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I think I had the ghost version of a heart attack so I’m going to lie down. Tell me what happens when you get back from the trial.

Those were Elena’s last words to Belmont before vanishing from the woods. Translation? ‘I just found out about this friend that you never mentioned before and you two are obviously really close and I’m the worst friend ever’. If he had any brains, he would know that Elena left the woods out of shame, not fear. Sitting on the ground outside the cave entrance, my head between my knees, I felt exactly the same, regretting that I never told her about Vivienne.

“If you squint really hard and tilt your head to the right, he kind of looks like a dog.” With his head cocked to the side, Belmont’s eyes fell on Mr. Jameson, the owner of a major oil company who looked like he already had one foot in the grave. “How can we tell? Maybe if I kick him in the leg a bunch of times, he’ll get angry and turn into a monster dog again.”

“You’re not kicking an old man. Besides, I doubt it’s him. He’s been telling the same story for the past hour and I think Mr. Hilton would mention it if he disappeared.”

“Am I the only one confused on how those…dogs could be actual people?” he asked, careful not to brush up against anyone else in fear that it would trigger a sudden change. “You said that they’re not allowed above the surface unless they’re being used to keep insane reapers like Vivienne under control. Are you definitely sure that the tracks turned human? For all you know, it turned invisible then went back to wherever the hell it’s from and the tracks belonged to an actual person, not a dog in a disguise.”

A small part of me wanted to agree with Belmont, thinking all the insanity that I had been through lately made me paranoid. No matter how much I wanted to believe his theory that the hellhound just happened to be following the same path, its tracks covering a person’s footprints, I knew that a hellhound, possibly two, was hiding among the group. It seemed almost impossible that these creatures lived in Belmont Falls but, being a reaper with the power to see ghosts, I had no right to judge what was considered too crazy for this world.

“If Elena wasn’t such a baby, she could help us find it. Bet she’s crying into a pillow. It’s not like ghosts can die twice…can we?”

“She’s not crying into a pillow. She locked herself in my bedroom and is writing in her notebook.”

“Wh—is she forgetting that you almost died? N—not that it’s a big deal or anything,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “What, is she writing an angry letter to send to the hellhound?”

“No, this is what she does when she’s upset. She’d be doing it in her own room if someone wasn’t living in it. She takes her mind off of what’s bothering her by writing in her special notebook. Poems, short stories…she says when she comes up with an amazing idea, I have to make sure it gets published so she can achieve her dream of being a famous writer. Getting published in the town newspaper every few months wasn’t good enough for her.”

As I half-listened to Mr. Hilton discuss some kind of search party, I caught Belmont shifting uncomfortably out of the corner of my eye. “I’ve known her since all we could do was crawl but I never knew she actually liked writing. I saw her write in that glittery notebook for years and I just thought it was her diary or something. No wonder she hates me. Was I that bad of a boyfriend?”

“Well, you’re not exactly in her top five and since she’s only had one other relationship with some British guy at summer camp when she was twelve…” I twirled my necklace between my fingers, remembering the jealousy burning inside me when she showed me pictures of her ‘teenage Mr. Darcy’. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not her favorite person right now either. It would be easy to blame Vivienne for that but it’s my fault. She just needs time to herself. We’ll talk to her after the trial.”

“Tessa, are you okay?” Rhys sprinted towards me, holding an ice pack to the back of his head. “I was worried that you were still out there,” he said, relieved to find me in one piece.

His head injury was effortlessly explained away by Vivienne, who concocted an elaborate story of a wild animal attacking him by the river. When he awoke, she was kneeling by his side and he could barely process anything she told him, more concerned with my disappearance.

“Declan was just about to send a bunch of us out to find you.” His eyes, widening in alarm, passed over my cuts and bruises from the hellhound attack. “It’s my fault. I’ve been out here a hundred times. I should’ve been more careful…heard it creeping up behind me. Isabelle brought a first aid kit. She can patch you up.”

“Rhys—”

I was interrupted by Rhys checking my injuries. He quietly muttered to himself over the possibilities of my attacker, from wolves to bears.

“It wasn’t an animal,” I said, wincing as his fingers brushed against a cut on my elbow.

“Then you definitely have to talk to Isabelle. I know some drifters wander around here. Did you get a good look at their face?”

“No, it wasn’t—Vivienne hit you.”

Belmont shook his head so fast that I thought it was about to fall off his shoulders. Hearing my startling confession, Rhys merely stifled a laugh.

“You’re a little disoriented from what happened. Maybe the person looked like her. At least we know it was a woman. That gives the police more to work with...I mean, it won’t be at the top of their list of priorities but I’m sure Isabelle and Oliver will keep an eye out.”

“Byrne, abort. This is a bad idea. You don’t need to tell my brother anything,” hissed Belmont. It was the first time I ever heard something close to concern in his voice. “Tell him it was a joke.”

“Rhys, I lied to you before. I know Vivienne…the real her. She’s just using you and when she’s done, you’ll be the latest on a long list of victims, including me. Don’t let your brother’s death be the reason that you make stupid decisions. You’re Rhys Belmont. The school has a goddamn award named after you and your sister and the teachers judge their students based on how much they’re like you. I’m pretty sure I’ve even heard Mr. Simpson call me and my friend Will your mini clones after the science fair last year. If you think with your brain instead of your dick, you’d see that she’s nothing but a liar.”

When I unloaded everything I had bottled up since discovering his relationship with Vivienne, I expected him to be surprised and have a million questions but instead, he just flashed me that charming Belmont smile.

