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The bright light faded, revealing a lavish office, its white decor reflecting the council’s obsession with innocence and purity. Unsure if Cullen was trustworthy, considering he had been seconds from murdering my best friend’s little sister, my eyes darted around the room in search of any objects to use as potential weapons, including a collection of vintage guitars, a bookcase filled to the brim with ancient tomes, dozens of strange instruments, and a silver globe depicting much more than seven continents.

Thousands of portraits decorated a wall, including one of Cullen himself.

“Past Grand Masters,” he said, retrieving two glasses and a bottle of scotch from a cabinet before slumping into his cushy chair. “They’re taken the moment you’re given the title. Mine happened to be mere hours after my father’s death. You wouldn’t know it by that smile.”

He poured scotch into both glasses and pushed one towards me. My hardened gaze and crossed arms were enough of a hint that I was in no mood for a drink.

“More for me, then.”

“Is this really the time to be drinking?” I asked, watching the scotch reach the rim of his glass.

“I don’t usually partake but in cases like these, I make an exception.” He took a long, deep swig. “When I first started as Grand Master, I told myself that I would do better than my predecessors, never make their same mistakes...and yet I did when it comes to you. I haven’t been completely honest.”

“About what?”

“When I visited your home, I thought I wouldn’t find much. Perhaps conspiracy theories scribbled on a piece of paper or blurry photos of what you assumed to be a dangerous monster. Things that could be easily discredited because I was hoping you were wrong. I wanted to believe that under my reign, there was peace but that blissful ignorance is what’s caused all this. I knew it was a possibility and I turned a blind eye to not just you, but to Damon as well, to maintain the illusion.”

Once again avoiding my gaze, he revealed that he had paid Damon a visit, shortly after becoming the Grand Master. He expected to find another Vivienne, a remorseless soul, completely devoid of emotion, but instead, he met a teary-eyed, ten year old boy, begging for his family and covering his ears to quiet the voices in his head, something the doctors considered a sign of madness.

“I’ve always known your brother was innocent, Tessa...that someone else was pulling the strings. That day we met, I could’ve released him but my own cowardice made me keep him institutionalized all these years.”

Hearing his confession, my heart was torn. Half of me was crestfallen at the idea of my once hero being no better than the scum who tortured my brother on a daily basis, partially thanks to him. He knew that Damon did not belong in Erinyes yet kept him trapped like a rat in a cage, away from his family. The other half of me wanted to clobber him with one of his fancy guitars.

Cullen stared at me as if he could feel my anger. He remained silent, waiting for me to say or do something.

“I thought it was best for him to remain there.”
His words shook me out of my stupor. Years of pent-up anger bubbled to the surface.

“Best?” I asked, incredulously. “How was it best for him to be locked in a cell for years? To be kept away from his family? Do you know how much it killed my parents to put him in there? Her crying every night, holding his teddy bear, and my dad barely keeping it together but having to because someone needed to be brave, to make sure the rest of us didn’t fall apart? How much they tried to prove that he wasn’t a monster, how much they hated keeping me away from him because they were afraid he would go for a round two?”

“Tessa—”

“My parents had to erase every trace of him!” I shouted, my eyes blazing. “He had to be cut out of pictures! His stuff was put in boxes that we keep in a storage unit miles away from the house! And you know why? Because it’s easier to do that than tell Ryan the truth! How do you explain any of it to a little kid? But you don’t care about that, right? You don’t care that my family’s had a hole in it all these years…or how much I try not to slip in front of him.”

I swallowed hard, my hands trembling. It only angered me more that Cullen continued to sit silently behind his desk, not even attempting to defend himself.

“All that matters is your stupid reputation! Well guess what?! Your so-called reign of peace is a lie! It’s built on the lives of people whose lives have been destroyed because of you!”

“I never claimed to be perfect,” he said, his poor attempt at an apology. “I make mistakes, just like anyone else, but my mistakes tend to have greater consequences. When I met your brother, I recognized the signs immediately. I had seen them countless times before in the records room. It’s where the council stores all of our history. There are bookshelves that seem to extend to the heavens with trial transcripts and orbs containing memories from witnesses, the accused, council members…”

“Great. Do you have one of those orbs? You can add a memory of me calling you an arrogant prick.”

“I would spend hours in that room as a boy. It allowed me to hear about all sorts of history, the good and the bad. There’s a reason this reaper seems so much more dangerous, able to slip out of our grasp so easily, have such a sway over the hellhounds and sluagh, do things that other reapers think are impossible…they’re one of the original reapers.”

My mother told me this story many nights as a child. Hades, the god of the underworld, tasked his daughters to train as the first reapers, to help guide recently departed souls to their rightful place. They were meant to make the transition from life to death easier, whether that was to an afterlife or remaining as a ghost.

As violence and death grew in the world, Hades knew it was too much for just his daughters to handle and that was how the reapers were created, by the powerful god bestowing their same abilities to a chosen few.

Cullen beckoned me over to the bookcase. As he pulled out a thin red book on the shelf, the bookcase moved aside, uncovering a passageway. Elaborate paintings adorned the walls, depicting what looked like reaper history. I hesitated to follow him, until my curiosity got the better of me.

He indicated a painting to the right of a man, woman, and two teenage girls, all who looked ethereally beautiful. The younger girl stood out among the others, with her waist-length ebony hair and impossibly blue eyes, not resembling either parent except for her mother’s shared button nose.

Her sister could not be more different, her golden blonde hair cascading down her shoulders in ringlets and rosy cheeks giving her the appearance of an angel. The more I gazed at the painting, I could not shake the feeling that she looked strangely familiar.

“This is Melinoe’s doing.” Cullen pointed to the younger girl. “What happened with Damon isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s her trademark, inducing madness and chaos. I listened to testimony from her victims over and over, how her voice in their head drove them insane, to do terrible things. She enjoyed terrorizing children the most, corrupting their innocence.”

“But why would she want to hurt any of us? We’re just like her.”

“That’s exactly why, Tessa. You see, Melinoe was born out of tragedy, a bit of drama between gods. Her father is—”

“Zeus. I pay attention in class. What does that have to do with us?”

