Page 20

Terror shot through me. I tried to move, but I was still pinned to the floor by an unseen crushing force. The pressure on my ribs increased to an unbearable degree. I couldn't breathe. Dread surged through me and shot up my spine like ice. I sucked in a small gasp of air, trying to get to Collin when his consciousness brushed my mind.

Ivy. A tear rolled down his cheek, as he gazed at me.

Collin, I thought I could save you. I thought.... A warm trail of tears spilled from my eyes and I couldn't stop them. They pooled on the ground, under my face turning the dirt to mud.

Suddenly, a screech filled the air and a single grackle flew into the room. A demon that I didn't notice before jerked me upright and hauled me away like a rag doll. Tears streamed down my face, but my limp body was no longer under my command. The demon's talon's cut into my flesh, as he lifted me over his shoulder.

"Kreturus is ready for you, again, Ivy Taylor. This is the last time, so there is no more use having trash lying around." The demon whistled one sharp note.

The black grackle swooped past me, and slowly landed in front of Collin's unmoving face. It let out an ear piercing shriek, as its razor sharp bill parted. I watched in helpless horror as it cocked its head, and fixated its cold black eyes on Collin, slowly moving toward his face. Collin's steady blue gaze ignored the bird, and locked eyes with me until the grackle's black feathers obstructed his view. With one swift movement the bird darted its shining head straight down. Collin's voice cried out as the beak sliced through his eye.

The demon stopped before leaving the room. His voice rasped deep from his chest, "Watch Ivy Taylor. Watch the pain you created." Tears welled up in my eyes, as I tried to turn away. The demon's fingers grasped my skull and forced me to watch as the bird pecked at Collin's eyes until there was nothing left but bloody sockets. Sobs shook my body as I dry heaved onto the creatures back.

He laughed saying, "This is your fault. All of it. Remember that as Kreturus takes you as his bride. Remember you could have prevented this fool's fate. But you chose not to."

A scream ripped from my throat as my chest felt like it was torn in half. My back arched in a quick movement, and the demon dissipated into black mist, and the vision ended.

The sound of a shrieking scream filled my ears before I realized that it belonged to me. My back arched as I shot up off the cave floor and slammed into Eric. He staggered backward, and sat down hard. I shut my mouth, trying to swallow the rancid fear that was making my heart explode. Gasping, I finally slowed my breathing and got control over myself. Shannon sat next to me, with an odd expression on her face. Eric was across from me, where he sat with a bloody nose.

Shannon spoke first, "What was that? What happened, Ivy? It was like a vision, wasn't."

Wide eyed, I stared at her, too horrified to speak. I bit my bottom lip until I tasted my own blood. Eric's voice made my head dart in his direction. He held a handkerchief to his nose, and dabbed as the last of his nosebleed stopped. The white cloth, covered in crimson made my pulse shoot higher. My breaths came in fast shallow pants, as I clawed backwards into the dirt. I had to leave. I had to get away. I didn't know what I just saw, but my body was telling me to run. Run now!

"Ivy," Eric reached for me, but I shook him off. Wide-eyed, and shaking, I backed away from him. Nothing he said registered. The only thing I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. The only thing I could see was the look on Collin's face as the bird...

Terror shot through me in a relentless wave, and at the same moment Eric threw his arms around me. I screamed, and kicked trying to break away from him. His soft voice slowly broke through my panic, "Ivy. Calm down. Breathe. You're all right, Ivy. You're all right." He repeated the words over and over again until the fight went out of me and I hung limp in his arms. He lowered me back to the ground and sat next to me. Shannon approached slowly, but wouldn't come closer.

My eyes stung and my face was damp. I wiped at the tears with the back of my hand. When I finally collected myself enough to sound sane, I asked, "What happened to me?" I couldn't look up at Eric. From the look on Shannon's face, it wasn't good.

Eric's hand rested on my shoulder, but I couldn't look at him. "I don't know. You fell asleep, like you were having a vision. But you started writhing, and screaming. It was like something was crushing you. Shannon and I couldn't do anything. We couldn't wake you up or call you back. I dumped the rest of my water on you hoping it would work and reset things, but it had no effect." He paused. "Eventually, you stopped struggling. That was when it got weird."

I looked up, "What do you mean?" His face revealed nothing of how he felt about the last few minutes, but Shannon's spoke with utter certainty. Her green eyes were wide, and her sun kissed skin was white.

She said, "Your mark burned on your skin. It was like someone lit it on fire. Then the color started to shift, and glowed bright red. As soon as that happened, black mist circled your body and you began to fade. It was like the mist was taking you."

I shook my head, clutching my face. "This can't be happening. It can't be. The visions were the only Martis ability I had. It can't be gone. It can't turn into this! I don't even know what that was! And what I saw, where I went..." I couldn't finish. Tears streamed down my face as my throat tightened.

Eric spoke after a few moments. "Your shadow is back. That's a good sign." He tilted his head looking at me.

My eyebrows arched in confusion, "What?"

