The Shadow Weave by Annette Marie

  She leaped away as the second jinn materialized from the darkness. Bolting ten paces down the ridge, she cast a light spell. Luminescence blazed across the rocky terrain, illuminating the ground around her.

  The three jinns backed away from the light. Shadow-step. The ability to take a shadow form and flow through the darkness around them. While shadow-stepping, they were invulnerable to attack. It was the ultimate defense, and all they needed was a single shadow in which to hide.

  Sabir smiled and silver light glowed over his fingers. “What’s the plan now, Clio?”

  She held her spell high above her head, ensuring no shadows touched hers. The cast forming in Sabir’s hand was a blast that would take out her light—and then all three would be on her.

  She couldn’t take them all. She wasn’t sure she could fight even one, not when they had an unassailable defense ability, and Lyre was drugged, his magic inaccessible. With only a second to decide, she looked across the ridge, then down the steep slope to the river glinting under the planet’s light.

  A faint blue glow shimmered in the water.

  Sabir flung his cast. She dove out of the way as the magic javelin struck her light and shattered it. Darkness plunged back over the ridge and the three jinns melted into it.

  She shot to her feet and froze, her heart hammering in her ears. She couldn’t see them. Where were they? Where had they gone?

  A flicker behind her. She jumped forward, barely clearing the jinn’s reach. Whirling around, she raised her hands to cast but the moment after the jinn had missed her, he melted away again. She stumbled back a step. While the jinns were shadow-stepping, even her asper couldn’t discern them. But when they went in and out of their shadow form, that she could see. And with that moment of warning, maybe she could survive—if she was fast enough.

  Baring her teeth, she cast away her glamour.

  Tingles rushed over her skin and renewed strength filled her limbs. Her clothes disappeared, replaced by simple white shorts and a chest wrap. She rose onto the balls of her feet, her bare toes digging into the gritty rock, then darted toward Lyre.

  Sparks flickered in her path, and a jinn coalesced from the shadows, a cast glowing in his hands—but she was already flinging a raw burst of power at his chest. He disappeared again.

  Sparks flashed behind her.

  Sabir hooked an arm around her neck and pulled her off her feet. He jammed his hand against her side, magic burning against her skin as he started to cast. She rammed her elbow into his stomach and he grunted, his spell faltering. Her fingers danced in a swift cast and the spell ignited: crackling electricity that ran over her body. Sabir recoiled, then melted away.

  Whirling on her toes, she sprang in a different direction. Sparks erupted again and she dove into a roll, evading the materializing jinn to buy herself time to finish two casts.

  The jinn disappeared and she slid to a stop, waiting. One heartbeat. Two. Three.

  Sparks kindled—two sets on either side of her—and she hurled both spells before the shadows had completely solidified. Her casts hit Sabir and the other jinn, and both crashed to the rocks with shocked yelps.

  Green light blazed over her hands again. She had only a moment to strike with lethal force before—

  A silvery flicker behind her and she threw herself forward. A gleaming blade whipped through the spot where she’d been. The third jinn held a long dagger in each hand. He wasn’t trying to capture her anymore. He was trying to kill her.

  Throwing an uncontrolled burst of power in his direction, she bolted for Lyre. The jinn disappeared—and Sabir and the other one had melted into nothing too. It was just her and Lyre on the ridge, trapped by the rock wall on one side and the dangerously steep slope on the other side. The jinns were invisible and invincible, and she’d be lucky to hit them a second time now that they were expecting it.

  With no better options, she grabbed Lyre’s arm and broke the binding on his wrists. Pulling him with her, she took two running steps and leaped off the ridge into the steep valley.

  She and Lyre hit the slope feet first and slid on the scree. They careened downward as though riding a rocky slide. The water rushed up to meet them and she scrabbled desperately for purchase but there was no way to slow down.

  They plunged into the cold shallows and hit the sandy bottom, jarring to a painful stop. Leaping to her feet in the waist-deep water, she clutched Lyre’s arm as her gaze flashed across the river, sprawling fifty feet wide with its serene surface reflecting the planet’s light.

  “Uh,” Lyre whispered breathlessly. “Isn’t water bad?”

