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

  He was silent for so long she wondered whether he would speak at all.

  Eventually, he exhaled harshly, his warm breath ruffling her hair. “The world doesn’t work like that. You can decide to fight your own battles, but you need to be strong enough to win them. Your enemies won’t go easy on you just because you’re expressing your independence.”

  “I know that.”

  “So what then? You’ll throw yourself into the next fight alone, and if you die, that must have been your destiny?”

  “I’m not trying to prove myself or die trying, or something stupid like that,” she said, anger sparking. She finally forced herself to turn and look at him. “I’m trying to do the right thing. I don’t want to be a helpless damsel in distress who always needs rescuing and I don’t want to watch you die because of me.”

  His eyes, stormy grey with growing shadows, flashed with his own ire.

  “You, Seiya, and Lyre only came out of hiding to help me,” she told him forcefully. “Then I dragged you along to the Overworld. Now you’re coming to help me with this Gaian stuff. But you three—and Kiev—need to go into hiding again. It’s too dangerous for you to be running around where Samael’s spies can spot you. Remember what happened last time? Reaper assassins almost caught me and Seiya in your apartment.”

  “And it’s not too dangerous for you to be running around for the same reasons? You should be in hiding too.”

  “I can’t hide right now. I need to help my father and uncle. This is our world and I can’t just run away while it’s all going to hell. Even if I did go with you ... I don’t see how we can compromise on this. I need to fight my fights. Can you stand back and let me?”

  “No,” he said flatly. “Do you really think I would watch you take on enemies you probably can’t defeat when I know I could—or that I would at least have a better chance at defeating?”

  “No, I didn’t think you would,” she said quietly. “That’s why I thought it would be better if we were apart.”

  He watched her with eyes that were slowly sliding toward black, then abruptly looked away. “Maybe you’re right.”

  “You agree with me?” she asked cautiously.

  He resumed his watch of the ravine. “You thought you saw me die on the cliff. And I thought I saw you die when I put my sword through your gut. You’re right. We’re better off apart.”

  “That was not your fault,” she told him, her voice sharpening. “That was my father’s fault.”

  He still didn’t look at her. “The sword was in my hand. I don’t see how it’s not my fault.”

  “I jumped in front of your attack.”

  “I know. I saw. And I didn’t care. I just wanted to kill something.”

  She felt the blood drain out of her face, her skin suddenly going cold. “I don’t believe you. I saw the look on your face after.”

  “Yes, after. When I came back to my senses and realized what I’d done.” His eyes flicked to hers—black as midnight, icy as the arctic tundra. “But make no mistake. I saw you coming. I knew what you would do. And I didn’t stop, because in that moment, the part of me that wanted to kill was stronger than the part of me that didn’t want to kill you.”

  She swallowed hard, fear whispering through her veins.

  His muscles flexed as he shifted slightly. “It didn’t used to be that way. I could control it before ...”

  After a moment, she confessed, “I can’t control it either.”

  The coldness in his face thawed slightly from confusion. “What?”

  “I can’t control shading,” she said, struggling to meet his eyes as shame infused her. “I just want to kill everything. I was going to attack Lyre in the park. I wanted to kill him. He had to use aphrodesia to distract me.”

  “You’ve never experienced bloodlust before. You’ll learn to control it.”

  “How can I control it when there’s no part of me left that wants to?”

  He didn’t answer, but she could see the understanding in his eyes. He knew exactly what she meant. He’d been there too.

  “You stabbed me,” she said, ignoring his flinch at the bluntness of her words. “It happened. I survived. And I screamed at a stupid time and you got stabbed. You survived. Those things happened, and we’re both okay, and we need to put them behind us.”

  “But you still want me gone.”

  Pain lanced through her at his words.

  “I don’t want you gone,” she said in a rush, pain pushing the words out. “That’s not what I want at all, but that’s how it has to be, don’t you see? I’m a burden to you—a liability. I’m not like Seiya. I can’t just train until I’m as strong as you. I’ll always be weaker. You’ll always be protecting me.”

