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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
I don’t know why, but I backed away, my hand flying to cover my pocket. “It doesn’t work,” I said breathily.
Zach snorted with something like contempt. “Without faith, it wouldn’t.” Then his expression became deadly serious. “Give me the slingshot, Ivy.”
I edged away farther, glancing at the invisible gateway. “Why? You can’t cross into a dark realm, so you’re not going to use it to save Adrian.”
“Demetrius won’t allow him to be killed,” Zach replied, sounding almost careless now. “He may take out his anger on him, but Adrian should survive that.”
“And that’s okay with you?” I snapped, fury boiling over. “Wait, of course it is. This wouldn’t be the first time you left him at the mercy of demons, would it?”
Zach’s features hardened, and he held out his hand in silent, imperious command. Give me the weapon, his stare warned.
He really would just take the slingshot, give it to his boss and call it a day, regardless if it meant Adrian’s torture or death. We can only depend on each other. To Archons and demons, we’re just pawns that they move around for their own purposes, Adrian had said. From the unyielding expression on Zach’s face, he’d been right.
And I’d betrayed him just as awfully as Zach had all those years ago. I’d believed the worst of Adrian’s words when his actions should’ve shown me that he would never hand me over to Demetrius. In the end, it was our actions that defined us. Not words.
I glanced at Jasmine, who was looking out the window as if she couldn’t believe she was back in the real world. She was and so was I, all because of Adrian’s sacrifice. Now, it was my turn. I love you, Jaz, I thought, choking back a sob. But you’re not the only one I love.
Then I looked at Zach. “You might be willing to abandon Adrian again. I’m not.”
His shout was cut off as I ran into the gateway, leaving him, my sister and the rest of my world behind.
I landed in the icy, decrepit version of the B and B on top of a dark-haired boy, who shoved me aside with a yelp.
“What the—?” he began, only to stop talking so fast, I whirled, expecting to see a minion or a demon behind me.
Nothing. I spun back around to see the boy staring at my chest with widened eyes. I looked down—and then yanked the coat together. It had flown open during my tumble, and I no longer had my Hound disguise, so not only had I landed on a kid who looked about ten, I’d done so while mostly naked.
And being a prepubescent boy, he’d fixated on that even while trapped inside a demon realm. My hand went to my coat pocket, anxiously checking for the slingshot. Still there.
“Sorry,” I said, then stopped when I saw what the boy had in his hand. He must’ve found the beer bottle of blood that I’d left here.
“Rub some of that on your arms and legs,” I said quickly. “Then run at the corner I just came through. You’ll come out in the real world, promise.”
“Are you a minion?” the boy asked suspiciously.
I let out a snort. “No. In fact, I’m here to kill them and all the demons.”
“You’re crazy,” the boy scoffed.
I didn’t believe that I could do it either, but that was the problem. It doesn’t work, I’d told Zach. Without faith, it wouldn’t, he’d replied. And Costa had said, thousands of years ago, a shepherd boy killed a giant with nothing more than a slingshot and blind faith. All right, I had the weapon. Now, I had to find the blind faith. Fast.
“Rub that stuff on you, and you can get out of here,” I repeated. “Tell the others.”
“You’re gonna die, crazy naked lady,” he muttered.
The scary truth was, he was probably right. After Zach’s cold dismissal of Adrian’s situation, I had less faith now than I’d had the last time I’d tried to use the weapon. Let’s face it: it was too hard to believe in a benevolent, cosmic “boss” when his employees were made of so much suck!
Fear urged me to turn around and run back through the gateway. A far stronger emotion had me pulling out the slingshot and running out of the B and B as fast as I could. Yes, I was probably crazy, and yes, I’d probably die, but if there was even a chance that I could save Adrian, I had to try. Besides, if the Archons’ boss didn’t want the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in His enemies’ hands, then He had to show up—
The braided rope pulsed with a sudden flare of power. I was so surprised, I almost stumbled during my mad dash up the hill. What had caused that? I hadn’t been thinking anything pious. I’d been thinking that only an idiot would fail to realize the weapon would either work for me, or I’d be delivering it right into the demons’ hands—
The slingshot pulsed again, stronger this time, until my right arm almost felt numb. The reason why hit me then, and I began to laugh with wild, ragged whoops.
