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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
Even without the nightmarish clouds surrounding us, I could barely see. Nothing but desert stretched out in front of us, and the headlights from Adrian’s car were now too far away to do any good. That strange flash of light was gone, too. Even the moon seemed to hide, but Adrian’s incredible strides never wavered. It was as if his eyes had night-vision technology built into them.
His speed had startled me when I was only an observer of it. Now that I was locked in his arms, hurtling through the night like I’d been strapped to the front of a bullet train, it filled me with terrified awe. His heart pounded next to my cheek, but he couldn’t be human. No mere mortal could move this way. Hell, some hybrid cars couldn’t go this fast.
“Where is it, Ivy?” he yelled, the wind snatching away his words almost before I could hear them.
I wasn’t sure anymore. All the darkness had disoriented me, and it wasn’t like there was a neon sign that said Hallowed Ground This Way. I didn’t say that, though. What I saw when I glanced over his shoulder froze the words in my throat.
That roiling mass of evil was right behind us. I shouldn’t have been able to see it against the midnight-soaked desert, but I could. The shadows forming it were filled with such seething malevolence that their darkness gleamed. Then something like a huge mouth gaped open, teeth long and razor-sharp.
“Adrian!” I screamed, tightening my arms around him.
He didn’t look back, though his grip on me turned bruising. “Tell me where to go, Ivy!”
I forced myself to look away from the appalling sight, but I couldn’t look ahead. Sand-filled wind stung my eyes from how fast Adrian ran. I couldn’t see, but maybe I didn’t have to.
I closed my eyes like I had back in the car. Concentrated on my need to be as far away from the formless death monster as I could. My concentration broke when something sharp lashed my legs before digging in as though trying to claw its way up my body. I screamed again, and Adrian snarled, somehow increasing his incredible speed. With a final slice, the claws left my body, but something hot and wet ran down my legs.
I choked back my next scream, my heart pounding as fast as the booming beneath my cheek. Then I concentrated again, pain and panic finding the switch in my mind that I hadn’t realized was there.
“That way,” I said, pointing without opening my eyes.
Adrian changed direction, the hard pumping of his legs shooting pain into me from the endless impacts, but I didn’t care. Another roar sounded behind us, growing closer, until I could almost feel its icy breath on my cheek. My legs throbbed, anticipating more claws slicing through my skin, and though I knew I shouldn’t, I opened my eyes.
It was right there, faceless except for those grotesquely large teeth that snapped mere inches from my head. I stared, too horrified to scream again. It stretched, growing even bigger, until I couldn’t see anything except the wall of evil that was about to come crashing down on us—
It split through the middle, breaking around us like water parted by rocks. An unearthly howl shook me, blasting my ears and blowing my hair back. Just as abruptly, Adrian slowed down, coming to a complete stop a couple dozen feet away from the thing, which surged and recoiled as though trying to break past an invisible barrier.
I didn’t understand for the first few breathless seconds. Then I saw the faint shimmers coming up from the earth and heard the faraway echo of long-dead voices chanting prayers. We’d made it to the hallowed ground, and the demon might rage along its perimeter, but it couldn’t cross it to get to us.
Now I knew why people who’d escaped certain death broke into laughter. It had always looked strange in the movies, but I hadn’t realized how quickly adrenaline turned to relief, the change hitting your bloodstream like a dozen tequila shots. For a few seconds, I didn’t even feel any pain as I laughed from the wild, wondrous exhilaration of still being alive. I wanted to hug Adrian. I wanted to spin in circles. I wanted to scream, “Take that!” at the swirls of dark clouds that stormed along the edge of our supernaturally impregnable walls.
Adrian didn’t laugh, but his wide smile conveyed both victory and savage satisfaction. He stared at the living darkness a short distance from us and said something in that strange, harshly melodic language.
To my surprise, the clouds began to shrink, dissipating as quickly as a fog machine in reverse. Soon, nothing remained except an inky pool on the ground, like the shadows had been transformed into liquid.
