Reads: 214

“Wow, you really went all out.” Will gazed down at the assortment of chips and candies sprawled  across the bed. “How did you get all these at 6 AM?”

“You remember JJ?” I asked, opening the bag of gummy worms.

“The creepy cashier at the 7/11 that used to stare at you all the time? Tessa, please tell me you didn’t go back there. We made a pinky promise in 8th grade.”

“You’re worth breaking a pinky promise, Will.” Blushing, he bit into a red and green worm. “He was a lot creepier than I remember but I just pretended my dad was in the car so he wouldn’t try anything.”

The truth was that Elena and Belmont used their ghostly existence to frighten the lewd cashier. He attempted to ask me out on a date, claiming it was close enough to be legal, when Elena purposely messed with the slushie machine. I left him at the register, panicking over Belmont flickering the lights to the tune of the rock song on the radio.  

Will awoke less than four hours ago and if it weren’t for school, I would spend all day with him. I had very little trust in Damon’s words, knowing that Will could be back in a coma with a snap of Amara’s fingers. No matter how much he insisted that he was feeling better, even looking like he had not spent the past couple months in the hospital, I was treating him like a delicate flower.

“You have to get to school. Don’t ruin your perfect attendance for me, Tessa. I may be worth getting hit on by pervy old guys but not that,” he joked. My eyes peeked at his steady heart monitor. “I promise I’m fine. If something goes wrong, my mom or Katie will call.”

“Well, I’m still doing all your homework until you’re better. Did the doctor say when you’ll be good enough to leave?”

“Not yet. He’s checking on me later but he said my vitals are already pretty good. I might be back by the end of the week, which is a little weird but not as weird as those dreams about your brother. Not that I know what your brother looks like now or I had a crush on him when I was seven.”

Feigning a laugh, I jumped down from the bed and wrapped my arms around his neck, careful not to squeeze too tightly.

“Hello Miss Byrne,” I heard, seconds after closing the door.

Standing behind me was a tall middle-aged man with dark hair that was somehow disheveled and neatly styled at the same time. His dark suit and polished shoes gave him the appearance of a businessman, possibly a lawyer. My first thought was that Chief Parker hired him to interrogate Will for some bogus confession about the accident, until I spotted the white rose tucked into his suit pocket.  

Elena and Belmont were on either side of him, the petite blonde staring adoringly at his handsome face. The man held out his tanned hand.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Liam Evans,” he said, speaking in a throaty voice, with a posh accent. “I am one of Grandmaster Cullen’s trusted advisers.”

“Wow, that’s a big job. Why are you here?”

“He’s asked me to keep an eye on you until this business with the rogue reaper has been dealt with accordingly. He wanted me to assure you that all of our resources are on the case. Sending  him that note you received was the right thing to do.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate him looking out for me but um won’t it look weird if you’re following me around?”

“The only ones who can see me are those with supernatural abilities,” he explained, leading her out of the hospital. “I can imagine this is difficult for you, Miss Byrne, but if all goes to plan, it will all be over tonight.”  

I hesitated, taking one last look at the hospital, before getting into her car, Evans holding open the door. “Hot, British, and a gentleman? He’s like an older Edwin,” whispered Elena, waving at him from the backseat.

“He’s old enough to be your dad and you still look fifteen,” I said, not wanting to relive her teenage Mr. Darcy memories. “Dial it back.”

“You could cut glass with those cheekbones. Who cares?”

The whole ride to school, my eyes were on my phone, fearing that I would get a message that Will was once again comatose or worse. Encouraging messages from Katie were not enough to assuage my fears.

“So Mr. Evans,” said Elena, breaking the silence. (“Liam, please. No need for formality,” he insisted.) “Tell us all about you. Where are you from? What’s it like working for the council?”

“I was born in Kent. I’ve known the Grandmaster for a very long time. Our families are old friends and in a way, we’ve always been like brothers. My duties are to assist him in any way I can, mostly for intellectual purposes. I would protect him with my own life, if need be. That’s why I admire your friend.”

I glanced up from my phone for the first time in minutes. “Me?”

“Yes. You’re compassionate and loyal, traits I hold dear myself. I watched you in the hospital before, with your friend William. He’s different than your ghostly companions,  far more fragile, but you would protect them all the same, no matter the cost. Ah, here we are.”

“Thanks for the ride, M—Liam.”

“We’ll meet back here at 4:15, yes? You’re staying behind for dance committee?”

“Yeah, I—wow, you really do your homework. Thanks again.”

Elena waved at him again as he drove out of the parking lot. Before I could dissuade her from her latest crush, a thin hand, each nail painted scarlet red, latched onto my arm and I found Amy by my side. She rambled on about sending me a million texts over the weekend, the entire town knowing about the incident in the woods.

“If I was attacked by some psycho in the woods, my dad would keep me locked in my room forever. Chace was telling us all about it last night at his place. You’re still going to winter ball, right?”

“Of course. You spent months planning it, Amy. I wouldn’t miss it,” I replied, having no choice.

She heaved a sighed of relief. “Good, because Claire’s bringing her secret older boyfriend and they’ll probably be making out all night, which is gross. I need someone who won’t ditch me.”

“I’m your girl. Why are we going this way?” I asked, passing the staircase. “We have history first.”

“Oh right, you probably didn’t see the email from Claire’s mom. After what happened to you, Chief Parker had the idea to teach us all about self defense so that’s first. We get to miss two periods and learn to kick butt like Black Widow.”

In a normal high school, a lesson in self defense sounded uneventful. The instructor would teach them a few basic moves and pretend that they were now capable of taking down attackers twice their size. It was a different story when one of the instructors was Chief Parker himself. Seeing Garren did not lift my spirits since he looked like he would lose to a feisty chihuahua. Coach Anderson assigned each student to one of five groups.

“Wow, I guess I never realized what an asshole Chief Parker is since he was always on my side,” said Belmont, shaking his head. “I mean, he definitely put you two together just to—Byrne, where are you going?”

I stormed over to Chief Parker, ignoring all the Glad you’re back and We were really worried from my fellow classmates. If the incident happened a few months ago, I would’ve been ridiculed for days. The feigned concern was only because of my newfound friendship with the ‘popular’ clique, Amy my only true friend among them.

“Change my group,” I stated, interrupting his conversation about football with Coach Anderson.

“Tessa, the groups were randomly assigned. What’s wrong with your group?”

“I don’t know, sir. Why do you knock over the stapler every morning in the principal’s office ‘by accident’ just to watch Ms. Jones pick it up?”

“Byrne,” he hissed, his face as red as his hair.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought we were asking each other rhetorical questions. No? Okay, well I want to change groups because I don’t want to be within ten feet of his dirty mutt of a son.”

Coach Anderson was too busy struggling to come up with a response to notice that Chief Parker’s eyes were now scarlet red. Elena squeaked in fright and even Belmont reluctantly raised his fists, his eyes darting for every exit at the same time. I stood my ground, refusing to even blink, as a challenge for him to show everyone his true self.

“Heh, teenagers, sir. You know how they can be at times. One minute, you’re best friends and the next, you wish they were never born. Hormones, am I right?” said Garren, chuckling nervously.

Evans was in the corner, by the bleachers, reaching inside his suit. He lowered his hand at a slight twitch of Garren’s right eye, who passed it off as a nervous tic.

“Though perhaps it is best if Tessa doesn’t participate. It could trigger memories of what happened and we wouldn’t want that.”

