"I'm not sure it is," Eric replied. When I looked over at him, his face was pale and glistening. His shirt was soaked through with sweat. He shoved his hands in his pockets without looking at me. "If it was, it should have done something by now. That was the second time we saw it."
"It seems like it's been following me," I glanced back over my shoulder at the beast. Its form was a black speck. One moment it was there, and the next time I turned to look, it was gone. Its silent movements scared me, but Eric was right. Something wasn't right with that thing. "When we were separated, I felt like there were eyes on me at times, but couldn't see anything. But sometimes I heard his wings and felt their breeze brush across my face. That dragon seemed like it was trailing all of us. When the birds attacked me, it scared them off. It chased the grackles rather than me. Do you think it's possible that it's helping me?" I heard the doubt in my voice as I said it. Why would a creature of the Underworld help me? It made no sense.
Shannon shrugged, "Maybe, but I doubt it. Nothing's as it seems down here."
We followed the maze of paths through the cave. My sense of direction sucked on the surface and I could only hope that I was leading us in the right direction. I was relying on the bond. As we progressed deeper and deeper into the Underworld the bond changed. It felt like a burning hole that would consume me entirely if I didn't find Collin soon. Perhaps it was a hole. We shared the same soul. Each of us was bonded to the other in a way I didn't think was possible. I only hoped that I wasn't too late and that the last vision I saw could be altered, and didn't already occur. But my visions were getting weirder and weirder. The repetitive one with the dragon appeared three times, and always foretold the same horrible future. Its crushing talons meant the death of Collin and I, both. But, this last vision didn't make sense. It's almost like it wasn't a vision at all. I wished Al were here to ask, but she'd already told me that my powers weren't like anything she'd ever seen before. Unease chewed at me from within, as I wrung my hands.
Shannon glanced at me before she said, "You're still thinking about that last vision, aren't you."
I prickled at her words. "I'm not talking about it."
"I'm not asking you to," she said. She looked at me for a second before she continued, "I don't need details, Ivy. But, I would like to know how it changed from within the vision. Eric knows a lot of stuff. Look at him leading the way ahead of us like some deranged Boy Scout." A smile spread across her face as she laughed. I didn't mean to laugh at him, but the giggle escaped me in a swift snort as I tried to cut it off.
Eric looked back at us and murmured, "Girls behind me, and they are both laughing. Awesome." He flashed a smile and shook his head, as he climbed over a pile of stones that blocked our way. Shannon and I reached the rocks at the same time. I pretty much fell over them and slid down the other side on my butt.
"That's one way to do it," Shannon laughed. And Eric smiled at me, offering me a hand up. I grimaced at Shannon and took his hand. My jeans were so trashed. Did the Underworld have a GAP? I was covered in mud, dirt, blood, and guardian drool. A change of clothes seemed like a dream right then.
"Do you think we're closer?" Eric asked. I had no idea how big the Underworld was or how long it would take to reach Collin. But the bond seemed to change as I got closer. It was the only indication I had that we were making any progress.
"Yeah, we are," I answered. "I can feel him, but something's off. It's like the signal is getting botched. I'm not sure why." Eric's face was tired and covered in dirt. He ran his fingers through his hair and nodded.
Shannon patted my shoulder and stopped as the path forked again ahead of us. "Which way?"
I stood in the crossroads for a moment. It was not practical to stay still too long here, not if you valued your life. Unmoving objects tended to be devoured by grackles, dragons, or demons. The grackles could be heard looming in the distance, and there was never just one. I took a few steps down one path and then the other. The pull of the hollow spot in my chest, the place that the bond usually pulled, was silent. It didn't react to either path. I sat down hard, pushing my frizzing hair out of my face. "I don't know." This never happened before. I always felt something. There was always some indication telling me which way to go - a pull, a push, or a feeling. But not this time. Eric and Shannon stood watching me. "I'm sorry, but I don't know. I can't tell."
"It's not a problem," Eric said. "There was a pool a little ways back. I'll refill the water bottle. Sit and wait. You're exhausted." When Shannon came running in to warn us when we were in the catacombs, she'd had the foresight to grab a water bottle and several Powerbars. We didn't need much food, but we still needed some. Water was everywhere in this dank place, so refilling the bottle wasn't difficult. As Eric walked away, I sat and stared at the paths. My heart twisted, and I squeezed my eyes shut to prevent Shannon from seeing the pain etched on my face, but when I looked up at her, her gaze was following Eric. There was an expression on her face, and a softness in her eyes that I'd never seen in her before.
She broke her stare, and arched an eyebrow at me, "What?" She sat down next to me, and pulled her long hair over her shoulder. It was a nervous tick of hers.
A lopsided grin formed on my lips. "You like him. How did I not see this before? You like Eric!"
Shannon's spine straightened as she twisted her head towards me.
Her mouth fell open, but words were slow to form. "I...I don't like him like that. I just think he's - interesting." She shrugged and flipped her hair over her shoulder.
