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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
Memories began to assail me. Jasmine screaming with excitement because she’d been accepted to the same college as me. Her countless pranks, like adding BENGAY to my suntan lotion or replacing my shampoo with bubble bath. How she’d hugged me after my disastrous prom night, and how she’d never told any of my friends—or hers—why I really went to the doctors so frequently. Jasmine as a little girl, sitting with me in a psychologist’s waiting room, her blue eyes somber as she whispered, “If you say you see stuff, Ivy, I believe you....”
The cell phone vibrated, startling me so much I almost dropped it. Incoming call, read the screen. Unknown.
I slowed, torn between curiosity and caution. If I answered and heard Demetrius’s voice on the other line, it would confirm all my suspicions. But what if it was Zach? I could really use the Archon’s help, and for all I knew, Zach contacted Adrian by phone; not to mention unknown would be a damn good description of where his calls were routed from.
I hit Accept but didn’t say anything, hoping whoever was on the other line would speak first.
My gamble paid off.
“Ivy.” Adrian’s voice was hoarse from anger or urgency. “Don’t go in there alone. Don’t—”
I hit the End button so hard, it cracked the screen. Then I threw the phone down, as if that would further sever the connection between us. Still, the forest seemed to fill with Adrian’s presence, until I could swear that the breeze ruffling through the trees was whispering his name.
“Leave me alone!” I yelled, sinking to the ground next to his phone. “You were going to betray me, so I had to do it.”
Saying it didn’t make me feel any better. Believing it hurt almost as much as hoping I was wrong. If I was, I’d ruined any chance between us by doing the one thing Adrian had managed not to do, despite heaven and hell telling him he had no choice. He wouldn’t forgive me for that. No one would, myself included.
With a hard swipe at the tears filling my eyes, I grabbed the phone, got up and started to run again. Right or wrong, I’d made my choice. Whether Adrian intended to stop me or betray me, he knew where I was headed, so I didn’t have much time.
* * *
Last time I’d seen the Paulson bed-and-breakfast, autumn leaves had been swirling around the lovely white house. Now, all the trees were bare and a dark, decrepit shell hung over the B and B, like the negative of a double-exposed photo. It didn’t vanish after a couple blinks, either. It stayed, mute testament to how much my abilities had grown.
That’s also why I could now see words carved into the side of the house, like “LEAVE!” “HELP!” and “DEMONS.” Of course, no one else could see the warnings from people trapped in the other realm. Tourists who pulled up would only see a sign that said “Welcome, Friends!” on the portico over the front door.
I lurked at the far end of the yard, concealed by the trees that butted up against the foothills of the green mountains. Lights were on inside, giving off a warm amber glow, and two cars were in the gravel section where I’d parked the first time I came here. The B and B had guests.
And I was going to crash the party.
I started taking off my clothes, not stopping until I was down to only boots and the itchy leather bikini that doubled as Hound straps. I put the clothes in the blanket with my other supplies and hefted it over my shoulder again. Then I ran toward the house. When I reached the front door, I tried the knob. Just like before, it was unlocked. Silently, I entered the house, trying to focus on the here instead of the dark, double image that showed a place far different than this one.
No one was in the parlor where I’d first encountered Mrs. Paulson, but laughter came from farther down the hallway. I followed it, ending at the dining room. Two youngish-looking couples sat at the table, and for a frozen second as their heads swung toward me, no one moved.
Then screams coincided with the sound of chairs and other items crashing as they knocked things over in their panic to leave. I bared my teeth, hissing and waving my arms, hoping to scare them right into their cars. They needed to get out of here for more reasons than what Mrs. Paulson had probably been planning for them.
Not that the guests were grateful for my saving them. I had to dodge several plates one of the guys threw at me before he ran down the hallway. Finally, the woman I’d been waiting for appeared, looking flustered as she entered the dining room.
“What is going on—” Mrs. Paulson began, only to stop dead at the sight of me.
“Dyate,” she whispered.