“What did you say to make it disappear?” I asked, my brain adding numbly, and why didn’t you say it sooner?
“He’s not gone,” Adrian said, his tone edged with an emotion I couldn’t name. “He’s just shedding his disguise.”
Those fluid shadows suddenly began to rise, forming into a pillar. Then they changed, coiling and swirling until a slender girl with long blond hair broke through them as though she’d been expelled out.
Jasmine hunched in fear as she looked around. When she saw me, she collapsed on the ground in relief.
“Ivy,” she said, her hands trembling as she reached out. “Please, help me!”
I didn’t need Adrian to keep holding me to stop me from going to her. This wasn’t my sister. It was a thing wearing her image like a coat, and it infuriated me.
“Fuck you,” I replied, all my fear and hatred rolled into those two words.
Jasmine’s form blurred, turning into slithering shadows again. Out of those, a man emerged. He was almost as tall as Adrian, though not as thickly muscled, and he moved with snakelike grace as he prowled along the edge of the barrier. Long black hair hid most of his face as the wind tossed it around, but I caught a glimpse of pale skin, burning black eyes and a dark pink mouth that opened as he said—
“I can see why you like her, my son.”
I barely noticed Adrian stiffen. I was too busy being shocked by the thing’s identical, exotic accent and how he’d addressed the man holding me. My son. Was this the secret Adrian refused to talk about? It would explain his superhuman speed—
“Don’t call me that.” Adrian’s voice lashed the air with palpable hatred. “I was never your son.”
The demon sighed in the way my father used to do when I was a child and he was explaining why some things, like dental visits, were unavoidable.
“Not by blood, but you’re mine nonetheless. Now, Adrian, your little rebellion, while amusing, has gone on long enough. Carry her out to me. It will save us all from a lengthy, boring fight before the inevitable occurs.”
Adrian’s smile reminded me of a tiger baring his teeth. “I live to fight you, Demetrius, so it’s never boring for me.”
Demetrius. Wasn’t that the demon who’d sent Detective Kroger after me? I started to squirm, wanting out of Adrian’s arms while I processed this, but his grip only tightened.
Demetrius noticed, and the look he flashed Adrian was both knowing and cruel.
“Every moment you spend with her will strengthen the bond between you. Break it now, before it destroys you when you fulfill your destiny.”
A noise escaped Adrian, too visceral to be called a snarl. “My ‘destiny’ won’t happen if you’re dead. How much did the Archon grenade hurt? Not nearly as much as David’s slingshot will, I hope.”
Demetrius laughed, sending shivers of revulsion over me. If evil came in audible form, it would sound like that.
“Now that I’ve seen the last of David’s seed, I’m even more confident of my people’s success. You must be, too. That’s why she has no idea what we’re talking about.” Another mocking, repellent laugh, then the demon’s face turned serious. “Come home, my son. I miss you. Obsidiana misses you. You don’t belong with them. You never did.”
Adrian’s grip hardened until it felt like I was encased in steel. “I’d rather die where I don’t belong than live another day with you,” he gritted out.
Demetrius shook his head. “So slow to learn,” he said sadly. Then he looked at me, a smile playing about his lips.
“I make your sister scream in pain every day,” he said in an offhand way. “If you want to save her, say my name in a mirror. I’ll trade her life for yours.”
My reply contained every filthy word I knew, plus a few I made up. Demetrius only laughed again. Then, with a swirl of shadows, he disappeared. Or did he?
“Is he really gone?” I asked hoarsely.
“He’s gone. I told you, demons can’t tolerate our realm for long. Even strong ones like Demetrius would be dead after an hour here.”
As he spoke, he let me down, which was good, since I didn’t want him touching me. The words my son kept resounding in my mind. Biologically related or not, the demon imprisoning my sister had close ties to Adrian—a fact he’d deliberately kept from me. Worse, Demetrius seemed very confident that their ties would be restored soon.
“So Demetrius is your stepdad?”