I laughed, "Interesting? A pork chop is interesting. That guy is a two-thousand-year-old Martis warrior. Interesting is the wrong word, Shan. Try again."
She sighed and cocked her head at me. "Fine. He's more than interesting. He's," she paused searching for the right words, "kind, honorable, and loyal."
"Okay, he's really hot. I like the way he walks, his lopsided smile, those amber eyes, and him. Okay. Just everything about him." She sighed staring down the path. This was a side of her that she rarely revealed. High school boys didn't impress her much. There was one other time she was love struck over some guy, but that was a while ago. She turned back toward me and arched an eyebrow. "So? Go ahead and say it?"
"That he's not interested in me. It's okay. I can tell. That's the way things go, I guess. I finally find someone worth looking at and he seems more interested in you." She said the comment causally, like it'd happened before, but I had no knowledge of it ever happening at all. Never mind now.
"He does NOT like me. I just remind him of someone he was fond of." She looked skeptically at me, ready to say uh huh, but I cut her off. "It is not the same thing. Reminding someone of the past is just that - I'm reminding him of someone he cared about who's dead. He feels like he's seeing a ghost when he's around me. It's horrible. No, actually liking someone brings happiness - not hollowness and grief." I rolled my eyes at her. How could she even think that? I was starting to think that I didn't know her at all anymore. Could she change that much over such a short time?
Eric returned with water and handed me the bottle first. Shannon gave me a 'told you so' glare, and I rolled my eyes at her. Eric asked, "What'd I miss?"
Shannon jumped up and dusted herself off. Smiling at him she said, "Absolutely nothing. So which way, Sacagawea?"
"Are you Louis or Clark?" Eric laughed.
I stood, ignoring the two of them and walked towards the fork in the path again. The cavern ceiling divided the path in two, touching the ground and forming the largest stalactite I'd ever seen. Knowing time was a luxury I didn't have, I took another swig of water and shoved the bottle at Shannon. With my hands emptied, I walked over to the massive rock and ran my fingers over it. The bond pulled slightly, warming my chest and giving me hope. I pressed my eyes shut to savor the sensation. I'm coming Collin. I'm coming.
Shannon's voice cut through my thoughts, "Great. We have to go through the rock, right?" When I turned, her hip was cocked and her head tilted. I nodded at her.
Eric walked to the stone, and ran his fingers over it. "How? Do you really mean go through it - as in go inside of it? Or go over it?"
"I think we have to go inside of it." I dragged my fingertips along the cold damp stone. There was no entrance, no obvious door to walk through. The horrifying music of demon bird calls caught my ear, and Eric and I turned at the same time to see them coming in the distance.
"Grackles," all three of us said in unison.
"We've got to get out of here." Shannon said urgently, and started pressing against the rock. She slid her hands all over the stone, but nothing moved.
The ear piercing cries grew louder. "There's no time!" Panic raced up my spine in a cold flash. All three of us dragged our hands over the stone, looking for an entrance, but nothing appeared. My heart pounded faster in my chest. The memory of what those birds can do came back to me. Their cries made my skin crawl. Desperately we tried everything we could think of to open the rock. We had celestial silver, brimstone, and Apryl's necklace.
"The necklace!" Eric shouted. "It opened the crypt. Try it on the stone! Do it now!"
I pressed her necklace to the stone but nothing happened. The swish of a thousand wings echoed off the stone walls. My throat constricted as I looked over my shoulder and saw a mass of black beating wings. Their calls were so loud that I couldn't hear anything else. I couldn't even hear the rapid beating of my own heart. I screamed and slammed my hand against the stone, half clawing at it. The rock sliced my palm open, but I didn't care. The grackles and their scissor beaks were within a few feet of us. I pressed my face to the rock and tried to block out the spaces by pressing my arms and hands into the stone. Suddenly, the rock turned to sand and I fell through. Eric and Shannon followed. As we tumbled through the sand-like stone, the opening that swallowed us sealed. Silence washed over us as we stared at each other wide-eyed.
"What happened? What'd you do?" Eric asked.
Breathing heavily I stood, and looked at my palm. Without a word, I held it up. Apryl's necklace was in my palm, and covered in dark red blood. "It wanted blood, brimstone, and silver. Greedy rock." I meant it jokingly, but Eric nodded.
"Indeed. And you are certain we have to go this way?" Eric looked around. The cavern walls were paler, almost as if they'd been dry-brushed with gold. He swallowed hard.
I turned to see what was concerning him only to be confronted by a narrow golden passage. The floor was lined with sapphires. The walls were real gold with a dull luster. Etchings were carved into the precious metal revealing beautiful flowers with jewel-crusted centers. It was beautiful. It was beautiful. Oh no. My worried gaze cut to Eric for an explanation, but it was Shannon who spoke.
"This is the Lorren, isn't it?" Her fingers touched the golden wall gently. She turned back toward us with her eyes as big as emeralds.
"What's the Lorren?" I asked. "Where are we?"