The Shadow Weave by Annette Marie

  He froze, not even breathing. She shifted forward, kneeling between his legs. The blindfold hid his eyes and what they might have revealed about his thoughts, but his shoulders were tense, his heels digging into the sand as he held himself rigid. He didn’t like being immobilized, being vulnerable and powerless, but he wasn’t fighting her. He trusted her.

  Closing her eyes, she brought her mouth to his. Their lips melded together and she felt herself spiraling down into something dark and sweet and binding.

  She pressed her mouth harder against his, wishing she could channel everything she felt through this connection between them. She didn’t know what she felt, but she wanted him to feel it too—the way her chest had constricted with the fear of losing him, the need to be with him, to touch him, to kiss him. Need that had nothing to do with his magic and everything to do with him.

  He leaned up, kissing her harder, and hit the end of the slack in his binding. She sank her fingers into his hair to hold him as she parted her lips. His tongue flirted hungrily with hers and heat shot through her.

  She pressed closer to him, pushing him back into the tree. Their mouths moved together, erasing all thoughts from her head. With each touch of their lips, the connection between them fired stronger and hotter. She couldn’t draw back. She couldn’t stop, and her fatigue faded.

  She’d only intended to kiss him, but she found her hand sliding down the side of his neck to his shirt collar. She followed it down, her fingers stroking his collarbones, until she found the top button of his shirt. With a twist, it came undone.

  Keeping her mouth tight against his, she unbuttoned his shirt with growing urgency. When the last button came undone, she pushed the fabric aside and pressed both hands to his hot skin. He inhaled sharply.

  She ran her fingers down his front, exploring the shape of him—the sculpted planes of his chest, the hollow between his collarbones, the shallow dip that ran down the center of his abs. Her hands curled around his powerful shoulders, muscles hardened by countless hours of archery. Tracing her fingers down his arms, she pushed his shirt off his shoulders until the sleeves caught on his elbows.

  As his mouth moved against hers, she ran her hands over him again and again, memorizing every inch of skin she could reach. Shoulders, chest, abdomen. She slipped her thumbs under the waist of his pants, tracing the V-shaped dip of his hipbones. A soft growl rumbled from him and he caught her bottom lip in his teeth, a bite both gentle and dominating.

  Breathless, she finally pulled back. He rose with her, trying to keep hold of her mouth, until he hit the end of the binding. Palms pressed to his chest, she blinked her asper into focus.

  Golden light swirled around him, thick and intoxicating. But not that much. Not that bad. He still had control. Mostly.

  And she needed more.

  She leaned in again, bringing her mouth almost within his reach. He strained up with another growl, and she brushed her lips lightly across his mouth as she slid her hand down his arm to his elbow.

  With a touch of magic, she snapped the binding spell.

  He lunged off the tree, his arms closing around her as she fell backward. She landed on the folded robes and he came down on top of her, then his mouth was crushing hers.

  She arched into him, unable to breathe as he kissed her deep and hard, his tongue stroking hers and sending liquid heat pulsing through her. She fumbled at the back of his head, pulled the blindfold off, and threw it aside.

  He tore his mouth away from hers and pushed himself partway up. His eyes, black as night, slid across her face, drinking her in. She panted for air, a tiny thrill of fear running through her, but she didn’t move as his gaze roved over her face then lazily slid down her body, taking in every detail.

  His attention caught on her midriff and his hands curled over her hips. He lowered his head again—but not toward her face. He pushed her shirt up and his mouth pressed against her belly just above her jeans. She gasped.

  He inched her shirt up, his mouth following, wet and hot. His fingers caressed her bare skin, sliding up her sides as his lips and tongue trailed up her middle. Her shirt bunched up under her breasts, then he pushed it up higher, over the swell of her chest to expose her bra.

  Her hands found his hair and sank in, clutching his head as he dragged his teeth across the outside of her bra, teasing the sensitive skin underneath. His fingers slid over the fabric on one side while his mouth taunted her on the other side. All she could do was clutch him and remind herself to breathe as need spiraled deeper, the heat building in her center.

  His thumb slipped under the cup of her bra and sharp pleasure shot through her. She arched into his hand with a moaning gasp.

