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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Shadowdwellers. We’re called Shadowdwellers. The name comes from the fact that we can’t live in the light.”
“Any light?” she gasped.
“Save moonlight,” he stipulated. “Weak candle glow is a possibility depending on circumstances, but anything stronger is crippling and disfiguring. On exposure to light, a ’Dweller will die in a matter of minutes.”
“Oh my God. You mean you’ve never been in sunlight?”
He shook his head, trying to understand her shock and disbelief. He saw no special qualities in sunlight to be enjoyed. He didn’t see reason for her reaction.
“Well, then, I’m certainly not one of-of you. Anyway, I can’t be. I know my parents. Trust me when I say they are as Christian white American human as they come. And I run around in sunlight all the time, so that proves that.”
“You are a half-breed, Ashla,” he countered as gently as he could, taking hold of her arm and bringing her forward through the snow again. “Your mother had an affair with one of us and conceived you as a result. She admitted to it to Magnus. He’s one of the ones you met when they came for me.”
“My mother had a what? Oh.” She burst out laughing. “Please! You clearly don’t know my mother. Mom has a cross in one hand and a Bible up her butt. She is religious and devout from tip to toe.”
“Perhaps she is now. But she was also once a woman who had a forbidden liaison with a total stranger. In fact, I understand it lasted two months. In alleys. On the street. Cars. Vestibules…”
“Stop! Just stop!” Ashla had to cover her ears as she halted once more. “Okay, that’s just gross!”
“I don’t under—”
“My mother!” She removed a hand from her ear to point a finger in his face. “My mother would never have sex in a vestibule! She’s an uptight, rigid, cold-hearted bitch who’d sooner castrate a man mentally and physically than she would climb up on him and fuck him! Don’t you tell me about my mother. I know exactly who she is!”
“Clearly you don’t, or you would know that you are only half human.”
Demon. Devil’s child. Spawn of Satan. The names reeled through her mind in her mother’s ceaseless voice. Sophia had called her those things so often; every time she’d forced her to her knees to pray for a soul her mother swore was damned no matter what. A demon put his seed inside me, forcing me to birth an imp into God’s world!
Was it because she had known that her father hadn’t fathered her? All of her life, had her mother been blaming her for her own sins?
“And as for sunlight, Magnus believes that your human half allows for that. He also thinks you wouldn’t be so thin and pale, nor so weak in bone and muscle mass if you stayed out of the light.”
“But I’ve been out of the light all this time,” she said a bit numbly. “I’m no different than I was before.”
“That’s because we aren’t in the real world, Ashla.”
Hell of a way to tell her, Trace thought bitterly, once more reaching to hurry her along. He began to explain the concept of ’scapes to her before she could even challenge him on his last remark. He told her everything, even how he and Magnus believed she had gotten thrown into Fade during the accident.
“There are two occupants of Shadowscape,” he said. “Us and the Lost. The Lost are humans who are trapped in a coma. Their spirits wander this realm as if they live here, completely unaware of the state they are in. You are in Fade, but you are also Lost, Ashla. In Realscape, your body is lying in a deep coma. It has been for two years.”
“Years!” She jerked away from him and laughed on the edge of hysteria. “But it’s only been a few weeks. I remember!”
“Do you? Everything? And time doesn’t move here like it does in Realscape. Sometimes it’s longer, others it comes up shorter. It makes up its own rhyme and reason.”
“But that makes no sense,” she argued. Trace could hear the rising upset in her voice and saw the swim of tears in her eyes. “What about Cristine? The others? Are they all in comas, too? Why don’t I see any of these other Lost?”
“Because Lost can’t see each other, or ’Dwellers, for that matter. Not usually. That’s why Baylor was so surprised by you.”
“You were, too,” she said softly.
“Yeah. In a great many ways.” He didn’t want to, but he had to tell her about Cristine and her friends, so he made it quick and succinct. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. He expected anything, but couldn’t prepare himself for the way her legs seemed to just fold beneath her, dropping her numbly to her knees. It was like watching all of her spirit deflate in a single explosive moment. Trace quickly kneeled in front of her, reaching to pull her awkward and wobbly figure into his secure embrace. “Jei li,” he said gently against her hair, “we have no time to mourn. Not while there is so much danger. I’m sorry, but you have to get up.”
“What does it matter?” she asked him numbly. “I’m as good as dead anyway.” She turned to look at him suddenly. “You knew all of this. You know I’m just a ghost. You…you…”
“No! No, honey, don’t even think it!” he said fiercely. “You are no ghost. No wraith. You are as real to me as anything. I never once thought that I could expend myself with you and just walk away without conscience! I would never use anyone in such a way! Never! In Shadowscape, Shadowdwellers are as real to one another as we are outside of it.”
“But you didn’t know I was a Shadowdweller, did you? Not until recently.”
“You only have my word for evidence, but bear in mind I came here to bring you back. I came to teach you how to get back to your body, how to Unfade like we do. It’s your Shadow half that is trapped here, and your human half left alone in Realscape. But the very fact that you ended up in Alaska with your body says you are still very much connected to it. I will bring you out of this place, jei li, and I will face you in the Realscape just as I face you now. I will still want you there just the same as I did in that post office. Nothing has or will change that. Not unless you want it to change. Do you understand me?”
Ashla didn’t know what to believe. Her mind was overrun with data. Thoughts both awful and amazing swam through her. But through it all, the one thing that sang out truly to her was the sincerity she felt radiating off him like a nimbus. The sensation that she could see into his very thoughts returned to her as it had several times before. Any ideas she had of him using her and easily discarding her afterward like some kind of blow-up sex toy completely vanished. Even as her experience-scarred psyche tried to lecture her to beware, every deep instinct in her told her that he wasn’t capable of anything so dishonorable and low. She actually began to feel bad for thinking it in the first place.
