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


  Calder rubbed a hand over his stubbly scalp. “Fighting them has been a nightmare. So far, clashes between the prefects and the Gaians have resulted in a lot of destruction and death with little progress. The average Consul is better at hand-to-hand combat, but we’re virtually useless in this kind of fighting.”

  “Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “We’re doomed if they keep rearming with magical rocket launchers for every confrontation. Before we can stop the Gaians, we need to find out who’s supplying them.”

  “How would we do that?”

  She pushed her hair away from her eyes. “We need to find out from a Gaian. And we know a Gaian, don’t we?”

  He took his eyes off the road for a moment to give her a hard look. She stared back at him, waiting.

  “Your mother almost killed you by unsealing your magic,” he said roughly.

  “The magic thing was awful of her,” Piper agreed, burying a wash of pain over her mother’s betrayal. Since she’d survived in the end, maybe she should let it go, but it was hard to ignore her mother’s careless disregard for her daughter’s survival.

  “But Mom isn’t entirely wrong, you know,” she continued. “And the Gaians—not the Corps—aren’t bad either. They do good things for haemons, and they have the right idea about daemons needing stricter controls while on Earth.”

  “Piper—”

  “The Consulates are too close to daemons,” she continued forcefully. “They help daemons; they don’t protect humans. How do we protect humans? The system wasn’t designed to control daemons, but that’s what everyone thinks it’s supposed to do. Now the Consulates exist only to preserve their own existence.”

  His jaw flexed as he stared at the dark road ahead. Her uncle was a smart man—he knew all about the limitations and shortfalls of the current system—but he’d dedicated his life to the Consulates, to being a Consul. He didn’t want to hear the truth any more than she’d wanted to admit it herself.

  “The Gaians have some good ideas,” she said quietly. “And for all her faults and obsessiveness, Mom believes in their ideals—not the radical extermination stuff, but protecting haemons and humans. People are dying right now. The violence is out of control. She’s our only hope to get the information we need and I think I can get through to her.”

  “I don’t know, Piper.”

  The van slowed as the headlights illuminated the front of the rundown stone church.

  Piper unbuckled her seatbelt. “Think about it, at least.”

  “I will,” he promised as he parked the vehicle.

  Piper climbed out of the van. Kindra immediately clambered out of the backseat and stretched, her slender body arching backward as she rolled her eyes at Piper. Randy jumped out after her, babbling about some fight he’d diffused at his Consulate. Jerome looked almost as annoyed as Kindra.

  “What a long night,” she said to Piper. “Are there any extra beds in there?”

  “I don’t know,” Piper said. “Maybe—”

  The front door of the church opened and light spilled over the group. Quinn stood in the threshold, his glower burning a hole straight through her. She froze like a rabbit.

  “Piper,” he growled.

  Oh shit. She shot a panicked glance back at Calder and Lexa, silently asking what she’d done wrong. They both looked dumbfounded. Her father’s jaw flexed back and forth and she struggled not to cower.

  “You have a visitor,” he finally said. Every word sounded as if it had been physically painful for him to utter.

  “A—a visitor?”

  He jerked his head toward the sanctuary behind him and pushed the door open a little wider. Butterflies danced in her stomach. How the hell had Kiev beaten her here? She’d told him to meet her in the bell tower. He had to know it would be idiotic to just walk into the church.

  She forced herself into motion, hiding the stiffness in her muscles as she trudged up the steps. Calder and Lexa followed behind her, the curious apprentices on their heels. Her mind spun, searching for some way to explain away Kiev’s presence in a way that wouldn’t raise suspicions. Her father stepped aside as she passed through the doorway. At the far end of the sanctuary, the other Consuls stood in a tight group, their tension obvious. Draconians made everyone wary, even teenaged ones.

  They were blocking her view of Kiev. She swallowed hard and tried to appear confident as she strode down the aisle between the rows of pews. One of the Consuls spotted her and nudged his neighbors. In unison, they parted to let her through. Resisting the urge to cringe under the weight of their stares, she walked between them to the front of the group as Calder and the others clustered in behind them.

