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Tessa struggled to climb up the ladder, her feet barely able to reach the next rung. It was made all the more difficult by the rain pounding down on her head. She froze in fear at the sight of lightning flashing in the distance. The weather was having a sort of identity crisis, being bright and sunny one minute and dark and stormy the next. It was even stranger that the rain clouds seemed to only hover over the stretch of houses down the block.
 

She was snapped out of her thoughts by a derisive laugh. “If you're too scared, go back inside.”
 

With a shaky breath, she glanced up at the dark-haired boy on the roof. He looked like he jumped out of a Brooks Brothers ad, with his pale blue button down shirt, khakis, and plaid sweater vest.
 

“I—I’m not scared.”
 

“Then come on, pipsqueak. You can’t see the surprise from down there. It’s just a little rain. Don’t you trust me?” he asked, holding out his hand.

“Tessa?”

Five pairs of eyes, all filled with concern, were on me at the dinner table. “Sorry, I uh spaced out,” I told my father, gripping a fork.

“Oliver was just telling us about Chace. I’m sure that was a surprise. Is that why you haven’t touched your food? We made your favorite.”

I realized that I hadn’t taken a single bite. Everything after the hospital visit was a giant blur. I could barely remember leaving Will’s room.

“I’m just not hungry. Can I go upstairs?”

“Of course, sweetheart,” said my mother, sensing that there was more going on than a lack of appetite. “You’ve had a very long day. If you need anything, just ask…and I don’t want you to worry. I spoke with Rosa while you were at the hospital and she brought over some herbs to keep out any unwanted visitors. I placed them outside the school and art gallery. That horrible girl won’t set a foot in this house or she’ll be wishing that she never met me.”

Managing a weak smile, I thanked her before heading up to my room. I had just sat on the edge of my bed when Elena and Belmont appeared by the door. Both of them knew what had caused my odd behavior at dinner. Will’s message was clearly still on their minds as well but for different reasons.

“Okay, I’ll say it. If Nelson’s message is real and not just his fingers moving around in his sleep, what does he mean?” he asked, crossing his arms. “Is this Damon guy the bad reaper?”

“No, it’s not possible,” I insisted. Even as the words left my lips, I felt uneasy, as if I was trying to convince myself more than anyone else. “He’s in Erinyes. It’s like a fortress. You’d have an easier time breaking out of Alcatraz.”

“Well, he said Damon’s name for a reason,” said Elena, joining me on the bed. “What are you thinking? Whatever you decide, we’re with you. Right?”

Belmont nodded half-heartedly. When I wasn’t in my own little world of past memories, I was mulling over a terrible, insane idea.

“We need to talk to Vivienne.”

“WHAT?!”

Reacting as well as I expected, I waited a few minutes, sure that my mother and Oliver heard them. Skipping my favorite meal plus two ghosts shouting were like flashing warning signs.

“I have a hunch and if I’m right, Amara is involved somehow,” I said, lowering my voice. “We can’t visit her by ourselves. Going to the Underworld is dangerous enough but we don’t exactly have the best relationship. I could ask her a million questions and she’d never give me a real answer. Vivienne can help with that. They used to be friends.”

“Where did they meet, the psycho convention? Last time we saw her, she nearly stabbed you, Byrne. Alternative, because anything is better than your idea. We tell your parents about what happened at the hospital.”

“We are not mentioning Damon to them. If we tell them about the message, I’ll never leave this house and then good luck finding out who murdered you. As much as I hate to say it, Vivienne is our only option right now.”

Elena, tense from just the mention of her name, scoffed. “And what, she’ll help out of the goodness of her heart?”

“No. She’ll obviously want something but we’ll deal with that later. Talking to Amara is more important. She might be the key to solving this whole thing.”

Neither she nor Belmont were in agreement with the plan. Knowing that Vivienne would not be deterred by some herbs, I slipped a message under the front door later that night, asking her to meet me at the Blue Moon café. In between Elena and Belmont telling me all the ways the plan could go horribly wrong, my parents checking on me every five minutes to make sure the trial hadn’t turned me into the poster child for crippling depression, and Parker begging me for a second chance through a barrage of texts, I prepared for the secret meeting.

“If you order one more of these, I’ll need to cut you off,” joked Craig, a junior who was known for his Stephen King-esque short stories and as the wrestling king of Belmont High. He placed my third gingerbread latte and a soy latte on the table. “Should I confiscate your keys?”

“Heh, I’m just waiting for someone. They’re running late,” I said, the clock high on the wall moving to half past noon.

“You better not be getting stood up. I uh heard you and Parker were on the outs.”

I gripped the paper cup, partially because the mention of Parker made my blood boil but also because I already knew his intentions. Elena scrunched her nose when he leaned against the table, purposely showing off his massive biceps.

“If you’re looking for a date for the winter ball, I’m—”

He winced when Vivienne gripped his shoulder, her nails digging into the fabric of his short-sleeved shirt. “It’s not your day, champ. Trust me, it will never be your day. Go back to slinging coffees and writing your lame Star Wars fanfiction.” She turned towards Elena as he walked back towards the counter, rubbing his shoulder in pain. “You’re in my seat, Trashy Swift.”

“I don’t think I’ll move. I’d rather watch everyone in here think you’re a crazy person for talking to an empty chair.”

“Lena,” I whispered.

Elena pursed her lips before moving to the empty chair across from me. With a smug smirk, Vivienne took her place and picked up the second cup.

“Oh, you remembered my fave. How sweet. Do mommy, daddy, and big brother Ollie know that we’re here?” She faked a gasp. “Is this a secret? Someone’s being naughty.”

“I’m not here for games, Vivienne. I asked you to meet me at noon.”

