Yield the Night by Annette Marie


  And beyond him she could sense the sharp, crashing violence of rapids.

  She had to reach him before he hit the rapids. No sooner had the thought come to her than the current of the river gave a strange shudder. With a reassuring caress inside her mind, the river surged—and then she was nearly flying, the current carrying her at an impossible speed downstream, shooting her toward the flashing black flag that was Zwi. She stretched out her arms, reaching for Ash.

  The moment her arms closed around him, another shudder ran through the river and the current abruptly gentled. She clutched Ash to her, his back against her front as she leaned back to keep his head up. Zwi flew above them, crying out in fear with each flap.

  The river carried them into the tamed rapids. She could feel the current and the rocks, and she knew nothing would harm them. The alien power in the river helped her, whisking her this way and that along the gentlest path. She spotted a stretch of gravel along the bank, an easy place to go ashore.

  The current swirled, pushing them toward the spot. Her feet touched the slick bottom. She pulled Ash through the water and dragged him halfway onto the rocky slope.

  “Ash!” She knelt beside him, her feet still in the water. Panic threatened to blank her mind.

  Three stab wounds to the chest. They’d missed his heart, but both lungs had to be punctured. Blood seeped from the wounds. She touched his face. His skin was clammy and his lips were tinged blue either from the cold river or from shock. She put a hand over his mouth and felt his warm breath on her wet skin. He was still breathing—barely.

  Zwi landed beside her master, pawing at his shoulder as she mewled.

  “No,” Piper moaned. “I don’t know how to heal you. Ash, I don’t know how!”

  His eyelids flickered but his eyes didn’t quite open. He couldn’t have much time left. What did she do? What should she do?

  “Help,” she whispered. “Help!” This time she screamed it, head whipping around to scour the barren, rocky bottom of the gorge. “Please help me!”

  And she felt it, whispering through the river. An answer. An affirmative.

  Help was coming.

  Zwi let out a sharp chirp—a warning. Piper looked up.

  High up on the cliff’s edge, almost out of sight around the bend, she saw the dark silhouettes of a dozen people. And then their wings spread. They jumped off the cliff, soaring out over the canyon. Piper’s heart stuttered.

  Ra daemons were griffins—and just like Miysis, they had wings.

  They were coming for her and for the Sahar. She bared her teeth. “Over my dead body,” she growled.

  Reluctantly letting go of Ash, she stepped into the water until she was submerged up to her waist. The river swirled around her, waiting for her command. It knew what to do, as it had done it a hundred times before at the call of other ryujin. Piper could see it in her mind, a vision of how to form her attack. The river was willing. All she had to do was provide the magic.

  A dozen griffins soared toward her. She could just make out the golden brown feathers of their wings and the long-handled halberds in their hands, the perfect weapons for diving at your enemy without ever making yourself a target.

  She had no intention of letting them get that close.

  She tapped the Sahar again. Roaring power surged into her, filling her body near bursting. Every nerve burned with agony, but locked in the shaded state of a daemon, she barely registered it. The griffins were descending, blades flashing in the sunlight. Their long golden braids trailed behind them.

  She extended her hands over the water. The river shivered as she flooded it with power. Hatred pounded through her. No one would take the Sahar from her. No one would hurt Ash again.

  She flung her hands skyward.

  Massive jets of spinning water whipped into the air like a dozen immense waterspouts. The flailing spirals writhed fifty feet above the river, waving and undulating with wild force. The griffins scattered as the spirals crashed into their midst. One, two, three griffins got caught in the spirals.

  She dropped her hands and the water jets lost their form, crashing back into the river. The remaining griffins had lost elevation, though already they were beating their wings to regain altitude. Too slow. Her lips stretched into a merciless smile.

  She extended her hands and felt the river’s will join her own for a second time. Power poured from the Sahar, through her body, and into the water. Another half dozen spirals of water launched into the air. Five griffins couldn’t get away fast enough and the enormous spouts smashed into them.

  Five left. She pulled on the Sahar again—and agony shredded her concentration.

