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

  For tonight, it was just the two of them, and everything else could wait until dawn.


  EARLY morning light was just beginning to brighten the hotel room when Piper awoke, the suite silent but for the breathing of her companions. Stretching her arms and arching her back, she quietly sat up.

  She and Ash had returned to the hotel at some point during the night. Her mother had gone to sleep on one bed, leaving the other side free for Piper. Seiya had been curled up on the other bed, and Kiev had passed out on the sofa. Lyre, however, had still been sitting at the small table, in the exact same spot as when she’d left, the spelled disc laying in front of him.

  When she and Ash had walked in, Lyre had looked up with an inscrutable expression. He hadn’t asked where they had been, but Piper suspected her instant blush had probably given them away. She’d quickly escaped into the bathroom for an excessively long shower, leaving Ash to make up whatever story he wanted about their prolonged absence—or to tell Lyre the truth. If it was the latter, she didn’t want to know.

  Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she found her gaze irresistibly drawn to the other side of the room, where Ash reclined on the window seat, his head resting against the glass as he slept. Her heart swelled in her chest at the sight of him, heat rushing through her middle. She wanted to reverse time, to go back to that first plunge off the rooftop in his arms so she could experience it all over again, burning it into her memory to ensure she never forgot a single detail. She wanted to remember, forever, the sight of him bathed in moonlight and shadows, the feel of him, the heat of his body, his hands sliding over her skin.

  Hastily pushing the covers aside before her imagination ran away with her, she froze mid-motion as she belatedly realized she wasn’t the only one awake. Lyre was still sitting at the table, his chin propped wearily in one hand. He glanced at her as she sat up, his faced bathed in an eerie red glow emanating from the disc on the table.

  She jumped up and silently joined him in staring down at the disc. The red glow was back and as strong as before, creating a wide band of light around the disc, but most of the strange writing was gone; only scattered spots of it were left, as though water had been dumped across fresh ink, washing most of it away.

  He rubbed a hand over his forehead. “I messed it up.”

  She pulled out a chair and sat down.

  “I know you did your best,” she said, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the others.

  “The damn weaving was full of traps to stop anyone from breaking it down. I didn’t catch the last one in time, and it all started to dissolve. I was only able to save a little bit of it.” He waved a hand at the missing parts of the message in disgust.

  “You did more than any one of us could have,” she said. She leaned closer to the circle of light. The symbols were still gibberish to her. “Can you read it?”

  “Mostly. It’s an ancient Underworld language. Most daemons can speak it but few can read or write it.”

  “But you can?”

  He nodded and pointed at one of the larger sections of the remaining text. “This looks like orders to encourage a Gaian offensive against the Ra embassy in Brinford.” He paused, leaning closer.

  “‘Use any means necessary,’” he read. “‘Ra corruption in the Consulates should motivate ... remove opposition if required ... lead the operation.’”

  Her eyes widened. “Attack the Ra embassy? That would be suicide.”

  “Yeah, no kidding.” He gestured at the writing. “There’s a lot missing. The language depends on context, and there’s very little here.”

  “What about the rest?”

  “Just scattered words and phrases. Same problem, no context.” He let out an angry sigh. “If I’d just managed to—”

  She touched his hand. “Don’t beat yourself up, Lyre. This is more than we would have gotten without you. I’m sure it will be enough to convince the Gaian commanders.” She paused, pressing her lips together grimly. “It also confirms something we’d been wondering: whether Samael knew about the Ras and the Consulates.”

  “I’d say he definitely knows.”

  She nodded. Lifting her gaze from the glowing disc, she gave him a hard look. “Where did you learn how to do this? Why do you know so much about Hades magic?”

  He smiled at her mischievously. “I have many skills you’re unaware of. I’ve been offering to demonstrate some of them on you for months now.”

  Because she was watching for it, she saw his shift from dark frustration to teasing flirtation, and this time, for the first time, she recognized it as a calculated deception designed to distract and divert. Although his teasing might often be genuine, it was also a tool he used to disarm others—in this case, her.

  “I’m serious, Lyre,” she said quietly. “Don’t play games with me.”

  “You never want to play my kind of game,” he pouted.

  She folded her arms and waited, her stare unyielding.

  He bore the weight of her determination for several long moments before the teasing lilt to his smile melted away. All traces of humor vanished, his eyes hardened, and his expression went as emotionless as Raum’s. She fought to keep her face neutral despite her shock; the daemon sitting beside her had transformed into a complete stranger.

  “I value our friendship very much, Piper,” he said, his voice even, not angry, but devoid of warmth. “But that friendship does not entitle you to unrestricted access to my past, my self, or my secrets. They are mine to share if I so desire. Which I do not.”

  Her mouth opened, but no words came to her.

  His golden eyes pinned her to her chair. “If my unwillingness to divulge means you cannot trust me, that is your prerogative. But please do not presume to demand it.”

  She swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

  He smiled, warmth returning to his eyes. “If you feel bad, I can think of endless ways you could make it up to me.”

  She snorted. “Let me guess. They all involve me removing my clothes.”