“Wanted to make sure it wasn’t a trap. For all I know, Oliver sent that note to send me back to Erinyes. I heard I was a hot topic at your trial. I bet all the sordid details made Lionel blush.”

I avoided any eye contact with Elena, the only one unaware of our romantic past. “I need you to take me to the Underworld. I need to talk to Amara. I know you’ll want something in return so just—”

“Not at all, sweetie.” She placed her freshly manicured hand over mine. “For you, anything.”

I was not foolish enough to think that she was suddenly compassionate and selfless. The way she eyed Elena, especially when she squeezed my hand, I knew that she had ulterior motives, at least one being to bring the petite blonde to her breaking point.

As I stood up to leave, I bumped into someone, causing them to spill their drink. “Mrs. Belmont, I’m so sorry.” I frantically grabbed a bunch of napkins to clean up the spill. “I should’ve been watching where I was going. If you need new shoes, I’ll pay for them. Well, not all at once…we can do a monthly payment plan or something. Your shoes probably cost a lot.”

“Tessa, Tessa, it’s all right,” she said, her melodious laugh carrying throughout the café. “The shoes were a gift. Antonio Vitale sends me a new pair every month. It’s a small stain, at best. There’s no need to make a fuss. I haven't seen you since the memorial service. I paid you a visit in the hospital. I was beginning to think you’d never wake up.” She placed her hand on my arm in a comforting manner. “Rhys told me about that nasty business in the woods. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”

“Oh, it was…nothing. I’m fine, really. I’m glad to see that you’re doing better too.”

“Such a sweetheart. I should get going. I don’t want to be late for my appointment,” she said, holding her slightly larger belly. “It was wonderful to see you again, Tessa. I suppose I’ll see you again at the winter ball. Charles and I are making an important announcement there." Her kind smile was swiftly wiped from her face. “Vivienne.”

The icy tone in her voice and the way she purposely knocked into Vivienne’s shoulder as she passed took me by surprise. “Rhys wasn’t kidding that she doesn’t like you.”

Vivienne was silent, staring glassy-eyed at the wall of photos of Belmont Falls. With a snap of my fingers, she seemed to be shaken from a daydream.

“Are you okay?”

“Just imagining her on fire…falling down the stairs…poured into a vat of acid…”

Belmont started towards her, nostrils flaring. It took the combined strength of me and Elena to hold him back. “If you lay one hand on my mother, you’ll—” He hunched over, his hands on his knees. “You’ll—oh man, do ghosts vomit?”

The same soon began to happen to Elena until I flicked my wrist. Vivienne stepped back, as if she had been punched in the gut. She glanced over at me, the tiniest smirk gracing her dark red lips.

“I see someone’s been practicing. You’ll have to do better than that if you can’t keep your pets in line.”

“Remind me again why we’re even talking to her,” said Elena, glaring at Vivienne’s back. “There’s no one nicer that could take us to Amara?”

“It’s an hour or two, at most. Just be ni—you know what? Let me do all the talking.”

Wanting to draw as little attention as possible, we traveled to the Underworld through a statue of Belmont’s founding ancestor near the entrance to the Falls. Vivienne led us through the crowded market, Elena struggling to not get distracted by the fancy jewelry and other trinkets, to the seedy part of the realm. Instead of talismans and cute necklaces, the people behind the stands were peddling objects with malicious intent. One man offered Belmont a gaudy ring that was capable of restoring his body at the cost of someone else’s life.

“I think the world would be better without Rosalie around,” he explained as I dragged him away from the shabby stand by his shirt collar. “In a way, it’s a win-win for both of us, Byrne.”

“There’s always a catch with those things. We’re not here to add another murder to the list.”

Vivienne stopped in front of Bacchanal, a well-known dive bar. Its regular customers included criminals and ex-residents of Erinyes, making it the perfect place for Amara to gather clients. Elena nearly vomited just from the smell emanating out of an open window. I grabbed her hand, giving it a light squeeze as a small comfort, and led her inside the bar.

It was packed from wall to wall, some patrons just barely older than me and others pushing their sixties. Vivienne disappeared into the crowd, greeting old friends along the way. I ignored the lecherous stares and obscene hand gestures as I searched for any sign of Amara. It should have been easy to spot her, with the way she dressed, but in the bar, every girl made it their mission to show as much skin as possible.

Belmont spotted her at a corner table, flirting with a lanky guy in his late twenties. Dressed in a black leather dress that barely contained her ample chest, it was no surprise that his eyes had never once looked at her face.

“Virgin alert. It’s like he’s never talked to a girl before,” joked Vivienne. “So what’s your pl—Tessa?”

I headed towards the table, determined, and as I got closer, I was able to hear their conversation.

“You must be so worried about that trial. My friend could help you out, you know. He’s a seer. He could tell you what to expect…what the council will ask you…”

“So I could make sure that I’m found innocent?” he asked, sounding hopeful. “Wait, what’s the catch?”

“No catch,” she assured him, tracing tiny circles on the inside of his palm. “He just requires a small payment and I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that.”

“Yeah, no problem at all.” I sat in the empty chair beside her. “Do you like pirates?”

“Sorry, what?” he asked, looking from me to a displeased Amara.

“Well, you need to give him one of your eyes so unless you want to cough up the money for a new one, instead of some bargain eye that’s probably been used a thousand times, you’ll need to wear an eyepatch. Ooh, maybe you could get a parrot too. That sounds fun, huh?”

His face chalk white, he stood up from the table, leaving money for his drinks. “I um—I should go. My trial starts in twenty minutes and it would make a good impression to be there early.”

“Yikes. I bet you’ve never seen a guy run away from you that fast,” I said, watching him dash out of the bar.

For a moment, her eyes flickered between their usual chestnut brown and pitch black. “You really have a death wish, don't you? I’ll happily grant it,” she spat, pure venom in her voice.

