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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
After ten minutes of brisk walking, a castle came into view. The walls glowed with different colors, faint but ethereal, reminding me of a small, multicolored version of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. When we got closer, I saw the gates were adorned with ice sculptures that looked like mermen and mermaids. A long staircase bordered by ice-carved waves led up to the castle, and the front doors resembled huge seashells.
More guards were stationed around the gates. In addition to metal, some of their weapons seemed to be forged from ice. It was as though we’d stepped into a demonic version of Poseidon’s Frozen Paradise, and the more I stared, the less I wanted to remember. I hated that it was so beautiful when I knew what horrors lurked beneath the exquisite exterior.
After exchanging a few words with one of the guards, Adrian took us around to the back of the castle. There, we were stopped again, and Adrian relayed the same cover story as before. One of the guards shook his head as he gave me a rough cuff, and I didn’t need to know Demonish to guess that he was disparaging my proposed edibility. I hunched my shoulders and tried to look terrified while I hoped Adrian’s darkening expression didn’t mean he was about to deck the guard. I still hadn’t sensed anything, but we hadn’t entered the castle, and I wasn’t leaving until I’d given it a supernatural once-over.
Thankfully, Adrian didn’t do anything violent, and we were finally allowed into the back of the castle. The narrow hallway looked more igloo-like than Icy Emerald City, but I guess fanciness wasn’t required for the slave entrance, although the floor was a pretty shade of deep pink—
Adrian’s grip on my arm tightened until it should have been painful, but I barely felt it. The floor of the room we entered resembled a layer of rubies. The reason for that became abhorrently clear as I saw a cloudy-eyed minion mop up a pool of blood, its crystallized stain adding another layer of red. The blood came from a nearby ice slab, where another leather-clad minion carved out sections from the body lying on it.
This wasn’t the slave entrance. It was the slaughterhouse.
Mopping Minion said something in Demonish to Adrian. He responded in a harsh voice, dropping his hand from my arm, but I wasn’t focused on him.
A bound, naked boy lay on the floor. At first, I thought he was dead, too. Then his gaze slid from the dripping slab to me, and the absolute hopelessness I saw in it shattered me. He wasn’t silently begging for help. As he watched the butchering going on above him, his blank, empty stare said he knew nothing could save him from being next.
Without the slightest hesitation, I drew out the gun Adrian had given me and fired. The butcher went down, clutching his chest. I kept shooting as I advanced, part of me marveling at the quiet, cough-cough sounds the gun made. That silencer Adrian had screwed onto the end really worked as advertised.
I stopped shooting only when the butcher’s body turned into ash. Adrian looked at the black ashes on the ice, at the slack-jawed minion who’d stopped mopping, and finally at me.
“Shit,” he said simply.
Mopping Minion opened his mouth. Before he could scream, Adrian’s punch to the throat cut him off. Then Adrian gripped him in a brutal headlock that ended with a jerk, a snapping sound, and the minion dissolving into a pile of ashes on the floor.
“Move, Ivy,” Adrian ordered. “We don’t have long until someone finds them.”
With the same eerie calm I’d felt when I shot the butcher, I put my gun away and knelt next to the naked boy.
“Give me your knife,” I said to Adrian.
He frowned but passed it to me, and I cut through the plastic that bound the boy’s hands. He blinked once, but said nothing, even when I took off my parka and wrapped him in it.
“Ivy,” Adrian said in a warning tone.
“We’re taking him with us,” I replied, kicking off my boots.
Pity creased Adrian’s expression. “I wish we could, but—”
“We’re taking him with us,” I repeated, almost spitting out the last two words. “I don’t care if it’s more dangerous. I don’t care if he’ll slow us down. He’s coming or I’m not.”
“You’d risk your sister’s life to save him?” Adrian asked harshly.
I shoved my boots onto the little boy’s feet. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, so they were too big. Tightening the laces would have to do.
