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He looked away from me, and pushed his hair away from his face. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath; "I'm not really here with you right now. I thought I felt the bond earlier and wanted to make sure you weren't here. I thought it might have been a vision, but it wasn't because here you are." He took my hands in his and spoke urgently. "You have to leave. The only reason I'm still alive is because I'm bait. They want you. They're keeping me hidden near Kreturus and hoping you'll come all the way down there to try and save me. You can't do this Ivy." He gently brushed my cheek. "He wants you and will stop at nothing to get you. He wants your power. Please, promise me you won't do this. Please." His eyes were glassy as he begged me to turn back.

"I can't go back. No, please, listen to me. The Martis condemned me. If I go back to the surface they'll kill me. There is no safe place for me, Collin. There's nowhere to hide. I'm dead no matter where I go." I paused, pulling him to me. My fingers rested on his face, making him meet my eyes. "I can't leave you here. I love you, Collin. Don't tell me to turn back again. I can't do it. I can't pretend you don't love me. I can't act like we never met." His lips parted, but no words came out. His gaze rested on my face and looked grieved. I didn't know what else to do so I pulled him to me, clutching him tighter in my arms. After a few moments, I loosened my grip and kissed his temple. "Tell me how you're here, but you're not here. I don't understand." He looked away from me, and tried to step back, but I wouldn't let him. "Collin. Tell me."

"It's a Valefar power. It was the only way I could see if you were really here. I used the bond to track you to this point. You were so scared earlier that it wasn't hard to find you. The bond is more intense when you're afraid. After that, the bond paled, so I thought it was a vision and you were gone again. But the bond didn't completely break off." He swallowed hard. "I'm not really here. For me it's like a dream. My real body is hidden below. What's in front of you is a manifestation of dark magic."

"I don't understand. Why didn't you teach me to do this when you showed me how to use my Valefar powers? What did you do to yourself?" My eyes lingered on his face. Dread crept up my throat as his silence became longer and longer. "Collin...?"

"I didn't teach you because it would have corrupted you further. It's an acquired power. One that can be used when the right things are within reach. It requires a sacrifice. Blood." He closed his eyes. "With enough demon blood, a Valefar can split in two. The second body, this one, becomes whatever I want. It looks like whoever I want, says whatever I want, and sounds the way I want. It leaves my true body, and is typically used to lure prey back to the Valefar. It has risks that most wouldn't attempt, but I had to. I split myself, and made myself look and sound like the Collin you saw three months ago. But this body is a shell and will dissipate as soon as I release the magic I'm using - or I become too weak to maintain it. And I'm weak Ivy. You'll start to see what I look like now. What they've done to me."

I couldn't breathe. The horror of what he did choked me. A sacrifice? What did he do? Months ago, he willingly took my place and endured agony since then, just to warn me to turn back now. I'd pushed him farther into this by making him come looking for me. No words would form in the storm of thoughts battling through my mind. Instead, I reached for his face and pressed my lips against his. When he didn't resist, I pressed my body harder to him, wrapping my hands around his neck. My tongue traced his soft mouth, as his lips parted and I kissed him deeper. My heart raced in my chest. Warm tears streaked down my cheeks. His thumbs brushed through the tear trail, and then Collin's lips moved to trace the path down my cheeks. He gently kissed the tears away. Then he pressed his lips softly against each closed eyelid. He pulled me against his chest and kissed the top of my head. I could hear his pounding heart as he held me close.

"I'll help you as much as I can," he said. "But, I have to be careful. If they notice what I've done, they'll know you're here." I nodded. "Ivy, nothing is as it seems down here. Be especially careful of anyone who claims to be me. Run from any place that is beautiful. Beauty doesn't belong down here. Soon, you'll come to a beautiful forest. You'll see what I mean when you get there. Vile creatures live there. Remember that demons aren't the only things that can kill you down here. Just about anything can tear you to shreds." He pulled me away from his chest, and tilted his head. "Did you say you kicked the Guardian's ass?" A crooked smile slid across his face.

I nodded, smiling slightly. "Yeah. He's blind with severe dental problems right now." I held up the tooth shard that I'd kept.

Collin looked at it and then back at me with his mouth hanging open. "Is that one of its teeth?" he asked wide-eyed. I nodded and explained to him what happened as quickly as I could. As I spoke I could see Collin's skin discoloring in places. Red wounds and black bruises washed over his skin like watercolors. Welts appeared on his body containing long lacerations. His brilliant blue eyes faded into sunken dark orbs. His strong muscles and smooth skin began to melt away revealing a boy who'd been beaten beyond recognition.

My throat tightened as I spoke. I wanted to pretend not to notice, but I couldn't. They were torturing him. I swallowed hard, as I reached for his hollowed cheek, "Collin...I'll get you out." He smiled weakly, kissed my forehead, and vanished like mist in the sun.


My feet were dragging, scraping against the stones as I followed where the bond pulled me. The cawing of birds still echoed around me. Cries of animals rang out in the distance. I wasn't alone down here, but so far I'd only heard sounds, and felt breezes as the Underworld creatures moved quickly around me.

