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


  “What happened?” she asked Lexa.

  “That ... whatever it was ... chased us for several blocks, then just disappeared. Where did you go? One moment you were behind us, the next you were gone.”

  She shifted her weight. “Oh, well, there were two. The other chased me a different way, but I escaped too.”

  Lexa frowned. “Do you know what they were?”

  “Daemons,” she said with a shrug.

  Before Lexa could respond, movement behind her caught Piper’s eyes. A man was swiftly approaching with a huge grin stretched across his face.

  “Uncle Calder!” she exclaimed.

  Brushing past Lexa and the others, she stepped straight into his welcoming hug.

  “Got your father’s message last week,” he said as he hugged her tightly, his voice gruff. “You gave us a real scare. We thought we’d lost you.”

  “It was a close call,” she said, pulling back. “How are things here?”

  “Pretty tense,” he admitted. “I fear I’ve overstayed my welcome, but between the club owner and I, we were able to arrange for the quiet exit of over fifty daemons from the city. It’s a start.”

  “Are you ready to go?” Lexa asked him.

  “I have one more loose end to tie up with the owner. Let’s move inside for a minute.” His eyes whisked over the apprentices. “Keep your heads down in there, ladies and gents. The atmosphere is tense and tempers are running high.”

  He gestured for Lexa to go down the hall. The others followed, with Piper and Calder bringing up the rear. He slung an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

  “How are you doing, Pipes?”

  She grimaced. “Not bad, but I’ve been better. Did Father give you any ... details?”

  “No. His note was very brief. We can catch up on the ride back.”

  She nodded. “How bad is it in there?”

  “Pretty ugly. Daemons don’t like hiding.”

  “Any luck convincing them to leave?”

  “Some left, but not as many as I’d hoped. They don’t like backing down and leaving feels like running away.”

  She nodded as they passed through the mask room, its velvet-lined displays currently barren. Most daemons considered themselves superior to humans and haemons. Their egos did not appreciate the idea of being pushed out of the city by Gaians, prefects, or Consuls.

  “What about the ones who won’t leave?”

  “For those, let’s just hope they keep bickering amongst themselves and don’t organize well enough to actually mobilize against the Gaians.” His jaw tightened. “There were more daemons in the city than we knew. More than anyone knew. And some of them wouldn’t have lasted one day in a Consulate without being blacklisted.”

  “Probably why we didn’t know they were here then,” she said quietly. She stopped, letting the others draw ahead. “Uncle Calder ... have you considered that the Gaians might not be entirely wrong?”

  He gave her a quizzical look.

  “I don’t mean all this”—she waved in the general direction of the fires outside—“but that the Consulate system isn’t enough anymore?”

  He shook his head. “As much as I’d like to discuss this, we should get in there before someone causes trouble.”

  They hurried after the others. At the far end, the hallway opened into the immense main room of the club, but it didn’t look very club-like at the moment.

  The number of bodies in the room would have been a slow night for the Styx, but if they were all daemons, it was a hell of a lot more than she’d been expecting, even with Calder’s warning. There were over a hundred, and this was just the ones who’d come here to escape the violence.

  Lexa and the others were clustered nearby, waiting for Calder. Piper slipped behind Melonie at the back of the group, keeping an eye out for Lilith. That was a daemon she wanted to avoid.

  “Everyone wait here,” Calder said. “I’ll be back shortly. And remember, keep your heads down.”

  He strode quickly toward the other end of the cavernous room. Piper scanned the crowd. Most daemons were sitting or standing, alone or in groups. Quiet conversation permeated the air, casual and sedate at a glance, but she didn’t trust it; Calder wouldn’t have warned them otherwise. As her eyes travelled over the gathering, an idea came to her. She was at a loss for how to find Seiya and Lyre—especially since going near the Ra embassy had become so dangerous—but here was an entire room full of daemons, and daemons knew a lot more about how to find other daemons than she did. If she could find a daemon among the assembly that she was on speaking terms with from the Consulate, she could ask for advice and see if that got her anywhere.