  He pressed a hand to his chest in mock pain. “What a thing to suggest!” He raised one eyebrow. “Besides, I think it would be better to leave the removal of your clothing to Ash.”

  “Lyre!” she gasped, a hot blush rushing into her cheeks.

  He chuckled unapologetically. She huffed—more from embarrassment than anger—and snapped to her feet. She marched straight into the bathroom and, at the last moment, remembered to shut the door quietly. That incubus.

  She paused in front of the mirror, staring at her reflection with a furrow of worry between her eyebrows. Lyre was right that she wasn’t entitled to know whatever she wanted about him, but anything related to Hades made her skin crawl. Lyre had displayed one too many connections to the reaper family for her comfort.

  However, she was pretty sure Ash knew some, or perhaps all, of the incubus’s secrets—and he still trusted Lyre. She let out a long breath. If Ash could trust him, then so could she. And maybe someday he would trust her enough to share his secrets.

  . . .

  By the time she finished freshening up, the others were awake and getting ready. Piper stayed out of the way, deliberately keeping on the other side of the room from Ash. But she couldn’t stop herself from sneaking little glances at him as he stretched after waking, spoke with his sister, and donned his weapons and gear. If there hadn’t been a room full of witnesses, she was certain she would have been right there beside him, unable to tear herself away.

  She took a deep breath, searching for a semblance of control. Last night felt like it had changed everything, as if her entire being had been rewritten in just a couple hours, but in reality, nothing was different. All of their problems, all the conflicts and dangers, weighed on her shoulders, crushing her elation. She needed to ground herself in the real world again.

  “All right!” Mona announced. “The cabs will be here in a few minutes. Is everyone ready?”

  Lyre had alrea
dy brought the others up to speed on the disc and the parts of the message he’d been able to decipher. Mona’s understanding of the daemon language was rough, but it was sufficient enough that she could present it to the Gaian commanders.

  Piper frowned at her mother. “What cabs?”

  “You didn’t want to walk across the city, did you? And we can’t have dragons flying around in broad daylight.” She turned to the daemons. “Now, I know you want to help, but you must understand that if Piper and I are to have any chance of the Command Staff taking us seriously, we can’t appear to be involved with daemons. You’ll need to stay a safe distance away.”

  “But how will we know if you need help?” Lyre asked, his voice sharpening. “You might trust them, but the place could be crawling with reapers for all we know.”

  “Zwi can follow them,” Ash suggested.

  Piper shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ash. It’s not worth the risk.”

  A sad whine came from the top of the cupboards. Zwi ducked her head, hiding behind the other dragonets.

  “What about a summons spell?” Seiya suggested.

  “What’s that?” Piper asked.

  Ash answered, “A spell that acts like a beacon. It’s similar to a tracking spell, except you would activate it if you were in trouble.” He looked at Lyre. “Can you make one?”

  “No problem,” Lyre said.

  Piper’s eyebrows shot up but she didn’t comment.

  “I hope we won’t need to use it, but it’s better to be prepared.” Mona glanced over them all one more time. “Piper, you’ll have to give your sword to one of the others; it won’t be allowed inside. Let’s head down to wait for our rides.”

  She moved toward the door. After a brief hesitation, Kiev and Seiya followed. Lyre went in the opposite direction, walking toward the window, presumably for some privacy to craft his spell.

  Ash came to stand beside her. She bit her inner cheeks, fighting the urge to touch him. His gaze slid over her, shadows crossing his eyes. Was he fighting the same battle to maintain a proper distance?

  “You will use the spell if you’re in trouble,” he said.

  She gave him a questioning look.

  He lowered his voice. “Forget about fighting your own battles on this one. This isn’t a fight any of us should die for. If you need us to get you out, use the spell.”

  She hesitated before answering. “If I need you, I’ll use the spell.”

  His eyes narrowed as he tried to gauge her sincerity. “I don’t like this. You and your mother are walking into a viper’s nest.”

  “And I don’t trust her either,” Lyre said, coming up behind them. He held out his hand to Piper and dropped a small green gem into her palm. “All you have to do to activate it is hit it with some magic. It won’t take any finesse. I made the weaving strong enough that, short of blowing it up with the Sahar, you can’t destroy the spell.”

  “Thanks.” She slid it into her armguard, above the Sahar. “I don’t think we need to worry too much. If there are traitors among the Gaian leaders, they aren’t going to reveal themselves by leaping up and attacking us on the spot.”

  Ash and Lyre exchanged a look.

  “Well, let’s hope,” Ash said. “We’ll be nearby either way. You need to make them believe you ... It’s far too dangerous to allow this game of Samael’s to continue unchecked.”

  It might already be too late to undo the chain of destruction Samael had begun by using the Gaians. The damage to the Consulate system might be irreparable, especially with the Ras’ interference.

  “Let’s get this done,” she said bleakly.

  Together they left the room and headed down the stairs to the marble-floored lobby. Piper barely noticed the simple but classy decor and only spared a glance for the pair of clerks behind the desk, their expressions appalled as they watched Ash walk past, bedecked in weapons. He slashed his gaze toward them and they both flinched back a step. Piper quashed a smile.

