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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
Adrian’s expression was as hard as the grayish rock behind him, but Tomas gave me a thumbs-up, and Costa started to smile. Guess I wasn’t the only person to think that Adrian’s biggest issue might be Crap Family syndrome.
“I wish I believed you, Ivy,” he said roughly. “But believing you is part of the fate that I can’t allow to happen, for both our sakes.”
Without waiting for me to respond, he opened the duffel bag and tossed a ski jacket, thermal pants and gloves at me.
“Put these on.”
I gestured at the scorched landscape, as if he hadn’t realized we were in the middle of a desert with high noon approaching. “Are you serious?”
“These, too,” he said, adding a pair of fleece-lined boots to my pile.
I gave him a level look. “Either you’re trying to kill me, or the realm we’re about to enter is really cold.”
“They’re all cold,” Tomas said, accompanied by a grim snort of agreement from Costa.
I was shocked. “You two have been in one?”
“We were trapped and Adrian pulled us out,” Tomas said, only to be cut off by Adrian’s, “Now’s not the time.”
I marched over to Adrian and jabbed my finger in his chest.
“You told me there was no way to get Jasmine back without this mysterious weapon, but you got them out of a demon realm?”
“Ivy,” he began.
“Don’t! You said the only thing I could trust about you was your hatred of demons. If you want me to find that demon-killing weapon, you’re going to tell me right now why you could rescue Tomas and Costa, but you can’t help me save my sister yet!”
I planted my feet, my glare promising that I wasn’t moving until I had an answer. Tomas and Costa looked uncomfortable, and Adrian looked angry enough to deck both of them, but all he did was let out a sharp sigh.
“I wasn’t lying when I said we needed the weapon to save your sister. The only reason I was able to save them without it was because I took them with me when I left.”
My scoff was instant. “A bunch of demons just let you waltz out of their realm with two of the humans they’d captured?”
“Yes,” he said, his tone now flatter than a polished mirror. “I grew up in that realm, so they were used to me doing whatever I wanted in it.”
I don’t know why the words hit me like a punch. Adrian had told me that Demetrius took him when he was a child. I guess I’d just assumed minions had raised him in this world, and Demetrius had...checked in on him frequently.
“You were raised in a demon realm,” I said, my anger changing into something else. “And they trusted you, so you must’ve, um—”
“Lived just like they did,” he supplied, an icy bleakness filling his tone. “Still think I’m pretty great?”
I didn’t know what to think. Part of me was appalled and the other part was weeping. How old had Adrian been when Demetrius yanked him out of this world and raised him in a demon one? If he’d been very young, would he even have known that everything he saw—or did—was evil if it was all he’d ever seen of “normal?” Maybe finding out was what had made him switch sides and work with Zach. Maybe that was why he hated demons with such pathological single-mindedness now.
And maybe his twisted upbringing, combined with whatever his ancestor had done, made Adrian feel like fate had doomed him. In some ways, I couldn’t blame him.
“I still think you are what your decisions make you to be,” I said at last. “I also think if these guys made it out of a demon realm, then my sister can, too, so let’s do this.”
With that, I pulled the ski jacket over my tank top, slipped the thermal pants over my shorts, replaced my sandals with the knee-high fuzzy boots and put on the gloves. Finally, I released my long brown hair from its ponytail. If it was cold enough to warrant ski wear, my ears would need the covering.
All Adrian did was toss the now-empty duffel bag into the back of the Jeep.
“You’re wearing that?” I said, gesturing to his long-sleeved T-shirt and regular jeans.
A diffident shrug. “I’m used to the cold.”
I left that alone, forcing a smile as I glanced at Tomas and Costa. “See you guys soon, hopefully.”
I didn’t get a chance to hear their response. Adrian wrapped his arms around me, walked us rapidly toward the tall, oblong rock and then plunged us through it.
