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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
“Are you okay?” a hesitant voice asked.
My head jerked up, and through the tears, I saw the outline of a woman at the entrance to the tunnel.
“I saw you go down here,” she went on. “You won’t find anyone in here, though. This was where they kept the Hounds.”
“I know.” My voice was thick from anguish.
She took a few steps toward me. “Are you...her?”
“Her who?” I asked wearily.
“The one who killed them,” she replied in an awed whisper.
Her words were a fresh blow to my heart. Yes, I’d killed them. All of them.
I didn’t say that. As I heaved myself to my feet, I said the only thing I could think of to make her go away. I needed a few minutes to pull myself together. Or a few lifetimes.
“Go to the B and B. The dark-haired boy knows how to get through the gateway, if he hasn’t left already.”
She turned around and left. Moments later, I heard her excitedly telling someone that she knew a way out. I dragged a hand through my hair, feeling physically and emotionally beaten beyond my ability to cope. I didn’t want to move from this spot, but the single bottle of blood at the B and B wouldn’t be enough. More minion blood would be needed to bring everyone through the gateway. Fast, too, before other demons showed up to commandeer this realm. The slingshot only worked once, so even if I knew where it was, it was useless to prevent other demons from re-enslaving the people here.
That meant I’d have to leave this realm to find a minion, capture it and bleed the hell out of it. Tonight. The realization had me shuffling toward the exit to the tunnel. My body ached like I’d been pummeled from the inside out, but I forced myself to keep moving. If I didn’t, I’d stay here and cry my eyes out, which wouldn’t help the people trapped in this realm. Besides, my tears were already starting to mess with my vision. For a second, I’d thought the ash pile next to me had shifted.
I had gone about ten feet when a distinct rustling sound made me freeze. That wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Something was in the tunnel with me.
Very slowly, I turned around. It looked like a dark pillar had appeared at the entrance to the Hound spa. Then the pillar doubled in height as the person beneath the embers stood up, revealing the form of a tall, broad-shouldered man. When he wiped his face, a layer of blood showed beneath the soot, and the hair he brushed back was stained black from the ashes swirling around him, but I didn’t care. Right now, they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
“Adrian,” I whispered, my tears starting to flow faster.
His head snapped up—and then he moved with his incredible speed, gripping me in those powerful arms. Tilting my head back and covering my mouth in a bruising kiss that made joy rip through me with all the intensity of the pain I’d felt before. When he finally broke away several minutes later, I could hardly breathe, but I still managed to speak.
“I love you,” I choked out. “I love you, I love you, I love you—”
His kiss cut me off again, and this time, I wasn’t crying when I kissed him back. I was smiling.
We didn’t need to leave to catch a minion for its blood. Adrian pulled through the remaining people in the realm, taking them in groups of twos and threes. It still took the rest of the night, but I wasn’t afraid of demons stopping us. Not when Zach stayed at the B and B, which rapidly filled to overflowing from all the survivors of the Bennington realm. I might still be mad at him, but no demon would take on one Archon, let alone three of them.
One moment, Jasmine and I were passing out blankets to the people who’d spilled out onto the lawn; the next, I was staring at two people whom I knew were not human despite their normal appearance. The brunette girl had freckles and the guy had blond dreadlocks, of all things, but for an instant, both of them radiated light like Zach had the first time we met.
“Uh...hi,” I said, so surprised I stumbled over my words.
Screams erupted from the people outside. I whirled, groaning when I saw the gargoyle coming toward us. Adrian had told Brutus to stay hidden in the trees. Dreadlocks gave it a single glare. “Tell your creature to stay back.”
“Admanta!” I yelled, using the word Adrian had taught me. The gargoyle chuffed warningly at the Archons but turned around and disappeared into the trees again.
“Sorry,” I muttered, glad that Freckles was calming the people down.
“He’s not hers,” Jasmine offered, staring at the stranger curiously. “He, uh, belongs to Adrian.”