  His hand closed around her wrist—where the tracking spell would have been had she not thrown it away. “If I didn’t want to protect you, I wouldn’t have promised to do it.”

  “It may be okay with you, but it’s not okay with me. I won’t let you keep risking yourself—”

  Anger flashed across his face and his hand tightened on her wrist. “I can choose what I’m willing to risk my life for just as much as you. You want to fight on your own, knowing you’ll eventually run into an enemy that can kill you, to spare me. Why am I not allowed to make the same choice?”

  “Because they’re my enemies, not yours.”

  “Most of our enemies are the same now.”

  “It doesn’t matter. I won’t be a liability. I won’t be the distraction that gets you stabbed in the next fight. It will take months or even years for me to learn to use my magic with any real skill, and I’ll still be weaker than you.”

  Zwi let out a sudden, loud grumble. She jumped out of Piper’s lap, threw them each an irritated look—presumably for making so much noise—and trotted out into the rain.

  “If we’re together,” she said heatedly, “I won’t be able to fight my own battles and get stronger.”

  “You won’t get the chance either way because you’ll end up dead or captured,” he growled. “You’re being blind. Your enemies won’t wait until you’re ready to take them on. Why are you so determined to throw your life away?”

  “Because I don’t want you throwing away yours!” she snapped. “Because I won’t be the reason you end up dead! Because my life isn’t more important than yours, and I l—”

  She bit off the word before it could form on her tongue, panic shooting through her.

  His eyes narrowed. “And you what?”

  “I—I was going to say ... because my life isn’t more important than yours, and I ... want you to be safe.”

  His eyes narrowed a little more, his stare intense, scrutinizing. “That was a terrible lie.”

  “That’s what I was going to say,” she insisted, her heart racing.

  How could she have been so stupid? She’d vowed never to say those words to him, to never tell him how she felt. She was trying to convince him not to protect her. If he knew she was crazy in love with him, he would feel even more obligated to risk his life for her.

  With him drilling her about her decision, it was so hard not to admit that her strongest motivation for keeping them apart was that she loved him too much to risk his death. She would rather lose him forever than let him get hurt again protecting her. That day on the cliff had been too much and she couldn’t endure it again.

  He stared at her, appearing to struggle with something. Then he abruptly looked away, his mouth flattening into a tense line.

  “Are you sure you weren’t going to say something like you did before you left me in the ryujin city?”

  The question was flat, almost inflectionless. Her whole body went cold. No. He couldn’t be referring to the words she’d whispered to him just before leaving the city. He’d been asleep—unconscious after his healing. She’d only imagined seeing his eyes open. He hadn’t heard her; he couldn’t have.

  “What?” she whispered.

  He slashed a glance at her, his face expressionless—no
, not expressionless. Defensive, wary. For a second, she wondered whether he was as afraid of her answer as she was of his response.

  His stare swung back to the rain. “Never mind.”

  She opened her mouth but no words came out. He didn’t look at her. Had he been awake to hear her ... or not? Was he referring to something else? No, it didn’t make sense that he would ask about it otherwise, but why not just tell her he’d heard her? Unless ... she remembered the glimpse of his hazy grey stare as she’d turned to leave after whispering her confession. Maybe he hadn’t been that awake. Maybe he wasn’t actually sure what he’d heard and his question had been a test. Did he think he’d dreamed it?

  She swallowed hard. A lot of his anger toward her suddenly made more sense. If he thought he’d heard her say she loved him, then woke up to find she’d abandoned him, thrown away his tracking spell, and taken back the symbol of his promise to protect her ... She could barely imagine how he’d feel about that. And add in the uncertainty of whether he’d dreamed the whole thing or not ...