  She didn’t answer as her stare stopped forty yards upstream where blue light glimmered beneath the surface. The spot of light glided into motion.

  With silver sparkles, a jinn appeared on the dark bank, smirking. “And what are you planning to do now, little nymph?”

  She stood in the water, breathing hard. Her hands were underwater, obscured from view, and she curled her fingers, prepping two casts. The light reflecting off the river was enough to prevent the jinn from shadow-stepping any closer to her, but the safety the water offered was an illusion.

  Upstream, the surface rippled as something passed beneath it, drawing closer.

  She pulled her fist out of the water and flung her first cast into the air. The jinn started to melt away, but her spell erupted into a blinding flare that banished the shadows. He solidified with a garbled curse, and she unleashed her second cast.

  A green band of power whipped out from her hand. It snapped around his waist and she yanked her end of the spell. With a crackling burst, he was flung into the air. He soared fifteen feet before crashing into the river with a splash—landing halfway between her and the underwater blue aura.

  The jinn lurched to his feet and spat out a mouthful of water. “Damn nymph!”

  Sparks flickered on the shore as the other two jinns arrived, but Clio ignored them. She grabbed Lyre’s arm and yanked him forward. “Swim, Lyre! Across the river!”

  His eyes widened but he obeyed, diving forward into a swift breaststroke. She plunged after him.

  Behind them, Sabir’s urgent shout rang out, his voice echoing off the water. “Get out of the river, you fool!”

  The jinn in the water started to respond, then broke off. A moment of quiet.

  The daemon screamed. Water exploded upward and Clio twisted to look back as a frothing wave enveloped the jinn. He vanished under the surface and bubbles erupted—red bubbles. A cloud of bloody water expanded from the spot, drifting downstream.

  Fear clamped around her chest. She swam harder, glancing back with each stroke.

  Sabir shouted furiously, then her light spell vanished in a burst as he shot it out of the sky. Darkness plunged over the valley again, broken only by the reflection on the water that the jinns couldn’t cross.

  But it wasn’t the jinns that frightened her now.

  The glowing aura under the water slid into motion—speeding toward her and Lyre. She swam as fast as she could, the water dragging at her limbs. She felt like she was barely moving. Lyre cut through the water ahead of her, swimming at an angle to the shore. It was too far. The blue aura was closing in, swift and deadly.

  Then she saw it—the trunk of a gargantuan tree that had fallen into the river, its curved side protruding from the surface. That’s where Lyre was heading: a natural bridge that extended almost halfway across the river.

  They could reach it. They had to.

  The blue aura swept in behind them. Lyre reached the colossal log and lunged out of the water. Right behind him, she grabbed the rough bark and hauled herself up. The moment she was on her feet, she whipped around with her hands raised.

  The glowing light shot toward the log, then a splashing wave erupted. A huge creature burst from the water, jaws gaping wide.

  She flung a wild blast of power into its face. Most of the magic rolled off its scales, but it jerked back and aborted its charge. It clung to the side of the log, long cla
ws hooked into the bark a few feet from Clio and Lyre.

  Its scales gleamed blue and green in the moonlight, its body long and sinuous with a dorsal fin running the full length of its back. Its reptilian head was small and elegant, with long appendages like a catfish’s whiskers protruding from its snout and the top of its head. Three teardrop scales in the shape of a triangle glowed on its wide forehead.

  It was a dragon. A silver dragon.

  And it was about to kill them.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Lyre grabbed the back of Clio’s top and hauled her out of the way as the dragon lunged at them. Its huge jaws snapped shut, missing her by inches. He shoved her in front of him, and she landed on her feet already running. He sprinted after her.

  The dragon plunged back into the water, vanishing beneath the surface, but he didn’t trust its retreat. Clio flew down the fallen tree trunk ahead of him, her feet barely touching the bark. Her hair streamed behind her, blond that shone and shimmered like moonlight on water, and faint green markings on her ivory skin trailed up and down her arms and legs.

  If they survived the next five minutes, he would love to get a better look at her daemon form.

  They raced down the tree and leaped into calf-deep water. Splashing through the shallows, they ran out onto the wide gravel bank. Beyond it, a forest of towering trees stood like a dark wall.

