Yield the Night by Annette Marie


  “Sorry, Zwi,” she said contritely.

  Zwi chirped, though Piper wasn’t sure whether the sound meant forgiveness or a warning not to do it again.

  Ash rose to his feet and stretched, then held out a hand. Scooping Zwi up to her shoulder, Piper took his hand and let him draw her up off the ground. As soon as she was on her feet, she swayed dangerously, the world tilting strangely. Ash wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her.

  “What’s wrong?”

  She opened her mouth to answer and a huge yawn overcame her. “I’m suddenly so tired I can barely stand.” Her legs felt like jelly in the aftermath of all the adrenaline.

  “That’s normal after major healing. Are you up for walking?”

  “Ah. Not really. I’d be back on the ground if you weren’t holding me.”

  “I see. In that case ...”

  He turned and crouched, presenting her with his back. She put her arms around his neck, and he hooked his arms under her legs and stood. She laid her head on his shoulder and let out a long sigh. His clothes were still damp from the river but his back was warm. Closing her eyes, she relaxed as he walked, his steps smooth and his strong arms holding her in place with no effort on her part.

  The ryujin’s parting words whispered through her head. When she was ready ... Ready for what? And why would they be waiting? Maybe the problem with the ryujin wasn’t that they were vicious, but that they were crazy.

  Putting the whole thing out of her mind, she snuggled against Ash and let the motion of his stride lull her to sleep.

  CHAPTER 15

  EXHAUSTION lay over her like a heavy blanket. She drifted in and out of consciousness, returning to fuzzy awareness only to drift away again. Healing major injuries was a huge drain on the body. After his near-death experiences and subsequent healings, Ash had slept for an entire day each time. It was no wonder she couldn’t fully wake up.

  The first time she remembered stirring awake was when Ash had found the others. The shouts and disbelieving exclamations had been unpleasantly loud, though they’d soon died off. She came around several more times just to reassure herself that Ash was still carrying her, his back warm and his mountain-air scent comforting. Then she would go back to sleep again.

  By the time the exhaustion finally began to lift, she sensed a significant amount of time had passed. Ash was still walking, the motion rocking her gently. Her eyelids fluttered, letting in the dim evening light from a setting sun beyond the tree line. She let out a silent sigh, still limp and weary.

  “It just doesn’t make sense,” Lyre’s voice murmured from somewhere to her left. “Why would a ryujin heal her?”

  “I don’t understand it either,” Ash replied, his voice low. Either they were trying not to wake her, or they didn’t want anyone to overhear their conversation.

  Too tired to move, she listened to them talk.

  “He was going to kill me,” Ash continued. “He would have succeeded too. I was defenseless.” A growl crept into his voice on the last part.

  “Why didn’t Miysis warn us about the telepathy? Unless he didn’t know?”

  “I suspect he knows more about the ryujin than he’s letting on,” Ash murmured, that hint of a growl still roughening his voice. “He’s far too knowledgeable about their territory for casual study. He mentioned mapping it. You know the Ra territory shares a border with ryujin land.”

  “Do you think they’re planning an invasion?”

  “I’m not very familiar with Overworld geography, but I believe the ryujin territory is the key to controlling trade between the northern and southern halves of the continent. No doubt the Ras want it.”

  Lyre snorted. “That would explain why the ryujin are so damn territorial.” A pause. “Which, again, makes me wonder what the hell that one wants with Piper.”

  “Maybe they want her for the same reason as everyone else.”

  “The Sahar? But how would they know about that?”

  “No idea. But nothing else makes sense. Maybe he saved her—and didn’t kill me—to win her over. I’m just glad I was there. He could have disappeared with her without us ever knowing she hadn’t drowned.”

  “Speaking of that ... I gotta ask, man,” Lyre said hesitantly. “When Piper fell ... have you considered that Seiya—”

  “She didn’t.”

  “Those rocks broke away right when Piper stepped—”

  “It was a coincidence.”

  “A coincidence that the ledge broke under Piper and not any of the heavier men who went across before her? Seiya has—”

  “I would have sensed her magic,” Ash snapped. “She was right behind me. And how would she have set a spell beforehand? She was with us the whole time.”

