Kingdom of the Cursed (Kingdom of the Wicked, #2) (6)

“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.”

“I did not take you for the sort to cut off their nose to spite their face.”

“If I cannot walk through snow without assistance, I might as well slit my throat now and be done with it. I do not need you or anyone else to hold my hand. In fact, I would like you to leave me alone. I’ll make better time without you.”

He stopped walking and glanced over his shoulder. There was no warmth or teasing in his expression now. “Fight the Sin Corridor, or I will leave you to your prideful hubris. You are more susceptible to falling under the influence of a particular sin when showing early attributes of it. That is my final warning and all the help I will give. Take it for what it is, or leave it.”

I gritted my teeth and did my best to follow his trail. With each step I took deeper into the underworld, it felt like the remaining pieces of myself were slowly shedding. I couldn’t help but wonder if anything familiar would be left of me by the time I returned home.

As if in answer to my circling worries, a simmering rage started to burn through me as we traveled for miles in silence. Undoubtedly, I was now being tested for wrath. It was familiar, welcome. Even though I should make sure I aligned best with pride, I tended to my anger while we picked our way down the trail, crossed over a frozen stream, and paused near a slightly wider, flatter expanse that peered over a smaller mountain range.

Clusters of evergreens that looked like the juniper and cedar sketches in Nonna’s grimoire fanned out in a semicircle around the easternmost corner where we’d paused.

Above them, angry clouds raced across the sky. Lightning lashed out like a great beast’s tongue, and a roar of thunder followed a heartbeat later. Unblinking, I watched as the dark mass galloped closer. I’d witnessed plenty of storms, but none that moved faster than the goddesses who sought vengeance. It was as if the very atmosphere was possessed.

Or perhaps this world resented its newest inhabitant and was making its displeasure known. It had that much in common with Wrath.

A few minutes later, we stopped our relentless march.

“This will have to do.”

Wrath removed his suit jacket and draped it carefully over a low-hanging branch. I’d been wrong earlier: his dagger wasn’t shoved into his jacket; he wore a leather shoulder holster over his inky shirt, and the gold hilt gleamed as he twisted around. He undid the buttons at his cuffs, quickly rolled back his sleeves, then began gathering ice-coated branches.

“What are you doing?”

“Building shelter. Unless you’d like to sleep in a storm, I suggest grabbing some evergreen branches and beating ice off them. We’ll use the ones you collect to lay on.”

“I’m not sleeping with you.” For many reasons, the most glaring being I was betrothed to his brother and—regardless of the survival aspect—I doubted the devil would be pleased if I snuggled next to another demon prince.

Wrath cracked a branch off the nearest cedar and glanced at me. “Your choice.” He swept an arm out. “But I will not nurse you back to health when you fall ill.” He gave me a hard look. “If you don’t want to freeze to death, I suggest moving swiftly.”

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