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

  “Where is Calder?” Lexa asked tersely. “We should go.”

  “Yeah,” Piper said, “I’d say it’s more than time to get out of here.”

  She began to turn when she sensed a body directly behind her.

  “Leaving already, Minx?” a male voice crooned in her ear as hot breath reeking of old cigarettes washed over her cheek.

  Before she could react, hands grabbed her shoulders and threw her backward. She crashed into strange bodies and barely managed not to fall. Jumping away from the daemons, she spun toward the one who’d thrown her. His face was unfamiliar, but his shaved head, tattooed with snake scales, had been burned into her memory. She’d fought him in the Styx ring months ago—the fighter called Rattler.

  “Minx, Minx, Minx,” he chanted softly. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

  Kindra made to step toward Rattler when another daemon appeared out of the crowd, blocking her path. Fear trickled through Piper’s veins. The second daemon was familiar too—her first opponent from the tournament, Grudge. His broken nose was unmistakable. He grinned, flashing a gaping hole where a tooth was missing.

  Her gaze snapped between the two—and then Rattler sprang at her.

  He slammed into her and she let his weight push her over. As her back hit the floor, she got her feet under his belly and catapulted him over her head. Rolling swiftly, she lunged to her feet. Grudge’s hand closed around the back of her neck. He lifted her into the air and hurled her into the crowd of daemons.

  This time they got out of the way and with the floor cleared in front of her, she managed to get her hands out in front of her and propel herself into a forward flip. She landed on her feet, panting and rather impressed that she’d pulled off the move instead of wiping out. Someone in the crowd whistled appreciatively.

  She turned quickly, her eyes darting all around. Daemons surrounded her, and Kindra and Lexa were nowhere in sight. Eyes were turning dark all around her as the nearest daemons got caught up in Rattler’s and Grudge’s ire and bloodlust. She was trapped in the middle of a circle of daemons hungering to see blood spill.

  Rattler easily stepped through the wall of daemons, his eyes black as obsidian. On the other side of the circle, Grudge pushed through the spectators, flexing his muscular arms as his eyes locked onto her.

  She looked between them. They were going to attack any second—so she acted first.

  Pulling two daggers from their sheaths on her thighs, she lunged for Rattler since he was faster and therefore the greater threat. He slid backward on light feet, as agile as the first time she’d faced him. She knew better than to try tricking him the way she had during their last matchup, and she also didn’t have time, not with Grudge charging at her back. She slashed to force Rattler away, then ducked under Grudge’s grasp. Rolling out from under him, she rapidly backed away from them.

  Her eyes flicked away from her opponents for a moment, but she couldn’t see beyond the wall of daemons to know what her friends were doing—and whether she could count on them for help. The bored daemons didn’t want this fun new spectacle interrupted and would probably block any attempts at an intervention.

  Rattler sprang at her—too fast. He caught her wrist, twisting it until she dropped her dagger. She sliced his arm open with her second one. He howled and staggered backward. Grudge suddenly appeared in his place, his fist swinging for her face.

  She dropped her remaining dagger and caught the blow with both hands, the power behind it pushing her back two feet. His other arm came up for another strike. She flung her hand out at the same time. Her blast of magic hit him in a flash of blue and purple, knocking him clear off his feet. She jumped back, looking around wildly for Rattler.

  He landed on her back.

  Her knees hit the floor as his weight pushed her off balance. He hooked an arm around her throat, choking off her air. She threw herself forward to dislodge him, but he had too good of a grip. She grabbed his wrist with one hand to keep him from crushing her windpipe. Grudge recovered and stepped in front of her, towering over her. He grabbed her hair, forcing her head back, and leered down at her.

  “Over so fast,” he taunted. “Not so tough, are you?”

  She reached for one of her guns. Rattler grabbed her wrist with his free hand, twisting her arm up between her shoulder blades. Her grip on his arm with her other hand was the only thing stopping him from crushing her throat. Her lungs were screaming for air.

