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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
“Hondalte!” someone shouted behind me.
I turned, seeing two armor-wearing minions and a third minion with so much mud covering him, he had to be a Hound handler. Muddy Minion had a harness in one hand and what looked like raw pot roast meat in the other. My enticement to come quietly, I supposed.
I jumped off the chair, which made all of them flinch. Guess they hadn’t expected to see a Hound standing on the furniture. They also didn’t expect one to use a slingshot, and as I slid my finger through the loop on the weapon, I smiled.
This was it. Jasmine’s freedom and our ticket out of here, all courtesy of the raggedy-looking weapon that vibrated with so much power, my arm throbbed just from touching it. I picked up one of the rounder pieces of stone that had chipped off the chimney, and placed it in the thicker section of the sling. Adrian might have intended to betray me, but he’d taught me how to use this, and I didn’t hesitate as I began to spin the rope, walking toward the minions while savage anticipation flooded me.
The minions began to back away, either in incredulity at seeing a Hound wield a slingshot, or in realization of what was really going on. I spun the rope faster, determined not to let them or any of the other awful creatures in this realm get away. Then I aimed, sending the stone hurtling toward them with a snapping sound that was music to my ears.
Take that, bastards!
The stone hit the blond minion in the chest, denting his armor right in the middle of its elaborately embroidered “A.” Then it dropped to the floor, which is what I expected the blond minion to do. In fact, I expected all of them to drop dead on the spot, but the blond minion only stared at me. Then he stared at the stone and his friends, his expression changing from fear to bewilderment.
“That’s it?” he asked in English.
My exultation turned to ashes, which is what the minions should have done. Yet they stood there, a dent in Blond Minion’s armor the only sign that I’d hit him with the famed, long-sought-after weapon.
I grabbed another chunk of stone, desperation making my fingers tremble as I slid it into the slight pouch. This has to work, it has to! my mind roared. No way was this the wrong weapon. Not only had it been hidden in a wall within a demon realm, its power made my arm ache. So why wasn’t it killing everyone like it was supposed to?
I whipped the stone toward them without really aiming this time. It hit Muddy Minion, and he let out a yelp that gave me a wild flash of hope before I realized I’d only pissed him off.
Then the three minions lunged toward me, all their former wariness gone, and I did the only thing I could do.
Trying to hide while looking like a half-ton demon lizard would be impossible. That’s why I ran straight to the tunnel in the lower courtyard where I’d seen the other Hounds disappear to. As expected, it led to the mud room and I submerged myself into the warm, stinky water along with the rest of them. I even took off my leather bikini since I’d noticed that none of these Hounds wore straps, but I kept the slingshot. I intended to choke Zach with it as soon as I saw him—if I managed to live through this.
All for nothing! I kept inwardly howling. I’d risked my life repeatedly based on the promise that if I found the slingshot, I’d be able to save my sister. Now I had the stupid, ancient weapon, and it couldn’t even help me save myself.
After about ten minutes, the Hounds decided they were warm enough to patrol again. I got out with them, intending to run straight for the B and B as soon as I cleared the castle grounds. When we rounded a corner in the stone hallway, however, a barricade of minions blocked our path, lined so deep that I couldn’t count them all.
The other Hounds turned, deciding this must mean they got more time in the mud bath. I followed them, hoping like crazy that there was another way out except the one that was blocked. Just in case, as soon as we were back in the small room, I slipped the slingshot under a pile of animal bones in the corner. Much as I wanted to throttle Zach with the useless weapon, I didn’t want to get caught because I was the only Hound that appeared to be carrying its own leash.
It took just a few seconds to realize there was no exit down here. Out of options, I got into the water with the other Hounds, feeling as naked and helpless as I was. Why’d you run to the only place that didn’t have another way out? I silently lashed myself. So much for my plan to blend in.
My situation went from bad to worse when Demetrius strode into the underground room. The demon’s shadows filled the small space, brushing across my head and shoulders like tiny, icy fingers. I sank farther beneath the water, suddenly glad to be covered by the smelly, muddy liquid.