Chief Parker’s eyes returned to their usual dark brown color. “Every student is required to participate, Garren. It’ll be good for her. She should know how to fight back when—if she ever finds herself in that situation again. Sadly, it is all too common for girls her age.”

“Of course, sir. Self defense is important. I’ll get her back to her group and we can begin.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder, gripping it hard enough that he was pressing against bone. I was about to yell at him when I realized that Chief Parker was watching our every move.

“Pretend to trip and I’ll say you need the nurse. You can’t be around Chace or his father right now,” he said, barely moving his lips.

“I’m not scared of them,” I replied, mimicking him.

“Tessa, your father told me about your little visit with Damon. This is why twin reapers are dangerous. You’re meant to be kept apart. If you’re in close quarters for too long, especially if you make physical contact, you begin to absorb each other’s power and personality. It’s Damon’s anger that is fueling you and being around Chace will only make it worse.”

I wrenched my shoulder from his grasp. “I am not running like some scared little girl, Oliver. If he wants a fight, he’ll get one.”

“Tessa, maybe Oliver’s right,” suggested Elena, looking at me like I was a whole new person. “You wouldn’t be dumb enough to pick a fight with Chief Parker. Nurse Simpson is easy to trick. Just tell her you’re not feeling well and we can go back to the hospital.”

“No. I’m done being a coward and letting people walk all over me because I'm nice. You know what nice gets you? Nothing. I’m not taking shit from anyone, not Hilton, not Baxter, and definitely not from a freakin’ dog.”

Tuning out their concerns, I headed over to my group. Danvers was imitating some lewd sex act to Hilton’s disgust and Parker’s amusement.

“If your so-called new girlfriend likes that, she’s blind or desperate. Speaking of pathetic Lily Grove girls, Byrne is here. Can this day get any worse?” she asked, scrunching her nose.

“I bet your parents say that every morning when they see you.”

A trio of nearby girls gasped while Danvers sniggered under his breath. Hilton turned on her heel, shooting me one of her trademark icy glares.

“I must’ve gone temporarily deaf for a minute. What did you just say? I’d think very carefully.”

“I bet your parents say that every morning when they see you,” I repeated slowly, doing the proper hand gestures in sign language. “Is the space between your ears just not connecting the dots?”

“You little—” Parker moved between us. “He can’t be your guard dog 24/7, Byrne. Watch your back.”

“Sure. Let’s see what all the fuss is about,” I said, with a shrug. “Your boyfriend likes to do that too. Hey, you know what? I bet when you two are getting all hot and heavy, he’s thinking of me. Second place to me when it comes to daddy and the boyfriend. Tragic.”

Hilton’s cheeks puffed out like a bullfrog’s. Her string of curses was drowned out by Coach Anderson’s shrill whistle. He ordered each group to split into pairs. If Parker was not standing like a statue, Hilton would have chosen me as a partner to ‘accidentally’ kick in the face.

“What the hell is going on?” Parker asked, as Hilton dragged Danvers away with a tug of his ear. “This isn’t you.”

“No, this is me. This is me when I don’t care about people’s feelings or being nice. Unfiltered and not giving a damn. Do you have a problem with that, Scooby-Doo?”

Chief Parker began to demonstrate the first move with an officer: flipping an attacker over their back. Garren and the other officers walked around the room, placing students in the correct position.

“Oliver, he doesn’t need help. He has tons of practice with this,” I said, as Garren started to adjust Parker’s hand on my waist. “I bet he does it to all the girls he brings to the Falls, after they realize he’s a sleazebag but he can’t have them run off.”

His grip loosened on my throat. Judging by Belmont’s expression, I had hit a nerve.

“Aw, is the puppy sad? You should be happy. If this were the back row of a movie theater, you’d have me right where you want me. It used to be Vivienne’s favorite too. Are you jealous that she beat you to it, to that first taste?”

“Byrne, that’s enough. Come on,” said Belmont.

“You’re right.”

I elbowed Parker in the ribs and flipped him onto the rubber mat. He rolled over to his side, groaning in pain. His friends looked between their brawny captain and me, a girl who weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet, at a loss for words. Lying that I looked a bit flushed, Garren pulled me out into the hallway. Evans, as if he could teleport from room to room, was somehow already there, his expression both sympathetic and, in my addled mind, amused.

“Until this wears off, you need to go somewhere quiet.”

“Because I hurt Chace Parker’s feelings?” I asked, pouting. “Who knew he even had any?”

“It raises questions when a tiny girl can toss a star running back with the ease of a feather. Caleb has done a fantastic job at hiding his true self but the second he has you alone, he’ll attempt to finish what he started in those woods.”

“Tessa, I know you,” Elena said, grabbing my hands. “It’s Damon messing with your head. I mean, Fin was horrible to you all these years but you're still helping him...because you’re good. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know. You believe in the good of people and that’s what makes them better around you. That’s why you’re my best friend.” She frowned at my fit of giggles. “What’s so funny?”

“Best friend,” I said, mockingly. “We’re not friends. I’m your charity case. You thought you were better than your real friends because you didn’t make my every day a living hell but you didn’t stop them either. You were just a bitch in sheep’s clothing. That’s why you didn’t pass on, right? Because you knew when it was your time to be judged, you wouldn’t go to the nice place like your parents and Abby and then they’d know the truth about you too. The only reason you hang out with me is because I’m the only one who can see you.”

The sight of a single tear trickling down her cheek sent a shock to my system, like waking up from a nightmare. Everything that happened in the past five minutes played over and over in my head. She was right. No matter how much I hated Parker or Hilton, I would never be as cruel.

“I didn’t mean—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—I just want to be alone right now.”

“Tessa, wait!” cried Elena, as I disappeared through the doors.

 Keeping my eyes on the ground, I sped past the football field and continued walking down the street. I stopped when my feet began to hurt and was surprised to find myself at the sandbox in the local playground. My fingers traced over the E + T that Elena had carved into one of the wooden edges with her dad’s pocket knife, the day before second grade.

I remembered the first time we met: me, the awkward new girl in town, dressed in a hoodie and jeans to hide the markings on my body that increased by the day, and her, the bubbly blonde in a pink floral dress and matching bow in her hair. My mother encouraged me to play with the other kids, to get my mind off of Damon, but I was never one to make the first move. I just avoided getting hit in the face by a purple bucket when I spotted two boys, no older than nine, destroying a blonde girl’s sand castle.

“You’re such a butthead, Nate!” the girl shouted, stamping her foot. “Knights are supposed to protect the castle!”

“Aw, is the little princess gonna cry? It didn’t look much like a castle to me,” teased the taller of the two, digging his sneaker into the sand. “Tell you what, you let me give you three indian burns and I’ll help you build it again.

“No way. That hurts!”

“Leave her alone.”

The boys turned their heads and sniggered, seeing that I was about the size of a twig and only reached their waist. Behind their backs, the girl shook her head.

“Look at that, Billy. Fresh meat,” he said to the other boy, who cracked his knuckles. “What did you just say to me, pipsqueak?”

“I said leave her alone.”

“Or wh—oof!”

He was silenced by the bucket smacking his stomach and swiftly fell to his knees. His friend lunged at me but I easily tripped him, causing him to stumble into the swing set.

“Go away or I’ll make you both eat your underwear.”  

