The Shadow Weave by Annette Marie

  Shimmering gold, Lyre’s aura, a hundred feet away on the riverbank. She thought he was alone, then she saw the glimmer of light sliding down a steel blade. Unnatural terror slammed through her.

  Ash was little more than a dark silhouette against the shore, the sword in his hand reflecting light as he backed up a few steps. Directly across from him, Lyre stood with no weapons. His arms hung limply at his sides and he made no move to defend himself.

  Clio clutched the railing, her heart in her throat. Too far. She was too far to do anything.

  Ash said something, the quiet words inaudible over the rain. He raised his sword, preparing to strike. Lyre didn’t move.

  No. No, this wasn’t happening. This couldn’t happen.

  “Don’t do it, Ash,” she choked. “Don’t!”

  The last word came out in a shriek and was immediately whipped away by the wind.

  Ash froze, but not because of her cry.

  Time slowed as red light flashed directly behind Lyre. He jerked forward, stumbled, then fell to his knees. Behind him, a man—a reaper—held a long dagger.

  A dagger he had used to stab Lyre.

  Lyre collapsed onto his side, motionless.

  Clio didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. Didn’t even exist as every fiber of her being screamed in denial.

  “What the hell are you doing?” Ash snarled, the wind carrying his voice across the water.

  The reaper tucked his dagger back into a hidden sheath. “It’s not like you to play with your food for so long.”

  Ash lowered his sword. “It was my contract. My kill.”

  Buzzing filled Clio’s head, the same words repeating a thousand times per second. He’s not dead he’s not dead he’s not dead. Lyre couldn’t be dead. It wasn’t possible.

  Grief constricted her heart, crushing it until her body threatened to implode from the torment. First Kassia, now Lyre. She couldn’t lose him too. She couldn’t bear it. The anguish howled through her, growing louder and more violent until she heard nothing else.

  Then it stopped.

  And she no longer felt grief or anguish or torment.

  She felt rage.

  She hadn’t decided to drop her glamour, but when she released the railing and turned, it was already gone. Strength flooded her body as rain washed over her bare skin, her simple chest wrap and shorts offering no protection. She leaned down and wrapped both hands around the hilt of the sword abandoned beside the broken rail.

  As she heaved the sword up and turned back to the figures on the riverbank below, her aura was already changing. The flood of alien power fueled her fury as red light hazed her vision. Baring her teeth, she stepped forward.

  The world disappeared. Black nothingness sucked the air from her lungs and crushed her eardrums with all-consuming silence.

  The world popped back in with a blaze of sound and sensation: the cold rain pounding down on her head, the splash of the river, the sharp gravel under her bare feet, the cold hilt of the sword in her hands. And in front of her, the broad back of the reaper whose aura she had mimicked.

  She thrust the sword with all her weight behind it.

  The blade plunged into his body up to the hilt, sliding through flesh with no resistance. The force shoved the reaper forward onto his knees and he gaped at the sword protruding from his chest. Leaving the weapon embedded in his body, she stepped into his field of vision.

  “How does it feel?” she hissed.

  His eyes bulged. Blood bubbled from his mouth and he toppled over with the sword impaled in his back.

  A few feet away, Lyre was curled on his side, unmoving, his skin ghostly pale and his hair white against the dark gravel. Rage pounded through her, consuming her grief. She raised her gaze to Ash.

  Shock and disbelief brushed across his features. Disbelief at what he’d seen. Disbelief that she had teleported like a reaper.

  Fear scraped at her, but her deadly focus was enough to keep it at bay. If not for that, the sight of him out of glamour would have had her cowering. With his wings and tail, horns and black scales, and eerie, menacing designs that coiled wherever scales met skin, he was a nightmare come to life. A dark wraith escaped from the realm of night.

  “You’re next,” she whispered, her voice unfamiliar to her ears—ice dipped in sweet poison.

  His eyes widened.

