The Shadow Weave by Annette Marie

  “We don’t want to be out in the open for this. Hurry up!”

  She ran on. Lyre followed behind her, and his harsh breathing was slowly drowned out by the increasing roar of distant wind. Sabir had said the storm was moving fast, but how could it be here already?

  “Come on!” Sabir yelled.

  She pushed her aching legs harder but she didn’t seem to be running any faster. The groan of the approaching storm grew louder, accompanied by a sharp whistling noise. Wind blew over the dunes, whipping sand off the tops.

  Sabir spun around. He ran back to her and Lyre, grabbed her around the middle, and threw her over his shoulder. She squeaked in alarm and clutched at him for balance as he sprinted toward the unseen shelter. He flew over the sand, barely touching it, and Lyre quickly fell behind.

  “Sabir, slow down!” she cried. “Lyre can’t keep up.”

  “He’ll catch up,” Sabir grunted, breathless for the first time. “We’re almost there.”

  Her heart constricted as the gap between them and Lyre stretched wider. Lyre was running hard but he couldn’t match Sabir’s speed. An orange haze thickened the air and the whistling scream of the oncoming storm grew louder.

  “Lyre!” she yelled. “Sabir, slow down!”

  Sabir ignored her and raced around a bend in the dune valley. Lyre disappeared from her line of sight.

  “Sabir, stop!” She shoved against his shoulder. “Put me down!”

  “We’re almost there. I’ll go back for Lyre.”

  She bit her lip, panicking but unsure what to do. Running back for Lyre seemed foolish. What use would that be? Sabir would get Lyre as soon as she was safe.

  He ran through another valley of dunes, then slowed to a stop, breathing hard. Just ahead, a wedge of weathered blue crystal jutted from the earth, with orange sand piled on one side of it. Sabir hauled her to the leeward side and pushed her down.

  The sunlight dimmed. The howling wind grew deafening.

  Sabir whirled around and took two running steps back the way they’d come, then pulled up short.

  With a sound like a deep bellow and an ear-splitting shriek combined, a wall of sand blasted down the dune and engulfed their crystal shelter. The light disappeared, and as dust screamed past them in a choking cloud, the entire world turned to a black nightmare of wind and sand.

  Chapter Sixteen

  Sabir had to physically hold her down as the sandstorm engulfed them. She almost blasted him off so she could run back to find Lyre, but the sand was a solid, screaming wall and she couldn’t see beyond a few feet. She’d never find him.

  “This is your fault!” she yelled at Sabir, struggling against his constricting arms. “You shouldn’t have left him behind!”

  “I couldn’t carry you both,” he snapped, more upset than she’d expected. He pulled her deeper into the crystal shelter as dust eddied around them. “Stop talking before you get sand in your mouth.”

  She hunched her shoulders, holding back her furious, panicked criticisms. Even with the cloth tied over her face, her mouth felt gritty and her throat hurt. The sand boiled past their shelter in a mixture of dust, sharp orange particles, and larger bits of rock. What would that abrasive barrage do to Lyre, caught in the open with no shelter to break the wind and block the sand?

  Would it shred his skin? Would it blind him? Would he suffocate, choking on sand?

  Tremors ran through her and her eyes watered, though whether from fright or the grit in them, she wasn’t sure. For what felt like hours, the sandstorm raged without relief. Finally, the whistling scream of flying sand died, leaving only the whooshing wind and clouds of roiling dust.

  Releasing her, Sabir sidled cautiously to the edge of their shelter. “You can wait here while I look for—”

  “No,” she snapped. “I’m coming with you to find Lyre.”

  His eyes narrowed, then he shrugged. “You’ll just needlessly exhaust yourself. Stay close. Visibility is poor.”

  Before venturing out, they both took a long drink from their waterskins, then Sabir led her back into the dune valley. The loose sand, heaped and piled in strange new ripples, sucked at her feet. Sabir moved quickly, forcing her to jog every few steps to keep up. A thick haze hung in the air, dimming the sunlight, and the wind wasn’t as painfully hot as before.

