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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
So could Adrian. I let that thought spur me as I left the B and B, dropping my sack by a nearby tree stump so I could grab it on my way back. Then I ran toward the lights in the distance. The temperatures made my teeth chatter, but being here filled me with a desperate sort of hope.
Soon, I’d know for myself if Jasmine was really still alive. If she was, I’d keep up my search for the weapon, even if I’d be doing it without Adrian. Zach would help me, if only because he didn’t want the demons to get it. After I found the slingshot, I’d use it to free Jasmine. Then we’d hide out from the demons and I’d help her get over her captivity while helping myself get over my feelings for Adrian.
Bleakness threaded through me. Guess I should focus on one impossible task at a time.
Growling sounds made me skid to a stop midway up the hill. Lots of trees remained in this realm, standing like tall, petrified monuments to the world they’d been snatched from. That made it hard to see, even with my abilities working at full capacity. Had to be Hounds patrolling the woods.
Those odd snarls came nearer, echoing in ways that almost sounded like they were coming from above. I looked around, expecting a demon lizard to pounce out from behind a tree, but none did. Since I wasn’t supposed to act afraid, I continued back up the hill, though going at a walk instead of a run.
Crashing noises above were my only warning. Then I had to run to avoid being flattened by a pile of frozen tree branches. Even at top speed, I still got struck, but I forgot about the pain when I saw what had caused them to come down around me.
Gray, leathery wings snapped back from their protective circle, revealing a creature that had to be nine feet tall. It crouched in almost apelike style, with its straight, massive arms resting between its bent legs. Shoulder and chest muscles bulged as it raised its head, showing red, glowing eyes and a face that was wider than a Hound’s, but no less animalistic.
If Hounds looked like what would happen if a werewolf mated with a Komodo dragon, then this thing looked like the love child of a Komodo-werewolf-pterodactyl threesome. Worse, the way it stared at me said that moving or standing still made no difference. It could see me either way.
Gargoyle ran through my mind with a morbid sort of fascination. The Bennington realm had a gargoyle.
I did the only thing I could think of when confronted by a much-larger creature who thought I was a dog-lizard: I rolled on my back and showed it my belly, hoping the “Don’t kill me, I’m friendly!” gesture was as universal among animals here as it was in my realm.
The gargoyle cocked its head, staring at me as if I was the strangest thing it had ever seen. It didn’t start tearing into me with those knifelike claws or teeth, though, so I considered my move a win. Cautiously, I rolled over, twitching so much from nervousness that my Archon-glamoured tail probably looked like it was wagging. I wasn’t just in over my head with this situation—I was a thousand feet underwater.
The gargoyle chuffed at me. That’s the closest way I could describe it, but at least it didn’t start speaking Demonish. Hey, gargoyles could talk in cartoons; how the hell did I know if they could talk in real life, too?
“Hiya,” I said back, hoping what it heard was a similar-sounding chuff.
It chuffed again, beating its wings for emphasis. Clearly I was supposed to do something. Damned if I knew what.
“Uh, follow you?” I guessed, taking a hesitant step back up the hill.
It rose with an explosion of air from those powerful wings, which I took as a yes. Then I had to scramble to avoid another shower of frozen branches as it blasted through the tops of the trees. Triumph and terror mingled inside me. I’d met a real-life gargoyle and survived. Now there was a Facebook update for a later time, not that anyone would believe me. Besides, what if gargoyles weren’t the only unexpected creatures in this realm?
For the space of a few heartbeats, I wasn’t sure what to do. Run toward the demon town over the hill? Or go back to the gateway inside the B and B? Adrian hadn’t been kidding when he said the demons in this realm would beef up their security. No wonder there hadn’t been any minions at the B and B. They didn’t need them to keep the humans in line. Not when death flew from above.
And prowled along the ground, I realized as familiar hissing noises heralded the approach of three Hounds.
“You’re late,” I told them dryly, letting the beasts smear me with disgusting, slimy licks as they said their versions of hello. Between meeting a gargoyle and getting a Hound tongue-bath, I’d have nightmares forever from this realm alone.
