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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“She is kin,” Magnus assured him, “but she is half-bred kin. And her frailty is no different than Rika’s. Put simply, she is ill. But I think it may even go beyond that, because the woman in Shadowscape was also quite fragile in her projected appearance. Her human half allows her to walk in sunlight, but I believe it weakens her overall strength in the process because she is one of us.”
“One of us,” Trace echoed in soft disbelief. “But…she’s been in ’scape for…”
“Two years,” Magnus provided.
“Great burning Light,” Trace rasped out. “Two years?”
“But only her ’Dweller half is there. It is just enough to allow you to feel her and sense her physically, and enough to explain why she could see all of us. She is the first half-breed I have ever seen or heard of who didn’t exist solely in supposition and myth, but it is what it is nonetheless.” Magnus explained the story Ashla’s mother had reported to him, deleting everything after the circumstances of her conception. The woman’s contemptible treatment of her daughter was not for him to relay. Not, at least, to anyone other than Ashla, if he even got the opportunity. “It is possible Ashla was thrown into Fade on impact of her accident, a reflex to protect herself, without even realizing what she was doing. Because she is half-human, though, I’m guessing the Unfade is far more difficult than it is for us…or it is simply a matter of her not knowing how.”
“It could simply be because she doesn’t know she can! Magnus, she doesn’t even know where she is. She doesn’t know any of it!”
“I know. That is one reason why I require your help. I need you to go into Fade and find her. You have a rapport with her; an intimacy that you can utilize to gain her trust and belief. Until she believes all that is true, she cannot navigate her way back to Realscape.”
“Magnus, after two years…” Trace swallowed noisily and shook his head as he looked at the pale blue veins running in tiny networks along her eyelids. “How do we know she can return at all? How do we know she will be intact when she does? Her mind could shatter from the sudden change.” Trace thought of the fear-riddled girl he had first met, and it made his heart race. Was it possible that her easy intimidation was the beginnings of paranoia or some other psychosis she wouldn’t be able to shake even in Realscape? Or it could potentially destroy her just to try and force two parts of her together that had been living separately and growing in different directions for so long, like twins separated from a single egg being forced back together after two years outside of the womb.
But even twins grown from separate eggs seemed to remain connected with one another on deep levels that only other twins seemed to fully comprehend. It was also quite clear that Ashla’s human half was wasting away without her ’Dweller spirit to supplement it. Whether it happened now or later, she would slip away eventually.
“She has to know the risks; make the choice for herself. I have to tell her…everything.” He looked up at Magnus. “I mean everything. Light and Dark, the ’scapes, the clan wars, Tristan and Malaya, even the migrations. The diseases. I have to tell her about other Nightwalkers and the dangers we face together.”
“Trace,” Magnus interrupted him softly, “tell her more than just the ills and monsters in this world. Balance. In everything, balance. Save some of it for afterward. I know it is in your nature to present all sides and to play as fair as you possibly can, but have a care for her fragile state.”
“Yes, of course.” Trace ran a hand through his hair as he searched the figure lying so still beside him. His mind filled with very different images of her, ones that throbbed with life and movement. The vital pulse of her body and the heat of her rushing breath in his ear; even when she shook with fear and cried her frustrations, she was always every inch alive. Life might frighten her a great deal, yet she plodded forward through it relentlessly and survived, even against obviously tremendous odds. He had only known her after she had become trapped in a world she couldn’t comprehend. He could see why anyone would fear something like that. However, not everyone would have been able to just keep going in spite of it all.
Trace stood up quickly, clenching and unclenching his fists for a second, pausing to stretch his neck until it gave a vertebral pop. He closed his eyes, trying to tune out Magnus and all the other priests and handmaidens in the room.
“If I’m not back in twenty-four hours, come after me yourself. Bring Tristan and Guin if you must, but no others,” he instructed tightly.