He sighed at the acid in my tone. “The simplest explanation is that Demetrius was...my foster parent.”
The slight hesitation before those words told me he was hiding large chunks of the truth. Again.
“And Daddy Dearest misses you. How sweet.”
Adrian’s expression darkened so much, I half expected to see shadows appear beneath his skin.
“I get that you’re pissed, but don’t ever call him my father again. I was a child when he took me. Not all of us were lucky enough to end up with kind, human foster parents.”
His raw tone melted away some of my anger. He might still be hiding something, but I couldn’t imagine the horrors of growing up at the mercy of a demon.
“Why did Demetrius take you?” I asked with less rancor. “Does it have to do with your mysterious bloodline?”
As I watched his lips tighten in that familiar way, I knew I was right—and that he still wasn’t going to tell me what he was. Not part-demon, evidently, and I doubted he was part-Archon. If he was, Demetrius would’ve killed him, not raised him as his “son.”
“Your legs are injured,” Adrian stated, changing the subject. “Sit. I’ve got medicine in my coat.”
If they hadn’t been throbbing with pain for the past several minutes, I would have refused until Adrian told me the rest of what he was hiding. Since our car was busted and we probably had a long walk ahead of us, I sat, wincing when he pulled at the tears in my jeans. The wounds had already started to stick to the fabric.
After a few moments, Adrian let out a soft hiss. “Lots of gouges, and deep. Take your pants off.”
“Geez, buy a girl a drink first,” I said to cover my dread over how much that would hurt.
His lips curled as he retrieved a flask from his coat. “Ask and you shall receive.”
“You’ve had liquor on you this whole time?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I could’ve really used some, oh, every day for the last few days!”
I snatched the flask and took a gulp, welcoming the burn that made my eyes water, and forced a sputter after I swallowed.
“Not a bourbon girl?” Adrian asked dryly.
“That’s bourbon?” I let out a choking cough. “I thought it might be prison brew!” Still, I took another throat-scorching gulp. Beggars can’t be choosers.
His snort was soft. “No, but let’s just say the recipe doesn’t come from a normal brew company.”
“I’ll bet,” I muttered, then coughed out a protest when he took it from me. “Wait, I’m not done!”
“That’s much stronger than regular bourbon,” he said, putting it back in his coat. “Trust me, you’ve had enough.”
When he started tugging my jeans down, the pain shooting through me made me want to argue, but I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in hours, and I didn’t want to add puking to all the other reasons why this night had been awful. Once my jeans were off, I stayed silent for a different reason.
Savage swipes had ripped open my flesh in at least a dozen places. I saw white in some of the gaping spaces, making my fear of vomiting a real possibility. If I’d been thrown into an angry bear’s den, I probably would’ve fared better. How had I managed to even stand with injuries like this?
I must’ve said that last part out loud, because Adrian answered me.
“Shock and adrenaline, plus your bloodline. You’re stronger, faster and tougher than you realize. You just didn’t know it before because you never needed to be.”
With that, he pulled a sealed plastic bag out of his coat. No wonder he’d made sure to grab it when we fled the car; liquor and medicine were necessities in any survivalist’s book, not to mention the Archon grenade that had made cloud-Demetrius scream.
If I’d known then what I knew now, I’d have savored that scream. His taunts about Jasmine tormented me, as he’d intended them to. If I had any confidence that a demon would keep his word, I’d be tempted to trade my life for hers. Finding the weapon and taking on Demetrius might get me killed anyway, and then my sister would really be doomed.
Adrian scooped out some of the bag’s contents, interrupting that bleak line of thought. The medicine looked like mashed-up macaroon cookies, and I tensed as he held that sticky mixture over the deepest gouge on my thigh. His eyes met mine, their silvery perimeter gleaming.
“Take a deep breath, Ivy.”
I did, and still almost screamed when he brought his hand down. The medicine hurt more than when Demetrius had made the wounds, but I bit my lip and didn’t cry out. Adrian was trying to help. The less I distracted him, the faster this would end.