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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
“Sorry,” I muttered to Costa, bending to pick up the pieces. To Zach I said, “Then your boss sucks. It’s to his benefit that I find the weapon before the demons do, but instead of helping, he’s grabbing popcorn to sit back and watch.”
“Get used to it,” Adrian said dryly.
“Isn’t that what you would rather do?” Zach replied, his gaze flashing as it swept over me. “If your sister’s life wasn’t tied to this weapon, would you risk yourself searching for it?” Before I could respond, he started in on Adrian. “And if it wasn’t the key to your vengeance, would you risk your fate to help her? No,” he answered for both of us. “Therefore, sit judgment on your own sins before you presume to judge others’.”
Now I was glad I’d broken the thick glass cup. Otherwise, I might have thrown it at him. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to save my sister’s life,” I almost snarled.
“Untold thousands are trapped in the dark realms. If hers is the only life you care about, something is very wrong,” Zach responded at once.
“That’s out of my control and you know it. If I could save all of them, I would!” I snapped back.
Absolute silence fell. For a second, it seemed like the traffic noise outside Costa’s house vanished, too. Adrian closed his eyes, anger and resignation skipping over his features. Light briefly gleamed in Zach’s gaze, and he stared at me with such intensity that a wave of foreboding swept over me.
Something significant had just happened, and as usual, I was the only one who didn’t know what it was. Also per usual, none of them were going to tell me about it.
Whatever. I’d get it out of them eventually. I threw the last of the shattered cup into the trash and then ran my hand under the tap, washing the cut one of the shards had made.
“When do we leave for Roanoke?” Costa asked, breaking the loaded silence. “And before you argue, Adrian, I am going with you. Tomas died fighting for Ivy’s chance to find that weapon. I’m seeing this through until she does. Then my best friend can finally rest in peace.”
I’d started this to rescue my sister, but in a short amount of time, the stakes had grown much larger. Now more than Jasmine’s life hung in the balance. So did Adrian’s revenge, Tomas’s justice and Costa’s tribute to his friend, all hinging on my ability to find and successfully use a supernatural weapon, if the demons hunting us didn’t kill us first.
No pressure, right?
Adrian’s gaze moved to Zach, and the two men exchanged a look I couldn’t read. Whatever it was, it wasn’t happy.
“Did you bring my car?” Adrian finally asked.
An oblique nod. “Of course.”
Adrian went over to the now-full coffee pot, downed a steaming mug like it was a single shot and then flashed the rest of us a grimly expectant smile.
“We leave in an hour.”
A glimpse inside Adrian’s trunk explained why we were driving to North Carolina instead of flying. It looked like an NRA gold-member kit, with row upon row of handguns, regular rifles and assault rifles. We barely had room for luggage, not that I had much to bring. Aside from the clothes and basic hygiene items Zach had gotten me, all I owned was a lipstick, gum and face cream, all stuffed inside a tiny, clear travel bag.
I took that bag out to put my lipstick on during our first pit stop. Costa wasn’t the only person who stared as I contorted my head in order to see a distorted reflection in the chrome from Adrian’s empty side mirror. Not that I cared. I wasn’t doing this to look prettier for Adrian, Costa or even myself. I did it because it was my last link to a semi-normal life. Everything else had been turned upside down or taken away, but this small feminine ritual was my silent promise that one day, if I survived, I’d get it back. No matter how long it took, or what I might change based on truths I now knew.
“That looks...disturbing,” Costa said when I was finished.
I smacked my lips at him, unperturbed. “I’ll get better at doing this without a mirror. Now, pass me the rock and gloves. I’m hitting the ladies’ room before we leave.”
“Uh, I don’t think—” Costa began, only to be cut off by Adrian’s “Don’t. This I have to see.”
I gave them a questioning look as I accepted the gloves and rock I’d need to smash the mirror. That turned to suspicion when they followed me into the gas station, not even pretending to browse as they watched me enter the bathroom. Jeez, had I screwed up my lipstick that badly?
This time, I glanced under the stalls before I broke the mirror. No one, good. After I kicked the worst of the shards out of the way, I answered nature’s call. I was in the process of washing my hands when the door opened and a squeal startled me.
“That was already broken,” I began to lie, only to be interrupted by the heavyset African-American woman saying, “You are in the wrong place, Grandpa!”