“Fearing the Fade after euphoria is natural, Trace,” Magnus murmured. “There is no shame in it.”
“It isn’t the Fade I fear,” Trace corrected him sharply. However, he didn’t elaborate as to what it was that clearly had a grip over him.
It didn’t matter after a minute, though, because he slowly entered Fade.
Ashla was running down a main street in Fairbanks.
Well, in actuality, she was waddling. She had raided a department store and, about seven layers of clothing later, had achieved perfect warmth. She had sacrificed grace, fashion, and coordination, but damn it, she was warm. She had found it all. Sweaters, goggles, parkas, insulated pants, and long johns. She was wrapped in scarves like a Christmas present, her eyes obscured by the mountaineer’s sun goggles she wore. In fact, her nose was just about the only thing exposed to the air, and even that was mostly buried under her muffler. She looked like some kind of bouncing baby girl belonging to the Michelin Man.
“Warm, warm, warm,” she cheered to herself as she hurried along the slightly slippery sidewalk. “Think Florida. Aruba. Martinique. I wonder if there is a plane going to Mazatlan. Just as good as New York, only no winter. But then there’s that whole nasty water issue. I could try—”
Ashla skidded to a halt when someone suddenly stepped out in front of her. That ever-present urge to scream took over as strong hands curled around her arms. Or tried to. She was rather a pudgy handful at the moment. Recognition didn’t set in until she heard a low masculine chuckle rumbling down against her face. It was a bit distorted by her protected ears, but just the same she knew him in a heartbeat.
She couldn’t believe her goggled eyes. There he was, as big as life, exactly as he had been in New York. In fact, he was so exactly the same that she wondered if she was having hallucinations now. The long coat, the samurai sword slung to his belt, his all black clothing and…
The shoulders that would have blocked out the sun, had there been sun. The beautiful curve of defined muscle beneath clothing that broadcast how truly breathtakingly fit his chest and belly were. Those amazing, trunk-steady thighs encased in dark fabric that couldn’t hide the overwhelming power she knew they were capable of generating.
Inside all of her clothes, Ashla suddenly felt completely naked. She felt his hands running up her arms to her shoulders, the sensation distant and muffled, yet somehow as sharp as ever. She had a total body memory of his touch and of all the endless frustrations it had teased her to. And then she remembered that one moment early on between them where everything had come together perfectly, and her whole body hummed with a quick wash of recall from the orgasm that had blown her completely away.
Suddenly, getting warm was no longer an issue.
“Hello,” he greeted her, as if they had planned all along on meeting each other thousands of miles away from where they had last seen each other.
She hit him.
Ashla out-and-out punched him in the arm as hard as she could, even though she knew it was going to hurt her more than it would hurt him. Still, she did it and it felt damn good to do it.
“Ow!” she yelped, shaking out her wrist. “You jerk!”
“Me? I’m not the one who did the hitting!”
“I meant you big jerk! As in ‘you scared me half to death!’ As in ‘where the hell have you been?’ As in ‘I thought you were dead, you big, dumb jerk!’”
“Well, I’m not dead. And I came here as soon as I could. I was ill, jei li, and it takes time to recover.”
Ashla pouted under her scarf, and Trace felt the effect despite not being able to see it as it radiated from her puffed-up body language.
“I know that,” she relented quietly. “I was just…scared for you.”
“I know you were, and I am so sorry I put you through that. More sorry than you will ever realize.” Trace tugged down her layered scarf, simultaneously drawing off her goggles. He breathed a little better the minute he could see her face, the energy vibrating in her eyes a relief to his soul. The half-dead body he had left behind in Realscape had shaken him to his core. He was terrified of the danger of sending her back to it, but he trusted Magnus to know what was best. If the priest said she would die if she didn’t come back to Realscape, then Trace believed him. “Are you cold?” he asked with a tease to his tone as he surveyed her getup.
