Home > Kingdom of the Cursed (Kingdom of the Wicked #2)(4)

Kingdom of the Cursed (Kingdom of the Wicked #2)(4)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

There was no sea, no warmth, no brightly burning sun. We stood in the hollow of a steep snow-covered trail, barely wide enough to walk on side by side.

A biting wind snarled through the craggy mountain pass and tore through my cloak. Behind us the gates closed with a clank that echoed loudly between the snowcapped mountains. I tensed at the unexpected clamor. It was the first noise I’d heard outside the void and it couldn’t sound more foreboding if it tried.

I spun around, heart thundering, and watched demon magic spring up from the bowels of this land and slither up the gates. The same violet-blue thorn-covered vines that had bound Vittoria’s diary wound through eye sockets and jawbones, twisting until the off-white skulls glowed with an icy, unearthly hue.

Cold air cut my breath short. I was trapped in the underworld, surrounded by the Malvagi, alone. I’d acted out of fear and desperation—two essential ingredients in creating a disaster. A flash of my twin’s desecrated body stamped that feeling into the frozen ground.

“You told me the gates were broken.” There was an impressive bite in my tone. “That demons were slipping through, ready to wage war on Earth.”

“The Horn of Hades has been returned.”

“Of course.”

The devil’s horns were needed to lock the gates. Apparently any demon prince could wield them, and I hadn’t known to ask Wrath for clarification. It was another way he’d worked around the “not being able to directly lie to me” rule of my summoning.

If that part was even true.

I loosened a breath and shifted back around, staring out at the landscape. On our right a sharp drop-off was carved through the frost-coated terrain. In the distance, barely visible through either a covering of fog or a far-off storm, turrets on a castle reached up, pointing spindly fingers of accusation at the heavens.

“Is that…” I swallowed hard. “Is that where Pride lives?”

“Not so anxious to meet him now?” A smug expression ghosted across Wrath’s features before he schooled his face into indifference. “The first circle is Lust’s territory. Think of the layout like the Seven Hills of Rome. Each prince controls their own region or summit. Pride’s circle cannot be seen from here. It sits toward the center, near my House.”

Being so close to Lust’s stronghold wasn’t comforting. I hadn’t forgotten how his demonic influence had made me feel. How I’d lusted after Wrath and drank too much apple-honey wine and had danced without a care in the universe while a murderer hunted witches.

I’d also never forget how hard it had been to crawl back to my senses after Lust had cruelly wrested his powers away, leaving me an empty husk. If it hadn’t been for Wrath’s interference, I might still be in that dark, crushing place.

I could almost feel despair trailing a sharp nail across my throat now, begging, tempting… I pretended that the growing fear was muck beneath my shoes and squashed it.

Wrath watched me closely, his gaze alight with keen interest. Perhaps he was waiting for me to drop to my knees and beg him to escort me back home. It would take far more than standing in the coldest corner of Hell for me to ever lower myself before him.

“I thought it would be warmer,” I admitted, earning an amused look from the demon. “Fire and brimstone—the works.”

“Mortals have peculiar cautionary tales about gods and monsters and their supposed creator, but the truth, as you can see, is very different from what you’ve heard.”

I was distracted from further inquiry by a soft clicking. Up a dizzying incline on our left, a smattering of bare-branched trees stood, swaying in the arctic wind, their limbs lightly clacking against one another. Something about them reminded me of old crones sitting together, using bones as knitting needles. If I narrowed my eyes, I almost swore I saw the shadowy outline of their figures. I blinked and the image was gone. Almost immediately after, a low growl floated in on the wind.

I glanced at Wrath, but he didn’t seem to notice the peculiar vision or hear anything worthy of note. It had been a very long, very emotionally charged day and my imagination was getting the better of me. I shook the unsettling feeling away.

“This is the Sin Corridor,” Wrath continued, unknowingly interrupting my worries. “Transvenio magic is forbidden on this stretch of land the first time you cross into this realm, so you’ll need to travel by foot.”

“I have to do it alone?”

Wrath raked his attention over me. “No.”

I released a slow, quiet breath. Thank the goddess for small favors. “Why is it necessary for people to pass through here?”

“It is a way for newcomers to form alliances with others who share their dominant sin.”

I considered that. “If I tend toward anger, I’d be best aligned with House Wrath.” The prince nodded. “And others who are best suited to other sins… would they be put off by other demon houses? Let’s say a member of House Wrath consorted with House Sloth; would they be scandalized by the other in some way?”

“Not exactly scandalized, but close. Mortals align themselves with political parties and causes. It’s not unlike that here, but we deal in vice.”

“Are demons and humans tested the same way?”

Wrath seemed to choose his next words carefully. “Most mortals never reach the Sin Corridor, or the Seven Circles. They tend to imprison themselves on their own separate isle outside the gates, off the western shore. It’s a self-inflicted punishment of sorts.”

“You don’t lock them away in the Prison of Damnation?”

“The isle is the prison. They live in a reality of their own making. At any point they can leave. Most never do. They live and die on their isle and begin again.”

It was a hell in its own way. “Nonna said Star Witches were the guardians between realms. Why would mortals and the Wicked need guards if they never leave?”

“Maybe mortal souls—and my brothers—are not all they keep watch over.”

Vague and frustrating as always. “I still don’t understand why I need to be tested at all.”

“Then I suggest you heed my earlier warning and focus on surviving.”

He issued it as both a challenge and a haughty command to stop asking questions. I was too worried to verbally spar. Threat of death hung over me, low and dark like the gathering clouds. The stupid prince dragged his gaze over me again, letting it linger on my soft curves.

I wasn’t wearing my amulet—he still had possession of it—so there was no confusing where his focus landed. Even covered by the cloak, I swore I felt the heat of his attention like a physical caress on my skin.

Thoughts of death vanished. “Is there a problem with my bodice?”

“Seems as if your testing has begun. I was checking your cloak.”

I exhaled slowly and bit down on several colorful curses that sprang to mind.

He smirked as if my annoyance pleased him to no end. Still grinning, he swiftly moved down the steep mountain pass, his steps steady and sure despite the snow and ice.

I couldn’t believe… was he packing the snow down so I could walk through it in my delicate shoes? Impeccable demon manners hard at work again.

He really would do anything to see me safely delivered to Pride.

Speaking of that particular sin… I lifted my chin, my tone and demeanor more supercilious than any mortal king or queen born to rule could ever hope to achieve. And why shouldn’t I feel superior? I was about to rule the underworld. It was time Wrath showed some respect to his queen. “I am perfectly able to make my own way. You may run off now.”

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