Looking like a Hound meant that I ran past the guards without once being stopped. We streaked through the courtyard with everyone stepping aside to get out of our way, and as the Hounds led me down a stone hallway past that, the air grew noticeably warmer. When we arrived at the end of the hallway, it was almost humid. Once inside the dimly lit room, I understood.
The Hounds jumped into a large, steaming pool cut into the rock, immersing themselves up to their eyes. The water smelled atrocious, but I jumped in, too, telling myself I was just doing it to avoid suspicion.
It was a lie. That steam sold me. It could’ve been hot mud, and I would’ve still dived right in. After a few painful minutes where my feet and hands felt like they were on fire as circulation returned, I stopped shaking and my teeth quit chattering. Another few minutes, and I felt focused enough to concentrate. Here was as good a place as any to search the castle with my hallowed-radar.
I’d just begun to do that when rolling noises echoed through the nearby hallway. I tensed, but the Hounds next to me began to wiggle in what could only be called joyous expectation.
Moments later, two minions bearing lightning-like marks in their skin pushed wheelbarrows into the room. The Hounds leaped from the water, jostling each other for position as the contents were dumped into a corner. Then they fell on the pile like hungry pigs at feeding time, and what they’d been given to eat was as revolting as it was expected in a demon realm.
I looked away, rage scalding me with such intensity that it flared my abilities. They pulsed outward, covering the castle with the same sonar-like efficiency as before, and my supernatural ping returned with nothing at the end of it.
The weapon wasn’t here.
I got out of the water, still looking away from the Hounds. My anger made my near nudity irrelevant as a minion looked my way, not that he’d see a girl in a belt bikini anyway. He seemed surprised that I wasn’t joining the feeding frenzy, but then came toward me while holding out a large blanket.
I stood still as he dried me, speaking in Demonish the whole time. He even used exaggerated vowels and the singsong voice people affected when talking to babies or favored pets. When he was done, he scratched my head and patted my ass as if I’d been a good little Hound.
“I wish I was one of them right now,” I told him, knowing all he heard were hissing noises. “I’d bite your head off.”
He replied with the Demonish version of what was probably “Whoooo’s a grumpy guuurl?” and patted me again. This time, I bared my teeth at him.
“Touch my ass one more time and I’m clubbing you with the nearest femur from that pile.”
Not that I could, because using a bone like a club was un-Houndlike enough to get the other minion’s attention. Also, I needed to seize my chance. With my search complete and the other Hounds occupied, now was the perfect time to return to Adrian.
I ran out of the Hound-spa, glad there weren’t many turns to remember to get out of the castle. Once again, no one attempted to stop me, and when I was dashing down the hill on my way to where I last left Adrian, something else occurred to me.
I could see where I was going. Not great, as the several times I tripped proved, but I wasn’t blinded by the darkness, and I was far enough away from the lights of the mountain castle that I should’ve been. My abilities were growing at an incredible rate. Was it because I was finally using them, or was it the virulent seesaw of emotions that kept kicking them into hyperdrive? Between my feelings for Adrian, my guilt over Jasmine, and the rage that demon realm atrocities brought out in me, I wouldn’t know a moment of calm if it bit me in the ass.
“Ivy, over here!”
I adjusted my course at Adrian’s directive, now noticing him next to the cluster of dead trees. He’d remained so still that he’d blended in at first glance. Once I reached him, I almost hurtled myself into the ankle-length parka he held out and yanked my boots on fast enough to leave skid marks.
“It’s not here, let’s go,” I panted.
We ran the short distance to the gateway, but before he dropped us through it, he paused.
“Are you up for doing another realm now?”
My body felt like a Popsicle and I never wanted to see another Hound feeding trough again, but I didn’t hesitate.
I’d find this weapon, and not only would I save my sister, I’d kill every damn demon and minion in the realm she’d been trapped in.
I made it through seven realms the first day, and finished the other five two days later. A stint with hypothermia was responsible for the delay, but it wasn’t just manna combined with Adrian and Costa treating it that got me past it so quickly. I was changing. I could feel it in the muscles I’d never had before, and in the hallowed-hunting sensor that was easier and easier to utilize. I’d searched the last realm without even entering the main building, and despite keeping that to myself, Adrian had sensed the changes, too.
That’s why he said it was time for me to learn how to use a slingshot.
Because of my hideous disguise, we went into the Pisgah National Forest to practice. Costa came with us in case we needed an extra trigger finger, if minions happened upon us, though I doubted it. We were out in the middle of beautiful nowhere, with tall trees, waterfalls and bubbling creeks as far as the eye could see. Compared to demon realms, the forties temperature was also downright balmy, but it seemed to keep park visitors at bay. Good thing, too. Forget innocent hikers—if Bigfoot were real, he’d crap himself at the sight of me.
After Adrian set up a target, Costa sat on a fallen tree stump to watch. I stood next to Adrian, frowning when I saw the long, braided rope he pulled out of his duffel bag. Was that a duplicate of the infamous weapon? In my head, David’s slingshot looked like a Y-shaped branch with stretchy material wound around the opposing ends. Not what resembled a skinnier version of a child’s jump rope.
“What am I supposed to do with that? Hang the demons with it?” I wondered.
Adrian grinned, taking a stone from the bag and placing it in the small section of rope that split into two pieces. Then he began to spin the rope in a lasso-like circle, increasing the speed until it made a low, whirring sound. That turned into a crack as he snapped it forward. I didn’t see the stone release, but one of the glass bottles he’d set up thirty feet away suddenly exploded, spewing beer over the branch he’d set it on.
“Wow,” I said, impressed. “You nailed that like you were using a sniper rifle. How long have you been practicing?”