  Why hadn’t she just kept her mouth shut about her feelings? He continued staring out at the storm while she sat stiffly, indecision pulling her apart. Should she confirm his memory but explain that it didn’t change anything? Or should she let him think it was just a dream? Leaving him to wonder about it seemed so cruel, but admitting the truth would only make things more difficult.

  And then, if she did confess the truth to him, there was the big question of how he felt. What if he didn’t return her feelings?

  She twisted her hands together in her lap. “Ash ...” she began hesitantly.

  He abruptly straightened.

  “Lyre is coming to get us,” he said tonelessly.

  “What?” she mumbled. She looked at the opening of the cave and saw that the raging wind had quieted, leaving a steady downpour instead. “Oh.”

  Approaching footsteps crunched over rocks and twigs, audible even over the sound of the rain. Swallowing hard, she scooched away from him, toward the waterlogged ravine. Legs appeared beyond the opening of the hollow, and then Lyre’s head as he leaned down. His golden eyes flicked over them.

  “Hey there, beautiful,” he said cheerfully, his analyzing look vanishing so quickly she wondered whether she’d imagined it. “Have a nice siesta?”

  “Passable,” she said, barely managing to sound nonchalant. “How about you?”

  He shrugged. “I prefer closets to caves.”

  Managing a weak smile, she crawled out of the hollow and stood. Ash clambered out after her. She stretched her back, avoiding both daemons’ gazes. The rain drummed against the top of her head, cold water running down her back. With each beat of her heart, the ache inside her chest grew.

  As the silence began to stretch uncomfortably, Lyre said, “The others are waiting for us. Shall we?”

  She nodded and he started back through the ravine, Ash beside him. She trailed behind them, glad for the rain dotting her cheeks and hiding the few small tears that escaped her control.

  How could she tell him she loved him but that they couldn’t be together? He wasn’t willing to accept her decision that she needed to fight for herself from now on. How could they ever compromise on that? Sure, he could let her fight if it was an easy opponent, but the moment it became life or death, he would be right there fighting for her. And she would be the liability, the distraction. One wrong move on her part and that would be it. He would be dead and it would be her fault.

  No matter how much it hurt, she couldn’t let that happen. But she didn’t want to walk away from him a second time. She didn’t even know whether she was strong enough. That wary defensiveness as he’d asked about what he remembered her saying ... So much was left unsaid between them, words neither were willing to speak out loud. To him, her decision was tantamount to her walking to her own death. To her, it was the only option left to protect him.

  The ache in her chest swelled, crushing her heart. If being apart, if saying goodbye forever hurt so much, was it really the right thing? She wasn’t sure anymore.


  LETTING out a long, silent sigh, Piper stared across the room with her chin resting on her knees. The tiny apartment was familiar, from the old bed where she currently sat to the drooping armchair in the corner. A standing lamp lay on the floor beside it, pieces of glass scattered across the dirty rug.

  Almost like a dream, she could see it again: The dark room, lit only by the light leaking through the cracks in the blinds. Ash asleep on one side of her, Lyre curled up on the other. Zwi perched on the back of the chair, watching lights dance across the lampshade. Then, moments later, she’d pounced on it and sent it crashing to the floor, startling Ash awake. That had been the first time she’d seen him lose control. He’d leaped violently out of the bed, his claws missing her flesh by mere inches.

  It was strange to be back. Not that she’d given it much thought, but she’d never expected to return to this place. The last time had been right after escaping the Gaians, her magic newly unsealed, though she hadn’t known it at the time. Now they were back, intending to sneak into the same Gaian building and ask her mother for help. She really wasn’t looking forward to it.

  Her only company in the tiny apartment was Seiya. The draconian girl was sitting in the armchair, her knees drawn to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs. She stared out the window at the apartment and office buildings that encircled them, her intense focus on the drab view suggesting her thoughts were far away from their current surroundings.

  They had barely arrived at the apartment before the others had left again. Ash had taken Kiev with him to scout the Gaian building. Lyre had left as well, saying something about touching base with some of his contacts in the city to see whether they’d heard anything about the Gaians, but she wasn’t entirely sure that was all he’d gone to do.