  A figure was lounging on one of the pews, one arm propped unconcernedly on the back, boots resting on the pew in front, oh so casual. As she stepped through the group of Consuls, his head turned—and eyes blacker than midnight paralyzed her.

  A draconian was in fact sitting in the church waiting for her, but it wasn’t Kiev. It wasn’t even Raum.

  It was Ash.

  CHAPTER 7

  SHE COULDN’T move. His black eyes held her prisoner, cutting right through her skin and down to her soul. His face was so painfully familiar, a sight so longed for that she could hardly believe it was him in front of her.

  Then her brain caught up with reality and she finally clued in—black eyes. Ash was not happy. Not at all. And judging by the fury in his glare, she was the target of his ire.

  “A-Ash,” she stuttered in greeting.

  His icy eyes held her for a moment longer, then the silence was shattered by a wolf-whistle that reverberated through the chamber. Shocked, Piper’s eyes flicked away from Ash to find Kindra standing among the Consuls, her appreciative gaze running over the lounging draconian before she winked boldly at Piper.

  Piper blinked rapidly and looked back at Ash.

  He slashed a quick glance over Kindra, then assessed the group of silent Consuls and apprentices. He pulled his boots off the pew and rose from his seat. The movement was so sleek, violence barely contained, as smooth and deadly as a viper uncoiling from its nest. As he came to his full height, she had to fight not to step back. Sometimes she forgot he was a head taller than her. But then, he usually wasn’t quite this intimidating.

  He folded his arms across his chest, the short swords hanging alongside his thighs clinking softly. She could see the roughly repaired tear in his black armored vest where the griffin dagger had pierced him just above his heart, an inch away from taking his life.

  She licked her lips as his stare came back to her, demanding, aggressive. He waited.

  “Um,” she whispered. She looked over her shoulder. Calder and Quinn stood directly behind her. The others waited just beyond, their stares anxious and burning with interest—except for Kindra, who looked supremely entertained. There were some very strange rumors about Piper and Ash going around, and she suspected the Consuls and apprentices had heard most of them.

  “Tell him to leave,” Quinn said, his voice rough.

  “I need to talk to him,” she said.

  “Talk?” Pushing between Quinn and Calder, Lexa leaned toward Piper and lowered her voice. “That daemon is too shaded for talking. He’s ready to kill.”

  “He won’t kill me,” Piper said, barely managing not to roll her eyes.

  Lexa gave her an incredulous look.

  “If you want to talk to him,” Calder said, “go ahead.”

  “Uh, privately?” she said.

  “We are not leaving you alone with a shaded daemon.”

  She figured what he’d really meant was with that shaded daemon.

  “Look.” She stepped sharply away from them and turned, putting her back to Ash. Her heart pounded. She knew Ash wouldn’t kill her but that didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid of his temper. She did her best not to show her nerves. “I can handle this. So would you all mind ...?”

  “Yeah, we would mind,” Lexa snapped. “We’re not about to let you—”

  “U
gh, are you serious?” she exclaimed, barely managing not to lose her temper entirely. Emotions roiled, threatening to get out of her control, and mixed with the growing exhaustion from her healing. More than anything, she wanted to turn around and throw herself at Ash, to feel his arms around her. Of course, with his current mood, she was more likely to feel his hands around her throat.

  She took a deep breath and let it out. “Since clearly we won’t be allowed a private conversation here, we’ll just leave.”

  “Piper—” Calder began sternly.

  She turned around. Her heart kicked up to a gallop as her eyes met Ash’s black stare. His expression was impossible to decipher. She tilted her head toward the door and he immediately stepped out from between the pews. She strode past her father, uncle, and the others, Ash following. As she passed them, Kindra shot her a sly grin and gave her a double thumbs-up and another wink.

