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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Born a sin? In my culture, only you can create your own sin. You can’t be born with it. But there is always the conception that leaves room for a child to be created in sin. What did you do, Mrs. Townsend? Step out on your husband?”
“Yes,” she confessed on a gasp, covering her own mouth with a slap when she heard her own secret slip uncontrollably into the air.
“So you go off for a fuck out of wedlock, and that makes her the sin?” he wanted to know, glancing back at the helpless young Ashla.
“Don’t you dare use that language with me!” Sophia raged indignantly. “I was a victim! I was…I was seduced!” Magnus could tell by how she fought for her words that she was only admitting partial truths. It was useless for her to struggle. He was going to know the truth regardless.
And just like that, it came.
“I was walking home late from work. He was there again…always there. In the dark. I could see his eyes and sometimes his build, but he was always watching me. I felt him follow me every night, but he never showed himself. It was a-a flirtation of sorts. I just knew he wasn’t going to hurt me. I would find a rose in my path. Or…or some other gift. Sweet, romantic things like my husband never gave me. I ignored it all at first, but I was lonely. Neglected. And he was frightening and exciting.
“Then one night he reached for me, drew me into the shadows, told me he couldn’t bear not to touch me any longer. And then he did. Right there in the alley. It was so…” She swallowed hard. “It was so primal. It would have been like rape if I hadn’t been so willing.”
“And it was only the beginning,” he said for her. “How long?”
“Two months. Every single night for two months. I wanted to stop! M-my husband and children…I wanted to stop!”
“And finally you did. But why then? What changed?”
“Something I saw. Felt. A night when he was so hot to have me. Careless, I guess. He didn’t hear like he usually did. The car started and suddenly we were caught in headlights. He screamed as if in pain, smoke rising from his burning skin as he ran into the dark. I followed right behind him, yet he disappeared before my eyes into shadows. Then he was at my back, walking out of a space where there had been nothing a moment before. That was when I realized what he was. That was when I knew he was an imp, a demon sent to tempt me into fornication and hell!”
“One who impregnated you with his child,” Magnus mused, looking back at the fair-skinned and golden blond Ashla. “So you thought you really had given birth to a devil?”
“Not at first. I hoped it was my husband’s baby. She was so fair and loved the light. A good girl. Until that damned rabbit! She took it into her hands and instead of dying as it should have, it leapt out of them fully healed, like magic! I knew then it was demon power that made it happen. I’ve known ever since. I preached to her, tried to get her to repent against her father’s half inside her, but it was no use. She was born with evil in her core, conceived in one of the worst of sins! And now she’s murdered my youngest baby and her father as well! He died at Cristine’s funeral of a heart attack! Tell me she isn’t cursed and I will—”
She broke off from her hysteria of rising words and emotions, the speech justifying her treatment of her daughter freezing in her throat. If Magnus had been another man, he might have relished the realization flooding into her expression. He might have smiled much wider than he did.
“You’re like him!” She looked wildly around the dark room. “H-he sent you! You’re a-a—”
“You know, we take offense to being called names, just like anyone else,” he said on a warning purr next to her ear. It wasn’t very forgiving of him to taunt her so, but he couldn’t seem to resist.
The question was, was it really a Shadowdweller who had fathered the woman behind him? The dance of light and shadow wasn’t only theirs to own. Vampires, and other Nightwalkers, could be just as sensitive under the right circumstances. Vampires could ride shadows quite well. It would account for her pale skin. But in all cases, the ability to bear sunlight was clearly a human genetic quirk she had retained from her wretched mother.
But Magnus was inclined to believe it was a Shadowdweller. It wasn’t unheard of; it was just unwise and difficult to execute such affairs. The woman before him, despite her age, showed the echoes of her youth. She must have been a tempting, beautiful creature then. Especially to one of his kind, with her fairness and blond, blue-eyed features. But whoever Ashla’s father was, the act of impregnating a human was unconscionable. The way Nightwalker genetics held so dominantly? As a child she could have died at her first touch of sunlight. The suffering would have been unforgivable. Whoever he was, he had been selfish and irresponsible, and Magnus prayed that this had been a one-time obsession that wasn’t ever repeated.
