Shannon spoke, "Why don't you let us decide that. What's the price?"
Apryl's eyes slid between Shannon, Eric, and me. "What kind of Valefar are you? How do you not know that!" She laughed at us for a second, then her expression changed and the laughter died in her mouth. "Oh my God! You aren't Valefar, are you? Otherwise you'd know the price. You'd also know that there is no way you could pay it." She inhaled deeply, and a slight smile crept across her face. I recognized that smile. It was conjured from the delight in smelling mortal blood, and Martis blood was even more potent. She was trying to catch our scent.
I spoke before anyone else could, "I'm damned. It doesn't matter what I am. Or what I'm not. I was sent here. Kreturus wants me and this is the entrance I chose. Tell me the price. I'm passing this way no matter what it cost."
She slid her fingers along the edge of her black blade, and tilted her head back. "Well, good luck with that. Only the living can pass this way. They must cast their spirit into the Pool of Lost Souls. Admission here isn't cheap. It isn't some amusement park filled with cheap thrills. The damned are enslaved here for eternity. Do you really want to cast off your soul? Or whatever you have? I'm still wondering why I can't catch your scent." She sniffed at me, looking perplexed.
"Never mind that," I said. "The Pool of Lost Souls, what is it? How do we do it and does it require a soul for passage or just a piece of a soul?"
A smile slid across her face, "So, you've dealt with Valefar before, huh? The Pool of Lost Souls is what binds your body to the Underworld. Once it contains your soul, you belong to Kreturus. But you're right. It doesn't require an entire soul for passage. If you can bear the agony, it will take a severed soul and allow you to pass."
I turned to Eric and Shannon. "It's a Demon Kiss, isn't it?"
Eric nodded, "That's what it sounds like. And there is no way around it. The Underworld entrances require payment. I just had no idea what it was. If you want to keep going, you don't even have to ask me, Ivy. I'm coming."
I turned to Shannon, "You should go back and hide. They won't find you. And besides, it's me and Eric that they really want. I can't ask you to come with me."
Her green eyes were serious for once, "Who said you had to ask? Ivy, I'll pay the price. I'm not letting you go down there alone."
Turning back to Apryl, I reluctantly looked her in the eye. She didn't remember me. I couldn't touch her. I couldn't hug her and tell her everything would be all right. For all I knew, it wouldn't. Suppressing the thoughts, I said, "Take us to the Pool of Lost Souls." I never thought I'd volunteer for a Demon Kiss, but as it turned out, that wasn't exactly what it was.
I followed my sister relieved that I didn't have to fight her. That was one thing that I wouldn't have been able to do. Shannon and Eric remained silent as we walked. Panicked thoughts brushed my mind. I had no idea if I could bear another demon kiss, or if my soul would survive the encounter. I'd already been attacked by a Valefar a few months ago, and lost all but a small piece of my soul. And that piece I severed willingly to bring Collin back to life. I was playing a deadly game and I knew it. At some point, the amount of spirit left in my body would not be enough to sustain the angel blood that flowed through my veins. When that time came, the demon blood would overtake me, and I'd become a full-fledged Valefar.
My nails bit into my palms, making me realize exactly how much that scared me. Being enslaved was the worst thing I could possibly imagine. As weeks slid into months, I had started to see that my fate was simply foretold. The only person to blame for casting that dark destiny in stone was me. It was completely my fault. It was my fault because I couldn't abandon Collin, and I couldn't watch a sword slice Eric in two. And now, I couldn't deny the price of passage into the Underworld, even though it was more than I could pay.
We followed Apryl along the cavern pathways. The stone glowed a faint reddish brown like it was illuminated from within. Water was forever dripping from somewhere, but I never saw the source. Periodically the sound of beating wings filled the air, but I never saw what made that noise either. The Underworld wasn't like anything I'd expected.
A chill ran through me when I first saw the Caribbean blue waters. They looked so out of place, lapping at the jagged dark stone that stretched from floor to higher than the eye could see. The light blue water stood out against the dismal backdrop like an oasis of hope in the midst of despair. Its false promise of peace was part of what made the Pool of Lost Souls so deadly. The second part I would soon learn.
Eric, Shannon, and I stopped a few feet from the water's edge. As I watched the crystal blue liquid move, I realized it wasn't made of water at all. Instead it was thick like gel, swirling and lapping at the shore. Streaks of pale green, laced with sea foam, swirled suspended in its depths. The Pool stretched on forever, and despite the crystal clarity, the bottom was not visible. I swallowed hard, not liking this mutant-water one bit.
"Step to the water's edge, but do not step into the Pool. If you do, the lost souls will pull you in. Your feet must stay on dry ground," Apryl warned.
I looked at her, and asked, "Why are you helping us? Aren't you the Guardian?"
She looked at me with that expression of hers. The one that said she liked you, but she thought you were a total idiot. It was a glimpse of the old Apryl. "I'm helping you because..." she shrugged, "I'm not sure. It's like I know you or something."
Shannon's green eyes were wide as she looked from me back to the Pool. "It's going to be deceptive, isn't it?" She swallowed hard. "There is no way to just cast some soul in and walk away, is there?"