  She only had a few minutes max. Glancing at Lexa, who was absorbed in watching the daemons, she poked Melonie in the arm.

  “I’ll be right back,” she said.

  “But Piper—”

  Not letting her finish, Piper slipped around the edge of the room. She walked quickly, letting her eyes skim across the nearest daemons. Most ignored her but a few tried to catch her eye, looking for an excuse to challenge her. She kept moving, hoping to see someone who was at least vaguely familiar that she could approach. She followed the entire length of one wall, feeling helplessness closing in around her. She couldn’t just walk up to random daemons and ask them what they knew about recent Ra family ambushes.

  As she crossed the back of the warehouse, the empty stage on one side and daemons on the other, a flash of red caught her eye—long, wild, curly red hair. Could it be?

  Piper stopped to take a closer look at the woman’s back, twenty feet away and part of a small group. As soon as she stopped moving, the nearest daemons all focused on her—and their looks weren’t friendly. Territorial aggression radiated off them, spreading outward to others nearby. Holy shit. Calder hadn’t been exaggerating.

  She held her ground, trying to appear neither weak nor challenging as she wondered frantically whether she should just keep walking. Then the red-haired woman turned to see what everyone was looking at and her eyes widened as they landed on Piper.

  “Piper!” she exclaimed. She hopped over a sitting daemon’s legs, crossed the distance between them, and swept Piper into a hug.

  Seeing the stranger accepted by one of their own, the surrounding daemons’ tension subsided. Piper breathed a sigh of relief.

  “I see you escaped your captors!” Kindra said merrily, stepping back to study Piper. “Did Ash save you?”

  “Yeah,” she said with an answering smile. “He showed up in the nick of time. Thanks for pointing him my way.”

  Kindra had been the only other person to survive the destruction of Piper’s Consulate, and she was the one who had tipped Ash off that Piper had been kidnapped, not killed, by the Gaians.

  Rolling her eyes toward the ceiling, Kindra pressed a hand to her cheek. “Oh, you can’t imagine my surprise when he showed up. My oh my, was he angry. You should have seen him. Magnificent.”

  Piper blinked. “Angry?”

  “Is that the right word? Livid, perhaps. Enraged.” Her eyebrows shot up. “He was ready to tear the world apart, thinking you had been killed. Are you sure you two are merely friends?”

  Shaking her head and hoping the dim light hid her blush, Piper gestured around the room. “What are you doing here?”

  “Oh, well, it just happened,” Kindra said with a shrug, looking supremely unconcerned. “These Gaian people started attacking everything. I was at the Torngasuk embassy finishing a job when all the sudden boom boom boom, and it was just like the Consulate all over again.”

  The daemon shook her head. “I got out of there fast. It looked like they were shooting the building with rocket launchers, but these weapons, they used magic as well. I’d never seen anything like it.”

  Piper frowned. Magical rocket launchers? That warranted some investigation. “What did you do then?”

  “I figured it was time to go home, but everywhere I went there were more of these annoying haemons with their
special weapons, stopping everyone and accusing them of being devil spawn. I ended up here to wait it out.”

  Piper let out a long breath. “You might be waiting awhile.”

  Kindra sighed too. “What are you doing here, and where is that fine draconian who ran off to rescue you?”

  “Ash isn’t here,” she said, suppressing another guilty flinch. “I’m here with some other Consuls to pick up my uncle.”

  “Ah, Calder. He has been quite wonderful, helping shoo the most irritating daemons out of the city.”

  “There’s something else,” she told Kindra, lowering her voice. “Two of my daemon friends have gone missing. I think they may have been captured by the Ras, but I don’t know how to find out for sure.”

  The humor vanished from Kindra’s face. “The Ras? That is not good at all.”

  “Definitely not.”

  “Who do they have?”

  “Lyre and a—a relative of Ash’s.”

  “The Ras will not be kind to any draconian.” Kindra frowned for a moment, then snapped her fingers. “This way.”