Three more people filed in after him. With sinking spirits, I recognized Blond Minion, Muddy Minion and their friend, whom I now dubbed as Scowling Minion for obvious reasons.
Demetrius said something to them in Demonish. Muddy Minion came up to the edge of the water and barked out one word. The Hounds sprang forward like he’d yelled “Lunch!” I did, too, standing at attention as they seemed to be doing.
Demetrius walked along the length of us. Whatever word the Hound handler had used, it kept all of them in perfect formation like dutiful lizard soldiers. So much for my hope that they’d charge anyone moving and I could slip out in the ensuing melee. No, I had to stand in line with them, all the while feeling like I had a neon sign over my head that flashed “Davidian.” Terror slithered through me, making me almost oblivious to the fact that I was stark naked in front of Demetrius and a few other men. If Demetrius could tell I wasn’t a Hound, I was dead.
Demetrius spoke sharply to Muddy Minion, who looked at the other Hounds and me with such obvious confusion that I almost whooped in relief. He couldn’t tell us apart! Okay, I wasn’t going to strangle Zach if I got out of this. I’d only punch him in the face. His Hound disguise was so good, not even their handler could tell me apart from the others—
Willpower alone kept my head from snapping up at the sound of my name. Demetrius wasn’t getting me to out myself that easily. My fortitude must’ve surprised him because he went to the nearest Hound, petting it in apparent bemusement.
“I know you’re here,” Demetrius went on, flashing his cruel smile as he fondled the beast. “No Hound would use an ax to smash through a chimney, so it’s obvious you came to this realm looking for the weapon. Very clever of the Archons to disguise you as one of our pets. We’re so used to having Hounds run about, we don’t even notice when we have an extra one.”
I said nothing, of course. Didn’t even breathe loudly. My continued pretense was just staving off the inevitable, but what was I supposed to do? Serve myself up with a smile?
“Clever also of you to soak yourself in here,” Demetrius continued, leaning in to smell the next Hound in line. “That mud bath reeks so much, I can’t pick up anything that might give you away, like the lingering trace of perfume.”
Haven’t worn any lately, I thought to distract myself from the fear that made me want to start shaking. Being on the run with Adrian hadn’t allowed for many shopping trips to the mall.
“But I will discover which one you are,” Demetrius all but purred as he reached me. I forced myself not to recoil when his hand slid over me, brushing my breast on its way to my back. His touch was somehow burning cold, like holding an icicle for too long. Still, I tried to school my features into the bland, compliant mask the other Hounds wore. My situation might be hopeless, but if Demetrius wanted to kill me, he had to figure out on his own which one I was.
His hand slipped down my arm and he leaned in, taking a deep breath. Please, let me stink as badly as the rest of them! I silently prayed. What if he could smell the shampoo I’d used when I washed my hair this morning? Or the deodorant I’d put on because it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be demon-sniff-tested tonight?
It was all I could do not to sag in relief when Demetrius moved on to the Hound after me. How I love you, filthy reeking mud bath! I inwardly crowed. If I get out of this, I’ll take a mud bath every night in your honor—
Two more minions came into the room, freezing my thoughts in midvow. Not because the minions were the largest men I’d ever seen, but because they didn’t come alone.
They thrust Jasmine out from between them, causing her to stumble for a few feet before Demetrius caught her. My sister looked at the demon with all the horror I felt, and when he ran a hand over her dirt-matted blond hair, a tremor of pure rage shook me. Don’t touch her! I silently seethed. I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you!
But I couldn’t. The weapon was across the room under a pile of animal bones, and even if I could reach it, the damn thing didn’t work. Despair threaded into my rage, forming a toxic mixture that ran like poison through my veins. Everything I’d risked, all the pain I’d endured, everything Jasmine had been through...it had all been for nothing.
“With you here, Ivy, I don’t need her anymore,” Demetrius said, his tone filled with the surety of victory. “So you have a choice—reveal yourself, or watch your sister die.”