Unfortunately, knowing his race as he did, he was afraid his prayers were useless.
But it did explain a great deal…Not the least of which was how Ashla could see them in Shadowscape, and how she could feel so real and fully embodied. It might also explain the very comatose state she was in. It was possible that, without even realizing it, she was actually in Fade.
But for two years?
Two days could drive any of them mad. What had two years done to her? Was she protected by her human half from the euphoric consequences? She hadn’t known about Shadowscape or tried to purposely get there, but the trauma of her accident had plunged her into it somehow. Was it possible that his people held the key to helping her find her way out of Fade?
Trace. Trace whom she trusted and who was quite powerfully adept at Fade; he could help her.
“Take her!” the mother whispered fiercely, as if it was a dirty little secret she didn’t want her god to hear. “Take her to your hell and free me from this curse! You have my blessings, just take her! Take her back to the devil that spawned her!”
“That, madam,” Magnus said icily, “would force me to bring her back to you, and I would never be so cruel to any living being.”
With that, Magnus flipped a hand against a nerve cluster behind her ear, forcing her into unconsciousness. She was useless to him now, and annoying besides. She could rant and rave when she woke up, hopefully about devils stealing her daughter so she caused herself a lot of trouble and psychiatric care. At the very least, it would take her the better part of a week to get over the headache he’d just given her. He was going to have to do a bit of penance for that.
Magnus let the limp woman fall to the floor with a graceless clunking sound as he turned to the bed where Ashla’s corporeal self lay. He crossed to her, avoiding the side with the monitors and their stinging light. He slowly examined her, from her lax, drooping toes to her head. She wore some ridiculous pink dress with a matching ribbon tied in her hair. Her hair was much longer in reality, her curls combed flatly into an outward flip at her shoulders that perfected the image of a flawless porcelain doll, or some kind of sleeping princess from a fairy story. Magnus could easily see why the mother had provided such paraphernalia. Her daughter had been imperfect and damaged in her eyes while she had been alive. In this incarnation of near death, she could finally have the angelic daughter she had craved, even while she prayed for her damnation. The priest was sickened by the way Ashla’s mother had demented an otherwise beautiful religious structure. He might not share the belief in the Christian god, but he had always appreciated the wisdom and intricate guidance it provided.
He was drawn to the bandages on her small arms, unwrapping one quickly and inspecting the healing wound. Something had injured her recently, but her enhanced constitution should recover quickly. He wondered at her ability to heal outwardly faster than she could heal herself. It wasn’t a common trait in Shadowdwellers at all. But she was a hybrid, and that changed everything. Most importantly, it changed her weakness to sunlight. Would she age? Would she be susceptible to the illnesses that haunted their breed, the ones that blinded those like Rika, or worse? What were her senses like? If she was a half-breed, then it was very possible she and Trace were Sainted as he had said, though he didn’t yet fully understand the nature of how she had risked her life for his son.
Magnus looked to what he did know, and it came down to two very simple facts. The first was that she was in this half-cocked blend of Fade and human coma, but if she was going to have any chance of coming clear of it, it would be with the guidance of Magnus’s people. It certainly wasn’t going to happen while a poor excuse for a mother sat over her wishing her into hell.
The second fact was that they owed her the other half of her heritage. It was something her reckless father should have ensured, but had not. Whoever he was, he probably didn’t care about such trivial details and what they might mean to a young woman who probably felt in her heart that she didn’t quite fit in with the world around her, yet never understood why she felt that way. This was a feeling Magnus could truly understand. Those who stood out among others because of their power often endured hard childhoods. It was either an act of cosmic balance designed to temper sensitivities so those of great power would learn what it meant to be bullied by those stronger than themselves, or it was simply a social fact of life and the way jealousy worked within groups of children and adults. Tearing down what you didn’t understand was an almost primitive imperative, it seemed. He had lived under that yoke as a child, fighting bullies and spitting adults alike just because he could wield the power of truth. Now, ironically, some of the same people saw him for penances as their priest.
