Shannon's eyebrow arched and a wicked smile spread across her lips, "You can leave?" I flinched at my stupid mistake. I didn't mean to tell anyone that. Oops. I was more out of it than I thought. Her green eyes stared at me in disbelief, "Then why are you still here?"
I rested my head in my hand and looked up at her. "This is the only place to find the information I need, Shannon. But, now that they dragged Eric back...I don't know. I can't leave. Not yet. There is something here that I'm supposed to see." I gave her a lopsided smile.
We weren't best friends anymore. We never would be. The demon blood that tainted me, although it was by accident, separated us. We were cast forever in opposite sides of the same war.
She returned the grin, "Should have known. I'll come find you after the hearing and fill you in." I nodded as she walked out of the gleaming room.
Desperation flooded me. I don't know how I knew, but my time here was running out. I had to find the entrance to Hell and I had to find it now. Tears welt up behind my eyes, but I wouldn't let them fall. I couldn't utterly fail so early in my task. I was tired of feeling like an idiot. It seemed I was the last to know, the last to figure things out, and that usually lined up perfectly with being the victim. Feelings of inadequacy filled my chest. They were so drenched in sorrow that I could hardly stand it. I was a freak. A failure. Collin had been trapped down there this whole time, because of me. Why did I let him do it? Why didn't I see what was happening in front of me? Damn it! I had to do this. I had to find the entrance. This was my last chance, and I knew it.
I pushed aside the book I was reading and opened another. I had already thumbed through this one. It was filled with ancient drawings of the catacombs. It showed drawings of the tombs in fine lines and vibrant colors the way they were thousands of years ago. Although the drawings were beautiful, they held no information that I could use.
My fingers traced over the ornate decoration above an arcosolium. The arcosolium was a grave that was typically owned by the wealthy. It rested in a very large carved niche in the wall. The tomb had a fresco painted on top to seal it depicting an ancient angel watching over a woman. Sometimes the families painted an image of the deceased or a religious symbol on the grave. The painting was a form of ancient headstone. It allowed the mourners to visit her grave, and be reminded of her life.
I flipped the page. It showed several different Roman catacombs. The frescos were bright as they had once been long ago. The colors were more saturated and nothing was cracked or faded, as they were now. I leaned my head in my hand as I looked at another painting. This one was a simple depiction of Mary. It was one of the oldest surviving paintings in Christian history, and it was in one of the oldest known Roman catacombs - the Catacomb of Pricilla.
The Martis protected the tombs, and they were particularly fond of this old catacomb. I flipped in the book looking for it. There were few words, and fewer paintings at this early grave. The Catacomb of Pricilla wasn't the largest, and it didn't house as many saints and popes. With its location so far out of the way, it wasn't a major tourist attraction like the larger catacombs either. But the Catacomb of Pricilla was on the outskirts of Rome and one of the oldest tombs in the vast underground city of graves. My finger tapped the page. I looked at the crude paintings. They were much less elaborate than the others.
That was when I saw it.
My heart hammered in my chest, as my finger lingered on the piece of information I was looking for. A weird mixture of joy and disbelief flooded my body. This was it. It had to be, but it wasn't what I'd expected. That was the reason I hadn't seen it before. The entrance to Hell was indicated with a simple red mark. It was arched over an ancient tomb. Angels flanked the red symbol holding flaming swords in their hands. The two angels faced one another, with their billowy white sleeves extending toward the other. Their swords crossed and formed an X made of orange flames.
I stared at it, hardly believing that I had finally found it. This had to be it. It had to be. The early Martis marked the tomb with the red Valefar scar. It was a symbol that every Martis knew. This message was a depiction, a painting. It was a warning to keep the Martis away. Shortly after the time this catacomb was used as a burial ground, people had hidden in there to avoid persecution. Martis may have used it for similar purposes.
It made sense that there would be a warning, a reminder to stay away. The consequences of stumbling into the Underworld weren't good. Over time the Martis forgot about this portal, and the Valefar never knew it was even there. When the Martis left the area of the Underworld that they'd won, they posted a guard inside this entrance to ensure that our two worlds remained separate. The Underworld housed the demons, Valefar, the dead, and other creatures of the night. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I knew there was one person trapped down there who didn't belong - Collin.
Relief flooded my body as a satisfied smile crept across my face. I couldn't help it. The smile lit me from within. The anger and hostility that had been building inside of me for weeks was wiped out. I wanted to dance and sing at the top of my lungs that I'd found it. I'd found it. And what that meant. There was a way to get to Collin. There was a way for me to travel into the Underworld and save him. And when I found him...the memory of his arms around me flooded me. I couldn't wait. Not another second. When I stood and swirled suddenly, I bumped into Casey who was standing over my shoulder.
I sucked in a shocked gasp and scolded her without thinking. "Oww! Crap Casey! You really shouldn't do that!" My hand clutched my heart as I tried to steady myself.
She smiled at me, "I'm sorry. I thought you heard me." She looked down at the open book. "Are you finished with these?"