* * *
I’ve always loved roller-coaster rides. The wild exhilaration of being propelled through turns and loops so fast that your face felt heavy and your body molded to your seat was second only to the rush of relief when the ride was over. Being transported through a gateway into a demon realm was sorta like that, only with a lot more noise and nausea. It took a few moments to settle my heaving stomach once we were on the other side, and during that time, I was grateful for the icy air. Then I opened my eyes and realized I still saw...nothing.
“Adrian?” I said, panic setting in when rapid blinking didn’t make the blackness disappear. “Something’s wrong. I’m—”
“You’re not blind,” he said, his deep voice almost as comforting as his hand closing over mine. “Sunlight doesn’t exist in demon realms. That’s why they’re so cold, too.”
I’d never been in total darkness before. It wasn’t just frightening and disorienting—it was dangerous. For all I knew, we were standing on the edge of a cliff. Even if everything around us was flat, I couldn’t judge the length of my steps because I couldn’t see the ground. When I tried to walk, I ended up staggering.
Adrian’s arm went around me, clasping my left side to his right one.
“Close your eyes and concentrate on moving with me,” he said, the confidence in his tone easing my fears. “Don’t worry. I can see where we’re going, and I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
We began to walk, first in hesitant steps while I learned to trust the feel of his body instead of my sight, and then at a normal pace. Surprisingly, it did help to keep my eyes closed. Since I wasn’t trying to see, I focused on his smooth strides, the flexing muscles that preceded a change in his direction, and the reassuring way he instantly adjusted his hold to support me if I faltered.
It didn’t take me long to be grateful for the parka, boots, gloves and pants, too. Even with them on, the cold seemed to seep into my bones, but just like the darkness, it didn’t appear to bother Adrian. He didn’t so much as shiver in his light clothing, and his hand felt warm in mine. How many years had it taken for him to adapt to this dark, frigid wasteland? Once more, my heart broke for the child he’d been. Even without demons, growing up in a place like this would have been awful.
After what felt like an hour, Adrian paused. I did, too, of course, sniffing at the new, fuel-like smell in the air.
“You can open your eyes,” he said. “The town’s up ahead.”
At first all I saw was a black-and-gold spotted blur. After a few blinks, my eyes adjusted, and I made out a blaze of light in the distance, showing lots of smaller structures surrounding what looked like a wide, soaring building.
“Thank God,” I breathed, so glad to be able to see that I didn’t care if I was looking at a demon town.
“Don’t say that. It’s a real giveaway that we don’t belong.”
Adrian’s face was hidden by darkness, yet his tone made me imagine that he said it with one of his wry smiles.
“Good point, but aren’t we avoiding the town?” I asked, whispering in case someone was out in the blackness with us.
“Can’t. What’s known of the weapon’s location is that it was hidden in a wall, and the only walls are in town.”
“Is that all we know, or do the demons know exactly where it is?”
He snorted. “No. If they did, they would’ve used it for themselves a long time ago.”
“Why didn’t the demon that hid it do that?”
Adrian paused, seeming to choose his words, which meant I’d just be getting part of the truth again. “As it turns out, only a few people can activate the weapon’s true power. Minions can’t, and neither can the average demon. Zach said that the demon who hid it was on his way to tell a more powerful demon about it when Zach killed him.”
“Wait. You said demons could only be killed with the weapon Zach didn’t have,” I emphasized.
A shrug I felt but couldn’t see. “Archons don’t need it to kill demons, and other demons don’t need it to kill their own. The rest of us do, which includes you and me.”
Figures. “Couldn’t Zach have gotten its location before he silenced its hider forever?”
Another pause, longer this time. My temper flared. “Could you for once just answer me with the whole truth?”
“Fine.” His tone thickened. “For all I know, Zach did find out where the weapon was. Even if he didn’t, his boss knows, yet here we are. Know why? Because neither of them really cares if we live or die trying to find it.”
His brutal analysis stunned me. “But that’s...they’re...they’re on the good side,” I sputtered.
His laughter was like glass grinding together. “They win or lose this war, Ivy. Not us. We can only depend on each other, because to Archons and demons, we’re just pawns that they move around for their own purposes.”