  Panic burned through her mind, scrambling her thoughts. She was completely immobilized. Magic. She needed to use magic, but she didn’t know how to without directing it with gestures.

  Grudge drew his hand back. Murky red magic filled his palm as he prepared a spell—probably something that would inflict serious damage. The circle of daemons pressed closer, black eyes everywhere, cruel anticipation tainting the air.

  Her panic spiked, surging violently through her head, and then her emotions went still. Calm serenity enveloped her, pushing away the mind-numbing fear.

  Grudge hesitated, his arm hanging in the air as he squinted at her face in confusion.

  She called on her magic. Rattler had twisted her arm behind her, so she flicked her fingers at his stomach. A burst of power hit him in the belly, tearing him off her.

  Grudge flung his spell at her. She raised both hands and her blue and purple shield popped up between them. His spell burst apart on it. She dissolved the shield and threw out a hand. A blue-streaked blast of purple magic rushed toward him. He cast his own shield. Her spell hit it and his shield vanished in a burst of orange light. He was blasted off his feet, landing three yards away on his back.

  Piper stood alone in the center of the circle. Instinct whispered to her and she turned as Rattler launched himself at her, shimmers enveloping his body as he dropped his glamour. She raised her hands to shield, but at the same moment, the three nearest daemons lunged for her too, eyes black and eager bloodlust twisting their faces.

  She had no choice. She would have to use the Sahar.

  As her attention turned to the cold weight pressed against her inner wrist, movement flashed above her.

  A figure dropped down from the rafters. He hit the floor in a crouch beside her and a massive shockwave of power erupted from him. Black ripples shot outward, bowling over every daemon within a thirty-foot radius. She was the only one untouched.

  Kiev rose to his full height and surveyed the surrounding daemons with ice-blue eyes. With a black wrap hiding the lower half of his face, his age was difficult to gauge, and with the way he held one hand casually at shoulder height, eerie black flames dancing over his fingers, no one seemed to want to take a closer look. None of the downed daemons moved, Grudge and Rattler included, their eyes averted submissively. She didn’t think they knew what he was, but either way they weren’t willing to challenge him.

  Her state of inner calm unfazed by his sudden attack, she glanced at Kiev.

  “I had things under control,” she said coolly.

  “For now,” he replied, his deep, adult-sounding voice adding to the illusion of his age. “But once you killed one of them, it would’ve gotten a lot uglier.”

  “Their problem, not mine.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “A bit bloodthirsty, aren’t you?”

  She shrugged and turned away from her attackers to scan the crowd for Lexa, Kindra, and the others. Spotting Kindra’s red hair, she took a step toward them.

  “Piper?” Kiev murmured.


  “In case you didn’t know, your eyes are pitch black.”

  Surprise rushed through her and the calm tranquility popped like a bubble. Aches and pain from her fight rushed in along with lingering fear.

  “Ah, there you go,” he said. “Back to green.”

  She cleared her throat. “Uh, thanks.”

  “No problem.”

  With one last look, he melted into the crowd, quickly disappearing toward the back hall. Piper headed toward the others, daemons moving read
ily out of her path. The apprentices stared at her, shock written all over their faces.

  Lexa gave her a quick once-over. “Are you okay?”

  “I’m good,” she said, sounding overly calm even to her own ears. “You?”

  “Fine.” Lexa’s eyes narrowed. “What was that all about?”

  “Ah ... an old grudge.”

  Randy let out a loud, false cough. He, Jerome, and Lee were still staring at her, the hints of suspiciousness even stronger. Melonie just looked worried.

  “Where’s Uncle Calder?” Piper asked quickly, glancing around.

  Before Lexa could answer, another voice spoke from right behind her. “Why, hello Piper. How lovely to see you again.”