  She doubled over, clutching her middle, unable to breathe. Burning, searing pain coursed along every nerve. She’d been so focused, so shaded and immune to pain, she hadn’t really felt it—the Sahar’s power tearing through her body. With effort, she let go of her connection to the Sahar. The consuming hatred from the Stone vanished, clearing her mind.

  Gasping, she looked up as the first griffin dove at her. She threw up her arms, barely able to think through the pain, let alone defend herself. The blade of his weapon sped toward her.

  Zwi leaped in the griffin’s face, clawing at his eyes. He overshot Piper, his halberd swinging by mere inches above her head. Zwi darted away.

  Piper spun as the griffin landed and pivoted to face her. Blood ran down his face. Teeth bared, flared wings making him look huge, he charged with his halberd a spinning blur. She flung a hand out and a five-foot wave of water leaped over Ash and smashed into the griffin, knocking him off his feet.

  She dove toward Ash and a blade whooshed past, slicing the air where her head had just been. The second griffin—she hadn’t even seen him coming—swept past, circling around for another strike.

  Dropping to one knee, she pulled both of Ash’s short swords from the sheaths along his thighs. Holding both in one hand, she jammed the Sahar into her bra. Breathing hard from the pain of her magic overdose, she ran at the griffin on the ground.

  Her left sword hit the blade of his halberd. He nearly ripped it out of her hand when he twisted the handle of his weapon. She slashed with the other but he stepped sideways. Freeing her blade, she darted in, faster as a half-daemon than she’d ever been as a haemon, but he was a hardened, experienced soldier.

  A flick of his hand and a magic blast shot at her. Unlike past fights, she could see it coming—golden light rushing toward her chest. She threw up both swords and pulled on her magic instead of the Sahar. Her shield formed: a shimmering sheet of blue magic with streaks of purple.

  As his blast was deflected, the griffin lunged in, his halberd sweeping low. She leaped over it, but he reversed the direction and the blade whipped toward her face. She blocked, his halberd crashing into her two blades. If her daemon form hadn’t been so much stronger than her haemon one, she would have been knocked off her feet. She slashed three times in quick succession, trying to hold him off as she desperately searched for a hole in his guard.

  Zwi appeared out of nowhere, landed on his head, and wrapped her wings around his face.

  He shouted furiously, reaching for the dragonet, but Piper was already lunging forward. Her first strike cut his arm down to the bone and tore the halberd from his hand. Her second pierced his chest between two ribs and went straight into his heart.

  He fell backward, the sword stuck in his chest. Piper whirled and ducked with a shriek as two more griffins dove at her. The first blade missed her but the second cut a shallow line across her back as she dove for the ground. She rolled to her feet and whirled around to face them. For a moment, the three of them paused, sizing one another up.

  Piper called up a sphere of blue and purple flame and threw it at the two griffins. They both cast shimmering gold shields, but she was charging in right behind as the fire burst harmlessly against their defenses. She slashed at one and ducked as the other tried to stab her in the back. Their damn halberds had so much more reach than her short sword.
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  Zwi swooped in again. She grabbed a mouthful of feathers from one griffin’s wing and ripped them out. The griffin yelped and flailed at the dragonet.

  Piper focused on the other one. His halberd spun in his hands, too fast to follow. He moved toward her, his steps slow but implacable. She retreated, holding her guard position as she watched his black eyes. A flicker of a glance. She sprang back and lifted her sword in a block as the halberd flashed out. It struck the sword so hard that it was knocked out of her hands.

  She didn’t waste time being scared shitless that she was now unarmed. His halberd had swung wide in his last attack, leaving a clear opening—so she jumped on him.

  Her attack took him completely by surprise. She landed with one foot on his halberd’s handle and used it to spring even higher. She grabbed his shoulder and swung her body around to hook her leg around his jaw. With his head squeezed in the crook of her knee, she flung herself upside-down over his back.

  His neck made an awful crunching sound when it broke.

  She landed hard, the griffin falling half on top of her. In the sky above, the last two griffins circled. Beyond them, flying hard, was another dozen, newly arrived from the ley line. Holy shit, was there no end to them?

