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


  “And that’s just the beginning. You need to push harder. You can’t just be strong. Even with the natural abilities of a draconian, I wasn’t strong until I set out to become strong. And you need to do the same, if you want this.”

  “Want what?”

  Seiya sat back, folding her arms. “If you want to fight beside Ash.”

  Piper stared, her mouth hanging open, before shaking her head. “No. No, that’s not what I want. Are you even listening? I can’t be with Ash—”

  “Because you aren’t strong enough yet.”

  “It doesn’t matter. He told me himself he wouldn’t stand aside to—”

  “Because you aren’t strong enough yet,” Seiya repeated. “So get stronger. Prove to him you don’t need him. Isn’t that what you want?”

  “Yes, but—” She resisted the urge to throw her hands up in the air. “Why the hell are you trying to convince me? Isn’t this the opposite of what you want?”

  “You’re a weak link that must be protected. But if you are strong enough to fight beside him, then you are no longer a liability.”

  Piper stared at the draconian girl, unsure what to think. “Assuming we aren’t counting the Sahar, I could train day and night and still never be as strong as you and Ash.”

  “You can be strong enough not to be a liability. You can be strong enough not to need a savior.” Seiya’s voice softened a little. “You’re just like I was. It’s so much easier to fall back on someone you trust, someone stronger than you. But that is what makes you so dangerous to Ash.”

  Piper’s hands clenched. Was that the reason Ash had almost died on that cliff? Was it because she was willing to fall back on him, to let him save the day, that she was such a liability?

  There are many breeds and shades of strength, foolish child. Magic and brawn are but two.

  Was that the weakness in her that Natania had been referring to? Maybe she had become too dependent on Ash’s strength, on having him there to deal with whatever happened. She’d struggled so much through these past weeks on her own, wishing he were around to help her ... What had happened to her? She’d always valued her independence and skills, but now she was suddenly relying on Ash to save her? Or Lyre? Or her father?

  Coldness whispered through her. Maybe she’d always relied on someone stronger to bail her out when she’d gotten herself in too deep. That was her problem: not that she was weak, but that she was willing to be weak when someone stronger was around to save her.

  The door to the apartment opened. Ash, Kiev, and Lyre came in together. Ash pushed his dripping bangs off his face. All three of them were soaked.

  Kiev shook his head, spraying water everywhere. “It’s wet out there.”

  Piper drew in a deep breath, recovering from her epiphany. Pushing the thoughts aside for later analysis, she tilted her head to the side, peering around Ash to get a good look at Lyre. When he’d left, he’d been wearing an ill-fitting assortment of clothes he’d scavenged after his rescue from the Ras. But he was now wearing dark jeans, a fitted t-shirt that clung to his chest, and a seriously sexy leather jacket.

  He noticed her appraisal and reached for the hem of his shirt. That irresistible half-smile curved his lips as he pulled it up a few inches, flashing the flat planes of his stomach. “If you want me to take it all off, just say the word.”

  She rolled her eyes and looked away. Seiya put her feet on the floor and gave Lyre an unimpressed look.

  “Well?” Piper asked Ash.

  “Looks clear,” he said. “I don’t think anything has changed.”

  “What about the reaper?”

  Kiev leaned against the kitchen counter. “We’re going to lure him out. He won’t know yet that I’m on Samael’s hit list. I’ll signal that I have a message for him and he’ll come out to the usual spot to pick it up. Then we’ll ambush him.”

  “It’s safer for you and the Gaians that way,” Ash said. “We don’t want a pitched fight inside the building and we certainly don’t want him anywhere near you. One touch and he could teleport you straight to a ley line. Kiev will activate the signal before you go in so the reaper will be out of the building ahead of time.”

  “We’ll be a few blocks away,” Kiev said, turning to her with a little wrinkle between his eyebrows. “We won’t really be close enough to help you if anything goes wrong.”

  “I’ll be fine,” Piper said swiftly, her desire to handle things on her own twice as strong as before. “As long as the reaper is out of there, I won’t have any problems.”

