need electricity to control its prisoners. Other than a few exceptions like the Chrysalis center, Asphodel had no electricity. Why bother with filthy, polluting generators when they could use magic for almost everything?

  “Miysis betrayed us,” Lyre muttered. “The bastard.”

  “We should have expected it,” Seiya said, leaning against the bars
. “He was never trustworthy. Piper shouldn’t have gone to him for help.”

  “We all knew he wasn’t trustworthy. The deal was doomed from the start. We should have been more careful.”

  “Or better yet, Piper shouldn’t have dragged us into it.”

  His eyes cut to her.

  “Speak for yourself,” he snapped. “No one dragged me anywhere.”

  “Ash was—”

  “I don’t remember Piper dragging him either. She even encouraged us not to come.”

  “She didn’t honestly try to convince—”

  “We knew what we were getting into,” he barked hoarsely. “Ash and I didn’t need her to spell it out for us—we can make our own decisions—and you decided to come too, so quit blaming her for everything that happened.”

  “If not for her, none of this would have happened!”

  “You’re right, because if not for her, Ash would be dead and you’d still be in Asphodel, pregnant with the next generation of Samael’s slaves.”

  She bared her teeth as fury washed through her.

  He slashed a hand through the air before she could retort. “Just drop it. We have more important things to focus on.”

  She struggled to contain her anger, slowly bottling it up for later. It was hard though; her brother was missing, possibly dead, and Lyre was still defending Piper. Over the past few months, she and Lyre had learned to get along well enough most of the time, but they clashed fairly often, usually as soon as Piper’s name came up.

  “We need to get out of here,” he said. “Since the Ras haven’t killed us, that means they have plans for us. I really don’t want to know what those plans are.”

  “How do you propose we escape?” she asked, sarcasm tinging her voice. “I haven’t had any luck with that yet.”

  He flicked another glance around the cells. “Can Zala get inside to help us?”

  “It’s too risky.”

  He nodded, not questioning it. Seiya wouldn’t ask Zala to risk entering the embassy, not with enemies everywhere—not unless it was life or death.

  “Okay, so we’re on our own. We won’t be getting out of here without either keys or magic.”

  She tapped the collar around her neck. He had a matching one. “We don’t have either.”

  “I was aware,” he said dryly.

  A long moment of silence passed. Lyre rubbed a hand through his hair, scrubbing at streaks of dried blood matting the locks on the left side of his head. He dropped his hand and sighed as though resigning himself to the inevitable.

  “Ash can break collars,” he said, “but I can’t. So a few months ago, I started working on a solution.”

  “Did you find a way to smuggle bolt cutters with you everywhere?”

  He gave her a disparaging look. “I’ve been working on a counter spell.”

  Her eyebrows shot up, animosity forgotten. She knew Lyre liked to tinker with magic—she’d seen him at it on the long, boring nights spent in hiding during the last two months—but she hadn’t realized he’d been working on anything in particular.

  “A counter spell to a collar?” she repeated.

  “Yeah.” He reached into his shirt and pulled out a silver chain, displaying a row of marble-sized quartz stones of all different colors. There were over a dozen of them. The necklace looked like plain jewelry; otherwise, the Ras would have likely taken it away from him. She’d glimpsed it on him before, but he usually kept it out of sight.

  Selecting a pale pink gem, he held it up.

  “Since I can’t destroy collars, I’ve been developing a spell that acts as a temporary muffler on the collar’s spell.”

  “I’ve never heard of anything like that. You developed this spell?”

  “Yes.”

  “As in created it?”

  “Yes.”

  “No one taught it to you?”

  “No.”

  She stared at him.

  He scowled at the gem as if it had personally offended him. “It’s not perfect. I wanted to disable the collar entirely, but I haven’t been able to identify the origin spell. Right now, mine only disturbs the weaving rather than destroys it.”

  “So your spell will disable the collar for ... how long?”

  “Maybe five minutes.”

  She masked her shock. Most daemons performed magic through on-the-spot spell-casting. Magic could also be woven into materials such as metals and gemstones, but that was far more complex. Creating weavings that could interact with other weavings was high-level magic. She couldn’t do anything like that, and neither could Ash. Sure, they’d learned how to set a spell in a piece of stone or metal, but they weren’t inventing intricate, interactive weavings.

  Developing new magic was the life’s work of the most gifted daemon minds. The only daemons she knew with that kind of talent worked at Chrysalis, Samael’s most sinister business. They’d developed some of the most complex magic she’d ever heard of, like the collar that had nearly killed Ash.

  She studied Lyre, swallowing the touch of suspicion trying to creep into her voice. Spell weaving wasn’t something a daemon picked up on the fly.