  “You have to admit it’s suspicious.”

  “Suspicious or not, it isn’t possible. I would have noticed. It’s more likely that one of the Ras set a trap.”

  “Why would a Ra want Piper dead? Seiya is the only one who has a problem with her.”

  Ash made a sound of anger and exasperation. “Why does she have a problem? Nothing I say makes a difference.”

  “Well, I already told you my theory.”

  “Yes,” Ash said acidly. “I know.”

  “I warned you something like this might happen.”

  Ash growled.

  Lyre pressed on. “Seiya is too strong for Piper. If you let this go on, Piper might not survive.”

  “Seiya did not make Piper fall.”

  “Maybe she didn’t,” Lyre said softly, “but you know it’s her fault you weren’t able to grab Piper in time.”

  “She was just trying to keep me from falling in too. She overreacted.”

  “You have wings, Ash. You can’t fall anywhere.”

  The silence stretched between them.

  “I know she’s just trying to protect you,” Lyre finally murmured, sympathy in his voice, “but you can’t protect Piper from her.”

  Ash grunted.

  Lyre lowered his voice. “You know what you have to do, right?”

  A heartbeat of silence. “Yeah.”

  “I’m sorry, man.”

  They walked in silence. Wide-awake by this point, Piper did her best to feign sleep. Anxiety churned in her stomach at the things she’d overheard—mainly the possibility that Seiya had tried to kill her, and would keep on trying until she eliminated her as a threat.

  Lyre’s voice broke the silence again. “You should go talk to Seiya. Do you want me to take Piper?”

  “Yeah, I guess.”

  Piper had to work to hang limply while the two guys switched her from Ash’s back to Lyre’s. Once she was settled, she cracked her eyelids open and saw Seiya a dozen yards ahead, walking alone. Beyond her, Miysis and two of his men were leading them through a lush forest. The murmur of the river was nearly lost to the rustle of leaves in the breeze.

  Ash strode ahead of Lyre and caught up to his sister. Piper saw him bend his head toward her, mouth moving with unheard words.

  She licked her lips, nervousness churning inside her. “What does Ash have to do?” she whispered.

  Lyre jumped about a foot in the air, nearly dropping her. “Holy crap, Piper!” he yelped. “I thought you were asleep.”

  “Sorry.”

  He took a few deep breaths. “Trying to give me a heart attack? Jeez.”

  “So? You told Ash he knew what he had to do. What’s that?”

  Lyre grunted. “That conversation was none of your business. You shouldn’t have pretended to be sleeping.”

  “It’s my business if Seiya is trying to kill me.” Betrayal burned in the pit of her stomach. “How can Ash defend her?”

  “One, because she’s his sister and he loves her. Two, there’s no proof and of course he doesn’t want to think the worst of her. And three, she’s been the prisoner of a violent, sadistic madman for her entire life and only escaped two months ago. That’s not a fast or easy adjustment. She came from a world where everything was life or death a
nd you had to kill to survive.”

  “Ash was a prisoner too and he’s not trying to kill people left and right.”

  “He has his hang-ups too. I’m sure you’ve figured out why he can’t stand enclosed spaces. You were in those cells yourself.”

  She shuddered. The cells of the bastille in Asphodel were small, dark, freezing cold, and underground. She wondered how many days Ash had spent down there.

  “Ash got out of Asphodel way more often than Seiya did. He saw other places and other worlds where not everything was a threat to be destroyed and not everyone was out to get him. Seiya is still learning the difference. It’s going to take time to retrain her instincts.”

  “But—”

  “She’s alive right now,” Lyre said firmly, “because she was tough enough and hard enough to destroy those who threatened her and Ash. Do you really expect her to just ignore things she perceives as threats because she’s outside of Asphodel? In Asphodel, she knew the rules. Now, she doesn’t know. She’s going to do everything she can to make sure she and Ash can live to enjoy their freedom. My suspicions aside, we don’t actually know if she did anything to cause your fall.”