  She glanced at Ash, expecting him to protest her going in alone, but he didn’t seem bothered; without the reaper, he probably didn’t think the Gaians were a threat worth worrying about. It had been almost laughably easy for him to rescue her from them the first time.

  “So all four of you will deal with the reaper?” she asked.

  “Reapers are easiest to handle if you kill them before they start teleporting,” Ash said. “If we want to take him alive, the four of us will need to outmaneuver him.”

  Lyre slipped past the draconians to plunk down on the bed beside Piper. “I have something to help you out with your side of things.”

  He dipped a hand in his back pocket and pulled out a small, pink gemstone. She accepted the stone, looking at him questioningly.

  “It’s embedded with a cloaking spell,” he explained. “Once activated, it will disguise your presence so you can more easily sneak through the building to find your mother. The fewer encounters with that bunch, the better, right?”

  “Wow, thanks.” She rolled the stone between her fingers. “Where did you get this?”

  He winked. “I never kiss and tell.”

  She pulled a face. “What does that mean?”

  He flopped back on the mattress, sighing. “So when are we going, Ash? Do I have time for a nap?”

  “If we want to time this with their dinner hour, we should go now. But if you’d rather stay behind to sleep ...”

  Sighing again, he sat up. “Let’s get this done then.”

  Piper got to her feet, taking a deep breath as she put her worries about her and Ash aside to focus on what was coming next. If her theory about the Gaians and Samael was correct, there was a lot more riding on her next conversation with her mother than any conversation she’d ever had in her life.

  CHAPTER 18

  PIPER looked up at the top floor of the rundown office building and took a deep breath. Even from ground level, she could see the plywood repair job where Ash had blown out the window of the top floor conference hall. She remembered the cheers of the Gaian gathering as they congratulated her on having her magic “freed” so she could achieve her full power. They’d had no idea that she’d been drugged or that unsealing her magic could have been a death sentence.

  She took another deep breath. She could do this. She was just going to talk to her mom. No big deal. Some people talked to their mothers every day, for goodness sake.

  She turned to Ash, standing beside her.

  He gave her a long look. “Are you ready?”

  She nodded. “I can handle this. In fact, this is the easiest thing I’ve had to do in ages.”

  A ghost of a smile touched his lips before he turned serious again. “The cloaking spell?”

  She pulled it out of her armguard, where she’d tucked it beside the Sahar, and held it up. He touched the gem lightly and she felt the sizzle of magic as he activated it for her.

  “Remember, a cloaking spell doesn’t make you invisible,” he said. “It just makes you difficult to notice if you don’t draw attention to yourself.”

  She gave another quick nod and slipped it back into her armguard. Their eyes met, his expression undecipherable. She wondered what he was thinking, if it bothered him that he wasn’t going in with her. But this was better. If she really did have a problem relying on him, then they were better off fighting separate battles until she got her shit figured out.

  He stepped back. “Good luck.”
r />   “You too. Be careful with that reaper.”

  Zwi, perched on his shoulder, let out a reassuring chirp, her golden eyes bright in anticipation of their next adventure. With a last look at Ash, Piper stuffed down her sentimental feelings—this really was not the time for them anyway—and strode toward the building, still half a block away. Partway there, she glanced back, but Ash and Zwi had already disappeared. She swallowed, touched the spot where the spelled gem was hidden, and resumed walking.

  Get in, talk to her mother, get out. Easy.

  As she approached the doorway, once filled with glass doors that had broken years ago, she admitted to herself that her nervousness stemmed more from contact with her mother than the dangers of forcing her way into a potential enemy outpost. The last time she’d seen her, Mona had been screaming, “She belongs with us,” as Ash and Lyre had whisked Piper away to safety.

