The Shadow Weave by Annette Marie


  For an instant, they soared over nothingness. Then they slammed into Ash in midair.

  Lyre clamped his arm around the draconian’s waist and held on for dear life. Ash roared furiously as the sudden weight sent him spinning in the air. The pavement—farther below than Lyre had expected—whirled dizzyingly as Ash pumped his wings. He grabbed Lyre’s arm to pry it off, but his talons scraped harmlessly against Lyre’s shield.

  They careened through the air in a wide arc, barely missing the corner of a building. As they plunged into a narrow alley and a wall rushed to meet him, Ash desperately beat his wings, but he couldn’t stop their momentum.

  And that’s about when Lyre realized Ash couldn’t control his flight with two people hanging off his waist.

  The three of them crashed face first into the wall. They bounced off and fell in a tangle of limbs and wings. A shimmer ran over Ash and his wings vanished just before they all slammed into an open dumpster.

  Lyre pushed Clio on top of him as they hit, cushioning her impact with his body. Pain ricocheted through every inch of him. It freaking hurt. Weren’t dumpsters supposed to make perfect fall-breaks?

  He had only a moment to painfully stew about how misled he’d been before his senses registered something far more pressing than his pain: the stench.

  He lurched up and unceremoniously threw Clio out of the dumpster ahead of him, then grabbed the slimy edge and hauled himself over. Ugh. Disgusting. Like dead animals and food so rotted it had turned to bubbling puddles.

  Dropping to the pavement, he rushed a few steps away from the toxic cloud around the dumpster, then remembered they weren’t alone. Tensing, he whipped back around.

  Ash swung over the edge of the dumpster and landed heavily, one hand clamped over his nose and mouth. With a sense of smell far more sensitive than Lyre’s, the reek had to be outright torturous for the draconian.

  Ash’s eyes, black with fury, locked on Lyre.

  Lyre opened his mouth, but even if he’d known what to say, he didn’t get a chance to speak. Ash bore down on him with violence brimming in every movement. Lyre backpedaled, but not fast enough. Ash didn’t even bother to draw a weapon, just pulled his arm back.

  His fist slammed into Lyre’s face. His head snapped back, pain exploding through his cheek.

  “Shit-eating son of a whore!” Ash yelled. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

  He drew his arm back again. Still reeling from the first hit, Lyre snarled and threw himself into Ash. He landed exactly one glancing blow before Ash tackled him. They hit the ground and rolled across the asphalt as they pummeled each other. Or rather, as Ash beat on Lyre while Lyre got in maybe three good hits on the draconian.

  A dart of movement from Clio, then a flash of green light. An electric shock slammed through him. His limbs convulsed and Ash’s weight flattened him as the draconian collapsed from the same spell.

  Ash recovered first and shoved off Lyre. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth as he turned on Clio. Lyre scrambled to rise, but before he was even sitting up properly, a shout rang out from a nearby street—the griffins.

  Ash’s head snapped toward the sound, then his glare flashed across Clio and stopped on Lyre. He bared his teeth as though debating whether ripping Lyre’s arms off was worth fighting the griffins.

  Apparently deciding against it, he snarled another curse, whirled on his heel, and strode down the alley in the opposite direction of the griffins’ voices. Ten steps away, a dark ripple passed over him, and his form faded into the shadows.

  Lyre gingerly prodded his cheek. His eye was already swelling and splitting pain had lodged in his skull.

  Clio looked down at him. “You’re crazy, did you know that?”

  “Yeah.”

  “And stupid.”

  “Can’t argue there either. But at least we’re still alive, right?”

  She shook her head and, without another word, started down the alley into the deeper darkness. Pushing to his feet, Lyre followed a step behind her, warily searching the shadows for any sign of Ash. The sooner they left for the Overworld, the better. He didn’t want to find out what would happen next time Ash caught up with him. Lyre just kept piling on the reasons for Ash to hurry up and kill him.

  He rubbed his throbbing cheek again. Damn draconian hit hard.

  Chapter Fifteen

  For two years, Clio had been adrift in an unfamiliar world. Exiled among humans with no ties to the people there, with no purpose, she’d never felt a bond with Earth or with her townhouse in the city. For two years, she’d longed for that subtle but encompassing warmth a real home had brought her.