Decision made, I followed the Hounds back up the hill. Since I was already scarred for life, I wasn’t leaving until I’d seen for myself that Jasmine was still alive.
When we reached the top of the hill and I caught my first look at the city, I paused. Beautiful, I thought grudgingly.
A lot more time had passed since this section of the realm had been swallowed. Most of the forest had been cut down, leaving smooth, flat ground. Frozen rivers snaked through the valley in zigzags, ice reflecting the lights from the castle. The effect made the castle look like it sat on silver necklaces, and the significance of its blue stone walls wasn’t lost on me.
Silver and sapphire, the same color as Adrian’s eyes. I was staring at his former home, and it was barbarically magnificent.
I felt like I was leaving pieces of my heart behind as I followed the Hounds down the hill to the huge castle. Of course Adrian must have been playing me. No one raised by demons would have the fortitude to give all this up. People not raised by demons would struggle with saying no to all the power, money and supernatural bling that was Adrian’s for the taking.
Like his castle. It could double as an icy version of Hogwarts with its massive size. Add in stone gates with elaborate frozen carvings glittering along their tops like cake frosting, and it was breathtaking. The minions who guarded it had shadow markings in their skin, showing they belonged to Demetrius, but their silvery breastplates all had an elaborately scripted A stenciled into the metal. So did the frescos in the outer courtyards, as if I needed more proof that I was in Adrian’s former realm.
And all of this would be his again, if only he turned me over to the demons like everyone expected him to.
One of the Hounds nudged me, almost knocking me over. Okay, so I’d stopped running to stare at Adrian’s once and future kingdom. It had all the extravagance of the other realms, but with one notable difference. Where were the slaves? I hadn’t passed any ramshackle villages on the way, and most of the people milling around the courtyards were minions. Had—?
Something at the top of one of the towers caught my eye. This tower was lit up more than the others—that I’d noticed from the top of the hill—and it also had more open spaces, allowing for easier viewing inside.
That’s why I could see the girl in the cage. Amber light surrounded her, coating her hair and body in varying shades of gold. The cage hung by a thick chain from the tower’s roof, and the girl was sitting in it, her back resting against a corner. She wasn’t wearing much more than I was, making me wonder how she hadn’t frozen to death, until the humming noises coming from the tower clicked with the golden lights bathing her.
She was surrounded by portable heating devices. When she glanced down at the Hounds, who’d started to bay in annoyance because I’d stopped moving again, I glimpsed her face. Even though she was more than forty feet above me, my heart started to pound while my soul felt like it sucked in a breath.
Jasmine. My sister was alive and in that cage!
An avalanche of emotions rolled over me, making my eyes blur with a surge of tears. All these weeks, I’d been risking my life to save her, but an ugly, hidden part of me had thought she was already dead. Everyone else I cared for had been snatched away from me, so why should she be any different? That’s why, for the space of several stunned seconds, I couldn’t stop staring at Jasmine. That hopeless, jaded part of me was convinced that if I blinked or looked away, she’d disappear.
She didn’t, despite my finally being brave enough to close my eyes. When I opened them and saw that she was still there, a noise tore from my throat that was part sob, part laugh. She was alive! Really, truly alive, and unhurt, from what I could see of her. If I hadn’t been surrounded by minions who’d kill me the second they realized who I was, I might have giggled from the maelstrom of relief that flooded me, joining all the other feelings that seemed to compete with each other for maximum intensity.
Then something unexpected happened. My hallowed-hunting abilities kicked into gear. Maybe my sudden overload of emotions had activated them. I hadn’t tried using them because the weapon couldn’t be here. It was in a weak ruler’s realm, and Demetrius ruled this one in Adrian’s absence.
Yet the instant flare that thrummed through me wasn’t relief at discovering that Jasmine was alive, though I was beyond relieved at that. It wasn’t even anger over how she was displayed like a taunting trophy, and that made me damned angry. It was something completely different.
