The Sweetest Burn

Page 55

A minion wannabe. Now I’d seen everything. Adrian slowly let me down, and as soon as my feet touched the floor, I bent, picking up the loose rocks that the explosion had shaken free.

“There’s no way out, Davidian,” Vritra said in a pleasant tone. “Those explosions you felt were Piotr blowing a hidden charge to disable the elevator, and the second blast took out the staircase above the Dlugosz Chamber.”

Edgar’s stricken expression confirmed that we had no way out of here. “How could you?” he breathed to Piotr.

“Easily,” Piotr bit back. “All it took was a few sticks of the dynamite, plus a mirror to summon Vritra. I have been serving him for the past three months.” He turned smug eyes on Adrian. “Did you really believe that throwing him into an ocean could wound him indefinitely?” He chuckled before zeroing in on Edgar again. “You and the rest of our order might consider it an honor to spend your life underground and in poverty, but I don’t.”

I was actually wondering why Vritra and his minions hadn’t charged us yet. They had us trapped. What was he waiting for?

“We can proceed one of two ways,” Vritra said, answering my unspoken question. “I slaughter all of you, which is my personal preference. Or, whoever leads me to the staff gets to live, and whoever doesn’t dies.”

So that’s why! Piotr might have told Vritra before that the staff was in the mine, but the mine was over a hundred miles long and over a thousand feet deep, which was too vague to be useful if you couldn’t sense it. And before today, Piotr hadn’t known who among the dozens of Guardians had been entrusted with its exact location. Now, Vritra needed me or Edgar to point him to the staff, or even with it narrowed down to one mine shaft, he’d spend countless days or weeks trying to find it.

“Don’t do it, Edgar,” I murmured.

He glanced at me, his gray gaze hard. “I was chosen because I would rather die than betray my cause, so let this demon scum do their worst.”

The slingshot was now fully uncurled from my arm, and I notched one of the salt rocks into it. “You heard the man,” I said, starting to spin the rope. “Take your offer and shove it.”

Adrian pulled out two guns from holsters beneath his shirt. So he’d gotten a lot of things while I was sleeping earlier. “I kicked your ass before, Vritra. Love to do it again.”

The snake-armed demon smiled as he glanced at Piotr. “Seems they need more persuading. Blow the last charge.”

What charge? I thought. Piotr’s uneasy expression only increased my sense of foreboding. If Vritra didn’t have over a dozen minions in front of him, I’d start slinging rocks, but with his minion shields, the projectiles wouldn’t reach him.

“But, master, I may not survive, either—” Piotr began.

“Do it!” Vritra roared, his coiling serpents striking out at Piotr, their fangs missing him by mere inches.

Piotr lunged away from the deadly snakes, leaving the shelter of the minion crowd. That was all Adrian needed. A shot rang out and Piotr fell, clutching his bleeding chest. Adrian fired again, this time hitting the minion who threw himself in front of Piotr. From the tangle of legs surrounding him, I saw the spindly old man glaring at us, and even as blood bubbled from his lips, he pulled something out of his jacket and pressed it.

The explosion didn’t sound as massive or as close as the previous ones, and though the ground shook, the walls stayed up and nothing caved in. For a few relieved moments, I thought that something had gone wrong with the blast. Then I heard a strange rushing sound that grew louder.

Edgar grabbed my arm. “Run! He’s flooded the mine!”

Adrian began firing into the crowd at will as he backed up. Edgar was pulling at me for all he was worth, but this might be our only chance to kill Vritra. I aimed for his head and snapped the rope, sending a rock right at the demon. He ducked, and it hit the minion behind him. Furious, I notched another rock, but that rushing sound grew, and then water blasted into the chamber with enough force to knock the minions and Vritra over.

Adrian grabbed my hand and we ran back through the first chamber. When we reached the second, I heard water smash into the glass displays of the first room, breaking everything it its path. We ran faster, until we reached Jasmine and Costa, who’d gotten a big head start. I grabbed her and Adrian got Costa. Together, we propelled them forward faster than they could go on their own, but it wasn’t enough. Water splashed around our ankles when we reached the fifth chamber, and by the time we got to the seventh one, it was up to our waists.

Worse, it wasn’t only filled with glass, rocks and other dangerous debris. It had also carried along the minions and Vritra with it. Three snakes popped their heads out of the water next to me, and I lunged away just in time. Adrian released Costa and grabbed the snakes, tearing their heads off with a brutal yank. I screamed when three more appeared in the water behind him. He whirled, grabbing them and tearing, but too late. One of them latched on to his arm and those deadly fangs sank in.

“No!” I shouted.

Adrian grimaced as he pulled the snake head off his arm and threw it aside. I tried to run to him, but the water was now up to my chest, and I tripped over objects it hid from my view. Then Vritra emerged from the frothing waves. Decapitated snake heads swirled around him as he grabbed Adrian, his features a mask of rage. Adrian fought, but his movements were terrifyingly uncoordinated and his eyes looked unfocused.

The poison, I realized in horror. Adrian was half-demon, so most things couldn’t kill him, but other demons could and, maybe, so could demon poison.

Arms grabbed me around the waist and pulled. Hard. I kicked to get free, but with everything shifting from the rising water, I lost my balance. Those arms pulled me under, and for a few frantic seconds, I fought to break the surface. My assailant kept dragging me back down, and amid my panic over lack of oxygen, I realized my error.

Instead of fighting to break the surface, I grabbed my assailant. Water blunted the effect of my punches and made my slingshot useless. My only advantage was that it also blunted the punches and kicks from the minion I was grappling with. I had to do something else. Fast.

With my lungs burning for oxygen, I felt around until I reached his face. It was easy to find, since he bit me viciously as soon as I grazed it. Instead of trying to pull free, I used my trapped hand as a map, and then shoved my thumb into his eye as hard as I could.

Frenzied kicking and fighting ensued. I absorbed every painful blow and held on, shoving my thumb deeper and twisting. Those movements abruptly stopped and I twisted free, taking in huge gulps of air as soon as I cleared the surface.

“Ivy!” my sister screamed. I sloshed around, seeing her and Costa much farther ahead. The force of the water had swept them and several minions into the mine, but Adrian and Vritra were still in this chamber, and I was horrified by what I saw.

Vritra’s hands were wrapped around Adrian’s neck. Adrian was trying to pry the demon’s hands free, but his eyelids were fluttering and he looked to be fading.

“You tore my throat out once,” the demon hissed. “It’s time I repaid you for that.”

I lunged toward them, desperation allowing me to cut through the water with more power than I should have had. Then, because I had nothing else to use and Adrian’s eyes were closing with a terrifying finality, I looped the sling around Vritra’s head, planted my feet in his back and pulled with all of my might.

I fell backward into the water so suddenly that I was sure I’d failed. Then something bobbed against my chest, and I stared down at Vritra’s decapitated head. His mouth was still moving in curses as his skin blackened and caved inward, then his head disappeared and ashes filled the water around me.

I swam over to Adrian. Ashes blackened his throat from Vritra’s hands, but that was quickly washed away in the swirling water. It had risen until I could no longer feel the ground, and the ceiling was only a few feet away.

“Adrian!” I said, shaking him. His eyes fluttered and he smiled, but his veins were starting to turn black as the poison worked its way through his body.

I pulled him with me as I swam, keeping his head above the water. The only place left to go was the mine shaft where the staff was located. From the little I remembered of it, it went back a long way, so it might buy us time before the water reached the ceiling and drowned us all. Plus, once I crossed through the doorway, I wouldn’t be thinking about anything except finding the staff.

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