The Sweetest Burn

Page 51

Adrian grunted knowingly. “So, you chose the pics?”

“Memorized them until the battery died,” Costa replied in a fervent voice.

I stifled a snort. Good thing Zach had walked away during Jasmine’s tirade or he’d probably take issue with that comment.

“Anything would help,” I told Costa. “We went to the places the tablet implied the staff would be, and while it had been there, it’s not now, and there were no other maps or clues.”

Costa scratched his chin. “I’m not sure this means anything, but in tiny letters on the back of the tablet, it said ‘Made in Poland.’”

“What?” I said in disbelief. The stone map with ancient runic writing that was our only clue to the second-most-hallowed weapon in the world had been mass-produced in Poland?

“Did whoever took the staff leave that as a fucking joke?” Adrian growled, echoing my next thoughts.

“Maybe it was a decoy?” Costa offered, giving a helpless shrug. “You know, to throw demons off, if they found it?”

“Then why bury it in a chapel?” Adrian burst out. “No demon could enter one. If I hadn’t used dark objects to curse the ground, Blinky would’ve been fried on contact with the chapel.”

“Maybe whoever left it assumed that minions could’ve found it and brought it to their master,” I said, taking a wild stab.

Adrian’s expression reflected all of the frustration I felt at this looking like yet another dead end. “Doubtful. What would a minion be doing in a church in the first place?”

Nothing I could think of. There wasn’t anything remarkable enough about the chapel to draw that sort of attention to it. It was a small, hardly well-known one, and looked so unimpressive from the outside that no minion would feel compelled to search it for lost relics. In fact, if not for the chapel’s unusual history of being moved from place to place, there would be nothing notable about it at all. It certainly hadn’t been located in the center of a divinely parted sea or a locust storm, either.

Wait a minute. There hadn’t been anything unusual about the area around the chapel. In fact, if Adrian hadn’t trapped a demon there that he wanted me to practice my skills on, we would’ve never swung by Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and found the stone map in the first place. We certainly wouldn’t have found the staff’s prior locations, giving us a rough timeline of where it had been over the past hundred years...

All places that Adrian had also been very familiar with, and it wasn’t the first time. He’d also been the former ruler of the same realm that David’s slingshot had been hidden in. An idea slammed into my mind as if hurled by the slingshot supernaturally coiled inside my arm. What if there wasn’t just one map, but two?

“With the realm bleeding onto the campus and demons slaughtering and kidnapping at will, we didn’t have time to wonder why there was no weather or other natural phenomenon around the chapel,” I said, interrupting Adrian and Costa’s dispute over whether the stone tablet was a deliberate red herring or just what the staff’s guardians had available to write their clue on. “We know the staff had been at St. Joan’s for a few years at least, so that area should have been known for freaky weather or strange geographical incidents, right?”

“Yes,” Adrian replied, drawing the word out as he realized the implications, too. “So should its old locations in France and Long Island, but I don’t remember hearing about anomalies there, either. But we know the staff does affect its surroundings in powerful ways. That’s why the sailing stones in Death Valley were our first stop. After that, I figured we’d check out Honduras, where fish rain from the sky every year, then the Taos Hum in New Mexico, then Venezuela for the Catatumbo lighting—”

“All places with freaky anomalies,” I interrupted. “Especially the fish thing, but if we don’t think the tablet is a joke or a decoy, then it’s an authentic clue from whoever took the staff. In that case, nothing on it was accidental. So, maybe the ‘Made in Poland’ decal was left on there for a reason.”

Adrian stared at me, my meaning sinking in. “You think the staff is in a church in Poland,” he stated.

“I think it might be,” I replied, and that wasn’t even the craziest part of the theory that had taken over my mind.

Costa let out a disbelieving snort. “Talk about hiding a clue in plain sight! The decal was so small, anyone could have missed it.”

“You didn’t,” I told him, with a grateful smile. “I probably never would have noticed it in those pictures.”

He grunted. “You didn’t have those pictures as your only escape from endless sermons.”

No, but Costa had. Coincidence? I was starting to doubt it.

“So, let’s assume we’re right about the significance of ‘Made in Poland,’” I said, continuing with my theory. “Was Poland on your list of places with freaky weather occurrences?”

“No,” Adrian said, his arched brow questioning where I was going with this.

“When we get back to the real world, we can google Poland to see what parts have freaky natural occurrences,” Costa said.

“We could do that,” I agreed, taking a deep breath. What I was about to suggest sounded insane, but after all I’d been through, I was starting to believe that more than a series of random coincidences and flukes had led us to where we were now. Add in some cryptic Archon speech about a map “of sorts” and a staff that might be controlling a lot more than nature, and maybe we’d been looking at this puzzle from the wrong angle.

If not, well, then, this wouldn’t be the first time that someone called me crazy. “The staff is what Moses used during his infamous standoff with Pharaoh, but what was the point?” I asked, plowing ahead with my theory.

Adrian lifted a brow. “To call down crushing plagues?”

“Yes, but what was the point?” I insisted. “Everyone knows the ‘let my people go’ line that Moses kept repeating to Pharaoh, and after the plagues, Pharaoh did. So, what if the staff’s influence isn’t limited to nature? What if, just like with Pharaoh, the staff’s greatest accomplishment is influencing man?”

I began to pace, so consumed by my theory that I couldn’t stand still any longer. “And if so, what if thousands of years later, the staff’s influence caused two sets of people to do the exact same crazy thing? After all, it cost huge sums of money to have an obscure little chapel disassembled and moved brick by brick over thousands of miles just to be reassembled again, and for what? There’s nothing special about the chapel! But we know that’s what happened, and we know the staff moved with it from France to New York to Milwaukee. So what if the staff made both those chapel owners do something senseless and costly, just like Pharaoh did something that he would have considered senseless and costly by letting his entire enslaved work force leave? And if so, then instead of looking for the staff in places with freaky nature anomalies, should we be looking for it in places with freaky human anomalies?”

I was almost panting by the time I finished, having rushed through those last sentences without taking a single breath of air. When I was done, Adrian said nothing. Neither did Costa. They just stared at me, until the silence passed awkward and headed right into uncomfortable.

Okay, so they didn’t seem to share my views on the staff. Wait until they heard the rest of my theory, and it was either tell them now or keep it to myself forever.

“There’s more,” I said. No way could I keep this to myself. “I found the slingshot in your former realm when I was looking for Jasmine. We found the tablet by going to your former home at the campus, the chapel’s location in New York just happened to be at a chateau that you used to stay at, and its original location of Chasse-sur-Rhône in France just happened to be the first place you went to when you were exploring the human world. Yes, you’ve been all around in your very long life, but that’s too many coincidences. I think the tablet isn’t our only clue to the staff’s location, Adrian. I think the real map is you, so let me ask you—have you ever been to Poland?”

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