I knocked on the door and waited. Alexander, Eztil, Phoenix and I with windburn on our cheeks and numb fingertips. It took a while but, eventually, the door opened slightly. A little, old lady with glasses peeked through the crack in the door.
“Who are you?” She demanded, her tone was harsh, “Want to you want?”
I cleared my throat, “My name is Ivy Taylor. I’m looking for the man who saw Hades, God of the Underworld?”
The lady cackled maniacally, “You must think I’m stupid! You’re just another one here to laugh, here to make fun of us!”
I shook my head, trying to make out a face behind the door, “No, I really need to talk to him. It’s important.”
“You’re too late, sweetie.” Her voice sounded immediately sad.
“Too late?” I repeated, the wind was so harsh it burned against my ears as it blew.
“The man you’re looking for is dead.” Came the solemn reply.
My stomach made an unexpected turn and for a dreadful moment I thought I was going to be sick. I frowned, “No, that’s impossible,” I pressed, stepping forwards, “He was just on the news a few days ago.”
“Don’t come any closer!” The woman screeched.
I jumped back. My foot slipping on a patch of ice beneath me, I hurtled backwards only to be caught in Alexander’s arms before I cracked my head on the ground.
“He’s dead,” She repeated in despair, “He’s not here.”
“Can’t you tell us anything?” I begged, desperate now.
“No,” The old lady barked, “Leave me alone.”
“Please,” I pleaded, “Please, just let us in.”
“No!” She shrieked, “Go away!”
Alexander pushed passed me, “Look lady, we have traveled a very long way to get some answers. We’re not leaving until we do.”
“My husband is dead,” The woman responded with sinister laughter, “And you’re complaining about a wasted journey?”
I blinked at the door, “I’m sorry about your husband, I really am, but please just talk to us?”
“I cannot help you,” She snapped, “Turn around and go back to where you came from. You’re not coming in.”
“Ma’am,” Eztil marched up until he was in line with me, “Was your husband taken by a demon?”
There was a pause. The woman was silent.
The door swung open and the woman gestured for us to go inside. “Actually, I think you lot better come in.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” I walked passed her and into her warm house, dragging snow in with me on my boots.
Inside it was practically empty, there was a kitchen with minimal appliances and a set of six rickety dining chairs placed around a withered table. There was no television, just a bookshelf overflowing with paperbacks, the novels were all old and faded with their pages fraying at the corners. There was a couch, plain and ordinary – it didn’t look very comfortable or inviting. I didn’t know where to sit, so I stood and waited for the others to join me.
We all stood there awkwardly for a second until the lady said, “Well, sit down. You must be freezing. I’ll make you all some tea.”
“Thank you,” I said again, taking a seat at the table.
As the woman bustled around her kitchen, the others took seats around the table too. Phoenix unzipped her coat and removed her hat, rubbing her hands together in attempt to warm them with friction. She unwrapped the scarf from around her face and neck, her nose was red and running.
The old lady came and sat with us. “What do you want to know?” She questioned.
“First of all,” I smiled, “Your name.”
She sniggered, “Hilda, my name is Hilda.”
I looked at her properly for the first time. Hilda had a delicate and fragile build with sagging skin. She was quite bony with sharp angles to her face that made me think she was much frailer than she made out. Her clothes were too big for her but bright in colour which only drew further attention to the yellowed pallor of her face and her sunken eyes, squinting behind her glasses.
“So,” Hilda took a deep, quivering breath, “You believe in all this Greek God nonsense, do you?”
Phoenix sniffed before replying with, “Don’t you?”
“Hardly,” Hilda laughed, flashing her crooked teeth, “I knew my husband was crazy from the moment I met him, it didn’t stop me loving him.” Her wrinkled skin looked paper thin in the dim light of the room.
“Crazy?” I quizzed, flexing my fingers as the feeling began to return in them, “How so?”
Hilda shrugged weakly, “At first it was nothing out of the ordinary. He used to be passionate about his little pocket watch, well it wasn’t his to be exact. It had been handed down to him by his father and his father before that. He took it everywhere with him, even to bed.”