“Isn’t it clear by the painting? There’s barely any trace of her parents in her. She resembles Zeus more than either of them, making it all the more obvious that she is not Hades’s daughter. He raised her as his own, of course, loved her just the same but to her, it wasn’t. When she learned the truth about her parentage, she grew resentful and that only grew when he decided to bestow his gifts onto others, those outside his bloodline. Melinoe despised humanity and didn’t think we were worthy of such power. She already had to compete with one beloved sister and to compete with all these others, it didn’t sit well with her.”

Cullen continued down the passageway, giving me a short history lesson. He explained that over time, as the legacy of the reaper extended to other cultures, Melinoe began to act out, like a typical rebellious teenager, though most would settle for wearing all black or sneaking out in the middle of the night. It started small, such as interfering with a soul’s transition to becoming a ghost, leaving them split in half and in agonizing pain, and putting the blame on the reaper.

When that became unsatisfying, she turned the rebellion dial up to eleven and started murdering her fellow reapers. She managed to evade detection for centuries, always making the death look like a tragic accident, until one day, the truth was discovered by a young reaper, a girl who stopped Melinoe in the midst of killing a council member.

Hades, horrified by the news, hoped that she could change her ways but she refused, unless he took back his gifts from all reapers. She accused of him caring more about the ‘pathetic mortals’ than her, seeing them as his own children.

The explosive argument between them led to her banishment from the Underworld and, stripped of her abilities and no longer revered as a goddess, she was left to walk the Earth, as a mortal.

“So we’re dealing with a psycho ex-goddess. What does that have to do with Damon?”

“The reaper who exposed her was your grandmother. Your great-grandfather was the one being attacked. He was on his way to a council meeting, one that would decide the next Grand Master. He was the popular choice but not the one Melinoe wanted. You see, while she was hiding her activities, she was amassing her own following, reapers who wanted more power, ones who would do her bidding. Your great-grandfather could not be manipulated and if he was chosen, it would impede her work.”

“She never said—”

“Sometimes, we wish to bury the past. I imagine it’s difficult for her. There were several trials, meetings about what to do about the situation, and seeing as she was a key witness, she was there for all of it. It was a lot for a sixteen year old girl to handle. She received high praise from the council and Hades as well but it also put an enormous target on her back.”

“D—did she—“

Cullen nodded gravely. “Vengeance for your grandmother ruining her plans. Only the highest ranking members of the council knew the truth. My father kept it quiet, at her request. The same with your grandfather’s death, which was deemed natural causes. Your mother was much like you at your age. If she knew the truth, she would’ve gone after Melinoe herself.”

“That’s what she meant back at the school. That’s why she went after me and Damon…because of what our grandmother did.”

“That’s not the only reason.”

He pressed his finger against the wall, moving it in a rectangular shape. A thin golden line followed his finger across the smooth stone and as he reached the starting point, a door appeared. The same phrase was written all over the polished wood, in different languages. I did not have time to try deciphering a single word before Cullen opened the door.

“Ladies first.”

I stepped into what could only be described as a bizarre museum exhibit. Instead of paintings and sculptures, the room was filled with all sorts of objects, mainly weapons. In front of each object was a placard, describing its origins. Cullen stood by the door as I explored the massive room, feeling like a kid in a candy store.

“Ouch!”

I retracted my hand from a sword claiming to be Excalibur. The second I touched the blade, it burned my skin. It happened with each item I attempted to touch and after the tenth time, I decided it was best to observe.

“Do you see the pattern yet?”

He picked up a spiked whip, turning it in his hands. I recognized it as the same one he used to destroy sluagh in the gym.

“Only the Grand Master can use them.”

“Not quite. Does this one look familiar?”

I followed him over to a collection of swords. In the center was the saber that had appeared in my hands. He placed his index finger on the hilt but then winced, shaking out his hand.

“The same thing happened to her. It was lodged in her cheek and when she touched it, she got burned…but I didn’t. It was we—what the hell are you doing?”

Cullen grabbed the saber from its stand, holding his breath, and tossed it towards me. Out of instinct, more like panic, I caught it, expecting to burst into flames or worse, but nothing happened.

He held up the whip with his uninjured hand. “This belonged to Ogmios, a Celtic deity. He once did as we do, ferrying souls to the afterlife. All these objects are artifacts of the gods, Tessa. Only their descendants, those they deem worthy, can wield their weapons. That sword in your hand belonged to your ancestor. A fitting middle name your parents gave you.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because her plans didn’t become clear until tonight. She wants us eradicated, yes, but she also wants to punish someone else, the man whose approval she sought ever since she was a little girl. She wants to sever the divide between worlds, to gain dominion over those she sees as inferior and prove her father wrong. She wants to prove that these mortals he cares for, gifted with such power, do not deserve it. What better way than to show how weak they are, when they are subjugated to her rule.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“The gods created the barrier between the worlds. It’s strong magic, stronger than any one god to break it down. Why do you think we don’t allow twin reapers? That we force parents to go through the loss of one of their own? Because together, their power is too great to control. The power of twin reapers with the blood of the gods running through their veins? That is why Melinoe is interested in you and Damon and that is why I kept you apart.”

My heart beating as fast as a hummingbird’s, I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall.

9:40 PM.

Each tick sounded louder than the last. Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down. Last summer, I had been worried about senior year and colleges and now, my life was in danger from a goddess with a personal vendetta against my family.

“S—so if she gets us, she could make us tear down the barrier.”

My fingers curled around the hilt of the saber, my knuckles turning white. At that moment, the answer to the problem seemed clear as day.

“Yes,” said Cullen, solemnly. “But that is not going to happen. We are going to find a way to stop her. We will work tirelessly, night and day, until—Tessa, stop!”

The whip wrapped around the hilt, the blade inches from my own heart. With one tug, the saber was sent flying across the room. He looked at me as if a facehugger burst from my chest.

“Have you lost your mind?!”

“How else are we supposed to stop her, Cedric?! She’s a god! You say she lost her abilities but somehow, she still has them but you don’t know how, right? What’s your plan? How much time are you going to waste looking for the solution when there is one right in front of you? If taking me out prevents her from unleashing hell on Earth, I’m willing to make that sacrifice to stop anyone else from dying!”