“Not anymore,” Dreadlocks said, with another grunt of disapproval. “Adrian bound him to your sister as her protector before he sent the two of you out of the realm.”
“What?” Jasmine gasped.
I stared at the Archon, too stunned to speak. Thoughts, accusations and questions bombarded my mind, and after a moment, he began to answer them.
“No, Zacchaeus did not lie to you. Archons cannot lie, as he told you. We also cannot enter the dark realms, as he told you, but we can see into them. You never asked him that.”
“Sonofa—” I began furiously, only to have his warning look stop me. “You mean Zach knew my sister was alive this whole time and never bothered to tell me?”
Jasmine wiped her eyes. This was too much, too soon for her. The Archon merely shrugged. “Those weren’t his orders.”
Orders. A slew of curses ran through my mind. The Archon gave me another glare, but I snapped, “Oh, please! I didn’t say any of them, so give me a break!”
“Mortals,” he muttered. “So obsessed with technicalities.”
“Jaz,” I said, controlling my anger with great difficulty. “Can you see if Adrian’s back, please?”
I didn’t want him to stop transporting humans, but I wanted to get my sister out of here for a few minutes. She was running on shock and adrenaline, so at any moment, she could snap.
She disappeared into the house without arguing, another indicator that she wasn’t herself. Moments later, Adrian came out onto the lawn, eyeing the two Archons with guarded optimism.
“I hope you came to help. We’ll need several buses to get all these people out of here.”
“We will not,” Freckles replied. With those words, she and everyone else vanished, leaving me, Adrian and Dreadlocks alone on the lawn. From the sudden silence in the house, that had been cleared out, too.
“What. Just. Happened?” I managed. Even Adrian appeared startled.
The blond Archon wasn’t. If anything, I’d say he looked bored. “These people needed to be taken to safety. Sarai has done that.”
“But they’re just gone,” I stressed, as if I was the only one who’d noticed that.
A shrug. “Archons aren’t limited by your laws of physics.”
After everything I’d seen, why did that surprise me? “Is Jasmine still here?” I asked in sudden anxiousness.
“Yes. We will provide care for the others, but she is yours to look out for.”
Good. I didn’t want it any other way.
Adrian drew me next to him, his arm a welcome weight across my shoulders. Aside from those few, blissful minutes in the tunnel, we hadn’t had a moment together since I found him alive. He’d been ferrying people through the gateway and I’d tried to do what I could for the traumatized survivors. I hadn’t even had time to wash my hands. Calling dibs on the bathroom when so many of these people hadn’t had a hot shower in years would’ve been selfish in the extreme, so I was still covered in ashes. So was Adrian. We looked like coal miners after a cave-in.
Zach came out onto the lawn. He exchanged a glance with the blond Archon that had Adrian tensing into stonelike stillness.
“Don’t,” he said low.
“It is too late,” Zach replied, his voice equally soft. “The second trial has already begun.”
“What trial?” I asked, stiffening, as well.
Zach’s dark brown gaze rested on me. “Adrian no longer needs to transport the survivors. They are crossing through to this realm on their own.”
I was incredulous. “How?”
“The gateways are opening,” Zach said simply.
Adrian’s arm dropped from my shoulders as he ran both hands through his hair. They were still covered in blood beneath the soot from all his injuries. Without Zach healing him the first time he’d crossed over to this side, I didn’t think Adrian would even be conscious now. Zach’s statement back-burnered my concern for Adrian, however.
“The gateways are opening,” I repeated. “From your tone and Adrian’s reaction, that’s bad, but why? If trapped people can now get out of the realms without the aid of a demon, Judian or minion, isn’t that a good thing?”
“The gateways are opening because the walls between our worlds have started to crumble,” Zach said. “The gateways are affected first, since they connect the realms.”
Now I understood, and horror filled me. “But if the walls crumble until nothing separates the demon realms from ours, it’ll be hell on earth in no time at all.”
