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

  With one last glance, she hurried after the others. They continued on, the others oblivious to her anxiety. She glanced back every few steps but saw no movement. Shivers ran up and down her spine as a distinct feeling of dread grew in the pit of her stomach. The alley stretched on, lined by boarded-up doors and rusting dumpsters. Too many shadows. Too many hiding places.

  She was so focused on the path behind her that she almost didn’t see Lexa stop, raising her hand for them to halt.

  “What is it?” Randy whispered, edging closer to the Consul.

  Lexa stared ahead, her body silhouetted by the muffled beam of her flashlight before she switched it off. Darkness settled over them, the alley lit only by the ambient glow of distant windows.

  “I’m not sure,” she said slowly.

  Piper eyed the Consul. Lexa’s tension was visible even in the darkness. Piper swallowed against the bubbling apprehension in her gut. The feeling grew stronger, dread squeezing her throat. Randy’s and Jerome’s swaggers were nowhere in sight, the whites of their eyes showing as they looked around anxiously. Piper gripped the hilt of her sword, tamping down on her building fear. It made no sense. The alley was creepy and the night was intimidating, but that was no reason for them to be so afraid.

  Which meant it might not be natural fear.

  “Lexa,” she said tersely, “I don’t think we’re alone.”

  The Consul shot her a startled look, and Piper saw the moment the woman put two and two together. Piper’s hand tightened on her sword. Maybe it was a banshee. She’d never encountered one before, but banshees could elicit fear in their victims and feed off it the way incubi fed off lust. No one in their right mind would actively wish for a banshee on the offensive, but the alternative was far worse.

  “We need to keep moving,” Lexa said, her eyes darting around. “March, boys!”

  She nudged Jerome forward. He stumbled, staring over his shoulder with wide eyes, then started walking quickly. Piper poked Melonie and Lee, getting them to follow. Panic shimmered in their eyes. They’d never experienced this kind of overwhelming, inexplicable terror before. The first time was the worst.

  Lexa led them down the alley. The apprentices scurried after her with Piper once again trailing behind by a few steps, her hand on one of the guns at the small of her back. Fear shivered in her belly. This feeling was too familiar. It wasn’t a banshee. Their stalker was purposefully infusing them with fear, waiting for panic to get the better of them as he hunted them. Ash did the same thing during an ambush; he would stalk the enemy, letting their fear build until they couldn’t think straight, then he’d attack while they were paralyzed by terror. Which meant—

  Piper spun around in mid-step—and saw the flash of a dark shadow moving fast along the rooftop of a nearby building. She yanked out her gun and spotted another dark flash of movement across the rooftops on her other side.

  The larger of the two shadows sprang off the rooftop and giant wings spread wide. An animal snarl ripped through the silence as the beast dove for them like a half-ton missile. Piper didn’t even have time to call on the Sahar. She threw her hands up and cast a shield. Black fire exploded outward when the creature slammed into her spell. The dragon rebounded into the air, great wings beating as it roared.

  Piper spun to see that all the apprentices were on the ground, having thrown themselves down when the monster had charged them.

  “Get up and run!” she yelled.

  Lexa yanked Lee up by his arm. “Go!”

  The apprentices scrambled to their feet and bolted down the alley. Lexa ran after them, but Piper’s eyes were locked on the second shadow. It held still, standing on the rooftop with partially spread wings. She could feel the burn of the draconian’s gaze on her. He was here for her.

  With a frantic glance toward the fleeing apprentices, she turned and ran between two buildings. Just before her line of sight was cut off, she saw the dragon swoop over the heads of its prey, letting out a terrifying roar even as it deliberately missed them by several feet. It must be herding them away.

  Fighting for calm, Piper sprinted down the narrow passageway between buildings—too narrow for a draconian’s wingspan. Darkness enclosed her but she didn’t dare create any light. She ran on, stumbling over cracks and garbage. She could feel the press of the draconian’s stare and knew he was following her, not the others.