  Breathing hard, Clio stumbled to a stop and turned. Lyre glanced back, his heart hammering and his head spinning from the damn drugged tea. On the far bank, Sabir and the other jinn stood well back from the river’s edge. With the reflective surface of the water in their path, the jinns couldn’t shadow-step across the river. One problem solved.

  A faint splash.

  In a wild spray, the silver dragon charged out of the river. Lyre backpedaled. Without magic, he was useless.

  Clio sprang in front of him and flung a spell at the beast’s face. It ducked its head. The magic hit its shimmering silver scales and sloughed right off.

  Lyre tackled her around the middle, dragging her to the ground as the beast snapped its jaws shut where her head had been. The creature skidded to a stop, heavy finned tail whipping past and almost catching Lyre in the chest. It was right on top of them, deadly talons sinking into the gravel inches from their flesh.

  Clio dove one way and Lyre rolled the other. As he lunged up, he shed his glamour. Strength flowed through him, washing away some of the dizziness. He still couldn’t grasp or use his magic, but at least he wasn’t as slow and weak.

  The dragon whirled on Clio and snapped its huge jaws again. She danced back, grace and agility in every movement. As Lyre grabbed his bow off his shoulder and pulled an arrow, Clio sprang straight at the dragon’s face. She grabbed its muzzle and used it to launch herself over its head. She landed on its shoulders, jumped off it, and dropped beside Lyre.

  He barely managed not to gape. Since when was his clumsy, accident-prone nymph so nimble?

  Flipping an arrow onto his bow, he raised it and fired. The bolt hit the dragon in the chest and shattered. Bloody hell. He needed his weaves but he couldn’t use his magic to activate them.

  The dragon lunged at him and Clio. She flung a binding at the beast that tangled its front legs. It stumbled, and Lyre used the extra moment to grab a dagger from the sheath on his thigh. He slashed at the beast’s face.

  The blade hit the scales of its cheek and skidded across them—right over the creature’s eye.

  Blood sprayed and the dragon lurched backward with a high-pitched whine. It stumbled again, front legs still bound. Lyre backed up, Clio beside him, and grabbed another arrow from his quiver—this one woven with his best armor-piercing weave. As he laid it on his bow, Clio touched the arrow and the weave activated.

  He drew the string back and loosed the bolt.

  It hit the dragon in the chest and sank in deep. Golden light flashed. The spell exploded in a spray of blood and the dragon screamed as it collapsed onto its belly. Lyre stumbled backward, catching his breath.

  The light dimmed. He looked up as heavy clouds rolled across the planet’s face. The light reflecting off the river disappeared and the water went dark.

  He jerked around to face the opposite shore, but the two jinns had already disappeared. He scanned the black water, his stomach clenching. They were coming.

  Realizing it too, Clio cupped her hands, preparing another extra-bright light spell. Lyre drew a new arrow and raised his bow, waiting for a sign of where they might appear.

  Clio sprang backward. Sabir materialized out of her shadow, his dagger flashing. It caught her forearm, cutting up the underside and across her wrist. Her half-formed light spell burst apart and the concussion slammed into Lyre, throwing him backward. Clio crashed to the ground nearby.

  Jolting half upright, Lyre fired his arrow. Sabir melted into nothing, then reappeared a step away with his hand extended toward Clio, magic flashing. With no time to grab another arrow, Lyre desperately called on his own magic but only sick dizziness answered.

  A scream erupted, rising shrilly.

  The other jinn had shadow-stepped onto the riverbank as well, but he hadn’t joined the fight. He was alone on a stretch of gravel, on his knees and clutching his head. He didn’t appear injured, but he shrieked as though his head were being crushed in a vise, his voice rising even higher until it cracked.

  His agonized cry cut off but he didn’t move, hands fisted in his hair and eyes squeezed shut. In the silence that followed, Lyre’s entire body went cold. It took him a moment to realize why.

  The slosh of water lapping at the bank had vanished. The river had gone utterly silent. Had he gone deaf? The clouds shifted and silvery light streamed down, illuminating the river once more—and Lyre knew he hadn’t lost his hearing.

