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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Fuck,” he swore baldly. “He dipped his blades. It’s poison. The bastard poisoned me.”
“Poison! What kind of poison?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Trace snapped at her as he forced himself to sit up. The snow was soaking into his clothes and his skin was freezing. They had to get out of there or they would both be dead by morning.
Ashla took no offense to his tone. She would have been testy too if their positions were reversed, and it had been something of a stupid question.
“Okay, listen,” she told him, her teeth chattering as she brushed snow from his back. The snow wasn’t deep yet for the season, but it was still wet and cold. Two out of the three was bad enough. “I am going to heal you. Then you can find us shelter.”
“No! Are you insane? You showed me what happens to you when you heal; you take the wounds onto yourself. That would mean taking in a poison strong enough to knock me off my feet, and I am a full-blooded Shadowdweller! You can’t risk that. I’m amazed you survived what you did last time.” Trace’s fury drained him and he almost fell back again, except she had quickly moved to kneel behind him and supported him.
“We don’t have a choice! I’m not strong enough to carry you, and I can’t get help! Even if you did the Fade thing and went back, you can’t even get to your feet!”
“Ashla, you can’t. I’ve seen your body. Okay? The real physical you in Realscape. You are thin and frail. Magnus says you’re losing your life a little more every day.” He reached to grab her by her arm, giving her a shake she barely felt. “When he found your body, it was covered in the cuts and gashes you healed off me. Do you understand what that means? It means that whatever happens to you here, happens to you there!”
Ashla shook her head furiously, tears burning hot in her eyes.
“Stop. Stop making me afraid!”
“You should be afraid! Show some damned sense of self-preservation, for Drenna’s sake! You can survive without me. Find shelter. In a day or two, Magnus will come looking for me and he will not stop until he finds you. These people don’t want you, Ashla, they want me. If they find me here, they will stop hunting.”
“Oh my God! Oh, God, you’re insane!” she gasped. “You’re telling me that you would walk away and leave me dying out in the cold if this was reversed? That it’s okay to be that cold-hearted and…and selfish!”
“No, jei li. It’s about being unselfish,” he said, his weight growing against her and his voice softening. “You’ve been cheated out of half your life. You deserve to find out about it and to live in that world. Trust me, when I tell you how beautiful and extraordinary my culture is. I know you’ve seen a lot of the dark in it, but there’s so much that’s good, too. My society—there’s so much in it that’s worth living for. I would never give it up, except for the best of reasons.”
He exhaled, his body crumpling weakly against hers. Ashla cried out in denial, tears flowing down her chapped cheeks and sobs ripping out of her chest as she looked around in vain once more for a sign of life, for someone or something to help. Listening to him tout his people and their way of life, hearing his pride in his voice, it made her want to see all of it. But not without him. Not after he had gone through so much with her.
Ashla gently slid away from him, laying him back in the snow as carefully as she could. Then she quickly shed the parka she was wearing, feeling his eyes on her the entire time. She knew just by looking at him that he was too weak to put up the smallest fight, so she rapidly unbuttoned her shirt, exposing her bare skin to the freezing air. Then she did the same for him, pushing up his undershirt so his chest was bared. She threw her leg over him, her knees in the snow by his hips. She leaned forward over him and his hands suddenly shot out to grab her arms, resisting her effort to lie chest to chest with him.
“No,” he ground out.
“In two minutes you are going to pass out and I am going to do it anyway,” she told him with a firm sort of tenderness. “You can’t do anything about this, Trace. Just let go, and this time you need to trust me, okay?”
The idea of Trace trusting a woman would have been preposterous once upon a time, and despite his level of recovery she was still asking a lot of him. Worse, she was asking too much of herself. But she was right. He wasn’t going to stay conscious much longer, and she would be free to do anything she wanted once he was out cold and no longer able to protest.