“Tessa—”

“Look at what happened tonight!” I said, tears in my eyes. “You don’t even know what she looks like right now so what’s your next move? You can stop her plans here and now. Please just do it.”
“Completely out of the question,” he insisted, shaking his head. “You’ve barely begun your life. I will never consider that an option, for you or your brother.”

With a snap of his fingers, the whip and saber returned to their stands. He avoided my gaze once more.

“I’ll take you home. We have much to discuss with your parents.”

I was barely through the door when I was pulled into a bone-crushing embrace. My mother kissed every inch of my face, speaking a mile a minute, before burying my head into her shoulder.

“Oh sweetheart, we were so worried.” She spotted Cullen on the porch. “Liam’s already here. Come in, come in. Would you like some tea?”

“That would be lovely, Kala. Thank you.”

Walking into the living room, I stumbled onto the strangest sight. Damon was sitting on the couch, staring at the dark blue carpet as my father bandaged his wrist. He tensed up at the slightest touch until my father’s hushed whispers (“It’s okay. You’re safe.”) relaxed him.

My grandmother was sitting on the other side of him, rubbing a spot of dirt from his cheek while Purrsephone rested in her lap. Elena, Belmont, Vivienne, and Parker awkwardly stood by the window, under the harsh gaze of Evans.

“Always one step ahead,” said Cullen, with a grin. “Thank you for bringing them, Liam. Any news from Li?”

His eyes flickered over to a hopeful Elena. “She just sent a message through the fire. They’re working on removing the creature from the girl. It’s not an easy process.”

“But one that Abby will undoubtedly survive and then perhaps we can find a way to rescue the other lost souls and put an end to this madness.”

The tiniest scoff escaped my lips. My father frowned slightly, sensing that something was wrong. He shifted on the couch, making room for me, but I stayed by the doorway, my head down.

“The kids told us the gist of what happened,” my mother said, her eyes passing over me as she handed Cullen a cup of tea. “But I assume there’s more to it than Claire Hilton suddenly losing her mind and attempting to kill her classmates.”

“Much more.” He settled himself in the armchair next to my grandmother. “I’m afraid what we feared is true, Indira.”

The next half hour played out exactly as I imagined though my grandmother’s version of events contained many more violent details. My mother was seconds from a heart attack, her hand clasped over her mouth as my grandmother revealed the truth behind her blindness. Damon had his eyes shut tightly the entire time, not wanting to relive Melinoe’s taunting voice in his head and also likely resisting the urge to punch Cullen for leaving him in Erinyes.

My father went into overprotective mode, planning to seal the house like a fortress and never let anyone leave the house again. The others were simply dumbfounded by the idea of a goddess being the culprit, not some ordinary reaper. Parker, the first to break the uncomfortable silence, questioned how Melinoe regained her abilities.  

“She’s siphoning it,” said Vivienne, as if the answer was obvious. “I read about it in one of books Carmen gave me. It’s an easy potion. The reaper drinks it and then with just a touch, she can take their power.”

“We would notice if reapers suddenly lost their abilities,” argued Evans.

“Would you? Do you go door to door, asking every reaper in the world how they’re doing?” The sarcasm dripped from her every word. “I didn’t realize you were so hands-on.”

“It is a possibility.”

He looked at Cullen, stunned. The last thing he expected was the Grand Master agreeing with a former prisoner.

“For all we know, she’s amassed a following of reapers and they’re more than willing to give up their gifts for her cause. Who knows what she could promise them?”

“Do you have a plan?” my father, who had not lifted his hand from Damon’s the entire time, asked. “A way to imprison her or something more permanent?”

“It’ll take time, I’m afraid, Devlin. Convincing the council that Melinoe’s returned will be hard enough. No one wants to deal with that chaos again. I’m hoping Hades will provide us with some assistance but contact with the gods is limited.”

“So instead of going with a solution that’ll take two seconds…” I raised my voice when he began to interrupt. “We’re gonna wait for a god who you maybe can’t even talk to?”

“Tessa, please.”

“Hey, Byrne’s really smart,” said Belmont. “If she has a better idea, why don’t you hear her out?”

“She can’t break down the barrier without me and Damon so if we remove one of us from that equation, the problem is solved. I already told you that I’ll volunteer.”

My suggestion was immediately met with outrage. Their voices overlapped, all calling my plan foolish in their own way. My grandmother sat in silence, scratching Purrsephone behind the ear. Part of me wondered if she agreed with the plan, knowing it was the best option.

“You are not dying, Tessa. End of discussion.”

“Mom—”

My mother suddenly looked like an angry tiger as she rounded on an uneasy Cullen. Only she could get away with calling such an important person ‘thick in the head’ and ‘a brainless buffoon’. My father attempted to calm her down but decided otherwise at the sight of her cheeks swelling, a sign that she was far from done. He soon joined in himself, questioning why Cullen would place such a burden on my shoulders.

“Dad, it wasn’t his idea. It was mine,” I argued, wanting this long, grueling night to end. “Am I the only one thinking rationally here?”
“We have very different ideas of what rational means,” said Vivienne, siding with my parents for the first time. “Rational isn’t sacrificing yourself. This problem isn’t yours to fix, Tessa. It’s time for his grand highness and his incompetent monkeys to get off their asses and do something.”

“This is exactly why I just wanted Cullen to get it over with back in his office. The only way to stop her is—”

“You were just gonna leave?”

It took all my courage to look Elena in the eyes. Admittedly, I had been focused on stopping Melinoe, no matter the cost or how it would affect those closest to me. That thought hit me like a truck after hearing those few words from her.  

“No goodbye or anything? What was the plan, for him to walk through the door with your dead body while we all waited for you, no idea of where you went or if you were even coming back? How could you even—”

Her voice hitched in her throat. She vanished through the wall and I hurried out the front door,  despite my mother and Cullen’s protests. Knowing her like the back of my hand, I climbed up the tree outside my bedroom window, finding her on one of the branches with her head between her knees.

“That was fast,” she mumbled.