I was so drained that I could hardly stand. Moving my legs took overwhelming effort. The desire to sit down and cry consumed me, but I couldn't give in to it. I had to keep going. I wrapped my arms around my middle as I walked, thinking about how Collin's arms held me tightly not so long ago. The memory of his skin on mine was still vivid. It warmed me inside to think about it. But, when I saw what he really looked like before he disappeared, before the magic wore off and he was forced back to the cell below, I couldn't bear it. Pressing my eyes closed tightly, I tried to shake the utter agony painted on his face from my memory. But it didn't recede. It was etched in my mind, always returning to the front of my thoughts.

Anger coursed through me, mingled with despair. Collin was older than me. Wiser. He knew what he was getting into. I didn't. And it didn't look like he could survive whatever they were doing to him much longer. What made me think I could? Hoping not to get caught seemed like a stupid plan. If I did get caught, I knew my fate would be worse than Collin's. But, I couldn't leave him. Just look at what they did to him! Abandoning him was something I couldn't do, even if I got my ass handed to me. Even if I risked everyone and everything else to do it.

As I walked through the Underworld, it was becoming clearer that the only way for me to save Collin was to defeat Kreturus. When I first thought about rescuing Collin, I thought I could sneak in, take him, and sneak out. I didn't have more of a plan than that, and it seemed good enough. But now, I knew there would be a confrontation. There was no way Kreturus would allow me to leave. And if I wanted to leave with Collin, it would be a fight to the death. A chill ran over my skin, and I pulled my arms tighter to my body. I had no idea how to fight a demon. If I saw Kreturus right now, I'd die. I was sure of that. How do you fight an ancient demon? One that was so powerful, even the Martis couldn't contain him forever? But, somehow, that's what I was supposed to do. That damn prophecy actually made me feel a little better. It was the only thing that said I could destroy Kreturus. It was the rest of the prophecy that I wanted no part of.

The path I was following had been dingy brown, illuminated by glowing rocks that resembled dying embers. Nothing changed. The Underworld looked the same since I left Apryl at the Pool of Lost Souls. I took one step, and then another, as hopelessness washed my pride away. It was several minutes before I realized what I was looking at. The scenery had changed gradually, becoming lighter and brighter until I stopped before massive trees. Their trunks were as wide as houses, and they gleamed silver, stretching up hundreds of feet into the air. The leaves made a dim chiming sound as they moved. My eyes darted from tree to tree, looking for something in the branches high above me that caused the limbs to shake, but there was nothing.

Uncertain, I stepped forward, knowing I had to pass this way. Collin said to beware of the forest; to beware things of beauty in this place. This forest of silver more than qualified. It was stunning. I wanted to stop and admire the delicate silver leaves and their intricate filigree. Each leaf appeared to have a different pattern cut into the silver, resulting in a different toned chime when the leaves shook. Clusters of gemstones grew at the tree's base in vibrant jewel tones. Little golden flowers sprouted up all over under the canopy of silver. They looked like little golden buttercups. I stood there in awe, staring at the forest in front of me. Its beauty was unreal.

Just then, my neck prickled. But, when I looked behind me no one was there. My pulse shot up a notch, and I kept walking. The trees would rustle and then fall silent. It happened over and over again. And it was oddly quiet in the silver woods. The cries I'd heard earlier must have been completely muted by the massive trees. It spooked me. Forests usually housed life and have the noises to let you know. This forest was silent, save for the jingling of the metal leaves. It felt wrong. As I walked deeper into the woods the feeling of eyes watching me didn't dissipate. Instead the feeling grew stronger. My eyes darted from silver tree, to golden bush, and back again. There was nothing there, but my stomach churned and the prickling sensation on my neck wouldn't go away. Finally, I stopped and turned. My heart was thumping in my chest. The muscles in my legs twitched, ready to run. It seemed like something was following me at a distance for a while. But, now it was close. Very close.

Peering into the trees, I finally saw what was following me. A small black bird sat high above me on a branch. It sat there, looking like a spot of ink against the ethereal silver canopy. Its black feathers gleamed with a purple tint. Its razor sharp beak sat below black staring eyes. Its head twitched from side to side, but its eyes remained locked on me. It was a grackle. Smiling slightly, I looked at it and felt stupid. Birds didn't scare me and this bird was tiny - smaller than a crow. What could it possibly do to me? My nerves were running on empty. I couldn't believe a bird spooked me. I laughed nervously to myself as I turned to start walking again. But then my breath caught in my throat and I nearly choked. There were hundreds of them. No, thousands. Grackle bodies lined so many of the silver branches that they formed a black wall.

The first grackle I saw made its horrible call. The high pitched screech shattered the silence. Suddenly, the birds swooped from their perches, extending their black wings, and dove at me. My arms shot up to cover my head, as my feet hit the path hard and fast as I ran. Several of the birds dive-bombed me, snipping at my skin with their sharp beaks during each pass. I screamed as one tore through my hand. Blood dripped from my arm, but I didn't dare stop to see the damage. I ran. These birds were trying to rip me apart. They seemed to savor the taste of flesh. Another bird nipped my leg, tearing a piece of flesh away. A wild scream sprang from my throat. My heart pounded so violently that I thought it would explode. I ran so fast, and scared out of my mind that I didn't notice the change in the forest. I passed splintered silver trees, and jumped over fallen logs that blocked my path. The little golden flowers were dug up, and wilted. Many of the trees had holes in their branches, like a Mac truck had driven straight through them. Another scream tore from my throat as more grackles tore at the flesh on my arms.