“Exactly,” the blond Archon stated in a mild tone.
His nonchalance made me want to slap him. “Well, someone’s got to do something!”
A pained sound came out of Adrian right as Zach said, “That someone is you, Ivy.”
“Me?” I sputtered. “What can I do? I lost the slingshot, not that it matters since I already used it—”
“It’s not lost,” the blond Archon interrupted. “It’s been forever embedded in your flesh.”
I gaped at him, then shoved my coat sleeve up. I couldn’t see anything beneath the grime, so I ran to the hose people had been drinking from and splashed water onto my arm.
As the soot cleared away, I began to tremble. The outline of a brown, braided rope ran from the loop on my finger all the way up to my elbow, the length of the slingshot curling around my arm several times. It looked like an extremely detailed tattoo, only this wasn’t ink. It was like a supernatural brand.
Large hands gripped my shoulders and I turned in Adrian’s arms. He was shaking, I realized with shock, and when his cheek brushed against mine, it was wet.
“Whatever happens next,” he whispered. “Remember I love you. I didn’t lie about that, Ivy.”
Whoa. I pushed him away, a foreboding chill sweeping through me at his stricken expression, not to mention his words.
“What don’t I know?” I asked, starting to tremble.
“Your destiny, Davidian, was not merely to find the slingshot,” the blond Archon stated. “You must acquire the remaining two hallowed weapons before the demons get them, or the world you know will cease to exist.”
“Wait, what other weapons?” I blurted before memory seared me with pitiless clarity.
To take down demons, you need one of three weapons, Adrian had said the day we met, and the second and third ones will probably kill you. Then when he’d taken me into the first realm, he’d said, That’s why I still hide things from you, Ivy. If you can’t accept the way the board’s set up, you’re not nearly ready to learn the endgame yet....
“You knew,” I breathed, staring into his tormented jeweled gaze. “You knew all along that finding the slingshot was only the beginning, but you let me believe that if I did, this would all be over. You lied to me, Adrian!”
He flinched as if my words had struck him like a physical blow. Amidst my anger, disbelief and blistering hurt, I also felt a fresh wave of exhaustion. I’d thought if I got the slingshot and saved Jasmine, I’d be done with demons and their horrible realms. I didn’t have it in me to take on one more fight against them, let alone two. Right now, I didn’t even know if I had it in me to keep standing.
Zach came over to me, his brown eyes filled with a knowing sort of pity.
“Judas was guilty of three betrayals. The first was trust when he robbed the money set aside for the poor. The second was greed when he accepted thirty pieces of silver, and the third—”
“Was death,” I finished, my heart breaking all over again. “You did betray me, Adrian, just like everyone said you would. You just haven’t killed me yet.”
“Ivy, I’m sorry,” he said, catching my hands and holding on when I tried to yank away. “I didn’t believe I could beat my fate before, but I do now. You made me believe, and—”
My laughter cut him off. It was dark, ugly and filled with all the anguish of love lost, found and lost again.
“How ironic. Now you believe, and I don’t.” He opened his mouth, and I let out a harsh scoff. It was that or I’d start to cry, and it was taking all the fading strength I had not to do that already. “Just leave. I can’t listen to you right now. It hurts too much to even look at you.”
He released my hands but gripped my shoulders, his sapphire gaze blazing into mine. “I’ll leave, but not for long. I’ll make you believe again, Ivy, if it’s the last thing I do.”
Then he was gone, using his blinding speed to disappear into the trees. I waited until I was sure he wasn’t coming back before I finally allowed myself to sink to my knees, tears leaking past my clenched eyelids. Everyone had warned me, but not only had I trusted Adrian, I’d fallen in love with him. Worse, even after all this, I still loved him. Was that because I had the world’s worst case of stupidity? Or was it another example of the curse of my fate?
“What’s this second weapon and what’s it supposed to do?” I asked, not really wanting to know but needing something to distract me from my urge to call out for Adrian.