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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Trace awoke with a clawing gasp, the violent memory burning him straight through even as he emerged in a completely different reality. He reached out to either side blindly, grabbing for whatever he could, and found himself caught in two sturdy clasps of strong flesh that felt familiar and grounding all at once. By the time he calmed enough to focus, he could see Guin and Magnus leaning over him with dreadful grimness and frank unease in their eyes.
“You’re going to be sick,” Magnus predicted quietly, already reaching to help him sit up even as Trace felt the sudden onrush of violent nausea wrenching through him like an invading alien force. With his companions supporting him and a handmaiden providing a basin, Trace fulfilled Magnus’s prophecy.
Karri, Magnus’s handmaiden, quickly left to hand off the basin for another, this one filled with a wash sprinkled with a fresh mixture of herbs and oils in it. She submerged a cloth and then gently bathed his face, neck, and chest. The aroma of the herbs instantly quelled his rebelling belly, and Trace took in his first easy breath in what felt like ages.
A distinctive jarring sensation went through them all, rocking everyone. Trace looked at the narrow room they occupied with widening eyes.
“Are we on the road?” he demanded, his throat scratching harshly against the words.
“For about two nights now,” Guin confirmed.
“Two nights?” Trace turned, trying to jerk free of supporting hands even as he kicked for leverage against the mattress of the bed they had him in. “Where are we?” he demanded.
North. They were heading north. They had been all along, ever since lighter days had hit New Zealand. The entire royal household was migrating to Alaska via New York after a…
“The conference,” he said. “What happened?”
“You don’t remember it?” Magnus asked.
“I was there?” Trace felt a little ill again as he tried to mine his mind for the missing memory.
“Yes. It was somewhat forgettable. However, do you remember what happened afterward?” Guin asked him. “With Baylor?”
Ajai Trace, word is that the Chancellor’s vizier is not content with the immaturity with which his lord is managing the power of the realm…that perhaps you wish to see that change so we’re not managed forever by a man who is little more than an adolescent at heart…or by the hand of a woman.
“Sedition,” Trace whispered, just as he had barked it at Baylor right before he had drawn his weapon. He had reacted with emotion, destroying a chance to infiltrate the seditious vein that might be running through the Senate. It had been a foolish and illogical move, but there were times when Trace’s mind clicked on reactive cylinders held over from the wars. They were not even a decade out of those conflicts, after all. Almost, but not quite. They had fought amongst one another for centuries, bitching and bickering and scrabbling in territorial wars and such, but the actual blade-to-blade and death-to-death war had lasted twenty years. It was a long time to live at the hub of every plot, every battle, and every defensive strategy. It would be many more years before veterans like him stopped carrying multiple weapons around with them.
His eyes tracked the closest walls near the bed, and sure enough, his katana stood propped in the corner, shining with readiness. To see it was to unlock the memory of the brutal fight with Baylor that had almost cost him his life if not for—
“Ashla! Where is Ashla?”
“Where you left her, my son,” Magnus said quietly, “in New York.”
Ashla. He had left her behind. The strange little wraith who had healed him in a dire moment, proving herself to be more dimensional than any real human he had ever encountered. She had felt warm to the touch, defying all rules of humans in Shadowscape, and had smelled like…
Trace felt shock stiffening his body from his feet upward, as if he had stepped barefoot into liquid nitrogen. In a rush of physical sensation and nerve impulses, everything he had felt from the moment he crossed the room to kiss her the first time came crowding over him, making him struggle for breath and composure in front of his colleagues and father.
No! No, you Light-ridden bastard, you did not do this! Tell them to tell you that you didn’t do this! You didn’t take that fragile and innocent woman to bed knowing it was nothing! That she could have nothing to comfort her, nothing of you to keep beyond those two days because you would never go back! Even if it wasn’t actually real, her mind and her heart, wherever they are, believed it was all real. To take her and then abandon her would seem so cold and callous; so insulting. It could play like light cutting into darkness with her frail ego. With the things a mind as powerful as hers is capable of, a resulting depression amidst so much isolation could be enough to…
“Kill her,” he choked out, starting to struggle in the others’ hands. “Let me go!”