I didn’t need to have pious faith. I didn’t even need to have complimentary faith. No, this weapon’s batteries ran on the same juices that had kept Adrian going when no one else had believed in him. You can trust my hatred of demons, he’d always told me. That had been his faith. Mine, apparently, was believing that the Archons’ boss didn’t want the slingshot to end up in demon hands. I didn’t trust the Great Being with much, but it seemed that I trusted Him not to be stupid.
Power sizzled up my arm and light infused the rope, making it glow against the darkness. At the same time, shouts sounded about a hundred yards ahead of me, with more close behind those. With the Hounds dead and the gargoyle gone, minions must be on patrol, and I didn’t have a disguise anymore.
I stopped running to grab a stone for the slingshot. Since nothing was around except frozen ground, all I managed to get was a ragged piece of ice. I put it in the glowing, pulsating rope, starting to spin it as soon as I reached the top of the hill where the trees abruptly ended.
The valley spread out below, faint, iridescent lights from the castle showing three minions dashing up the hill toward me. Worse, it looked like a larger group of them weren’t far behind. Demetrius must’ve been hoping I’d come back.
Well, here I was, armed with nothing except cynical faith and a weapon that hadn’t worked in thousands of years. I spun the rope faster, my emotions feelings like they were whirling in circles alongside the ancient weapon. I was scared beyond belief, yet I also felt the strangest sort of exultation. I was about to die or about to kick some serious ass, but either way, I’d be doing it for Adrian. Prophecies, destinies...they weren’t why I was here. He was, and in life or in death, I wasn’t going to fail him again.
Raising the weapon, I ran down the hill to meet my enemies.
The three closest minions leaped forward with such ferocity, they were briefly airborne. At the same time, an incredible surge of power caused pain to rocket through my whole body. Then light shot out from the weapon. As soon it touched the minions, they stopped moving so abruptly, it looked like they’d hit a wall in midair. Another agonizing surge caused those thin streams of light to hit the group of minions behind them. They froze, too, some with weapons still pointed in my direction.
I staggered, trying not to fall over from the searing sensations that made my insides feel like they were boiling. The beams of light coming from the slingshot kept the minions frozen into place, but the overwhelming pain made me want to fling the weapon aside. My body must have been the power conduit, and if this was what two supernatural blasts felt like, would I survive more?
Sirens came from farther down the hill. Someone must’ve seen the strange lights and sounded the alarm. I clenched my jaw, trying to keep from screaming as I spun the rope into a tighter, faster circle. This hurt so much, my bones actually ached. Who knew they could do that?
Then I walked past the first group of minions. If I only had one shot, I needed it for saving Adrian. The lights coming from the slingshot stayed on them, though, until the weapon had glowing strings both behind it and ahead. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill, the castle was in full defense mode.
Gunfire sounded, making me duck while holding the weapon aloft enough to keep the rope spinning. Another blast of power emanated from the slingshot, the subsequent pain almost driving me to my knees. As soon as that light touched them, the bullets stopped with the same suddenness as on that day in the desert when Zach had intervened. Hope clawed through my agony. The slingshot held the same power as an Archon. It really could do everything it was supposed to, as long as I could stand to wield it.
I forced myself to keep walking toward the castle. This time, I didn’t duck as a barrage of gunfire came my way. I braced, a cry ripping out of me at the sizzling pain of dozens of bullets being supernaturally frozen in midair. Then more light shot from the weapon, landing on the guards like laser sights on a rifle. The new surge of power had me shaking in torment. I wasn’t sure I could walk, let along keep the rope spinning. The slingshot felt like a thousand pounds of molten agony being funneled from my arm into the rest of my body.