  But now she could feel it. She could smell it in the air. She could feel it in the earth beneath her feet. She could taste it in the soft thrum of power that saturated this world.

  Her world.

  The moment she stepped out of the ley line, clutching Sabir’s hand, her senses went into overdrive, drinking in everything both familiar and alien. Sand shifted under her feet as she stumbled forward. Sunlight blinded her and a hot breeze carried the scents of sun-scorched rock, dried leaves, and a hint of water. She squinted, her heart throbbing painfully in the back of her throat.

  Wind-carved rock formed a deep bowl in the earth, its contoured walls flowing like waves frozen into stone, and natural pillars bent in precarious arches that crisscrossed the bowl. The rock was burnt orange veined with pale blue crystal that sparkled under the two sister suns.

  Sand filled the basin, the same burnt orange as the rocky walls with a sprinkling of blue crystal that shimmered as the breeze teased it. In a shadowed corner, two narrow waterfalls spilled from a lip of rock and poured into a small pool. Low bushes flourished around the waterhole and vines with large, waxy leaves climbed the stone walls. The Overworld’s subtle, ancient life filled the air.

  She tried to take a step forward and felt a tug on her hand. Sabir was still holding her. He smiled, his eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses warmer than she’d seen before. “What do you think?”

  “It’s beautiful,” she answered automatically, her gaze sweeping over the basin again. “Where are we?”

  “Near Ra’s northeastern border. We’ll head north from here, then east toward Irida. The journey will take about three days.”

  “I’m looking forward to it,” she gushed vapidly, gently tugging her hand out of his. “You should get Lyre before he thinks we’ve forgotten him.”

  Sabir’s pleasant expression soured, and it was abundantly clear that forgetting about Lyre would have made his day. With a nod, the daemon returned to the ley line. The rippling band of blue and green light spanned a short gap in the rocky wall, barely ten feet across. He stepped into the line and vanished, his passage causing the steady flow of power to stutter.

  Beams of light beat down on the barren sand in the basin’s center and heat made it dance and shimmer like water. She stepped out of the shade and the temperature shot up as though she’d walked into an oven. She inhaled the dry air and tipped her face toward the two suns. After the chill and rain on Earth, the heat felt delicious on her skin.

  What would Lyre think of her world?

  After their violent parting of ways with Ash, she and Lyre had located Sabir easily enough. He’d been waiting exactly where he’d said he’d be, his rucksack of plants replaced with a traveling pack. With griffins and bounty hunters on the prowl, Sabir had wasted no time whisking them to the ley line south of Brinford. And after days of struggle and stress, here she was, back in the Overworld.

  Behind her, the power of the ley line jittered. She turned as Sabir and Lyre appeared, clutching arms so they weren’t pulled apart during the shift from one realm to the next.

  Lyre took a few stumbling steps, his eyes widening as they flashed across the basin. He’d changed out of his dumpster-splattered clothes into a gray button-up shirt and sturdy khaki pants, and the backpack with their supplies hung from his shoulders. The bruising on his face was gone; she’d healed it on the journ
ey to the ley line.

  Lyre finished his study of the basin and turned to her. Even in the shade, his amber eyes glinted brightly, the warm color complemented by the orange stone behind him. Quiet wonder softened his features.

  Elation bubbled in her and she wanted to run to him, to throw her arms around him and celebrate their successful arrival. But with Sabir watching her, she could only smile and pretend it wasn’t a big deal to be home again.

  “We should get moving,” Sabir said, adjusting the pack on his shoulders. “The first leg of the journey won’t be fun, but once we reach the mountains, the heat won’t be as much of an issue.”

  “How far to the mountains?” she asked as he trudged through the sand to a cluster of boulders near the waterfall.

  Sabir dug around in the rocks. “Depends how fast you two can go, but it’ll take the better part of the day, I expect. I can move faster alone, but the heat takes a toll if you aren’t used to it.”

  He heaved a rock aside and fumbled with something out of sight. When he straightened, he held several bundles of white fabric and three large waterskins.