  The thing was, Piper knew her mother had truly believed that Piper would be just fine with her magic unsealed. A narrow, unquestioning belief in whatever Mona wanted to be true seemed to exist at the heart of her delusions. If her mother had been at all realistic, nine years ago, she never would have tried to convince Quinn to join the Gaians with her—the first sign that something was wrong with her. Her blind convictions had evolved into Mona believing without doubt that unsealing Piper’s magic would be totally a-okay and not ridiculously risky.

  Thinking about her mother made her emotions roil uncomfortably. She didn’t know what to feel: love, hate, betrayal, pity ... It was too complicated to sort out.

  Putting all that out of her mind, she focused on her task. It was easy enough to step through the unobstructed doorway and into the foyer of the building, littered with debris and a crumbling marble fountain in the center. As before, just out of sight from the street, a handful of Gaians lazed around a table. She slowed her steps, eyes narrowing. Last time, the Gaians at the table had been dressed like regular members, but they now wore black fatigues similar to the Gaian soldiers she’d encountered in Brinford. She didn’t know whether they were the same people as a few weeks ago or visitors from the Gaian Corps.

  She scanned the rest of the space. The second-story balconies looking down on the foyer appeared empty. She came to a stop, peering into the shadows in the far corners.

  Ah, yes. There they were: the soldiers who’d attacked her the last time she’d crossed this foyer during her ill-fated escape attempt. Clad in black with military-style buzz cuts, they were definitely members of the Gaian Corps. They watched the doors casually, not particularly alert. The evening was warm and quiet, lulling everyone into a false sense of calm. Lucky for her.

  Trusting the spell to hide her presence, she crossed the foyer at a leisurely pace. No one glanced her way. No one called out. Letting out a relieved breath, she stopped in front of the elevator and glanced back. If the elevator doors opened, everyone would look at her and the spell probably wouldn’t hold up. She turned instead to the open staircase on her right that led up to the second floor balconies. When she reached the top, she located the door to the main stairwell and slipped through it, no one the wiser.

  In the stairwell, she shook the tension out of her hands and touched the spot where the gem was hidden. Wow. Talk about a useful spell. She really needed to get some answers out of Lyre. He’d been way too good at evading her questions about where he was getting these fancy spells. Why hadn’t he used any of these spells to help them out of trouble in the past?

  She paused, a foot on the first stair. Come to think of it, Lyre seemed to fight most of his battles when she wasn’t around. Whenever Ash was present, Lyre didn’t need to chip in, so the only time she’d really seen him fight was in the battle against Samael’s army. After running into trouble on his own, he would always joke about barely making it out alive, but she was beginning to doubt he’d actually struggled that much.

  Shaking her head, she broke into a jog up the stairs. This wasn’t the time for Lyre’s mysteries. Right now, she needed to find her mother before the cloaking spell ran out. From what she’d seen before, Mona liked to visit with different Gaians on the communal level, so she would start there.

  When she reached the correct floor, she touched the handle with two fingers and pressed her ear to the door, listening for anyone on the other side. Hearing nothing but the distant murmur of many voices, she pulled the door open and slipped through.

  The communal level was broken into four quadrants—lounge, kitchen, exercise/entertainment, and a practice area. The workout and practice areas were empty, but the kitchen and lounge were filled with haemons finishing their dinners. The delicious smell of some sort of pasta emanated from the large dishes on the kitchen counter, but she had little attention to spare for food.

  Her eyes moved from one group of Gaians to the next. It was a sea of black. Every haemon in sight wore the same black fatigues as the Gaian Corps: loose, button-down shirts and sturdy pants. The last time she’d been here, the haemons had been a cheerful bunch, chatting and laughing. Now it was quiet, the room humming with somber conversation. Only the youngest kids chatted with the same cheer, too innocent to understand the war-like garb they now wore.

  Piper stared around her, chilled to the bone. What was going on here? Were the Gaians militarizing the civilian members of their organization? How did this fit into their philosophy of community and familial support that Mona had preached so passionately?

