Yield the Night by Annette Marie


  “I can’t believe you made it through the caves,” he whispered, thumbs stroking her cheeks, his forehead lightly touching hers. “When I saw you come out the other side, I thought maybe you were—you were okay—but—” He broke off, the words strangled in his throat. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

  A weak, wet breath sighed from her lungs.

  “Piper,” he whispered brokenly. His lips touched her forehead, then brushed across her mouth.

  If she could have captured one feeling to take with her, it would have been the touch of his lips on hers.

  Darkness closed in, pulling her gently into its embrace. If this was dying, it wasn’t that bad. No pain. Ash’s fingers were warm on her cheek. He would stay with her. She wouldn’t be alone. She could slip peacefully into sleep—

  Ash jerked, the sudden movement jarring her body. Pain ricocheted through her limbs. She gasped, her lungs gurgling. Her eyes opened.

  Ash leaned over her, a hand still on her cheek, but his gaze was on something beyond her—on the river. His eyes had gone black.

  With the last bit of strength she had, she rolled her head to one side to look.

  In the deep, calm pool, sheltered from the rushing river and shaded by overhanging trees, something moved in the water. Ripples disturbed the surface, then a pale flash just beneath.

  A creature rose out of the pool, a head first, followed by a long, snake-like neck. The reptilian head was delicate and graceful, large sea-blue eyes framed by fins on either side of its head. Pale scales covered its body, shimmering with every shade of blue, teal, and green imaginable.

  A water dragon.

  Its back arched out of the water, a spiked fin running along its spine. Its head tilted as it studied them. Two foot-long tentacles—she didn’t know how else to describe the long, sinuous appendages that swept back from it forehead—undulated slowly as though it were thinking. It was without doubt the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. She wanted to run her fingers over those iridescent scales. It seemed so close to them, but it really wasn’t; it was just large—and deadly.

  The surface rippled again. A second dragon raised its head, shaking the water off in a spray that sprinkled Piper’s face. Ash tensed further. He was in danger. He needed to get away. But he wouldn’t leave her, not while she still drew breath—but that wouldn’t be for long.

  Once more, the water rippled. A third creature broke the surface and rose, dripping, in front of the two dragons. But this one was not a dragon.

  Long hair of an impossible deep bluish green fell to his waist. Fins in place of ears. Dark eyes with no discernible whites. His shape was largely human, but his pale skin, almost white, shimmered strangely. Over his shoulders, down his arms, in a line down the center of his belly—all over him were iridescent scales that glimmered like mother of pearl, greens, blues, teals, purples.

  There was only one thing the creature could be: a ryujin.

  And still Ash crouched protectively over her. Fool. Idiot. The ryujin studied him with strange, dark eyes. Three scales shaped like teardrops glowed on his forehead. He was going to kill Ash. Ash was an Underworld daemon in the territory of a fiercely aggressive Overworld caste. The ryujin and his dragons would rip him apart.

  But Ash wasn’t moving.

  The ryujin took a slow step closer. Piper tore her eyes from the creature to look at Ash, adrenaline slightly clearing her head. Ash leaned over her, but his expression had gone blank. Empty. He stared ahead, eyes out of focus, no longer seeing the ryujin in front of him.

  The creature reached across Piper and grabbed Ash’s chin, pulling his head up to peer into his face. Ash didn’t react, lost to some kind of trance. He just knelt there, unseeing eyes looking right through his enemy.

  Still holding Ash’s chin, the ryujin’s other hand came up. Blue magic gathered in his palm, crackling dangerously. A lethal spell. The ryujin was preparing to kill him. Trapped by the creature’s hypnotizing magic, Ash didn’t even know it.

  Panic surged through her but her limbs wouldn’t move. The ryujin drew his hand back to strike.

  “No!” The scream burst out of her, tearing her brutalized throat as though a knife had been shoved down her windpipe.

  The ryujin jolted, startled eyes dropping to her. At the same time, Ash gave his head a rough shake, the trance broken either by her scream or the ryujin’s interrupted concentration. Her outcry had used up the last of her strength. Blackness closed around her vision, forming a dark tunnel as her fear disappeared in a numb haze.