My grin must’ve looked savage, because I felt every inch the fearsome creature she thought I was as I came toward her. The innkeeper looked like the same salt-and-ginger-haired old lady I’d first met. She even still had on an apron, as if I’d interrupted her while she was baking dessert, but out of the two of us, she was the real monster.
This bitch had delivered my sister to demons. She’d also sent Detective Kroger after me, and for all I knew, might’ve been the person who’d messed with the brakes on my parents’ car. I wanted her dead so badly, it burned. But first...
I dropped my sack when I was a few feet away. She still didn’t move, following protocol on how to avoid being mauled by a Hound, but her gaze flicked to the sack in surprise. Guess she hadn’t noticed it before, what with not expecting a hulking demon lizard to show up in her dining room. Then I pulled out the note I’d written earlier, shoving it in front of her.
Take me to the gateway.
Her face puckered into a frown as she stared at it. I knew she could read what I’d written; my note to Costa had proven that. My hope was that she’d think I was a stray who’d gotten separated from its handler, but that had a note telling whichever minion that found me to send me back home. As for the sack, well, dogs carried stuff sometimes. Maybe I should’ve held the sack in my teeth to look more Hound-like.
When her frown cleared and she looked at me with palpable hatred, I knew my plan had backfired.
“Davidian,” she hissed, yanking something out of her apron.
I lunged to the left when I caught sight of a barrel. Her first shot missed me by inches and her second one went over my head as I ducked. Then I charged, steamrolling into her, fueled by hatred and strength from a legacy I still didn’t understand. She went down, the back of her head smacking against the tile floor. But she still didn’t let go of the gun.
I yanked its barrel to the side just in time, sending the shot she fired into the wall instead of my stomach. Despite her aged appearance, she had a grip like a bear. Teeth like one, too. She tore into my shoulder, making me yelp with pained surprise. I couldn’t get the gun free, yet I didn’t dare let go of it to pull her mouth off me.
As if Adrian were whispering instructions into my ear, I suddenly knew what he would do. So I did it.
I threw myself forward, my momentum causing Mrs. Paulson’s head to smack against the tile again. Her scream reverberated against my aching shoulder, yet she didn’t let go of the gun or stop biting me. I flung forward several more times, ignoring how it drove her teeth deeper into my flesh. Finally, her grip on the gun loosened and I was able to yank it away. My shoulder throbbed—I’d need a tetanus shot now, dammit!—but my grip didn’t waver when I pointed the gun in her face.
“Where’s the gateway?” I snapped, forgetting for a second that she couldn’t understand me.
Mrs. Paulson spat at me, landing a disgusting glop on my cheek. I wiped it off with my other hand before grabbing the note that had fluttered to the floor near us.
“Where?” I said, shaking it at her.
She responded with a torrent of Demonish, some of which I recognized as more curse words. My jaw clenched. Adrian was on his way, and I didn’t know whose side he was on, so I had to be gone before he arrived. That meant I couldn’t waste any more time asking Mrs. Paulson nicely.
I lowered the gun and shot her in the arm. At this range, it blew a large chunk off, coating me in an instant spatter of red. She howled, her agonized writhing almost dislodging me, but I held on and shoved the note in front of her again.
“Where?” I yelled, putting the barrel to her leg next.
She didn’t need to understand my words to translate the threat. “In my office!” she gasped. “Please, no more!”
She deserved more. So, so much more, but I didn’t have the time or the stomach to give it to her. I hauled her up, planting the barrel of the gun into her side. She sagged, leaning against me so heavily, she almost toppled us over.
“Show me,” I said, jerking my head at the hallway.
Once again, she got the gist and began staggering down the hallway. From the quiet around us, we were now alone in the inn. Guess if a massive demon lizard hadn’t been enough to scare the guests off, hearing several gunshots had done the trick.
“Here,” she said, leaning against the doorway to an office.
I couldn’t see through to the dark realm here, but then again, I hadn’t with any of the other gateways, either. Still, I wasn’t going to take her word for it. I jabbed her harder in the side with the gun and shook the note for emphasis.
“Where?” I said, shoving her into the room.
