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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
“And they realm-snatch from each other to get more.” I nodded as if it made perfect sense.
The look Adrian gave me made me wonder if I’d missed something important. “Not just from each other. Every chance they get, they absorb more of our world into theirs.”
“You never mentioned how,” I reminded him.
A shrug. “If you believe in M theory, they do it by manipulating gravity to force contact between two dimensional layers, creating a new interdimensional bubble.”
He sounded like a physicist. “Laymen’s terms, please.”
“When a vacuum gets switched on, it sucks whatever’s closest into a lint bag, right? When they get enough power, demons use gravity like a vacuum’s On switch to activate an area’s natural geographic instability, crashing one multiverse into its reflective duplicate. Once the gravitational layer restabilizes—in essence, the vacuum getting turned off—everything in the new lint-bag realm is trapped.”
“So gateways are like the hose that runs from the sweeper to the lint bag,” I mused, adding, “Why do you always grab me when we go through them? Couldn’t I make it through myself?”
A smile ghosted across his lips. “Try it,” he said, gesturing to an empty space to his right.
I gave it a doubtful look. “Nothing’s there. All the other realm gateways had markers.”
“All the others?” He snorted. “You’ve only seen two. More than half the gateways aren’t marked, Ivy. That’s why they’re so hard to find unless you can feel them.”
I didn’t feel anything, and all I saw next to Adrian was air and grass. “You’re sure it’s there?”
Another snort. “Even if I hadn’t been through this one before, I’d still be sure. Think you could not notice jamming your finger into a light socket? That’s what gateways feel like to me.”
Wow, my abilities must be weak. I had to concentrate like a fiend to sense a hint of something hallowed, and Adrian felt dark objects like they were electric shocks. Then again, he’d had years to hone his abilities. I’d just found out about mine less than a month ago.
I squared my shoulders. Time to exercise some supernatural muscle! I focused on the space Adrian indicated, and then flung myself forward like I was diving into a pool.
Face-plant. Ow, ow, ow!
Adrian’s chuckle penetrated the part of me that wasn’t seeing cartoon birdies fly over me in circles. My body vibrated from the impact, and I now knew that dry grass tasted like uncooked spaghetti with dirt sauce.
“Not funny,” I groaned.
He knelt next to me, still chuckling as he offered me a hand up. “If you saw the air you caught before you hit the ground, you’d disagree.”
I flipped over, glaring as I swatted his hand away. “Payback’s a bitch. Remember that.”
He pulled me to my feet. Even as I swore revenge, part of me savored his unfettered amusement. Adrian rarely laughed unless it was in derision, bitterness or challenge. Seeing him do it with only mischief tingeing his features was like seeing a diamond in the sunlight versus glimpsing it in shadows.
I shouldn’t, but I stared anyway. No wonder Obsidiana had wanted him back enough to risk coming after him alone. I hated the hell-bitch, but I couldn’t fault her for her taste.
Adrian’s laughter died away, and he glanced at our hands, as if just realizing that he still held mine. Our eyes locked, and his words from before replayed in my mind.
I’ve wanted you since the first time you touched me.... Nothing but dark magic had ever felt so powerful, and when I touch you, it’s a thousand times worse....
My grip started to tighten, but he pulled away, a familiar hardness turning his expression into an impenetrable mask. His gaze flared, though, and his hands clenched into fists as he drew in a harsh breath. His expression might be statue-like, but in those seething sapphire eyes, I caught a glimpse of the wildness he held back, and it made me shiver.
If Adrian ever freed the part of him that wanted me, would I be able to stand it? Or would I love every second of being overcome? Only concern for my sister kept me from testing both of us by throwing myself into his arms and forcing him to feel what he kept telling himself he couldn’t have.
His muscles bunched, as if on a primal level he sensed the reckless passion growing in me. Maybe he did. Maybe it was more than our bond that made me throb in places he’d never touched, as though demanding to feel his hands, his mouth, on me there.