“I get it, Tessa. I went through the same thing with Claire and plenty of other girls. You’re jealous of Vivienne because you like me.”

“After everything I just said, the only logical explanation is that I have a crush on you?” I asked, thinking that I somehow ended up in the twilight zone.

“You don’t have to be embarrassed. Like I said, you’re not the first. You said it yourself. I am kind of a legend at Belmont High.”

I smacked his hand away before he could examine a scrape on my knee. “Did your dad pay off your teachers to get your perfect GPA? To get you into college? Because there’s no way one of the only people to impress Mr. Simpson is this stupid. Seriously, is being a pigheaded jackass a family trait?”

“Tessa—” 

When I had been chasing after the hellhound, the adrenaline kick made me forget all the pain but the second I simply stood on one leg, in an attempt to storm off in anger, I felt like it was about to snap in half. Rhys held onto me, helping me limp back towards the cave despite my protests.

“I don’t need your help,” I muttered, fighting back the immense pain shooting up my leg.

“Actually, you do but like my brother always said, you’re being stubborn. Once you’ve had time to rest, you’ll see that you just imagined Vivienne hitting me. I know for a fact that she’d never do that.”

Barely a minute had passed since entering the cave when I heard several people say my name in a panic. Rhys carefully placed me down on the ground then handed me his ice pack.

I glanced up at him, ignoring the sharp pebbles digging into my backside.  “When I go to your funeral after she screws you over, I’ll give my condolences to your parents and once everyone is gone, I’ll walk over to your grave and all I’ll say is ‘I told you so’.”

At that moment, it was unclear what was colder: the ice pack on my thigh or my chilling, unapologetic tone as I spoke to him. The brief flicker of fear in his eyes was enough proof for me that, even in the tiniest way, my words made him doubt his relationship. I would have continued to chip away at his wall of confidence if we were alone, instead of now being surrounded by Parker, Mr. Hilton, and several other members of the group. Rhys had to speak on my behalf since Isabelle was too busy cleaning my cuts and checking that my leg was not severely injured.

“Mr. Hilton, I’m fine,” I insisted, not wanting him to blame himself. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve been through worse with my little brother when I try to get him to eat his vegetables.”

“That may be but you are my responsibility. I can have James drive you back early, if you wish.”

“No, I just need to rest for a few minutes and then I’ll be good to go.”

Parker offered to keep me company while the others explored the cave. I struggled not to check my phone every few minutes for a text from Elena or send one myself, knowing that she needed her privacy.

“Were you really attacked by some woman?” he asked, sounding skeptical.

“It was all a big blur. All I remember is talking to Rhys by the river and then getting dragged by my hair.”

This was the only case where a lie sounded more realistic than the truth. Despite being a fan of Greek mythology, I highly doubted that Parker would not think I was insane if I told him about the existence of hellhounds.

“You didn’t have to stay with me.”

With a small shrug, he rubbed his shoulder. “Gotta make sure my date’s good for the dance. If you don’t think those cuts will heal before then, I’ve gotten pretty good at covering stuff like that up.”

“The king of the school can’t be seen with a girl unless she looks perfect, right?” I asked, holding back a groan as I shifted around to relieve the soreness in my backside.

“I didn’t mean—personally, I think they make you look badass but you know how people like Claire can be sometimes.”

“More like all the time and I’m nowhere near a badass.”

“Says the girl who beat up a crazy guy with just a stapler. My dad told me what happened at Nelson’s house. I shouldn’t be surprised since I watched you break Claire’s nose but you are a force to be reckoned with, Byrne.”

Either the temperature had risen a thousand degrees or my cheeks had gone red. Judging by his smile, it was the latter.

“Hell, you spooked Jackson enough that they had to put him on psychiatric hold for a few days. He kept babbling that you were a monster.”

“Have they looked more into that? Connor’s out of the hospital but no one’s mentioned if the police found out who pushed him.”

“My dad hasn’t mentioned it except to say that it was an accident,” he said, shaking his head. “Izzy brought it up when my mom and I visited the station before we went out to dinner. He kind of exploded when she showed him your witness statement and how it matched another neighbor’s report of someone sneaking into the house through the back door. She spotted it in the pile for the paper shredder. He threatened to have her demoted if she didn’t stop with the conspiracy theories.”

“So what, he thinks that Jackson just happened to be in the house at the same time?”

Parker began wringing his hands and his eyes darted around the cave, as if expecting to find someone hiding behind one of the boulders. “Izzy thought it sounded like a bunch of crap too. Even if you don’t believe it, just pretend that my dad is telling the truth. Bad things happen when you cross him. You don’t know what he’s capable of, Tessa.”

The others soon returned to the cave entrance. The next part of the expedition involved descending down a nearby chasm in pairs and searching for any interesting artifacts. Parker leapt up at the snap of his father’s fingers and rushed to his side. There was a quiet tension between them and I assumed that I was the source when Chief Parker nodded his head in my direction before continuing what looked like a stern lecture.

As I fastened the dark blue climbing helmet on my head, I quietly spoke to Belmont about the obvious cover-up of Mr. Mitchell’s attack.

“We could look for Jackson again. The guys and I always went to his place for booze before a party,” he suggested. “Just threaten to do what you did to his arm before and he’ll tell us who hired him to get those papers. He’s our best shot at finding out who killed me. There’s no guarantee it’s the same person but it’s at least a lead. Whoever hired him could be connected to the killer.”