The girl was stifling her giggles into her hand. “Y—you better stop laughing, Ellie. I’m telling Aunt Aubrey!”  said Nate, still clutching his stomach.

Still clutching his stomach, he forced his friend to follow him up the small hill. I handed the girl the bucket.

“Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? That was funny. My mom knows he’s a bully. She won’t yell at you.”

“That’s good. I should go.”

“Wait!” The girl moved in front of me. “I’ve never seen you around here before. Do you want to play with me? Nate and Billy were supposed to be my knights but they were really bad at it. You can be the knight instead.”

She tapped both of my shoulders with her purple shovel. “I name thee…what’s your name?”

“Tessa,” I replied, shyly tugging on the bottom of my hoodie.

“Ooh, that’s pretty,” she said, her big, blue eyes shimmering in the light. “I name thee Lady Tessa, knight to the beautiful Princess Elena. You will be sworn to protect the princess from any danger, from now until your last day.”


Snap.

I whipped my head around at the sound of a twig breaking. My heart sank when I came face to face with Evans.

“Expecting someone else? I told Oliver it was best if I was the one to talk to you. I find it’s much easier to clear your head with a stranger.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“As you said, I do my homework. You don’t have to worry about the council finding out about your visit to Erinyes. I have a soft spot when it comes to family. It must be even harder for you, being a twin. It’s a bond unlike any other, a connection that only a fellow twin understands. The ritual happens to be one tradition that I never agreed with, too archaic and brutal.”

“I never should’ve gone there. It just caused more problems. The reaper threatened him, the guards are probably treating him worse than before, and being near him turned me into a temporary bitch. How can I face Elena after what I said?”

“She knows you didn’t mean it, even if that’s not strictly true.” I looked at him, curiously. “You and your brother are quite opposite. He doesn’t care about the opinions of others. He will gladly say what’s on his mind. You, on the other hand, are very careful with your words. A girl like Claire Hilton makes your life unbearable yet you would never be as needlessly cruel. You may come to blows from time to time but you hold back, bottling up your feelings. It’s why you’ve reacted so strongly to your brother’s presence. It must be—”

“Horrible? That’s an understatement.”

“I was going to say liberating. No matter how horrible you feel, you did speak the truth to her. You simply kept it buried deep down all this time. You may not have meant to speak so harshly but it is your truth, how you’ve felt each time she ignored you when her other friends were around. There’s nothing wrong with that, Tessa. It’s why I’ve asked her and Fin to stay away for the night.”

“What? Why would you do that?”

“If the reaper does show up tonight, you may be called upon to aid in the defense and as admirable as your loyalty is, emotional attachments can be a weakness in battle. You cannot concern yourself with their safety. Rest assured, they are under council protection. The Grandmaster agreed with my decision.”

As much as I wanted to trust Cullen, Elena and Belmont’s disappearance only made me more anxious. I had planned for them to be at a dance, to act as lookouts for any strange behavior. Instead, I would be fretting over them, instead of the reaper’s possible attack.

After a few hours of last minute decorating, Evans drove me home and I began to get ready for the dance. It was difficult without Elena’s expertise in makeup and hair but I tried my best. I left a post-it note on my mirror, in case the council sent them back, and walked downstairs, holding a white embroidered masquerade mask. My mother took so many pictures of me that I was going blind in one eye.

“I don’t want you to worry, Kala,” said Evans. “She’s in good hands. Hopefully, we’ll be able to put this nasty business behind us for good.”

“If you need any help, don’t hesitate to call, Liam.”

Hearing a soft knock, Ryan opened the door and greeted Amy. She looked even more beautiful than usual, her dark red dress complimenting her curves.

“Aw, you must be Ryan. I’m Amy. Is your sister ready?”

He untied the blue and gold yarn bracelet around his wrist, one Rosa had given to my mother for his protection. It was enchanted to repel any dangerous beasts, particularly sluagh, from going near him.

“It’ll protect you from the monsters at the dance,” he said, placing it on her own wrist. My father chuckled, passing it off as an overactive imagination. “Just in case Tessa isn’t there to beat them up first.”

“I bet she could. You should’ve seen her take down Chace in gym today. I think she might be a secret ninja”

Not wanting to relive gym class, I grabbed my clutch before heading towards the door. “Heh, we should probably get going, right?”

“We don’t want her out too late, Amy. With what happened this past weekend, we’re a little more protective than usual,” said my father.

“Girl Scout honor, Mr. Byrne.” She squeezed my arm as we walked down the driveway. “Okay, who was Mr. Tall, dark, and handsome? Tessa, don’t hold out on the details. We’re friends and friends don’t keep hotties like that a secret. Spill.”

“The guy is um—he’s my uncle, on my dad’s side. He’s staying with us for a little bit, not really sure how long.”

I dreaded hearing another girl gush over the handsome guard, when the shocking realization struck me like a speeding train. Amy was talking about Evans, a man who should have been invisible to her. No matter how many conspiracy theories I thought up in my head, it all circled back to one explanation: Amy somehow being supernatural.

A bump in the road shook me out of my stupor. For the first time, I noticed that I was inside the limo with Amy, her date Erik (or ‘Eight pack Erik’, a senior on the swim team), Danvers and his date (a pretty blonde named Ashlyn with an infectious laugh), and Hilton and Parker, who were too busy sucking each other’s faces to acknowledge me. Parker eyed me between kisses, as if gauging my reaction, but I was too busy staring at Amy, who was deep in conversation with Ashlyn about some musical.

Danvers placed a shot glass in my head. “What’s your poison, Byrne?”

“What?”

“Your drink. You’ve got to catch up before we get to the school. We’ve already had three shots a piece.”

“I don’t drink much.”

“No problem. I’ve got a sixth sense with these things. I bet you’re a whiskey girl,”

If the reaper does show up tonight, you may be called upon to aid in the defense. Evans’s words at the playground were a chilling reminder that I was not a normal teenage girl, going to some dance. Instead of drinking punch and dancing with friends, I had to fight monsters killing my fellow classmates, kids I grew up with over the past ten years. What if Cullen’s men weren’t enough to stop the reaper? What if at the end of the night, the school was a pile of rubble?

I downed the shot in my hand then took the bottle and chugged it, ignoring the burning sensation in my throat. Immediately regretting my poor choice in coping mechanism, I lowered the bottle, to see all of them wide-eyed and mouths hanging open.

“Tessa, are you—”

“Byrne, holy shit,” Danvers said, high-fiving me. “Who knew the little mouse was a beast? That was awesome!”

The limo stopped and as I stepped out, feeling a little tipsy, Parker pulled me aside. His lips were moving at a frantic pace but his voice sounded a thousand miles away. Hilton paid him no mind, too concerned with finding her real date.

“Tessa,” he repeated, giving my arm a quick shake. “If something’s going on, you need to tell me.”

Parker took several step backs as Cullen and Evans descended down the steps of the school, dressed in crisp black suits and holding matching masquerade masks. He lowered his eyes to the sidewalk, when Evans reminded him of his deal with the council. After I left and he continued to be interrogated, the council considered sending him and his father down to the Underworld, for disobeying the law all these years. To change their minds, he swore to stay away from any reapers, particularly me.

“I showed you leniency, Chace, and here you are, not just near Tessa but blatantly putting your hands on her.”

“I would never hurt Tessa.”

“Your past says otherwise,” Cullen countered, a fire in his eyes.