  With an answering growl, he pushed her bra up off her breasts, then his hand was cupping one and his mouth was on the other, his tongue teasing. She panted, tiny sounds escaping her as she squirmed under him, pleasure blazing through her and hot need gathering between her legs until she thought she might explode.

  He shifted to support his weight with one elbow and his other hand slid down her stomach, over her jeans, then slipped between her legs. He pressed his fingers against her and she gasped wildly at the burst of pleasure.

  Without warning, he rolled fully on top of her. She clamped her legs around his hips, pressing their bodies together. She could feel him, his need for her, and the barrier of clothing was unacceptable. He lowered his head, mouth brushing teasingly across hers. She grabbed his shoulders and pulled him down.

  Or she intended to, but either she’d yanked too hard or his muscles were already on the verge of collapse, because his arms gave out and his entire weight came down on her. All the air whooshed out of her lungs.

  He swore and pushed off her. Rolling sideways, he flopped onto his back, breathing hard as he held his elbow and stretched his arm across his chest.

  She lurched up—and a wave of dizziness rolled over her. She steadied herself, panting for air and wondering if she should blame Lyre’s aphrodesia or the day spent in the blistering desert suns for her lightheadedness.

  “Are you okay?” she asked Lyre breathlessly, pulling her shirt back down.

  “Muscle cramp,” he muttered as he gingerly rotated his arm and shoulder. “Damn it.”

  Desire still seared her, but her exhausted muscles were complaining loudly enough that she couldn’t ignore them anymore. Wincing, she grabbed the nearest waterskin and passed it to him. “Drink. You need to rehydrate.”

  He sat up and drained the waterskin in a few gulps. Tossing it toward their pack, he refocused on her—and his black, hungry stare stole her breath. His hand found her cheek and slid into her hair, then he pulled her mouth back to his in a fierce, demanding kiss that made her head spin faster.

  But the kiss was brief, and he withdrew, his fingers brushing across her jaw before he leaned back against the tree trunk.

  He eyed her with irises that were lightening back to bronze. “Blindfolded and tied up. You’re pretty kinky for a virgin.”

  “Lyre!” she gasped, mortified. She stood, intending to retreat out of sight, but he caught her arm and pulled her backward. She landed in his lap with a thump, too tired to control her fall.

  He wrapped his arms around her, holding her prisoner, and she relaxed into his embrace. Sighing tiredly, she rested her cheek against his shoulder, head tucked under his chin. His shirt was still unbuttoned and she trailed her fingers down his chest.

  Heat rolled through her, the fiery need to kiss him again, to touch him, to have him kissing and touching her. But after their hellish trek across the desert, she was too weary to move—and he had to be just as tired because she doubted anything less would have stopped him. Maybe it was a good thing their bodies weren’t as willing as their minds.

  She closed her eyes. Playing with fire didn’t sound nearly as dangerous as toying with an incubus. What had she been thinking? Maybe the problem was she hadn’t been thinking.

  Or maybe the problem was she trusted him. She trusted he wouldn??
?t hurt her, but he didn’t trust himself, and if he was right and she was wrong, the next time she played with fire, they might both pay a terrible price.

  Chapter Seventeen

  Concentration was proving to be an issue for Lyre lately. And by “lately,” he meant the whole damn day. He’d resigned himself to the fact that, short of imminent death, the direction of his thoughts probably wasn’t going to change for a while.

  His gaze flicked to Clio, walking ahead of him, and his attention fixed on her swaying hips.

  Who would have thought his innocent little nymph could be that naughty? In the grand scheme of kinks and fetishes, tying a guy up and blindfolding him was pretty vanilla, but for Clio? He sure as hell hadn’t seen it coming. She just kept surprising him.

  And now he couldn’t stop thinking about anything else—her body, her mouth, her taste, her scent, the sounds she’d made as he touched and kissed her. And he couldn’t stop thinking about all the things he wanted to do to her next.

  Bloody hell. He needed a good long dunk in ice water.