“Not anymore. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. This is totally insane. And how on earth did you find me here?” She hesitated as she searched his face and suddenly realized that she was about to learn everything she wanted to know about the world, and that this mysterious man she had taken to her bed knew everything about it. That he’d probably known everything about it all along might have irritated her, except she couldn’t recall ever asking him if he could enlighten her.
“Ashla, I want you to come home with me.”
He could have knocked her over with a feather. Gaping at him, she released a little giggle. Men simply didn’t make requests like that of her. It just didn’t happen. But then again, they didn’t make love to her like they had crawled through three deserts and she was the proverbial oasis, either.
In fact, as she stared up into his dark eyes, she got the flashing hot feeling that he would do it all over again given half a chance. The thought made her swallow hard, her heart dancing with a quick step. It might have been exhausting and frustrating and downright strange in the end, but it had still been the best sex of her life. And if he had done all of that while he was ill—well, he looked quite healthy now, and it had to make a girl wonder.
There she was, wearing possibly the most ridiculous pile of clothing he had ever seen, and after just five seconds of looking into her eyes, Trace recognized he was pulsing with a euphoria that had nothing to do with Shadowscape, except for the fact that she was in it. He had turned his mind away from so much that had happened, deeming it all so unworthy because it had been tainted by his abominable behavior. But he had forgotten about the raw sensual connection they had. Well, not forgotten…just pushed it aside. He hadn’t done it or her a damn bit of justice. So he didn’t understand why she was looking at him like she was. He had, after all, just been the last in a long line of disappointments in her life.
“Before we say or do anything else,” he said quickly, “I need to tell you how sorry I am for everything that happened. I…I wasn’t in my right mind. I know it’s a damn poor excuse for how I behaved, but…Ashla?”
He stepped forward quickly because she was backing away from him. To his shock, she held up a sharp warding hand, warning him back from her. Her entire expression was cut as though he had just done something unimaginably horrible to her, and he felt his heart race with the closest thing to utter panic that he had ever felt in his life. Not even when Acadian had—
“No, no, no!” She spat the denial hard and stomped a booted foot. “I can’t hear this. I’m not hearing this!” Ashla turned around and started to waddle off as quickly as she could. She heard him right behind her, completely unhindered by his snug, sexy clothes. They were dark, tailored, and perfect in every way that flattered his gorgeous body, just like everything about him seemed so painfully perfect. He was beautiful to look at, amazing to watch as he moved, both in and out of clothes, and had a deadly sin for a voice. He was smart and assured, his confidence and bravery so obvious and so opposite everything that she was. Because of all of this, she simply couldn’t bear listening to him recant every moment he had spent with her. She didn’t want to hear his morning-after “it’s not you, it’s me” speech! So what if he was being considerate enough to bother giving her the damn speech in the first place? So what if that was a step way up for her in male courtesies? She just couldn’t bear it.
She made a hard right and hurried up the walkway of the nearest building. She pushed her way into the place and stopped short when she realized she was in a post office, the stark emptiness of the lobby and its walls of post boxes providing her with nowhere to hide and nothing to put between herself and the inevitable. Then she spied the postal service counters. They were pretty high up and she was decidedly out of the high-jump qualifications the way she was dressed, so she should have known better than to go for it.
Panic made people do pretty dumb things sometimes.
Luckily, Trace was much quicker than he looked, which was saying a lot. He caught her by the arm just as she was about to make a two-inch leap onto a four-foot counter, spinning her around to face him.
“Won’t you even allow me to apologize to you? Are you so unforgiving?”
“Oh, my forgiveness has nothing to do with it, and you damn well know it!” she snapped back at him, shoving back her hood and dazzling him with the distraction of her glimmering hair. He still couldn’t believe she had even an ounce of Shadowdweller inside of her. “If you want to absolve yourself of everything and make yourself feel better, then fine! Whatever! Thanks. No thanks. Whatever you want. I don’t care. Okay? Let’s move on, shall we?”