Parker meekly began to defend himself before Cullen raised his hand, an ornate silver ring gleaming in the light of the street lamp.
“You’re not just here because I broke some pinky promise. Is it the reaper? Please, I want to help. I’m not on my father’s side.”

“If you wish to help, dog, you’ll go inside and act as if everything is normal,” said Evans, hands behind his back. Parker’s eyes flickered red. “With a temper like yours, you’re no help to us”

“At the trial, you told me that you wanted to be better than the past Grandmasters…that you wanted to bring about change,” he told Cullen, who looked torn between empathy and indifference. “How are you any better if you paint me with the same brush as my dad?”

Cullen was resolute in his decision to keep Chace in the dark. Though he admired his willingness to help (“Though it may be borne out of selfish desires,” he said, his pale blue eyes passing over me), his concern was that Chief Parker had some involvement in tonight’s planned attack and pitting father against son only complicated matters. His men were here to prevent a war, not start one.

Knowing it was a losing battle, he marched up the steps to the school and settled back into his old days, stealing a six pack from a passing sophomore and knocking him him into the wall. It felt like the calm before a raging storm.

“I know you’re worried for him but he’s right,” said Cullen. “He isn’t his father…not yet. He’s a lost pup. As much as I’d appreciate the help, we don’t need any unexpected variables in the mix.”

“I get that but um—when you said you were sending people, I didn’t think you meant—it’s just—heh, you’re here, dressed all fancy.”

“This reaper endangers us all, Tessa. What kind of example would I be showing if I allowed my people to rush into danger while I sat comfortably in my home? I have guards stationed within the dance itself and Li and a few others are guarding the perimeter. Ah, here she is now.”

Instead of the Asian rocker who had been less than impressed with Belmont, a black fox emerged from the bushes, followed by a raccoon and a tabby cat. I did a double take as three women stood in their places, thinking that the alcohol was finally affecting me.

Aside from their shared affinity for black clothing, the two women on either side of Li could not be more different. The one on her right (the raccoon) was not much older than myself, probably just out of college. Her sleek black hair was tied in a high ponytail that exposed the crow tattoo behind her right ear, one of many tattoos on her body, and she was dressed in a similar style to Li.The other woman was certainly pushing her fifties yet looked like she could knock someone out with a single punch.

“Outside’s all clear, Ced. Never seen a shapeshifter before, huh?” Li asked, seeing my bewildered expression. “I’m half kitsune on my mom’s side and Evani and Tala are skin-walkers. It’s a secret among the guard and Cullen’s trusted advisers so that reaper will be in for a surprise.”

“You look like your grandmother when she was your age,” said Tala, with a kind smile. “I haven’t been to see her in awhile. I’m sure she misses these outings.”

“My grandmother was part of the guard?”

“Of course. She was one of the fiercest among us. It was a shame what happened to her, a coward’s move.”

Cullen discussed the basics of the plan. He and Evans would pose as chaperones at the dance while Evani and Tala used their abilities to blend in with the high school crowd. Li and the other members of the guard would remain outside, reporting any strange sightings. If the reaper attacked, the guard had strict orders to evacuate the school.

As if he could see my insides twisted into knots, he led me away from the others. “I can see you’re nervous. What’s on your mind?”

“Murphy’s law.”

“Come again?” he asked, perplexed.

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. You think this plan is foolproof and I don’t want to doubt you...trust me, I don’t want to have to fight monsters while Hilton is getting crowned Ice Princess or something but my grandmother always says that you have to expect a plan to fail. Do you have backup plans, like Plan B to Z?”

“There is no need for that.” If I was not terrified, I would find his optimism encouraging. “Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, let’s take a positive approach. My guards have never let me down before. We’ve dealt with far worse than a rogue reaper, Tessa. Tonight, all this pain and misery they’ve inflicted will be a thing of the past and you can move forward, look towards your future.”

“Well, if you’re right, that’s exactly what I want to talk to you about. I know it’s a long shot but—”

“Enough with the talking, Ced. Her friends are starting to wonder where she is and I’d rather not deal with a puppy on steroids,” interrupted Li.

In a split second, she returned to her fox form and Evani and Tala had disguised themselves as two junior girls. Taking a deep breath, I tied the lace mask around my face and followed Cullen into the school. Evani looped her arm through mine, which looked odd considering she was pretending to be one of Hilton’s minions.

“It’s a dance. Try to have fun. With any luck, no fighting,” she whispered.

“My luck’s been terrible lately.”

“Well, I hear you’re pretty good with a stapler or a toothbrush holder. You clocked Ollie pretty good.”

“Ol—you know Oliver?”

“We dated a couple years ago,” she said, giggling quietly. Evani was the farthest I could imagine from Oliver’s possible girlfriends. “Mostly to get that reporter off his back but we’re good friends. Kids of council members pretty much grow up together. His father never liked me but he’d never say that out loud, especially in front of grams.”

Amy, as the hard-working head of the dance committee, had outdone herself. The gym, no longer smelling like sweat and a heavy dose of cologne, resembled a winter wonderland. Fake snow sprinkled down from the starry ceiling and a professional photographer took pictures of couples and friends between several trees covered in twinkling lights.

While I was admiring the decorations, Cullen and the others had seamlessly blended into the crowd. Cullen, adopting a flawless Southern accent, was speaking to Mr. Simpson, under the guise of a freshman boy’s father. The far stranger sight happened to be by the drinks table: Garren, with his arm around Angela Starr. Either I was going insane or he was laughing at one of her stories. Their dynamic had done a complete 180 since their last encounter in the Blue Moon café.

I was about to point out the odd couple to Elena when I realized that she was not with me. It felt like losing my right hand. I had gotten used to her being at my side over the past two years and instead, she was stashed away in some secret location by a man I only met this morning.

“Tessa, over here!”  Ashlyn waved at me from one of the tables. “Amy’s talking to the DJ.”

“See that? Still standing like a champ,” Danvers said, raising his glass of punch in the air. The faint smell of vodka hit my nose. “Up for another round, Byrne?”

“Robbie, I think she’s had enough. We don’t need her going to the hospital. I hope Claire’s okay though. Maybe her boyfriend couldn’t make it tonight.”

Ashlyn was not what I expected from a girl willing to date someone like Danvers. We connected over both being born in Lily Grove, where my mother was apparently a mini celebrity at the high school, and our shared love of art. Painting proved to be the only way to stand out, being the youngest of five siblings.

“You should hear Mrs. Potter talk about your mom. She’s like the gold standard of art.”

“Imagine being her daughter. All of her friends thought I’d be painting masterpieces by the time I was in preschool.”

“Chace said your work is amazing.”

I bristled at the mention of Parker. Ever since his conversation with Cullen, he had kept his distance, out of fear, anger, or both.

Ashlyn frowned. “Oh, I’m really sorry, Tessa. I know you two aren’t on the best of terms right now.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Speaking of Parker, have you seen him? It’s been like an hour.”

“Not since we left the limo. He stole a six pack from some kid and stormed off.”

“I’m gonna check on him. Just tell Amy so she doesn’t think I bailed.”

I was barely out the doors when someone seized my arm and pulled me into a nearby janitor’s closet. Damon placed one hand over my mouth, muffling the curses that poured out, while the other switched on the shabby, swinging lamp. He was dressed in a black suit, a black and red mask covering half of his face.

“I can see you’re freaked out but I need you to stay calm, Tessa.” I whacked him across the face with a dirty rag. “That’s not calm!”