  The ryujin raised both hands, blue magic crackling over his fingers. Ash surged to his feet, black magic dancing across his palms as he called up a spell of his own.

  Darkness closed over Piper, and she knew nothing more.

  . . .

  Air swept into her lungs. It whooshed out. Inhale. Exhale. Her lungs expanded, deflated, expanded again with each flex of her diaphragm. It felt wonderful.

  Insistent little thoughts poked at her sleeping brain, telling her to wake up. She felt as though she were coming out of the deepest slumber imaginable, sleep still clinging to her like an impossibly heavy embrace. Groggily, she listened to her own breathing, quietly amazed. She remembered struggling to breathe and the suffocating feeling that there was no room left in her lungs for air. Then she remembered the surging, crushing current of the river, the utter darkness of the caves, the terror and pain.

  Adrenaline sparked in her blood and her eyes popped open.

  Someone was leaning over her.

  Dark eyes with no whites. Pale skin. Patterns of iridescent blue and green scales. The ryujin. She pressed into the mossy ground, unable to move away. Her hazy thoughts tried to untangle themselves, to sort out her last pain-obscured memories, but all she knew for sure was that she was in danger.

  He studied her, by all appearances utterly calm. She could almost feel the serenity radiating off of him—but that made no sense. The ryujin were vicious and violent. Why hadn’t he killed her yet? Was he waiting for her injuries to finish her off?

  She drew in another deep breath. No gurgle in her chest. No numbness in her limbs. She flexed her fingers. No pain. She looked at her hand and remembered the deadly sphere of magic in the ryujin’s palm as he prepared to kill Ash.

  Ash! Panic flaring, she rolled away from the ryujin, intending to spring to her feet. Her muscles didn’t cooperate and she ended up on her hands and knees as the world whirled in a dizzying circle. As soon as it steadied, she scrambled up and staggered back a couple of steps. She turned, searching, and came nose-to-nose with a water dragon.

  She gasped and lurched back. It watched her with its sea-blue eye, the strange appendages on its head undulating slowly. It had been so still and silent that she hadn’t noticed it, even though it was huge. Not as heavy as Zwi in dragon form, but lithe and long-bodied. Even lying down, its head was at the same level as hers. Its forehead had the same three-teardrop pattern of darker scales as the ryujin. Its snaking tail ended in a beautiful, elaborate double fin.

  She looked past the dragon and to the little clearing beyond. A dozen feet away, Ash lay half on his side, unmoving, eyes closed. Two huge silvery dragons lounged on either side of him, the tear-drop scales on their foreheads glowing.

  “Ash!” she cried. She ran around the nearer dragon and rushed to his side. She dropped to her knees. “Ash, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

  She shook his shoulder. He didn’t so much as stir. She ran her hands over his head, searching for an injury—nothing. He didn’t appear hurt at all, so why wasn’t he waking up?

  Fighting terror, she turned. The ryujin was walking toward her, unhurried, almost casual. He moved like water, flowing from step to step, his body shimmering as the sun danced across his pearly scales. He wore almost nothing, just a fitted garment similar to shorts, decorated with uncut stones that glittered in the sun. A long tail ending in a double fin, just like the water dragons’, trailed behind him. And like the water dragons, he had the same strange
appendages, not really tentacles but something similar, that drifted like decorative feathers, four long ones starting from the base of his tail and one behind each fin-like ear.

  He was coming toward her and Ash—to finish Ash off? She grabbed the hilt of her sword, but the blade had been bent when she’d hit the rocks; it wouldn’t come free from the sheath. With no better option, she pulled a dagger from the sheath on her thigh and raised it threateningly as the ryujin approached.

  He walked up to her, reached out, and plucked the dagger from her hand.

  She stared at him, dazed. A strange buzzing had filled her head, drowning out her thoughts. Sluggishly, she wondered what her plan had been. She’d had a plan, hadn’t she? She needed to defend Ash, but she couldn’t remember how. She couldn’t remember how to make her muscles move. All she could do was stand there, staring at the daemon.