  Moving slowly, she circled the room, glancing at every group, but it was clear her mother wasn’t among them. As she passed the long banquet table by the kitchen, she spotted a familiar blond head. Kylee, the girl who’d befriended her while she was a prisoner, poked at her food with a fork, eyes down, looking tiny and pale in the baggy fatigues. Pressing her lips together, Piper hurried back to the stairs.

  She breathed a sigh of relief as she slipped back into the empty, echoing stairwell. She had no idea where the Council members took their meals. The only other space she was familiar with was their meeting room near the top floor. With no better ideas, she started up the stairs again, trying to stay focused as her anger simmered. What the hell was the Council playing at, forcing civilians to become soldiers? It didn’t make any sense. Was this Samael’s influence? The more of the organization he could use as a weapon, the better, right?

  Reaching the second floor from the top, she paused to catch her breath, then pulled open the door. She walked past the fancy, curved reception desk and down the wide hall to the end, where a closed door waited. She could hear the rumble of a male voice on the other side. So there was a meeting going on. The question now was whether her mother was part of it.

  She frowned at the door. There was no way for her to stealthily open it and look inside. Shrugging, she grabbed the handle and threw the door open.

  Walter stood at the far end of the meeting room, beside an easel with a rough drawing on it, the marker in his hand poised to make another note. Seven other people, including Mona, sat around the large table, and another six stood around the edges of the room—black-clad soldiers. All eyes turned to her when she walked in, and identical shock registered on each face.

  The soldiers recovered first, reaching for the guns holstered at their hips.

  “Stop!” Mona shouted. Her eyes, locked on her daughter, were wide as saucers. “P-Piper?”

  “Hey Mom,” she replied casually, keeping an eye on the soldiers on either side of her. “Can we talk?”

  “Piper!” Walter exclaimed. She wasn’t sure whether he sounded pleased or angry. Maybe a bit of both. He waved a hand at the guards. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about her.”

  “How did she get in?” another Gaian demanded.

  Piper folded her arms and cocked a hip. “Honestly, your security sucks. And yeah, I didn’t expect to be back either, not after what you did to me last time, but I need to talk to my mom.” She looked at Mona. “Mom?”

  Mona hastily stood. “Oh, yes—of course, Piper.”

  “Hold on!” the cran
ky woman from last time said angrily. “Are you just going to do what she asks? Do you remember what happened last time?”

  “Yeah,” Piper said. “My friends came to help me because you held me prisoner and drugged me, remember?” She cast her eyes toward the ceiling. “Look, no hard feelings, okay? I’m just here to talk.”

  Walter’s stare intensified. “Did it work? Do you have full control of your magic now? It clearly didn’t kill you.”

  “Nearly did,” she replied, unable to stop her voice from going cold. “And if I hadn’t immediately left here to get help with my magic, I would have been dead in a week. So thanks for that.”

  “But you did survive,” he pressed. “Have you considered—”

  “Stop,” she cut in, holding up a hand. “I am not here to talk to you. I am here to talk to my mother.” She took Mona’s arm. “I’ll pop back in before I leave. How’s that? Come on, Mom.”

  Ignoring several loud protests behind her, she pulled Mona out the door and shut it quickly. When she turned to her mother, she found Mona staring at her blankly, her face still ghostly white.

  “Mom? Are you okay?”

  Mona blinked several times—then burst into tears. Sobbing violently, she threw her arms around Piper.

  “Piper!” she gasped, barely coherent. “I was so afraid you’d died. Once you were gone, I realized how reckless we’d been. We should have waited until we had all the answers about your magic. I’m so happy you’re okay. I was so afraid.”

  After a moment of shock, Piper hugged her mother back.

  “I survived,” she said soothingly, unwanted tears coming to her eyes too. She blinked them away. “I’m all right now.”

  “I was so stupid. I should never have allowed that to happen.” She looked up at Piper, tears streaming from her hazel eyes. “I wanted you to be stronger, to be able to take your rightful place in the world. I’m so sorry.”

  Giving Mona a squeeze, she gently stepped back. She couldn’t forgive her mother, but knowing Mona regretted what she’d done eased some of the pain.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]