They did so almost instantly, and Trace lurched for the nearest route out of bed. He made it only a foot off the mattress before he was yanked back by his wrists. It was only then he realized he was bound in soft restraints at his wrists and ankles.
There was no measure to the black fury the understanding sent pumping through him.
“You bound me?” The betrayal, the utter disgust in the phrase slapped hard at both men, and they exchanged troubled looks. “You are damn right to look like the miserable, treacherous bastards you are!” Trace roared at them. “How dare you bind me, after knowing what I went through at that sadistic bitch’s hands? How can you stomach yourselves to do such an unholy act? You know! You know I can’t bear this!”
But before he could begin ripping at the cursed leather and lambskin bindings in earnest, Magnus stepped up to him and took his shoulder under his hand. He held firm to avoid being shrugged off, and closed his eyes to the outright panic rushing into the eyes of his son.
“You were in Fade for three days, Trace,” he said in low, level tones as his special power bled through to Trace, working its magic on him with the quick, ruthless strength the religious man was known for. “Truth is Light,” he warned softly, “and it has a vicious burn.”
Burn it did, searing through Trace’s healing mind, now that it could be reasoned with. Only then did the full scope of his time with Ashla make impact, forcing him to understand that the awful truth of what he had done was far worse than he had originally recalled.
He had become a brigand in the worst sense, stealing what he had wanted, taking everything and selfishly giving nothing. He had been weak, crossed a line he shouldn’t have, and then had made it worse and worse with every greedy touch, every inconsiderate invasion into her. Now he remembered each wince of pain, each plea to rest, and each and every one of the aborted pleasures he had made her suffer while single-mindedly taking his own.
“No,” he ground out in disbelief and tortured guilt, which forced Magnus’s power of truth to kick him hard into a rush of confirming memories.
He heard himself begging her with need, felt the glorious redemption he had experienced via his lust every time he had plunged into her. What was perhaps even worse was the understanding that he had promised devotions and unceasing need for her right up to the moment he had forced her to turn against him in order to rescue him. He had been as an animal, intemperate and untamed. He had abandoned skill to biological imperative. He had used and abused a woman who had already been used and abused enough.
The phrase whispered through him just as he reached his worst moment of self-loathing.
Promise me…that you’ll come back to me. Even if it’s just once to tell me you’re okay. Please…
Magnus lowered himself to a single knee beside the bed, leaning in to speak softly in guidance, as was his calling when it came to the truth. “Truth, like faith, can be a raw thing or it can have a great many layers to it…some too subtle or too ethereal for us to grasp on our own. Guilt and loathing of the self is too easy, Trace. For you, at least. Slow yourself. Take a moment.” Magnus glanced up to see Guin had long since taken himself to the farthest dark corner in the small room, and Karri was keeping at a discreet distance as well, allowing the priest the privacy needed to do his work with Trace. “You are not a man who easily allows others to see your thoughts or emotions. Not that you are cold or repressed, as I sometimes fear Guin is, but that your experiences have taught you in hard ways not to give away such an advantage to others.
“When euphoria struck, it struck with a uniqueness to suit the situation you were caught up in. Now, the definition of that in finer details will be up to you to decide, but be very certain you weigh every fact and every truth. Whenever you ask me, I will help you with this, Trace, but you have never been one who couldn’t see everything from all sides.”
Trace turned to look into the gold and black eyes settled level to his, aware that he was vibrating in a fine shiver from the wash of physical and emotional feedback he was swimming in. He knew that Magnus’s power to make others see truth also allowed the priest to see it, to see all of it in all the shameful or exciting details. Magnus was a man designed by Darkness to guide righteous men, and to hunt down and destroy those who sinned. That he wasn’t passing heavy judgment on Trace said a great deal, and it made the vizier listen hard to what he was telling him.