  Piper led Ash across the sanctuary and out the door onto the front steps. No sooner did they reach the sidewalk in front of the church than the door opened again. Quinn, Calder, and Lexa stepped onto the stoop. Throwing them a disgusted look over her shoulder, she marched down the sidewalk. They didn’t follow. When she and Ash were comfortably outside their hearing range—but, unfortunately, still in sight—she came to a stop beside a tall brick fence that lined one edge of the sidewalk.

  The half-moon shone through the branches of a nearby tree, casting pale light across his face. His eyes were still black, his expression cold. He was definitely not pleased.

  She swallowed hard as he folded his arms again, waiting for her to speak. Seeing him healthy and whole—and conscious—made her heart squeeze with relief, but she had no idea what he was thinking or how angry he was that she’d left him.

  “Um,” she mumbled. “I’m glad to see you’re healed and—”

  “Explain.” The single word was ice mixed with anger, fury even. She flinched at the sound of his voice, the deep tones sliding down to her bones.

  “E-explain what?”

  “What you’re doing here.” His expression didn’t change. Each word was like the flash of a blade.

  She stepped back and bumped into the brick fence. “You mean the church? My father—”

  “Where are Seiya and Lyre?” he demanded.

  “I—they’re missing. Didn’t Hinote tell you?”

  “So what are you doing here?”

  Reflexively, she pressed her back against the bricks. Her voice dried up in her throat and she wondered wildly whether he could use his Nightmare Effect while in glamour.

  “I’ll be more specific,” he growled, taking a half step closer. He towered over her. “Why are you messing around here, playing at being a Consul, while Seiya and Lyre are missing?”

  “I wasn’t—”

  “When you took off while I was still unconscious, I thought you must have gone to find them. Why else would you leave? But then I find my tracking spell at the bottom of a river.”

  She flinched away from the venom in his voice.

  “How am I supposed to find you then?” he continued acidly. “How am I supposed to find out what happened to my sister and my best friend? All three of you could have been dead for all I knew. So I waste two goddamn days searching for you—only to find you with a bunch of outcast Consuls.”

  “I was looking for—” she began.

  “I could have been looking for them while you were wasting time here,” he spat.

  Anger cut through her stunned speechlessness. She straightened abruptly. “I was looking for them! I have searched for them every day since I got back. So don’t tell me I’ve been wasting time when you don’t know a damn thing about what I’ve been doing.”

  “What do you have to show for all this effort of yours?”

  “I was trying to get information!” Her voice rose with fury. “I couldn’t just walk into the Ra embassy. I’ve been trying to find a way in, but it’s not exactly easy.”

  “Have you confirmed they’re there?”

  “I found some fairly definitive signs that the Ras are involved, but I don’t know for sure that they’re in the embassy.”

  His lips curled in a sneer.

  She thrust out her jaw. “You think you could have done better? You weren’t even here!”

  “Because you left me with that ryujin bastard! He wouldn’t let me leave any earlier.”

  “Don’t insult him! He saved your life—and then he made sure you didn’t do something stupid like charge through a ley line to take on half the Ra family while you were still recovering!”

  “Well, someone needs to do something. Seiya and Lyre have been missing for two weeks and for all your ‘effort,’ you don’t even know where—”

  “I’ve been working on it!” she yelled. “Do you think I’m totally incompetent?”

  “It’s starting to look that way!”

  “You—” she began in a near shriek, snapping her hand out to point at him.

  It happened in a flash. His hand crushed her wrist in his grip and he slammed her back into the fence. The breath whooshed out of her as he pinned her with his body, his other hand holding one strap of her leather halter top, dangerously close to her vulnerable throat.

  She froze, anger vanishing in a wave of fear. Her breathing was shallow and silent. His harsh exhale ruffled her hair as he fought to control the instincts she’d foolishly triggered. Getting in a shouting match with a shaded, enraged daemon, then making a sudden movement? What was wrong with her?

  Pinned and helpless, she stared over his shoulder with wide eyes, unable to see his face.