“Then we’ll talk to him, but not directly. Chief Parker definitely has eyes on him to keep him quiet and if I go there, one of his spies will blab and he’ll just change his story to accuse me of pushing Connor because I’m mentally unstable or something. When has Angela Starr ever listened to the police? They’ve threatened her a thousand times but she always gets the story out somehow. Maybe she’s talked to Jackson and she has a clue, even if she doesn’t know it.”

“Garren won’t meet with her again. He’d rather face a pack of wolves and I don’t blame him.”

“Me either but she’s all about gossip so we can use that to get her attention. We’ll figure out the details after the trial, if I’m not found guilty.”

 “Nervous?” Dr. Baxter , no longer half naked and taking his anger out on trees, was standing in front of me. “There’s no reason to be scared, Tessa. As your partner, I’ll make sure you’re safe.”

“Chace is my partner so why don’t you go bother someone else?” I asked, wiping dirt from the back of my jeans as I lifted myself up from the ground.

“Declan agreed with me that it would be best to have someone more experienced as your partner. What if Chace hurt himself while making sure you were safe? There’s a big game soon. We don’t want the school’s star player to sit it out.”

Parker, leaning against the wall, was surrounded by his friends, ignoring their concerns about Friday’s game. Looking over Danvers’ shoulder (“I heard the whole team is on ‘roids, man”, he said, earning several nervous murmurs of agreement from his fellow teammates), he spotted Dr. Baxter with me, his expression a mirror of how I felt on the inside.

“I’m merely your guide. If you’re not comfortable with something, just say so and we won’t do it.” I stepped back as he extended his hand. “Ready?”

“The only reason I’m letting you near me is because I’m not the type to make a scene but let’s make one thing clear, asshole. You’re not allowed to touch me.”

He chuckled. “There’s no reason for—”

“Ever. Otherwise, I’ll tell Declan how you’ve been screwing his daughter.”

“Blackmail is a two way street. I’m sure Chief Parker would be very interested in learning about your little trip to the bridge at the Falls, just a day after Fin’s accident. Do you think he’ll believe that pathetic excuse of yours? I’m curious what you were really doing that day.”

Our tense conversation was interrupted by Vivienne looping her arm through mine. Acting as if she had not been seconds from death just an hour before, she declared that Rhys was woozy after being hit in the back of the head by an unknown assailant and with the group having an odd number, she was joining them as a trio. Rhys, holding a new bag of ice to his head, was sitting near Parker and his friends and gave a half-hearted wave to Vivienne, who blew him a kiss.

“Threesomes, my fave,” she joked, playfully nudging my shoulder.

Seeing that I was not in the mood for her jokes, she turned her attention to Dr. Baxter, who was ironically not eyeing her like a piece of meat. His eyes traveled up and down her body but more out of suspicion than lust.

“I don’t think we met yet. I’m Vivienne.”

“Brendon.”

“Oh, you teach at the high school, right? Rhys was telling me. I loved bio when I was in school. I was practically top of the class when it came to anatomy. I bet you’re a really hands-on teacher.”

“If you’ll excuse me.”

“Do you get that weird vibe from him too?” she asked as he walked over to the chasm and tied a rope around a large boulder close to the edge.

I wrenched my arm from her grasp. “Yeah. It’s because he’s a pervert who has most of the women in this town making heart eyes at him and the teenage girls wishing that he was the one screwing them instead of some horny boy who pats himself on the back for lasting more than a minute.” Belmont looked offended but chose to remain silent when we made eye contact. “Just my luck that I’m in partnered with a conceited perv and a psychotic bitch.”

Fighting back the urge to wince, I limped over to my backpack to retrieve the harness. Sage flew out the moment I unzipped the front pocket, circling around my head before landing on my shoulder.

“Why is Cedric’s little spy with you?” Vivienne asked, her lip curled in disgust as I grabbed a bag of seeds from the side pocket.

“She’s taking me to my trial. I accidentally summoned some dagger when I was trying not to get killed by a monster…the one your friend sent.”

“The only reapers I know in this town are you and your mother. That’s the truth. Why would a reaper come after you?”

“Why did you kill your parents? The world’s full of weird, unanswered questions,” replied Belmont.

He jumped when Vivienne waved her hands in a strange manner, as if casting a spell. Seeing the fear in his eyes only made her giggle. Putting on a serious face, she insisted that she never met another reaper in the town and if any were in hiding, either of us would have sensed them by now.

“I’ve been on trial before so take my advice. Just apologize for taking the dagger and tell them it won’t happen again. You’re like the least threatening person they’ve had in that courtroom. Every baby reaper breaks the rules once. It’s not a big deal.”

“No. I’m going to ask for their help. When they hear what’s been happening, they’ll—”

“You being so optimistic and naïve is adorable. The council acts like they care about everyone but they’re only interested in protecting themselves and their precious rules. These are the same people who chuck kids in a hellhole for making one mistake and then abandon them, not batting an eye when they take their own lives out of desperation for any kind of freedom. If you tell them that you think a reaper is attacking people and their own kind? They’ll send you to Erinyes too. It’s what they do with all the so-called problematic reapers.”

“You’re wrong. You just don’t want me to tell them because you’d rather that I rely on you for help. That’s why you sent those hellhounds, isn’t it? Did you meet them at some sleazy bar when you got released? Buy them a few drinks and convince them to go after me so you could act like a hero? Did they already live in Belmont Falls or did you bring them with you?”