A new wave of minions began to flood the lower section of the castle. The weapon reacted, beaming light onto every one of them and freezing them in place. I screamed, tears almost blinding me as I used both hands to keep the rope spinning. Adrian, Adrian, I repeated feverishly, forcing my feet to keep moving even though shudders racked me so fiercely, I staggered. He was trapped in the tunnel, but if I could get close enough, the weapon would incapacitate his attackers. No minion or demon could stop me, as long as I kept walking. The weapon took them out as soon as its light touched them.
Problem was, the weapon might also take me out.
Somehow, I made it past the gates and into the outer courtyards of the castle. By that time, I couldn’t stop my screams at the merciless blasts of pain. Each new minion the light landed on sent agony shooting through me, until everything else faded beneath the constant, brutal onslaught. After a few minutes, I couldn’t be sure if I was still holding the weapon anymore. A few minutes after that, I couldn’t remember where I was or why I’d come here. Only the pain was real, and it was excruciating. I couldn’t take it, and the pressure building inside me warned me that I wouldn’t have to for much longer. Something was about to happen. Something big.
I fell to my knees from the next surge of power, which felt like a thousand knives ripping into me at once. This is it, I thought dazedly. I’m dying. Instead of being afraid, the thought filled me with profound relief. Anything to escape the pain.
Release the stone.
The whisper somehow made it past the torturous insanity strafing my mind. That’s right, the stone. Until it was free, this wasn’t over. With my last reserves of strength, I stood up and snapped the slingshot, releasing the ice rock into the nothingness that was coming for me.
My whole body convulsed as the light marking every minion suddenly exploded with sunlike brightness, until I couldn’t see anything except burning, dazzling white. Just as swiftly, my agony disappeared, leaving me almost paralyzed with weakness. Unable to move or see, I fell onto the ground, feeling countless brushes of something light across me.
Slowly, that blinding whiteness faded, though at first, I thought the swirls around me were snowflakes. Then, as my vision returned even more, they changed color, turning from white to gray to charcoal. Ashes, I realized, shock giving me enough strength to sit up. Ashes were blowing everywhere, yet I didn’t see a single minion or demon. I did see several humans venturing into the courtyard, their expressions mirroring the same sort of hopeful disbelief I felt, now that I could think again.
The slingshot seemed to have done the impossible, killing all the demons and minions without harming any of the humans. I’d kiss the weapon, if I knew where it was. My hand only had smudges from ashes in it at the moment.
Then a horrible thought crept into my mind, demolishing my happiness with one brutal question.
What if the slingshot had killed Adrian, too?
Fear got me to my feet, though I swayed so much, I expected to fall when I took my first step. Adrian was human, but his lineage had so much dark power, he could cross into demon realms. Did that same power cause the weapon to mark him for death as it had the minions and demons? Had he survived the attack Demetrius ordered against him, only to have me kill him?
God, please, no! I half ran, half staggered toward the Hound tunnel where I’d last seen him. The low, enclosed space kept the wind out, so the thick layer of ashes lining the floor weren’t swirling around. They were ominously, deathly still.
“Adrian!” I cried out, sloshing through the grayish-black mess. “Adrian, please, answer me!”
I heard nothing but my own voice echoing hollowly back at me. I’d almost made it to the end of the tunnel when my legs gave out. Then I sank into the ashes, despair filling me as the pile I knelt in came nearly to my waist. From all the minion remains, the fighting must’ve been thickest here, so this was probably where Adrian had died. I plunged my hands into the embers, tears making everything blur as the particles either fell from my fingers or curled into wisps and floated away.
Gone, just like Adrian was now gone. More tears fell, making pale trails through the stains on my hands. I wanted to scream the way I had before, but though this pain was just as intense, it tore at my soul instead of my body, so there was no outlet for it. I hadn’t been able to tell Adrian how sorry I was for what I’d done. Or tell him that I’d come back for him, or tell him the most important thing of all.
“I love you, too,” I whispered to the ashes.
I’d never said that to a man before. Now, with Adrian gone, I’d never say it again. I didn’t need the gift of prophecy to know that I wouldn’t feel this way about anyone else. Ever.