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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
“Yes, I’m having second thoughts,” I said hoarsely.
“Tell me she said yes,” Costa muttered. “Because this—”
“Is a bad idea,” I finished, though only Adrian understood me. “Costa’s right. Let’s stop off somewhere. I, ah, don’t feel so hot all of a sudden.”
Adrian shot a suspicious look my way, but my stomach gurgled as if in agreement. Either he heard it or decided not to push me, because he turned off the highway at the next exit.
I drew in a deep breath, trying to force back the clenching in my gut that came from fear, anger, and a very real sense of betrayal. Despite all his warnings, I had trusted him. Hell, I’d done more than that. The rest of my ancestors might have been drawn to Judians out of compassion or the belief that darkness could be overcome by light, but I’d allowed myself to fall for Adrian, making me the stupidest Davidian to ever walk the earth.
My teeth ground together. Fine. I might have been the most gullible person in my ancient, illustrious ancestry, but that ended right now. I’d make sure my sister was alive and if so, I would find that weapon. I’d just do it without Adrian.
But first, I had to find a way to get away from him.
Adrian rented only one room at the Motel 6. We had enough money and Archon-blessed oil for more, so I guessed he intended us to just grab a few hours’ sleep before we hit the road again.
The single room worked for me, but for different reasons. I’d come up with a plan. Not a great one, but I couldn’t think of anything else in the short time I had. Adrian parked around the back of the hotel to hide my monstrous disguise from other guests, and once I’d been hustled inside the room, he followed his usual protocol. That meant drawing the drapes and then sprinkling the interior with holy oil to render the room temporarily hallowed.
I waited until Adrian took his turn in the bathroom before I wrote on the little pad of paper every hotel room seemed to have. Then I handed it to Costa, hoping my Hound disguise didn’t somehow screw up the words he saw on the page.
Need to talk to Adrian alone. Give us a couple of hours?
Relief washed over me when Costa nodded, then crumpled up the page, tossing it into the trash.
“Gonna go clear my head, bro,” Costa called out, grabbing some money from the duffel bag. “I’ll be at the bar next door.”
He left before Adrian could argue. Or maybe he wouldn’t have. When Adrian emerged from the bathroom, his expression was serious and water clung to his hairline, as though he’d splashed some on his face while he was in there.
I sat on one of the double beds, suddenly finding it hard to look him in the eye. Knowing what I had to do didn’t make doing it any easier.
“I know you’re not really sick,” Adrian stated, his gaze searching mine as he came nearer. “Just upset. Is it from finding out my real age, or because I used to rule the Bennington realm?”
“Both,” I admitted. A surge of anger made me able to look at him fully. “After the new section was swallowed, was it your idea to restore the bed-and-breakfast on this side so minions could use it like a Venus flytrap?”
That must have been how Jasmine had been taken. None of the other Bennington hotel employees had recognized her picture. How simple it would’ve been for Mrs. Paulson to make all records of Jasmine’s stay at the B and B disappear. Add in more minions on the police force to take care of any snooping family, and it was the perfect setup for funneling humans into the demon realm.
“No, that was Demetrius’s idea,” Adrian replied, sitting on the bed opposite mine. “But he’s not alone. Demons have rackets like that all over the world. Hotels, guided tours, boat rentals, chauffeur services...any business that gets people alone and vulnerable, there’s a chance a minion’s planted in it.”
“And nobody cares.” My snort was bitter. “People like Jasmine disappear every day, and the world shrugs because she’s not their sister.” Pain sharpened my voice as I added, “Or daughter. Minions killed my parents, too, didn’t they?”
Adrian sighed before running his hand through his hair. “Probably. They’d be considered too old to be decent slaves, and if they were making waves over her disappearance, their having an ‘accident’ would be the simplest solution.”
I stared at him, silently daring him to look away. “Then I showed up making more waves, but I’m young, so they tried to make me a slave instead.”
“Yes,” he said, his gaze boring into mine while varying emotions flitted across his features. Disgust, anger and the most telling of all. Guilt.
