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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“When you are well,” he said softly to her, “I will tell you how I love you, jei li. Believe me, had I realized it sooner, I would have confessed it before this. Strange, how blind I can be when something sits so close to me. But I had no idea what to make of how you affect me. How could someone so small and so meek be so powerful? I mistook your fear for cowardice at first, you know. Then I realized that it is nothing to fight when you have no fear, and everything courageous to fight when you have to overcome absolute terror. Had I consulted with my father over this, he would have seen this. No doubt, he would have. He would have shaken the idiocy out of me, for certain.
“Did I tell you that when I was young he had this way of smacking me across my ass with the flat of his working blade? I would try and dodge him every time, and fail miserably. He did it whenever I was being dense or arrogant. I swear I still feel the sting of it sometimes, keeping me in line.
“When you are well,” he continued hoarsely, “I will ask him to join us. If he agrees, then I will beg you to become my blessing, my child’s mother, my permanent heart. And I’ll hear none of this nonsense about you being a half-breed. I wouldn’t care if you were fully human with barely half a century left to live. I would take every minute. Oh, honey,” he breathed, kissing her hard against her forehead as he tightened his hold. It was as though he could keep her alive with will and strength alone. “I need you to survive. Can you forgive me for this? For all my mistakes? I never meant to cause you pain.”
Trace looked up as his bedroom door eased open.
“Leave me be unless you bring me a miracle,” he said in a bitter, emotion rough voice.
“Fortunate, then, that I do,” Tristan remarked softly as he pushed the door open wider.
Trace watched with confusion and doubt as he did this, revealing the presence of a tall, silver-haired male Trace had never seen before. By his skin tone he might have been a ’Dweller, but his sterling hair and matching eyes of mercury dispelled that notion instantly. He also wore light colors: tan breeches and black boots; a white shirt of loose, billowing fabric. He wore silver daggers strapped to his lean legs, the worn leather wrapped around the weapons’ hilts telling Trace how familiar they were to his hands.
“Ajai Trace, I would like for you to meet Gideon. He is one of the Demons I met during the Nightwalker summit.”
Demon! Trace was absolutely shocked. He had met very few of this race in his lifetime, and then only by rare accident. Only recently had serious contact taken place between their breeds. Their efforts toward mutual peace were in the infant stages at best. What had made Tristan think to call on a creature so distant from their culture in geographical and essential ways?
“Welcome, Gideon,” he said softly. “You will forgive me if I do not rise to meet you.”
“Understood, Ajai Trace,” the Demon said with low-voiced respect.
“Gideon lives in the Russian territories. He and his mate are ambassadors to the Lycanthrope court for their king,” Tristan explained.
So, he had been much closer than Trace had thought. Tristan must have traveled through Shadowscape to reach the Demon. But how had he brought him back so quickly? And what good could a Demon do a dying Shadowdweller?
“I understand your confusion and your doubt, as well,” Gideon said, his eyes steady and deep with a wisdom Trace was very familiar with whenever he looked into his father’s age-traveled eyes. This Demon, he realized, was very old. For all his young, healthy form, he had seen life through many centuries, and it was written there in those silvery eyes. “I am a medic. A healer for my people. A very powerful one. Chancellor Tristan believes I can be of help to your woman, and he may not be wrong.”
Trace didn’t want to feel the surge of hope rushing through him if it was unfounded. He was worn out, thrashed by all the abuse his emotions had taken since the day Baylor had attacked him.
Since the day he had met his Ashla.
“Forgive me, but I don’t see how. A Demon healer cannot heal a Shadowdweller. Not that I know of.”
“Not that I know of, either. However, as I am understanding this, your woman is not entirely Shadow.”
Not entirely Shadow.
“You can heal humans!” Trace exclaimed, sitting up suddenly and gathering Ashla up tight in his hold. Dared he hope for this?