  Piper winced, then reluctantly turned. Lilith stood with several bulky bouncer-types behind her, her bright red lips curved in a smile that was not the least bit friendly. She was dressed conservatively in dark, fitted jeans and a blouse, but her beauty radiated outward like light from the sun. Her pale blond hair was braided in an elaborate plait that fell most of the way down her back. She looked like a sweet, young college student, but her eyes were colder than ice. Uncle Calder stood beside the succubus.

  “Lilith,” Piper said cautiously.

  “That’s it,” Randy whispered loudly. “Piper officially knows every daemon in the city. What the actual hell?”

  Piper and Lilith ignored him, staring each other down. Piper had really been hoping to get out of the club without running into the succubus. Lilith wasn’t likely to ignore the unfinished business between them, not with her priceless pendant missing.

  “We have a situation,” Calder said before Lilith could say anything else to Piper. “Three squads of Gaians are closing in on this location from the north. They’re checking all larger buildings, which suggests someone tipped them off about the Styx.”

  “Although they do not seem aware of our exact location,” Lilith said, “it is only a matter of time before they find us. And when they do, they will destroy everything.”

  The Gaians had indiscriminately burned down every building they’d decided was too heavily involved with daemons. The Styx would most certainly check all their boxes.

  “Consul Calder,” Lee said. “Aren’t there enough daemons here to protect the building?”

  “Oh yes,” Lilith said scathingly. “And they will just as surely destroy my business as if we hadn’t defended it at all.”

  He flinched at her tone, half embarrassed, half punch-drunk from her beauty.

  “Then the fight can’t happen here,” Piper interjected. She gestured to the idle daemon crowd. “Tell them to get out there and meet the Gaians if they want to defend their hideout.”

  Lilith gave her a narrow-eyed look. “And if they have no interest in defending the club?”

  “Then send them on their way,” she replied. “What good are they doing you hanging around here otherwise?”

  Lilith opened her mouth, then closed it. “Hm. Your idea may have merit, but one of the Gaian squads is too close. I need to speak with the daemons here, separate out those willing, and instruct them on where to go. It will take time.”

  Piper flexed her jaw. Lilith’s concern was limited to her business, but if the Gaians reached the Styx, it would likely be a bloodbath on both sides. She glanced at the hundred milling daemons and back to Lilith.

  “Okay,” she said. “You go ahead with that plan and I’ll slow down the nearest Gaian squad to buy you time.”

  Lilith’s lips parted in surprise. “You alone against dozens of Gaians and their weapons?”

  “I wasn’t planning on challenging them head on.”

  “I don’t think—” Calder began.

  “Lilith will need your help with the daemons who choose to leave instead of defend,” she said, ignoring the tickle of anxiety in her belly. “That’s what you came here for, right? You can make sure they leave quickly and quietly.”

  Calder straightened, his face hardening into an expression identical to her father’s. “I am not letting you go alone to—”

  “I’ll go too,” Kindra said cheerfully.

  “There you go,” she said to her uncle. “I won’t be alone.”

  Calder’s eyes snapped from the daemon back to her. “Piper—”

  She didn’t want to argue in front of everyone. Gesturing for her uncle to follow her, she headed for the hall that would take her back to the main entrance. Calder followed on her heels, Kindra and Lilith right behind him. Piper stopped midway down the hall.

  Calder frowned severely at her. “Piper, this is not a safe idea.”

  “I’m the best person for the job,” she said, “and Kindra will help.”

  “The best person?” he repeated, angry and incredulous. “Do you even have a plan?”

  “I’ll have one by the time I get there,” she hedged. “We’re wasting time we don’t have.”

  “Yes,” Lilith cut in. “Piper is aware of the risks, I’m sure.”

  Slipping past Calder, the succubus slid an arm around Piper’s shoulders and guided her farther down the hall. Leaning her head in close as though they were best friends exchanging secrets, Lilith squeezed her.

  “Piper,” she murmured. “You have been avoiding me, haven’t you? I must tell you that throwing yourself between my club and the Gaians will not cancel out your debt to me. Where is my pendant?”

  Piper grimaced. “It’s somewhere at the bottom of the canyon at Asphodel.”

