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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Magnus was baffled by Trace’s behavior as it was. Euphoria was a very self-contained effect. Rarely did it spill out to affect others in so direct a manner. It was like being catatonically high, a tidal wave of self-created endorphins causing endless pleasure in the brain, even as you just lay there and let it happen. How was it that Trace had managed to transfer all of that into his warped belief that she was the key to his pleasure state? He shouldn’t have even been able to coordinate himself enough to impress himself on a woman, never mind doing what he had done to this one.
A human woman.
Shadowdwellers and humans were not bred to one another. The secrecy of the Shadowdwellers’ existence was the first reason for such exclusion. The dangers and difficulties behind controlling a human mate’s unthinking use of light were just too risky to be worth it. But most of all, the chance of conception was an unbearable hazard. What would a half-breed baby suffer? Could it bear the light, or would it burn to death in its first cradle as its caretakers unwittingly killed it? No, it was too much of a terrible consequence.
However, he had to admit there wasn’t likely to be a danger of pregnancy here. She might seem real in most every way, but the matter that was her body was occupying space elsewhere. The priest had his suspicions that it was her very unique abilities, and the mind that crafted and wielded them, that had allowed her to believe she was a warm, living being in this place, and as a result had projected it to those who really were. But she certainly couldn’t get pregnant, regardless of what her mind was capable of creating.
“Tristan, can you clothe him?” Magnus asked quietly, never taking his eyes off the sniffling young woman.
“Yes. Don’t be long. I’ll need you if he wakes.”
“He won’t wake up,” she injected quietly. “Not for a while. Trace desperately needed sleep. He was exhausted, except…except he just wouldn’t listen to his own body, so I…I made him.”
Ashla had intended to do the very same trick half a dozen times over the course of the past hours, but it had seemed so deceptive, so smugly superior, somehow, and undermining. Even now her insides crawled in a cringe for having done it, but she knew in her heart that it was the only way. If she hadn’t stepped in, Trace would have been hurt. Badly. She didn’t need to know anything about the two men who had come to retrieve him to know that much. She only had to look at the weapons they carried, the artistic intricacy of some and the cold efficiency of others, to know they took the business of fighting quite seriously. Whatever the world had become, wherever they were from, they clearly had learned to walk around always prepared for the worst.
When Magnus approached her, she backed up in fear. There was something deadly and imposing just in his carriage, the hard glint of analytical thinking so obvious in his golden eyes. But the truly frightening thing about him was that she felt a depth to him that others simply did not have. Ashla had been intuiting things about people for as long as she could remember, her inability to control the feelings forcing her to learn how to accept and live with them—unlike her healing ability, which she could choose not to use. However, in all of her life she had never felt anything quite like the chasm of the spirit that she felt from this man. There was no proper way to describe it, but that was the one that came closest.
“What is your full name?” he asked, surprising her with the simplicity of his query. She had at least expected he would want her to atone or account for what was happening to Trace.
“Ashla Townsend,” he repeated carefully. “I thank you for your help.” He paused just long enough to give her a chill. “You aren’t likely to see him again, Miss Townsend. I think I must be fair and warn you of that.”
“Why?” The query was heavy with petulance, but she was too shocked and upset by the news to measure her response. “Is he going to die or something?”
“It is possible, but unlikely,” he said, instilling no real confidence, and no false hope, either. Ashla appreciated that. It bore a mark of honesty she rarely saw, even if it gave her no comfort.
“But then why can’t he come back?” she wanted to know, inescapably realizing there were depths of secrets going on between these three men that they didn’t want her to be any part of. Trace hadn’t willingly wanted to leave her, no, but neither had he taken the option of bringing her with him.
They didn’t want her there, wherever there was.
“It takes time to heal from this, and his mind and body will be too fragile for travels back this way. However…”
Whatever he was going to say, he dismissed it after a moment with a shake of his head.
“Hey, look,” she sniffed with a shrug of bravado as she turned her head to stare away from him, and, even more pointedly, away from Trace, “I don’t expect anything. I just foolishly hope for the impossible. I guess I’m masochistic like that. Excuse me.”
Ashla moved away quickly, hurrying to snatch up enough of her clothes to make herself decent before she scurried for the doors. She couldn’t stay there and watch them drag Trace away from her, knowing all the while that she had made it possible—even if it was for the best. And she couldn’t stay alone in the suite that was redolent with the heady smell of their frantically paced sex. She simply could not bear to find herself once more plunged in solitude, yet with reminders of living with Trace all around her. Even if it had only been two days, they had been the first days in a blend of seemingly endless time that had stood out and claimed themselves wildly different from the others. Everything about them, and the man who had marked them and her as his, had been full of a color and dimension that she had never known before, and that she might not ever know again by the sound of Magnus’s warnings.
However, in spite of her preemptive efforts, Ashla would discover the excision taking place was going to be much, much more difficult for her than she had feared.
It was like a knife that had been plunged through the back of his skull was being slowly pulled free, with jolting jerks every now and again as the tightness of the bone around the blade hindered its removal. He was hot, burning with the purposeful searing of the dual forges on either side of him that first made him sweat and then boiled the sweat so it would burn as it rolled down the length of his skin. It was “black” fire, a fire made of chemically treated wood that burned with dark flames. It had been discovered back in the times before technology, a way of keeping the Shadowdwellers from freezing to death as they were forced to live in places where winter lived the longest, bringing nighttime with it for twenty-four hours a day at times. They could keep warm without poisoning themselves and burning to a crisp just from the ambient light flames gave off.
The fire’s true purpose, of course, was to heat the metal chains attached to the manacles that kept him bound to the floor by his wrists, upper arms, thighs, and ankles. He had been forced into a position of subservience, the stone floor digging into his knees and shins until they were raw and numb, but in the grand scheme of things it was the least notable discomfort.