“Now, now, let’s play nice, children.”

Vivienne, Elena, and Belmont joined the table. Belmont kept his distance, their previous encounter likely still fresh in his mind. Amara was never one to openly show her emotions but I knew that seeing Vivienne was awkward. The last time they had been face to face, it nearly caused the destruction of Erinyes itself. Admittedly, it was even worse for me but I pushed down my own feelings, knowing that stopping the rogue reaper was more important.

“Viv, long time, no see.” Instead of the expected temper tantrum, Amara was oddly calm. “Been busy pining after brats? Ironic how times have changed since the old days. Do you want a drink? Do you still like it sweet?”

“She’s not here to catch up. This won’t take long...depending on your cooperation. When’s the last time you talked to Damon?”

She merely smiled at me. “Haven’t in nearly a year. I guess they have him on lockdown. Such a shame, really.” Belmont rolled his eyes, muttering that the visit was a waste of time. “Well, if that’s why you’re here, I’ll be going. I’m a busy—BITCH!”

All heads in the dingy bar turned in our direction. Her hand was pinned to the table by a knife, my hand wrapped around the handle. Vivienne and Belmont both stared at me in stunned silence while Elena peered around the bar, worrying that one of them would come to Amara’s rescue, yet they all quickly returned to their previous conversations and half empty stained glasses.

“You’re not getting away that easy.”

“Oh, if you think that reaper is scary, I’m about to put you through Hell. You won’t be safe anywhere. Even Viv can’t protect you in your dreams, you brat,” snarled Amara.

“That’s how he was getting to Will, right? You were slipping him in there. You’re the reason Will isn’t waking up either. Why?”

“I haven’t—” She groaned as I pressed down on the handle. “Fine, fine! Yes, we had a deal. He would give me clients for Carnus from Erinyes in exchange for my help. He wanted to keep your dorky friend asleep. I don’t know why.”

“What were you doing in his head?”

“I don’t know that either. I just put Damon in his dreams and waited for his signal to take him out.  Why would I care what he’s doing to some pathetic human? From what I’ve heard, he’s more popular than ever. Maybe you should just let him stay that way.”

“You need physical contact for your abilities to work. How are you getting in there to see him? You could walk in there naked and flirt all you want but they wouldn’t let you within ten feet of his room. They won’t even let me see him so how do you do it?”

“Looks like I have something you want now,” she said, amused. “What do I get in return?”

“You get to walk out of this shithole with all your limbs intact,” I hissed.

“You know, I have been feeling tired lately,” she said, pouting as she twirled the empty beer bottle with her free hand. “Slipping in and out of dreams is hard work for a yakshini and a coffee in the morning just isn’t giving me the boost I need, Tessa. I think I’m too tired to remember how I sneak inside that scary supernatural prison. If only I had more energy…ghosts usually do the trick.”

Her eyes glinting with mischief, she pointed a finger between Elena and Belmont like a twisted game of eenie, meenie, miney, moe.

When I was younger, one of the lessons was on the different supernatural beings in our world, besides reapers, and my mother had played a video depicting their abilities. Yakshini drew their strength by draining energy from others through physical contact, usually with a kiss. If the yakshini maintained the contact for too long, the person was reduced to nothing more than a corpse. With ghosts, they were simply wiped from existence, lacking the energy to remain in the physical world.

“The very best one and you are—”

“I’ll do it,” offered Elena. “If you promise to tell us what you know, I’ll give you some of my energy or whatever.”

“Elena, don’t.” I trusted Amara about as much as a rabid dog. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I want to help. How does it work? We just hold hands or something?”

“We could but if you want it done faster, it has to be a bit more intimate.”

Amara tapped her full, glossy lips, enjoying the pure fear written across my face. I silently begged Vivienne for any kind of help but she simply shrugged, not giving a damn if Elena vanished in the blink of an eye.

“Just a quick peck.”

“And then you’ll tell us how you met with Damon?”

“Pinky promise. Don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing.”

“El, don’t do this. It’s a trick,” said Belmont, showing genuine concern. “We don’t need her help.”

“Yes, we do. If Damon’s working with the reaper, he might know who killed you and why. It’s just a kiss.”

As a reluctant Elena leaned across the table, every inch closer making my heart beat faster, I spun Amara towards me and planted my lips firmly on hers. At first, it was like any normal kiss and with the distance practically nonexistent between us, I could smell the flowery scent in her dark hair, the one that always drew the boys and girls under her spell. I was about to pull away, starting to feel lightheaded, but she had other plans, her red nails, now more like talons, digging into my arm. With each passing second, I was growing weaker and just moving my mouth seemed like an impossible task.

I heard the faint sound of breaking glass and a hand forcefully pushed against my chest. In a split second, my lips were torn from hers, my back pressed against the rickety chair. My tongue brushed against my lips, tasting the strawberry  gloss that lingered from the kiss. Barely able to lift my head, I could only see the rats scurrying across the dirty wooden floor.

“Tessa, Tessa, are you okay?” Elena’s hands gently cupped my face. “What the hell were you thinking? She almost killed you!”

Slowly getting my strength back, I looked up to see the tears streaming down her face. Her sky blue eyes were red and puffy.

“I didn’t...I didn’t want her to hurt you.”

“I’m already dead. What could be worse than that?”

“She could make you disappear and then I’d never see you again. If that happened…” We were the only ones at the table. “Where is she?”

“Vivienne pulled you guys apart when Amara started going all face hugger on you,” she said, sniffling. “She dragged her into the back of the bar and Fin followed them. He was going to stay too but I didn’t trust the two of them alone.”

She helped me up from the chair, wrapping her arm around my waist. Still a bit shaky from the kiss, I leaned on her as we headed towards the back door.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she whispered. “We didn’t make that friends forever pact in the sandbox for nothing.”

