Reap the Shadows (Steel & Stone Book 4) by Annette Marie

  “I’ve been back for ten days,” she finished, “but Ash only just met up with me tonight.”

  She could feel Ash’s eyes on her but she didn’t look. He didn’t correct her simplified summary of their reunion, but Lyre had already noticed the friction between them. His gaze flicked across them, then moved to Kiev.

  “How about you?” he said cheerfully. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

  Kiev introduced himself and the two of them began discussing the circumstances of Kiev joining up with Ash. Piper listened with half an ear, struggling to keep her focus. Exhaustion dragged at her. She recalled that weird sucking sensation in her head when she’d drawn on her magic to break the dome shield. That very well might have been the feeling of pulling on magic that wasn’t there. She was so used to the unlimited power of the Sahar that she had no idea how much of her own magic she could reasonably expect to use safely.

  Eventually Ash stood. Kiev sighed wearily and clambered to his feet beside Lyre. Seiya slept on.

  “So where are we going?” Kiev asked.

  Ash hesitated. “I’m not sure. My base here was compromised last time.”

  Piper flinched again. She didn’t think he’d meant to remind her that Hades assassins had attacked his apartment in the city because of her, but she still heard the accusation. Gritting her teeth against the fatigued trembling in her muscles, she used the pillar to pull herself up.

  “The church is as safe a place as any,” she said. “You can recoup there for a day or two.”

  “I didn’t get the impression I was welcome,” Ash said.

  “Leave them to me,” she said grimly.

  He considered her offer for a moment before agreeing. He had no other options or she was sure he would have picked one that wasn’t dependent on her. He bent down and lifted Seiya off the floor. She barely stirred. Kiev followed Ash toward the door.

  Piper stood for a moment, leaning against the pillar to gather the vestiges of her strength. Ash’s coldness was like a poison in her blood that burned through her. She couldn’t stand it, but neither could she fix it. She just had to endure.

  She closed her eyes, sickness rising in her throat at the memory of the bloodlust that had taken her over when she’d fought the Ra daemons. She’d felt like a completely different person while shaded ... someone who wasn’t human anymore.

  Someone touched her arm. She opened her eyes to find Lyre standing beside her. He smiled softly and offered his hand. She took it, trying to smile back. He led her after the others, his hand warm around hers. She let him guide her, blinking away tears of self-loathing. She didn’t know who she was anymore, and it frightened her.

  . . .

  “So, basically, Ash and the others will need to stay here for a couple days,” Piper said, striving to sound casual. Her words might have been slurring from exhaustion.

  Uncle Calder gave a slow nod. They were sitting together on the front steps of the church, bathed in the light of the mid-morning sun, its warmth muted by the haze of smoke in the air. When she’d returned to the church with four daemons in tow, Calder had been waiting for her, his worry immediate and obvious. He’d even expressed concern for Seiya and Lyre, who looked more than worse for wear, and had directed them toward the kitchen for food.

  Her father, on the other hand, didn’t even know she had survived the night. He was out somewhere with a few of the Consuls.

  “So ... three draconians now?” A corner of Calder’s mouth lifted in a dry, little smile. “You do realize they’re one of the rarest daemon castes, right?”

  She huffed, lacking the energy for a real laugh. Her humor died quickly. “All three are Hades refugees. I know you and Father think Ash is a heartless assassin, but he’s not. He only did as ordered because Samael would have tortured his sister. Just look at Kiev. He’s still a kid but he’s been trained to kill. He didn’t choose that life. He was forced.”

  Calder studied her and she could almost see the usual rebuttals rising in his eyes: that draconians were mercenary by nature, that they were hired thugs, that there was no proof they weren’t acting of their own free will.

  “I was there,” she said, her voice quiet but not enough to hide the quiver of pain. “I saw it. Ash was tortured in front of my eyes to punish me.”