“You are a traitor,” that persistent voice whispered from a place close behind him that he could not see. “A fascist who thinks he can twist our people under the dictatorial rule of two pretty little puppets. But they are without you now, faltering and crying out for direction and”—the laugh came with bitter humor—“left only with a half-blind woman to guide them! Poetic, don’t you think?”
“Rika has more sight in her smallest finger than an anarchist like you will ever know in all of your days,” he ground out in defiant reply, even though it meant speaking with dehydrated and painfully smoke-and heat-seared vocal cords.
“So loyal. Such a good dog.” The obligatory hand came out to pat him on the head in two sharp movements that didn’t hurt, but hardly qualified as kind or encouraging.
The sound of light fabric sweeping the floor helped him track movement until his captor finally stepped into his visual range, limited by the blinders mask he wore. It was made of leather and rivets, its only purpose to rob him of a key sense, leaving just enough so he could see the tableau of tortures that might befall him where they were set out in an array straight in front of him.
He watched the slide of a slipper and the light flutter of paj under her skirt as she came just that far. She never came into full view, never showed her face, and it was an effective frustration. Trace wanted a face to attach his fury to. He had never wanted anything so badly in all of his life.
Except for Ashla. She has skin like a soft dream, so smooth and warm that even the flaws of her healing wounds could go unnoticed. She has a scent I crave, and a taste bordering on the divine. My body aches for her even now, with a more savage heat than either of these forges could rival.
“Perhaps I should reward you for your devotion,” she mocked, bending close behind his ear to speak to him in an enticing voice. “What do you suppose you deserve?” Her hand drifted down his neck, forcing him to grit his teeth as his skin crawled in revulsion. He was tied too tightly to successfully shake her off, and he had learned not to waste his energy. In spite of himself, she was training him to act exactly as she wanted him to. The idea of that did far more damage to him than all her devious little tortures did, but he supposed she already knew that. She knew that destroying his mind was the ultimate path to destroying him.
“You know,” she purred as her teeth bit the rim of his ear, “if you and yours lose the war, it leaves me the option of doing whatever I want to you in the end. Of course, even if it doesn’t end, in a year or so you will pass out of usefulness anyway. I mean, by then your information will be obsolete or I will have turned you into my personal pretty little lapdog. I like to say without ego that I have faith in the latter.” Trace felt long, elegantly manicured nails running down his spine, the bitch’s natural talons on his skin a disgustingly familiar sensation by now. Her touch was meant to be seductive, slow, and searching as it ran back up over his sweat-slick skin.
Seductive is Ashla’s touch, the way her hands tremble with her excitement! Ingenuous and shy, her fair features flushing pink with pleasure—that was irresistible seduction! To be tortured with the promise of that for the rest of my days; there would be the power to tame me to a woman’s side. And I have barely begun to know her, to feel her. I could barely pause for breath, she so excited me, never mind taking the time to do everything…
…everything I should have.
“What are you thinking?” his captor asked with genuine and hungry curiosity. “That expression of distress, it was out of place and not of my doing. Tell me, what were you thinking? I speak of war, betrayal, and death, and you don’t even flinch. I speak of breaking you and torturing you and a dozen other torments, but you just grit your teeth in preparation. Now, out of nowhere, that painfully poignant expression, eyes downcast, and…is it regret clouding those onyx eyes, Ajai? Yes, I believe it is. What is it you regret, Ajai Trace? Your choices? Your life? That you sacrificed living it for this vain little war of yours? That you may die without spawning a single child to carry on the pride of your family? That you never took a woman to your heart and home?”
Her nails slowly curled under her palm against his spine, and Trace stiffened as the true claws came out. Like a ninja’s metal crampons, these strapped around her palm, leaving an exposed set of metal tines that curved up from the back of her hand in four stainless steel blades he knew were sharp enough to cut, but not sharp enough to make the cut painless for even a second. A good blade, a sharp blade, severed nerves so quickly and with such precision that you felt nothing for a decent amount of time. But a slightly duller blade…
The tips of the tines nipped into his skin. He couldn’t see, but he could feel from experience that she was avoiding the scarring from the last time she had plowed furrows up the length of his back. The scarring dulled the local nerves, and she simply wouldn’t have it. She wanted to be sure every nerve was fresh and raw and ready for her. Trace’s hands curled into fists as he braced himself against inevitability.
“Tell me to stop, and I will,” she whispered softly, her breath cool against his hot skin. “Tell me to stop. No information or begging or anything like that is necessary. Just tell me to stop and I will.”
She pushed her fist forward and the blades punctured his skin. The sound of his teeth grinding together joined the hard crack of burning wood and the roar of flames. Now it was no longer sweat, but beads of blood welling from his skin and rolling down his back. He didn’t need to see it to know it.
“If you don’t, you might start to convince me that you take pleasure in pain of this magnitude. There is no reason not to ask me to stop. You are simply being stubborn or you are truly a masochist. If the latter is the case, then perhaps I should be—”
She abruptly slid her free hand under his arm around his ribs, the crampon on the back of that hand scraping the underside of his arm as she did this, and he felt her kneeling behind him to improve her reach. When her hand rode down the plane of his belly on a direct path, he tensed violently against his bonds. She always kept him nude, so it was easy for her to wrap her fingers around his flaccid sex. The blades on the back of her fist nipped and bit against his thigh, but he doubted it was an oversight on her part. She did nothing without purpose. Nothing without plan. His torturer was quite clever and accomplished and took great joy in her work.
“Hmm,” she mused. “Let’s see if you really are a masochist.”
Blades furrowed slowly into his skin, and she had gone only a couple of centimeters before Trace gave out and let himself roar with pain.