  Ahead of her, the passageway opened up into a wide street faintly illuminated by a single streetlamp. She skidded to a stop just short of the sidewalk, lifted her gun, and waited.

  A moment later, the draconian dropped gracefully from the sky to land ten paces away from her. His wings folded in, his tail sweeping almost casually back and forth behind him. She swallowed hard. She’d seen two draconians out of glamour before this, but that didn’t make the third any less terrifying.

  And Raum already frightened her.

  Two curving horns framed each side of his head. His wavy hair was iridescent red, his eyes black. Dark scales ran across his cheekbones and outlined his jaw, interrupted by the white scars on his face. Faint designs swirled in the hollows of his cheeks, almost invisible in the murky light. Like Ash out of glamor, he was shirtless, with leather baldrics crisscrossing his chest. Scales covered his sides but left the planes of his chest and stomach bare.

  She swallowed again and lowered her gun. Her head swam with barely restrained panic and her heart raced dangerously fast. With a shaking hand, she shoved the gun back into its holster. It wouldn’t do her any good against this daemon.

  “Piper,” he said.

  His deep, alien voice slid across her bones, rubbing in the wrong direction. She shuddered, then straightened her spine.

  “Oh, now you greet me all politely?” she asked angrily, managing to hide the tremble in her voice.

  He didn’t answer. The shadows clung to him, coiling around him, immune to the struggling beams of light from the streetlamp. He watched her in silence long enough that she started to hyperventilate, then his body shimmered. Wings, tail, and horns disappeared. In an instant, he was back to the daemon she knew, dressed in black fatigues and armed to the teeth—still pretty damn frightening. His ice-blue eyes slid over her. A black wrap covered the lower half of his face.

  She held her breath as she waited for a response. She was gambling on the fact that he wasn’t attacking. If he’d wanted to capture or kill her, he would have done it already. That said, she had no idea what to expect. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been lying on the floor in a puddle of his own blood after she’d sliced him open with the Sahar.

  “I need to speak to you,” he finally said, the words utterly toneless.

  She swallowed hard. “I didn’t think you would want to talk to me after last time.”

  He blinked, surprise briefly touching his features.

  “Um.” She twisted her hands together. “I’m sorry for attacking you with the Sahar. I honestly didn’t know that would happen.”

  He stared at her for a moment, at a loss for words, then grunted in an almost amused way and pulled the wrap off his face. “It was certainly unexpected.”

  “Too bad I wasn’t aiming at Samael,” she mumbled.

  “A shame.”

  She almost smiled, but she hadn’t forgotten who she was talking to. Her wariness crept back. “Why are you here?”

  His stillness melted away and he strode toward her. She held her ground as he stopped in front of her, his eyes cutting through her.

  “Where is Ash?”

  She stiffened, wariness transforming to alarm, which she tried to hide. “I don’t know.”

  “Don’t lie to me.”

  Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Why do you think I would tell you? I almost lost everything getting Ash out of Asphodel. I won’t betray him to you so you can drag him back to that hell.”

  Raum tilted his head slightly to one side, eyes flashing past her and down the dark alley in what she could only call a nervous tic. Nervous? Raum?

??I am not here for that,” he said. “Samael does not know where I am.”

  “Like I believe that,” she said as she tried to decipher his expression. From what she’d seen in Asphodel, Raum was unswervingly loyal to Samael in a way Ash had never been, even if he too hated his master. As he’d once told her, “Everything happens for a reason”—a subtle warning that Samael was behind everything that went on in Asphodel. She didn’t know if that still applied.

  Her suspicious glare didn’t faze him.

  “I do not have time for foolish arguments,” he said implacably. “I must find Ash.”

  She folded her arms. “Why?”

  “Do you remember the boy?”

  The boy? She’d encountered countless guards and soldiers in Asphodel, but she hadn’t met anyone she would consider a boy ... A memory flashed through her mind’s eye: red hair, pale eyes, his arm in a sling as he walked down a hallway in Asphodel. The draconian boy she’d surprised with a question about Ash’s whereabouts.