  She snapped her hand out and her first cast shot toward him. He shielded, his reflexes faster than she’d expected, and her cast exploded against the barrier—but her second cast, formed in her other hand, was already flashing for him. The whip of power slammed into his ankles, below the edge of his shield.

  He fell.

  She flung a third cast, but he rolled, wings snapping outward. He lurched to his feet and whipped a band of black fire at her. She cast a master-weaver shield just long enough to deflect the attack, then hurled the spell in her other hand.

  He shielded again but her attack tore through it, throwing him back. He barely kept on his feet. She advanced, casting so fast he had no time to unleash his more powerful magic against her.

  If he’d been fresh, it would have been a different fight. She could see his injuries. She could see his weakness.

  It made her want to kill him even more.

  He cast a different shield—a type she’d never encountered before—but she could see the shape of it, see its flaws. With a flick of magic, she shattered the barrier and whipped a spinning disk of power at his injured leg. Her spell struck the arrow wound in a splatter of blood and his leg buckled.

  He caught himself, somehow staying upright. Stepping over Lyre, she advanced on the draconian, hurling another spell and forcing him to defend instead of attack. He staggered back, heavily favoring one leg, and she lifted her hands, two lethal casts spinning across her fingers.

  Something touched her leg.

  She leaped back and looked down, deadly spells ready to fly.

  On the ground at her feet, Lyre’s hand was stretched toward her. Amber eyes, hazed and out of focus, squinted up at her and blood trickled from his mouth as his lips formed a soundless word: Clio.

  He was alive. He was still alive.

  Her casts dispersed in an instant and she dropped to her knees, both hands going to his chest as she spun a thread of healing magic into him. Alive. Still alive. Broken bones, blood loss, a collapsed lung.

  She could save him. There was enough time. Just enough.

  She grabbed the chain hanging around his neck and pinched a familiar gemstone. A dome-shaped shield burst into existence around her and Lyre, enclosing them safely within it.

  With uneven footsteps, Ash approached the barrier, its light casting eerie shadows over his face. Wings tucked tight to his back, he studied her for a long moment, his expression indiscernible. Cold. Empty. Then he turned, limped to the fallen reaper, and wrenched his sword out of the daemon’s body.

  Weapon in hand, wings tightly furled, he walked away with lurching steps. A dozen yards down the riverbank, his form blurred. With the rain, the darkness, and his cloaking spell, he’d vanished between one step and the next.

  Clio clutched Lyre’s shoulder and focused on his healing. Everything else could wait.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Perched on the edge of the bed, Clio held Lyre’s hand. Every few moments, she stroked her fingers across his palm, his knuckles, his wrist, memorizing the subtle shapes and forms. His skin was warm to the touch—finally warm after hours of feeling clammy and chilled.

  Behind her, he slept beneath every blanket she’d scrounged up in the tiny suite. She’d even thrown a few heavy bath towels across him for extra warmth.

  Four broken ribs. A shattered shoulder and collarbone. A deep slice in his side. Half a dozen other cuts and slices over his body. Those were the injuries she presumed Ash had given him.

  The final wound was a hole running through his back into his left lung, just missing his heart: the lethal blow the reaper had dealt.

  She stared blankly at the wall,
painful tension spreading through her body. Memories flashed through her mind. Ash’s sword. The shining blade. The reaper’s unprotected back. Her hands, as though belonging to a stranger, ramming that deadly length of steel into the reaper’s torso.

  She’d never killed anyone before. As a race, daemons were violent creatures, but nymphs were a comparatively passive caste. They rarely devolved into the brutal violence of self-preservation that others were so prone to.

  She’d never lost control like that before. She’d never felt that kind of bloodlust. Now, calm and composed once again, she kept returning to that moment where she’d teleported behind the reaper and stabbed him in the back just as he’d done to Lyre. And she couldn’t summon any remorse. Even with the shaded rage long behind her, she didn’t regret killing that daemon. Did that make her a terrible person?

  She glanced behind her. Lyre slept the deep, silent sleep of the recently healed. It would be hours more before he stirred. She gently rubbed his hand, making sure his skin was still warm.