  Piper scowled but didn’t argue. Put that way, she could kind of understand where Seiya was coming from. The girl didn’t know any other life than one where she had to destroy her enemies before they destroyed her—not that that made trying to kill Piper okay. And even if Seiya hadn’t made her fall, it was Seiya’s fault that Ash didn’t catch her.

  “So what does Ash need to do?” she asked again.

  Lyre sighed as though he’d hoped she’d forgotten. “Isn’t it obvious? He can’t be around you and Seiya at the same time. As soon as we’re out of the Overworld, he needs to take Seiya far away from you. He’s talking to her now. If he can convince her to calm down until we’re out of here, you might live to see Earth again.”

  Piper’s heart squeezed. Ash was going to leave her. He was going to take Seiya and leave again. The memory of his kiss, its slow burning intensity, rose in her mind. The hoarse pain in his voice when he’d promise not to leave her as she lay dying. The look in his eyes when he’d woken and seen she was alive.

  And he was planning to walk away ... again.

  Her hands clenched around fistfuls of Lyre’s shirt. Rejection lanced her, leaving burning lacerations across her heart even as she berated herself for such a reaction. What choice did Ash have? Nothing he said could change Seiya’s mind; if she had to betray Ash to protect him, she would. He had to leave for Piper’s safety. Piper didn’t expect, and would never ask, him to abandon his sister to stay with her. Of course not. She would be furious with him if he tried. What did he owe Piper over his flesh and blood sister?

  Again, the memory of that kiss filled her mind.

  She tugged Lyre’s shoulder. “I can walk now.”

  He loosened his arms, letting her slide down. She landed on her feet and steadied after a moment of wobbly weakness. Stretching her arms over her head, she leaned back until her back popped.

  “Mmm,” Lyre purred. “You should do that again.”

  She dropped her arms, blinking, then realized her shirt was hanging open, baring a long strip of her stomach. She grabbed the bottom ends of her shirt and tied them in a knot, hiding half of her stomach. Nothing she could do about the rest.

  “That’s a good look too. Or you could just take it off.”

  “Not happening.”

  He gave a long-suffering sigh.

  She fell in step beside him, trying to ignore the sight of Ash and Seiya conversing ahead. Ash was still bent toward her, and he gestured angrily as he spoke. Seiya flipped her ponytail over her shoulder and made an equally irate gesture in Piper’s general direction. Looking away from them, Piper silently took in the forest around her. High above, the thick canopy of leaves blocked the remaining sunlight, covering the forest floor in shadows, but it wasn’t entirely dark. Scattered throughout the trees, those azure pods with the deadly tendrils glowed faintly in the dim light. Tiny insects, glowing their own shades of purple and violet, fluttered around the glowing orbs, drawn by the light.

  The roots of the huge trees crawled along the forest floor, creating barriers across the path and bridges that arched over them. She was amazed she’d slept as long as she had, given how the path went up, over, under, and around the twisting roots, some as thick around as her shoulders. The pale moss she’d seen before was everywhere here, and though it didn’t quite glow, it shimmered in the faint light. This was a forest that would never truly be dark.

  As they climbed over a gnarled cluster of roots, she looked at Lyre again. “So you guys think that the ryujin wants me for the Sahar?”

  “Is there any part of our conversation you didn’t eavesdrop on?”

  She shrugged. “Don’t have private conversations while I’m right there then.”

  He scowled. She smiled.

  Rolling his eyes, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “We’re just guessing. I really don’t see how the ryujin could know about that. They don’t have spies or communication channels outside of their territory—not from what I understand, anyway.”

  “Huh.” The ryujin’s comment about waiting until she was ready didn’t offer any clues either.

  “How are you feeling?” he asked.

  “Still kind of tired, but not too bad.” She glanced at the sky, looking for the glow of the sun above the tree line. The forest seemed to go on forever all around them, with shadows stretching across their pathway. She frowned.

  “If this territory is so dangerous, why are there walking paths?”

  “I wondered the same thing,” Lyre said. “Koen said there are a few brave smugglers who’d rather risk the ryujin than pay the Ra taxes for transporting goods across their border.”

  “Must be some serious taxes. I wonder what the Ra territory is like.”

