“I—I think he’s right,” I got out, shuddering from the residual spikes of pain. “It’s the cloth. Something hallowed was in it, and whatever it was, it imprinted the cloth with more power than the slingshot ever had.”
I didn’t want to dwell on what that meant. Not now. All I wanted to do was get away from the thing that had made me feel like razor wire was being shoved through my veins.
Father Louis rose and went over to where Adrian stood. He held the candlestick up to the tablet, or the decoy, as I now mentally referred to it. After a moment, he began to trace his fingers over the images on it, but right when it looked like he was about to speak, Blinky beat him to it.
“If the staff’s mere covering sends you cringing to your knees, then the staff itself will definitely kill you.” A short, contemptuous laugh. “What a joke you are, Davidian.”
His words cut me to the core. That’s what I was worried about, too.
Adrian stared at the demon, so incensed that a vein in his temple started to noticeably throb. Without warning, he threw the stained, ancient-looking cloth at him.
The demon howled so loud, I thought my eardrums would rupture. He flung the cloth away and vaulted into the air, those strange skin flaps flaring out and revealing themselves to be three distinct pairs of batlike wings. Large, swelling blisters began to form all over him, even on his many eyes. They grew, bubbling up until he looked even more monstrous. The cloth had hurt me because I couldn’t handle its power, but this was a supernatural version of an extreme allergic reaction as a hallowed object touched pure evil.
I was sure the demon had it coming, and for more than taunting me with my probable impending failure and death. Still, it was unsettling to see Adrian’s obvious enjoyment as he snatched up the cloth and hurled it onto Blinky again, turning the demon’s blisters into oozing burns. With more ear-piercing screams, the demon threw it off. His three sets of wings flapped madly, but he had nowhere to fly. Every time he approached the limits of the cursed earth, he screamed again, as if everything beyond the invisible cylinder of those supernatural rings was almost as painful to touch as the cloth. Finally, he gave up trying to fly and huddled behind the burial vault in an attempt to hide from another volley.
“Who’s cringing on their knees now?” Adrian asked pitilessly.
“That’s enough,” I said, grossed out as every defensive movement the demon made caused his boils to burst open.
“Not until I say it is,” Adrian retorted, throwing the cloth back onto Blinky and seeming to savor his new screams.
I didn’t. It was one thing to teach Blinky to watch his mouth and another to reduce him to a festering, oozing pile of wounds. This side of Adrian was disturbing, to say the least. I’d told him to stop and he’d refused, so he wasn’t doing this to defend me anymore. No, this was all about him wanting revenge for more than any insults lobbed at me.
“Then do it alone,” I said, and walked out.
* * *
FATHER LOUIS FOLLOWED me back upstairs. He either wanted to look at the tablet under stronger light, or he, too, didn’t want to witness any more of Blinky’s torment. Once I was back in the chapel, I spotted Jasmine and Costa, but I didn’t see Brutus. Jasmine and Costa were as far away from the secret staircase as they could get while still being inside the chapel, and they each had a Starbucks cup in their hands. When I approached, Jasmine nodded at the extra one on the chair next to her.
“Brought some for you, Ivy.”
I sat down and took a long, grateful gulp. It was lukewarm, not hot, but I didn’t care. It was sweet, familiar and safe. I needed that combination so badly right now, if I could’ve, I might have bathed in it.
“Is Adrian still digging for the staff?” Jasmine asked.
I stared at her, only then remembering that she hadn’t seen any of what had happened. “No. It, ah, wasn’t there, after all.”
“But you were so sure,” she said in surprise.
“I was wrong,” was my slightly shaky reply.
Costa gave me a sharp look. I pretended to be too absorbed in taking another gulp of coffee to respond to it.
“I’ve figured it out,” Father Louis said, thankfully breaking the loaded moment. “The tablet is covered in runes.”
“What’re those?” Jasmine asked.
“An ancient form of alphabet,” I replied. Take that, scoffers who said it was a waste of time to major in history.
“I don’t know how to translate them, but one of the professors here might,” Father Louis went on as if we hadn’t spoken. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the tablet, either. He seemed enthralled by it. “If this was left where the staff used to be, perhaps the writing on it will tell us where it is now.”
“This must be the map,” I said in wonder, remembering Zach’s comment the day we started on this trip. He’d said that Adrian had to come because he would lead us to a map “of sorts.” I’d thought he’d meant a drawing with a version of “X marks the spot” for the staff, but he must have meant the tablet instead!
“Oh, that’s something,” Jasmine said, her smile slipping as she stared at me. “You don’t seem too happy by that, Ivy.”
I was happy, but I was almost more afraid than ever that if we found the staff, I wouldn’t be strong enough to use it to save the realm walls. Since I wouldn’t worry my sister by telling her the truth about why I was having a hard time finding my inner cheerleader at the moment, I mumbled, “I, ah, I’m just—”
“Tired,” Adrian filled in, coming up from the underground staircase. “Using her abilities takes a lot out of her.”
“Yep, I’m tired,” I agreed, giving him a grateful look.
Adrian’s gaze lingered on me before he turned to Costa. “The tablet must be the map Zach mentioned. I can read a little runic, so I’ll take a stab at translating it, but it’ll take a while. Why don’t you and Jasmine go grab some dinner? There’s a few restaurants close by and most of the campus is on hallowed ground, so you should be safe.”
From Costa’s skeptical expression, he knew there was a lot more going on. Then his half shrug seemed to say, I’ll play along now, but I’ll get the truth out of you later.
Out loud, he said, “I could stand to eat something. What about you, Jasmine? Hungry?”
“Starving,” my sister replied, rising. “Ivy? You coming?”
I wanted as far away as I could get from the boil-covered demon and his taunting reminders of my impending failure, but what I said was, “No, I’m not hungry. Besides, I should stay in case Adrian figures out what the tablet says.”
“Oh.” Jasmine looked disappointed, but she also looked clueless about anything else going on, so I was relieved even as guilt pricked me. I’ll tell her soon, I promised myself. Just not tonight. “Well, I’ll bring you back something, in case you change your mind.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling even though it felt like my face might crack from the strain. “Maybe get something for Brutus, too. Where is he, anyway?”
Costa shrugged. “Getting his nightly exercise, and hopefully not eating any stray cats he comes across.”
“Then definitely get him something,” I said, shuddering.
With assurances that they would, Jasmine and Costa left. Adrian went over to the altar, turned the same pillar on its axis and then got out of the way as the stone slab slowly lowered until the alter covered the hidden staircase again.
“Father Louis,” he said, “why don’t you take some pictures of the tablet, then find that professor and see if he can read the runes on it.”
The old priest beamed. “It’s late, but I am sure he will forgive me for troubling him.” Then he pulled a cell phone from his robes and snapped a few pictures of the tablet.
“Aren’t you going to try to read it first?” I asked Adrian.
He shrugged. “I can’t read a word of runic.”
I stared at him. “You lied.”
A smile tugged his lips. “Not to you. I never promised not to lie to Costa or Jasmine.”