She stared at me like I was speaking another language. “Okay, this is why you need me. Did you join that weird organization that thinks animals deserve the same rights as people? I met someone from there and seriously, they’re the ones who need straitjackets.”

Though Belmont dismissed her cluelessness as an act, I knew her better than most and there was nothing but confusion in her dark eyes, a sign that she was unaware of a hellhound’s double identity. If she knew that the hellhounds were walking amongst us on the trip, she would be teasing me about that very fact with veiled remarks (“If he gets anymore excited, he’ll start wagging his tail”) that, to the oblivious, would just sound like jokes.

The one upside to being partners with Vivienne was that she stopped Dr. Baxter from making a single lewd comment towards me. It did not take long for her to see that his interest in me went far beyond teacher and student and if he so much glanced at me, she was prepared to cut his rope. Her protectiveness also allowed me and Belmont to discuss the hellhound situation in private.

Trying to determine the hellhound’s true identity was difficult, between my injuries, being forced to be within an inch of some of my least favorite people, and Belmont’s eagerness to accuse any person of being a dog for the tiniest thing. I held my tongue when he pointed out that Mr. Hilton was repeatedly scratching the back of his neck.

As I concentrated on not falling to my death, he made a list of reasons why a certain person was or was not the hellhound. His main suspect was Mr. Hilton as the smaller hellhound, considering that was the one protecting me during the attack and he had a ‘soft spot’ for me.

“Scratching your neck doesn’t make you a dog. It could just be a mosquito bite,” I whispered, lowering my voice around a suspicious Vivienne. “Besides, someone would notice if he went missing.”

“I saw Danvers catch a frisbee with his mouth once.”

“That’s just proof he’s an idiot.”

Upon returning to the Hilton’s home, Parker finally managed to escape his father, who had kept him on a tight leash. He offered to drive me home, reminding me of the ploy I used to distract Vivienne in the woods. Before I could come up with a convincing excuse, Garren walked towards us, his nostrils subtly flaring at the mere sight of me.

“Had a run-in with a thief. They had a pretty good right hook,” he explained when Parker pointed out the nasty bruise on the side of his head. “I’m actually taking Tessa home.”

“Why? Is something wrong?”

“No, I had a few questions to ask her father so I told him I’d drop her off. I’m sure you two can hang out some other time. We should get going.”

“I’ll uh see you later,” I said, giving him a quick wave before following Garren.

An air of awkward silence pervaded the car as Garren drove out of the gated community, with both me and Belmont in the backseat. It was the one instance where I would rather be lectured than thrown judgmental looks through the mirror. Perched on the dashboard, Sage let out a series of chirps to direct him to the location of the trial. Belmont refrained from making any jokes about his ability to ‘speak bird’ though keeping quiet was making him bounce up and down in his seat like an impatient child.

“Oliver,” I started, breaking the silence.

“Don’t. After the trial, we’ll discuss why you knocked me out. It’s between us so I won’t mention it to my father or Cedric. I’d ask to reschedule to give you time to recuperate from whatever attacked you—and it wasn’t a hellhound before you two babble about that again—but the council doesn’t like to be kept waiting, no matter what.”

“It was a hellhound and I already told you that whoever it was, yeah I said whoever…they were on the trip with me. I’m not going to waste my breath convincing you. You know I wouldn’t have hit you if it wasn’t import—”

“Apparently, I know nothing. I thought I knew you but maybe I was wrong. Maybe you’re just like Vivienne, putting on an act. Why else would she be this intent on getting close to you at risk of being reprimanded by the council? Moving to Belmont Falls, dating Rhys Belmont…”

“I—it’s complicated. I wanted to tell you in the bathroom but I was scared and I can’t just explain it over a ten minute car ride. When this is over, I promise to tell you everything.”

Relieved that the tension was somewhat broken, Belmont took the opportunity to ask several questions about the trial, including its location (“It’s in the Underworld, but it’s not like a Disney movie,” I explained, dismissing his image of a man with flaming blue hair and demonic minions as mere fantasy) and how the council decided on my guilt or innocence.

Garren had never witnessed a trial himself, due to his father forbidding him from visiting him at work, but, as a boy, he had read several transcripts from past trials, sneaking into his father’s office late at night. The severity of the trial depended on the accused’s crimes and if they possessed any priors, whether it was supernaturally related or a DUI.

Years of watching sci-fi and fantasy movies gave Belmont his own idea of their journey to the Underworld.

“It’s like a portal, right?” he asked, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “I watched this movie with Rhys once where the main character had to slice his hand with this fancy knife in the middle of the woods and make a weird pattern with his blood. When he spoke another language, the ground started shaking and a swirling vortex opened up right below him. It was awesome.”

“Sounds overly complicated,” I said, a sense of dread creeping up the back of my throat as Garren stopped the car.

“Are we here already? Do I get to do something or do ghosts have another way of getting there?” He frowned when he glanced out the window, the local bank on the other side of the glass. “This is the bank.”

“Perceptive as always, Belmont. With those brains, why did you need your dad to pay off the school so you could pass every year? You should’ve easily been top of the class.”

Walking up the steps to the bank, I regretted bringing him along for the trip, even if he was key to proving my innocence. Garren shared the same thought, pinching the bridge of his nose as Belmont questioned why we were waiting on a long line, almost to the door, instead of heading to the trial.

“It starts in like half an hour. Is this really the time to take out money?”