The only other time I’d felt anything similar was when I’d found hallowed ground for Adrian and me to flee to. If that had been a blip on my internal radar, this was a boom! that shook me from the inside out. Even feeling Mrs. Paulson’s blood react to the demon gateway paled by comparison, and that meant one thing: something hallowed was here. Something so hallowed my entire body felt like it had multiple alarms blaring inside me, all pointing toward a single location as if it were a tracking transmitter and I was the antennae.
Shock turned into wild, inconceivable hope. Not only was Jasmine alive, she was in the same realm as the weapon that could save her.
I followed the Hounds inside the castle, but instead of turning down the low hallway that must’ve led to their version of a spa mud bath, I veered off into a corner. A baying hiss was probably one of them cursing me for not keeping up again, yet the lure of getting warm kept them from coming after me.
Good. One Hound roaming though the castle would already garner suspicion. A pack of them? I might as well write my name on my chest so everybody would know who I was.
Then again, maybe it didn’t matter. I could feel the weapon yanking on my abilities, urging me to free it from its hidden location. Once I did, I wouldn’t need to be afraid anymore. Instead, the demons and minions would fear.
The thought emboldened me. I left the corner, ignoring the startled looks I got as I ran through the inner courtyards. At least these food vendors sold cow, pig and poultry instead of human meat, which meant I didn’t have the urge to vomit as I wove through them. Then I was past the vendor area and running for the first stone staircase I saw. The weapon was several floors above me, according to what I could feel, and its power pulsed through my emotions like a beacon.
I passed some humans on the way, so this realm did have more. In fact, they seemed to live in the castle, judging from the instant slamming of doors as they caught sight of me and hid. The ones I came across on the staircase froze in midstep, only their eyes moving as I dashed past them. Just as I’d thought, Hounds must have certain designated areas, and the main castle interior wasn’t one of them.
A voice shouted in Demonish behind me. Had someone sent the Hound handlers after me? I ignored the shout, running faster, a fearful exhilaration rising up to almost strangle me. I couldn’t let someone stop me when I was so close to my goal. I just couldn’t.
I left the staircase at the fourth-floor landing, the slingshot pulling me toward it like I was a fish being reeled in on a line. Following that inner pull, I dashed down the hallway to an ornate, wood-paneled room that looked like a library, of all things. Either word of a Hound on the loose had preceded me or this room wasn’t used a lot, because no one was in it.
That didn’t mean it was empty. My body pulsed from the weapon’s nearness, drawing me toward the center of the room. A huge, four-sided fireplace rose up through the floor, the stone chimney disappearing into the soaring ceiling. Shields adorned the side facing me, with wicked-looking battle-axes on the opposing sides. The hearth was almost as tall as I was, and warmth radiated from the crackling flames, but that wasn’t why I stood next to it, reaching as high as I could to touch the stones above the mantel.
There. The slingshot was right up there, and I was too short to reach it!
I spun around, grabbing the nearest chair and hauling it over to the fireplace. Then I paused, eyeing the polished stone chimney. I couldn’t punch through it without breaking every bone in my hand, and then I wouldn’t be able to use the slingshot.
Seized with inspiration, I stood on the chair and yanked one of the battle-axes off. It felt heavy and solid like a real weapon. Time to see if it worked like one.
Stone shards pelted me with my first swing, their sharp edges stinging. Okay, so the ax worked! I swung it again, harder, and a bigger chunk of stone split off. The chair tilted from my momentum, reminding me to watch my balance. I used my legs to counter my force as I swung the ax again and again, until I was whacking at the chimney like a lumberjack trying to chop down a tree.
My heart pounded when enough stone crumbled away to reveal a smooth wall beneath, like a hidden panel. Something brown and twisted clumped at the bottom of it, and I threw the ax away. No way would I risk severing the slingshot by chopping my way to it. Instead, I used my hands to pry the rest of the stones away before reaching down into the panel.
Power sizzled up my arm, the sensation so sudden and strong, it was painful. Instinctively, I snatched my hand back, then grinned, bracing myself as I reached down again. This time, I pulled up a long, braided rope that was identical to Adrian’s slingshot—except this one was stained brown from age.