“Ivy?” my sister asked, looking around. “Where?”
I drew in a breath that was probably going to be my last. I didn’t want to give the demon the satisfaction of making me reveal myself, but no matter what he’d do to me, I couldn’t watch my sister die.
Adrian’s voice filled the room, chilling and thrilling me as my traitorous emotions responded in wildly conflicting ways. Then my heart nearly stopped at his next words, which were delivered in a flatly emotionless tone.
“I can see which one she is.”
Adrian pushed past the huge minions like they were nothing more than toy soldiers. Then his gaze landed on me, and the coldness I saw devastated me. For a split second, I actually wanted to die. My worst fears were confirmed in those merciless sapphire depths, and the curl to his mouth seemed to mock me for ever believing the lies he’d told me.
And I had believed them. Even when I’d knocked him out and tied him up, part of me had hoped I was making a terrible mistake. Yeah, I had, but not by doing that. By not listening to him the first time he’d told me not to trust him.
Demetrius’s dark gaze flared as Adrian walked toward him. “My son,” he said almost reverently. “I never doubted that this moment would come.”
I suppressed a bitter snort. A demon with unwavering faith, how ironic. And his faith would soon be rewarded, how unfair.
Adrian smiled as he embraced his foster father, practically shoving Jasmine out of the way to get to him. I don’t know why I didn’t run to my sister in the last few seconds I had left. Maybe shock froze me in place, keeping me from doing anything except staring at the man who’d proven to be every bit as traitorous as his infamous ancestor. Everyone had warned me about Adrian, yet just like my gullible or well-intentioned family members, I hadn’t listened.
Now, just like my ancestors, I’d also die after being betrayed by a Judian.
“I kept everything in this realm the way you left it,” Demetrius murmured, pulling away. “Even your ridiculously burdensome means of feeding and housing your slaves.”
Adrian chuckled like Demetrius had told a joke. “Makes them work harder to avoid being sent to one of your realms...Father.”
The word was the final nail into my heart, but Demetrius smiled with such joy, it transformed his face, making him appear as he must have once looked however many aeons ago.
“Let us finish this,” he said, kissing Adrian’s forehead. Then he turned toward the other Hounds and me, his arm still around Adrian’s shoulders as though he couldn’t bear to let him go. “Which one is she?”
Adrian met my gaze—and strode over to the Hound next to me, shoving it toward Demetrius with such force that he actually managed to make the huge creature stumble.
“Here she is,” he said clearly.
I looked at the Hound, then at Adrian, emotion after emotion crushing me as though I were being hit by multiple tidal waves. He hadn’t come here to betray me. Once again, against all odds and destinies, he was trying to save me.
I wanted to throw my arms around him and sob out an apology for ever doubting him, let alone all the other terrible things I’d done. Then I wanted to kiss him until neither of us could breathe. But I couldn’t do either of those things. If I so much as moved, I’d undo the ruse he was trying to pull off.
“That thing isn’t Ivy.”
My sister’s confused whisper cut through my inner battle, but the surge had already activated my abilities, and they zeroed in on Adrian. Granted, my hallowed-sensor should’ve picked up on what was in his pocket before, but in my defense, I’d been a little preoccupied thinking I was about to die.
“Her appearance is disguised,” Adrian responded, flashing a nasty smile at the Hound. “Not that it does any good with me.”
The Hound looked mildly irritated at being shoved around, but it didn’t attack. Talk about well-trained. Demetrius pulled a knife out of the sheath on his belt, and I braced in pity for the creature. Here’s hoping the demon would make it quick—
Faster than I could blink, he had Jasmine in his grip, the knife against my sister’s throat. The Hound barely spared them a glance, but I lunged forward with an anguished cry.
Adrian caught me before I reached the demon, and for a split second, his eyes met mine. So many feelings spilled from his gaze that I could barely believe he was the same person who’d looked at me so coldly moments before. Then four incensed words brought our attention back to Demetrius.