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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
My staring seemed to annoy him, so I looked away. He said something sharply to Adrian and then grabbed my wrist hard enough to bruise me. Adrian moved with that lightning quickness, putting Camo Guy in a headlock with his arm bent at the wrong angle before I could even say, “Let go.”
“I told you, she goes straight to Mayhemium,” Adrian said, speaking English this time. “And if you delay me again, I’ll rip your head off.”
I didn’t know if it was Adrian’s dangerous tone or how quickly he’d broken Camo Guy’s arm, but he grunted something that must’ve been an agreement. Adrian let him go, smiled as though they’d exchanged a friendly hello, and then half dragged me through one of the openings in the wall.
Lots of stone steps later, we reached the pyramid’s lower courtyards. At first glance, it looked like an average street market. Vendors hawked various wares inside their booths, food cooked on open grills, and people milled around, either buying or window shopping. But every other person had that strange roll of light over their eyes, and when I got a closer look at some of the vendors’ wares, my legs abruptly stopped working.
“Keep moving,” Adrian whispered, half lifting me so it wasn’t obvious that shock had frozen me where I stood.
I forced my suddenly numb limbs to keep working. It helped that Adrian took us quickly through the market section and into a side alcove that had a drain in the floor. Even though his large frame blocked most of my view of the courtyard, I still couldn’t stop the grisly images from replaying in my mind.
Along with a few slabs of cow and pig, food vendors also sold human body parts. For customers who wanted fresher meat, their human selections were slaughtered on the spot.
“Why?” I choked, unable to say more because words couldn’t make it past the bile in my throat.
“There’s no sunlight here.” Although Adrian’s tone was matter-of-fact, something haunted flashed across his expression. “That means no grass, grains, vegetation or animals. Minions and pampered human pets get to have regular food imported from the other side, but the slaves have only one thing to eat. Each other.”
That bile turned into vomit that I couldn’t hold back. At the same time, I was shaking with rage. Now I knew what all the leather garments and doorway flaps were probably made of, too.
Adrian didn’t mock me for puking, or tell me to pull myself together. He held back my hair, his other hand moving over my shoulders in a comforting caress.
“We can leave,” he said low. “The realm’s not going anywhere. We’ll come back another day to search it.”
Laughter drifted down from one of the pyramid’s balconies, its sound an abomination. No one should laugh here. No sound should be made except screams of horror at what was going on in this lightless pit of evil. I wanted to run back to my world as fast as I could and never, ever return, but if I did, I’d be condemning Jasmine to spending the rest of her life in a similar hellhole. I’d rather die than do that.
Resolve mixed with my rage, helping me get control of my stomach. I wiped my mouth with a gloved hand and gave Adrian a look that reflected the new hardness creeping through my soul.
“Take me deeper inside this place. I’m not leaving until I check every frigging wall for that weapon.”
* * *
I learned more about demon life than I ever wanted to know as Adrian guided me through the pyramid’s many levels. First, generators supplied heat as well as light to the massive structure, so my extra clothes were now slung over my arm. Second, the inside looked like someone had taken the Great Pyramid of Giza and pimped it out with modern—albeit barbaric—amenities.
The large stadium section was for gladiator-style fights to the death, a popular form of entertainment here. “Pets,” which was how Adrian referred to humans who’d caught the eye of demons, lived above the courtyards. Minions lived above them in condo-styled units, and of course, the best, most luxurious quarters were reserved for the supernaturally sadistic rulers of this realm. Adrian said we’d be avoiding those places unless I sensed something, but so far, I hadn’t picked up a hint of anything hallowed in this opulent, stone-and-brick nightmare.
I also found out how Adrian was able to escort me around without arousing suspicion. For one, he spoke the language, and every light-show-eyed guard who stopped us only used that to communicate. For another, Adrian’s cover story was that I was a newly arrived “pet” for Mayhemium. From the knowing looks that garnered, whoever Mayhemium was, he had a lot of “pets.”