“How the hell—you can’t—you’re not—no, you’re not here. The whiskey is getting to me,” I whispered, praying that he was a hallucination.

He snickered. “Better not let Viv hear about that. She’ll consider it cheating.” Lowering his head, he dodged another swing of the rag. “Stop hitting me with that. I don’t think it’s been cleaned since the fifties.”

“How the hell are you here? Are you a ghost like nana?”

“I’m good but not that good. Turns out being so close had a few side effects. Just like you got my penchant for not taking people’s bullshit, I got some things from you too. Your empathy, which made me listen to one of the guards talk about his critically ill daughter for an hour, and your resourcefulness.”

Erinyes had been heavily fortified with magic, affecting normal objects like the surveillance cameras that shut off for thirty seconds every twenty minutes. Damon made this discovery when his bout of empathy led the guard to offer a slice of cake, dessert being highly coveted among the residents of the institution. He told Damon that he had the glitches timed down to the minute and cake led to knocking the guard out, hiding him under the covers, and putting on his uniform.

In a matter of minutes, he managed to do what he could not in years, sneaking down to the basement where all sorts of potions ingredients were stored. He mixed together two potions he once read in one of his books and used it to swap his appearance with the guard’s and the other  to knock the guard out for at least a week.

“Then I just walked out of there and after a few minutes, the potion wore off and I was back to my handsome self. It’s a good thing you never got sent there. You would’ve gotten out a lot faster than me. It’s both impressive and scary.”

“Okay, genius. What happens when the guards realize you’re not in your room?”

“You think they care that I’m not eating? They’d gladly let me starve. I didn’t come all this way for you to lecture me. There’s something you need to see.”

Just as he opened the door, we were greeted by the sight of Garren in a passionate lip lock against the wall with Angela Starr, her hand sliding down the front of his slacks. He quickly detached himself when he spotted me, failing to fix his messy hair. Damon hid himself back in the closet.

“T—Tessa, h—hello. I—we—this isn’t what it looks like.” ‘

“I like the look. Prom meets Braveheart,” I teased, red lipstick all over his tanned face.

“Heh, Angela, could you give us a minute?”

Angela nipped his ear. “I’ll be at our old spot.”

She winked at me before disappearing down the hallway. Garren’s embarrassment was just an act, his face no longer red and his eyes narrowed.

“Before you start, I was only doing that to protect you.”

“Does she have the hots for me? I’m flattered but she's not my type.” He crossed his arms. “I’m curious. How does making out like two horny teenagers help me?”

“After our conversation at the café, I knew you wouldn’t stop digging into Finn’s death so I’ve been spending time with her. I saw your email to her about Jackson. You’re lucky she never read it. Did you know she attempted to speak with Charles Belmont directly about Finn? She could’ve gone to jail or ended up in the morgue alongside him.”

“Did she get to talk to him?” I asked, curious if the rabid reporter had any new information. “Did he tell her anything?”

“Nothing. She somehow weaseled her way into his office but he just sat there. Security got her out and Rosalie’s put in a restraining order. I’m the only reason Angela hasn’t gone back or published anything about Finn. I keep her…distracted.”

“I can see that.”

His cheeks reddened again. “Why are you not at the dance?”

“I needed a break from watching Danvers and the other meatheads play dare or double dare,” I lied with ease. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to dry humping your fake girlfriend?”

His right eye twitching, a sign that he was about to yell, he instead chose to straighten his tie and walk away, counting backwards from twenty under his breath. I lightly tapped on the closet door. Damon led me in the other direction, keeping an eye out for Cullen’s guard. He turned the corner to the biology classroom, nearly bumping into Mr. Belmont who was staring at his phone.

“Sorry, Mr. Belmont. My date never looks where he’s going.” My apology was met with silence. “Mr. Belmont?”

His eyes did not leave the dimly lit screen. Seconds later, Mrs. Belmont left the classroom, dressed in a knee-length, sleeveless white dress and nude heels. With her movie star looks and impossibly white smile, she looked like an angel.
“Tessa, hello.” She pulled me into a hug, catching me off guard. “Don’t you look lovely? I suppose great minds think alike.”

“Guess so. My date sort of crashed into your husband. Is he um okay?”

“Oh, when it comes to business, he goes off into his own little world and in his old age, his hearing’s a bit off. You remember Tessa, don’t you, dear? Say hello.”

There was no smile or warmth in his dark eyes as he looked at me and Damon. “Hello, Tessa.”

 “I was hoping to speak with Brendon,” explained Mrs. Belmont. “He said he found some of Finn’s old things in the classroom and I ended up reminiscing about my days here.”

“When did you go to Belmont High? Fin t—I heard him say once that you and Mr. Belmont met in Patras when he was there for a business deal.”

“Oh, that boy,” she said, with a laugh. Her voice had gone up a few octaves. “I swear he never paid attention to a thing I told him. He must’ve gotten confused. Our first anniversary was in Patras. Such a lovely city.”

“Right, that sounds like him,” I agreed, sensing something off about her mannerisms.

“We should get going. Cecile is having us make our speech shortly before they crown Ice Prince and Princess. It would mean very much to me if you were there.”

Mrs. Belmont hugged me once more then walked off with her silent husband. I could not shake the strange feeling in my gut.

“Is it just me or was that weird?” Damon glanced down both ends of the hallway before opening the door. “He’s no spring chicken but he definitely would’ve felt you bumping into him.”

“First of all, never use that phrase again. You sound like an old lady. Second, Dad always said Charles Belmont was a man of few words. He must’ve meant it literally. We’ve got more important matters than the richest family in town.”

“I could’ve sworn he said they met in Greece but why else would she be in—”

My heart stopped as I followed him into the classroom. Belmont and Elena, their clothes in tatters, were sitting at one of the desks, covered in cuts, bruises, and a foul-smelling purple paste. Vivienne applied more of the paste above Belmont’s left eye.

“W—what happened?” I asked, trying not to panic as my fingers brushed over a cut on Elena’s cheek. She winced at the slightest touch. “How are you even hurt?”

Belmont explained that after my gym freak out, Liam decided to send them to a safe house in the Underworld for the night. It was a quaint tea shop owned by an ex-council member and they had been there just over two hours when three of the guests, a seemingly normal family, revealed themselves to be hellhounds and chased the two ghosts. Not knowing the Underworld well, they found themselves trapped in an alley.

After his grand escape from Erinyes, Damon met up with Vivienne at Bacchanal and the two of them overheard the commotion. He managed to drive away the hellhounds by mimicking Cullen’s voice.

“Never even got a thank you either,” said Vivienne, dabbing paste over his nose. “No thanks for saving our asses, Viv and Damon.”

“I was a little busy feeling like my insides were about to burst,” retorted Belmont. “They were just sitting there, celebrating little Timmy’s science fair award. Who knew little Timmy had it in him to almost chew off my leg too? Don’t they have a ghost hospital?”

“This paste is good enough. Give it a few minutes and it’ll be like you were never a dog’s chew toy. You’re lucky the apothecary owner lets me take stuff for free. What, do you wish mommy could see you so she could kiss your wittle boo boos?”

“I don’t understand,” I interrupted, before a fight erupted between them. “They had to have been working for the reaper. That doesn’t—how could they know that you were even there?”

“That leads to problem number two.”