  “He should be around here, based on how fast he was moving.” Sabir stopped to scan the sandy gorge. “If he fell and got buried, we might have trouble finding him.”

  Fell. Buried. Those words triggered a fresh wave of panic. She lurched forward, blinking her asper into focus. His aura. Where was his aura? Had he fallen? Was he buried? Had he suffocated? She couldn’t see the faintest glimmer of golden light in the endless sea of orange.

  “Lyre?” she shouted, turning in a circle. “Lyre, where are y—”

  She faced the way they’d come and a shimmer leaked through a heap of sand. With a frantic gasp, she sprinted to the spot and thrust her hands out. Her fingers slammed into something hard only a few inches under the sand and pain shot through her joints.

  “Ow!” she gasped, stumbling back a step.

  Sabir appeared beside her. “What the hell?”

  He brushed the sand aside to reveal a smooth surface that glowed gold. Runes and interconnecting lines formed an intricate, powerful barrier. She swept her arms across it to expose the top of a dome.

  Sitting inside it, his chin propped on one hand and eyes closed, was Lyre.

  “Lyre!” she cried.

  His eyes popped open. At the sight of her and Sabir leaning over the top of his barrier, he sat up and reached for the glowing gemstone in front of him. He touched the gem, golden light flashed, and the barrier dissolved. All the sand piled against its sides collapsed into the gap where he sat.

  “Shit,” he yelped as he was swamped. “Damn it.”

  With a bemused expression, Sabir held out his hand. Lyre grabbed it, and Sabir pulled him out. Lyre brushed himself off, sand flying everywhere, and pulled his backpack off to shake it clean.

  “Glad you made it,” Sabir said, a note of caution in his voice. “That’s one hell of a barrier. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

  “Good thing I had it,” Lyre commented evasively, cool as could be considering he’d just weathered a brutal sandstorm alone and exposed in an Overworld desert. “Glad you two showed up. I couldn’t tell if the storm had ended.”

  “Looked like you were taking a nap in there.”

  Lyre shrugged. “It was boring. Nothing else to do.”

  Sabir shook his head. “You’re tougher than you look, incubus.”

  “Thanks … I think.”

  Clio said nothing, her hands clenched into fists and her expression as blank as she could make it. Her heart pounded from residual fear, and relief rolled through her, so strong it made her knees weak. She’d been so afraid he was dead.

  Sabir scanned her face as though checking to see if she would burst into tears or throw herself into Lyre’s arms. “Let’s get moving then. Navigating in the dust will be tricky, but I have a good sense of direction.”

  He started out again, glancing back frequently to make sure she and Lyre were following. She didn’t move, letting Sabir draw ahead, and Lyre waited beside her.

  “I’m fine,” he whispered, guessing exactly what she needed to hear. “Absolutely fine.”

  She nodded, on the verge of tears, and pressed her lips together so he wouldn’t see them tremble.

  “Are you okay?” he asked.

  “I’m fine.”

  “Good.” He put his hand on the small of her back to guide her forward—and hot tingles rushed up her spine.

  She jumped in surprise. He smiled conspiratorially and winked at her. She stared for a moment, then laughed softly and hurried to catch up with Sabir, Lyre following right behind her.

  A little jolt of aphrodesia to calm her nerves and reassure her he was fine. Later, she would tell him off for using his seduction magic on her again, but for now, s
he would hold on to that feeling of warmth and pleasure for as long as she could.

  Miles of desert lay behind them, and they still had a long way to go.

  Clio lost count of the hours, and with the haze left by the sandstorm, she couldn’t see the mountain range to judge their progress. Eventually, rough orange crags and jutting formations of blue crystal overtook the endless sand dunes, and the occasional clump of grass, cluster of shrubs, or lonely tree appeared. By the time the suns hung low on the horizon, struggling to burn through the dusty haze, the desert dunes were far behind them and the rocky foothills had taken over.

  Despite the reduced visibility, Sabir led them unerringly. He never tired, his stride unfaltering while Clio’s and Lyre’s strength flagged more with each hour.