“Fin, for once in your life, be quiet. We won’t be late.” Reaching into his coat pocket, he handed me a pack of tissues. “You need to look somewhat presentable. We’ll tell the council that you were mugged. That will get you some sympathy.”

In the midst of muttering about incompetent workers, the elderly woman in front of us, dressed in an oversized fur coat that was possibly made from a giant polar bear and sporting gaudy rings on both wrinkly hands, narrowed her shrewd eyes at me. I stopped wiping the caked blood under my nose and placed my hood over my head to avoid the stares of other curious bystanders.

“Next, please,” said a soft-spoken voice.

The three of us, with Belmont still questioning this odd visit, walked over to the next available bank teller, a young blonde in a white blouse with a peter pan collar and a black pencil skirt. I recognized her as Naomi Cohen, a girl who graduated when I was a freshman and was known for her sunny disposition.

“Officer Garren, hi.” She tucked a loose strand of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear, her pale cheeks flushed. “You’re looking—oh no, what happened?” she asked, spotting his bruise.

“Nothing serious, Naomi. It’s all part of being a cop.”

“You are really good at that. I remember when you stopped that robber here a few months ago. You were so brave. How can I help you today?”

“I’d like to withdraw one penny from my account.”

Belmont looked at him strangely. “What? Who the hell only takes out one—what’s happening?” Her aquamarine eyes were glazed, the usual twinkle gone. “Did one of those creatures follow us? Is she getting possessed?”

Naomi retrieved a set of keys from the drawer behind the window and unfastened the rusty key from the chain. “Here you go. Please return the key when you’re finished.”

Her expression returned to normal as another woman, looking like she just left an intense session at the gym, took our place. Pretending to search through my bag, I grabbed Belmont by his sleeve and dragged him down the hallway. He turned his head back towards the bank teller window where Naomi was aiding the woman, having no recollection of her encounter with Garren.

“There are portals to the Underworld but we don’t open them by sacrificing small animals or dripping blood on a stone in the middle of the woods. Every town has seven portals to represent the seven deadly sins. Pride, sl—”

“I know what those are, Byrne. Sunday school practically beat it into my head. That doesn’t explain what happened back there. Her eyes went all weird,” he said, mimicking Naomi’s vacant expression. “It’s like she wasn’t herself.”

“That’s how we keep the portals hidden. The portals are in places that represent the sins. They must consider what I did theft and that’s part of greed so we had to travel through that portal, which is why we’re here. The council makes sure that an ordinary person can’t find it accidentally so the key is only given when someone say a specific phrase, something that you’d never say in a normal conversation. When someone takes a job at a place with a portal, a member of the council activates them.”

“Activates?”

“The council member implants the phrase in their head, along with what they are to do when they hear it, but then the employee forgets the entire conversation…until they hear that phrase again. Think of it like pavlov conditioning,” explained Garren.

Belmont responded with a blank stare. “Basically, it’s like brainwashing,” I said, choosing a simpler approach. “The council deactivates them when they’re no longer employed at the site of the portal. Not everyone agrees with it. When they were my age, my grandparents were part of a protest to change how the portals were hidden.”

Garren warned me not to mention my grandparents in front of the council, given their poor reputation among most of its members. He stopped in front of a bare wall at the end of the hallway, where Sage began flying in a specific pattern, a thread of silver light emerging from its tail feathers. The pattern was in the shape of a Celtic knot, emanating a faint glow, and as it faded, a steel elevator door appeared.

“Relax, we’re the only ones that can see it,” I assured a stunned Belmont. “Sorry it’s not the swirling vortex of doom you were expecting.”

The inside of the elevator was covered from wall to wall in art from different cultures, each depicting their own versions of the underworld. I remembered one of my grandmother’s stories about the largest mural reflecting the heritage of the head of the council and in this case, it was a mural of Mag Mell, an idyllic afterlife in Irish mythology.

The further the elevator descended, the more reality set in: in a few minutes, my fate was in the hands of powerful strangers. As I played with my necklace, I wished that Elena was beside me, instead of writing in her notebook and playing songs from her angst playlist.

“Whoa.”

Belmont’s voice snapped me out of my own thoughts. The steel elevator doors had opened and he stared in awe at his first glimpse of the underworld. Instead of the fire and brimstone commonly associated with the place, it was a bustling marketplace with people of all ethnicities selling a wide range of goods, from jewelry to potion ingredients. Garren kept a hand on Belmont’s shoulder, steering him away from the eccentric peddlers. I waved at an elderly Mexican woman selling necklaces that warded off dangerous spirits.

“Do you know her?” Belmont asked as the woman waved back with a kind smile.

“Yeah, she’s friends with my grandmother. She visits her all the time and we’ve had her over for dinner. They’ve known each other for like fifty years.”

“How does she visit? Aren’t all these people dead?”

“Not all of them. Some just do business down here. Most of it is innocent stuff like jewelry, food, clothes…but the others are a little more underhanded. Think of it like the underworld version of a black market,” I explained, pointing at a sleazy man, his grey greasy hair slicked back, selling hellhound venom (“Just a drop and your enemies will be left paralyzed for up to an hour,” he boasted, holding a vial of blood red liquid between his stubby fingers) for the ‘small price’ of five hundred dollars. “That’s why my mother never lets me go down here. My grandmother did once when I was ten to visit Rosa and it started a huge fight. She told my mother that it was an educational lesson about brujas.”

“Bruwhat?”