“You always come up here when you’re upset. After your grandmother died, when you saw Belmont kissing Kelsey Cooper at your thirteenth birthday party, first day you became a ghost...El, you know I would come back, right?”

“What if you couldn’t?” The question caught me by surprise. “What if you have to move on or worse so she can’t get her hands on you? She was able to get Abby. What would stop her from doing the same with you unless you were destroyed completely?”

“I didn’t—okay, so I didn’t think this through but how else are we supposed to stop her? We can’t let her win. She already killed Belmont and half our school could’ve been next. I’m not thrilled about dying but you know this plan will work. The sooner we all agree—”

“No.”  Elena’s response was blunt. “I won’t agree to any plan that involves you dying.”

“El—”

“You know, everyone thinks I didn’t pass on with my family because I was afraid or some selfish brat who didn’t want to believe I was dead. I was afraid but it was because of you.”

She lifted her head, tears trickling down her tanned face.

“I didn’t want to go because it would mean leaving you. I don’t want to be in a world where you’re not with me. That’s why I didn’t care when I chose to stay behind. I mean, I miss my family more than anything but the thought of never seeing you would feel like dying all over again.”

I wondered if this was all a very vivid dream. Maybe I was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, the past hour nothing more than my imagination. I had imagined this moment a million times since the seventh grade but instead of Elena, the peppy, popular cheerleader adored by everyone, the words came from me.

“It’s why I disappeared after Chief Parker attacked us in the woods and you were comforting Vivienne. I knew there was something between you two and it seemed like those feelings were coming back. I’m nothing like her. She’s this tough girl who understands you in a way I can’t and it’s just like she said. She was there for you when I was too scared to ruin my stupid reputation. Just like I’ve always been too scared to—”

Elena was silenced by my lips gently pressing against hers and suddenly, it felt like thousands of fireworks burst inside my chest. Had Cullen not stopped me from driving the saber into my heart and this was my paradise? I knew it was real when my fingers grazed over the sliver of bare skin between her cashmere sweater and plaid skirt, her quiet giggle causing me to smile.

Two days had passed since that night and the kiss remained a secret. My house had turned into a miniature prison, our every action monitored by Cullen’s guards. I could barely get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water without having a knife to my throat, only lowered once I confirmed my identity.

Cullen had the best protective enchantments placed on the house, in case Melinoe attempted another attack. It was strong enough to keep Elena and Belmont from vanishing without permission from a guard, making it difficult for them to hear about strange occurrences among the other ghosts.

Evans became a permanent fixture, keeping a close eye on me and Damon. With Cullen busy tracking Melinoe, I told him about Bradley’s odd behavior at the dance but he dismissed it as a crack between the worlds. He reminded me that the sluagh, hellhounds, and ghosts became visible to all the ‘mere mortals’, not just the youngest Belmont.

“Hey!”

A nerf dart struck my shoulder as I hung ornaments on the tree. I blocked another dart from hitting me in the face and chucked it back at Damon, who was laughing alongside my brother.

The morning after the school attack was an awkward mess. My parents, fearing Ryan’s reaction to Damon, made all of his favorites for breakfast and my mother even offered to let him play one of his zombie games. After giving him a very watered down version of Damon’s absence for the past ten years, they prepared for a lot of questions or a tantrum but in less than five minutes, it felt as if Damon had always been part of the family.

“You know, if these decorations aren’t finished, Santa won’t come tonight with presents.”

Tossing his nerf gun onto the couch, he rifled through the box of ornaments. Damon rolled his eyes.

“Really? We were just getting into—” A dart struck his cheek. “Wh—nana, that’s not fair. You know I can’t fight back or mom will wring my neck.”

With a mischievous smile, she lowered the gun. “I’m aware, my wild bhediya.”

Giggling, I lifted Ryan up to reach the higher branches. The guards immediately raised their weapons at the sound of a knock on the door.

“Relax,” I said, grabbing a dagger from Li. “I’m sure it’s just Mrs. McGill. She brings cookies to everyone in the neighborhood on Christmas Eve.”

“We need to verify that.”

“Li, if it was some assassin, I don’t think they’d knock on the door first.”

“Fair point,” she conceded, slipping the dagger into her leg holster.

The other guards lowered their weapons at her signal, a slight nod of her head. Undoing the extra locks, courtesy of my father’s paranoia, I opened the door but instead of a friendly neighbor, the porch was empty. I passed it off as a prank, a case of ding dong ditch by a kid with fast legs, until something shiny caught my eye. There was a thin, neatly wrapped box on the welcome mat, a note attached to the red ribbon.

I knew you wouldn’t accept this in person. I wouldn’t blame you, given our past, but I am hoping you can fix that. You’re the only one I trust, the only one who can end this. Keep it hidden. Consider it my apology.

“Tessa? Who’s there?”

“No one,” I told Li, hiding the box inside my hoodie. “Probably just some joke.”

Around noon, I headed to the hospital to visit Will, Evans only allowing it after being faced with my puppy dog pout and the threat of sneaking out behind their backs. His sole condition was that he accompanied me. I was not going to let some psychopath ruin an annual tradition.

Every Christmas Eve, Will and I would spend the day at each other’s houses, watching sci-fi holiday movies and television specials. Now more than ever, I needed those several hours of relaxation, to spend a day with one of my best friends without a care in the world. It was a small way of feeling normal.

Upon entering his room, I was greeted by his family: his mother opening his carton of milk and blowing on his soup, Katie teasing him about his cute nurse between texts to her friends, and his stepfather watching the news, a cast on his right arm. I tensed up when Mr. Mitchell hailed me as ‘the town hero’, taking a few seconds to realize he was referring to the break-in, not the school.

“Oh, Mrs. Nelson, you didn’t have to get me anything,” I said, struggling to hold the stack of presents. “Definitely not this much.”

“Nonsense, we always give you a present. Besides, if it weren’t for you, Will and Connor may not have made it to Christmas. We’re lucky to have you in our lives, Tessa.”

Seeing my discomfort, Katie pushed her towards the door. “Mom, you’re only allowed to be embarrassing once a day and it’s only 12:30. Reel it in.”

