The Sweetest Burn

Page 32

I looked around, seeing nothing but the same exquisite landscape. “What door?”

“The invisible one,” Zach replied, maddening me. “It can’t be seen, Ivy. Only felt, so stretch out your hands and feel it.”

I clenched my fists instead. “We don’t have time for this. Adrian could be dying right now.”

“He’s not,” Zach said, his tone turning sharp. “And it’s past time you learned what you already should have figured out. Everything the demons have is a duplicate of something else.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I snapped.

Zach shot me a warning look for my choice of words. “Adrian isn’t hurt at the moment, but that could change, if you choose to keep arguing with me instead of doing what I say.”

I wanted to slap him, but I didn’t because he might smite me on the spot. Plus, he was right; the longer I argued, the longer it would take for me to get to Adrian.

So, I thrust out my arms and began to walk. I looked ridiculous, as if I was trying out for a spot in an old-style zombie movie, and worse, I didn’t feel anything. Right as I was about to demand that Zach at least play hot or cold to give me a hint on which direction, something sizzled across my hands.

I stopped, reaching out again after I’d instinctively yanked them back. Another sizzle, this time up to my forearms, and right before my eyes, my hands disappeared.

I swung around, staring at Zach with awed comprehension. “Adrian just showed me that hallowed objects have evil counterparts, and if everything demons have is a duplicate of something else, then there aren’t just demon realms and demon gateways. There are also Archon realms and gateways, so this—” my wave indicated the bright, stunningly beautiful landscape around us “—is an Archon realm.”

Zach smiled; a pure, genuine smile without any of his usual irony, sarcasm or challenge. The difference was night and day, and for a moment, I again glimpsed that incredible, ethereal form that pulsed against the edges of his skin, reminding me that his body was only meant to cover up what he really was.

“Close,” he replied. “Archons do come and go from places like this, but we dwell in the higher realms. This realm and others like it were originally made for humans. After the fall of man, all of them were sealed off, yet they still have gateways.”

Stories I’d long ago dismissed as myths filled in what he didn’t say, and I looked around with a fresh sense of awe.

“Eden,” I breathed. “This realm is Eden, or at least, one of the Edens.” And if it was a realm... “Time moves differently here, doesn’t it? That’s why you’re not concerned about getting me to Adrian.”

Another smile, though this one had his usual, ironic edge. “Haven’t you noticed that if you merely stop worrying for a few minutes, you are able to think far more clearly?

“Have you seen my life?” I countered. “It’s been a nonstop roller coaster of stress, danger and impossible expectations, so worry-free contemplation time? Not in large supply.”

Zach sighed. “Your mind should rule your circumstances, not the other way around.”

My fingers began to drum against my leg. “Easy for an all-powerful Archon to say.”

His eyes blazed with light for a brief moment. “I am not all-powerful. I can be hurt and killed, as can those I love. Our differences are fewer than you allow yourself to believe.”

Hardly. If I had his abilities, people wouldn’t be dying on the streets of Marquette University right now. Zach knew what was going on, yet instead of helping them, he was lecturing me about worrying and willpower. He might not be in a hurry to save anyone, but I was.

“Is that so?” Zach said, raising a brow. “What if I told you that Adrian will survive tonight, but many people won’t, unless you do something to help them? Would you still be in a hurry to return, if you knew that only strangers’ lives were in danger instead of Adrian’s?”

He really thought Adrian’s was the only life I cared about? “Can I cross through the gateway without you?”

Zach’s lips curled; definitely not a real smile this time. “Yes. When you get to the other side, mark the spot where you came out. Then, return the same way. No one can follow unless you pull them through, so on this side, you’re safe.”

My irritation with him vanished with this news. “I can pull anyone over here with me?”

“Anyone,” Zach repeated, challenge edging his tone. “Except demons, of course. Archons can’t cross into their worlds and demons can’t cross into ours. So, what will you do?”

I gave Zach a hard look as I stretched out my hands, feeling for the energy surge that marked the gateway. He might be content with letting people die when he could do something about it, but I wasn’t.

“Just you watch.”


I LANDED ON the other side with my usual grace, which meant face-first into the pavement. Oh well, so I’d never be a ballerina, big deal. I jumped up, shook my head to clear it and looked around, my eyes taking a second to adjust after the brightness of the Eden realms.

The campus looked like a war zone. Black, snakelike clouds were still strafed through several buildings, but either the view was different from the ground or there weren’t as many as I’d first thought. Despite that, I couldn’t count all the people that were running around in a panic, and more than a few fires had started. Surprisingly—or not surprisingly, considering how infiltrated minions tended to be in places near demon realms—I didn’t see any police or firefighters.

My brave words to Zach now landed on me with the force of a thousand bricks. These people had no one to help them. I wasn’t a superhero and I wasn’t nearly up to the task of being a savior, but I was all they had, so I had to make this count.

First, I had to mark the gateway. A glance around showed that I’d spilled out onto West Wisconsin Avenue, in front of Zilber Hall. I didn’t have anything to write with—hell, I didn’t even have a bra, underwear or shoes!—so I used the only thing I had to mark the site. My blood.

I ran over to the no-parking sign and ripped it off. Then I used one of the sharp metal edges to gouge my arm, smearing the blood over the spot where the energy pulses were the strongest. I left the sign there, too, but it would probably get blown off. An unnatural windstorm swirled around the campus, no doubt caused by the demon realm spilling out onto this place.

As soon as I’d marked the gateway, I ran to the nearest median. The narrow strip between the streets was lined with trees and shrubs, but I wasn’t there to admire the aesthetics. I was looking for rocks.

After digging madly through the dirt, I found some, and stuffed a couple handfuls of them into my pockets. My tattoo was starting to change from brown to gold, but it hadn’t uncurled into a weapon yet. I must not be close enough to the demons that were riding through the realm spillage as if it were their own personal monorail. Time to change that.

I kept the biggest rock in my hand and ran toward where the screams were the loudest. The landscape of buildings, streets and churches looked completely different than when Adrian, Jasmine, Costa and I had strolled through here hours ago. Darkness had since claimed it, and that darkness was more than the absence of light. It was a living, writhing force that brought death and terror, literally, judging from the minions and demons that spilled out of those snakelike plumes.

“Make for the churches!” I began to shout at the people. “Everyone, get to hallowed ground as fast as you can!”

I repeated that chant over and over, only to be ignored by all who heard it. Up ahead, a minion dragged a screaming girl who resembled my former dorm mate toward one of those dark flumes. I ran toward them, but they disappeared into the realm tentacle before I could reach them, and I couldn’t cross it to save her. I wanted to scream out of sheer frustration. Instead, I channeled my raging emotions into something else. If no one would listen to me and run for hallowed ground, then I would force the minions to pick on someone their own size.

I flung myself right into the midst of two more minions, who were forcibly corralling a group of students toward another realm flume. My adrenaline was so high, I smashed the rock over the first minion’s head, then ducked under the punch the second one threw before head-butting him in the midsection. He hadn’t been expecting my strength, so it knocked him flat, and then I slammed my foot down onto his neck.

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