  “We’ll make camp in the next ravine,” he told them as they climbed a rocky hill dotted with dry grass and a few bushes with bluish leaves. “I’d intended to get farther into the mountains before nightfall, but the storm slowed us down. We’ll make up the time tomorrow.”

  Clio cringed at the thought of another day of travel like this one. She’d run out of water a few miles ago and was now sharing the last of Sabir’s waterskin with Lyre. Her legs throbbed mercilessly, and she wholeheartedly agreed with Sabir’s no-stopping policy—if she stopped, she’d never start again.

  They crested the hill, and just beyond it, the hillside fell steeply into a ravine. Short trees grew in scattered clusters of four or five, and winding through the center was a narrow creek, its surface reflecting the planet’s glowing light, now brighter than the last streaks of sunlight in the west.

  She dredged up the last of her energy as they half slid, half trotted down the slope. She wanted to throw herself into the water and wash off the dust and sweat of their journey, but when she got to the bottom, she discovered it wasn’t a creek so much as a shallow stream only a few inches deep, trickling merrily over smooth pebbles and bits of crystal. Far too shallow to bathe in.

  Sabir hustled her and Lyre to a thicket of trees. Clio sank down in a patch of soft sand, too tired to drink the fresh water only a few feet away.

  “We’ll camp here.” Sabir pulled off his pack and propped it against a tree. “This spot is sheltered enough for a fire. Once the suns go down, it’ll get cold.”

  “How cold is cold?” Lyre asked as he shed his backpack and crouched beside the stream. He dunked his empty waterskin into the shallow flow.

  “Cold enough that you’ll want a fire and a blanket.”

  “Fun,” Lyre muttered.

  “There isn’t much firewood here,” the daemon continued, gesturing at the nearest spindly tree, its upper branches decorated with six-inch thorns. “I’ll collect some from nearby, then make something to eat.”

  “Do you need any help?” Clio offered, even though the thought of standing again made her want to curl into a ball and cry.

  “No.” He pulled off his white robe and shook out the sand. “The next wooded area is a bit of a hike. I can get there and back faster on my own.”

  “Thanks, Sabir,” she murmured tiredly.

  “Just rest for now. Drink. Wash up. I’ll be back in an hour.” With a glance at the sky—gauging the time by the partially eclipsed planet above—Sabir hopped over the stream, no sign of weariness in his movements, and swiftly climbed the opposite side of the gully. He vanished over the crest.

  “I didn’t think much of him at first,” Lyre said as he capped his waterskin and filled hers, “but that guy is hardcore.”

  “Yeah, he’s a lot tougher than I would have guessed.” She arched an eyebrow at Lyre. “Does that mean you’ll be jealous now if I flirt with him?”

  He huffed and handed her the filled waterskin. “Maybe a little. If nothing else, he’s making me look pathetically out of shape.”

  “If you’re out of shape, then what does that make me?” She stifled a groan as she sat up and untied her white garment, dislodging a cascade of sand. She folded the fabric, then moved to their pack and retrieved her spare shirt. “I’m going to go rinse off.”

  Finding a spot downstream with some privacy, she used the cloth she had tied around her face to scrub off, then changed into her clean top. Washing her hair wouldn’t work without a bucket, so the best she could do was shake the dust out. As clean as she could get and feeling reasonably refreshed, she gave her old shirt a quick wash and returned to their camp.

  Lyre was crouched beside the water, his handkerchief dripping wet. His shirt was untucked, the first few buttons undone, and his hair was damp. He must have washed off too. As she approached, he pressed the cloth to the side of his head just at his hairline, then lowered it to look at the fabric as though expecting to see something.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked as she flipped her washed shirt over a tree branch to dry.

  He prodded the side of his head again. “Do I have a scratch here?”

  She knelt beside him and found a scrape near his temple. It had already scabbed over but she took his cloth and carefully cleaned it anyway.

  “It’s not bad,” she told him. “What happened?”

  “Just a rock from the sandstorm. It took me a minute to get my shield up,” he added at her confused look.