“We’ll be back around five for dinner, sweetheart,” she reminded Will. “If you need anything, just call.”

As an apologetic Katie shut the door, I joined him on the bed, picking up his laptop from the side table. Up close, something seemed off about him. He looked even more anxious than usual.
“I’m glad your mom said yes. I was worried she’d have you on lockdown but then again, she knows not to mess with tradition. So uh I thought we’d do Doctor Who this year. Are we going from worst to best or best to worst? If it’s best first, then it’s definitely—”

A high-pitched noise distracted me. At first, I thought it was one of the monitors but when I turned my head, I realized it was coming out of Will’s mouth. His lips pressed tightly together, he repeatedly tapped his foot under the blanket.

“Will? What’s wrong? Is it your medicine? Do you want me to get the nurse or—”

“Can we please talk about the dance?”

Nearly dropping the laptop, I tried to maintain a blank expression. “W—what about it? Some idiots, probably Parker and his goons, let off some stink bombs so they made us leave early. Amy was upset. She should be since she spent months planning it and it looked great.”

“You don’t have to lie,” he said, eagerly. “I know. I know, Tessa.”

Amy had paid him a visit hours before the dance. Feeling sympathetic that he was stuck in the hospital, she bribed the tech club with invitations to Ashlyn’s Christmas party in exchange for a livestream of the auditorium. He watched the dance through his laptop, seeing everything from the sluagh attacking the students to my fight with Melinoe.

Evans wiped everyone’s memories of the incident, replacing them with false ones to explain the dance ending early. My entire body felt numb as he moved his hands around the supposedly empty spaces on the bed.

“Are Elena and Fin here too? The temperature must drop around them so a cool spot would indicate their presence. Am I right?”

I found myself at a crossroads. For years, I wanted to be honest with Will, to discuss my reaper struggles without looking like I was speaking to myself. How would Cullen react to an outsider knowing the truth? A best friend was not on the same level as a relative. Would it only put Will in more danger or keep him safe?

My mouth decided long before my own mind, telling him everything. An enormous weight lifted off my shoulders. I was fearful of his reaction, Will never one to like the slightest change. He once panicked over the switch from Taco Tuesday to Tots Tuesday in middle school. Freaking out in excitement rather than fear, he bombarded me with all kinds of questions.

“How do you heal from the injuries so fast? Is it magic or—”

“Will, we have plenty of time. I’m really glad you know now. I’ve wanted to tell you but I wasn’t sure how or when. You said you saw everything?”

“Well, just in the auditorium. You looked badass with that sword. Do all reapers have swords? Is it bonded to you somehow?”

“Sort of, I guess. It belonged to my ancestor. Apparently, I’m descended from Kali.” His eyes widened in amazement. “But that’s not important. How did the livestream work?”

“Through the security cameras,” he explained, clicking on a link.

The screen showed a bird’s-eye view of the auditorium from several angles. A dangerous idea popped into my head.

“I’m sure it’s not the first time CJ and the others have done it. I heard rumors last year that they would work with Fin and his friends to get answers for tests. Principal Hilton knew someone was hacking so she made the teachers write down the answers. It’s still happening so I bet in exchange for some money, they’re using the cameras in the classrooms to find the answer sheets.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“I—in a way, yeah. Sort of scary too. I mean, who knows what else they’ve been hacking?” I jumped down from the bed. “Where are you going?”

“Ashlyn’s party. I have to find CJ. If you’re right about the cameras, it could show us who changed into Hilton that night.”

“You want to talk to CJ alone?” he asked, his tone suggesting it was a bad plan. “Let me come—”

Just lifting his leg made him groan in pain. I promised to text him updates from the party. Giving him a quick hug and kiss on the cheek, I found Evans in the lobby to return home, lying that Will was too ill to watch movies.

Belmont did not bother acting innocent about the test scam. He was almost proud of his deal with the ‘tech geeks’, offering them half of any profits.

“You told Will the truth?” Elena asked, surprised. “Is he allowed to know?”

“There’s no rule against it,” said Damon, crossing his arms. “The council likes to be cautious. If everyone knew about us, some would try to take advantage. Why do we care how Richie Rich over here used to cheat on tests? You think they saw what Cullen’s guards couldn’t?”

I lowered my voice as a pair of guards passed by, helping my mother set the table. It was a much larger feast than previous years, having to prepare food for twenty three people instead of five.

“I doubt they monitor the school 24/7 but what if we’re able to track Melinoe from that night? Maybe we could see out what she really looks like.”

“And how are we getting to this party? We’re under high security than Alcatraz and before you say not we, you are not going out there alone. That bitch could be anywhere and we’re stronger together than apart.”

Throughout the delicious dinner, I tried to think of the perfect excuse. The guards watched all of us like hawks and getting answers at a high school party would be impossible if I was surrounded by men and women trained in thirty different styles of combat.

Passing notes under the table, Damon suggested using Elena and Belmont as bait, having them disappear and send the guards chasing them around the town. It had its advantages yet I did not want to risk the guards imprisoning either of them or worse. In the midst of dessert, my grandmother asked for help cutting the chocolate mousse cake.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, squeezing my hand. “These old hands aren’t what they used to be.”

Something scratched the inside of my palm. My grandmother picked up her fork with a grin, slipping me the subtlest wink. I peeked at the crumpled up paper in my hand, the one Damon and I had been scribbling messages on for the past half hour.

Use the party as a solution to assuage their outrage

It was another instance that made me wonder if she could read minds. I was unsure what she meant by outrage but then I remembered the night of the dance.

“Liam, could I go out again? My friend Ashlyn is having a little party. I wouldn’t stay long. Maybe an hour at most?”

“I don’t think that’s wise, Tessa,” he advised, somehow both firm and sympathetic. “We allowed you to leave to visit Mr. Nelson but a party is much different from a hospital. There’s too much risk. Melinoe could hide in plain sight amongst your peers.”

I sighed in defeat, pushing the mixture of vanilla ice cream and brownie around my plate. “I know it’s risky but I won’t have a lot of chances to see her since she lives in Lily Grove. I just wanted to thank her. She practically saved me from Dr. Baxter at the dance.”