  “A lot less wild than this one, I imagine.”

  Someone up ahead whistled. Ash and Seiya had joined Miysis and his men, who’d stopped where the trail curved to the northwest. Piper and Lyre broke into jogs at the same time, rushing to catch up. As they joined the others, Piper accidentally caught Seiya’s eye. The draconian girl looked at her coldly, but her expression was unreadable. Swallowing hard, Piper turned to Miysis.

  “Vejovis’s cabin is about half a mile northeast of here through the forest,” he said quietly, green eyes glinting in the dim light. “There’s no trail, but Koen went ahead and scouted the surrounding area. There are signs of multiple people entering and exiting the cabin.”

  “What?” Piper shook her head. “Why would there be other people here? Isn’t the location of his home a secret?”

  “It is.”

  “Could it be some ryujin?” Lyre asked.

  “Ryujin don’t wear boots.”

  A long moment of silence as they all looked at one another.

  “It could be a trap,” Miysis finally said. “We’ll have to approach carefully. Koen and—”

  “Me,” Ash interjected.

  “Koen and Ash will go in while the rest of us wait here. Koen will give a signal if it’s safe to approach.”

  Ash and Koen nodded to each other, quickly signaled their intended directions, and split up, disappearing into the trees. Piper squinted through the foliage but couldn’t make anything out. Vejovis’s home was well hidden. She bit her lip. If Samael had found it, the healer might have gone somewhere else to hide and they would never find him in time.

  They stood in tense silence. The minutes ticked by. Piper pointedly ignored Seiya, feeling the girl’s icy glare burning the back of her head every minute or two. Ash was taking risks again for Piper, volunteering to scope out a possibly booby-trapped cabin; Seiya’s anger saturated the air.

  Piper was just about ready to demand they go look themselves when Ash and Koen appeared out of the trees, Ash a step behind the Ra daemon. There was no one else with them.

  “Well?” Miysis asked tersely.

  P
iper stared at Ash, his eyes black and jaw clenched.

  Koen answered, his voice heavy.

  “Vejovis was there. He’s dead.”

  CHAPTER 16

  PIPER sat on a thick, moss-covered root, her face in her hands. Lyre sat beside her, a hand on her shoulder. Ash leaned against a nearby tree, staring off in the darkness as his jaw flexed.

  Dead. Of all the possible outcomes in their search for Vejovis, that was one she hadn’t considered. Vejovis was a legend. Immortal, or close to it. He’d probably been around at least as long as the Sahar had. He couldn’t be dead.

  Koen had explained that they’d found the interior of the cabin destroyed by a fierce struggle. Vejovis’s body had been sprawled in the main room, showing distinct signs of brutal violence, and he’d been dead for at least three weeks. Ash had refused to let her anywhere near the cabin to confirm for herself. Not that she wanted to see the body, but she just couldn’t believe that Vejovis had been murdered. His home hadn’t been as safe from Hades assassins as he’d thought.

  Although she hadn’t known Vejovis well, sorrow still weighed on her. But far more prevalent was the choking, twisting anxiety that bordered on panic. Vejovis had been her best chance at resealing her magic. Possibly her only chance. The rune spider’s venom would wear off within the next day, and the horrific pain would return. The seizures would begin shortly after. Maybe another few days before the seizures did permanent damage. She would be dead within a week.

  “Miysis is going to call in his best healers,” Lyre murmured. “They’ll be able to help, I’m sure. Maybe not fix your magic, but at least delay it until we find a solution.”

  Piper nodded numbly, glancing toward the unseen cabin. Miysis and his men were digging a grave to lay Vejovis to rest with dignity. Well, Miysis’s men were digging. Miysis was probably supervising. He wasn’t the manual labor type.

  “We’ll figure something out,” Lyre went on, the comforting words ruined by the note of desperation in his voice. “We’ll get you through this.”

  She nodded again. Ash didn’t move, his jaw clenching and unclenching. It had to be driving him crazy that there was nothing he could do to help her. He couldn’t even fly her back to the ley line to get her home faster; her next best bet was Miysis’s healers, so beating Miysis back wouldn’t do her any good.

 
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