  The buzzing in her head disappeared and panic swept in to take its place. She stumbled away from the ryujin and tripped over Ash’s prone form behind her. She fell backward, landing on her butt with her legs on top of Ash.

  The ryujin calmly tossed her dagger into the bushes.

  Piper tried to slow her breathing. He’d done it to her—the same thing he’d done to Ash. The trance. That inexplicable hypnosis that had made them both freeze in place, unresisting. She and Ash had both been helpless. She glanced at Ash, who was still mysteriously unconscious.

  “W-what did you do to him?” she demanded, her voice high. Demanding answers from a creature that was probably planning to kill her—was she insane? She thought about pulling another dagger but was certain he would just put her in another trance.

  The ryujin tilted his head to one side. “He merely sleeps.”

  His voice was soft and husky, the deep tones tinged by a strange accent. She tensed as he crouched beside her and looked down at Ash then back to her. The teardrop scales on his forehead glowed faintly with his magic.

  “He’s sleeping?” She was shocked that he’d actually answered. She looked nervously at the two dragons lying on either side of them like silver sentinels. “Are they forcing him to sleep?”

  The ryujin didn’t answer. He studied her for several long seconds. “Is he yours?”

  “Is he—what? Ash? Yes, he—he’s my friend,” she stuttered. “Will—will you wake him up?”

  Again ignoring her question, the ryujin flowed to his feet.

  “Wait, you have to wake him up!” She hurried to get up as he turned away from her. “Hold on!”

  The ryujin moved toward the river. Piper rushed after him. What if the sleeping spell on Ash was permanent? What if he never woke up?

  “Wait!” she yelled.

  The ryujin stepped off the rocky shore and into two-foot-deep water. The water in the pool suddenly stilled, the current vanishing. Instead of sparkling ripples, he walked through a sheet of glass, a perfect mirror reflecting the sky above.

  She stopped on the last of the rocks. “Did you heal me?”

  He stopped. Pivoting to face her, he tilted his head to the side.

  “When you are ready, we will be waiting for you.”

  He turned and dove into the water. He barely disturbed the surface as he disappeared beneath it. She stared at the faint ripples, then jerked in surprise as the three massive dragons appeared out of nowhere, flowing past her on either side, and splashed into the pool. With fluid, flexible bodies and graceful flicks of their finned tails, they too vanished into the water.

  She stared at the spot where the ryujin had disappeared. It had to have been him. Who else could have healed her? And why hadn’t he killed her or Ash? She was sure he’d been about to kill Ash when she’d screamed. Shaking her head, she spun away from the quiet pool and ran back to Ash.

  Dropping to her knees beside him, she touched his shoulder. “Ash? Ash?”

  His eyelids flickered and slowly opened. Hazy grey eyes met hers. His gaze darted over her face, brow furrowing. She gave him a trembling smile as relief rushed through her.

  “Ash, are you okay?”

  He lifted a hand and touched her cheek. She went still as he stared at her.

  “You died,” he whispered.

  She let out a shaky breath. “No, I almost died. But I’m fine now. All healed. See?”

  She held out her arms. Her shirt, held closed over her bra by two remaining buttons, hung open, baring her unharmed stomach. She didn’t know what Ash had seen when he’d pulled her shirt open the first time, but judging by his reaction, it must have looked gruesome.

  His gaze slid down to check her torso for injuries before flashing back up to her face. The haziness was fading from his eyes as they sharpened—and darkened. His hand was still resting against her cheek, the muscles in his arm taut.

  She frowned. “Ash, I’m fine, I swear,” she insisted, trying to sound soothing. “I’m not dying and the ryujin is gone and—”

  His hand slid from her cheek to the back of her neck and tightened. He pulled her down with inescapable strength, and then her mouth was on his.

  The kiss wasn’t the carnal, aggressive kind they’d shared before. It was slow, intense, gentle but somehow challenging. Her hands found their way to his face, fingers tracing his jaw as his lips moved against hers. He held her in place with one hand, not giving her the option of pulling away—not that she tried—while his other slid over the small of her back, hot against her skin.