The door led to a side alley where Amara was being restrained by Vivienne’s elbow against her throat. In her other hand, Vivienne held a broken beer bottle to her cheek.

“Hey, shouldn’t you be resting?” said Belmont, moving away from the wall he had been leaning against and walking towards me. “I think almost turning into a pile of bones is a reasonable excuse to pause the detective work.”

“I’m good. It’s already wearing off,” I assured him though neither he nor Elena looked convinced.

“You know, I finally get the appeal.” Amara licked her lips. “If I knew you were that good, I would’ve let you join in on our fun all those years ago…put that tongue to better use.”

She cried out as Vivienne nearly crushed her throat. “Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her or I’ll be giving Carnus your eyes. We had a deal so it’s time to hold up your end. How are you visiting Damon? He’s been in solitary for the past year.”

My mind was reeling at the idea of him being trapped alone in a room. Had solitary confinement made him stir crazy and he was lashing out by attacking my friends? Amara, with some urging from the bottle dangerously close to her left eye, admitted that she blackmailed one of the younger guards into letting her into the prison late at night. She was able to sneak in and out undetected, the guard delivering messages from Damon under the guise of getting a drink at Bacchanal.

“You’re taking us there tonight,” I said, able to stand on my own. “Midnight is probably best.”

Amara pushed the bottle away from her face. “Uh wrong, bookworm. Our deal was that I’d tell you how I got in and that’s all. I’m not part of your Nancy Drew act. If you’re ever interested in another round of tonsil hockey, you know where to find me.”

“Did you know it’s illegal for a yakshini to use their abilities on a reaper?” She froze, one foot barely through the doorway. “It was a law passed by the council in 1786 to protect our kind from what they considered lesser beings. If Cullen was to find out, you don’t even get a trial. He’ll sentence you straight to death.”

“You think you can scare me with some fake law?”

“We could ask Oliver, if you want. I’m sure he’d love to hear about how you nearly sucked the life out of me. That was the next part of my plan anyway. If there’s one thing you’re scared of, it’s the council. Carnus is the only reason they haven’t caught you yet.”

Amara turned on her five inch heel, her icy stare burning into me. “Keep it up and you won’t make it out of this alley.”

Reaching into the pocket of my coat, I pulled out my phone. “Nice way to end the recording, Amara.” Her glare faltered as I pressed the stop button. “I doubt you’re fast enough to stop a ghost so unless you want Elena to deliver this to the council, you’re going to help us out one more time. Otherwise , you’ll have to explain how you’ve been blackmailing a prestigious guard and aiding an Erinyes prisoner with harming an innocent.”

“Midnight, your place,” she said, through gritted teeth.

It’s done. He won’t have a clue. Just remember to hold up your end.
-L

“Tessa, as crazy as this sounds, maybe Fin’s right.”

I finished sending a quick reply on my phone before looking over at Elena, who was laying down on my bed with my stuffed cat Cleo. We had spent the past hour preparing for our late night visit to Erinyes and the likelihood of Amara’s betrayal. The alarm clock on my nightstand flashed 11:55.

“Maybe we should tell your parents. If they know that Amara is helping Damon, then they can’t keep going into Will’s head and he wakes up.”

“Damon knows something. Going after Will doesn't make sense. He could’ve had Amara do that at any time but why now? It can’t be coincidence. Besides, he can’t hurt us, El.”

“Have you considered that this could be a trap? What if Amara lets us in and then all of a sudden, we’re ambushed by guards? You just barely survived a trial. You really want to go through another one?”

“I’m going, with or without you. Honestly, I’d rather you two don’t go at all. You can’t even be around Damon too long without getting sick. At Erinyes, they inject the reaper patients with this potion that repels ghosts. It’s so they can’t use them as an escape plan. Ghosts are easily manipulated, especially if they’re alone.”

“That’s why we get sick around her?” asked Belmont, watching his old football highlights on my laptop. “But she’s out now. Why is it still happening?”

“Must take awhile for it to leave her system. I think it’s best if you guys stay here.” Vivienne was waiting outside in the front yard. “I’ll text you when I’m on my way back.”

Elena sat up, still holding onto Cleo, as I slung my backpack over my shoulder. “Be careful. If something goes wrong—”

“It won’t. I promise I won’t be gone long.”

I quietly opened the window and climbed down using a rope ladder that had been part of my old treehouse. Vivienne waved at a distrustful Elena and Belmont then led me over to a silver porsche. Doubting that she had learned to drive in the span of a few months, I looked at her for an explanation.

“Apparently, Carnus likes to ride around in style.” Amara was sitting in the front seat, drumming her fingers against the steering wheel to the beat of a pop song. “You sure you’re up for this? You haven’t seen him in years.”

“Telling me not to break the rules? Doesn’t sound like the Vivienne I remember.”

“Like I said, it’s been years. A million things could go wrong. Amara and I might’ve been friends before but she switches allegiances without a second thought. I can’t keep her under control for long.”

“I can handle myself. I’m not a little girl.”

She stopped me from walking towards the car, her fingers curled around my arm. “I’m telling you now. I don’t care about what happened to that idiot jock. I’ll give you the time you need with Damon but if he tries anything, I’ll throw you over my shoulder if that’s what it takes to leave. I’m not watching you almost die a second time, Tessa. A ghost isn’t worth your life.”

“You’re wrong.”

The ride to Erinyes was quiet and tense. Amara and Vivienne seemed to be on the outs due to my near death experience earlier in the day and Amara would drive over me several times if it were not for the blackmail hanging over her head. Vivienne and I could hardly be considered friends (reluctant allies, at best), but she clearly wanted to use this late night adventure as a second chance.

“Why are you stopping?” I asked, the car parked in front of the empty playground of an elementary school. “It’s another ten miles. I know where it is, Amara.”