Alexander and Eztil exchanged a swift glance of nervousness, Phoenix shifted uncomfortably in her chair. My skin prickled uneasily but I didn’t say anything, but I knew. We all knew that Hilda’s husband was being hunted by the Shadows, his soul was owed to Hades. How did you even begin to explain that to a non-believer?
“Then,” Hilda continued, not noticing the change in atmosphere among us, “He started acting odd – very odd indeed. Started rambling about demons and old Greek myths, soon he was obsessed with those too. He began to dot the house with little things that looked like tea bags, I used to ask him what they were and he always told me they were to keep the bad men out.”
I listened to her words intently, seeing the hidden secrets behind her husband’s actions but didn’t call her up on them.
The kettle from the stove let out a high-pitched whistle, making the five of us jump.
Hilda smoothed back her thin, silver hair, “I’ll just pour that for you.” She got up from the table and shuffled back into the kitchen.
As soon as Hilda was out of earshot, Phoenix leaned forward and hissed, “Don’t you think it’s a little bit suspicious?”
Eztil leaned in closer, as did I with my ears prickling, “What?” He murmured.
“Hilda’s husband, his pocket watch, the whole thing?” Phoenix whispered, “It’s a bit strange, isn’t it?”
“No stranger than what we’ve been doing with our lives for the past seven months,” Alexander shrugged.
“It’s just like those reports we read on the internet before we left home,” Phoenix continued with a low voice, “Marie in Holland and Nancy in Germany. Both of those girls had an heir loom, both of them were killed by Shadows. Doesn’t that sound just like this?”
“What are you lot whispering about?” Hilda returned carrying the mugs of tea on a tray.
The four of us sat back hurriedly and chimed, “Nothing,” As innocently as we could manage. Even I wasn’t convinced we weren’t up to something.
Hilda’s wise eyes narrowed at she took her seat at the table once more, “How did you know about the shadows?”
“We’ve been running from Hades,” Alexander straight-up admitted, taking a sip of his tea. Out in the open I could have laughed at how absurd it was, he sounded mad. “He wants us all dead.”
Tears welled up in Hilda’s eyes, “You mean, it’s all true? Everything my husband told me.”
“We think,” I added, “He traveled to the Underworld, but we have no idea how.”
“Excuse me for asking but,” Alexander coughed, putting the back of his hand against his mouth, “How did your husband die?”
“He went exploring in a cave nearby, close to where he said he saw Hades and I haven’t seen him since. That was over a week ago,” Hilda pulled a handkerchief out from her cardigan pocket and wiped her eyes.
“That’s it?” Alexander said, “No missing heart, or flesh wounds?”
“They never found his body, so how should I know?” Hilda whimpered, “He just disappeared.”
Eztil spoke up, “I am sorry about your husband.”
After a few moments of her blubbering, I reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently, “Could you show it to us, please?”
“Hades has our friends,” Phoenix said in earnest, she was almost crying, “This could be our only chance to save them.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to cry, to mourn for Elle and David. There was, somewhere hidden deep within my tear ducts little pearls of salt water waiting to trickle down my pale cheeks, but I held them back. I couldn’t let everyone see me cry.
After a long silence Hilda nodded, “I’ll just get my coat.”
The snow outside had stopped leaving a fresh, crisp sheet over the world. I still pulled on my gloves and an extra pair of thermal socks as the air was still sharp. The weather was almost clear now, with only few clouds streaking across the sky. The sun was bright, although brought no warmth, as the wind still howled overhead.
Hilda led us out of town and over the ice, flat except for a few hardy tufts of grass peeking out of the snow. I winced as the gale sliced at my exposed face, rubbing its skin raw and chapping my lips. The five of us trudged on with nothing but the sound of crunching snow beneath our feet.
“Here,” Hilda stopped suddenly in her tracks. “I won’t take you any further.”
“You’re not coming in?” Alexander asked.
Hilda shook her head, her skin cracked from prolonged exposure to the cold winds. “This is where my husband died. No, I’m not going in.”