“Witch healers. There’s not just hellhounds and reapers, Belmont. There’s a whole world you can’t see unless you know it’s there. That’s why they work down here. They don’t want things like these to fall into the hands of some average human.”

As Garren led us through the massive crowd, it was my job to keep Belmont away from any unsavory people, who were far more common in the underworld than someone like Rosa. I distracted him with stories about the underworld, including how its appearance was updated to match the times aboveground and the same occurred with each culture’s ideas of paradise and eternal torture. 

“Fin, we are here for a trial, not to shop,” said an exasperated Garren when Belmont asked for a minute to explore the shops.

“We won’t be late. Come on, when are we ever getting a chance to go here again, man? Let us have fun before the council probably decides to lock Byrne away forever.” He shrugged at my harsh glare. “What? We’re all thinking it’ll happen, right? What’s wrong with a little fun?”

“Nothing,” said a soft melodic voice.

It belonged to a girl our age stepping out an alleyway, immediately catching Belmont’s attention with the pink highlights in her dark wavy hair and her dress that was better suited for a nightclub than a marketplace, the cut stopping just above her bellybutton. His eyes lingered on her long legs, his gaze only broken by my fingers pinching his arm.

“I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying.”

She grazed her fingers along his bicep, once again grabbing his attention. The way Belmont was openly drooling, I thought he might drown the entire underworld within a few minutes.

“Bet you could,” I replied, not bothering to lower my voice.

Her dark eyes snapped away from his, her fingers still drawing tiny circles on his arm. “Tessa, I heard you’d be coming down here. It’s not every day a goody-goody reaper gets in trouble. What’d you do, get a C on a test?” she teased. “Your ghost friend is right. You should have some fun. I’m Amara, by the way. What’s your name, handsome?”

“Fin,” he said, excited by the mere fact that he was able to feel her touch. “I’m all about fun.”

“How would you like to hear your futures? Follow me.”

“Fin, wait—and he’s gone,” said Garren, watching Belmont eagerly follow the seductive Amara into the dark alley. “I knew I shouldn’t have gone this way. He uses girls like her to get his customers.”

“In a way, it is a good business strategy.”

Together, we hurried after Belmont before he lost an eye or worse. Garren had just passed through the narrow space when a hooded figure bumped into me, nearly knocking me to the ground. The stranger did not even have the decency to apologize, continuing on his way, and I was about to yell at them until I caught a familiar scent, unsure of where I encountered it before. Clutching their shoulder, the stranger disappeared into an apothecary.

“Tessa!”

Shaking off the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, I caught up with Garren, who was at the end of the alley, banging on a black door. “Password?” asked Amara, sweetly.

“Enough of this, Amara. Let us in.”

“I need the password.”

“The password is let us in or I’ll post a video of you and a certain someone on a beach, late at night after a lot of tequila. I never deleted it,” I warned. “One person sees it and your social life will plummet.”

The door swung open, revealing an amused Amara. “Look at that, Viv’s little pet has teeth. Come on in, the fun’s about to begin.”

Belmont was sitting at a wooden round table, symbols carved all around the edges and a crystal ball in the center. The man across from him, his face shielded by the hood of his coat, was moving his large hands around the crystal ball.

“Tessa, Oliver, come to join the show?” he asked, speaking with a thick Greek accent. “I was just about to tell young Fin his future.”

“He’s dead. What could you possibly tell him?” I countered.

“He wishes to know if his killer is caught. I see that it plagues his mind greatly. Let me ease that pain.”

“Fin, don’t do this. It’s not as simple as reading your fortune. That’s why Carnus uses girls like Amara to bring people to him…to distract them so they’ll do whatever he wants. For once, don’t think with the worm between your legs. I can’t believe I’m saying this but you’re smarter than that. He won’t tell you the whole truth anyway. That’s how he works.”

Amara sat beside Belmont, using her sexuality to drown out my pleas. He was too busy eyeing her cleavage to listen to reason.

“It’s fun, trust me. Don’t you want to have fun, Fin?” she asked, ruffling his hair.

“Sure. How do I uh get my fortune? Do I have to give you a drop of blood or something?”

“Not exactly.”

Belmont fell back in his chair, his head slamming into the hard ground, as Carnus lowered his hood. He looked like a normal man, who was once handsome, with his disheveled dark hair and bronze skin except for the stitches (shaped in an X) in place of his eyes. Reaching under his seat, he placed a jar, filled to the brim with eyes, moving in all different directions, on the table.

“I require your eyes as payment for this service.”

“Where the hell are yours?” he squeaked.

“Taken from me long ago, I’m afraid, but once I put your eyes where mine once were, I can see into your future. There’s no need to be scared. Amara can tell you. I’ve done this many times. The procedure to remove them is painless.” She held up a sharp, menacing knife. “You’ll get one back of your choice. I keep the other as a token. Do we have a deal?”

He scrambled to his feet and stood behind me, as if afraid that Amara would attack him with the knife at any moment. “No way. You’re not taking my eyes.”

“Fin, I promise it doesn’t hurt,” said Amara, pouting. “Don’t you want to know who’s to blame for ending your pathetic life? You’re a ghost. You don’t need more than one eye but if you really do, there’s a stand nearby that sells replacements. Even with one eye, you’d still be super cute.”

“Hey, he’s not pathetic! He was the best quarterback in the state and surprisingly really good at math. If anyone here is pathetic, it’s you, the girl who seduces anyone who walks by your creepy alley just to get some money.”