“And you know about the secret entrances, princess?” she said, mockingly. Beneath my jacket, I unzipped the front pocket of my backpack. “They use them in case of emergencies. That wasn’t in one of your precious books?”

“Then why aren’t we getting out of the car?”

“I’m waiting for my guard friend. You need a guard to open the entrance .”

Five minutes passed and the playground remained empty. Amara continued to listen to music, purposely turning up the volume to annoy me. I leaned forward, my hand balled into a fist.

“No one’s here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She pouted at me through the mirror. “The world doesn’t revolve around you, sweetie. People don’t just drop everything for you and your pet ghosts. Some of us—urgh!”

Amara clamped her hands over her ears. I lowered the wooden whistle from my lips and as she lowered her hands, I noticed the tips of her ears had a slight red tinge.

“My dad found this on an expedition in Greece a few years ago. He thought it was just a hunting whistle but it actually was used to drive away succubi from villages. The longer I play it, the more it’ll hurt so I suggest you stop playing games.”

“Tessa?”

A redheaded teenage girl, only a year older than me, was peering through the window. Dressed in ripped jeans, combat boots, and an old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, she would fit in perfectly at a rock concert. I stepped out of the car, unsure if I was hallucinating after a long day.

“Alexis?”

The lithe girl hurried around to the other side of the car, wrapping her arms around me. I slowly relaxed into the hug, still in shock.

“When Amara told me, I thought she might be lying. It’s so good to see you.”

“You too. I heard you had gotten out a couple years ago. I wanted to visit but your parents wouldn’t tell me where you went. Your dad just mentioned some retreat in the mountains. Wait, you’re the guard that’s been helping Amara?”

“Not by choice,” she mumbled, pushing her round glasses up her freckled nose.

“Then why? What does she have on you? I want to help so she doesn’t keep bullying you. You don’t deserve that.”

She grinned. “I see you haven’t changed, always wanting to help people. It’s my fight, not yours, Tess. Besides, I hear you have a lot on your plate with your ghost scooby gang. I can take you to Damon. Security’s been tighter lately, with Vivienne out and all, but I can guarantee you a few minutes.”

“Yeah, I’d appreciate that, Lex,” I said, knowing that there was more to her silence than a fear of Amara.

Alexis led the four of us over to an old oak tree, several runic symbols carved into its gnarled trunk. The runes glowed bright silver each time she tapped on the trunk. After the seventh tap, the ground beneath them lifted, revealing a stone staircase. Within minutes, they were no longer on the outskirts of a playground, but the basement of Erinyes. The steel doors on either side of the long hallway looked identical, aside from the plaque with the patient’s initials.

“Not all of them are used. Solitary is really only for the special cases. I never thought he would be down here but he’s gotten worse lately. Some of the doctors think he just snapped.”

“Have you tried talking to him?”

“A few times. They don’t let me see him often because they know we were friends but sometimes, they let me bring him meals. He would never even look at me.”

“Who would want to?”

My eyes narrowed at Vivienne, who snickered at Amara’s rude remark. “Ignore them, Lex. You’re better than them any day of the week. You never deserved to be in here,” I whispered.

Alexis kept her eyes on the pristine tile floor as we continued down the hallway. “We’re here.” She turned towards a door with the initials D.B. “The guards do their nightly checks every twenty minutes so whatever you want to ask him, be quick and don’t make a lot of noise. I’ll flash a light under the door when you’re out of time.”

Vivienne was about to follow me until I moved my arm across the door. “I’m doing this alone. Stay here to make sure the face hugger over here doesn’t screw us over.” I handed her the whistle. “Use it if she tries any of her tricks.”

“Tessa, are you nuts? If he’s in solitary, then he’s at his worst. Even I’ve never been thrown in one of these cells. I’m not letting you go in there alone.

“She won’t be.”

Elena and Belmont appeared beside me. He winked at a confused Alexis, whose face was soon as red as her hair.

“We’re in this together, Tessa. Operation: Reaper started with the three of us and if he knows something about the night Fin died, then Fin deserves to be here too,” said Elena.

“Is this an interrogation or a party?” asked Amara, her hands on her hips. “Who invited you two idiots? You’ll start puking as soon as you’re within an inch of him.”

“Thanks for the concern but we’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, they’ll just be wondering why his floor is covered in transparent vomit,” said Vivienne, sarcastically.

“We don’t have time for this. Let’s go,” I hissed, checking the time on my phone.

Alexis retrieved a set of keys from her jeans pocket and used a worn silver key to open the door. Elena gripped my hand as we stepped through the threshold, the door immediately shutting behind us.

Instead of a dank, dark padded cell with no windows, we were standing in a room that looked like it was plucked right out of Belmont Manor. Classical music played from an old radio and the moonlight bounced off the crystal chandelier on the ceiling. A bookcase covered two sides of the room, some of the books looking centuries old with their tattered, dusty covers, and a fire crackled in the fireplace near Belmont.

As my eyes darted around the ornately decorated room, I noticed a teenage boy sitting in a red armchair, a book in one hand and a fork in the other. A five course meal straight out of a gourmet restaurant was laid out on the dark wooden table in front of him. He looked exactly as I remembered, with his perfectly coiffed dark hair tied back into a bun, dark loafers, khakis, and partially unbuttoned shirt.

“Sneaking out behind mommy and daddy’s back. I think your new ghost friend is being a bad influence.”

His grin would charm any girl in seconds but for me, knowing better, it was just unsettling. He closed the book before placing it down on the table. Behind me, I heard Elena make a slight retching sound.

“The Once and Future King. You’re never one for subtlety, reading the last book I showed you. Amara told you I was coming?”