Apryl didn't answer. Instead she turned her dark eyes to me and said, "Nothing down here is as it seems. Don't embrace the waters or anything that comes from them." Embrace the waters? I had no idea what she meant, but nodded at her anyway. It dawned on me that she may not be helping us, as I'd thought. She wasn't my sister anymore. She was a Valefar. I wondered if I should believe her, but why would she lie? I'd already volunteered for a demon kiss. How much worse could it be? As I looked harder at the Pool, I could see the green streaks moving more rhythmically, as if they were waiting for us to join in and dance. "Step to the edge and do what you must." Apryl extended her arm, and stepped away from us.
Swallowing hard, I turned toward Eric and then Shannon, "Ready?" The nodded in unison. My chest felt like it was going to tear open as I took those few short steps. The blue swirled in thick slow circles, as the pale green shapes rose and fell below the surface. As I got closer, I saw that the shapes were people. Their forms swam in the Pool, suspended, and trapped for eternity. Eyes wide, I turned in panic to look at Eric. I had no idea there were people in there, but he didn't see me.
His face paled as his eyes widened, fixated on the Pool in front of him. His body was shaking as he stood staring transfixed on her face. A whisper of a word slid out of his throat, "Lydia."
The terror in his eyes made me turn back to the water. I didn't understand what was happening until I turned. A familiar face strode towards me across the Pool's surface. His skin glowed with a pale shimmer, but his eyes were still sapphire blue. My chest heaved as a sharp pain tore through me, stealing my breath. Collin. It was Collin walking towards me. I was no longer aware of the others. My only thoughts were of Collin - the scent of his skin, the feel of his touch on my cheek, the taste of his lips on mine.
My foot lifted to take a step towards him when a voice snapped me back to reality, "Stay where you are little sister, or you'll never survive." Apryl's voice made my neck snap towards her. She held my gaze and repeated the warning. "It's not really him. This creature has come to take your soul. It'll pull you into the Pool if you let it."
My voice caught in my throat as I looked back at him. I was mesmerized. It didn't even dawn on me until later that she said, little sister. She remembered me, but I was so transfixed on Collin walking towards me that I didn't notice. "No, it can't be true. That's him. It's the good part that was stolen. He wouldn't hurt me. I know it." Reassurance flooded my body every time I looked at the figure on the water. I hadn't seen him since the night he saved me. And now he was right in front of me, only steps away. If I just stepped closer, I could wrap my arms around him again.
"It's not him. That's the Guardian. It's pulled every single person who tried to pass into this Pool. I can't stop you from trying to pass it. I'm bound to the Pool. I can't go past this point. But, you can if you remember that this isn't who you think it is. If you remember not to touch it and pay passage." She folded her arms and leaned back against the cave wall.
I turned back to the water's edge. My breath caught in my throat as Collin's form stood right in front of me with his ankles submerged in the lapping waters. I wanted to throw my arms around him and feel his warm body against mine, but I hesitated. Looking into his eyes, I waited for him to speak, but he said nothing. His face slowly showcased my favorite expressions - the one that made it impossible to deny him anything.
Apryl's voice broke the silence, "Ivy, I'm in there too." Shocked, I turned to look at her. Sadness weighed on her soft features, deeply carving lines into her face that hadn't been there before. "I've stood on the water's edge seeing the one thing that I desire most, but cannot have - myself. I watch her come to the edge, but I'm unable to do anything about it. She's like an image trapped in a reflection. There is no way to undo what was done to me. Or him. Only the ruler of the Underworld has that power." Apryl's words sunk into me. She'd tried to get her soul back. She'd stood here and been unable to reclaim her life, even though it was right in front of her. I closed my eyes hard, and looked away. Demons were cruel. They never let you forget your place, and every action was doused with pain.
Just then Eric snapped. His foot lifted forward and then the other.
"No!" I screamed, but it was too late. He had stepped into the crystal blue liquid. The waters surrounded the single foot that touched the water, as Eric cried out in pain.
His scream awoke Shannon from her dazed trance, no doubt seeing someone she loved manifested in front of her. Someone she wanted, but couldn't have. She shook her head and ran toward Eric, careful not to touch the water. "What do we do?" she asked as she went to pull him back.
"No! Don't touch him! It might be able to pull you in too!" Panic was flooding me. Eric's back arched as he let out a raw scream, frozen by the waters that trapped him. His face contorted with pain as his body shook.
I recognized that scream. It was the sound Martis made when they were being demon kissed. The Guardian was sucking his soul into the Pool. There was no time. If I waited another second we would lose him. I wasn't certain if we could touch him or not, but there was no other choice. I threw myself between the Guardian and Eric. Lydia's pale likeness melted down into the water and Collin was the only figure remaining. His blue eyes pierced me, making me think I couldn't possibly do this, but there was no other choice.
Reaching behind me, I touched my fingertips to Eric's chest. A pulsing pale purple light came from my fingers and sent a shock through him. I pushed him back onto the shore, where he collapsed. It was completely silent. My heart thundered in my chest as I strode further into the lake and up to Collin's form. With each step I took forward, he took one back. But I kept walking towards him. The thing was, with each passing step, it looked more and more like him. I kept telling myself, This isn't him. It's not him. But, his eyes made me doubt myself. These waters made me uncertain. They held power that I didn't understand and made me question everything I knew. If I was closer to Collin, I could tell if it was truly him.