  If she had any idea how dangerous a line she was walking, maybe she wouldn’t be tormenting him like this. At some point, when they had some privacy from Sabir, he needed to find a delicate way to explain why she should never do something like that again. His self-control was good—most of the time—but it wouldn’t last long if she deliberately riled him up. He was lucky his exhausted body had quit on him before they found out how good his restraint really was.

  Sighing, he forced his thoughts out of that arena. He had enough to worry about without pondering the dangers of taking Clio to bed. Luckily, he had many distractions—mainly, the fact that he was traveling through the Overworld. The idea was taking some getting used to, and despite their extra fun day yesterday, it still hadn’t sunk in.

  This morning, they had started early, with Sabir rushing them through breakfast while a heavy morning fog pooled in the gullies. Then it had been back onto the nonexistent trail through the rocky foothills. Lyre’s legs had ached for the first hour as his muscles warmed up, but the early morning air had been cool and fresh. Without the desert’s killer heat, it wasn’t that bad.

  The suns had burned off the mist by midmorning, revealing the summits rising on their left as they trekked parallel to the range. The mountains were a different shape than he was used to seeing—not the stabbing black peaks like those that surrounded Asphodel, but rolling mountains that sprawled lazily across the land, banded in orange, tan, and blue rock. Forests climbed some of the slopes in dense blankets of green and blue leaves.

  Lots of blue in this world. Blue plants, blue rocks, blue hunks of crystal everywhere. It was kind of weird.

  As the suns heated the earth, raising the temperature higher and higher, Sabir had led them farther north into the mountains. By the time the heat had grown unbearable again, they’d entered the cool shadows of a forest, where the rustle of leaves and the songs of wildlife had replaced the quiet of the foothills.

  He hadn’t seen any creatures, but he’d heard them—trills and chirps, buzzing and croaks, skittering claws on bark, and branches creaking as unseen beasts bounded through the canopy. Every few miles, a louder crash would erupt in the distance as something large trotted away, its feet thudding against the ground. Once, the thunder of large feathered wings had brought them to a halt, but they hadn’t seen the source through the foliage.

  They’d wound through the forested valleys for the entire afternoon. Game trails meandered drunkenly among huge, old-growth trees with gnarled trunks covered in soft, leafy vines. Sabir would follow the trails for a few hundred yards then push into the undergrowth again. Several times, he’d warned Clio and Lyre to avoid a certain plant—a tree with blue orbs hanging from its branches, a bush with orange-spotted leaves, a vine with tiny cobalt flowers.

  Now, their guide was leading them up an uncomfortably steep ravine, and Lyre’s legs were aching again. The suns hung low in the west, lighting the clouds in a spectacular canvas of red and orange. Shadows draped the ground.

  Lyre’s eyes narrowed as he watched Sabir climb over a boulder, then extend his hand to pull Clio up after him.

  When their guide had returned last night, only minutes after Clio and Lyre had found themselves too exhausted to misbehave, Sabir hadn’t seemed to suspect that anything was out of the ordinary. And that made Lyre suspicious. Lyre had been able to smell Clio’s arousal, and his own scent had probably given him away. Unless Sabir had a stunted sense of smell, he should have guessed what he’d just missed.

  So either Sabir had the senses of a human, which seemed unlikely, or he’d pretended not to notice—and done a hell of a good job considering his interest in Clio. A daemon interested in a female didn’t just pretend not to notice another male making a move. That sort of polite bullshit was for humans. Daemons were a lot more direct—and more aggressive.

  So if Sabir had been practicing his acting skills last night, he must have a reason to avoid confrontation. Problem was, Lyre couldn’t guess what that reason was.

  Ahead, the trees thinned and a rocky ridge jutted out from the forest. Lyre hastened his steps and caught up to Clio and Sabir as they clambered onto the rocks. Finally stopping, Sabir shaded his eyes with one hand as he looked toward the setting suns, then turned east.

  “There it is,” he said, pointing. “Irida.”

  Clio rose on her tiptoes as though the extra few inches would help her see better. “The Fallen Sisters! Lyre, come look!”

  Lyre joined her and squinted at the horizon. Leaning closer, she pointed, aligning her arm with his line of sight as best she could, being ten inches shorter than him.