“She didn’t have to,” he said, taking a bite of his pasta. “They already knew you were on your way and told me about your plan. You’re not as discrete as you think, dove.”

My eyes narrowed at his childish nickname. “Good, we’re not playing games. You admit that you’re helping this psychopath. Tell me who it is, Damon.”

“Is that the only reason you’re here?” There was a hint of melancholy in his voice. “To interrogate me?”

“Why else would I be here?”

“Oh, I don’t know. To see how your big brother is doing in the scary prison he’s been in the past ten years.”

“Your wh—” Belmont rested his head against the wall. “I’m gonna—no, I’m good. I’m not really but—oh man, this is worse than I thought. When did you get an older brother?”

“We’re twins. He’s older by a minute,” I said, hating when Damon acted like he was years ahead of me. “Shut up and sit down with your head between your knees.”

Damon lowered his fork, taking his eyes off of a nauseous Belmont. “Of course he didn’t know about me. I’m the family shame, right? I bet you don’t even put up pictures of me around the house.”

“That’s what happens when you try to kill your sister. If you think you’re getting sympathy from someone like him, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

From the moment I planned to visit, I knew the game he would play with me. He wanted to tug at my empathetic side, to make me forget why I was even in his room. It was a tactic he had used countless times over the years, ever since the day he was brought to Erinyes. I remembered how I begged my parents to give him a second chance, even blaming myself for the incident on the roof. One minute, we had been climbing up the ladder for a ‘special surprise’ and the next, I was dangling off the edge of the roof, seconds from plummeting to my death, before our babysitter discovered we were no longer playing in the backyard.

The way he always manipulated me was the exact reason my parents kept us apart. It wasn’t that I was weak, just that, as twins, we had this unspoken bond.

“Oh, here we go again,” he said, as if I was boring him with details of a shopping spree. “I wasn’t trying to kill you. I was trying to save you.”

“You’re insane,” said Elena, barely able to stand without holding onto the bookcase.

His dark eyes passed over her with amusement. “You must be Elena. I see why my sister likes you so much. You’re one of those odd ghosts. Your whole family decides to move on but you stay behind. Have you ever been to therapy in the Underworld? I bet the therapists there would find you fascinating. They’d really dig deep into your issues.”

“Do you remember Luke? You used to call him Loser Luke,” I said, changing the subject. He chuckled as he picked up his glass of bourbon. “Every time mom and dad would let me visit, he’d give me some of the candy he hid in his desk and you hated that because he’d never give you any. He knew you loved caramel but he loved screwing with you so he’d give me all the caramel instead, even if I didn’t want it. He never liked you.”

“Jealousy. He knew he’d always be a lowly guard and I was meant for better things.”

“And he thinks you’re a conceited prick. We had a lovely chat this afternoon when I told him to put some nightshade in your nightly bottle of bourbon,” I said, just as he took a sip from the glass. “He told me you’d never even taste it and I guess he was right. Since you love reading as much as I do, I bet you know that it works as a kind of truth serum. Did you honestly think I would come here without a plan? I figured Amara was going to warn you but hey, I did even better. Now I know you’re working with that snake.”

I jumped as he smashed the bottle of bourbon against the wall. Elena pleaded with me to leave, worried about Damon’s terrible temper.

“Get out!”

“I’m not afraid of you. We’re not kids anymore, Damon. I’m not leaving until I get the truth. Who’s the reaper?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re lying.”

Damon responded with a crazed laugh, the same I heard the day he nearly pushed me off the roof. “You poisoned me to get me to tell the truth. How can I be lying? It’s just not the answer you wanted to hear.” He gripped the table, breathing heavily. “I don't have the answers you’re looking for, Tessa. You’re wasting your time.”

“You said they warned you that I was coming which means you’ve been communicating. Why are you helping them? Why are you using Amara to hurt Will? Is this some sick game of yours? What, they promised you payback for all the years you spent here and hurting one of my best friends was part of the deal?”

His eyes were shut and under his breath, he muttered to himself. I knew the effects of the herb were temporary.

“Get out before you learn why they put me in here. I’ll do the same to you as I did to that guard.”

“I actually thought you were getting better. That’s why Dad had to work for Charles Belmont, because the doctors were going to release you but they thought it was all an act so he had to beg the worst man in town for help. I wanted to believe that you changed. I knew the day was getting closer and that they were just planning on chucking you in the Meadows or worse but I didn’t want you to spend that last day alone.” My eyes brimmed with tears as he continued to grip the table so tightly that his knuckles turned white. “I wanted you home and I knew you wanted that too. No matter how much you tried to scare me or the other kids in this place, I knew you wanted to just go back, to be the older brother that Ryan doesn’t even know exists, the one he deserves, but instead, you’re here.”

“T—Tessa…”

“It’s like mom always said. We’re twins. The bond between us, only we can understand and no one knows you like I do so what changed? What did they offer you that you’re willing to be the monster everyone thinks you are? Why are you helping them?!”

“To save you!”

His voice echoed around the small room, nearly shaking the bookcase. We stared at each other in awkward silence and my eyes searched his for the smallest hint of a lie. All the bravado I mustered to just be in the same room faded the moment he moved from the armchair. It felt like I had gone back in time, back to that frightened seven year old who could barely look at her twin brother without hiding behind her father’s back.

“I heard you and Amara got a little close today too. That must’ve been awkward. Kissing the girl who your ex cheated on you with in front of that very same ex.” Even though she was behind me curled up in a ball, Elena seemed to forget about the crippling pain in her stomach for just a few passing seconds. “It’s like something out of a soap opera. I bet Viv was ready to tear off her head. When they warned me about your secret visit, they sent a gift too.”