Several utensils clattered around me, like an uncoordinated marching band. My parents were frozen in shock, my father’s glass cracking beneath his fingers. Damon, quickly catching on, hid his smirk behind his glass of water.

“Tessa, what are you um—what does that mean?” my mother asked, her voice overly sweet to masquerade her own anger.

“Well, I walked around, looking for Chace, and I thought I heard him in the AP bio room. He wasn’t there but when I turned around, I saw Dr. Baxter. He was acting weird so I wanted to leave but he kept following me. If Ashlyn didn’t show up, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

“Did he put his hands on you? If he so much as looked at you inappropriately, I will march down to the school and—”

“N—no. I just wanted to thank her for helping me. She told me about the party at the dance and if I’m a ghost all winter break, it looks a lot more suspicious.”

After an endless argument between my parents and Evans, he agreed to let me attend the party, except for half an hour and with Li and Evani as protection. Damon, along with Elena and Belmont, managed to gain that tiny slice of freedom as well, stoking my father’s paranoia with a partially true rumor that Dr. Baxter sneaked into high school parties.

Finding CJ was not as easy as snapping my fingers. I had to navigate through the mostly drunken crowd, giving quick waves and dodging the advances of my peers. Elena dumped a cup of beer on a Lily Grove boy who attempted to get me under the mistletoe.

“We’re trying for discrete here,” I said, ducking as Hilton turned her head to greet one of her cheerleader robots.

“Well, it’s not like I can tell him you’re taken,” she whispered, her breath tickling my ear.

Biting my lip to hold back a smile, I led her into the backyard. Amy, sitting in a hot tub with a group of kids, was boasting about getting the lead in the spring musical, rehearsals starting the first week back at school. My curiosity about her possible supernatural nature was interrupted by Belmont tugging on my sleeve, pointing out a girl alone in the gazebo.

Remembering to pick Will’s brain later, I headed over to the gazebo, knowing my plan had a high probability of failure. The girl looked like she had just stepped out of a board meeting, with her navy blazer, matching pencil skirt, and short heels.

“CJ’s an ice queen. Just butter her up by saying she’ll be the next Steve Jobs or something,” suggested Belmont.

“Finally. I’ve been waiting for—ugh.” Her dark eyes, hidden behind a pair of round frames, narrowed. “Well if it isn’t Belmont High’s own cinderella story.”

“CJ—”

“You know, they all think you’re such an inspiration. Rising from the designated bottom feeder to Chace Parker’s special girl. What’s it like, being another name on his list? I’m not surprised, honestly. He’s not exactly an ideal choice for riveting conversation but then again, you never were one with good taste.”

Damon chuckled, joining her in the gazebo. CJ scrunched her nose as he laid his arm on the back of the bench, his fingers delicately brushing against her shoulder.

“I see there’s some tension between you two. Hey, I’m her cousin Damon. CJ…that’s adorable.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Trying to hide some embarrassing name your parents gave you? What does it stand for?”

She flicked away his hand. “One, you’re barking up a very wrong tree. Two, my name is CJ. Three, get the hell away from me. I’m here on business and my clients value their privacy.”

“Selling more answer sheets?” I asked, trying a different approach. “Imagine if Principal Hilton knew it was you. Bye bye, Harvard. Hello, community college.”

Her grip tightened on her phone. “It almost sounds like you’re blackmailing me.”

“Well, you’re well-versed in that.” She quietly scoffed. “Unless you want me to give her concrete proof of your hacking, you’ll do me a little favor. Try to point your finger at Belmont and his lackeys but in the end, you know you’ll be the scapegoat, the brilliant class president who proves minorities just aren’t good enough.”

“What do you want?”

“Will told me what you did for him. The livestream of the dance? Really impressive. Could you show me other footage from that night? Before you ask why, it’s none of your business. In exchange, I keep quiet about your scam.”

CJ, backed into a corner, grudgingly agreed to the deal. Needing her laptop to search through the files, we decided to meet before homeroom.

“Tessa!” Ashlyn waved at her from the hot tub. “Over here!”

“Don’t want to keep your subjects waiting,” said CJ, bitterly.

“What was that all about?” asked Elena, glancing back at the uptight hacker. “I know CJ’s not the friendliest person but it’s like she hates you. I’ve never even seen you guys talk before.”

Trying my best not to scratch my ear, I told her that it  was over a silly incident in ninth grade. She did not get a chance to question it further as Ashlyn greeted me with a hug.

“I’m so glad you could make it.”

“I uh can’t stay long. My dad has this tradition with me and my brother and if I miss it, he’ll say Christmas is ruined. I just wanted to thank you for the other night. You know, with Baxter and everything…”

“Us girls have to stick together, right?” Ashlyn grabbed my hand. “Come on, I want to show you something.”

After introducing himself as my cousin, kissing her hand, Damon followed us into the house. He stole a half empty cup of beer from a nearby table. While she headed up to her bedroom, I waited on a couch in the living room. Elena and Belmont vanished from the couch to do their own security sweep of the house, to ensure none of Melinoe’s spies were among the partiers.

“You know, I thought I was the suave one but look at you, breaking hearts left and right.”

My head snapped up at his words. Damon leaned over the couch with a cheeky grin.

“W—what are you talking about?”

“Vivienne, Chace, CJ, Elena…”

Blushing, I snatched the cup from him, taking a small sip.

“I’m not blind, Tessa. I saw how you two were the other night. It was obvious before that but after you went chasing after her, you kept giving each other these little looks. Don’t want her getting jealous of you and Miss Class President?”

“Elena and I aren’t—we kissed but that’s it. A relationship is the last thing on my mind right now. Plus it would put her in more danger. Who knows if we’ll survive this, Damon? I can’t give her that false hope. She deserves better.”

Lowering my voice, I admitted that CJ used to be one of my few friends. She had sent me a valentine in ninth grade, revealing her true feelings and even setting up a date at the Blue Moon café. Thinking I was not ready to be out in the open, she promised to keep it a secret, having not come out herself at the time either.

