The Beautiful Ashes

Page 45

“Don’t shoot,” I heard Zach say over Adrian’s urgent, “Are you okay? Did he hit you?”

I couldn’t answer because I couldn’t breathe. My hands smacking at his shoulders must’ve conveyed that, because Adrian leaped off me with the same speed, though he remained crouched in front of me. I took in a deep breath, wincing as my ribs and the back of my head throbbed with pain.

“Why’d you...squish me?” I managed.

Over his shoulder, I saw Costa burst into the room, his gun drawn and his tanned face pale. “Is it dead?” he snarled.

Adrian had Costa against the wall, the gun knocked out of his hand, before I could grunt out a confused “Huh?”

“Why the f**k did you shoot at Ivy?” Adrian demanded.

Costa threw a horrified look my way. “That’s Ivy?”

“I can explain,” Zach said in an unruffled tone. “In order to get past the beasts, I glamoured Ivy to resemble one.”

Adrian let Costa go, his gaze sliding to me with disbelief. “She looks like a Hound?”

“Biggest, ugliest one I ever saw,” Costa croaked.

“That’s rude,” I muttered, trying to reconcile the fact that I now looked like one of the demons’ guard reptiles.

Costa’s mouth curled down. “Make it—her—stop hissing.”

“I’m not hissing!” was my immediate protest, but Costa winced and backed away a step. “Oh, crap, all he hears is hissing, right?” I asked resignedly.

A strangled sound came from Adrian’s throat. I looked sharply at him, realizing he was fighting back a laugh.

“Ivy, stop hissing at Costa,” he said with mock seriousness.

So it was all fun and games now that he realized I hadn’t gotten shot? I’d never get used to Adrian’s mercurial moods.

“You’re sure this will get me past the Hounds?” I asked Zach.

He inclined his head. “They’ve been trained not to attack their own. Glamouring you to look exactly like another Hound is what took me additional time, as first I had to catch one.”

“How?” I blurted, watching Adrian’s eyes narrow, as well. “You said Archons can’t go into demon realms.”

“The sounds she makes are seriously disturbing,” Costa muttered, but at least he put his gun away.

“We can’t, but the demons are stationing Hounds in every realm as a precaution,” Zach stated. “Waiting at vortexes for them to appear as they were transported from one realm to another is how I procured the Hound you now resemble.”

Zach had spent the past five days Hound-hunting to help us, and we’d both bitched at him as soon as we saw him. No wonder he’d gotten mad. If I were him, I might’ve left without giving me my new disguise, too.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely, “and I’m sorry.”

Once again, he inclined his head. “Apology accepted.”

Adrian’s mouth thinned, but he didn’t ante up an apology. From Zach’s expression, that wasn’t a surprise. Then again, after what Adrian had told me about that day in the tunnels, the person who really owed the other an apology was Zach.

I cleared my throat, knowing that wasn’t going to happen, either. “Okay, now that we’ve got a way past the guard reptiles, let’s head to the nearest realm and search it.”

Adrian nodded at me and then gave Costa a measured look. “You up for going with us?”

“I am, but Ivy’s the problem,” Costa said bluntly. “You can’t take her out in public. She looks like what would happen if a werewolf humped a Komodo dragon.”

I bared my teeth at him, intending it as a joke, but he visibly flinched. All right, so I was horrifying. I’d say I was sorry, but it would only sound like threatening hisses to him.

“And her clothes!” Costa went on. “You can’t expect a fully dressed Hound to go unnoticed in the realms.”

“You can see my clothes?” I asked stupidly, then waved an impatient hand and said, “Adrian, translate.”

“I don’t need to,” he said, giving me an appraising look. “Your disguises have only ever been skin-deep, so right now, Costa’s looking at a Hound in shorts and a tank top.”

“And flip-flops,” Costa added, shuddering.

I turned to Zach. “Well, that needs fixing.”

The Archon raised a single brow. “The answer is obvious.”

I waited for him to put his hand on my head again, but he didn’t. Realization dawned and, with it, incredulity.

“You expect me to enter the realms stark naked? Not only would I freeze, I’d be naked!”

Logic failed in the face of the appalling thought. Zach looked unconcerned by my dismay, but Adrian raked his gaze over me in a way that was both foreboding and anticipatory.

“Hounds wear leather straps for easier handling. If we placed some strategically on you, they would cover the necessary parts without drawing undue attention, and as I said, Hounds return frequently to the town to get warm.”

I closed my eyes. Either I let my sister rot, or I had to run around freezing demon realms wearing the equivalent of a leather bikini. How had this become my life?

“Let’s get the bondage lizard party started, then,” I finally said, opening my eyes.

Like it or not, this was my life, so I had to make the best of it.

Chapter twenty-seven

We didn’t go back to the gateway in Collinsville, Illinois. Instead, the three of us drove to Boone, North Carolina so we could access something we’d been avoiding for weeks. A vortex.

Since Hounds were being transported through vortexes, and I now looked like a Hound, Adrian said it was time to chance one. According to him, vortexes were like revolving doors, hitting several realms back-to-back. The bigger the vortex, the more realms it could access. Adrian said if Demetrius hadn’t stopped us in Oregon, and minions hadn’t chased us through the vortex in Mexico, we could’ve covered all the realms in North and South America through just those two entranceways.

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’t 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’t 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.

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