Damon kicked a small metal ball out from under the table and as it rolled closer, a sense of dread crawled up my spine. “Vi—”

I was silenced by a hand over my mouth, the smell of my father’s cologne filling my nostrils. A pale green smoke emitted from the ball, enveloping both Elena and Belmont. No matter how much I struggled, Damon kept a firm grip on my waist, pulling me into the corner by the fireplace.

As the smoke cleared, I screamed into his hand at the sight of them unconscious or possibly worse. “Shh, they’re fine. Te—they’re not dead, just knocked out. It was supposed to force them to pass on but I modified it a little. I’m gonna let go of you but you can’t scream. If Vivienne hears you, they’ll know.” He slowly lowered his hand. “You need to trust—”

Damon staggered backwards, his hands over his nose. Ignoring the stinging pain in my knuckles, I hurried over to Elena, placing two fingers on her neck. I released a shaky breath when I felt the tiniest pulse.

“I’m guessing you packed ten years of pent up anger into that. Dad teach you that one?” he asked, rubbing his red nose. He ducked as I chucked the metal ball at his head. “Hey, I said no noise. Tessa, I’m not the enemy here.”

“No, you’re just trying to save me,” I said, sarcasm dripping from my every word. “How stupid do you think I am?”

“You’ve never been stupid, just naive. It’s not your fault. Mom and Dad just wanted to protect their precious little girl.” He moved in front of the door. “You’re not leaving until you hear me out. They’re using Vivienne as a puppet. She doesn’t know that, obviously, but it’s how they’ve been one step ahead of you.”

“If you’re working with them, why should I believe a word you say? Maybe the gas was never meant to kill them. Maybe you’re just saying that to trick me. It wouldn’t be the first time. Don’t come near me.”

Staying near the wall, he bent down to eye level. “I’m not going to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you. I never claimed to be perfect and maybe my methods were terrible but I was seven. Can you blame me? I’m not lying. Everything I’ve done is to protect you. That fall wasn’t meant to kill you. I spent days practicing with dolls and admittedly, that wasn’t the best comparison but I thought it would paralyze you at best…put you in a coma at worst.”

“Oh, is that all?” I asked, resting Elena’s head in my lap while sitting protectively in front of Belmont. My eyes briefly scanned the underside of the door, hoping to see a flash of light. “So generous, D. In your delusional mind, how would that save me?”

“Because the council is a bunch of elitist snobs. Nana once told me that they only wanted reapers in peak condition, to prove that we were the alpha race. It was an old mindset that a lot of its members still have to this day. They wouldn’t let you practice as a reaper if you were that badly injured.” He lowered his eyes to the concrete floor. “And then there wouldn’t be a ritual. We’d both make it past eighteen. It was a way to beat their stupid rule.”

I remembered the day we learned about being reapers. We were no older than four and our father decided to take the us on a camping trip with relatives from his side of the family. When we woke up one morning, Damon was in a panic, thinking that Henry, one of our older cousins who enjoyed pranks, had drawn all over our skin with marker. It took nearly half an hour for our mother to calm us down, slip sweatshirts over our heads to hide the markings, and tell us the truth about our ancestry. For her, it was the best and worst day of her life.

Twin reapers were rare, usually only one child gaining the abilities, and with their connection, it allowed them to be stronger than a typical reaper. The council believed that to be dangerous and on their eighteenth birthday, the twins were forced to take part in a special ritual. It seemed simple enough at the time (we join hands and one twin comes out as the victor) until we began to understand that the ‘loser’ was sent into the afterlife, their abilities being taken back by the council. My mother, like many others, had spent countless years fighting against the law but council was resolute, insisting that the ritual was a precautionary measure.

“They’ve been talking to me longer than you know, Tessa, like a bird chirping in my ear. I would hear them everywhere. When we were playing outside and in my sleep…they said they wanted to help.” He ran his fingers through his dark hair. “Back then, I never understood why you couldn’t hear them too. You just thought it was some imaginary friend of mine but they were getting angry…they wanted you to listen. I started to realize that they didn’t want to help because they felt sorry for us. They wanted twins for whatever they were planning and if you were hurt, it would stop them and help you.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, thinking he was sounding crazier by the minute.

“If we went through the ritual, you—I always knew you would win.” Before I could even begin to correct him, he shook his head. “You thought I was better at lessons but I wasn’t and Mom knew it too. You never understood just how strong you actually are, Tessa. I didn’t want that burden for you. If you were the reason I died, you’d never forgive yourself because that’s the kind of person you are and I didn’t want that for you. That’s why I asked Amara to keep Will asleep. She used her powers to put him in this supernatural coma and as long as she maintains it, the reaper can’t hurt him.”

“Let’s say I believe you. If the reaper’s been talking to you all this time, then what do they want? What does it have to do with Fin?”

“We don’t have tea time together, Tessa. All I know is that they want reapers to be in charge, not just in the Underworld. They’ve been gathering followers with the hellhounds and other creatures. I don’t know why they haven’t just done it yet. Maybe they’re waiting for something.”

My whole body went tense as he walked towards me. I heard a soft groan from Belmont and Elena’s eyes began to flutter.

“I thought if I was in here, they couldn’t get to me but they’re strong…stronger than any reaper I’ve ever met. Please, I just need you to trust me,” he implored, his voice quivering with each word. “I want to help you. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. If we work together—”

The door burst open and he was lifted off his feet and thrown roughly against the wall. His room began to change, now resembling a more typical cell with the bare walls and a single cot. The world seemed to be moving ten times faster as Luke, a burly man in his early thirties, picked up a dizzy Damon by his collar. In the hallway, Alexis, Amara, and Vivienne were stuck to the floor, a brown, sticky substance around their legs.

“Luke, w—”

My face paled at the sight of my father entering the room. He practically squeezed the life out of me, his hand resting on the back of my head, and all I could do was stare at my helpless brother, who struggled against the binds that slithered out from under the cot.