“I can heal her human half. Perhaps that will be enough to let her Shadow half come the rest of the way.” Gideon walked across the room to Trace and Ashla. “I was skeptical when Tristan suggested it. Our bodies do not work in absolute halves. She does not have half-Shadow blood cells and half-human blood cells circulating through her. She is a fusion of both, of course. However, now that I see her, it is plain her human genetics are dominant. In theory, this will be critical to saving her. That and the fact that I am unlike any other healer.”
It was all Trace could think of to say. He held Ashla forward to this would-be savior, ready to settle to his knees if he had to in order to make this happen.
“Lay her on the bed and either step away or move to the other side. I also ask you to please be aware that a healer touches to focus power, and I will need to do this.”
“I know,” Trace said quickly as he obeyed the command to lay Ashla out and then hurried to the opposite side of the bed. “Ashla is a healer. She touches as much skin as possible to do it. May I hold her hand?”
“Of course. It will not disrupt me.” The Ancient Demon reached down to draw a fingertip over Ashla’s forehead. “A healer is strange for your breed, is it not? Or am I mistaken? There is much we are ignorant about with one another.”
“Something that we will one day change,” Tristan promised.
“Soon, I hope,” Gideon remarked.
Tristan did not respond. He could make no promises when the future was so uncertain beneath his feet. Whatever was happening in their world, it would take time to discover it and then repair its damage. Until then, their truce with the other Nightwalkers would have to hold its own. For the time, however, they had eradicated the most immediate threat. From this point, they could work their way backward through any veins of destructive disease that remained.
Gideon turned his knuckles against the cold dampness of the girl’s face. He closed his eyes and sought to sink inside her ravaged systems. Unlike Ashla, when he healed, he was not affected other than by the power he used. This backlash that she suffered, he considered, might be a flaw of her cross-heritage. While the Druids who had blended with human DNA and created hybrids had made intensely powerful descendents, it seemed that first-generation hybrids between humans and Shadows were not so fortunate. At least not in this instance.
As he searched through Ashla’s system, he was surrounded by the black specificity of the poison within her. It was attached to her ’Dweller DNA like an engineered virus. This could be a tragic obstacle in his healing. He could heal and strengthen that which was human within her, but what would that matter when her Shadowdweller half was the part of her under attack? But again, it was the fusion of the two that might make the difference. That and the curiosity of her own healing power. Perhaps he could fortify this anomalous gift.
He reached down and closed his hand around her throat gently, focusing his power into a beam of searching light within her, seeking her strengths and her healing aspect. He called it to him, coaxing it from its desperate work of trying to win a losing battle. She had burned all her energy taking in the poison, sparing nothing for herself. A typical human trait, to do something in this all-or-nothing manner. Had she used half her ability and saved the other half to heal herself, then she might have been better off. Still, it was a brave thing for her to do.
Foolish, but brave.
Trace was forced to sit by and watch, with nothing but prayers and love in his arsenal to help her return to him. To lay faith at the feet of this Demon stranger was almost as insane as the rest of his existence had become. But within the space of a minute, he watched Ashla take the first full and deep breath of hours.
“Blessed, beautiful Darkness,” he uttered in his choked relief.
“Just a step,” the Demon warned him. “Only a step in a long journey.”
Ashla opened her eyes in a slow, sticky flutter of lashes. Grit scraped her eyelids and she opened her mouth to take in air. Her tongue felt like it was wrapped in cotton, and her jaw ached at its hinges. She was raging with thirst as she focused on the men ringing her bed.
“I could use a Coke,” she said thickly.
“Last I checked, we don’t have a McDonald’s down here,” Tristan remarked with amusement.
“I imagine the neon and fluorescents would have something to do with that,” a stranger with shining silver hair returned.
“Trace.” Ashla turned to where he was in bed beside her.
“Yes, love?” he asked, his voice a rush of taut emotion and relief, his eyes shining with nearly shed tears.
“I’m not naked, am I?” she asked in a whisper.
“No, love.” He chuckled. “I wouldn’t allow that.”