“You did that to people, too.” My accusation filled the space between us, creating an invisible barrier that seemed to grow with every second.
“Yes, I did.” Something too bitter to be a smile twisted his mouth. “I told you, for a while, the demons had convinced me that humans were no better than they were. Just more hypocritical, because on this side, human slavers, murderers and oppressors were called dictators, kings and presidents, if they did it to enough people. Only the humans who did it to just a few were called criminals.”
“Our race has issues,” I acknowledged, still holding his stare. “Doesn’t excuse what you or the rest of them did.”
“No, Ivy, it doesn’t,” he replied, his voice very soft. “And I see the faces of everyone I harmed whenever I close my eyes. That’s why I started working for Zach. Every person I save feels like washing a drop of blood from my hands, but deep down, I know I’ll never even the score. Some things can’t be atoned for, and all the lives I’ve saved will never restore the ones I’ve taken or ruined.”
I wanted to believe the regret resonating in his tone. Wanted to trust the pain etched on his features, or the look in his eyes that seemed to urge me to revile him for all the things he reviled himself for. But Jasmine’s life—and mine—hung in the balance, so I couldn’t trust him. He’d told me that enough times, and this time, I’d believe him.
I looked away and forced out a shaky laugh. “I don’t know about you, but I could really use a beer. Aren’t there still some that didn’t get used for target practice in the trunk?”
He didn’t say anything. I sneaked a glance at him. Adrian still sat exactly as he had been, his elbows braced on his legs while he leaned forward. The only thing new was his frown.
“After everything I just said, your response is to start drinking?”
More than a hint of disbelief tinged his tone. I scrambled for a convincing reply and found myself answering with the truth. Part of it, anyway.
“You might want to keep stewing over all the horrible things in your past, but I want to move forward. Right now, that involves getting a drink.”
A slight snort escaped him. “Guess there are worse ways to move on with our lives.”
He went to the door, but as he opened it, I couldn’t stop from asking a question that had nagged at me. This was the last chance I’d get, even if his answer was just another lie.
“Forget our roles, fates, whatever for a minute. When it’s all said and done, who do you think is going to win this war? Archons or demons?”
He half turned. Though his face was only in profile, I could see that his expression matched the absolute certainty in his tone when he spoke.
I let out a short laugh. “Is it me, or do they seem outnumbered? I’ve seen several demons, but only one of them.”
“You’re right, they’re outnumbered.” Something else lurked in his voice now. A pained sort of wistfulness. “When it’s light versus dark, that doesn’t matter. One shadow in a brightly lit room goes unnoticed, but shine a ray of light into even the darkest corner...and everything changes.”
Then he left, splitting my emotions right down the middle. If he believed Archons would win, how could he betray me to the losing side? Was he that brainwashed by what he’d been told was his fate, or was he just saying that to play me?
Jasmine’s face flashed in my mind, reminding me that I didn’t have time for second-guessing. I ran over to Adrian’s duffel bag, quickly rifling through it. Once I had what I needed, I dragged a chair over to the hotel room door and stood on it. Despite my preparations, two sides of myself remained locked in battle.
Believe him! my hopeful half screamed. Just because he thinks his awful past has doomed him doesn’t mean it has!
It’s too late! my cynical half roared. You can’t trust him, he’s already admitted that he’s too far gone!
Somewhere in the parking lot, a trunk slammed closed, then footsteps approached the door. I sucked in a breath, my vision blurring as I raised my hands. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t.
But I had to.
The door opened—and I slammed the same large rock we kept to smash mirrors down onto Adrian’s head before he even cleared the threshold. His fist shot out with his lightning-fast reflexes, but in the instant before it landed, his eyes met mine. His sapphire ones widened, then his hand buried into the wall instead of my face.
“Ivy?” he asked, as though confused.
Tears streamed from my eyes as I whacked him in the head again. This time, Adrian fell to the floor, and the thump his body made seemed to reverberate all through me. I dropped the rock, sickened at how it was now stained with blood.
“I’m sorry,” I choked out.