I nodded, and closed the books hoping she didn't see exactly what I'd been looking at. She didn't act like she had. I thought about asking her because she would have to answer with the truth, but then I saw the time. It was seven o'clock. Eric's hearing just started.
Instead, I said, "Thank you. I'll see you again tomorrow," knowing full well that I wouldn't.
I hoped that I could find Al quickly to confirm what I thought about the abandoned Martis entrance to the Underworld. The catacombs were massive, sprawling under a large section of Rome, and if I was wrong, if I picked the wrong location, there were too many tombs to randomly pick another and hope I was right. To make my escape, it was important to have the correct grave picked the first time.
The gleaming hallways were illuminated by flickering lamplights, as the sun was swallowed by the horizon. My guard followed behind me, saying nothing about my change in mood. The hallways were deserted, which was odd for this time of day, but I suspected that the Martis were all trying to hear Eric's testimony. There was tension in the air, and it only worsened as the evening progressed.
Before I found Al, I was redirected by two more Martis guards. They were dressed in blue, and they had the insignia of the court stitched onto the left breast of their uniform. I wasn't certain what their role was, but I knew it was different than my normal guard because of their uniforms. They weren't just guards. My dual escort dropped back allowing the new Martis to move in closer.
They rerouted me through the building, refusing to answer my questions. Eventually, we neared the lower chambers of the villa and I knew that they were ushering me to the hearing.
I continued to speak to them, though they didn't reply. "What do they want me for? Is Eric all right?"
Why wouldn't he be all right? He couldn't lie, well not totally, and we sealed the portal together. Case closed.
So why all the guards? And where was everybody?
A bead of sweat rolled down my spine making me shiver. This was bad. My finger nervously rubbed my ruby ring to abate my tension. There would be no coming back once I left.
The guards walked me along the corridors to the courtrooms. We passed ogling Martis who weren't important enough to get inside the court room where Eric was waiting. I'd been in the room several times, and it was equally intimidating every time. The court room was white travertine stone, like the rest of the building. Ornately decorated bleached oak dividers encircled the center of the room. The person being questioned sat alone in the center of the floor. That was where Eric sat now. Behind the dividers sat rows upon rows of Martis. They were divided into three sections, each according to his or her specialty - Polomotis, Seyer, and Dyconisis. The eldest and most influential members sat in the first row with their Martis marks exposed. Guards flanked every entrance and exit in the room. They wore the same insignia and uniform as that of my new Martis guards.
The court felt cold, and unforgiving. Not sitting next to a judge or lawyer made the person testifying feel isolated. Maybe that was the intent. If you put someone on the stand, and made them feel utterly alone, and outnumbered by row upon row of immortals...well, it's intimidating even if you are innocent. I can't even imagine how the guilty must feel.
How do you have a guilty Martis anyway? It's not like they can totally lie. And they pretty much do what they are told. They're like a bunch of lemmings in that way. Martis glared at me as I was escorted into the back of the room. I glared back. The guards stopped me before I could enter the small circle where Eric sat. They didn't stop his testimony to get me. I'd walked in while it was still going on.
Eric sat on a small white chair with an expression on his face that I'd never seen before. His brow was pinched tight, and his fingers were balled into fists on his lap. He sat at the edge of his seat like a metal pole was strapped to his spine. His amber eyes were blazing as he stared at the Martis who was questioning him - Julia.
"Answer the question, Eric. Did you or did you not see Ivy Taylor perform a demon kiss on a Valefar to revive him?" Julia's jaw locked as she gripped the oak partition in front of her.
Eric sounded like he could barely restrain himself, "Yes."
"And did you or did you not have the opportunity to destroy both Ivy Taylor and this Valefar?" Julia was leaning forward now, her eyes narrowing. The room was utterly silent.
Eric's jaw tightened. For a brief second his eyes flicked to mine, and then stared at Julia. "Yes." The gasps in the courtroom were so loud that it took a few minutes for Julia to restore order.
Another Martis sitting next to Julia spoke out. His voice resonated through the remnants of shocked whispers, "Then answer, boy. Why did you betray your own kind and let her live?"
At that second I understood what was happening. They didn't call Eric back for his testimony; they called him back to condemn him - for sparing my life. They were asking him about a different night; a night that happened so fast that I wasn't sure what happened at all. They were questioning Eric about the evening that I saved Collin. I never would have said I gave him a demon kiss. A demon kiss rips the victim's soul out of their body through a kiss. No, that wasn't what happened at all.
That night was a flood of images forever burned behind my eyes. Eric's face contorted with rage when he saw me emerge with Collin. He thought I was bound to Collin. He thought I turned Valefar. Eric's sword swung and slashed through Collin. There was so much blood. Collin's limp body lay in my lap, as I cradled him in my arms. Tears blurred my vision. And before I knew what happened, I kissed him. I gave him my blood...my tainted angel blood. But that wasn't the craziest thing I'd done. No, I did something more insane.