Adrian spun around, his coat unable to hide how his whole body had suddenly tensed, as if he’d been zapped with the electric shock he’d alluded to before.
“Let’s go,” he said hoarsely. “Places to be, minions to kill.”
My hands trembled as I drew on my thick winter parka and gloves. I already had on the insulated pants and boots.
“First, tell me why I can’t get through the gateways on my own,” I asked, stalling so I’d get a second to compose myself.
He half turned to show a smile like uncut crystal—beautiful, yet jagged around the edges. “Same reason as everything else— bloodlines. You need minion, demon or Judian blood to cross through the barriers that lead to the dark worlds. You don’t have that, so by wrapping myself around you, I’m essentially covering you with my blood to get you through.”
That explained so much. No wonder demons didn’t bother to station guards at every gateway. Even if the humans they captured managed to navigate the pitch-blackness to find them, they couldn’t cross through them to get back to their world. Once in a realm, they were hopelessly trapped.
My jaw tightened. Not Jasmine. As soon as I found that weapon, I was coming for her, and with Adrian’s help, she would see the sun again.
“I’m ready,” I said, my tone now only slightly breathy.
He didn’t look at me when he pulled me to him and then dropped us into the gateway I hadn’t been able to see, let alone penetrate. As soon as we finished tumbling through the invisible membrane linking our realms, he let me go. I blinked, my eyes adjusting to the darkness that seemed to seep inside my soul, chasing away my desire while hardening me with purpose. If the weapon was here, Jasmine’s awful captivity would be over. All I had to do was stay strong, focus and find it.
Light from the town reflected off the icy ground, adding an eerie, faint luminescence that kept me from being totally blind. Still, it was dark enough that I couldn’t see Adrian’s face. Only the bulk of his large body next to me. The tall silhouettes around us must have been trees, frozen into place from the cold. I couldn’t see more than the widest part of their outlines; their branches, if they had any, were invisible against the darkness that hovered above us like a malevolent spirit.
Adrian leaned down, his warm breath in stark contrast to our frozen surroundings as he spoke near my ear.
“Anyone stops us, let me do the talking.”
Since I didn’t speak Demonish, I’d already planned on that. I was about to tell him the same when his whole body froze with such suddenness, it was as if he’d been transformed into stone.
“Ivy, don’t move,” he whispered in a low, vehement voice.
I tried to will every part of me to similar stillness, but I couldn’t stop my eyes from darting around or my chest from rising as my heart sped up and my lungs responded with a demand for more oxygen. What was out here that was so dangerous, Adrian was playing statue instead of reaching for his gun?
My answer was a hissing sort of growl that raised every hair on the back of my neck. It sounded like a feral wolf that had just found a meal, and somewhere to my left, an answering, howling hiss shattered the dark in answer.
“Adrian,” I whispered, terror skittering through me.
Fast as lightning, he was behind me, his arms like twin bands around me. “Close your eyes,” he ordered, his voice barely audible. “It can’t hurt you if you don’t move.”
I slammed my eyes shut. I’d seen people butchered plus demons transform into deadly clouds and crows, but if Adrian didn’t think I could handle whatever this was, I’d believe him. The growls came closer, and with a sudden vibration in the ground, I felt something big land right in front of me. Reeking breath came in pants that hit my face like light slaps. I fought a fresh surge of panic as I realized I was standing, yet the creature was still eye level with me. What was it?
Its hiss turned guttural before I felt something slimy and wet flick across my face with the quickness of a snake’s tongue. Fear-driven revulsion would’ve made me immediately swipe at the spot if not for Adrian’s warning.
It can’t hurt you if you don’t move.
I didn’t know how that could be true. The thing had licked me; it knew I was here! Not a muscle on Adrian twitched, though, and after that disgusting lick, the creature didn’t do anything except wheeze in that weird, hissing way. I mimicked Adrian’s stillness, keeping my eyes shut and willing my breaths to be soft and shallow. Then a new, ominous vibration shook the ground. Another creature had landed right behind us.