“Good,” she sighed with relief. “So I guess I’m going to live,” she theorized.
“Not for much longer unless you learn reserve and measure in use of your power, youngling,” the silver-haired man said with stern authority. “You need someone to teach you both. Plus, I believe you can do much more with your gifts one day if you can manage to keep yourself healthy. I also do not recommend any more such risks as this last one until after your child is born. Luckily, she is part human herself and I was able to strengthen her. I do confess, though, that she was well protected by your womb in the first place. A surprise, considering how undernourished you are.”
Ashla blinked and turned to look at Trace. Trace was gaping at the other man in absolute shock, so that pretty much confirmed for her that she hadn’t heard that last part wrong.
“Uh…Trace…?” she asked uneasily. “Just, um, how accurate is this guy?”
“I-I have no idea.” Trace rose fully to his feet, meeting the Ancient healer’s eyes dead-on. The blasé lift of one silvered eyebrow told him in an instant that this was a man who was never wrong about anything, and that if he suggested otherwise, he might end up paying for it. “But…there’s this method we use to prevent this from happening,” he tried to explain, the numbness filtering into his body making speech awkward and slow. “Our males take oral contraceptives. I take them, I mean. I always protect my partner. To do otherwise would be…”
“Dishonorable,” Ashla chimed in for him, pausing long enough to give the only other non-’Dweller in the room a significant eye-roll. She was surprised when the austere man actually smiled. “Do me a favor,” she said as she tried to make her weary body sit upright, “say something before he sticks his foot down his throat or I stick mine up his butt.”
“Ashla!” Trace was aghast she would speak to a visiting dignitary in such a way.
“What?” she shot back.
“I realize how you might be surprised by this pregnancy,” the Ancient speculated, “if what you say is true. I would have to know more about this contraceptive to explain the anomaly with any certainty. However, I assure you she is indeed harboring a fetus, and that fetus is three-quarters genetic Shadowdweller. All I can say is, I hope the one-quarter part that is human does not include her mouth.”
Trace exploded in a shocked laugh even as Ashla scowled at the blatant insult. He supposed he ought to have taken just as much insult on her behalf, but frankly he was a little too overwhelmed after the day he had had. All he knew now was that she was clearly going to be all right. She was alive.
“Burning Light,” he choked out suddenly. “My father is going to kill me.”
“Oh, brother. I’m tired and I’m going to sleep,” Ashla announced, scooting back down in bed and getting comfortable. “Someone wake me after this episode of Shotgun Wedding is over.”
“Ashla, this is serious! We must be joined as soon as possible!”
Ashla wasn’t sure, seeing as how she was feeling really crappy at the moment, but that had to be the worst and most unromantic marriage proposal on earth. His only saving grace was that she had realized the depths of his emotions for her before this news had sent him spiraling into his cultural heart attack over her unwed and knocked-up state.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just at least let me sleep a few hours first,” she said, closing her eyes and trying not to smile. She figured a sucky proposal deserved an equally lackadaisical acceptance.
“Gideon,” Tristan said, clearing his throat. “I am sure Ashla and Trace mean to thank you for your help.”
“Yeah, thanks, Gideon,” Ashla acknowledged with a wave before closing her eyes again. “We’ll have to name the kid after you.”
“It’s a girl,” Gideon reminded her dryly.
“Oh. Well, next time, then.”
“We should go,” Tristan said with a sigh as he reached to guide the medic to the door. “This only promises to get worse.”
“Did you or did you not describe her to me as a ‘shy, mouselike girl afraid to even say hello’?” Gideon was asking as Tristan took him away.
“Must be the poison,” he said with a shrug before beginning to close the door.
“I am actually more apt to suspect New York state,” she heard him reply.
The door shut with a click and left Ashla and Trace alone in the silent room. Then she heard Trace move, clamping his hand on her shoulder and rolling her hard onto her back as he swung a leg over her, astride her as he leaned down nose to nose with her.