I’d figured out Adrian’s final trick after noticing how quickly every human looked away from him when we passed. The only other people they treated that way were guards, and since they didn’t all dress alike, that left only one other thing.
“Zach glamoured your eyes to shine like the guards’ eyes, didn’t he?” I whispered once we had a moment alone in one of the pyramid’s many stairways.
The barest smile cocked his mouth. “That’s right.”
“Why do theirs do that?” Also whispered, but wheezier. I must’ve climbed two miles in steps by now.
“Part of the perks of being a minion. Along with increased strength and endurance, demon marks give them the supernatural version of tapetum lucidum.” At my raised brow, he added, “The extra layer of tissue in animals’ eyes that allows them to see in the dark.”
That explained the odd shine, but... “You don’t have that, and you see as well as they do.” And move faster, I mentally added.
I couldn’t read the look he threw me. “I’ve already told you why.”
Right, his mysterious lineage. He might’ve told me some of the whys, but he hadn’t spilled the “what” yet. The more secrets he revealed, the more I burned to know his biggest one.
“That’s the gift that keeps on giving, then,” I said, trying not to sound like I was probing, which I was.
His jaw tightened until I swore I heard cartilage crack. “I’d give anything not to have this lineage.” Sapphire eyes seemed to burn as they swept over me. “Especially after meeting you.”
If we weren’t inside a demonic version of the Luxor hotel, I would’ve demanded that he elaborate. He’d already told me more since we’d arrived than he had in the week leading up to it, but “bad timing” didn’t begin to cover our current situation.
Of course, that meant it was about to get worse.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose before I saw her. Apparently, my “hallowed” sensor could also pick up on the presence of pure darkness, because with one glance, I knew the woman coming down the staircase was a demon.
It’s not that she had “Evil!” stamped on her forehead, or obvious supernatural indicators like Demetrius’s shifting shadows. Maybe it was the way she moved, as if every muscle instantly coordinated with the others, turning her walk into a graceful, predatory glide. Maybe it was her hair, each wavy lock either midnight black or a burnished copper shade. Her pale skin was also telling, but it was her face that sealed my suspicions.
No one could be that incredibly, perfectly beautiful unless they’d had a million dollars in plastic surgery or had made a deal with the devil, and my money was on Option B.
Even Adrian couldn’t tear his eyes away, which hurt in ways I didn’t even want to acknowledge. Yes, she was gorgeous, but did he need to stop walking and stare like he’d been transfixed? He hadn’t been affected enough to pause in his stride when they were slaughtering people in the courtyards!
I either made a sound, or my instant hostility caught her attention because dark topaz eyes slid over me as she passed. Just like with Demetrius, I fought the urge to wipe my clothes, as if her gaze had left a tangible trail where it landed. She said something in what I now referred to as Demonish and Adrian responded, his voice much raspier than normal.
He couldn’t even talk right around Her Evil Hottiness? I quietly seethed, but when she disappeared down the stairwell, Adrian let out a sigh that almost blew the lid off my temper.
He was actually sighing after her. Guess when he said he hated demons, he meant only the males or the ugly ones.
“How much more ground do we have to cover?” I whispered acidly, hating him and hating myself more for caring.
His attention snapped back to me. “You still don’t sense anything?”
Only your hard-on for evil incarnate. “Nothing.”
“Then we’re done. You sensed the burial ground at half the distance from what we’ve covered, so it must not be here.”
Good, we could leave. Not soon enough for my tastes, either. This realm wasn’t where the weapon had been hidden, I’d already have nightmares from the horrors I’d seen, and now I wanted to punch my only ally in the face. Lose-lose all around.
We made it out of the pyramid without incident, and I looked down as we exited through the courtyards. No one stopped us at the stone gates, and we navigated the pueblo-like village with nary a word spoken in acknowledgement. Once we’d cleared the edge of the wigwam village, however, our luck ran out.
“Hondalte,” a commanding voice ordered.