What? As I goggled at her, the woman’s gaze dropped to my lips, then to the glass on the floor.
“You okay, sir?” she asked in a less scandalized voice.
“I’m not a man,” I protested, then stopped at the sudden burst of laughter from inside the store. Uh-oh.
Costa’s look of disbelief when he first saw me. Adrian’s amused comment of “Nice” to Zach. Both of them following me to the ladies’ room. This woman calling me “sir” and “Grandpa.”
“I look like an old guy, don’t I?” I asked resignedly. “An old guy wearing lipstick, no less.”
Concern pinched her features. “Is someone here with you, sir? Or is there someone we can call?”
“Yeah.” My voice was wry. “Call the angel with the warped sense of humor, because this is all his fault.”
Now she really looked concerned, but I brushed by her, saying, “Fun’s over, sonnies. Time to take Grandpa for a ride!” to the two grinning guys waiting for me.
* * *
Way back when, Roanoke Island had been the site of a Colonial-era settlement that mysteriously disappeared. Today, parts of the island drew visitors by marketing that event. Take Festival Park, a tourist attraction complete with a structural re-creation of the Lost Colony, a play about it, several Elizabethan-styled games, and people wandering around in sixteenth-century costumes.
Costa didn’t drop Adrian and me off here so we could join the festivities. In the glimpses I caught of the demon realm, the north side of Roanoke Island was surrounded by ice instead of water, with barren earth replacing the pretty oak and myrtle trees. Some of the pre-Colonial huts from Festival Park were there, though, looking not much different from the ones that duplicated the village in the former Lost Colony.
“It’s like the realm swallowed this place,” I murmured to Adrian, glad someone else could see what I did.
“That’s exactly what happened,” he responded, his voice low. “Realms start out as duplicate reflections of our world, with everything we build here getting mirrored there.”
“Everything?” I tried to absorb the staggering thought that demon realms had duplicated the entire world.
“As reflections,” Adrian stressed, leading me into the trees behind the Visitor’s Center. “They’re not tangible yet. That only happens when demons get powerful enough to absorb an area. When they do, the place, along with everyone in it, gets sucked into a new realm in the demon world. So in effect, they swallow it. Then what’s left in our world is an empty shell.”
For a second, I closed my eyes, thinking of the two versions of the bed-and-breakfast Jasmine was trapped in. “But that shell can be rebuilt.”
“It can.” Adrian looked around, his mouth curling. “Absorbed places carry negative imprints of what happened, even if people don’t understand why they don’t want to build there. Festival Park is at the back end of the demon realm. The main part looks just as beautiful in our world, but it isn’t crawling with shops and hotels like these sections of Manteo.”
He was right. The part of Manteo we’d rented a room in had nearly wall-to-wall bed-and-breakfasts, inns, restaurants and stores. Compared to that, the place where the former Lost Colony had been located was largely undeveloped.
“So what was our version of Mayhemium’s realm, before he swallowed it?” I asked, no longer whispering since we were a hundred yards into the woods by now. “It looked like bigger versions of the Sun and Moon pyramids in the Avenue of the Dead.”
He gave me a tight smile. “You know your history.”
“It’s my major,” I said, remembering that the ruins of Teotihuacan were thousands of years old on our end. The demons had had plenty of time to keep building on their side of the realm. By comparison, the colony at Roanoke had been recently swallowed, and it was far less impressive than sucking in the third-largest pyramid in the world.
“Why’d the demons want this place?” I wondered.
Adrian gave me a jaded look as he held back a low-hanging branch so I could duck under it.
“Same reason every conqueror wants more territory. The person with the most usually wins.”
Duly noted. “And you think the weapon might be here, why?”
He stopped in front of a tall tree stump that had been halved, as though a lightning strike long ago had split it in two. The dark wood rising up behind him reminded me of Mayhemium’s wings, and I shifted uncomfortably. What horrors would I discover in this new realm?
“It’s led by a weak demon,” Adrian said. “All I know of the demons from Goliath’s line is that they’re very strong. That rules out the weapon being hidden in one of their realms. Otherwise, the demon who stole it would’ve just given it to that realm’s ruler instead of hiding it while looking for someone who could wield it.”
I stared at him, incredulous. “You’re saying that Mayhemium was a weak demon?”
His snort was contemptuous. “Oh, yeah. Total pussy.”
“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.