  Lilith’s breath caught. “Asphodel?”

  She nodded.

  Pressing her lips together, the succubus walked silently to the door and stopped, dropping her arm.

  “I thought I was clear about the priceless nature of the pendant,” Lilith said. “But we will have to discuss the magnitude of your debt another time.”

  “I’ll look forward to it,” she replied dryly.

  “The Gaian squad is a mile north of here. They should not be difficult to find.”

  Piper rested a hand on the hilt of her sword. “I’ll do my best to stop them.”

  Lilith gave a slow nod. With one last look, she hurried down the hall, back to the club, brushing past Kindra and Calder as they quickly strode to join her.

  Piper met Calder’s green eyes, twin to hers. His shoulders slumped with resignation.

  “Be careful,” he said gruffly.

  “I will,” she promised.

  She gave him a quick hug, and with Kindra beside her, she headed down the hall for the door. Stepping out in the warm night air, she resisted the urge to glance back. Despite her confident words to her uncle, she wasn’t so sure this was a good idea, but what options did she have? She had only a few minutes to delay or turn away the approaching Gaians, and if she failed, too many lives would be lost—daemon and Gaian both. She didn’t want either on her conscience.


  WITH a long exhale, Piper inched forward on her belly until she could peer over the ledge of the building.

  Her position on the roof of the three-story brick office building—long abandoned—gave her an uninterrupted view of the intersection below. A single working streetlamp half a block away cast a pool of light on the damp pavement, illuminating drifting bits of wet garbage. A tomcat with his tail held haughtily high slinked through the light before disappearing down the street into the darkness beyond.

  Kindra propped her chin on her hand, somehow managing to look casual while lying beside Piper on the rooftop.

  “How much longer, do you think?” the daemon whispered.

  “It’s only been a minute,” Piper replied, squinting down the street. She chewed her lower lip. “Any moment now ... They can’t be far.”

  She lifted her gaze to the rooftop directly across the street from them. At first she saw nothing, but then the shadows shifted and a dark shape gave her a casual salute. Piper nodded to Kiev before focusing on the shadowy street again. The draconian had caught up to her just outside of the Styx and she’d introduced him to Kindra. When he’d
heard about their new mission, he’d volunteered to help. She wasn’t sure what she would have done without him.

  Even with his assistance, she still didn’t feel all that prepared. The three of them had had only a few minutes to come up with a plan—a very rough plan. Somewhere close ahead, the Gaians were heading their way.

  As she waited, tension settling into her muscles, her thoughts warred with each other. On one side, she was worried about all the things that could go wrong in the next few minutes. On the other side, a single word kept repeating in her head, driving deeper and deeper: bloodthirsty.

  Kiev’s comment had barely registered at the time, but after they’d left the Styx, his words had latched onto her brain. Bloodthirsty. He’d intervened at the club to prevent her from killing any of her attackers, expecting instant retaliation from the rest of the daemons if she had. She was intensely relieved he had stepped in, because she was sure his assessment about the others’ reactions was correct—and she didn’t want to know how far she would have gone to defend herself. She was afraid she would have killed them all, especially since she’d been about to tap into the Sahar’s power.

  She hadn’t realized she was susceptible to shading even when she wasn’t in her daemon form. The shaded state was so strange, so alien. Ash had said she experienced it differently than a full-blooded daemon, but there were definite similarities. In that state, consequences had barely registered. The appropriateness of using lethal force in retaliation hadn’t even entered her mind. With the Sahar’s power, she could have easily leveled the entire building.

  “Here they come,” Kindra breathed.

  Piper focused on the street. In the darkness, she could see faint signs of movement. A handful of figures were approaching the intersection. They wore dark clothing very similar to military fatigues and carried weapons. Larger shapes took form. Three wide, open-top jeeps, also black, slowly rolled into view behind the men on foot. Soldiers in the back of each vehicle stood on either side of some kind of oversized gun.

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