Amara tossed her chair back as she stood up and held the knife dangerously close to my face. The fire burning in her eyes reminded me why I never picked fights with her in the past.

“You better watch how you talk to me. If what I’ve heard is true, that whole council is going to find you guilty, no matter how much you beg and plead and bat your little innocent eyes at them,” she hissed. “Then you’ll want friends like me because you’ll have no one else. I’ll be a good friend to have when you need something. Viv knew that and so did Damon.”

“What did you say?” I asked, thinking that I heard her wrong.

“Yeah, we’ve been seeing each other a lot lately. He always knows how to sweet talk me into doing anything. You can ask him yourself when Cedric chucks you into a room next to him.”

Leading me out of the room, Garrett dismissed Amara’s claims as nothing more than a cruel joke, a way to get under my skin. He ignored Belmont’s many questions about the ‘creepy guy with no eyes’, Amara, and Damon (“Who is he? Another reaper?”), insisting that we needed to get to the council on time. I had little doubt that Amara purposely dropped that little truth bomb to make me forget everything I prepared for the trial and it worked since the only thing on my mind was Damon, the thought sending shivers down my spine.

I had not even realized that we were standing outside the council’s headquarters, the building resembling a courthouse, until I heard Garren speaking with one of the burly, stone-faced guards. As the guard gave him directions, I noticed the same hooded figure from before, sitting on a bench with a paper bag. Their hood made it impossible to see their face but somehow, I knew they were staring straight at me.

Garren nudged me inside the building and it was even more imposing in person, compared to the pictures in my mother’s books. The stone grey walls seemed to stretch for miles, as if reaching the heavens themselves, and portraits of past and present council members adorned one side. It was oddly calming to see my grandfather’s face among them, reminding me how he was lauded as a fair and kind member, giving even the worst cases a chance to redeem themselves, until a new Grand Master replaced the previous one and dismissed him in favor of someone far more strict.

Near the doors was a twenty foot tall statue of the grim reaper, with men, women, and children bowing down at its feet. In the books, it always looked like they were smiling but up close, I noticed that their expressions were more similar to groveling or begging for mercy. My mother always told me that the statue was meant to show a reaper’s importance, how they had control over life and death.

Swarms of people passed by us, all dressed the same (the men in crisp black business suits with a white button down shirt and black loafers and the women in a similar button down with a black blazer, matching pencil skirt that stopped just at the knee, and matching heels) and walking in two lines, one for each gender. No one said a word to each other, staring straight ahead with not a single emotion on their faces. The only distinguishing feature was a gold, silver, or bronze badge, judging on their position.

“Whoa,” said Belmont, seeing a woman, a silver badge like one worn by the police pinned to her blazer, disappear into the wall instead of taking the stairs. “Is she a—”

“Ghost? Yeah. All kinds of people work for the council. Most ghosts are part of their special forces to bring in dangerous criminals. Ghosts can’t be seen by regular people so it’s easier for them to sneak around.”

Having never been inside the council’s headquarters, I was looking around with just as much wonder as Belmont. The ghosts vanished within the walls while the others stepped into elevators that went in all directions or sat in rowboats on an indoor river that traveled all the way down the hall, manned by hooded figures with corpse-like hands. The same murals in the elevators were on the floors, constantly changing every few seconds. Television screens were mounted on the walls, depicting the same blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman giving news updates around the world. Unlike the usual news, these reports were far more cheerful, with not one instance of death or violence.

“That’s a lot weirder now if we’re right,” said Belmont, looking at a woman with a hellhound, no bigger than a puppy, in her purse. “Think she’s got some kind of weird fetish? What are you two doing?”

Stopping in front of a pair of giant doors at the end of the hall, images of reapers, guardians, hellhounds, ghosts, and other supernatural beings carved into the wood and the handles in the shape of the grim reaper’s scythe, Garren and I placed a hand on our chests. Others that were heading in the same direction did the same, their heads held high.

“Put your hand on your chest,” I whispered. Some people began to notice Belmont was the only one among them with his hands at his sides and one man, possibly a professional wrestler before becoming a ghost, in particular was ready to twist him into a pretzel. “Do it now and just mouth the words.”

Belmont listened to me, looking completely lost.

“Gods are fair. Gods are just. Gods protect us. That we trust,” the small group of us chorused as the doors swung open, bathing the hall in a silvery light.

He hesitated to move his hand until he saw me lower mine. “What was that?” he asked as people passed through the doors, the beefy man knocking into his shoulder. “You sounded like robots.”

“Our motto. We have to say it in our prayers and before we enter the council’s chambers,” I said, joining the rest of the group.

One at a time, they approached a short, balding man in round glasses behind a desk before being sent to another room within the chamber. Only those who worked in the building were allowed to skip the line, heading straight to their offices.

“You have to? You don’t think that’s creepy, Byrne?”

“The council members are the only ones who have seen the gods up close. They’re sort of like secondary gods, in a way. It’s how we show our respect for what they do. We learn it as soon as we’re able to talk.”

“Still sounds creepy to me. Wait, what do you mean they’ve seen the gods up close? You’re not—” He stifled a laugh. “You really think those exist? Like the council members are just having tea with Zeus?”

“Not just him. Gods from any culture…”

“You know they probably just say that so everyone listens to them, right? I mean, do they have pictures with these so-called gods? Even if they did, ten bucks says they’re photoshopped.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Belmont,” I said, clenching my fists. “Shut up or I’ll call Amara to come get you and scoop out your eyes.”