Had Ashla been full-blooded with this healing gift, she would have definitely been claimed as a handmaiden. The ’Dwellers’ powers of self-healing were quite remarkable, but she would be far from superfluous. For all their strengths, there were equal weaknesses in the forms of viruses and disease that even their advanced systems could not defeat. If she proved skilled in any healing of those diseases, it would make her as precious as platinum.
His mind was long made up, he knew, but he liked to think on things as he worked out logistics in his head as to how to escape with her. She had no respirator tubes down her throat, just a pressure mask that might gently remind her to breathe. However, a feeding tube existed, along with a half dozen other ready-made access points the humans had used to maintain her vegetating body.
This turned his gut with disgust, but not for the reasons it would Sophia Townsend. Magnus, like Trace, couldn’t stomach the idea of being suspended between life and death like this. There was no honor to it, no purpose. For a warrior, it was a dire and dramatic insult. Still, it had kept her alive long enough for one of her people to find her and possibly call her back, the priest admitted. In this case there would be benefit to all of this mechanization of the human body and its functions.
He rapidly disconnected her from the bed and machines, shutting off alarms as quickly as he could when he could find them. He burned his hands in sharp scorches as lights hit them from the machines, but he barely took note. He had the frail body of Ashla Townsend free in minutes, scooping her up from her mattress and heading for the window he had arrived through.
“No small trick, this,” he confided to his unconscious companion as he looked down along the nimble route he had taken through the shadows to get there. “But no great challenge, either. Don’t be afraid, and rest yourself easy. I will get you down safely. Then, I believe we’ll need a Shadowdweller hospice to tend you a day or two before we make our way to Alaska. The darkness there grows long and beautiful, and Trace will be there waiting for you.”
Magnus was undaunted by her silence. Whenever he could, those next few days, he spent time talking to his charge as if she were perfectly part of the conversation.
When Trace was released from the four-point restraints, it was decidedly anticlimactic. He got out of bed and left the room, only to be reminded that they were on the road and confined by speed and motion. Still, it was a thousand times more bearable than that strangling sensation around his wrists and ankles. He had been held by soft lambskin and not burning metal, but it made no difference to the remembered paths in his brain. Bound was bound, whether it was cobwebs or titanium.
He spent his first days of freedom brooding and quiet, letting the landscape of the night go by unnoticed until they came to a stop. The need for fuel compelled them, the only thing exterior of the convoy they stopped for. There was a supply onboard some of the trucks, but that was for later in the trip when gas stations and the like ran scarce, just as people did, which was fine for the Shadowdwellers heading for the colony up at Elk’s Lake.
Trace stepped outside, avoiding the station lights, and found relief in a breath of fresh, dark air.
Trace turned quickly, his hand twitching against his katana even as his brain registered the familiarity of the voice. “Ajai Killian. What can I do for you?”
Killian walked up to Trace slowly, very aware of how on edge the vizier must be after all he had been through in the last week. Sometimes, Killian forgot that the swords Trace carried were not just decorative, as some of the more pompous senators and other highborn men liked to play at. Trace had been raised at Magnus’s knee, and there was no better warrior alive, nor a better teacher. Baylor must have forgotten this as well, or he might have thought twice about approaching Trace as a target.
It had been a critically bad move.
“It’s nothing too vital, actually. The royal convoy is quite secure. My concern is more for the Sanctuary RVs. They are tending to lag behind a bit, slowing us down. I talked to M’jan Shiloh about it yesterday, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him. There’s been no improvement. When we get separated…”