Vivienne headed over to the back door as the paste began to work, healing the numerous cuts on Elena’s face. She gave me a look that said This isn’t your fault, taking my hand in hers despite the pain. A quiet sniffle caught my attention, my eyes leaving her face to see a shy, trembling Abby hiding behind Vivienne’s left leg.

“I went back to the shop to look for any clues, see if maybe it was just a random attack or spurred on by some herb in the tea,” said Damon. He nodded towards the frightened Abby. “She was peering through the window. My theory is that the reaper or someone working for them knew about the family connection and figured out that Elena wasn’t just some ghost.”

Unlike the last time, when her body was scarred by reminders of the car accident, she looked like any normal six year old girl. She kept her face pressed against Vivienne’s leg as I bent down to her.

“Abby, how are you here? I helped you pass on, remember?”

“This is the juicy part.” Vivienne tapped the top of her head. “Go on, Shirley Temple.”

“T—the doggy man and his friend helped me.”

“Doggy?” I asked, certain it was Chief Parker.

“He said I didn’t have to be dead anymore…that nice people could go back and his friend would help me. I wanted mommy and daddy to come too but he said only me first. He brought me to this garden where there were lots of people.”

“Did you see the doggy man’s friend?” She shook her head.

“It was just him and people with their faces covered by hoods. They kind of looked like wizards. The lady next to me said that we were being given a second chance. She wanted payback on her mean boyfriend. I wasn’t supposed to be at the shop. I knew I’d get in trouble again, like when I visited you, but I wanted to see Ellie.”

“Where were you supposed to be, Abby?” She simply shrugged. “How did the doggy man’s friend bring you back?”

“I don’t remember.”

Hearing footsteps outside, I ushered all of them into the closet. My ability to trust was at an all time low. Even Cullen joined my list of suspects, considering he authorized Evans to place Elena and Belmont in the safe house. All I cared about was keeping the small group I did trust safe.

Dr. Baxter stepped into the classroom, his tie hanging loosely over his bare, sculpted chest. He smirked, not caring that he was shirtless in front of a student.

“Well, seems Christmas came early. Santa gave me just what I wanted.”

Being around Damon again had amplified the anger inside me. Fighting the effects, I claimed that I was searching for Chace.

“In my classroom? Is that the best you can come up with, Tessa?”

“It’s the truth,” I said, convincingly. “What’s your lame excuse for being shirtless?”

“Hayley Scott spilled her punch. I keep some extra shirts in the closet and I thought I’d change.”

“I’ll pretend to believe that. I should get back to the dance.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as he seized my arm. His dark eyes passed over my body, sparkling with hunger and lust.

“L—let go.” The closet door creaked open, revealing the top of Damon’s head. “I said let go of me right now.”

“Don’t you want your present?”

“I don’t want anything from you,” I snapped.

“That’s not in the Christmas spirit.”

“Tessa? Hey, here you are. You like disappeared and I was wor—”

Ashlyn appeared in the doorway. Her smile faltered when she noticed a half naked Baxter with his hands on me. It was odd enough that he released my arm but I was more intrigued by the look on his face, as if he had been doused in ice water.

“What the hell is going on? Are you okay?”

“Ashlyn.”

“I’m not talking to you, creep,” she told him, her lip curled in disgust.

She pulled me towards her and away from the tense teacher. I never imagined he would get caught harassing me or another student but considering his usual behavior, I expected him to turn up the charm and come up with some flimsy excuse. It was completely out of character for him to just stand there and take a verbal lashing from someone else, particularly a teenage girl.

“I was talking to my friend. Stay the hell away from her or you’ll be trading in the ties and button down shirts for a prison uniform.”

I took one last look at Baxter before following her to the gym. She muttered to herself about disgusting perverts and entitled pricks.

“Tessa,” she said, concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to tell Claire’s mom about what happened?”

“We’re not uh on the best terms right now and even if we were, she’d probably take his side. I’m fine, really. I’m used to it after four years. I mean, he just started the creepy comments this year but—I’m rambling, aren’t I? I should be thanking you.”

“For being a decent person? Ugh, I can’t imagine what Claire sees in him.” I looked at her, surprised. “I know he’s the super secret older boyfriend. She tried to be all cryptic but I’m not an idiot. Judging by that face, neither are you.”

“Chace told me awhile ago. Have you two met before?”

“No. Robbie was probably talking about me to his friends so I bet that perv has some alarm that goes off in his head every time someone mentions an underage girl.”

As Principal Hilton walked onto the stage, silencing the DJ with a curt nod, Elena, Belmont, and Abby popped up on either side of me. I waited until Ashlyn and Amy were distracted by their dates before looking at Elena.

“What took you so long?”

Damon apparently was not fond of Baxter or his unwanted advances. They had been waiting for Baxter to leave the classroom but instead, he went over to his desk where he had a photo album with pictures of me and even a cardigan I had lost in the park last year. My brother, protective as ever, flew into a rage and was only refrained from attacking Baxter thanks to Vivienne, Elena, and Belmont pinning him to the floor.

“Did Baxter do anything e—what’s happening?” Damon, joined by a now disguised Vivienne (her red lace mask matching her short, revealing dress), placed his suit jacket around my shoulders. “Seriously?”

“You looked cold.”

“Now isn’t the time for the big brother routine. We’re here to find the reaper, not for you to beat up Billy for asking me to get milkshakes after the dance.”

“Who the hell is Billy?” Vivienne rolled her eyes at my sarcasm flying over his head. “What, is he the janitor?”

“There is no—you two shouldn’t even be in here. If Cullen recognizes you, you’re dead, maybe literally.”

Cullen and his guard had blended in so well that I could not even spot them in the large crowd. I tensed up at the other students passing glances at me, unsure if it was mere coincidence or they were skin-walkers in disguise.

“Viv?”

Rhys and Bradley, both dressed in suits like their father, walked towards us. The youngest Belmont was entertaining himself with a handful of blue frosted cupcakes.

“What are you doing here?” Rhys asked, pecking her on the cheek. “Not that I mind. I mean, you look—wow.”

“I know you thought it was best if I didn’t join you for the speech but I wanted to be here for support,” she said, tracing small circles on his chest. “Besides, I missed my little bicho.”

Damon failed to stifle his laughter, catching Rhys’s attention. Always the expert liar, Vivienne introduced him as my date.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing better, Tessa. That day was…intense, to say the least.” Principal Hilton quieted the crowd. “We should get going. I’ll find you after the speech, babe.”

“Bye,” said Bradley, with a blue-lipped smile.

He held out one of the cupcakes between me and Damon. As Damon grabbed the cupcake, he looked upset but said nothing, joining Rhys and the rest of his family on the side of the stage where Amy was speaking with Mrs. Belmont, a microphone in her hand.

I glanced back at the spot where the cupcake had been moments ago. Besides the thin, empty space between me and my brother stuffing his face, there was just Abby, who was attempting to catch the fake snow with Elena’s help.

“What are you even still doing with my brother?” asked Belmont, clenching his fists. “You’re obviously not into him.”

“Every girl has their needs, little boy. Your brother gets the job done…sometimes.”

“So you’re just using him for sex?”

“Oh, you are the last person to judge me for such a thing. At least I don’t take advantage of unconscious girls to get some action.”

Their argument was drowned out by Amy singing a song in Belmont’s memory. “What’s her deal?”

My brother’s voice broke me out of my own swirling thoughts. He picked bits of cupcake out of the wrapper, his eyes on the talented Amy.