  “If you were planning to search for them,” he said, his slow, hoarse growl vibrating from his chest into hers, “why did you throw my tracking spell away?”

  “I ...” She trailed into silence, unsure how to respond, afraid to say the wrong thing.

  “You didn’t want my help,” he supplied for her, his voice going quiet.

  She licked her lips, hesitating.

  He abruptly released her, stepping back. She glanced hastily toward the church. Her father and uncle had closed half the distance to her already, but upon seeing Ash release her, they stopped. Her gaze flicked back to Ash.

  His eyes met hers—the coldest black eyes she’d ever seen. Part of her died inside at that look.

  She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Her heart was tearing itself apart in her chest. She desperately needed to tell him that she wanted his help—his support, his strength—more than anything. She wanted him. But she couldn’t. She’d made her decision and she would stick to it.

  Ash suddenly looked up. With the rushing sound of wings beating the air, Kiev swooped in out of nowhere and crashed into Ash, knocking him back several steps.

  “Ash!” the boy crowed, almost bowling Piper over with a wing. He caught Ash in a bear hug with arms and wings both.

  “Kiev?” Ash blurted, shock blanking his face.

  “I can’t believe you did it!” Kiev exclaimed, finally letting go. He shimmered back into glamour, his pale eyes alight. “I can’t believe you escaped with Seiya!”

  A grin flashed across Ash’s face but quickly vanished. “What are you doing here?”

  Kiev blinked, glancing at Piper. “Uh, Piper didn’t tell you?”

  Ash’s icy anger reappeared faster than a bolt of lightning as he turned to her. “Didn’t Piper tell me what?”

  “I—” Piper stuttered. “I was going to tell you. Kiev got into trouble, so Raum asked me to bring Kiev to you. Raum wants you to take him into hiding.”

  A long moment of silence. Kiev looked between them, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

  “I see,” Ash said finally. “Is there anything else you were going to tell me?”

  She resisted the urge to shrink back from his unforgiving black eyes and straightened her shoulders instead. “I just found out that there’s a secret entrance into the Ra embassy through a warehouse east of the main building.”

  “Anything
else?”

  “No.”

  He gave a curt nod and turned to Kiev. “Does anyone know you’re missing?”

  “Just Raum so far, but Samael will find out soon.”

  “Where is Raum now?”

  “In the city somewhere on an assignment.”

  “All right. We’ll extract Seiya and Lyre then get the hell out of here before Samael hears about you.”

  Ash turned, putting his back to Piper, and strode away from her. Her heart leaped into her throat. He didn’t pause. Didn’t even glance back. His form shimmered and black wings swept wide. He jumped skyward, wings beating hard, and vanished into the night.

  Kiev threw her an apologetic look and a half-hearted wave as he took a few running steps, his body already shimmering. His wings spread wide and he leaped, taking flight and vanishing almost as quickly as Ash.

  Piper stared at the empty night sky, her heart hammering in her chest. It hurt. It felt like her heart was beating itself into pieces against her ribs, shattering a little more with each impact. She pressed a hand against her breastbone to contain the pain and forced her eyes shut to block out the view of the empty sky.

  Ash wasn’t coming back. He and Kiev would rescue Lyre and Seiya, and together they would disappear forever, out of Samael’s reach. Out of her reach. She would go on without them, fighting her own battles. It was exactly what she’d decided had to happen.

  Except she hadn’t meant for Ash to hate her. Her fingers dug into her chest as though she could still the painful pounding of her heart.

  But what if his power wasn’t enough to save Lyre and Seiya? What if he and Kiev weren’t enough against the entire Ra embassy? Ash couldn’t possibly be back to his full strength yet, especially if he’d spent the last two days searching for her instead of recuperating. Was he even thinking straight? Hinote had anticipated many days of healing for Ash. If he and Kiev couldn’t do it alone, they would need the Sahar’s magic. They would need her.

  A quiet chirp broke through her agonized daze.

 
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