“Listen,” he shot out at her. “The Unfade. Before the poison affects you, you have to try it. The large part is done. You know about the truth now, and are aware you are not in Realscape. The awareness is what you need to guide yourself. Inside yourself now you can find the energy that tethers you to your body. That is the energy that powers the Fading and Unfading. Focus there. Make yourself follow the path out, and use that energy to do it. Ignore everything around you. Think of nothing but the path you need to travel. Return to us there. I’ll be waiting for you. Do you hear me? I’ll be waiting for you.”
She nodded and then took hold of the hand holding her back. “Let go,” she whispered softly.
He had no choice. His trembling muscles couldn’t sustain the grip anymore. His arms fell away weakly and all he could do was watch with wild breaths as she leaned forward against him.
They were both so cold, and yet as her skin connected to his they both made sounds of relief as what little warmth they each had to share was passed between them. Her hand slid over the wound in his side, and his forearms came weakly around her slender back.
“I won’t,” she promised.
She covered his mouth with hers for her very last point of contact between them, closed her eyes, and slid into the gentle kiss as the healing began.
Trace came to with a stiffly indrawn breath.
He had no idea how long he had been out, but he felt like he was frozen to the ground. Just the same, he sat up sharply and looked around. The first thing he noticed, as always, was lights. All of Fairbanks was lit up for the night in the distance. This immediately told him that he had snapped out of his Fade, most likely when he had lost consciousness. He was in Realscape.
He ran numb fingers across his ribs, feeling the jaggedly healing cut. It was barely closed, but it was closed enough to make him realize Ashla had been successful once again. But at what cost? Had he left her there to die in Shadowscape? He knew he was too weakened to attempt a Fade to check. Had she made it back as well? Even if she had, Magnus would have no reason to expect her to resurrect deeply poisoned and would not be prepared.
He hauled himself over to his hands and knees, raising himself slowly out of the freezing ice around his skin. His breed followed the winters, lived where the snow and darkness lived. They were hearty against the cold. But even his race had their limits. He stood up with a rigid stagger, but instead of steadying himself he let the momentum take him forward. Before he could even get circulation to restore itself, he was running for the encampment.
Within a half mile he was racing for the campground at breakneck speed. His boots churned up snow between long-legged strides, and when he hit the borders of the Shadowdweller’s temporary settlement, everyone who was out of doors turned to stare as he bolted past. The Sanctuary vehicles were always at the rear of the camp, just as the royals were always protected at its center. Trace had no concept of the image he made running half naked in the freezing night, obvious blood and wounds easily visible on his body, and for once he didn’t care. Protocol, image, and custom meant nothing to him as he tore into the RV Magnus had taken him to earlier.
He was gasping for breath, his body having been wrung through injury, poison, and now panic-driven endurance, but he stumbled forward toward Magnus as the priest was rising from a kneeling position beside the palate where Trace knew Ashla’s body lay. When the priest caught his weight and momentum and prevented him from stepping forward, Trace felt a horrible dread sink all throughout his body. He tried to push past Magnus, but the religious warrior was not moving.
“Easy, Ajai, easy,” he urged. “Tell me what happened.”
“Is-is she dead?” Trace demanded, pushing against Magnus with force so he could see Ashla.
“Is she dead?”
Trace’s roar of outright fear and fury shook the room, sinking every priest and handmaiden there into shocked silence. No one raised their voice in Sanctuary. And absolutely no one raised their voice to Magnus. There were even a few soft gasps of horror in the background.
“Sijii asath aptu mesu ne!”
Magnus thundered out the Shadese warning, vocally slapping back the man he had raised from boyhood. The tone and the command for Trace to gain control of himself were as ingrained in his memory as his recollections of Acadian were, but these were memories of loving discipline and the training lessons that would save his life time and again over the centuries. Trace instantly snapped out of his near-hysterical panic, his eyes and mind clearing as he stared starkly into his father’s golden eyes.