  Before Piper could do more than blink in surprise, Kindra strode away, through the crowd of daemons. Piper followed, nearly stepping on her heels as she avoided all eye contact. She glanced toward the entrance and saw the apprentices still waiting, all of them standing on their tiptoes, trying to watch her. Kindra stopped beside a short, lithe male daemon who was talking to a group of three women.

  Piper was just thinking that he was the least threatening daemon she’d ever seen—he was wearing a sweater vest, for goodness sake—when he turned to face Kindra and her mouth fell open.

  “Hi Ether!” Kindra chirped.

  “Hello Kindra,” he replied in a light tenor. His gaze turned to Piper and he frowned. “Do I know you?”

  “Um,” Piper stuttered. “Yes, actually, we met once ... briefly.”

  She didn’t add that moments after meeting her at her Consulate, he’d thrown her by her hair into a coffee table in a fit of shaded rage. It had kind of been her fault though.

  “Oh,” he said, clearly struggling to pull up the memory.

  “Ether, do you have a moment?” Kindra asked.

  The three of them moved away from the other daemons.

  Kindra put an arm around Piper. “Piper is a dear friend of mine,” she said, her voice slowing dramatically. “And her cherished daemon friends have gone missing in this terrible mess. We need your help.”

  He shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I don’t see what help I could be.”

  “But you see, we suspect our missing friends are currently in the, ah, care of the Ra family here in the city.”

  His face went hard in a hot flash of anger, his eyes darkening, and suddenly he was that dangerous daemon who’d been ready to commit murder over the demise of his pet frog.

  “The Ra family,” he repeated in a growl.

  Kindra nodded, unfazed by his change in demeanor. “We think her friends are being held at the Ra embassy.”

  Ether grunted. “Good luck getting them out. The cells in the third level of the basement are solid steel and the underground levels are a deliberate maze. I am well acquainted.”

  Piper blinked. “You were a prisoner there too?”

  “A long time ago,” he said darkly. “Twenty years ago now. They wanted me to share some knowledge of my homeland that I was not keen to part with.”

  Twenty-years ago? He barely looked twenty years old. “How did you escape?”

  “They eventually let me go.”

  “They did? That ... doesn’t sound like them.”

  He smiled, flashing his teeth in a way that made her suspect that, if he’d been out of glamour, his teeth would have been fangs. “My family was not pleased with my incarceration. We may not be as powerful as griffins, but my kin made life persistently miserable for the daemons at the embassy until I was granted my freedom.”

  She bit her lip; that strategy was not likely to work for Lyre and Seiya. “Do you know of any way to get in and out safely?”

  “No ‘safe’ route exists,” he said. “But if you are determined, don’t use the front door.”

  “Oh?”

  He leaned closer. “The Ras can’t bring prisoners in and out their main entrance, can they?”

  Piper blinked. “No, not really.”

  “There’s another entrance—a secret backdoor. I don’t recall its exact location, but it’s among the abandoned warehouses east of the embassy—or it was twenty years ago.”

  “It’s a place to start,” Piper said with a quick grin. “Thank you, Ether.”

  His eyes lightened back to blue and he gave her a meek smile, once again harmless-looking. “You didn’t hear a thing from me.”

  “Of course not.” She cocked her head. “What did your family do to make them so miserable?”

  His smile widened. “My people thrive in marshland. The griffins did not enjoy the continual flooding of their embassy, the infestations of insects and amphibians, and the stagnation of their water supply. It was quite entertaining.”

  She chuckled, part amused, part surprised that his family had pulled off something like that. His description confirmed her suspicion that he was a kelpie. Alone, they were tough but not on the same level as draconians and griffins, but in groups, they were a force to be reckoned with—according to her studies, anyway.

  “Thanks Ether,” Kindra chimed. “You’re the best!”

  He nodded and drifted away to rejoin the conversation they’d pulled him from.

  “Nice guy,” Piper commented.

