The Beautiful Ashes Page 39

This time, I glanced under the stalls before I broke the mirror. No one, good. After I kicked the worst of the shards out of the way, I answered nature\s call. I was in the process of washing my hands when the door opened and a squeal startled me.

’’That was already broken,’’ I began to lie, only to be interrupted by the heavyset African-American woman saying, ’’You are in the wrong place, Grandpa!’’

What? As I goggled at her, the woman\s gaze dropped to my lips, then to the glass on the floor.

’’You okay, sir?’’ she asked in a less scandalized voice.

’’I\m not a man,’’ I protested, then stopped at the sudden burst of laughter from inside the store. Uh-oh.

Costa\s look of disbelief when he first saw me. Adrian\s amused comment of ’’Nice’’ to Zach. Both of them following me to the ladies\ room. This woman calling me ’’sir’’ and ’’Grandpa.’’

’’I look like an old guy, don\ I?’’ I asked resignedly. ’’An old guy wearing lipstick, no less.’’

Concern pinched her features. ’’Is someone here with you, sir? Or is there someone we can call?’’

’’Yeah.’’ My voice was wry. ’’Call the angel with the warped sense of humor, because this is all his fault.’’

Now she really looked concerned, but I brushed by her, saying, ’’Fun\s over, sonnies. Time to take Grandpa for a ride!’’ to the two grinning guys waiting for me.

* * *

Way back when, Roanoke Island had been the site of a Colonial-era settlement that mysteriously disappeared. Today, parts of the island drew visitors by marketing that event. Take Festival Park, a tourist attraction complete with a structural re-creation of the Lost Colony, a play about it, several Elizabethan-styled games, and people wandering around in sixteenth-century costumes.

Costa didn\ drop Adrian and me off here so we could join the festivities. In the glimpses I caught of the demon realm, the north side of Roanoke Island was surrounded by ice instead of water, with barren earth replacing the pretty oak and myrtle trees. Some of the pre-Colonial huts from Festival Park were there, though, looking not much different from the ones that duplicated the village in the former Lost Colony.

’’It\s like the realm swallowed this place,’’ I murmured to Adrian, glad someone else could see what I did.

’’That\s exactly what happened,’’ he responded, his voice low. ’’Realms start out as duplicate reflections of our world, with everything we build here getting mirrored there.’’

’’Everything?’’ I tried to absorb the staggering thought that demon realms had duplicated the entire world.

’’As reflections,’’ Adrian stressed, leading me into the trees behind the Visitor\s Center. ’’They\ e not tangible yet. That only happens when demons get powerful enough to absorb an area. When they do, the place, along with everyone in it, gets sucked into a new realm in the demon world. So in effect, they swallow it. Then what\s left in our world is an empty shell.’’

For a second, I closed my eyes, thinking of the two versions of the bed-and-breakfast Jasmine was trapped in. ’’But that shell can be rebuilt.’’

’’It can.’’ Adrian looked around, his mouth curling. ’’Absorbed places carry negative imprints of what happened, even if people don\ understand why they don\ want to build there. Festival Park is at the back end of the demon realm. The main part looks just as beautiful in our world, but it isn\ crawling with shops and hotels like these sections of Manteo.’’

He was right. The part of Manteo we\d rented a room in had nearly wall-to-wall bed-and-breakfasts, inns, restaurants and stores. Compared to that, the place where the former Lost Colony had been located was largely undeveloped.

’’So what was our version of Mayhemium\s realm, before he swallowed it?’’ I asked, no longer whispering since we were a hundred yards into the woods by now. ’’It looked like bigger versions of the Sun and Moon pyramids in the Avenue of the Dead.’’

He gave me a tight smile. ’’You know your history.’’

’’It\s my major,’’ I said, remembering that the ruins of Teotihuacan were thousands of years old on our end. The demons had had plenty of time to keep building on their side of the realm. By comparison, the colony at Roanoke had been recently swallowed, and it was far less impressive than sucking in the third-largest pyramid in the world.

’’Why\d the demons want this place?’’ I wondered.

Adrian gave me a jaded look as he held back a low-hanging branch so I could duck under it.

’’Same reason every conqueror wants more territory. The person with the most usually wins.’’

Duly noted. ’’And you think the weapon might be here, why?’’

He stopped in front of a tall tree stump that had been halved, as though a lightning strike long ago had split it in two. The dark wood rising up behind him reminded me of Mayhemium\s wings, and I shifted uncomfortably. What horrors would I discover in this new realm?

’’It\s led by a weak demon,’’ Adrian said. ’’All I know of the demons from Goliath\s line is that they\ e very strong. That rules out the weapon being hidden in one of their realms. Otherwise, the demon who stole it would\ve just given it to that realm\s ruler instead of hiding it while looking for someone who could wield it.’’

I stared at him, incredulous. ’’You\ e saying that Mayhemium was a weak demon?’’

His snort was contemptuous. ’’Oh, yeah. Total pu**y.’’

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