“I can’t save Jasmine right now,” I said, my voice calm from the absolute certainty I felt that this was the right thing to do. “But I can save him. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Costa and Tomas are proof that you do.”
Adrian muttered something in Demonish, but picked the boy up, throwing a hard glance at my now-bare feet.
“Put the boots back on. I’ll carry him.”
“He’s freezing and I can manage,” I argued.
“We do it your way, all of us die,” Adrian said flatly. “Put the boots back on, then shut up and do what I say.”
I bristled, but our survival outweighed pride, so I took the boots off the boy and put them back on. He still didn’t say anything. Maybe he was in a state of catatonic shock.
“Now, activate your power and search the castle from right here,” Adrian ordered.
I tried to clear my mind enough to concentrate. It didn’t work, probably because I was in a small icebox with two piles of minion ash on the floor and a chopped-up body less than five feet away.
“I need to get out of this room,” I said.
Adrian’s sapphire gaze seemed to burn into mine. “Not an option, and we’re running out of time.”
I tried again, closing my eyes, but I still couldn’t concentrate on anything except the carnage around me. I was standing on layers of frozen blood, for crying out loud.
“Adrian,” I started to say, but his sudden grip on my throat cut me off.
“Maybe you don’t understand,” he said, fingers slowly tightening. “You need to search this castle right now, and you’re not moving from this spot to do it.”
I grabbed his wrist, digging my nails into his skin. His hand only tightened more, until my throat burned from the pressure. He didn’t even need to shift his grip on the boy to throttle me, and the child watched us with dull, empty eyes. Panic filled me as I couldn’t get in more than a few thin, insufficient breaths. My chest started to heave in urgency, trying to force in air that Adrian wasn’t allowing me to have.
Stop! I thought, unable to say anything. My nails ripped into Adrian’s wrist, yet that ironlike grip didn’t lessen.
“Still can’t utilize your power?” he asked, staring into my eyes with pitiless determination. “Then I’m going to choke you unconscious and leave this kid behind while I carry you out instead. You can’t look for the weapon anyway, or can you?”
My gasp of horror caught in my throat. He wouldn’t do that...would he? Had I been wrong about him? Was he every bit the monster he’d warned me about?
“The only way you’ll stop me is to access your power and search this place,” he went on. “And, Ivy? I can feel it when you do, so don’t bother trying to fake it.”
I’ll never forgive you! my gaze swore, but then his grip loosened and air rushed into my lungs, claiming all my attention. My second deep breath was ambrosia, quelling the frantic clenching in my chest. The third took away my panic, and the fourth had me closing my eyes as I sagged with relief—
An invisible flare ripped out of me, like I’d fired off a sonar ping that somehow made no sound. With it, I felt the castle and nearby grounds as though I’d managed to scour them in an instant. At the end of it, I knew, with a certainty as strong as my decision to take the boy, that the weapon wasn’t here. Nothing hallowed was. This was a frozen wasteland of evil.
With a measured look, Adrian let me go. Red drops blended into the ruby-colored floor as blood dripped from his wrist where my nails had ripped into it.
“I’m sorry,” he said stonily. “We couldn’t take the boy into the castle without getting caught, so I had to do something extreme to make you access your power from here.”
“How’s this...for extreme?” I rasped, then slapped him as hard as I could, anger tapping into strength I normally didn’t have. Adrian’s head rocked sideways, and when he turned to face me, a red handprint was already swelling along his cheek.
“I deserved that,” he said, still in that flinty voice. “Now, let’s get out of here.”
I was furious at him for choking me into near-unconsciousness and threatening to leave the boy, but I filed that away under a rapidly growing list titled Paybacks To Come. I did shake his hand off when he led me toward the exit, and my glare warned him not to touch me again as I followed him down the pink-floored hallway.
Before we reached the door, Adrian took my gun out of my parka, replaced the empty clip with a full one, and then handed it back to me.
“We might have to shoot our way out,” he said, mouth curling with the dark anticipation he always showed before a fight. “But this time, don’t fire unless I do.”
