My answer was a hissing sort of growl that raised every hair on the back of my neck. It sounded like a feral wolf that had just found a meal, and somewhere to my left, an answering, howling hiss shattered the dark in answer.
“Adrian,” I whispered, terror skittering through me.
Fast as lightning, he was behind me, his arms like twin bands around me. “Close your eyes,” he ordered, his voice barely audible. “It can’t hurt you if you don’t move.”
I slammed my eyes shut. I’d seen people butchered plus demons transform into deadly clouds and crows, but if Adrian didn’t think I could handle whatever this was, I’d believe him. The growls came closer, and with a sudden vibration in the ground, I felt something big land right in front of me. Reeking breath came in pants that hit my face like light slaps. I fought a fresh surge of panic as I realized I was standing, yet the creature was still eye level with me. What was it?
Its hiss turned guttural before I felt something slimy and wet flick across my face with the quickness of a snake’s tongue. Fear-driven revulsion would’ve made me immediately swipe at the spot if not for Adrian’s warning.
It can’t hurt you if you don’t move.
I didn’t know how that could be true. The thing had licked me; it knew I was here! Not a muscle on Adrian twitched, though, and after that disgusting lick, the creature didn’t do anything except wheeze in that weird, hissing way. I mimicked Adrian’s stillness, keeping my eyes shut and willing my breaths to be soft and shallow. Then a new, ominous vibration shook the ground. Another creature had landed right behind us.
More reeking breath filled the air with the stench of old garbage and rotted fish. A hissing snarl blasted out, loud as a trumpet and so terrifying, my knees felt like they turned to Jell-O. Only Adrian’s grip kept me standing perfectly still as something massive bumped my body, like a shark testing its prey. I squeezed my lids tighter, fighting a near-overwhelming urge to go for my gun. I felt beyond helpless, beyond vulnerable. If Adrian’s arms hadn’t been wrapped around me, a tangible reminder that I wasn’t facing this alone, I might have started shaking.
Then a roar blasted in front of my face, so loud it seemed to reverberate inside me. My heart pounded as something sharp grazed the top of my head, parting my hair with multiple hard points. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know what it was. The creature’s gigantic fangs. My guts twisted with terror and resignation. One snap of those jaws, and it would all be over.
It can’t hurt you if you don’t move!
I couldn’t tell how long I frantically repeated Adrian’s promise, but the fangs on my head eventually vanished. Then, with two sets of vibrating thumps, the space around us felt less oppressive and I knew the huge, hulking beasts had gone. I still didn’t move or open my eyes, though. Not until Adrian lifted me up, ran, and I felt us tumbling through the gateway back into the light and warmth of Collinsville, Illinois.
Grass hit me in the face from our hard landing, but I didn’t care. Instead of standing up, I started to swipe at my cheek hard enough to bruise, and still it felt like the slime from the creature’s tongue remained. I wanted to wash my skin with scalding water, but I couldn’t. All I could do was keep rubbing my face with my gloved hands.
“What were those things?” I whispered, still too traumatized to speak in a normal tone.
Adrian knelt and grasped my wrists, forcing me to stop my rough grooming. His face had shiny trails on it, too, showing I hadn’t been the only one the creatures had licked.
“Hounds,” he said evenly, “which means we have a problem.”
I started to laugh. Not the exhilarated, yay-I’m-alive kind, like when I’d survived Demetrius’s first attack, but wild cackles that hovered between derangement and despair.
“A problem? You don’t say,” I gasped out. “I thought huge demonic dogs would only be a minor nuisance.”
Adrian smoothed the hair out of my face, his hand lingering to cup my chin.
“‘Hound’ is a nickname. They’re not dogs. They’re ancient reptiles the demons selectively bred until they made the most vicious thing on four legs. Can’t see, taste or smell for shit, though, which is why you’re safe if you don’t move. If you do, they’re trained to tear you to pieces.”
I stopped laughing, but that didn’t mean I felt more stable. “I vote we skip this realm and only search ones without demonic, man-eating reptiles.”
“It’s not that simple,” he said, still in that infuriatingly calm tone. “They weren’t supposed to be there, so the demons must be amping up their security. They know you’ve searched two realms for the weapon, Ivy. Looks like they’re trying to stop you from searching a third.”
The suck never seemed to end. “But now that we know they’re there, can’t we just bring bigger weapons and kill them?”
“Hounds are almost as difficult to kill as demons,” Adrian responded, a hint of grimness making me wonder if he spoke from experience. “Plus, they’re cold-blooded, so they have to keep returning to their handlers to warm up, which means it wouldn’t take long for one of them to be missed.”
Crawling into the world’s largest ketchup bottle and not coming out was starting to sound like a great idea. “Now what?”
He gave me a level look. “Now we talk to Zach.”
We used most of our remaining Archon-glamoured sticky notes for gas money to return to Costa’s house in Miami. Once there, we waited. And waited.
By the fourth day, Zach was still a no-show despite Adrian repeatedly trying to reach him. I tried, too, mostly by folding my hands, glaring upward and thinking multiple variations of Where are you, Zach? I know you can hear us!
Costa wasn’t around, either. At least he’d called, saying he was staying a few more days with Hoyt at Tomas’s family’s house. With no one actively trying to kill me and our realm-searching put on hold, I had nothing to do except brood. I couldn’t even enjoy the sunny warmth of South Florida. If I wasn’t feeling guilty over Jasmine languishing in her captivity, I was being tormented in another way.
For the past three nights, I’d fallen asleep listening to Adrian pace. He spent his days in the outdoor carport, claiming that he needed to work on his car. Bullshit. The Challenger was in mint condition, and he could only wax and detail it so many times before it was obvious that he was just avoiding me.