  Only when dizziness threatened from her shortness of breath did he allow her to raise her head and gasp for air. She brushed her fingers over his cheek and stared into dark eyes that weren’t quite shaded to black.

  “Stop doing this to me,” he whispered, voice husky. “I can’t take it anymore.”

  “Take what?”

  “You dying. How many times are you going to die on me?”

  She huffed. “I’m not doing it on purpo—”

  He pulled her back into another kiss. She sprawled across his chest, weak from the warmth rushing through her. He kissed her, slowly, precisely, with the same intense determination she’d seen him take into battle, until her body tingled with leisurely tides of heat.

  Their prior intimacy had been all passion and hunger, driving desire that made her pant with desperate need for him. But this was different. Deeper. More powerful. This wasn’t lust. This time, the heat came from within her, from within him, intense and passionate but so much more. This time, the need to just hold him, touch him, kiss him without ever moving again overwhelmed her.

  An animal squeal erupted above them.

  Jarred out of her dreamlike obliviousness, Piper jerked her head up in time to see Zwi swooping in. She landed right on top of Piper’s head, wings flapping against her face as the dragonet chittered ecstatically. Piper sat up and Zwi jumped into her lap, nuzzling her stomach and squirming in delight. Grinning, she pulled Zwi close and petted the dragonet’s back. Zwi cooed, tail flicking all around as if she couldn’t keep still.

  Ash pushed himself up. “Zwi is happy you’re okay,” he murmured. He looked around at the clearing. “How are you okay, actually?”

  “Now you ask?” she asked with raised eyebrows.

  “I was getting around to it.”

  Her smile faded as confused wonder whispered through her. She looked toward the water. “The ryujin healed me.”

  She turned back to find him staring at the water as well.

  “But ... why?” he asked.

  “I don’t know. But he didn’t seem to want to hurt me.”

  “He sure seemed intent on hurting me.”

  She cleared her throat. “I think he was planning to kill you, and then ... I don’t know. He must have changed his mind. He put you in some kind of trance, and then put you to sleep.”

  He slowly nodded. “I remember the trance, and your scream, but nothing after that.”

  “He did the trance thing to me too. What kind of magic is that?”

  “I’m not sure. It wasn’t a paralysis spell; he would have had to touch me first, a
nd I know how to defend against it.” He paused. “I think it was some kind of telepathy.”

  “Telepathy?” she repeated in disbelief.

  Telepathy as a caste ability was nothing more than a rumor. The closest thing she’d ever seen was the draconian/dragonet bond, and that was a limited connection between each pair. As far as she knew, no caste in either the Overworld or Underworld had been confirmed as having telepathic abilities.

  “Do you think he can read our minds?”

  “I have no idea. Either way, that hypnosis ability will be hard to fight.”

  “I’m not sure we need to fight it—or them,” she said. “Maybe they only have bad reputations because other castes keep trying to steal their territory. Why else would he have healed me? He had no reason to. What if he read my mind and knew we weren’t here to harm them?”

  Ash shook his head. “Either way, you’re damn lucky. Your injuries were so severe ... Vejovis himself would have been hard pressed to heal you in time. I have no idea how that ryujin did it.”

  As he spoke, his eyes travelled over her face with a desperate sort of hunger—not desire, but the need to reaffirm she was really alive. Slowly, hesitating, she leaned toward him. Yes, they’d just kissed. Yes, she’d kissed him before. But aside from that first kiss in the Styx’s ring, he’d been the initiator, and she wasn’t sure about anything anymore. The ground beneath her feet was crumbling away, and all she knew was that she desperately wanted to feel his mouth on hers again.

  She hesitated just shy of touching him, his breath warm against her lips. Half-expecting to be rejected, she brushed her lips over his. His hand came up to cup her cheek, and he gently pulled her mouth back onto his. Another light brush of lips. Then he pressed his mouth harder, deepening the kiss. Heat rushed through her and she reached to wind her arms around his neck, pressing close to him. Zwi let out an angry squawk.

  Piper jerked back. Zwi shook her mane out and rustled her wings, giving them reproving glares for having squashed her.

 
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