  Calder straightened a little, his jaw tensing. She’d spoken very little to him about her time in the Underworld as Samael’s prisoner. When she’d first returned, it had been too fresh and painful to discuss, and shortly afterward, she’d been shipped off to Westwood Academy. She could barely remember her last real conversation with her uncle.

  Letting out a slow breath as though expelling some strong emotion, he laid his hand over hers on the step and gently squeezed. “I’m sorry, Piper. I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you from that.”

  She gave him a wobbly smile, blinking away tears. “It’s not your fault. And I would do it all over again, because if I hadn’t ended up there when I did, Ash would have died a horrible death and Seiya would still be a prisoner.”

  “I’m glad you were able to help them,” he murmured. He looked across the horizon, then back to her. “Although you’re home again, you’re still strongly tied to the daemon world. You went deeper than any haemon I know, and that’s not a safe thing.”

  She sighed. “It’s worse than you think. Samael wants me dead, but now Miysis and the Ra family do too. I don’t know how I’m going to survive them both.”

  His hand tightened on hers. “What happened with the Ras?”

  “I made a deal with Miysis so he would take me to the Overworld, but then I broke it. He turned on us. Ash almost died. So did I, I guess. They took Seiya and Lyre prisoner and tried to sell them to Hades. That’s where we were tonight—getting them back.”

  Calder’s mouth tightened with worry. “This isn’t safe, Piper.”

  “Do you think I don’t know that?” she said, desperation creeping into her voice. “If I knew how to fix this, I would. But every time I try to get out of one mess, I end up even deeper in another.”

  He braced one arm on his knee and stared at the lightening sky. “This is a dangerous time for everyone. Everything is changing. No matter what happens, the world we knew will never return.”

  “The only way is forward,” she said softly. She’d learned that lesson already. Once her world had imploded the first time, the night the Gaians had attacked her Consulate to steal the Sahar, she’d never been able to get back to where she’d been, though she’d tried. “So about what I was saying in the van earlier ...”

  He rubbed a hand over the stubble on his jaw. “The Consulates are not effective at controlling daemons, but that doesn’t mean the system is irreparable. However, because of the Ras, the system is already dying. Your father wants to save it but I’m not sure that’s what we really need.”

  She blinked at him, wide-eyed. She hadn’t expected that kind of a one-eighty from him.

  He smiled a little ruefully. “I started my apprenticeship when I was twelve and I’ve been a full Consul for almost thirty years. In all those years, I never once spent any significant time with daemons outside of a Consulate or Consul role—until these past two weeks. It was eye-opening, to say the least.”

  He pressed his hands together. “In that club, with all those daemons, I realized just how powerless I am as an individual. And when I think about how the Ra family has gradually overtaken our bureaucracy over the course of so many years, I begin to wonder how much political power we actually have.”

  “The Consulates have always had limited political influence,” Piper began.

  Calder shook his head. “I don’t mean the Consulates. I mean humanity.”

  Her skin chilled. “Humanity?”

  “The Earth isn’t a playground for daemons; it’s a battleground. We’re the spoils in a war of attrition between the Overworld and Underworld. They both want to control Earth and the only thing stopping them is each other.” He stared sightlessly at the ground between his feet
. “I never considered before how woefully helpless we are to their politics.”

  Piper gave a thoughtful, anxious nod. “They took away our armies seventy years ago and now they’ve taken away the Consulates too. We can’t even be sure of the prefects anymore.”

  “I wouldn’t bank on them. The Ras have spent the last decade infiltrating the Consulates. I doubt Hades has been idle in that time. Who knows what Samael controls?”

  She shivered at the thought. “We’re screwed, aren’t we?”

  “Not yet,” he said grimly, “but close.”

  “What do we do?”

  “I don’t know.”

  She fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. “The Gaians seem to have some ideas.”

  “They’re targeting the wrong daemons. They’re going after individuals, not the families. I don’t think they would stand a chance if one of the families decided to exterminate them.”