  “The three slanted peaks, side by side, do you see?” she said eagerly, tracing them with her finger. “Those three mountains mark Irida’s western border.”

  “Almost home,” he murmured with a smile.

  She beamed at him. “How much farther, Sabir?”

  The daemon glanced at the sky, then scanned the surrounding terrain. The barren ridge zigzagged in an easterly direction before sinking out of sight beneath the forest canopy. Valleys, thick with trees, surrounded their location, and on their left, the mountains rose tall. On their right, beyond a steep ravine, the stark foothills sprawled. Barely visible on the southern horizon was a glimmer of sand.

  “We’ll reach the Iridian border late tomorrow,” Sabir answered. “A mile farther, the ridge levels out. We’ll camp there for the night.”

  “Right on the ridge?” Lyre frowned. “Won’t we be exposed to the elements?”

  Sabir shrugged and started forward. “There’s a sheltered spot we can use. We can’t go south because the ravine”—he gestured right—“is dangerously steep. And it’ll soon be too dark to continue forward.”

  “What about this valley?” Lyre asked, tilting his head toward the forest on their left. “It doesn’t look steep.”

  Sabir glanced at the valley. It sloped down from the ridge in a smooth, easy grade before leveling out. At the bottom, peeking through the trees, water glimmered amber and gold in the light of the setting suns.

  “We don’t want to go into that valley,” Sabir said, quickening his pace. “We’re in ryujin territory. There’s a river down there.”

  “We’re that close to ryujin waters?” Clio’s voice was high with alarm. “I thought we were keeping to the edge of their territory.”

  Lyre twitched his shoulders. He didn’t like the sound of these ryujin daemons.

  “Would you rather tempt your fate with Ra patrols?” Sabir asked irritably. “The ryujin don’t care if we come this way as long as we stay away from the water. I’ve walked this trail a hundred times and never had a problem.”

  He extended his stride, drawing ahead. Behind him, the suns dipped, the lower of the two vanishing below the horizon. Lyre glanced into the valley, then hurried to fall into step with Clio.

  “Is Sabir underestimating the ryujin?” he asked in a low voice.

  She bit her lower li
p, and he had to look away before he started thinking about her mouth. This close, her scent filled his nose, distracting him.

  “I’m not sure. Irida shares a border with Kyo Kawa, and my people are extremely wary of the ryujin.” She grimaced. “They especially don’t tolerate nymphs inside their borders.”

  “Why not?”

  “There’s a story that mothers like to tell their daughters.” She pushed her ponytail off her shoulder. “A few centuries ago, the king of Irida was an ambitious man who wanted to expand our borders. Irida is hemmed in on one side by the uninhabitable Jewel Mountains, and on the other side it butts up against the Kyo Kawa and Ra borders. Expanding into griffin land wasn’t an option, so that left Kyo Kawa.”

  She paused to climb over a boulder in their path, then continued. “Irida borders two other territories, but Kyo Kawa borders five kingdoms. The ryujin have spent thousands of years defending their land, but a couple hundred years ago, we nymphs had a cautiously cordial relationship with them. They permitted us to use certain trails through their territory, and a few individuals even engaged in trade.

  “Well, this greedy nymph king figured the ryujin weren’t that terrifying after all, and he wondered if he could take some of their territory for himself. But the thing is, ryujin cities are hidden. No one knows where they live. But then the king heard about a nobleman’s daughter.”

  “A daughter?” Lyre repeated bemusedly.

  “This girl claimed she had fallen in love with a ryujin and he’d taken her to his city. The greedy king forced the girl to reveal the location of the city, and then he paid a mercenary army to attack the ryujin and wipe them out so he could claim that part of their territory.”

  Clio’s expression grew grimmer. “According to the story, the ryujin retaliated by slaughtering the invaders, forbidding all contact with other castes, and closing their borders for good.”

  Lyre winced. “What about the girl and her ryujin lover?”

  “The girl died of grief and guilt. No one knows what happened to her lover.” Clio shook her head. “My mother told me the story when I was younger—a much longer and more dramatic tale of love and tragedy. I’m sure she embellished the details, but that’s the gist of it. I’m not certain how much is true, but they say that’s why nymphs can never go into ryujin land.”

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