  “Where did you learn to make stuff like that?”

  He rolled his eyes. “You’re right. This is the perfect time to share my life’s story.”

  She huffed in annoyance.

  He resolutely held up the chain with the glittering row of gems. What spells had he embedded in the other stones? She’d never seen him use one before, but if they were all complex and unique—and therefore desirable—he would most certainly avoid showing them off unless he was desperate. Like now.

  “The weaving I’ve been developing works,” he told her, “but I haven’t figured out how to trigger it without magic.”

  “So you’re saying it can disable a collar, but we can’t activate it unless we somehow disable a collar first?”

  “It only needs a touch of magic.”

  “I don’t know about you, but this collar is blocking all my magic.”

  He squinted at the pink quartz. “There’s a way to squeeze little bits of magic out from around a collar. I saw Miysis doing it when he was stuck in his collar for weeks. He might have had someone tamper with the spells though, or it could’ve been a defective collar. I don’t know. But maybe there’s a way I can trigger the spell.”

  “If you trigger the spell and disable your collar, then what?”

  He gave her a sideways look. “Actually, I was going to use it on your collar. Then we’d have about five minutes for you to blast us out of here.”

  “Sounds plausible ... if you can trigger that spell.”

  “Well, I—”

  “Wait,” she said sharply, springing to her feet. “I hear footsteps.”

  Lyre jumped up too, hastily tucking his chain out of sight, and they both fell silent. She strained her ears, picking up on the faint sound of approaching steps. Four—no, five people. The door to their prison clanked as a bolt shifted. The door swung open and light burst inside, momentarily blinding her after so long in the near darkness.

  Four towering, heavily muscled Ra soldiers strode into the center hall. They were holding long-handled halberds in their hands, each point tipped with a glowing sphere of magic like a lit torch. A fifth person followed behind them.

  She was a tall woman, neither thin nor heavy but solidly built. Her body glittered with gold jewelry and decorations. A long, angled skirt of heavy material was wrapped around her waist, one side brushing the floor and the other baring most of her toned leg. A heavy gold belt with looping chains and shimmering blue topaz accented her waist. Similar material draped over her chest, leaving part of her abdomen bare, and a red sash adorned with jingling gold chains and sparkling jewels crossed her torso. Her belly button was pierced with a tiny topaz glittering against her cream skin.

  Heavy, luxurious material in deep red, embroidered with gold thread, hung from one shoulder all the way down to the floor. Her golden locks fell to her knees, braided and b
ound with red accents. A headpiece made of golden chains completed the outfit, with a topaz resting in the center of her forehead.

  Seiya resisted the urge to shrink as the woman’s eyes, more yellow than green, drifted over her. She’d never seen the traditional dress of a Ra. The woman looked like a desert queen.

  The four soldiers stopped across from Seiya’s and Lyre’s cells. The woman stood in the middle, her cool stare moving across them both. It eventually settled on Seiya.

  “A young draconian female,” she said, her musical voice reminiscent of shimmering icicles in deep winter. “Such a rare specimen to find, especially in these last few centuries.” Her lips curved. “I had begun to wonder whether we had successfully eliminated your caste from the worlds.”

  Seiya’s fingernails dug into her palms. “Who are you?”

  “I am Maasehet Ra.”

  A sensation like icy fingers swept down Seiya’s spine. Even as Samael’s slave, she’d learned about the members of the Ra’s ruling family. Maasehet was Miysis’s older sister and heir to the Ra family seat—one step down from the most powerful daemon in the Overworld. For the briefest moment, Seiya considered dropping her glamour and throwing one of her many blades at the Ra heir, but the attack would be futile. Her guards could counter any physical attack with magic.

  “What do you want with us?” she demanded, forcing anger into her voice—never show weakness to the enemy. “Why are you holding us here?”

  “Are you not aware of your value?” Maasehet asked. “In these past few days alone, I have received many bids for you. It was necessary that I personally inspect your worth before accepting any offers.”

  Seiya’s mouth twisted in disgust. “I am not a commodity for you to sell.”

  “No? Why should I not sell you? What use are you to me, other than sport to kill?”

  She gritted her teeth. If Maasehet saw her as nothing more than a price tag or a piece of meat, arguing the value of her life and freedom would be pointless. She would not lower herself to begging.

  Maasehet raised one eyebrow. “Unless, perchance, you might be valuable in some other way. Your history is most unique, having once been the cherished ward of Hades.”

  Cherished? Not the word Seiya would have chosen. Her eyes narrowed as she caught on. “You want me to reveal Hades secrets?”

 
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