The Beautiful Ashes Page 54

By contrast, the Boone vortex was much smaller, hitting only about a dozen realms. Still, it would take two weeks to reach each of those realms separately, and with my new disguise, limiting travel time was mandatory.

Something I hadn\ thought of when I learned that I looked like a huge, prehistoric dog-lizard to everyone except Zach and Adrian: public restrooms were out of the question. I had to use the bushes along the interstate. If that wasn\ humiliating enough, Adrian and Costa had to walk me to and from them so their bodies blocked Ivy-monster from passing motorists\ view. When all of us were in the car, Costa would complain that parts of my beastly frame hung over his seat even though my arms and legs stayed completely in the back. And in gas stations or drive-throughs, I needed to have a blanket thrown over me so no one freaked out over seeing a monster in the backseat.

Yeah, I was sick of this disguise already, and the worst of it was about to start now.

We waited until after dark to enter the vortex marked by a tourist site called Mystery Hill. As with other vortexes, people knew there was something off about the spot due to its gravitational anomalies, but little did they know it contained a revolving door to demon realms. I wished I didn\ know, either, but that didn\ stop Adrian from pulling me through the gateway, which was situated on a concrete slab called the Mystery Platform.

When we tumbled into the shadowy, cold version of the Mystery Hill site, the concrete platform was gone. So were the tourist buildings and the nearby highway. The scent of wood smoke remained, surprising me until I realized there were trees around us. Frozen ones, of course, but if some remained, it made sense that they\d be burned as a heat source.

As expected, we\d been spit out onto the outskirts of the realm\s epicenter, so we were alone on the icy hill. For now.

’’Okay,’’ Adrian stated. ’’Stick to the plan, and remember, don\ show any fear, either to the Hounds or the handlers.’’

It was too dark for me to see his expression, but with his enhanced vision, he could see mine as I unzipped my ankle-length parka and let it drop to the ground. Beneath it, I wore only boots, a leather strap across my br**sts, and the most uncomfortable leather G-string ever invented.

The blast of cold on my bare skin felt like a full-body punch, knocking out my awkwardness at standing in front of Adrian with almost nothing on. My teeth began to chatter like a windup toy\s, and when I kicked my boots off, the ice made it feel as though I was standing on knives. I thought I\d mentally prepared myself, but ’’mind over matter’’ didn\ exist when you were all but naked in freezing temperatures.

’’C-can\ do th-this,’’ I stuttered.

Adrian pulled me to him, his arms chasing away the cold on my back and his body warming up my front. Without thinking, I stood on the tops of his boots, easing the stabbing pain in my feet. The last time I\d been mostly naked in his arms, he\d overwhelmed me with passion. This time, tenderness seemed to pour from his embrace, soothing parts of my emotions I hadn\ even realized were bruised or broken.

’’You can do this,’’ he said, his words low but resonant. ’’The otherworldly abilities of legendary warriors, kings and queens run through your veins. With it, you are capable of so much more than I ever will be, but even if you didn\ have that bloodline ’’ his voice deepened ’’ I\d still believe in you, Ivy.’’

I let out a laugh that was half gasp, half choked sob. How could he say that? I\d screwed up every challenge thrown at me, and that was with his help. Without it, I\d be dead several times over by now.

A growling hiss jerked my head to the right. To our left, another sounded, and another right in front of us.

Ready or not, the Hounds were here.

’’You can do this,’’ Adrian repeated, going absolutely still. I disengaged myself from his arms, seeing him keep them in their half circle as though still cradling me. Amidst the smash of cold, my fear at those ominous growls, and the sole-splitting pain in my feet, I also felt a tinge of wonder.

In our time together, Adrian had yanked me up, knocked me down, hurtled me through realms, trapped me against a wall and kissed me until I burned with need, but this was different. When he\d held me, I realized there was more between us than legacies and lust. He was what I\d been missing my whole life, and if he felt the same way, I\d be damned if either of us was going to die before we could do something about it.

I turned around, shaking and all, to confront the lizard monsters who crowded around us.

’’Back off!’’ I yelled, hoping to them it sounded like the meanest, most badass hiss ever.

Then I stared, my mind taking a few moments to process what I was looking at. When I could think again, Costa\s description was right. They did look like what you\d get if a werewolf and a Komodo dragon had a monster baby. No wonder he\d opened fire at the sight of me disguised as one.

Even on four legs, the Hounds stood almost as tall as me. Their snouts were elongated like a bull terrier, only with lots more teeth, as I saw when their mouths opened impossibly wide. Their front legs were small, but their back ones were massive with muscle, and they were balanced by a thick tail that narrowed into a point at the end. Claws as long as my fingers stabbed through the frozen ground, and though their skin had the leathery look of a reptile, it was also covered by a thin layer of dark hair.

I could see all these things because light radiated from the spots on their backs, giving off an eerie glow, as if the Hounds needed any enhancement to their menace. Forked, thin tongues flicked out of their mouths, and when the biggest of the three came close enough to give me what I hoped was a friendly lick, I forced myself to stand still and not scream.

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