  She lowered the cloth. A sick feeling twisted deep in her gut, the same nausea she’d felt as she desperately worked to heal him on the riverbank in Brinford after the reaper had stabbed him.

  “If you hadn’t had such a powerful shield,” she murmured, twisting the cloth into a knot, “what would have happened to you?”

  “I don’t know.” He pulled the cloth from her hands before she mangled it. “But I did have a shield that could hold against the storm, and I made it through just fine. I might even have done better than you and Sabir.”

  She smiled wanly, but that sick feeling of what might have happened still churned inside her.

  “Clio.” He touched her cheek. “Don’t make that face.”

  Her pulse quickened at the warmth of his hand against her skin. “What face?”

  He rubbed his thumb across her jaw. “The heartbroken one.”

  “I just …” She exhaled unsteadily. “I can’t do this without you.”

  “Yes, you can.”

  “I don’t want to.”

  “You don’t have to. I’m right here.”

  She gripped his wrist, holding his hand against the side of her face. “Good. Stay right here.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose. “Please don’t call me ‘ma’am.’”

  “Yes, Clio.”

  A flush rose through her. The way he said her name—the way his deep voice caressed each sound. Suddenly, her heart was pounding loudly in her ears. His eyes held hers and she was drowning in warm amber.

  She’d promised herself there could be nothing between them because the power imbalance between an incubus and a woman was too catastrophic to allow trust. But she couldn’t remember the fear.

  She leaned toward him. Shadows flitted across his eyes and he shifted out of her reach. She froze, the sting of rejection cutting through her. He slid his hand away from her and stood. Confused and hurt, she dropped her gaze, biting her lower lip.

  “Clio,” he groaned. “I really can’t handle that heartbroken look.”

  Even more confused, she peeked at him.

  He retreated a few steps and sank back down, leaning against a narrow tree trunk and propping his elbow on his knee. “Do you really think I don’t want to kiss you?”

  Her cheeks flushed. “I … I didn’t …”

  “I’m exhausted, Clio. My self-control is shot. I can’t kiss you right now.” His eyes darkened. “But I can assure you I want to. You have no idea how much I want you.”

  His voice deepened, the words purring all the way down her spine.

  “That’s why I can’t kiss you,” he added in a more normal tone.

  “Oh,” she mumbled weakly. “Is that the only reason? Control?”

  “The only

  Nerves, cold and squirming, flashed in her belly. If he doubted his self-restraint, she should too. But once Sabir returned, she would have to go back to keeping her distance from Lyre—and she couldn’t. She couldn’t stand this forced space between them.

  Rising to her feet, she stared down at him with her heart in her throat. Was she crazy? Had she lost her mind?

  He looked up at her, blinking in puzzlement.

  Gulping down her doubts, she stepped behind the tree he was using as a backrest, hooked her hands over his elbows, and pulled them back. With a quick flash of green light, she cast a binding spell between his elbows, trapping him against the tree trunk.

  “Hey!” he yelped, yanking the binding taut. “What are you doing?”

  She circled back around and crouched in front of him. He snapped his elbows against the binding again, scowling at her.

  “Damn it, Clio, I said I didn’t trust my control if I kissed you, but I can bloody well handle anything short of that!”

  Pretending her hands weren’t trembling, she took her handkerchief and folded it into a strip, then reached for him. He leaned back with a snarl, trying to evade her, but she looped the strip over his eyes and tied it behind his head, blindfolding him.

  “What the hell?” he growled, anger and a hint of viciousness coating his tone. “If you think this is funny, it’s—”

  He broke off when she pressed her palm against his chest. Kneeling in front of him, she sucked in a deep breath. She was crazy. It was the only explanation.

  “Lyre,” she whispered, barely able to summon any volume. “Now can I kiss you?”

  His mouth opened, then closed. “What?”

  “If you lose control, you can’t hurt me. And you can’t confuse my willpower with your eyes covered, right?”

  “I—I guess—probably not? But still, Clio, this is—”

  “Lyre. I need to kiss you. Right now.”

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