He didn’t reply. In fact, Adrian was so still, I wasn’t even sure if he was breathing. I knelt, my whole body rigid from fear as I checked his pulse.
It throbbed beneath my fingers, sending an instant wave of relief through me. He was alive! Even if he’d always meant to betray me, I never would have forgiven myself if I’d killed him. I didn’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for doing this, and I wasn’t done yet.
I grabbed the slingshot from his bag, tying his hands and feet together with it. Then I put duct tape over his mouth, deciding to add a few more layers to his wrists and ankles, too. When he woke up, he’d be pissed, and that was only if he were innocent. If he had intended to deliver me to Demetrius after I found the weapon... Well, maybe I should use all the tape.
When Adrian’s wrists, arms, ankles and mouth were covered by the thick gray tape, I paused. There was one more thing I had to do, and I dreaded it even more than I’d dreaded knocking him out.
With shaking hands, I went back to his duffel bag and pulled out his knife.
I tried to ignore the screech of brakes from the car next to me, but I couldn’t ignore it suddenly swerving into my lane. I veered left, avoiding that crash, yet swiping the front of the Challenger against another vehicle in the process.
Forget everything else I’d done. Adrian was going to kill me for damaging his precious ride.
The driver I’d sideswiped blasted his horn and slowed down, but when he drew even with me, his expression changed from anger to pure terror. I hunched down and drew the bedspread over my head until I could barely see. Too late. Another screech of brakes and he was driving off the road, coming to a stop in the grassy shoulder along the highway.
It was dark out, and I used the hotel bedspread like a veil, but one look at my face destroyed the notion that I was just your average commuter. Seeing a hulking demon lizard behind the wheel was too much for my fellow drivers. At least it was well past rush hour, so while I’d caused a few individual spinouts, I hadn’t been responsible for a real accident yet.
If I wanted to keep it that way, I had to get off the road. Sooner or later, some cop would finish a hysterical motorist’s sobriety test and decide to check out their story of a monster driving a vintage Challenger. Add in the fact that some of the Bennington cops were minions and I’d really be screwed.
Still, I had to get as close to Bennington as I could. Ditching the car to run around in the open raised my chances of being seen. Not driving also meant it would take longer to get where I needed to be. I’d left Adrian back at the motel over two hours ago, so at any minute, Costa would return to the room and find him.
Adrian. I forced back the guilt that made me feel like I’d swallowed a bellyful of acid. He’d told me he’d betray me if we continued to spend time together! Demetrius and Zach had thought so, too, and with Adrian’s admittedly bloody history, many people would agree he deserved what I’d done.
So why was I the one who felt like a betrayer?
To keep myself from brooding over that, I turned off at the next exit. According to the map on Adrian’s phone—yes, I’d swiped that, too—the Green Mountain National Forest bordered the part of Bennington where the B and B was located. I vaguely remembered the woods from my visit to the B and B, so if I kept to the trees, I’d be able to stay hidden until I reached it. The realm gateway was in there, Adrian had said. Too bad he hadn’t specified where in the B and B, but I had a plan for that, too.
I ditched the Challenger in the woods behind a gas station, but only after I wrapped some supplies in my blanket. Then I hoisted it over my shoulder like a sack, held Adrian’s phone out in front of me so I could see the map, and started running.
Once, I would have found the dark expanse of woods creepy, but not now. Maybe it was because no animal in its right mind would attack me with my Hound disguise. Same went for people, and though the air was distinctly chilly, the cold didn’t affect me like it once would have. Must be my growing abilities. After all, it couldn’t be coincidence that I barely needed the light from Adrian’s cell phone to see.
You can do everything I can do.... It’s in your blood. Adrian’s words stole through my mind, encouraging me and slamming me with guilt at the same time. Dammit, I needed to stop thinking about him! I’d made the only choice I could by not trusting him, same thing he’d urged me to do over and over again. Jasmine was the person I should feel guilty about. If Adrian had been lying and she was dead, then I’d failed my only remaining family. Worse, I’d lost my best friend.