“But Zach’s your friend,” I argued softly.
“You don’t understand Archons. They’re not fluffy beings sprinkling supernatural happy dust everywhere they go. They’re soldiers who’ve been relegated to the sidelines until the pesky issue of humanity has been settled. Frankly, I think Zach’s reached the point where he doesn’t care what happens to our race, as long as he finally gets to fight.”
What Adrian described couldn’t be true. Good couldn’t give a complicit shrug to evil, and the faith of billions of people from every race, background and creed couldn’t be worthless to whoever the Archons’ “boss” was.
“You’re wrong,” I said, still softly but with an undercurrent of iron. “We do matter to them. It just might not look that way sometimes, from our side of the fence.”
The harshness was gone from Adrian’s laughter, replaced by a despairing sort of anger.
“That’s why I still hide things from you, Ivy. If you can’t accept the way the board’s set up, you’re not nearly ready to learn the endgame yet.”
“Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready,” I replied, my sense of resolve increasing. “I get why. You’ve had it bad for so long, all you see is darkness even when the lights are on.”
“Bad?” His voice changed, becoming a whisper that seared me even in the frigid temperature. “You don’t know the meaning of the word, but you’re about to find out.”
I had braced myself, but no amount of mental preparation would’ve been enough. At least, when I finally did throw up, it matched the reaction any human would have at seeing how demons lived inside their own world.
At first, the town reminded me of a medieval fiefdom, with the overlord’s manor overlooking the serfs’ much cruder lodgings. In this case, wigwam structures were laid out in tight clusters along the lowest part of the hill. Smoke billowed from their open tops, reminiscent of pictures I’d seen of sixteenth-century Native American life. Very few people seemed to be in the wigwam village, and the ones we passed looked away when they saw Adrian. They were also skinny to the point of appearing wasted, and their clothes consisted of shapeless leather tunics that couldn’t have been nearly warm enough in these frigid temperatures.
“This area is for laborers, the lowest level of human slaves,” Adrian said tersely. “Next are overseers’ and merchants’ quarters.”
Those must have been the plain but sturdy huts that dotted the hill about a hundred yards higher than the wigwam village. Torches were interspersed among the narrow paths between them, and their interiors glowed from what I guessed were fire hearths. They looked like ancient Southwestern pueblo houses, with the addition of leather flaps covering the doorways and windows to keep the heat in. Once more, no one attempted to stop us as we walked through. In fact, anyone we passed seemed to avoid eye contact with Adrian, and he strode by as though he owned the place. I practically had to run to keep up, and since the hill was steep, it was quite a workout.
After we ascended about three hundred yards, we reached gray stone gates that surrounded what was clearly the town’s epicenter. Torches lined the exterior of the gates, but I smelled fuel and heard the unmistakable hum of generators, which explained how this area appeared to have electricity. The added lighting made it easier to see, and once I did, I stared.
This wasn’t a mini city located at the top of a hill. The city was the hill. The closest thing I could compare it to was a gargantuan pyramid. The base had to be a mile long, with courtyards I couldn’t fully see from my lower vantage point. Massive balconies with elaborately carved stone columns showed people milling around inside the pyramid, and one entire side of it seemed to house a huge stadium.
Further up, the corners had huge faces carved into them. One was a lion and one was an eagle, with the predators’ mouths open as though about to devour their prey. The very top of the pyramid blazed with so much light that it looked like a star had landed there. I couldn’t make out much detail, though. It had to be as high up as the sphere on the Empire State building.
I was so awed that I didn’t realize someone had come up to us until I heard Adrian speaking in that poetically guttural language. My gaze snapped to his left, where a dark-haired, muscled man now stood. It wasn’t the metal breastplate over his brown camouflage clothes that caught my attention, although that fashion mistake should never be repeated. It was the man’s face. Light rolled over his eyes like the passing of clouds, and inky black wings rose and fell beneath his cheekbones, as if he had a tattoo that could magically appear and disappear.