"It disappeared with the mist," he said. "Shadows are tied to the living. Valefar and demons don't have them. Valefar manifest shadows on the surface to hide themselves and blend in, but it's fake. Being stripped of your shadow is part of the curse of the Valefar. They tried to take you in this vision. I don't know how Kreturus did it, but he must know he can. How did you come back? After your mark burned, your shadow faded and your body began to dissipate. You were nearly gone. How did you get back?"

My eyes burned as I stared at him. This was too much. I couldn't take another step. I couldn't risk that happening to Collin. How did I think I could save him? I was risking everyone's lives. Sobs choked me as they tried to bubble up my throat, but I swallowed them whole refusing to cry. Crying couldn't help me now. Nothing could.

Shannon's slight hand touched my shoulder, making me jerk. "What did you see?" It was such a simple question, but there was no way I could answer. When I tried to draw the words to my lips, the sorrow in my chest sucked them back down. Eventually, I just shook my head at her. "Ivy, we can't help you if we don't know what you saw. Come on. Tell us. Anything." Her pale face pleaded.

I swallowed hard. My voice was faint, "There's no way out. The prophecy comes true. Collin is tortured and dies. And there is nothing I can do to stop it." Hysteria crept up my throat, choking me, as tears stung my eyes. "Can't you see? This was all for nothing! I risked everything and it won't matter in the end! It didn't matter at all. It's as if this was all planned and I walked straight into it." Eric and Shannon stood next to one another watching me. It felt like I was shattering and the tiny pieces that were left of me were being blown away. Every inch of my body stung as grief dug its nails further into my stomach. I smiled weakly at Shannon. "You were right all along. I wasn't supposed to come here. You said there'd be this guy and he'd damn us all. You said I'd do horrible things because of him. And here I am, Shan. Standing in the Underworld, throwing away everyone I cared about to save one person. One person who's already been tortured and beaten beyond recognition...because of me."

Shannon's mouth fell opened. I waited for her to say something that matched the shocked expression on her face. But she said nothing. When Eric's face contorted into the same expression, I knew they weren't looking at me anymore. Something was behind me. Warm breath cascaded over my shoulder, lifting my hair in the process. Neither Eric nor Shannon said a word. They remained perfectly still. I closed my eyes and knew what it was before I opened them again.

The dragon.

It had to be. That thing was following me the entire time I'd been down here. I just didn't know what to do if it was really that close. When I opened my eyes I swallowed hard. The enormous maw filled with rows of pointed teeth loomed inches from my face. The dragon's red eye was the size of a tractor tire, and fixated on me.

My body shook as I rose slowly, and stepped away from it. One step, then two. When it jerked its head, I stopped moving and stared at it, waiting for it to attack. I locked my jaw to keep from screaming out in fear. I stared. The dragon's eye was like a human eye, but held much more detail. Shades of crimson and scarlet mingled together making the beast's iris have a jewel-like appearance. Gleaming black scales surrounded its eyes in intricate patterns that I hadn't seen from further away. I stood there transfixed, waiting for it to act. I was certain this beast was hunting me, either for itself or for Kreturus. The dragon breathed slowly, creating a warm breeze that washed over me. Its breath didn't have the rancid scent that flooded from the demons' mouths. Instead it was slightly sweet, and had the faint scent of rain during a hot summer storm.

A massive paw slid forward, but the red eye didn't stray from my face. Eric started toward me, but the beast turned its head quickly, snapping at him. He froze where he was and didn't move. When the dragon turned back to me it lowered its head onto its paw, and appeared content to just watch me. I looked at Eric, not knowing what to do. Not knowing what it wanted. If it was going to kill me or carry me off, I thought it would have done so already. But it just sat there, looking at me. Its tail swooshed suddenly, and it felt like I was looking at an overgrown cat in reptile form.

"Eric..." I whispered, "what's it doing?" My body was starting to spasm from being so tense for so long. I tried to relax, but couldn't. The tension was making me twitch uncontrollably. The dragon saw the tiny erratic movements, but didn't move.

"I'm not sure, Ivy. That's Kreturus' dragon, right?" I nodded. It had to be. "I would have thought he was here to do something, but it seems content just looking at you." Eric's voice rose as he spoke. The dragon turned its head and growled at him. Eric's voice dropped to a whisper, "Can you walk away from it, slowly?"

The dragon's scaly lips parted and a thin beam of glowing red flame shot towards Eric. He jumped out of the way, and stopped speaking.

I shrieked when the fire poured over its lips. The dragon responded by closing its mouth, and looking back at me. Its eyes glittered in the darkness. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to stop shivering. Biting my lip, I took a small step backwards. When the dragon didn't react, I took another. The entire time, my pulse raced at an ungodly rate and I was covered in sweat. I repeated one tiny step after another, all the time watching the enormous beast as I stepped away. The dragon didn't move. It didn't chase us. It just watched. When we were far enough away, I turned my back to it, but kept looking over my shoulder as we walked away.

"Kreturus. He knows we're here, doesn't he?" I asked them both.

Shannon's face showed her uncertainty. "I don't see how he couldn't. Not if that's his pet."