Dealing with the fall out from my tumultuous relationship with Vivienne, I could not gather the courage to meet her, letting her sit alone for hours. Out of anger, she threatened to tell the entire school about Vivienne, having learned of her by hacking my emails and only stopping thanks to Will’s interference. He never told me about his secret leverage. Ever since that horrible night, CJ refused to even speak to me, always avoiding me in the halls.

“She obviously still likes you. Better not let her think she has another shot. It’s not like you can tell her you’re sort of dating a ghost.”

Ashlyn bounding down the staircase saved me from more relationship talk. To my confusion, she held up a yearbook from Lily Grove High.

“We’re doing a project in history about our ancestors. I was digging through some stuff in the attic and I found this.” Opening it to a page, she placed it on my lap. “Check it out.”

My eyes immediately fell on a picture towards the bottom, of a girl with a striking resemblance to me. It was my mother at seventeen years old, her dark hair falling down her back in soft waves and the same bright smile that always comforted me on a bad day.

“Isn’t that cool? Look, she was in the same year as my brother.”

Ashlyn flipped a couple pages back, pointing to another photo. He was incredibly handsome, with his well-coiffed ash blonde hair and eyes like a clear ocean. In a way, with his good looks and varsity jacket, he reminded me of Belmont. I frowned as I read the name under the photo: Blaine Gilbert.

It was the name Parker had given me after the trial, the one his father was speaking about one night. If that was not strange enough, his senior quote was enough to catch my attention.

“We will rise from the ashes.”

“Dramatic, right?” she said, shaking her head in embarrassment. “It’s the Gilbert family motto. My dad’s always saying it, even for something as little as one of my brothers losing a baseball game. Pretty sure my grandmother has it stitched on a pillow.”

Ashlyn showed off the sterling silver ring on her left hand. It looked eerily similar to the one I found at the Falls, except the stone was a diamond. Calling it a Gilbert tradition, she and her brothers had received the ring, with their specific birthstone, on their sixteenth birthday.

“Pretty intense motto. Are you secretly phoenixes?” joked Damon, my eyes still transfixed on the photo.

“Yeah, totally, and my cousin is a werewolf,” she replied, giggling. “Your cousin’s so funny, T—”

“Does Blaine live nearby?”

She frowned slightly at my question. “Oh, he’s—sorry, I forgot you didn’t live here long. He died a few weeks after his senior year. It was a freak accident. Your mother actually saved him that same day from some huge car wreck.”

A chill ran down my spine. When my mother told me about ‘her own Fin Belmont’, she was referring to Blaine Gilbert. Chief Parker was talking about a dead teenager, one who had died over twenty years ago. I thought back to his encounter with my mom at the police station, the tension between them, and her story of the shadow clinging to Blaine’s back before his accident. It was too much to be mere coincidence.

“He was visiting a friend in Belmont Falls and this car came out of nowhere, ran right over him, and drove off. His friends kept telling the cops everything they knew about the car like the color and part of the license plate but they never arrested anyone. He was the oldest and my brother Adrian was barely a year old so it took a huge toll on my parents.”

“I didn’t mean to—I shouldn’t have asked, Ashlyn.”
“It’s not your fault. I thought maybe your mom told you. When I told mine about meeting you, she said Blaine was practically in love with her. Couldn’t be more different. The jock and the artsy girl…but around town, my mom always noticed him looking at her like she was made of stars. Guess he never worked up the nerve to ask her out.”

“She did mention the accident once. I just didn’t know he was your brother. You must miss him.”

“Well, I never met him. I try to think of what he’d be like when I look at his pictures but sometimes, I feel like he’s watching over me. I hope he’s in a good place.” She sniffled. “Sorry, instant party killer.”

“No, it’s fine.” I handed her the yearbook. “I bet he’d be really proud of how you turned out.”

All the way home, the wheels in my head were spinning, churning out numerous conspiracy theories. I had all this information in my head that was somehow connected yet I could not fit the pieces together. Kissing my parents and a sleepy Ryan, refusing to go to bed until he heard Santa’s reindeer, goodnight, I headed up to my room to fill Damon in on what he missed while in Erinyes.

“The Gilbert ring has to be Blaine’s,” he said, leaning back in my desk chair. “Maybe he was fighting with Tom Brady that night and it fell off.”

Belmont glared at my brother. “One problem with your theory. Wouldn’t your mother notice him walking around all this time as a ghost, especially since he liked her?”

 “But he’s not a ghost." Damon came to the same conclusion as me. "He’s one of the sluagh. Perfect for Melinoe’s agenda, a teenager cut down in his prime. Who would be more desperate to get a second chance? He’s just been jumping from host to host.”

I sat down on the edge of my bed. “And what if after all these years, he’s strong enough to inhabit a living person? What if he’s the one we saw in Parker’s memories? The one who was choking him before he could save you?”

“You think he stayed inside the same body?” said Elena, hopefully. “That could narrow it down. We saw the tattoo on his wrist. He’s part of Mr. Hilton’s club. Maybe we could get a list from his office and use that to find Blaine.”

“Hey, what’s this, Byrne?”

Belmont was gazing curiously at the box I found this morning. Never bothering to open it, assuming it was a present from Vivienne, I left it on the windowsill. He tore the wrapping paper and pulled out a vial of silver liquid.

“Those are memories,” said Damon, intrigued. “Why would she give you that? How did she even get it out? Only guardians can do it.”

Elena reached inside the box. “There’s a note,” she said, holding up a neatly wrapped piece of paper. “Dear Tessa, I’m writing this in my few moments of clarity. It’s taken years but I’ve gotten strong enough to fight back. He doesn’t know that I’m able to hear and see all of his horrible actions, ones I’d never do if I was in control of myself.”

“Tessa, I don’t think Viv sent this. Keep going.”

“What he’s done is unspeakable and I wish to right those wrongs. He’s been keeping a close eye on you as you search for answers. He’s working for a woman, her face always different but I know it’s her each time. If you’re as clever as I’ve seen from these past four years, you know what’s inside that vial. She’s had him remove his memories each day, to protect herself no doubt, with the help of another man named Lionel. I’ve never seen his face but I hear his cane tapping on the floor when he leaves the room.”