More reeking breath filled the air with the stench of old garbage and rotted fish. A hissing snarl blasted out, loud as a trumpet and so terrifying, my knees felt like they turned to Jell-O. Only Adrian’s grip kept me standing perfectly still as something massive bumped my body, like a shark testing its prey. I squeezed my lids tighter, fighting a near-overwhelming urge to go for my gun. I felt beyond helpless, beyond vulnerable. If Adrian’s arms hadn’t been wrapped around me, a tangible reminder that I wasn’t facing this alone, I might have started shaking.
Then a roar blasted in front of my face, so loud it seemed to reverberate inside me. My heart pounded as something sharp grazed the top of my head, parting my hair with multiple hard points. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know what it was. The creature’s gigantic fangs. My guts twisted with terror and resignation. One snap of those jaws, and it would all be over.
It can’t hurt you if you don’t move!
I couldn’t tell how long I frantically repeated Adrian’s promise, but the fangs on my head eventually vanished. Then, with two sets of vibrating thumps, the space around us felt less oppressive and I knew the huge, hulking beasts had gone. I still didn’t move or open my eyes, though. Not until Adrian lifted me up, ran, and I felt us tumbling through the gateway back into the light and warmth of Collinsville, Illinois.
Grass hit me in the face from our hard landing, but I didn’t care. Instead of standing up, I started to swipe at my cheek hard enough to bruise, and still it felt like the slime from the creature’s tongue remained. I wanted to wash my skin with scalding water, but I couldn’t. All I could do was keep rubbing my face with my gloved hands.
“What were those things?” I whispered, still too traumatized to speak in a normal tone.
Adrian knelt and grasped my wrists, forcing me to stop my rough grooming. His face had shiny trails on it, too, showing I hadn’t been the only one the creatures had licked.
“Hounds,” he said evenly, “which means we have a problem.”
I started to laugh. Not the exhilarated, yay-I’m-alive kind, like when I’d survived Demetrius’s first attack, but wild cackles that hovered between derangement and despair.
“A problem? You don’t say,” I gasped out. “I thought huge demonic dogs would only be a minor nuisance.”
Adrian smoothed the hair out of my face, his hand lingering to cup my chin.
“‘Hound’ is a nickname. They’re not dogs. They’re ancient reptiles the demons selectively bred until they made the most vicious thing on four legs. Can’t see, taste or smell for shit, though, which is why you’re safe if you don’t move. If you do, they’re trained to tear you to pieces.”
I stopped laughing, but that didn’t mean I felt more stable. “I vote we skip this realm and only search ones without demonic, man-eating reptiles.”
“It’s not that simple,” he said, still in that infuriatingly calm tone. “They weren’t supposed to be there, so the demons must be amping up their security. They know you’ve searched two realms for the weapon, Ivy. Looks like they’re trying to stop you from searching a third.”
The suck never seemed to end. “But now that we know they’re there, can’t we just bring bigger weapons and kill them?”
“Hounds are almost as difficult to kill as demons,” Adrian responded, a hint of grimness making me wonder if he spoke from experience. “Plus, they’re cold-blooded, so they have to keep returning to their handlers to warm up, which means it wouldn’t take long for one of them to be missed.”
Crawling into the world’s largest ketchup bottle and not coming out was starting to sound like a great idea. “Now what?”
He gave me a level look. “Now we talk to Zach.”
We used most of our remaining Archon-glamoured sticky notes for gas money to return to Costa’s house in Miami. Once there, we waited. And waited.
By the fourth day, Zach was still a no-show despite Adrian repeatedly trying to reach him. I tried, too, mostly by folding my hands, glaring upward and thinking multiple variations of Where are you, Zach? I know you can hear us!
Costa wasn’t around, either. At least he’d called, saying he was staying a few more days with Hoyt at Tomas’s family’s house. With no one actively trying to kill me and our realm-searching put on hold, I had nothing to do except brood. I couldn’t even enjoy the sunny warmth of South Florida. If I wasn’t feeling guilty over Jasmine languishing in her captivity, I was being tormented in another way.