“She’s an amazing singer…and she could see Evans but she can’t see ghosts.”

“Sure about that?”

“She was friends with both of them,” I said, indicating Elena, enjoying her time with her little sister, and Belmont, threatening Vivienne for toying with his own sibling. “Pretty sure she’d freak out if she saw them in the middle of class.”

“With that voice, definitely not human,” he agreed, listening to her hold a high note for what felt like an hour.

The crowd erupted into claps and cheers when she finished her song and she waved before handing the microphone to Mrs. Belmont. She began a long speech about her ‘darling Fin’ and how much he adored the school, its students, and its teachers.

“Fin’s death was more than just a tragic passing. It was a reminder, a reminder that death can happen at any moment and while we may grieve, it is what we do after that matters. We can either shut ourselves away from the world or try to make it better. Perhaps his death wasn’t an accident.”

“What?” said Belmont, among the quiet, surprised murmurs in the crowd. “I—is she serious?”

“Katrina,” his father whispered, gripping her arm.

Mrs. Belmont sniffled. “I don’t mean any foul play of course. What a horrible thing to think, that one of our own would take the life of such a promising young boy. Could it have been prevented? Of course. I shouldn’t have let him go out that night but I didn’t want him to deny him time with his friends and maybe that was my mistake. Maybe I was too trusting and this was my lesson, to see that things need to change. The world may not be perfect but with this, I hope we get one step closer. We—forgive me…I promised myself I’d get through this.”

Mr. Belmont took the microphone from his shaken wife. “It’s alright, dear.” He cleared his throat as she stood beside Rhys, holding back tears. “As my lovely wife was saying, we have decided to use Fin’s death as an opportunity, to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. That is why my company has devised the Finley Belmont foundation. It will work towards—”

Abby hunched forward, coughing violently. She soon fell to her knees, holding onto a frightened Elena for support, a mixture of blood and sweat dripping from her pink lips.

“Abby, what’s wrong? Whatever you two are doing, stop it,” Elena pleaded, her teary eyes on Vivienne and Damon.

“We’re not doing anything,” assured Damon, just as confused by the sudden illness. “Tessa, I swear we’re not doing this. We don’t have any reason to hurt her. She was around us for hours and nothing happened. This isn’t the potion from Erinyes. Something else is doing it. Tessa, you have to believe me.”

“Daddy, stop!” Mr. Belmont was about to reprimanded his youngest son for interrupting his speech. “She looks really sick. I think she needs the hospital.”

Before a single head turned, I dropped to my knees and imitated Abby. The impression was a little too good, considering my brother, Vivienne, Belmont, and Elena lost their minds. Unable to stop the performance, even for a second, I purposely hid Abby beneath me, continuing to mimic her symptoms. Parker pushed through the crowd, joining Elena and the others on the floor. He was too concerned with me to acknowledge Abby, who looked worse by the minute.

“Get the hell out of here before I neuter you myself,” threatened Damon. “Aren’t you supposed to stay away from my sister?”

“Sis—I don’t care. Tessa, what happened?”

“He—can—see—Abby,” I whispered, between retching sounds.

Their eyes flickered to Bradley jumping down from the stage. He was clearly running towards us, specifically a ghostly pale Abby.

“No, he’s looking at you,” said Belmont, shaking his head. “She’s still a ghost. She’s not—solid. People can’t see people who can walk through walls.”

Parker lifted me up up from the floor, his arm around my waist. “Heh, she wasn’t feeling well at all today but she still decided to come. What a trooper, huh? I’ll just take her out so she can lie down. Keep it up, Mr. B. Awesome speech. Really tugs at the heart.”

“Come on, Abby. We’ll get you help,” said Elena.

She retracted her hand as Abby snapped at her, growling like a rabid dog. With another cough, a river of dark blood poured out of her mouth and from the never-ending flow, gnarled fingers slipped through her lips.

“What the fu—”

Vivienne was cut off by a loud pop, the gym plunged into complete darkness. Some of the lights returned, thanks to the electric sparks bouncing from Li’s fingers, revealing the Belmonts were not alone on the stage. A dozen sluagh slithered behind them and as one let out a guttural roar in Rosalie’s ear, she cried out in fright. The gym dissolved into utter chaos, everyone somehow able to see the creatures, and admist the screams, I heard Cullen shout for his guards.

Tala, shifting from an oddly calm Mr. Simpson, fought off two sluagh at once, a tomahawk in each hand. While others, including Li and Evani, joined the fight against the growing number of creatures, a few hellhounds added into the mix, some attempted to usher the terrified students and teachers out of the gym. The only problem was that all the school doors had been magically sealed.

“Tessa!”  

Cullen and Evans rushed over, relieved to see me unharmed. They stiffened at the sight of Damon and Vivienne, neither able to hide amongst the crowd.

“How are you out?” Evans asked, his eyes narrowed at an anxious Damon.

“Do I know you? You look like this pompous jerk who used to—”

“Enough!” Cullen’s raised voice silenced my brother. “Any other time, we would be having a very different conversation. You want to prove that you deserved to be released? Then do as you are meant to as a reaper and help me protect these people. Show the council that you’re more than your mistakes. The same for you, Vivienne. Once this is over, we’ll be having a long chat.”

“What do you want us to do?” I asked, my earlier fears a thing of the past.

“Help get those doors open. This spell is far too intricate to be done from afar. Perhaps Elena and Fin could slip through the walls and find whoever is casting it and once it’s down, you’ll guide these people to safety. We’ll handle the sluagh.”

With a flick of his wrist, a silver spiked whip materialized in his hand. He swung the whip over his head and it wrapped around the neck of a sluagh cornering two freshman boys. With a single snap, the sluagh disintegrated into a pile of ash. I watched in awe as the two men, Evans armed with a longsword, sliced through the dangerous creatures like cutting a piece of cake.

“Tessa, Abby’s gone!”

A pile of dried blood remained where the vomiting Abby had once been. I cupped Elena’s face as she began to hyperventilate, thinking the sluagh had taken her.

“It’s okay,” I said, brushing her tears away. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”

“I think we have more important matters than a missing ghost,” said Damon, dismissively.

“Can you not be an asshole right now?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. We’re in the middle of chaos here and you want to care about some ghost. Priorities, little sister.”

“Fine. You three go look for whoever’s casting the spell and stop them in a non-violent way and we’ll look for Abby. She has to be somewhere in the school.”

“Three?” asked Parker, looking warily at the two reapers. “Tessa, I’m sure they can handle—”
“You have better senses than any of us. I’m sure you’ll sniff out the bad guy in two seconds and then once the spell is lifted, you can help us find Abby. We don’t have time to argue. The sluagh keep coming and Cullen can only hold them off for so long.”

“Let’s go, Lassie,” said Damon, shoving him towards the gym doors.

We searched through every classroom for any sign of the little blonde girl but she seemed to vanish into thin air. Elena and I were the only ones concerned with her disappearance, Belmont wanting to instead find his family. He refused to believe that Bradley was able to see Abby and no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise, it was the truth.

Elena suggested searching the cafeteria, due to Abby’s love of chocolate milk. She tore apart the kitchens, throwing pots, pans, and cardboard boxes in every direction.

“How could he see her, Byrne? It’s not possible,” he said, dodging a flying box of macaroni.