“Tessa, thank goodness you’re safe. If I didn’t get here in time…”

I felt numb as he squeezed me even tighter. Elena and Belmont managed to stand, a little wobbly themselves, baffled by what was happening in and outside the room.

“I assume Fin and Elena are with you. It’s time to go home.” He turned my head away from the cot, despite Damon’s pleas. “Luke will handle it. There’s no reason to worry.”

Vivienne was the first to free herself from the strange goo. She looked relieved at the sight of me, her expression hardening at my father’s glare.

“I assume this is your doing?” he spat, not bothering to hide his disgust. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Kala thought the herbs would be enough to keep you away but you always have to slither back in, don’t you?”

“Dad, she didn’t—”

“Yeah, it was my idea,” I looked at Vivienne, surprised. “They’re brother and sister and they missed each other. Sue me for treating them like actual people, not beta fish.”

“If you come near my daughter or her friends again, the council will be the least of your worries, Vivienne.”

“You think I’m scared of an old man like you?” she asked, not the least bit intimidated by his muscular frame. “I didn’t get sent here for messing up my mommy’s hair, Devlin. I’m not scared of you or Kala.”

“And that will be your downfall. The council is keeping a very close eye on you so I suggest you behave yourself or you’ll be back in one of these cells.”

On the drive back to Belmont Falls, I sat in the front seat in silence, playing with a loose string on the seat belt. I could not even dare to look at my father, knowing he was either terrified or disappointed, maybe both. We waited at a red light for what seemed like an eternity.

“Vivienne didn’t bring me there. She just said that because she knows it’s easier to blame her than to hear that it was my fault.”

“I know.” My father gripped the steering wheel. “I was on my way home from a conference and looking for my house key when your grandmother appeared in front of me. I nearly wet myself and when I was done thinking I had gone insane, she told me you spoke to Luke. He would help you speak to Damon in exchange for half your college fund. That’s quite a lot of money but he’s been desperate to get away from that job for ages. She thought it was better to warn me instead of your mother because we both know you’d never leave the house again. Even when we died, she’d just appoint Oliver or Ryan to watch over you in her place.”

“Dad—”

“Why would you go there? You know how dangerous it is. Do you not remember the last time you paid him a visit?”

“Maybe it’s not that black and white.”

“Tessa, please. I know you want him to get better. Don’t you think your mother and I want that as well? We’d love nothing more than to have him home and to be a family again but it’s not in the cards. Why would you visit him?”

“Because I thought he had the answers I wanted.”

He kept his eyes on the road as I explained Amara and Damon’s roles in Will’s prolonged stay at the hospital. The moment I mentioned Damon’s claims of hearing the reaper at a young age, I knew my father was seconds from going into lecture mode. It was proof that I had gone behind my parents’ backs and continued my investigation into Fin’s death.

“You swore to your mother and me that you would stop this, Tessa," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“I can’t. If Damon’s telling the truth, then that reaper is going after me for a reason. If the council won’t listen to me, then—”

“Then nothing,” he stated, pulling into the driveway. “You’ve told the council everything and now it’s time for them to handle it. Oliver said that they weren’t overwhelmingly on your side but if Cullen believed you, that’s enough. He happened to stop by while you were out this morning and asked for all that evidence you collected, which I take as a good sign. I showed him the ring you found by the bridge and he agreed with me that it’s not…enhanced in any way.”

“What about those runes?”

“I translated them. We will rise from the ashes. I suppose it’s a family motto. Cullen said it could have merely fallen off the bridge at any time.”

Knowing it was a losing battle, I followed him into the house. I wanted to be grateful that Cullen was taking my concerns seriously but Damon was the only thing on my mind. Did this reaper mess with him from the beginning, using him as some sort of puppet? Was he putting on an act to lull me into a false sense of security and then betray me like he did in the past?

“Byrne.”

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” I told Belmont, tossing my backpack to the floor. “I’m too tired to argue with you right now. I just want to sleep.”

“Uh, that might not be that easy.”

On my bed was a neatly wrapped box, tied with a bright red ribbon. Elena volunteered to open it, a ghost less likely to be harmed if it contained some sort of weapon. She carefully unwrapped the box and pulled out a floor-length white dress. It was strapless with a sweetheart neckline and the crystals embedded in the fabric sparkled in the light like tiny stars.
“It’s so pretty,” squealed Elena. “You could be like a Disney princess. When did you order it?”

“I didn’t. Do you think Parker bought it so I’d forgive him?” I asked, picking up the box.

“Look at it sparkle. I know the perfect hairstyle to go with this. You’ll look amazing,” she said, twirling with the dress in front of my mirror.

Digging through the copious amounts of red tissue paper, I found a card. I half-expected to see Parker’s name, along with some long-winded apology, but the reality was much worse.

I hope you enjoyed that time with your brother tonight. Consider it my Christmas gift to you, along with this. I thought it was perfect for the winter ball, for someone so sweet and innocent. Unless you want my partnership with Damon to come to a violent end, you’ll be there. It’s going to be a night you won’t soon forget.

“They’re just messing with you,” said Belmont, reading the message over my shoulder. “They won’t be there, Byrne. We’d recognize anyone out of place.”

“Unless they’re doing what they did to Vivienne. When you guys were unconscious, Damon said the reaper was using her to spy on us and that’s how he knew we were coming. What if they do the same thing to someone like Amy or a teacher? We can send the message to Cullen and if he does believe us, he’ll send some guards, ones who can spot a disguise. My parents don’t want us involved in this so it respects their wishes and maybe we’ll finally find out who this psycho is and why they killed you.”

My phone vibrated in my pocket, two messages, from Katie and an unknown number flashing across the screen.

Hope this means you can trust me

“Will’s awake.”


Submitted: July 01, 2017

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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