I bit back my caustic reply because talking made my throat hurt more. Besides, we might not live through this. If we did, though...Paybacks.
“Don’t fall behind,” Adrian warned, and then exited the castle, running at a crouch in the opposite direction from where we’d come in.
I followed, keeping low like he did. As soon as I was outside, glacial air seemed to pummel my upper body, my thin sweater no protection against the realm’s frigid temperatures. At once, my teeth began to chatter, the wind making it worse as I ran as fast as I could to keep up with Adrian’s form-blurring sprint. Even as I shook, I comforted myself by thinking of how warm the boy would be in my parka. It was made to withstand subzero temperatures, and right now, that was what it felt like outside.
No guards chased us, which was a happy surprise. Maybe it was because we’d run right into the wall of darkness that bordered the rear of the castle. Nothing and no one seemed to be out this way, and as I abruptly fell on the hard, slick surface, I realized why. Adrian had led us out onto the island’s frozen coastline.
I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the jabs of pain from whatever I’d bruised. At least I hadn’t lost the gun or shot myself from the impact. I couldn’t see in front of me, but the glittering castle behind me was all the motivation I needed to keep running toward where I’d last spotted Adrian. Despite my best efforts, I fell again, cutting my elbows and forearms on the uneven ice. Grudgingly, I had to acknowledge that Adrian had been right. I wouldn’t have been able to run ten feet on this without boots. My feet would’ve been cut to ribbons.
Something large and dark rushed out of the blackness toward me. I lifted the gun, only to hear a familiar voice growl, “I told you not to fall behind!” before Adrian grasped my arm.
This time, I welcomed his grip as he propelled us farther onto the ice. If the town was close enough for me to use its light to see, then we were close enough for the guards to spot us. Adrian didn’t have my visual handicap, of course. He drew me next to him while he moved with his usual breakneck speed, keeping us well inside the blackness while we ran parallel to the coast. By the time he slowed to a stop, I was gasping so hard that I was almost hyperventilating, and icy trails had frozen on my cheeks from wind-induced tears.
“Be very quiet,” he ordered. “We have to go back on the island to reach the gateway.”
I tried to squelch my noisy breaths by sucking in air through my nose instead of my mouth. It only made me sound like a winded horse instead of a winded human. Adrian rolled his eyes, keeping low as he ran across the ice to the mainland. Deciding that meant speed was more important than silence, I followed him.
Light from nearby igloos meant I could see the figure that strode toward Adrian when he reached land, the guard holding out his hand in the universal gesture for “stop.”
“Hondal—” the minion began, but didn’t finish the word. Two short coughing sounds later, the guard dropped like a stone. When I caught up to him, I glimpsed a gaping hole in his forehead before his body dissolved into ashes. In an attempt to cover the evidence of what had happened, I kicked at the ashes, hoping they’d blow away before someone found them.
“Ivy!” Adrian hissed, waving his gun impatiently at me.
I dashed toward him, my thighs burning from running while trying to stay low. A few minutes later, Adrian stopped. I didn’t see anything, but I braced myself when he clasped me to him and then threw the three of us backward.
We tumbled through the gateway into our world, coming out at the base of the split tree trunk. My relief at the embrace of warm temperatures was cut short when I saw how dark it was.
“What?” I rasped. It still hurt to talk, damn him. “We’ve only been in the realm two hours, and we entered it at noon!”
Adrian pulled me to my feet after adjusting his grip on the boy. “Time moves differently there,” he said, leading me through the woods. “Sometimes faster, sometimes a lot slower. Costa told me he and Tomas waited two days in the desert for us in Mexico.”
Two days? That seemed impossible, but then again, so did everything associated with the realms—myself included. I’d shot someone in cold blood, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit bad about it. In fact, it was the only memory I wanted to keep about the glittering, icy realm.
“Something’s not right,” Adrian muttered, his pace quickening. “That was easy. Only one guard stopped us, and I expected to kill at least half a dozen minions on our way out.”