  Breathing hard, she started to shove the body off her when a shadow fell across her. She looked up and her heart skipped a beat. The other griffin, chunks of broken feathers sticking off his wings, stalked toward her. She didn’t see any sign of Zwi.

  She wrenched at the weight of the fallen griffin, his torso still pinning her leg, her muscles shaking from adrenaline and the residual burn from her magic overdose. He rotated his halberd, aiming the point at her chest. His arm drew back, readying the strike.

  She threw up her hands, casting a shield at the last second. The blade hit it. Her shield shattered but deflected the trajectory of the blade. It hit the top of her shoulder and scraped across the shimmering scales. Piper grabbed the handle of the halberd as the griffin yanked it back. The force pulled her free from the dead griffin, but her legs buckled before she could get them under her. The griffin wrenched his weapon free and she fell forward, barely catching herself on hands and knees.

  The other two griffins swooped in and landed on her other side, blocking any escape.

  The first griffin drew his halberd back a second time, taking aim. Magic sparked down the length of the weapon, a spell to break any shield she might cast. She recoiled, calling on the Sahar to create a shield anyway, the only thing she could do.

  With a huge splash, a shimmering white beast surged out of the river and crashed headlong into the first griffin. The water dragon’s massive jaws closed around the griffin’s head, crushing it. Flinging the griffin aside, it whipped its tail over Piper, smashing it into the other two griffins. They both slammed into the wall of the canyon and crumpled.

  The griffins in the sky roared battle cries and dove.

  Piper scrambled to her feet, looking around wildly for a sword. Before she had the chance to find one, another dragon surged out of the river, spraying water everywhere. And then a third a little ways down the bank. And another. And another.

  Suddenly, silvery blue water dragons lined the bank, half a dozen on either side of her, the scales on their foreheads glowing and their jaws opened wide in threat as they gazed upward. The griffins had aborted their dives and were hovering awkwardly out of reach of the creatures.

  A strange ripple ran across the river—and a dark head broke the surface.

  The ryujin floated in the middle of the river, untouched by the current, head and shoulders visible as he looked up at the griffins. One of the flying daemons hurled his halberd. The ryujin vanished beneath the surface a moment before the weapon splashed into the water.

  The river rippled again. The current churned. The griffins started flapping frantically, retreating toward the high cliffs. Too slow.

  Pillars of water exploded out of the river—and Piper saw what Miysis had meant about the ryujin’s good aim. Twelve pillars. Twelve helpless griffins. Each waterspout slammed into a fleeing griffin. The water folded over them like breaking waves and yanked them down. Twelve griffins disappeared beneath the surface.

  And then there was no sound but the mundane rush of the river. No more wings in the sky. No more blades flashing in the sun.

  Piper launched to her feet and ran down the bank, her heart squeezing in her chest.

  Ash lay exactly where she’d left him. He’d lost his glamour, dark wings splayed awkwardly against the rocks. She dropped to her knees beside him. His chest rose and fell, breath fast and weak. His face was white as snow and his skin icy to the touch.

  “Ash!” she gasped. “Help!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Help him!”

  She clutched his hand and pressed her fingers to his wrist. His pulse was fast and erratic. He had no time left.

  “It’s okay, Ash,” she said, her voice shaking. “The griffins are gone now. And there’s a ryujin. He’s going to help you. He can heal you.”

  She clutched his hand. His chest rose and fell, faster and faster as he fought for air, slowly drowning in his own blood.

  “You’ll be okay,” she whispered. “Just hold on. Don’t give up. Help!” she screamed toward the water.

  Ash’s breath came in gasps. She squeezed his hand, her heart in her throat as she watched his chest rise and fall, counting each desperate breath he took. The ryujin—she had no idea if it was the same one as before—ran through the shallow water and knelt beside her. He reached for Ash.

  Ash let out a gurgling breath—then silence.

  His chest didn’t rise again.

  CHAPTER 22

  PIPER paced. Back and forth. Ten steps, then ten more. She couldn’t stop moving even though her muscles trembled with each step. Even though her head and chest were burning from using too much of the Sahar’s magic. Even though the scabbed wound on her back kept reopening from the constant movement.