  “Fill these up,” he said, tossing them to Lyre. “And have a drink now. We’ll have to ration those skins for the rest of the day.”

  While Lyre held the first skin under the waterfall, Sabir shook out a swath of white fabric and approached her. “Hold your arms out.”

  She obeyed, and he draped the cloth over her head to form a deep hood, wrapped the rest around her body like a cross between a cloak and a dress, then knotted the corners behind her shoulder.

  “Where did you get these?” she asked as he stepped back to examine his work. “Do you always keep supplies here?”

  “They aren’t specifically mine.” He flipped a second white garment over his head and wrapped it swiftly around his body to cover his exposed skin, then pulled off his glasses, folded them, and tucked them under his robes. “My people have used this oasis for hundreds of years, and we always keep shared supplies here.”

  “Wow,” she murmured. She wanted to ask who his people were, but questioning a daemon about his caste was not only rude but often taken as an act of aggression.

  Lyre joined them with the waterskins and Sabir wrapped him in the third white robe, then showed them how to tie their waterskins under the fabric.

  “Don’t lose them,” he warned. “That’s your life source in the desert.”

  He stepped back to appraise them, and his scruffy beard, long hair in a loose ponytail, and exotic complexion didn’t look so out of place with the fabric shading his face.

  “One last thing,” he said to Lyre. “I recommend you stay in glamour. It mutes your magical signature, which could attract unwanted attention.”

  Clio frowned. She’d dropped glamour in the Underworld, but maybe her aura had been too buried beneath the dense magic of Asphodel’s inhabitants for anyone to sense it. She was already itching to return to her true form—this was her first time using glamour in her home world—but she’d decided to keep her caste hidden from Sabir for now. Assuming he hadn’t guessed already, keeping her asper a secret gave her a slight advantage.

  “Let’s go, then,” Sabir said. “Stay close, and if you feel lightheaded, speak up immediately. Heatstroke can hit fast and hard.”

  Clio and Lyre exchanged uneasy looks, then followed Sabir around a bend in the basin’s wall. On the other side, a rocky path had been carved into the bowl, steep and narrow but nothing an agile-footed daemon couldn’t handle.

  When she reached the top of the basin, the sputtering breeze transformed into a gusting wind. It hit her like a battering ram and almost blew her over. She grabbed her hood as the wind whipped hot grains of sand at her face.

  The ground sloped away from the rock basin, and stretching for miles in every direction was nothing but rolling orange dunes shimmering in the baking heat. Wisps and eddies of sand fluttered at the dune peaks, and the suns blazed down from a cloudless sky.

  Sabir took her arm, pulled her around, and pointed. On the northern horizon, almost invisible through the rippling heat waves, were the faint silhouettes of mountains. She rose on her tiptoes, straining to see the easternmost summits, hoping vainly she might recognize her homeland. But it was too far.

  On her other side, Lyre let out a low whistle. “I knew to expect it, but damn. There it is.”

  She didn’t have to ask what he meant. Hovering above the distant mountains was a massive planet. Clouds swirled across its alien surface, white in the bright suns. As they traveled toward it, the planet would appear to rise higher into the blue expanse of sky, but it didn’t actually move; its position was fixed, the Overworld and the other planet locked together in orbit.

  Sabir led them around the basin and they started toward the distant mountains. Five minutes in, she was sweating from the heat. Ten minutes in, she was ready to gulp down her water despite Sabir’s warning to ration it. Thirty minutes in, her legs were aching from the constant need to correct her balance on the sand.

  After an hour, she knew this would be one of the most physically demanding days of her life.

  The vista rippled with heat more intense than anything she’d experienced, and the air was so painfully dry it sucked the moisture out of her body with each breath. She was baking under the layers of fabric Sabir had wrapped her in, but she didn’t remove them. He had covered them up for a reason.

  The dunes rose and fell, forcing them to climb and descend, climb and descend. The sand, though, was what made the journey truly miserable. It slipped and shifted beneath her feet, forcing her to work harder for every step. Sabir gave them handkerchiefs to wrap over their lower faces so they didn’t breathe in too much dust, but that didn’t keep the tireless wind from whipping sand into her eyes.