  “They’ve been holding their own so far,” she murmured, thinking of those armed jeeps she’d destroyed.

  Lost in their own thoughts, they watched the sun rise for a few minutes. She struggled to keep her shoulders straight under the weight of her fatigue. She needed sleep in the worst way but these quiet moments with Calder had become so rare that she didn’t want it to end.

  “How long are Ash and the others staying?” he asked.

  “Not too long. A day or two.”

  “Then what?”

  “Then they disappear. They have too many enemies.”

  He faced her, his expression solemn. “Piper, the last thing I want is to be separated again, but have you considered that you also have too many enemies? I think you would be a lot safer with him than with us.”

  Her eyes widened and her heart swelled in her chest. She could have thrown her arms around him with how happy she was that he had really, truly listened to her about Ash—that, because she trusted Ash, he was willing to trust the draconian with her life.

  Instead, she shook her head. “I can’t do that. You’re right that it would probably be safer, but I can’t do that to him again.”

  “What do you mean?”

  She blinked away tears, her emotions more volatile because of her exhaustion. “He almost died for me more than once already. I can’t let him keep throwing himself between danger and me. I need to fight my own battles.”

  “That’s an admirable goal, but you’ve been in over your head more than not lately.”

  “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’re still my problems. Sooner or later, he’ll get killed because of me. I can’t live with that.”

  “Have you told him your feelings about this?”


  Calder made an amused sound. “Let me guess. He didn’t take it well.”

  She tilted her head, confused. “I—Well, no, he didn’t.”

  He leaned back, propping himself up with one hand. “I get what you’re saying, Pipes, but when someone cares about you, they won’t just turn their back when you need help.”

  “That’s why I won’t go with him. He can’t protect me if he isn’t around.”

  “We all want to fight our own battles, but you have to be realistic as well. If you’re afraid of him getting killed, your chances are even less.”

  “So we should both die then?” She shook her head. “That still doesn’t change anything.”

  “You’re stronger together than apart.”

  “I’ve been more of a burden than a help lately. I’m dead weight for him.”

  “Well, there’s your answer then.”

  She frowned. “Huh?”

  “You’re focusing on how to keep him out of the fights instead of focusing on how to win those fights. If you’re a burden, focus on changing that instead.” He rose to his feet. “You need to get some sleep before you keel over.”

  “But—” She shook her head, confused and exasperated but too tired to question him on what he’d meant. Dragging herself to her feet, she followed him up the steps. As they approached the church doors, Calder turned back to her. He opened his arms and she stepped into his hug. He squeezed her tight.

  “We don’t always get to choose who we love,” he murmured. “And loving a daemon will always be dangerous. Take care of yourself, Pipes.”

  He stepped back and smiled at her stunned expression, then pulled the door open and walked into the church, leaving her standing on the step, dumbfounded. She watched the door swing shut. Had that just happened? Were her feelings really that obvious?

  She rubbed her cheeks to stop her blush—it didn’t work—and let out a long breath. Composing herself, she opened the door and walked in. Her boots were silent on the floor of the lobby as she headed for the sanctuary. When she reached the threshold, she paused.

  At the other end, the four daemons were sprawled across the pews. She could see Kiev’s feet sticking over a pew and guessed he was lying across it. Ash was sitting but his head was bowed forward; he was likely dozing as well.

  A little ways away from them, Seiya and Lyre were sitting side by side, still awake. Seiya was talking, her lips moving with words Piper couldn’t hear. Lyre’s hand was on her shoulder. As she watched, Seiya wiped an unseen tear from her cheek. Whatever she was saying seemed to be intense with emotion, which blew Piper’s mind since Seiya was normally so cool and collected.

  Lyre rubbed her shoulder briefly in comfort, responding with soft words, but it didn’t look romantic or even flirtatious to Piper. And that was saying something, because Lyre usually oozed flirtation around anything female.