  She couldn’t regret murdering the reaper who’d almost killed Lyre, but when it came to the other daemon who’d tried to take the incubus’s life, she was quietly relieved Ash had walked away.

  She glanced at Lyre’s face again, at the dark tattoo marking his cheekbone. He hadn’t recovered enough to regain his glamour—which was why she had her back to him. She’d watched him at first, but she’d kept falling under the spell of his otherworldly radiance. She wanted to trace the design on his cheekbone, the delicate points of his ears, the fine braid that hung down the side of his face, adorned with a ruby at the end. Even while unconscious, his power over her was frightening.

  On the riverbank, he’d seen her out of glamour for the first time, but she wasn’t sure he would remember. He’d been halfway comatose.

  Releasing his hand, she rose to her feet and stretched. Exhaustion dragged at her limbs and aching hunger had settled deep in her belly, but there was no food in the apartment. Before Lyre woke, she’d have to venture outside to restock.

  She’d never healed wounds as severe as Lyre’s before and the magic’s toll had left her weak and woozy. Healing magic required both training and natural talent, and daemons without an affinity for it were limited in what they could learn. Clio had inherited a gift for healing from her mother, but that didn’t make it any less exhausting.

  Rolling her stiff shoulders, she turned to the suite’s main door and squinted her asper into focus. Tangled green lines and complex runes spanned the doors, the walls, and even the floor and ceiling: multiple wards layered one atop the other.

  Not just any wards. Lyre’s wards. The same powerful, lethal spells he had used to protect his house in Asphodel.

  Beneath her weaving, the faint golden shimmer of his original wards on the room glowed. They were good wards, but with Lyre helpless and her magic nearly depleted, she hadn’t trusted them to be enough.

  She carefully examined the weavings, ensuring they were perfect and functional. After a quick circle around the tiny unit, she returned to the bed and looked down at him. So close. She’d come so close to losing him.

  She saw it again: the blade in the reaper’s hand. Then she saw another blade in a different hand, shining with red blood.

  Kassia’s blood.

  Images flashed in her mind. Kassia falling. Lyre falling. Kassia’s blood. Lyre’s blood. Kassia’s eyes wide with shock, her hands clutching her chest. Lyre’s eyes, hazed with pain and fading consciousness, his hand stretched toward her across the muddy gravel.

  A shudder ran through her. With jerky movements, she crawled onto the bed and tucked herself against Lyre’s side. Trusting the deep healing sleep to keep him unaware, she took his hand tight in hers, pressed her face into the blankets, and let the tears fall.

  Tears of grief, of fear, of loss, of regret.

  She’d saved Lyre. Why couldn’t she have saved Kassia too?

  Rain splattered Clio’s face and she hunched her shoulders against the stiff breeze. Her new hat, a black courier-style cap with a short brim, did little to keep her head dry, but she’d hidden her hair under it. That was its most important job.

  A heavyset man bumped her and she cringed, clutching her paper bags of purchases. The weekly market was closing as the sun dipped behind the tall skyscrapers that surrounded the downtown square. When it had been Clio and Kassia, they’d usually shop in the afternoons when humans dominated the market. But now, with the shadows stretching across the square and the light fading fast, daemons appeared in numbers she wouldn’t have expected.

  Glowing auras filled her vision, and she didn’t dare let her asper out of focus even for a moment. A headache throbbed in her skull from the strain, but there were too many daemons—including a smattering of red auras—for her to take the chance.

  Being out in the open at all was a huge risk, but she and Lyre—especially Lyre—needed food. She hadn’t had a single bite to eat since that bun in the smugglers market. Their meeting with Sabir was still scheduled for that night, and she’d picked up supplies for their journey—or as many as she could find in a human market. Now she just needed something for them to eat.

  Adjusting her heavy shopping bags, she approached a table with a few foil-wrapped packets still available. The aroma of pork and garlic made her mouth water. A shopper moved away from the table and the seller turned to Clio, one eye twitching nervously.