  The mountains never seemed to draw any closer. Their pale shapes on the horizon taunted her—close but out of reach. As the hours of toil dragged on, Sabir encouraged her with updates on how far they’d come and how far they had left to go, but she didn’t trust his estimates. She and Lyre were slowing him down.

  Clutching Lyre’s arm, Clio forced her aching, exhausted body up the slope of another dune. Sabir, fifty yards ahead, was approaching its peak. Some dunes were as large as foothills, but this one was the largest they’d climbed so far.

  At the top, Sabir waved her and Lyre onward. “There’s a good view up here,” he called. “We can take a short break.”

  A break? Though considerate of his less fit and climate-adjusted traveling companions, Sabir hadn’t allowed them to stop for more than a minute or two all afternoon, claiming it would tire them out faster to constantly stop and start.

  Gritting her teeth, Clio forced herself to continue upward. Her leg muscles burned, but she climbed with Lyre at her side until they reached the dune’s top. Panting, she grabbed Sabir’s extended hand and he pulled her up onto the narrow top of the dune with him. Lyre hobbled up beside her, breathing just as hard.

  “Take a look,” Sabir said, pointing east.

  Clio turned, putting her back to the sun, and gasped.

  From this height, the giant waves of sand stretched for endless miles, but near the horizon, a different shape broke the monotony. In the same burnt orange shades as the sand, towers rose. The spires clustered within a surrounding wall, and she could make out touches of green plant life around it.

  “That’s Aldrendahar,” Sabir told them. “The northeasternmost griffin city. There’s a natural spring in the center of the town, so walking into its walls is like walking into a tropical oasis.”

  Aldrendahar. Clio knew the name. It was the closest Ra city to the borders of Irida, and she could finally place their location on the map in her head.

  “Irida is northeast of there, then,” she said, gesturing. “Why are we traveling straight north?”

  “It’s less direct, but it’ll get us out of the desert faster.” Sabir caught her arm before a powerful gust of wind could blow her off the dune. “And if we went that way, we’d h
ave to stop in Aldrendahar for water.”

  Visiting a griffin city was something she’d rather avoid. “If we head north from here into the mountains, that would put us west of Irida—but that’s Kyo Kawa Valley.”

  He nodded, unfazed by her alarmed tone. “We’ll stick to the edges of their territory. It’s perfectly safe.”

  “Whose territory?” Lyre asked.

  “The ryujin,” Clio answered nervously.

  “Never heard of them.”

  “A reptilian water caste,” Sabir told the incubus. “They’re hostile to pretty much everyone, but Kyo Kawa Valley is a massive network of interconnected rivers and valleys, and it’s easy to avoid the ryujin if you know your way around.”

  “Trespassing in Kyo Kawa is not a good idea.” Clio shifted her weight uneasily. “The ryujin are vicious to outsiders.”

  “I know how to avoid them,” Sabir assured her with perfect confidence.

  “Sabir?” A hesitant note touched Lyre’s voice. “This might be a stupid question, but … is it supposed to look like that?”

  “Huh?” Sabir turned to peer in the direction Lyre was pointing.

  Following suit, Clio squinted across the endless desert where dark clouds had settled over the horizon. Clouds? On the horizon?

  “Ah, shit.” Sabir puffed out a breath. “That would be a sandstorm.”

  Lyre tugged on his hood. “Sounds bad.”

  “Yes. Especially since it’s headed this way.”

  Clio scanned the brown billows of dust. “It looks far away. It might die off before it reaches us.”

  “Distances are deceptive in the desert,” Sabir said grimly, taking Clio’s and Lyre’s arms. “And it’s moving fast. Let’s go.”

  He jumped, pulling Clio and Lyre off the dune’s peak. They half slid, half ran down two hundred yards of steep sand to the valley between the dunes.

  “There’s shelter nearby—we might reach it in time. Don’t slow down!”

  He broke into a quick jog and Clio raced after him, but running in the sand was even more difficult than walking in it. Sabir’s light-footed grace made it look easy, but she and Lyre lumbered awkwardly, wasting twice as much energy. Her throat was parched and painful, but Sabir called at them to hurry, turning to trot backward as he waved them onward.

 
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