She felt dizzy with information, possibilities, and the ever-present fear that now seemed more justified than ever. She didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. What she ended up doing was simply following his lead as he urged her forward through the cold. She was looking at the ground as they went, so it was only a minute before she realized they were leaving tracks in the snow.
“Can’t they follow easily?” she asked dumbly.
“Yes. But not for long.”
“Watch,” he said, drawing her up close in the darkness of the tree line. “This takes a lot of focus and energy, jei li, so I need you to be very still.”
He felt her nod as he wrapped his arms around her, bringing her tightly flush against his body. Just like when she had healed him, Trace needed as much contact with her as possible. It helped that she clung to him tightly in response to his hold. Maybe not for his skip, but it helped him because he felt a rush of immediate relief to feel her willingly touch him. There was an acceptance to it that he needed, for some reason. Then he pushed it all aside and focused on the shadows trail he was going to skip through with her. He would never have tried this with a human being, but she was half Shadow according to Magnus, and that was hopefully going to be enough.
Ashla tried her best not to just stand there and shake like a California fault line, but there was little else for her to do, and she dared any other normal girl on the planet to have her life totally turned upside down and face it with steady hands five seconds later.
Her sister was dead and her mother wasn’t. When she had thought the world had been destroyed, she had been devastated by one and wickedly at peace with the other. She had felt bad about that, actually. What kind of person is so detached from the woman that gave birth to them that she means nothing to them in death?
Her brothers and sister had been taught for years to shun Ashla, to treat her like the devil her mother preached that she was, but Cristine had never stepped into line. She had somehow managed to walk the line between avoiding their mother’s religious psychosis and keeping a place for her sister in her heart. As for her brothers, her oldest brother had had his own mind by the time their mother’s accusations started when Ashla was five. While he had not agreed with Sophia’s fanatic beliefs, neither had he ever taken a stand for his sister. He had just sat quietly by as Ashla’s life turned into hell on earth. Her other brother, however, was cut right from their mother’s ass.
Ashla shuddered and locked the thought away, as well as the awful memories that came with it. She focused instead on the feel of Trace’s cold body near her own. It was only then she realized he must be freezing without a jacket on, and the proof was under her hands. He had never felt so cold to her before.
Just then the strangest sensation rippled through her entire body. It was like a pull from inside at first, but then it flashed like the sharp heat she felt when Trace touched her breasts. She flushed, embarrassed as it made her squirm, and then everything inside her turned light and warm. Trace’s cold body seemed to fade away against her, but just as quickly it returned. She opened her eyes and realized the entire landscape had changed. She turned to look, but he tugged her back around just in time for her to see everything haze to gray and then reappear back into the crisp white of snow and the even crisper cold.
Now she could see that they were quite far from their original position. She stared up at Trace, who was breathing hard and covered in a sheen of perspiration in spite of his chill body.
“You can t-teleport?” she asked in amazement.
“It’s actually called shadow-skipping, and you can probably do it, too, to an extent. If you couldn’t, I wouldn’t have succeeded in bringing you with me just now.”
She watched him carefully as he spoke. He was breathless even though they were just standing still, and he wasn’t standing up entirely straight.
“It weakens you. I make it harder because I’m half human.”
“Not too much,” he said, pausing to swipe a hand across his forehead. “There are more factors than just that, Ashla. Nothing about anything you are seeing is easy to explain. Remember that, please?”
“Trace, you’re ice cold. We need to find some shelter.” Ashla bit her lip with worry as she looked around. He had brought them completely outside of the edges of town. There were no buildings in sight and it felt like the temperature was dropping even as they stood there. She kept herself close to him, trying to share what little body heat she could possibly offer.
“There’s a campground close by. There should be an encampment of vehicles. It’s us. My people. There will be RVs with heat.”
“But, Trace, how do you know these killers aren’t expecting us to go straight there?”
She was right. Of course she was right. Once any pursuers lost track of their trail, they would head straight for the caravan, hoping to cut them off, provided others weren’t already there waiting. Trace shook his head, trying to understand how he could make such a deadly mistake. Just bringing her this close was putting them in danger. He tried to think of what to do next, but he was met with a wall of cold and fog in his mind that seemed to gum up his very thoughts.
And then it knocked his legs out from under him.
Ashla cried out when Trace’s weight suddenly fell against her and he dropped heavily to his knees in the snow. She watched his weapon fall as he reached out a hand to brace himself from the ground. She tried to help with all of her strength and weight, propping him up.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Trace replied numbly, trying to focus on her. “I think I’m…injured. But it’s not deep.”
“Injured?” she said, appalled at the very thought. “How? Where?”
Ashla pulled back to inspect him, noting the cut on his face right off and immediately dismissing it as superficial. Then she caught sight of the tear in his shirt under his right arm. She hadn’t noticed it before because the blood soaking the fabric kept it stuck to his body. When she looked down at the sleeve of her jacket, she saw the gray material was stained with red. He had let her squeeze him tightly without so much as a flinch to warn her. Now she balanced propping his weight with an attempt to inspect the wound. It was a juggling act doomed to failure. Trace rolled right off her supporting frame and landed on his back in the snow. She couldn’t contain her cry of distress as he groaned softly, shaking his head as if trying to shed the injury with pure strength of will. She quickly knelt beside him, pulling back the torn edges of his shirts.
The cut was pretty ugly, long, bloody, and angry, but it wasn’t enough to account for bringing a man like Trace to his knees, and she said as much to him.