  She couldn’t stop until she knew Ash would live.

  Seconds after Ash had stopped breathing, two more ryujin had burst out of the water, and she’d recognized the one who’d healed her. They’d circled Ash, kneeling around him, magic sizzling in the air. A long minute had passed as they worked on him—and then Ash had taken another breath. And another. But each one was so weak it sounded like it would surely be his last.

  Once it was clear Ash wouldn’t immediately expire, she’d left for a minute to find Zwi. The poor dragonet had been lying in a crumpled lump behind a cluster of rocks, probably knocked out of the air by the griffin. When Piper had picked her up, Zwi had opened her eyes and mewled softly. She’d seemed to be only bruised, for which Piper couldn’t be more grateful.

  The dragonet’s master, though, was in far worse shape.

  With Zwi in her arms, Piper had turned to rejoin the ryujin and Ash, when movement had caught her eye. Far above on the cliff’s edge, a line of figures had stood watching her. She couldn’t say how she knew, but she had been certain that one of them was Miysis. She’d stared up at him, hatred scorching her soul.

  “Child.”

  The ryujin who’d healed her before had stood, and he too was looking up at the cliffs.

  “This place is not safe. We must move.”

  The other ryujin had carefully lifted Ash between them, their hands gentle as they laid him across the back of the nearest water dragon. She’d wanted to ask them why they were helping her, why they were helping Ash—but clearly they were, and she would worry about their motivations later.

  “Will he be okay?” Piper had asked, her voice shaking.

  “He is stable ... for now.”

  That had been two hours ago. The ryujin had taken her down the river, back to the cave where she’d nearly died. Deep inside the snaking underground cavern system that no one but a ryujin could enter was their home.

  Piper had only seen two daemon dwellings. Asphodel in the Underworld had been old world elegance mixed with modern design, striking with a co
ld, stark beauty. But the ryujin city was something else entirely.

  The main cave was long and winding, with a small branch of the river flowing casually through the middle. Much of it was natural stone, carved long ago by flowing currents and dripping water. Stalagmites hung high above. Veins of quartz or some other colored stone glittered in the ceiling of the cavern, ice blue and amethyst and champagne pink.

  The rest had been carved by the ryujin—smooth, swirling lines and curves that mimicked flowing water. From the wide doorways to the footbridges to the walkways leading up to the higher levels, there were no straight lines to be seen. Uncut gemstones the size of melons had been set in the walls and imbued with spells that made them glow, lighting the darkness with soft colors.

  It was more beautiful than a dream. Once she knew Ash would be okay, she would appreciate it properly. But for now she continued to pace, occasionally glancing toward the shadowy crevice of rock where Zwi was hiding, as there were too many strangers for the shy dragonet to show herself.

  The city didn’t have houses. Instead, doorways led to the interior of the mountain, covered by curtains woven from leaves and vines, and decorated with glittering gems. Wide avenues led to entirely different branches of the city where more ryujin lived. She couldn’t even begin to guess how many called this place home. It could have been anywhere from few hundred to a few thousand.

  And this was just one small city. Similar cavern systems existed throughout the mountain range. How many cities had they built beneath the mountains?

  She kept her line of pacing contained to the stretch of smooth stone in front of what she assumed were guest rooms of some kind. Inside the guest room, on the other side of the woven curtain, a group of ryujin was working to heal Ash. They had stopped him from dying on the rocky shore of the river, but he wasn’t anywhere near out of danger. He could still die. If his heart stopped again, that would be it.

  She’d been kicked out of the room before they’d even laid him out on the bed—a mattress of soft sheets and a plush rug that the ryujin probably hadn’t crafted themselves. More of the strange daemons had been waiting outside the room to greet her. They’d tried to get her to come with them, to have her injuries treated, to get food and some real clothes, but she’d refused. They’d tried to get her to at least sit down, but she’d refused that as well. Some of them lingered, watching her as though she was some shy, exotic creature they didn’t want to frighten.

 
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