Blood had turned her graying hair crimson, and more dripped from what was left of her upper arm, but she still managed to catch herself instead of falling. Again I was reminded that minions might look human, but they weren’t, so while Mrs. Paulson was acting weak and defeated, the bitch still had lots of fight left in her.
“There,” she said, pointing at the corner. Then she braced herself against her desk, as if she didn’t have the strength to hold herself up on her own.
Sure she didn’t. I kept the gun aimed at her as I went inside. The corner had a bookshelf on one side and an oil painting on the other. Certainly nothing that screamed “Demon door!” but when had any of them been helpfully marked? I stretched out my hand toward the center of the corner—and gasped when the blood coating it suddenly pulsed with an almost painful energy.
Adrian was right. It did feel like an electric shock, but only for the parts of me that Mrs. Paulson had bled on. That’s why I’d done the most awful, unforgivable thing to him before I left him tied up and alone in that room.
I’d bled him.
Adrian told me I needed minion, demon or Judian blood to cross through a gateway. I hadn’t been sure if Mrs. Paulson would be here tonight, so I’d taken precautions to ensure that I could get through the gateway anyway, and by precautions, I mean about two beer bottles’ worth of Adrian’s blood.
Maybe now, I wouldn’t need it. The last thing I wanted to do was paint my skin with the proof of my awful deed. I could barely look at the bottles without feeling guilty enough to cry, so hopefully Mrs. Paulson had bled on me enough to—
An ominous click had me throwing myself to the side, and not a moment too soon. White hot pain grazed my arm, but my otherworldly speed had saved my life. While I’d let thoughts of Adrian distract me, Mrs. Paulson had gotten another gun from somewhere.
I fired back, not even getting a chance to really aim because I was too busy running out of the room. Just as quickly, I ran back in, cursing myself the whole time. Don’t leave a minion alone with a demon realm gateway, dumb ass!
Mrs. Paulson was on the floor, one hand stretched toward the gateway as if she were trying to claw her way inside. She wouldn’t be going anywhere, though. A single smoking hole dotted her forehead and the back of her head was gone. Then the rest of her disappeared as her body disintegrated into ashes.
I didn’t have time to marvel at my shot, celebrate this small revenge for Jasmine, or be worried about how little it bothered me to kill someone. Again. Instead, I went back to the dining room to grab my sack and rub more of Mrs. Paulson’s blood on me. Then, bracing myself, I went back to her office and ran straight for the corner.
Every other time I’d entered a realm, I’d tumbled out of the gateway into a barren landscape of frozen darkness. This time, I landed in a decrepit version of the same bed-and-breakfast, with lights glowing from the nearby hallway.
Mrs. Paulson’s office looked a lot different on this side. It didn’t have a stick of furniture and the only decorations on the walls were holes. Aside from some ratty-looking blankets, it was also empty. When I crept out into the hallway, however, I found out that the rest of the B and B wasn’t.
“Hound!” a brown-haired guy who looked about my age yelled. Then he froze, giving me a chance to take in his ragged clothes, unkempt hair and wiry build. If I’d seen him in the real world, I’d have expected him to be holding up a sign asking for money. For a human in a demon realm, he looked great. His clothes were dirty and torn, but they were real clothes. Not disgusting human hides, and though he was lean, he didn’t look half-starved.
Was the Bennington realm slightly less appalling than the other ones? The thought gave me hope that my sister was still alive. I wished I could ask the guy about Jasmine, but all he’d hear were hisses, and I’d left my notepad back on the other side.
Adrian had told me that Jasmine wouldn’t be in the B and B, yet I checked it anyway. All the people stood like statues in whatever posture they’d been in when they heard the “Hound” warning, making them look like exhibits in a wax museum. They were in their teens or twenties and looked as disheveled as the first guy I’d seen. Still, no one looked abused, and the kitchen had real food in it. From the makeshift beds in almost every room, these people seemed to live here, yet I hadn’t come across a minion yet.
I also didn’t see Jasmine, but she’d been here. One of the girls had on a sweater that I recognized as hers. Again, I ached to ask, but I didn’t have time to find a way to communicate, not to mention that minions could show up here any minute.