After sending away a woman who twitched repeatedly as she walked, muttering what sounded like a fake language under her breath, the bespectacled man said, “Next, please.”

Garren stepped forward. “Oliver Garren, guardian to Tessa Byrne. I’m here to escort her to her trial tonight, along with a witness Finley Belmont.” (“It’s Fin, man. What the hell?” he muttered, getting shushed by Garren) “Do you need to see a form of ID?”

The man’s eyes, magnified by the glasses, skimmed the parchment in his hand, the end of his pen scratching his chin. He tapped the parchment twice and turned it around before placing it back on the table.

“I need you two to confirm your identities. Just touch your thumb under your name, please. Miss Byrne, you first.”

I pressed my thumb against the parchment and winced as I felt a sharp prick. Lifting my thumb, I saw a small drop of blood that soon seeped into the paper. Belmont did the same, holding back a groan.

“Everything seems to be in order. Your trial will be in the main chamber behind me, Miss Byrne. Please wait—”

“The main—I’m sorry,” interrupted Garren. “You must have her confused with someone else. My father works with the council and I know the main chamber is for…a certain kind of person. Her trial is over a small matter, nothing that serious really.”

“That’s what the parchment says, Mister Garren. As I was saying, please wait to the side and  someone will escort you into the main chamber when the council is ready to proceed. Good luck to you.”

Garren nervously wrung his hands as the three of us stepped aside. Belmont and I leaned against the wall, watching him pace back and forth and whispering to himself.

“What kind of person is the main chamber for?” I asked, seeing him grow more panicked by the minute. “Why are you freaking out?”

“I’m not—the main chamber is for people like Vivienne. Those who have committed the worst crimes and the trial is in front of the entire council. I don’t understand why they’d put you through that. I know taking the blade is a serious offense but you’ve never been in trouble before. Surely they can understand that it was an accident, not done out of malicious intent.”

“Amara’s right. They already think I’m guilty,” I said, my heart sinking at the realization that I was possibly seconds from a lifetime sentence in Erinyes.

He gripped my shoulders. “No, don’t let her get in your head. You did nothing wrong, Tessa. Just stick to what we talked about and they won’t convict you of any crime. Cedric is a fair man. He won’t judge you for one mistake. With Fin’s testimony, that will make it all the more clear that you’re innocent in all this. Don’t let this shake your confidence.”

“Already made a mistake with her, boy?”

A middle-aged man in a crisp dark blue suit, his golden blonde hair slicked back with gel and not a hair out of place, walked towards us, leaning against a sterling silver skull headed cane. Judging by the color quickly draining from Garren’s face and his striking resemblance to the man, I knew that he was his father. He was exactly as Garren described: strait-laced and daunting, standing at seven feet tall.

“Father, it’s good to see you. Certainly not under these circumstances but um…oh, Mother wanted to know if you’ll be joining us for Christmas dinner. She’s invited the—”

“Your reaper is on trial and you wish to talk about a dinner?” he sneered. He sounded more like a stern boss than a father. “Keep your priorities straight, boy.”

“Um hi, Mr. Garren, sir,” I said, hoping to defuse the tension. “I’m Te—”

He glanced down at my extended hand. “I see your parents haven’t taught your manners. Children don’t speak unless they’re spoken to, Miss Byrne.”

I lowered my hand, unsure if I should even respond, and Garren threw me the tiniest apologetic look before returning to a stoic face in front of his father. Belmont decided to stay quiet to avoid his own tongue-lashing.

“She’s about to stand trial and you bring her to the council like this?” Mr. Garren asked, indicating my scrapes and bruises. “Have you no sense?”

“She was mugged on her way to meeting me. I managed to clean her up a bit. Believe me, she looked much worse before. The council should be judging her on her testimony, not how she looks. They can’t fault her for something out of her control. Father, if I may ask, why is her trial in the main chamber?”

“Are you questioning my decisions and by extension, the council’s? We do as we see fit. No matter if she stands trial in the main chamber or a bathroom stall, we will judge her based on what we hear. I’ll escort you in when the council is ready. You best not disappoint me, boy.”

His cane tapped against the tile floor as he walked over to the balding man. Garren released a deep breath once his back was turned and the two men began a deep conversation. Somehow, I was feeling worse than before.

“Your dad’s a dick,” said Belmont, breaking the silence. “He knows your name, right? He doesn’t just think it’s boy?”

Garren heaved a heavy sigh. “My father doesn’t exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. He has certain standards for the family. He wants me to be the best, always has. I’m sorry for what he said to you, Tessa. He’s old-fashioned. Now you can see why I want you to stick to what we talked about. Don’t bring up strange monsters or hellhounds. Many people on the council are like my father and the moment you bring something like that up, they’ll write you off as insane.”

“But we have proof. They can take my memories and see—Oliver, the council might be the only ones who can do something about those creatures. Some of them are centuries old. They probably know what they are and how to get rid of them.”

“Now is not the time. Let us just get through tonight,” he pleaded. “I don’t want to have to go home and give your parents bad news.”

The mood dropped considerably when his father returned, looking between the three of us with shrewd eyes. “The trial will begin momentarily. I suggest you be prepared, Miss Byrne. We will not tolerate any nonsense or pathetic excuses.”

A hearty yet oddly familiar laugh echoed through the halls. “Lionel, there’s no need to scare the poor girl. Keep talking like that and she’ll have a heart attack before this trial even begins.”


Submitted: August 13, 2016

© Copyright 2021 skv. All rights reserved.

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