  She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but she felt as if Lyre hadn’t really been himself since they’d rescued him. When there were eyes on him, he seemed normal—joking and teasing, flirting and making inappropriate remarks. But when no one was looking, there was no sign of the usual easy-going incubus. His customary teasing half-smile was nowhere in sight, his golden eyes somber and serious. She wished she’d had a chance to ask Ash about Lyre’s family. Something about his narrow escape was haunting Lyre, but she wasn’t sure whether it had to do with his mysterious relatives or with nearly being turned over to Hades reapers to face a fate worse than death.

  Piper’s eyes lifted to Seiya. Did the draconian girl know anything about Lyre’s strange mood? They’d been imprisoned together for over a week. Maybe they had discussed his family—or, more likely, based on Piper’s overall impression of Seiya, they hadn’t talked about anything. From what she’d seen prior to their capture, Lyre seemed to get along with Seiya about as well as Piper did.

  She recalled what he’d said about Seiya—that she hadn’t tried to kill Piper in the Overworld. She frowned to herself, wondering whether she dared believe it. Seiya certainly had been acting strange since reuniting with them, though in a different way than Lyre.

  Perhaps sensing eyes on her, Seiya glanced over her shoulder and saw Piper watching her. She turned in her seat to face Piper, arms still wrapped around her knees, eyebrows raised in question.

  “How’s your wing?” Piper asked, breaking the awkward silence. She hadn’t seen the cut in Seiya’s wing from her escape, but Kiev’s concern over whether he’d successfully healed it suggested it had been bad.

  Seiya shrugged. “It could’ve been worse, though it’ll take some time to build up its strength again.”

  “Is that why you didn’t go with Ash?” she asked.

  “Yes ... It needs more time before I can do any real flying.”

  Seiya dropped her eyes as she said the last words and Piper knew it had cost the girl a lot of pride to admit that weakness. The cold, aloof, and often threatening Seiya from before was noticeably absent and Piper wasn’t sure what to thin

  “Did Lyre tell you what I said?” Seiya asked abruptly.

  Piper straightened a little. “You mean about my ‘accident’ in the Overworld?”

  She nodded. “Do you believe that I didn’t do it?”

  “I do ... but I also remember you saying ‘last warning’ to me shortly afterward.”

  Seiya’s eyes cooled. Piper held her stare, unwilling to back down. She’d been more than a little hesitant to confront Seiya directly before—after all, she’d been dying from her magic and essentially helpless, but that wasn’t the case anymore.

  “At the time, I thought I wanted you gone.” Seiya frowned, fiddling with a loose thread on the arm of her chair. “Somewhere safe for you but gone from our lives.”

  “‘At the time’?” Piper repeated blankly. “Did you change your mind?”

  Seiya shrugged again.

  Piper grimaced. “Didn’t anyone tell you what happened in the Overworld after you and Lyre went through the ley line?”

  “Of course,” Seiya said evenly. “And after Ash recited his glossed-over version, I went to Lyre to find out what really happened. I know it was your fault he almost died.”

  She managed not to flinch. “But you’re not sure anymore that you want me gone?”

  Seiya eyed Piper for a moment. “Lyre told me what you said—why you left without Ash.”

  Again, Piper barely managed not to flinch. “You must be overjoyed that I’m trying to distance us.”

  “According to him, you want to fight on your own instead of allowing Ash to protect you. Is that true?”

  “How much do you all talk about me behind my back?” she muttered. “Yes, that’s true.”

  Seiya’s blue eyes burned into her. “If you plan to fight, then what are you doing to get stronger?”

  “I’m not letting Ash fight for me.”

  “That doesn’t make you a better fighter, unless you’re counting desperation.”

  Piper gritted her teeth. “I have the Sahar now. And I’m learning a bit about using my magic, and—”

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