But because Trace was still wildly disoriented and distraught, he was grateful when the man he looked to as a father took the time to slowly clarify his situation.
“Take a moment to consider that you have been in euphoric withdrawal for two days before you condemn us for binding you. We would have done otherwise if it was at all possible, but I know you understand it was not. If you had escaped us, raving as you were and as sick as you were physically, you would have been in human hands within hours, if you hadn’t damned yourself to burn in Light before that.
“Do not fear so much for Ashla Townsend’s state of mind. Yes,” he said quickly when Trace’s eyes narrowed on him, “she is a brittle creature in some ways, but what I saw was someone who survives great hardships in spite of herself. There is strength in that. There is strength in her. I told her that you would be well, but that it was unlikely she would see you again. I feel that she believed me. She will not suffer from worry over what has become of you, if that is what concerns you.”
“What concerns me,” Trace informed him as his hands tightened with tension, “is that she and I are…I think we are Sainted, M’jan. She sacrificed herself for me, and ever since then things have been strange and threaded, as if we’ve become caught up in a web together. She sees into me!” he told the priest fiercely. “I know it’s unfeasible. She is human and…and a-a wraith.” He swallowed on the word because it didn’t suit and felt like a lie. She had felt so real! She was real, just not whole. “What happened, with the euphoria focusing so specifically on her, there was a reason for that. A cause. And I think it was the Sainting.”
“Even if such an unprecedented Sainting were to take place, Trace, the bond of the Sainted is one of loyalty and connective companionship. Sex and lust are rarely present, although on occasion those who are attracted to each other will mate, but what you suggest is a reach into wild supposition. It is not like you to think without logic.”
“It isn’t like me to do any of this!” Trace barked back at him. “To stay in ’scape for so long? To take a human woman, or any woman for that matter, as a lover? You can see the truth, Magnus, and now I want you to feel it as well. I have not been able to let a woman touch me since Acadian tortured me. It is a fact, though I have admitted it to no one.” Trace stared hard into the priest’s eyes, making certain he knew how serious he was. “That is twelve years, if you wish to count. Nine of peacetime, two after my liberation, and eleven months captive.”
“That suggests to me that this euphoric aberration was more about releasing your repressed sexuality,” Magnus mused, but it was the thoughtfulness that hovered in his gaze that kept Trace from crying out with frustration. He had to make his foster father understand, at all costs. He would need his help if he was going to get back to ’scape and where he had left Ashla alone within it.
“How can I prove this to you? Can you disprove it to me? I stand ready for either challenge and will be as victorious as I was against Baylor! You believed me about him without proof or witnesses, when you might have thought me just a murderer; why won’t you believe me now?”
“Because you are fresh off euphoria, Ajai.” Guin spoke up from the far end of the room. “Would you trust anyone as such? Could you quickly trust the same man who threatened to cut your throat not two days previously?”
Trace’s eyes widened at that, his head snapping to check with Magnus for confirmation. The priest’s grim nod made his heart sink low into his belly.
“For that offense, I am deeply sorry,” he said, his voice tight as the fire of fight drained from his eyes and body. He fell back onto his pillows, his wrists still pulling taut against his bonds.
“Trace, we will untie you once you are lucid twenty-four hours. It is a lifetime for you, I comprehend that, but you see we have no choice and this is the way these things are done. We have learned from the mistakes of the past how best to do this.”
“I know,” he said quietly, turning to stare at the far wall. “I can bear twenty-four hours, Magnus. I bore eleven months. Another day will not matter.”
Magnus couldn’t help but be troubled by this deflation of his son’s spirits. He rose to his feet, knowing that it would only add insult to injury to continue to push him. Instead, he gestured to Karri, beckoning the herbalist forward so she could do whatever her skills could provide to ease these next hours for Trace. Karri knew exactly what her priest required of her, their many years of service together making them work in a synchronicity that often led others to believe they were psychically connected. While this happened occasionally between priests and handmaidens, they had not been so blessed. Still, Magnus knew it made no difference to either of them that they had never bonded in such a way.