Adrian paused. I did, too, schooling my features into a blank mask despite the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. When I turned around, I saw that my demon radar hadn’t been malfunctioning. The lanky, blond-haired man approaching us had two tall, dark arcs rising out of his back.
Not arcs, I realized when he drew nearer. Pitch-black wings. Then he spoke, causing my stomach to flip-flop in fear.
“If she is a new pet for me,” the winged stranger said in English, “tell me, why are you leaving with her?”
“My lord Mayhemium,” Adrian said, bowing formally. “I have discovered that this one is too flawed for you.”
The blond demon came closer. I tried not to stare, but he had wings. Were they real or a type of illusion, like Demetrius’s ability to transform into shadows and other people?
“What is so flawed about her?” Mayhemium asked, and my skin felt like it was trying to crawl away as his gaze slid over me.
“I have crabs,” I blurted out, saying the first gross thing that came to mind.
The single glare Adrian shot my way said that I wasn’t helping. “She’s mentally defective,” he replied, his tone implying that it should be obvious. “I’m taking her to Ryse’s realm. He doesn’t mind less-than-superior pets.”
Mayhemium’s gaze swept me again. From his expression, Zach had glamoured me into looking as gorgeous as Adrian’s disguise was plain. Then the demon waved an imperious hand.
“I’ll take her anyway.”
Adrian let go of my arm and stepped away. I tried to conceal my shock, but I wasn’t that good of an actress. Yes, we were deep in enemy territory and outnumbered by a thousand to one, but was he really going to let Mayhemium take me?
The demon thought so. My breath sucked in at the gleam that appeared in those inhuman eyes. Now I knew what death looked like when you stared it in the face. Then Adrian straightened, abandoning his subservient posture.
“I never liked you, Mayhemium,” he said in a tone so flat, he sounded bored. “At least you’re so arrogant, you came alone.”
Before the last word left him, he hit the demon, moving so fast all I saw was his usual blur. Mayhemium stared at him, something inky leaking out from the side of his mouth.
“Adrian?” he asked in disbelief.
“Ivy, leave,” Adrian ordered, urgency now replacing the flatness in his tone.
Mayhemium’s head whipped around, and he stared at me with understanding that turned into unbridled savageness. “The last Davidian,” he hissed.
Adrian punched him so hard, I expected a dent to appear in the demon’s face. It didn’t, but more incredibly, Mayhemium shattered, his body transforming into dozens of large crows that flew straight up before diving in a furious arc toward me.
My arms rose to shield myself, but Adrian was suddenly blocking them, his large body absorbing the stabs from beaks sharpened into knifelike points. With lightning-strike quickness, Adrian snatched the largest crow out of the air and then crushed it in his fist. Mayhemium materialized at once, howling in apparent agony, his long black wings now broken.
“Think I didn’t remember how to neutralize your trick?” Adrian’s purr dripped viciousness as he punched the demon hard enough to knock him over again. “What’s wrong? Can’t fight without your wings?”
Mayhemium snarled something in Demonish that turned Adrian’s face into a mask of rage.
“No,” he spat. “I’ll never do it.”
“You will,” Mayhemium roared. “It’s your destiny!”
“Not today.” With that, Adrian landed a kick that snapped the demon’s leg when he got up again. When Mayhemium bent low and staggered, Adrian smashed a knee into his face, crunching bones with an audible sound. Then Adrian’s fist drove through the demon’s neck, briefly disappearing up to his wrist before he yanked it and a handful of something pulpy out.
Yesterday, the sight would’ve made me gag, but after touring the pyramid, all I wanted to do was cheer, especially when Mayhemium fell and didn’t get back up.
Adrian strode over, yanking my arm with a hand now coated in what looked like motor oil.
“What part of ‘leave’ did you not understand?” he snapped.
“The part where I left you alone with a pissed-off demon,” I replied, feeling dazed. “Is he dead?”
“Of course not.” Adrian propelled me into the darkness, running so fast I had trouble keeping up. “For the tenth time, humans can only kill demons with the weapon we don’t have yet.”