  “Just don’t get on his bad side,” Kindra advised. “People he doesn’t like always end up a lot worse than before they ticked him off.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

  A secret entrance to the embassy. She suppressed a surge of excitement. It made perfect sense, and she was annoyed at herself for not thinking of it sooner. The embassy was a political establishment, so of course the Ras couldn’t walk prisoners in and out the front door. Piper didn’t know what she would do with the information about the second entrance, but it was more than what she’d had before.

  “Uh oh,” Kindra muttered unexpectedly. “That doesn’t look good.”

  Looking up, Piper followed her gaze and adrenaline whooshed through her veins.

  In a single glance, she realized what had happened. Randy and Jerome, the idiots, must have decided to “fetch Piper” or something equally stupid. Instead of walking the perimeter of the room the way she had, they’d tried walking straight through the gathering of a hundred or so daemons. And of course, they hadn’t gotten far.

  Now about a dozen angry daemons surrounded them. Lexa, Melonie, and Lee were stuck outside the circle of daemons, unable to get any closer without making themselves targets as well.

  “Oh shit,” Piper gasped.

  She rushed forward with Kindra on her heels, careful not to bump any daemons. When she reached the circle, she slipped between two guys and into the middle of the space before anyone could pay her any attention. Kindra hesitated on the inner edge.

  Piper stepped into the open, feeling too many eyes turn to her. In the time it had taken her to reach them, a massively muscled daemon had moved into the middle of the circle. Randy was curled in the fetal position at the daemon’s feet while Jerome stood a few steps away, eyes wide and frozen like a rabbit.

  The seven-foot-tall daemon turned his dark, beady eyes to Piper.

  “Oh, another one?” he rumbled, grinning.

  Flicking a glance at the watching daemons, she could practically smell their aggression, reminding her too much of the Styx ring and the bloodthirsty horde of spectators. Most of them were probably just hoping for a show, but there were always a few who’d jump in given the chance.

  “Another what?” she asked, planting a hand on her hip.

  “Another kid who wants to tell me what to do.”

  “Why would I do that?” she asked with a snort, raising her eyebrows.
“You don’t look like the kind of guy who needs anyone telling him what to do.”

  His mouth pursed angrily. “What’re you suggesting, girl?”

  “I’m saying you look like you’ve got your shit together.” She nodded at Randy. “And I think he’s learned some respect.”

  “Not enough,” the daemon growled.

  “Do you really want to make him cry?” she asked with a grimace. “I mean that would be so awkward for the rest of us.”

  The surrounding daemons chuckled. The big one folded his bulging arms over his chest and grunted in a dismissive way. Piper stepped casually over to Randy and grabbed his ankle. Putting on a bored expression and rolling her eyes toward the ceiling for the benefit of her audience, she dragged him across the circle to his weak protests and more laughter from the crowd. The daemons parted to let her through and she pulled him over to Lexa and the others. Jerome scurried after her, his face still white as a sheet. The circle of daemons dispersed, the sense of looming violence fading.

  Lexa knelt beside Randy to see how badly he was hurt. Piper unceremoniously dropped his leg and turned to pin Jerome in place with her meanest glare.

  “What the hell was that?” she snapped. “Are you two trying to get killed?”

  “I—you—you went over there first!” Jerome spluttered, his face going from white to red.

  “And I knew what I was doing!” she half shouted, then saw daemon eyes turn their way and lowered her voice. “That was idiotic. They were just waiting for a reason to pick a fight and you walked right into it.”

  “So did you!”

  Kindra appeared beside Piper, one hip cocked as she tossed her red curls over her shoulder.

  “The foolish boy doesn’t seem to understand,” she remarked as though commenting on the weather.

  “Who are you?” he barked aggressively.

  Kindra smiled. She reached smoothly for Jerome and gently stroked his cheek in a gesture that was a cross between motherly and seductive—until she pinched his ear so hard that he yelped and rose to his tiptoes in pain.

  “Be more polite, foolish boy,” she told him.

  Lexa quickly stood and yanked Jerome away from Kindra. The daemon released him, examining the blood on her fingernails before casually licking one. Jerome went white again.

 
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