  Once again, Piper wondered what had happened between the two during their imprisonment. She still resented Seiya for her cruel attempts to ruin Ash and Piper’s friendship—and for the possible murder attempt in the Overworld—but she didn’t want to feel that way. Seiya had survived a terrible life, and Piper wanted her to find peace and happiness if she could. Seiya would probably feel a lot better when she found out that Ash wouldn’t be taking any more daggers to the chest for Piper’s sake.

  Looking away, she quietly slipped into the sanctuary and crossed the back of the room, heading toward the stairs to the basement where her cot awaited. Lyre noticed the movement and glanced at her, but she merely waved and continued into the hallway. She would ask for the rest of his story tomorrow. For now, she just wanted to sleep.

  An image flashed through her mind—her dagger sliding smoothly into the griffin’s chest as she watched the life die from his eyes—and she hoped fervently that her sleep would be dreamless.


  “HOW DID you enjoy your first true taste of bloodlust?”

  Piper’s eyes flew open. Groggy lethargy swamped her and she struggled to focus on the familiar female voice.

  “It is quite the experience, the first time. As I warned you before, it will only grow worse.”

  She lifted her head and squinted around the room: stone walls and a beautifully carved arched doorway with an embroidered curtain drawn to one side. She was lying on a low bed piled deep with the soft furs of animals she didn’t recognize. At the other end of the room, two wooden chairs with plush cushions and odd, low backs were framed against a wide window. Beyond it, a vista of mountains was bathed in the golden glow of a setting sun.

  Sitting in one of the chairs, her blue gown spread around her, was the speaker. She brushed long golden locks off one shoulder and smiled.

  “Natania,” Piper said cautiously.

  This was the second time she’d ended up in Natania’s mind while sleeping. Trepidation trickled through her. This wasn’t a pattern she liked.

  As Piper cautiously sat up, Natania crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap.

  “Do you believe me now?” she asked sweetly.

  Piper climbed off the bed, looking around. This must be the inside of one of the draconian dwellings she’d seen last time. Nothing decorated the walls, but carved stone and wood sculptures stood in the corners. She knelt beside a beautiful wood carving of two flyin
g dragonets, their bodies curving elegantly around each other. Very lightly, she brushed a finger over a polished wing.

  “They were not a people of gems and jewels,” Natania murmured, watching Piper. “They loved simple beauty.”

  Piper rose, sorrow welling as her gaze travelled around the room. “How did the Hades family do it?” she asked. “How did they find this place and destroy it?”

  “I do not know,” Natania replied. “It happened after my Nyr’s demise.”

  Piper turned to the woman. “If you hadn’t driven him insane, this place would still exist.”

  “Do you believe that?” Natania replied coolly, silver slowly streaking her blue irises. “Fate is not a road that diverges with each decision you make. It is an immense oak tree with countless sprawling branches that diverge over and over, a thousand and then a thousand more paths to follow, where a single strong gust of wind can tear your branch from the trunk and cast you aside forever more. Was I the gust that ripped the Taroths from the tree of fate, or were they doomed by some distant divergence in their path? No mortal can know.”

  “Either way,” Piper said, “you’re the reason he died.”

  “Yes. And he is the reason I died. The fate of his people was not my concern.”

  Piper raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment. Natania loved Nyrtaroth at the same time she hated him. She couldn’t let him go, couldn’t move on. She was forever trapped in her memories of him, all of them tainted by his final betrayal.

  Stifling a yawn—was it normal to feel tired while she was actually sleeping?—she walked past Natania to stand by the window. It had no glass, just an open archway with a wide sill for sitting. A cool evening breeze caressed her face. She lightly touched the carved stone, wishing she could show this place to Ash. He was five hundred years too late to see the beautiful home of his ancestors.

  “So did you ever learn to control it?” she asked.

  Natania shrugged. “To a degree. The bloodlust is more powerful when your emotions are already heightened. Be thankful you were hunting enemies and not allies.”

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