“M’jan,” he said, his tone spiraling down into much softer calm and respect. He touched a hand to his heart and fed all the desperate emotion in his soul into his eyes as he bowed slightly to the priest. “I am begging you, M’jan. Please, tell me if she survives.”
“She lives,” Magnus said simply in reply, “but she is deathly ill.”
“Is she here? I mean…is she out of Fade?”
“I believe that she is. She awoke for just a moment and tried to speak, but of course her body is too unused and deficient for speech at the moment. However, if I had to guess, it was your name she tried to say.”
“It was?” he asked a bit numbly. The relief washing through him was so profound that it acted like a ricochet in his body. It was Magnus’s sure strength that guided him safely to a seat on the floor when he couldn’t seem to stand upright any longer.
“Where is Karri?” Magnus demanded as he watched his foster son collapse in mental and physical exhaustion. “Nicoya, bring tea and frousi for the vizier. Daniel, warm clothes and blankets. Bring them from my things. Shiloh, if you would please find Karri and have her bring her herbs and medicines?”
“M’jan Magnus.” Shiloh spoke up in protest to being ordered about all for the sake of some half-breed creature and the priest’s favored son. Of course, he couldn’t say as much to Magnus without risking trouble. “There are others who can run such an errand for you. I am better useful tending to those other Shadowdwellers who are in need of a priest while so many of us are absent because we are in here, spending time on this.”
Trace looked up at the priest and narrowed evil-tempered eyes on him. Whether Magnus heard the contempt behind the thinly veiled insults or not, Trace heard them quite clearly. He felt Magnus close a strong hand around his arm in warning.
“You are correct, M’jan Shiloh,” Magnus said easily. “However, why not combine your tasks? On your way to your work, find Karri and send her back to me.”
“Of course, Magnus,” Shiloh was forced to agree. Still, he was happy to just be getting out of the RV, so it was a good enough compromise.
“Poison,” Trace thought to add as the door shut behind the exiting priest. “It’s poison that affects Ashla. From an assassin’s blade. We were ambushed and I was cut. She healed me.”
“Not completely. If she had, she would be dead and you would not be sick as you still are. Come now, Trace, and relax. You have abused yourself enough for two lifetimes these past weeks.”
“No. Forgive me, Magnus,” he said, reaching to grip his forearm in a plea. “I need to see her first. Please. If our places were reversed, you would feel the same.”
Magnus wasn’t necessarily sure about that. He wasn’t one to react to things with such emotion, since he knew it clouded judgment to do so, but neither was the Trace he was familiar with. Although he had not taken to a life of religion as Magnus had hoped he would, Trace had proven himself a steady and logic-driven man. For him to lose that compass in this way, abandoning it to wildly vacillating emotions and waves of instinct, was significant, though Magnus could hardly appreciate how. However, there was no denying that his former student had formed a quick and deep sort of attachment to the half-breed girl.
In the end, there was more than just protocol and manners between priest and vizier, so it was impossible for Magnus to resist the plea when he knew Trace was the type who rarely begged for anything.
When Magnus stepped aside to show him Ashla, Trace had no idea what he had expected. Maybe he had expected that when her two halves rejoined, there would be more color to her skin or obvious signs of increased life in her body, but she looked exactly as she had before, like a porcelain doll left in a spell of sleep and stillness. The only difference was the labor of her breathing and the dampness of her skin as the poison within coursed through her frail body.
“What made you go after her?” The question took them both by surprise, even though Trace had asked it. He hadn’t even realized it was brewing in his thoughts. “You didn’t know she was Shadow from the start. Why would you leave the caravan at such a critical time to seek out the body of a wraith?”
Magnus turned and stepped away from Trace, moving back to his patient to briefly kneel and check her vital signs. “I hardly think it is an unreasonable action,” he replied almost defensively with a glance up at the other religious members in the room. “Did I not give you tasks to do?” he demanded of them. And although he had only given tasks to two of them, the room cleared out very quickly. When they were alone, he looked back at Trace. “She was an anomaly. Certainly worth investigation.”