  Watching her closely, Raum saw her make the connection.

  “He needs Ash’s help,” he said.

  “Why?” she asked. Raum coming in search of Ash and needing his help on behalf of a draconian boy was a little too perfect. Samael knew Ash’s weaknesses—and Ash was far too willing to take dangerous risks for those he felt he needed to protect.

  Raum flexed his shoulders, trying to release some tension. His gaze swept down the alley again before he spoke.

  “He made a critical error on his last mission. Something very important to Samael went wrong as a result. His error was unpardonable. Samael will kill him.”

  Piper’s skin chilled at his last words. The draconians in Samael’s power were utterly helpless to their master. If Samael decided to kill the boy in punishment, nothing could save him if he went back to Asphodel.

  “I cannot let that happen,” Raum said. A hint of anger touched his toneless voice. “Ash must take him before Samael orders his execution.”

  “Take him yourself,” she told him flatly. “You can hide him just as well as Ash, I’m sure.”

  “I can’t do that.”

  “Why not?”

  Raum ignored her question. Instead, he looked up and whistled softly.

  In a rush of wings, another draconian dropped off the roof of the nearest building. He shimmered back into glamour the moment his feet touched the ground, allowing Piper only the briefest glimpse of his true form. Natania was right—like Raum and Seiya, this draconian only had sets of two horns.

  As his glamour settled and she sucked in a few deep breaths to calm her racing heart, she took a good look at him. Maybe fourteen or so, rumpled reddish hair just like she remembered, black clothes similar to Raum’s, and eyes that were a blue so pale they looked like ice. Those eyes flicked over Piper, assessing her.

  “Kiev,” Raum said. “This is Piper. Do you remember her?”

  “Yes,” he said. His voice was deeper than she’d expected, closer to a man’s voice than a boy’s. Piper flinched at the reminder that she’d gotten him beaten.

  Raum gave a short nod. “She will take you to Ash.”

  “What?” Piper yelped. “No, I won’t.”

  “Yes, you will.”

  “I’m not your errand girl!”

  Raum’s eyes cut through her again. “Where is Ash?”

  “I’m not telling you that.”

  “Then you will take Kiev to him.” He pulled the wrap back over the lower half of his face. “I cannot delay my assignment any longer without drawing attention. No one can know that I have had contact with Kiev.”


  His eyes hardened. “Until he is with Ash, Kiev’s life is your responsibility.”

  Trepidation flashed through her. “But—”

  He turned to Kiev and gripped his shoulder with one hand. They exchanged a meaningful look.

  “Thanks, Raum,” Kiev whispered.

  Raum nodded. With a final glance at Piper, his form shimmered. Terror clawed at her instantly, freezing her in place. Wings spreading wide, he sprang upward, vanishing into the darkness. A small shadow darted out from a boarded-up doorway. Raum’s dragonet paused in front of Piper and chattered at her in a stern sort of way, then jumped into the air after his master, small wings beating fast as he too disappeared.

  Piper exhaled shakily, staring after them, then looked helplessly at the draconian boy standing two steps away, watching her with wary eyes.

  “Um,” she said.

  Kiev just stared at her, waiting.

  She let out a deep breath, thinking fast. She wasn’t about to tell Kiev to take a hike—especially not after Raum’s veiled threat about keeping the boy alive. For better or worse, she was stuck with him. Her stomach twisted. She was relatively confident that Raum wasn’t lying to her, but it wouldn’t be the first time Samael had used someone without their knowledge. It could still be a trap for Ash. She needed to be absolutely sure it was safe before she took Kiev to the Overworld. As much as she wanted to help Kiev, she wouldn’t put Ash at risk. She’d done that enough already.

  “Um,” she repeated. “I need to find my friends that you guys chased off.”

  “When will you take me to Ash?” he asked, his eyes narrowing. “Where is he? How long will it take to reach him?”

  “I’ll take you soon,” she said evasively. “He’s not in the city. But first, I need to rejoin my group and finish my assignment.”

