The Beautiful Ashes

Page 34

I stared at him, incredulous. “You’re saying that Mayhemium was a weak demon?”

His snort was contemptuous. “Oh, yeah. Total pu**y.”

“Sure. Because who can’t transform into dozens of killer crows, am I right?”

His mouth quirked at my shrill tone. “You freaking out, Ivy?”

Yes. If Mayhemium was the demon-lite version, we were so screwed! “I’m just...absorbing this.”

That quirk deepened. “Sorry, time’s up. Here’s the door.”

With that, he grasped me and then dropped us backward into the V in the tree stump. Instead of hitting the long-dead wood, the realm-piercing roller coaster started, leaving me with a familiar sensation of nausea when it spit us out into a dark, freezing version of Festival Park.

This time, lights from the realm’s residents were close enough that I didn’t feel like I’d been struck blind. Of course, it also meant that we were stopped by a minion before we’d been here less than five minutes. The slide show of white in his eyes matched the furs he wore over his leather-and-metal outfit, making him look like he’d gotten it at a Viking surplus store.

I’d heard enough Demonish to know that he said a variation of “Stop! Who goes there?” to Adrian, but his reply was lost on me. It seemed to satisfy the minion guard, and the way he barely looked at me made me glad for Zach’s old-man disguise.

“What was your excuse this time?” I whispered when the guard was far enough away not to overhear us.

Adrian’s mouth tightened. “I told him you were food.”

Right, because that, forced labor and forced sex were the only things demons imported humans into their realms for. A sick sort of rage swept over me. Jasmine. Despite Adrian’s assurance that the demons were treating her better than anyone else, I couldn’t help but wonder what horrors she’d gone through while I was fumbling around looking for this weapon.

I forced those thoughts back. They only led to more rage and feelings of helplessness, which wouldn’t do my sister any good. Finding the weapon would, and to do that, I needed to concentrate on abilities I was just learning to use.

We passed some old wooden huts that were covered by a thick layer of ice. Human slaves occupied them, and it was all I could do not to give away my warm jacket, boots and gloves when I saw them shivering in their paltry coverings. I couldn’t, of course. That would be announcing myself to the minions and demons here, and though there were a lot less of them than in Mayhemium’s realm, there were a lot more innocent bystanders on our side of Festival Park. Costa waited with our arsenal in the parking lot, but starting a firefight at a tourist attraction was the last thing we wanted to do.

After the wooden huts, we walked along what seemed like a mile-long line of igloos. The igloos made sense, I supposed, since ice was the only material in large supply here, and demons had absorbed this realm before anything substantial was built. Light inside made the igloos glow, and while I was sickened by all the trapped people they denoted, I was grateful for the extra illumination. Did I mention I’d come to hate the dark?

“Sense anything?” Adrian asked.

“No,” I replied, and he grunted as though he’d expected that. Guess the last place he thought the weapon was hidden was in the wall of a slave hut.

About three miles into our hike, I had a question, too. “Why are demon headquarters so far away from realm entrances?”

Adrian shot me a slanted look. “Tactical advantage. They want to see an army coming, if someone’s after their realm.”

“Demons fight each other for control of the realms?”

Adrian’s mouth curled into a sardonic grin. “Humans don’t have a monopoly on land grabs, Ivy.”

Guess we wouldn’t. Compared to all the demons’ other cruelties, snatching each other’s kingdoms seemed almost a benign activity.

After ten minutes of brisk walking, a castle came into view. The walls glowed with different colors, faint but ethereal, reminding me of a small, multicolored version of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. When we got closer, I saw the gates were adorned with ice sculptures that looked like mermen and mermaids. A long staircase bordered by ice-carved waves led up to the castle, and the front doors resembled huge seashells.

More guards were stationed around the gates. In addition to metal, some of their weapons seemed to be forged from ice. It was as though we’d stepped into a demonic version of Poseidon’s Frozen Paradise, and the more I stared, the less I wanted to remember. I hated that it was so beautiful when I knew what horrors lurked beneath the exquisite exterior.

After exchanging a few words with one of the guards, Adrian took us around to the back of the castle. There, we were stopped again, and Adrian relayed the same cover story as before. One of the guards shook his head as he gave me a rough cuff, and I didn’t need to know Demonish to guess that he was disparaging my proposed edibility. I hunched my shoulders and tried to look terrified while I hoped Adrian’s darkening expression didn’t mean he was about to deck the guard. I still hadn’t sensed anything, but we hadn’t entered the castle, and I wasn’t leaving until I’d given it a supernatural once-over.

Thankfully, Adrian didn’t do anything violent, and we were finally allowed into the back of the castle. The narrow hallway looked more igloo-like than Icy Emerald City, but I guess fanciness wasn’t required for the slave entrance, although the floor was a pretty shade of deep pink—

Adrian’s grip on my arm tightened until it should have been painful, but I barely felt it. The floor of the room we entered resembled a layer of rubies. The reason for that became abhorrently clear as I saw a cloudy-eyed minion mop up a pool of blood, its crystallized stain adding another layer of red. The blood came from a nearby ice slab, where another leather-clad minion carved out sections from the body lying on it.

This wasn’t the slave entrance. It was the slaughterhouse.

Mopping Minion said something in Demonish to Adrian. He responded in a harsh voice, dropping his hand from my arm, but I wasn’t focused on him.

A bound, naked boy lay on the floor. At first, I thought he was dead, too. Then his gaze slid from the dripping slab to me, and the absolute hopelessness I saw in it shattered me. He wasn’t silently begging for help. As he watched the butchering going on above him, his blank, empty stare said he knew nothing could save him from being next.

Without the slightest hesitation, I drew out the gun Adrian had given me and fired. The butcher went down, clutching his chest. I kept shooting as I advanced, part of me marveling at the quiet, cough-cough sounds the gun made. That silencer Adrian had screwed onto the end really worked as advertised.

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