“Honestly, I don’t know.” I kept my real thoughts to myself. “But he did. I only pretended to be sick so people didn’t see him talking to nothing. Can we focus on Abby, please? She didn’t just run off. She was coughing up all that blood and something—”

My voice caught in my throat as a large shadow fell over the counter. Chief Parker was leaning against the doorway, two burly men (the local butcher and a fellow officer) behind him. It was unsettling to see him outside his uniform and in a regular suit. I was suddenly alone, trapped with three hellhounds.  

“Don’t you watch movies, Tessa? It’s never good to split up.”

“I—I’m not afraid of you,” I said, grabbing a knife from the counter.  

“Y—you’re n—not?” he mocked. The men sniggered as he stepped into the room. “Well, you shouldn’t be. I have strict orders not to harm a hair on your head. Can’t say the same for your friends though. They learned that earlier today.”

“If you touch either of them, I’ll end you. Where’s your boss, huh? Too scared to show their face?”

“I’ve never been one to get scared.”

Hilton appeared in front of me, her ice blue eyes glinting with malice. Before I could comprehend what happened, she snatched the knife and pressed it against my throat.

“I thought this form was fitting. Don’t you agree, Tessa?”

“Do you really think you’re so tough, scaring a bunch of high school kids?”

“Oh, we’re not here to scare them. We’re here to prove a point, that fighting is useless. This fight has been over from the beginning, before it even began. Tonight was a taste. Soon, the rift between the worlds will be severed and my lovely followers will roam free.”

“Cullen will stop you.”

“That fool? He can try but it’ll be for nothing. Yes, we want the world to burn but that’s what’s necessary for change, to make it better. You’re part of that solution.”

“Funny,” I said, my hand feeling warm. “I didn’t sign up for that. What’s so special about me and my brother?”

“Not a thing,” she replied, with a high-pitched giggle. “You’re not special at all. You never have been, not as a reaper, certainly not as a person. You’re a grain of sand, a mere speck, just like everyone else. The only reason you have any value is because of your family. You see, they destroyed me and now I get to return the favor, piece by piece. I ripped apart your grandparents, turned your grandmother into a helpless old woman…but that was only the start. With you, I get to have it all. I watch everything they fought for crumble: the council, their sweet little family…and in the end, I’ll be on top while you all burn for ete—”

She staggered backwards but instead of my fist, a thin, curved saber struck her pale cheek. The skin around the tip of the blade crumbled, a glimpse of a scarred face beneath Hilton’s rosy complexion. Tearing the sword from her cheek, she cried out in pain, her fingers blistering as if the blade was scorching hot. It reappeared in my hand, a series of inscriptions on the handle.

“Don’t!” she screeched, stopping the men from advancing on me.

She snapped her fingers and a swirling black hole formed in the freezer. At first, it was nothing but darkness and then I could see the gym, my brother and my friends protecting kids from the sluagh. Parker whacked one of hem in the face with a chair,  Ashlyn and Amy hiding under a table.

“Kill them all.” She flashed me a sadistic smile. “Maybe watching your life get torn away will convince you. Start with Damon, Caleb.”

“NO!”

I tackled the fake Hilton through the black hole, smacking into the gym floor. Several of my own classmates were cowering in the corner, their injuries being tended to by Cullen’s guard. Vivienne was among the wounded, a bloody hand clutching her side. Only one thing on my mind, I swung the sword in hopes of slicing her in half. She easily dodged each swing, cackling at my desperation.

“Make them stop,” I said, nearly striking her shoulder. “Make them leave. You made your point. Leave!”

“Why would I? Isn’t this fun? Look at them, shaking and scared. How pathetic these humans are, aren’t they? Why protect them?”

“Because it’s what we do.”

“Your grandmother isn’t the only one who’s blind. Don’t you get tired of it, Tessa?” She dodged another swing. “Being the good little girl, caring about their feelings. It’s alright to admit it. I got tired of it long ago.”

“They haven’t done anything to you.”

“They exist, that’s enough.” The sluagh and hellhounds now turned their attention on me, to protect their ‘leader’. “These humans are insignificant little things. We’d be better off without their constant whining. One snap of my fingers and my followers will tear them apart. Would you like to see?”

“STOP!”

The sword vibrated in my hand, a golden glow surrounding the blade. Beneath me, the floor shook, like a miniature earthquake, and a beam of golden light shot out of the sword, destroying one of the sluagh. The reaper frowned at the charred remains.

“You should’ve submitted when you had the chance. This isn’t over. Now the fun will begin.”

Another black hole formed in the gym floor, sweeping up her and her followers. Damon stopped me from jumping into the hole myself, my legs dangling in the air. In a split second, it disappeared, leaving nothing but a floor littered with confetti and fake snow. The sword did the same, no longer in my hands.

“Not how I saw this night going at all.” He easily fought against my struggling. “We’re not here for a suicide mission.”

Everyone was staring at their two dead classmates. The Belmonts, hiding by the bleachers, forgot about the horrors of the past few minutes, only caring about their fallen member. Rosalie, showing emotion for the first time, wrapped her arms around his neck. Her words were muffled as she buried her face into his shoulder but they vaguely sounded like “I’m sorry, Fin”.

Belmont was startled by his sister’s open affection. At the same time, he appreciated just being able to see his family again, especially his mother, bombarding him with kisses.

“F—Fin? E—Ellie?” asked Amy, reaching out to touch Elena’s arm. “W—what’s going on? How are you—you died and—why did Tessa—those creepy monsters—you both died.”

“What the hell are you?” Danvers said to Parker, who had clearly turned into a hellhound during the fight.

Their questions were left unanswered, thanks to some movement from the pile of ashes. Abby emerged, her dress torn and blood around her lips and fingers. Elena crushed her small frame and kissed the top of her head.

“Abby, you’re okay. Where did you go? I was so scared. I thought I’d never see you again.”

The guard, all holding their weapons, faced the pair, some, like Evani, anxious. Sharing a solemn glance with Evans, Cullen nodded and advanced towards the sisters, retrieving a jagged dagger from his pocket. Putting two and two together, I slipped out of Damon’s grasp and moved in front of them, just as Cullen raised the dagger. Elena scooped Abby up into her arms, shielding her from view.

“Tessa, it’s what needs to be done,” he insisted, refusing to look me in the eye. “You were right about the sluagh. This is how they have been getting across from the Underworld. It’s a vessel without realizing it. It has no control.”

“Her name is Abby.”

“Tessa.”

“I want you to say it. Her name is Abby. She is not an it. She’s a person, a little girl.”

“It isn’t that simple and you know it.”

“Actually, it is and if you want to get to her, you’ll have to kill me first.” His grip tightened on the dagger. “You said you wanted to be better than the ones before you, Cedric. Your father probably would’ve slit her throat without a second thought, probably mine too, right? Then be better. Don’t just look at her as some hopeless cause. Find a way to fix it.”

“Cedric, there’s only one way,” said Evans. “Put it out of its misery. Better to be gone from existence than to serve that abomination.”

Cullen looked from his own men, insistent on eliminating the threat, to Elena, silently begging him. He hesitated before lowering the dagger.

“Evans, take care of this whole mess. Li, you’ll take Abby to the main chambers. The rest of you, continue your searching. No stone left unturned.”

His eyes finally met mine, his expression indescribable. Was it relief? Pity? Fear?  

“Come with me.”

A hole formed in the gym doors and with a deep breath, I followed him through the swirling white light.


Submitted: September 15, 2017

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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