  The water had gone as calm and still as glass. It reflected the sky like a perfect mirror, not a single ripple disturbing its surface.

  And standing in the shallows of the unnaturally still river was a daemon.

  The planet’s light shimmered on the jewel-like scales that covered most of his body in a rainbow of blues, greens, and purples, and deep green hair fell to his waist. Not a splash or ripple of water broke the silence as the daemon paced unhurriedly to the shore. His tail, ending in broad double fins, lifted from the water, breaking his contact with the river, and the surface erupted in ripples as the current returned all at once.

  Lyre didn’t move. Couldn’t move. What kind of power was this? What kind of daemon could control a river’s current?

  The daemon approached the immobilized jinn, still on his knees and clutching his head. Stopping in front of his victim, the daemon touched the jinn’s forehead. Blue light flickered under his fingertips. The jinn arched in silent agony, then collapsed backward.

  Dead. Dead before he hit the ground.

  Sabir gasped, a sound of pain and disbelief. Clutching his dagger, the blade coated in Clio’s blood, he melted into shadow.

  The new daemon turned. His dark eyes slid across Lyre and Clio, and in the center of his forehead, three teardrop scales glowed, identical to the ones on the silver dragon.

  “Ryujin,” Clio whispered hoarsely.

  The daemon raised his hand, the motion smooth and graceful. Blue light danced over his fingers, their clawed tips shining, and the scales on his forehead brightened ominously.

  He whirled, swift and deadly, and thrust his glowing claws at nothing.

  Except in the same moment that the ryujin struck, Sabir appeared in his path. Those gleaming claws hooked into the jinn’s neck and, casual as that, the ryujin ripped his throat out.

  Sabir staggered back a step, his dagger weaving drunkenly as though he couldn’t understand what had happened. Lyre couldn’t understand it either. How had the ryujin known where Sabir would appear?

  The jinn crumpled to the ground and the ryujin pivoted again to face Lyre and Clio.

  Still on his knees, Lyre grabbed an arrow from his quiver. As he slapped it into place, Clio r
eached to activate the spell, her injured arm pressed to her chest.

  The ryujin swept both arms wide as though inviting the embrace of an invisible stranger.

  Magic exploded out of him. The wave of fiery blue light hurtled across the riverbank. Clio lunged in front of Lyre and cast a green bubble shield over them. The blast, as powerful as anything Ash had unleashed on him, slammed into the shield, ripped it apart, and hit them, its force barely diminished.

  The river and sky spun in his vision and he tumbled across the rocks, almost losing hold of his bow. Pain ricocheted through his limbs and his skull ached sickeningly. Scarcely able to move, he pushed onto his hands and knees and looked up. Clio was sprawled awkwardly a few feet away, unmoving, with a puddle of blood forming under her injured arm.

  Two dozen yards away, the ryujin glided toward them, finned tail swishing behind him and odd, narrow appendages flaring out from its base. Lyre reached for his quiver but lost his balance and half fell.

  The ryujin was coming. He had to do something. He had to fight the daemon. Somehow, he had to find a way. Beside him, Clio was unconscious and bleeding. He straightened and grabbed an arrow. His vision blurred and doubled, but he got the arrow in place by feel alone. With unsteady hands, he raised the bow.

  The ryujin stopped. Their eyes met, and Lyre clenched his jaw as he drew the string back, knowing the arrow was as good as useless without magic to aid it.

  A quiet whimper.

  The ryujin’s head snapped toward the sound. The silver dragon Lyre had shot groaned again, its chest heaving for air.

  Without so much as a glance at Lyre, the ryujin abandoned his course and sped to the dragon. Sinking to his knees, he pressed his hands to the beast’s chest, a blue glow lighting under his palms.

  Lyre hesitated, bow drawn and arrow ready. The ryujin didn’t look up, his attention focused on the dragon. He was attempting to heal such a terrible wound? There was no way he could save the creature.

  But if he intended to try, he would be busy for at least a few minutes.

  Lyre stuffed the arrow back in his quiver, slung the bow over his shoulder, and heaved Clio’s limp form into his arms. Lurching to his feet, he stumbled toward the dark wall of trees.

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