  “I’m packing up,” he grunted. “What do you want?”

  She held back her grimace. What was with the unfriendly merchants lately? Pointing to the four remaining meal packets, she said, “I’ll take them all.”

  “Eighty dollars.”

  “Eighty! That’s—”

  Golden light blazed in her peripheral vision. She recoiled from the table, prepared to run for her life. But it wasn’t an incubus with a golden aura she’d glimpsed.

  Four tall men walked past the booths. Their hair ranged from wheat-yellow to ashy cream, and their eyes were varying shades of green. Not Underworld incubi, but Overworld griffins. Almost as bad, seeing as the Ra family ruled the griffin caste and she considered them all her enemies. But unlike incubi, any griffins in this market weren’t likely to be looking for her. They were just passing by.

  She turned back to the table, ignoring their pale yellow auras so similar to incubi’s golden magic.

  “Fine, eighty dollars,” she agreed since it didn’t matter what she paid, even if the seller was ripping her off. “Pack them up, please.”

  As the seller dropped the foil bundles into a paper bag, she fished out the money. They exchanged items and she tucked the new bag against her side, grateful for the warmth of the food. Turning, she hurried back across the market, dodging shoppers as she headed for a side street to make her escape.

  Why did it seem like every daemon in the square was watching her?

  It had to be her imagination. Three red auras were moving around at the other end of the square, but her path out of the market was clear. She hastened her steps and glanced over her shoulder. Her gaze passed across two indigo auras and a bright violet one.

  Her steps faltered, but she forced herself to keep walking.

  She’d seen those three auras while at the other booth. Now they were only twenty paces away: two men with beefy builds and one short, scrawny one, all with dark, nondescript clothes. Was it a coincidence, or had they followed her across the square?

  Gulping down her fear, she made a sharp turn and headed along a new row of booths with fresh produce that was mostly picked over. As she dashed past the tables, she peeked behind her.

  The three daemons had turned down the same aisle.

  Shit. They were following her. Why? They weren’t reapers, draconians, or incubi, but she didn’t know what castes their colors represented.

  Buying herself a moment to think, she stopped at a booth with a few scrawny carrots and potatoes displayed in worn baskets. Her stalkers conveniently paused to examine the vegetables at a different table
, maintaining the same twenty paces between them. They didn’t want to get close yet. They were probably waiting for her to leave the public square and walk into a nice abandoned alleyway.

  She picked up a potato and pretended to examine it as she fought down her panic. What should she do? She had to get back to Lyre without her new stalkers jumping her, and she needed to make sure they didn’t track her to their room.

  Damn it all. She didn’t know how to prevent either outcome.

  With rumbling voices, two of the griffins she’d spotted earlier ambled down the same aisle of booths. She focused on the potato in her hand, feigning obliviousness, but the daemon pair walked past her without so much as a glance in her direction. The wind gusted, whipping rain into her face.

  A black umbrella appeared over her head, blocking the rain. She straightened in surprise and turned to the umbrella’s owner.

  The potato fell from her hand and hit the table with a thud.

  Amber eyes looked down at her, cool and expressionless. The daemon’s golden aura glowed brightly in her asper, and complex weavings wrapped his body from head to toe, layered around his neck and wrists where he carried heavily spelled chains and bracelets. A deep hood hid his pale hair, and dark clothes disguised the strong, limber body underneath.

  “Reed?” she whispered, panic and confusion warring for dominance.

  Lyre’s brother tilted his umbrella, keeping it over their heads and blocking them from her stalkers’ view. His free hand rose, and a gemstone between his fingers sparked. Invisible magic, discernible only to her, leaped from the stone to the human merchant on the other side of the table. A glowing weave wrapped around him and the man’s eyes went completely blank.

  Clio’s mouth hung open. That spell had simultaneously immobilized the man and knocked him unconscious. He hadn’t moved, but he was no longer aware of anything around him.

  “You shouldn’t be here.” Reed’s voice was soft, the words thrumming with that deep, irresistible timbre only incubi possessed.

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