  Kiev chuffed with impatience, clearly displeased. At least he had yet to perfect Raum’s wall of total anti-emotion. Hopefully he was not yet as calculating as his mentor either.

  “Uh, by the way,” she began haltingly, “back in Asphodel, I’m sor—”

  He waved a hand. “It was my mistake.”

  She blinked and decided not to force her apologies on him. “Can you follow me, out of sight?”

  He smirked. “If I don’t want people to see me, they don’t.”

  She raised her eyebrows but didn’t comment. “All right. I’ll meet up with you as soon as I can get away again.”

  He pulled the wrap around his neck over the lower half of his face and slipped silently down the alley. He disappeared in a few steps, absorbed by the darkness far more quickly than she would have expected—definitely some kind of cloaking spell. The kid was good. She eyed the spot where he’d vanished. He was still a teenager but he was already running crucial missions for Samael. She was sure he had some serious—and deadly—skills. She just hoped he was a decent kid and she wouldn’t regret helping him. Samael was exceptionally talented at twisting minds and breaking souls.

  She took a couple deep breaths and shook the weak, trembly feeling out of her hands. Glancing around to regain her bearings, she broke into a trot back down the narrow gap between buildings and into the alley where Lexa and the others had fled. She had a general idea of where they were going and hoped she could find the right building.

  As she strode past the rusted dumpsters and graffitied brick walls, she squinted over her shoulder. She couldn’t see Kiev, but she could feel his eyes on her back.

  Between getting everyone through the night alive, sorting things out with her father, finding Lyre and Seiya, and now keeping Kiev safe until she could figure out whether she trusted Raum’s story, she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Why was nothing in her life simple?

  Somehow, she suspected it would only get more complicated.


  PIPER followed the alley, her eyes moving side to side with uncertainty. She wished Lexa had been a little clearer on the whereabouts of their destination. After another couple blocks, the lane ended at a wide, dark street. She stopped, looking one way then the other. Something about this street seemed familiar ...

  Her gaze fell on an enormous warehouse at the far end of the block, with double metal doors in the front. The ghostly sound of thumping dance music echoed in her memory and her stomach shriveled. No freaking way. Not again.

  No wonder she hadn’
t immediately recognized where she was. The last time she’d been there, the warehouse had been brightly lit with pulsing light that had trembled with each deep boom of the aggressive music. Tonight, it was dark and silent, almost invisible among the other abandoned buildings.

  Just great. She’d never wanted to set foot in the Styx again. Why did she keep ending up back here? Grimacing, she supposed it made sense. Lilith’s club was hard to find and not well known outside its regular patrons. It made sense for daemons who wanted to get away from the conflict to hunker down at the club. Lilith must have shut down business while it was so risky to draw attention to her establishment.

  If Piper had known this was where they were going, she might have reconsidered coming. She wasn’t ready to deal with Lilith yet. During their last encounter, Piper had promised to return the priceless truth pendant Lilith had lent her. That pendant was now at the bottom of a gorge in the Underworld.

  With a sigh, she headed for the front doors. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end; she could feel eyes watching her and she was pretty sure it wasn’t just Kiev’s. Lilith probably wasn’t taking any chances on surprise Gaian raids.

  She reached the doors and glanced around. No bouncer? Shrugging, she pulled the door open.


  A hand grabbed her arm and yanked her into the pitch-black interior. As soon as the door closed behind her, light bloomed—a flashlight. She squinted painfully.

  Lexa stood in front of her, face white. Randy, Jerome, Lee, and Melonie crowded behind her.

  “You made it!” Lexa exclaimed, relief heavy in her voice. “Are you hurt?”

  “I’m fine. Are you guys okay?”

  “Of course we’re okay,” Randy scoffed.

  Piper decided not to ask whether he’d needed a change of underwear after his first exposure to a draconian—though he probably didn’t realize that’s what they’d faced. Since no one was shouting questions about how she’d used magic, she was assuming that, between their panic and the dragon’s attack, they hadn’t noticed her cast a shield to defend them.

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