A sudden realization struck me. “Oliver’s dad. Remember when Oliver wouldn’t believe us about the reaper? He said their guardian would’ve reported them and when I mentioned the guardian might be dead, he said they feel it. But they wouldn’t if the guardian is still alive. His dad kept trying to dismiss my theory about the sluagh.”

“He’s not very wise, labeling these memories like twisted trophies. I’ve given you one that should help you understand. It’s the best I could do in such a short time. When I see you as myself again, I hope it is under better circumstances.” She folded the note again. “What do you think is in the memory?”

Damon left the room, returning minutes later with an empty bowl. Taking the vial, he removed the cork and poured its contents, the silver liquid pouring out slowly. As he used his finger to stir, the liquid turned into a mist that rose into the air. An image soon formed, showing Parker being choked by an unseen assailant.

“Can’t have you saving the day. Your daddy wouldn’t like that. Time for a nap, puppy.”

The voice was slightly distorted, sounding like it was simultaneously spoken by Blaine and his host. With a forceful twist, he snapped Parker’s neck, leaving him unconscious on the ground. Seeing through Blaine’s eyes, I watched Belmont blindly swinging his fists at the sluagh on the bridge.

“He’s showing us how you died,” I whispered to Belmont, amazed.

Feeling how anxious he was, I gripped his trembling hand. In the memory, he continued to fight, actually landing a punch against the sluagh, which responded with a guttural roar that shook the surrounding trees.

“Enough!”

The sluagh backed away, blood dripping from its lips. Belmont, stumbling and very drunk, became clearer as Blaine walked towards him.

“W—what are you still doing here? I think I’m losing my mind,” he said, clutching his face that was now scarred by a familiar gash. “Can you help me back to my car? I’m good to drive. Why are you just standing there?”

“Finish it. You know how the plan is supposed to go.”

“The plan? What—”

Belmont squeezed my hand so tightly that it felt numb. Elena stared at the mist in disbelief, the color draining from her face.

In the memory, Rosalie had stepped out from a tree, a gun in her hand and her usual cold demeanor replaced with one of fear. She could barely hold the gun straight as Belmont moved against the railing, eyes wide.

“R—Rosie, what the hell? This isn’t funny. Put the gun down. Is this about the baby? It was a bluff. Who would believe me, right? Put the gun down.”

“Do it, Rosalie,” said Blaine.

“Shut up! Rosie, Rosie, don’t!” he said, panicking as she pointed the gun at his head. “What, are you two having an affair or something? Hey, no judgement. I won’t tell dad. I didn’t mean what I said before. You know he gets me mad.”

“What are you waiting for? Do it!”

“P—please don’t make me,” she begged, turning her tearful eyes away from her brother. “There has to be another way. I can’t hurt him. Use anyone else. There’s plenty of drifters in these woods. Jackson’s trailer is less than a mile away. He’s a worthless drunk. I can easily lure him here. He’ll do anything for me. No one would care if he died.”

“IT HAS TO BE FIN! She hasn’t been setting this in motion for years for your cowardice to ruin it!” he spat. “She knew you were too weak, that you were all talk. You’re nothing. She knows it, I know it, and deep down, you know it too. I’ll do it myself.”

Blaine growled, pinning Belmont to the railing. He struggled against his forceful grip, pleading with Rosalie. In his desperation, he clawed at Blaine’s hand around his throat, causing his ring to slip from his finger.

Belmont was knocked to the ground by a single punch, the sluagh holding him down. As Rosalie openly sobbed, continuing to beg for her brother’s life, Blaine cupped her cheek with his gloved hand.

“Prove her wrong. Show her how strong you are, that she didn’t misplace her trust. It’s not easy to come by but she saw something in you, something special.”

“I—I can’t. Not Fin.”

“He’s the child born on the seventh day of the seventh month at exactly the seventh hour and when the moon is full and he dies by the hands of his own blood, it’ll unleash an immense power, one she can take for herself.”

“Rosie, just shoot him and we can leave!" shouted Belmont, managing to throw off the sluagh and lift himself up, panting. “We’ll call the cops on the way and tell him he’s insane! Don’t listen to him!”

All trace of her icy exterior were gone. She looked like a scared little girl, not the tough businesswoman I had met at the funeral.

“She’ll share that power to reward our loyalty. You know your father will never see you as an equal. He’d sooner give the business to Fin because in his mind, you’re not good enough. You’ve never been good enough for him. That can all change with her help.”

“S—she could do that?”

You could, Rose. That power’s already inside you. It’s buried deep inside but she can set it free. Your father and everyone else will finally see you as the brilliant woman you are.”

“Ros—”

Two loud gunshots rang through the air. Belmont staggered backwards, falling over the bridge. He somehow managed to hold onto the wooden railing despite the immense pain.

“R—Rosie, please. You don’t have to do this.”

Her ruby red lips pressed against the top of his head, tears streaming down her face. “Yes, I do. I’m sorry it has to be this way but for once, I’m getting what I want.”

She pried his fingers from the railing and the moment his body crashed into the lake below, she collapsed onto the bridge, muttering, “I’m sorry” like a broken record. Blaine glanced over the railing, watching another sluagh collect a mixture of Belmont’s blood and the water in a vial. It jumped from several feet below and landed on top of the railing. The water emitted a faint purplish glow.

“Bring it to her.”

Both sluagh bowed their heads and vanished into thin air. “W—was that it?” stuttered Rosalie. “Do we drink it or something?”

He helped her up, hiding the gun in his jacket pocket. “Not yet. The ritual has to be done when the blood moon is at its highest point. It’s when her power is strongest and we’ll need the twins. Tessa’s the trickier of the two but with the right motivation, she’ll do what we want.”

“What about Fin? They’ll know he was shot…that I—”

“No need to worry. Caleb will handle that part. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

The bridge faded away and Damon cleared the mist with a flick of his wrist, returning it to its liquid form in the bowl. In any scenario I imagined for Belmont’s death, I never expected his own sister delivering the deathly blow. All four of us stood in complete silence, unsure of what to say.


Submitted: April 22, 2018

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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