  Outside the doors, Mona, Kiev, and Seiya stood beside two cabs, the doors open and waiting. Mona waved Piper over, to where she stood beside the front cab. Piper looked at Ash and Lyre.

  “We’ll be close by,” Ash murmured. “Don’t let your guard down once you’re inside.”

  “I won’t,” she promised. She wished she could touch him but everyone’s eyes were on her, so she merely nodded, walked sedately to the cab, and slid into the seat. Her mother joined her and slammed the door shut. Piper looked over her shoulder as Ash and the others piled into the second cab. She could almost make out the look of dread on the driver’s face. Lyre appeared to be a pretty normal guy, but Ash, Seiya, and Kiev looked like the evil henchmen from a dark fairytale. The driver was probably wondering whether his strange passengers were human.

  The cab rolled into motion. Piper straightened in her seat as the hotel’s stylish front exterior disappeared from view. The vehicle wound through the city streets, which gradually came alive with people beginning their days. She watched in amazement as they began to encounter actual traffic on the roads. No city she’d visited had ever had enough running vehicles for steady traffic. Were there other cities as functional as Habinal City? Had other places so thoroughly recovered from the devastation of the war, or only this one?

  “Piper,” Mona began. “About last night, I wanted to apologize for—”

  “It’s fine,” she said quickly. “I just needed to clear my head.”

  Her mother wavered, seeming to hang on something she wanted to say, then smiled. “Well, I hope you’re feeling up to our adventure this morning.” Her forced cheerfulness faded. “They won’t like what we have to say.”

  “Do you think they might turn on us, thinking we’re traitors?”

  “I don’t think so. I’ve dealt with them on many occasions and they are a sensible group. If some of them are under Hades influence, I’m sure the rest will be on top of it very quickly.”

  “I hope so,” Piper said. Nervousness churned in her stomach.

  The enormity of their task settled on her shoulders like the weight of the entire city. If they couldn’t convince the Gaians to break free from Samael’s influence, nothing would stop the coming disaster. The Gaians and Consuls would keep fighting, and she had no doubts about who would win that war in the end. There just weren’t enough Consuls compared to the Gaians’ numbers. Once the Consulates—and therefore the Ras—were out of the way, there would be nothing left to stop Samael from making his next move.

  She shriveled inside with dread as she realized how much was hanging on their success—maybe the fate of Earth. They couldn’t fail.

  The drive seemed to go on forever. The tall buildings shrank then disappeared as they cruised out of downtown and into some sort of industrial area. The quality of the neighborhood deteriorated so quickly she might have missed the transition had she blinked. She clutched the door as they bounced over potholes and cracks in the road. Low, ugly buildings and warehouses lined the streets, with yards full of rusting junk metal and scrap wood. All traffic vanished; the streets were deserted.

  “Where is the Command Staff located?” she asked, frowning out the window.

  “We’re almost there.”

  Piper squinted ahead, seeing nothing that looked remotely plausible for the Command Staff’s base of operations, then turned to look out the back window. A block behind them, the other cab had pulled over beside a lot full of rusting tractors. Her cab turned right and a row of warehouses blocked her view of the other vehicle.

  “Why did they stop?” she asked in alarm.

  Mona glanced back. “Oh, that’s where I instructed their driver to let them off.”

  She looked back at her mother. “But how will they know where to go? They’re supposed to wait nearby.”

  “I told the young lady—Seiya?—where they should wait. It’s near enough but not so close that anyone will see them.”

  “They know how to hide,” she said, anger creeping into her voice.
  “It’s merely a precaution,” Mona replied, her brow wrinkling. “The facility has strict security and it’s safer for your friends if they stay a little ways away. They’re close enough to help if you use your summons spell.”

  Piper’s eyes narrowed at her mother’s worried expression before she relaxed again. Mona was probably being overcautious, but she had a point. With no real idea what the security would be like, it might be better if Ash and the others started out a bit farther away.

  Her mother fidgeted, clearly concerned that she’d upset Piper, then glanced out the windshield. “There it is.”

  Piper followed her gaze and saw that the road ended a hundred yards ahead. A chain-link gate, topped with barbed wire, blocked the road. Half a dozen red “Danger” and “No Trespassing” signs hung from the gate. Beyond it, the twisting, towering shapes of some kind of refinery rose. Narrow towers and smoke stacks marred the skyline, while convoluted tangles of pipeline ran everywhere, twisting together like masses of ugly, rusted snakes.

  The cab rolled to a stop in front of the gates. By the time Mona had pushed her door open, Piper had hopped out. An awful, acidic chemical reek assaulted her. She gagged and resisted the urge to pinch her nose. She shut her car door and the vehicle spun into reverse, backing away before pulling a fast U-turn. Piper looked back down the street, gauging how far away the other cab had dropped off Ash and the others.

  Her mother strode toward a person-sized side gate, smoothing her grey slacks and tucking a loose strand of hair back into her bun as she walked. Piper rushed to join her.

  “What is this place?” she demanded.

  “You don’t know?” Mona asked in surprise. At Piper’s blank stare, she added, “It’s a fertilizer plant.”

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