I looked passed the old woman and my eyes landed on colossal cave entrance, somehow hidden in the rock face. I gawked as I further discovered the cavern was formed completely of ice.
“I’ll meet you all back at the house,” Hilda began the short journey back before adding, “Be careful.”
Inside the entrance of the cave the sun was still bright but we were diminished into total darkness the deeper we went. Eztil flicked on his flashlight and, as the biggest of our group, led the way cautiously. We marched onward, guided only by the yellowish light from Eztil’s torch. The air inside the cave was so cold it made my breath saw at my throat as I inhaled and caused an agonizing pain in my lungs.
“I am exhausted,” I panted, my breath fogging in front of my face, “Is it much further?”
“Just think,” Phoenix mumbled, “You don’t have to lug this giant clump of metal around with you,” She shook her leg and it jingled mechanically.
Eztil piped up, “I do!” His thundering voice bounced off the walls of ice, reverberating along the tunnel.
The icicles above us, taking the place of stalactites, threatened to drop from the ceiling. I could still hear the wind whistling along the passageway and the constant drip of water. Our boots shuffled over the floor, Alexander nudged a loose rock in the darkness with his foot and sent echoes down the underpass.
“It’s freezing down here,” Phoenix complained, wrapping her fleece tighter around her frost-bitten skin, “I think I’m going to get hypothermia.” She followed this statement with a sneeze, then with wide eyes added, “See?”
“I knew a girl once.” Eztil recalled, “She was beautiful. Dana her name was. She was skating across a frozen lake. The ice cracked beneath her. She got hypothermia and died.”
A sheet of awkward silence fell over the cavern.
Alexander, with a straight face, said, “You’re one of the happiest men I have ever had the fortune of meeting.” He then grimaced, lumbering on.
The cavern then became rather thin, I squeezed through a gap in the ice and the back of my coat scraped against the wall behind me. I emerged into an opening, shocked to see the snow was falling again. “This must be it,” I said in awe as the others made it through the crack and joined me.
Phoenix set her knapsack on the ground and untied its frozen laces, bringing out the book Morganite had given her, along with a couple of candles, to use to summon the Wraith. She fumbled with the pages, her fingers probably numb again.
We waited as Phoenix lured herself into a deep trance, at first I thought she was sleeping until she started chanting in Ancient Greek, words I didn’t understand. She lit the red candle in front of her with her mind, still chanting. The air around her began to shimmer and glisten, engulfing her in a magical mist then she spoke in English, “The god of the dead binds thee to me!” She called out into the sky and the swirling air surrounding her vanished.
“What now?” Alexander whispered.
Phoenix sighed heavily, opening her eyes, “Now, we wait for the red candle to burn out.” She parked herself onto a rock formation protruding from the sheet of snow, still holding the book in her stiff hands.
“I am just glad we are not being haunted forever by a tormented soul,” Eztil grumbled.
We watched impatiently as the red wax melted down, dribbling into the snow and I hated to admit it but it looked like blood. It was like watching a fresh layer of paint dry, painfully slow. Until, out of nowhere, a strong gust of wind blew the flickering flame of the candle out.
A figure rose out of the ground. First the crown of its head, followed by a pair of jagged shoulders then arms and a skeletal torso until finally a pair of gangly legs. Its skin was withered, grey in colour, but its hair was white and cascaded down its back to the floor. Its eyes were almond-shaped but almost hollow, a deep shade of blue as if bruised.
It stared at us blankly, blinking a few times, and then the Wraith bellowed, “Who dares to summon me?” Its voice was disturbing but not as disturbing as its nails, a set of dragon talons ready to strike us down in one strike.
Phoenix rose to her feet, her posture unafraid, “I did. I am Phoenix Knight, a Wiccan. I command you to open the portal here.”
“I am the ghost in the night that people fear. I am the tormentor of the many corpses claimed by death. I am the Wraith.” It proclaimed, hissing like a snake. “You cannot command me.”
“If you do as I say,” Phoenix’s words rang out clearly, “We will set you free.”
The Wraith faltered. It obviously hadn’t been expecting this offer. After pondering Phoenix’s words for a few moments it mocked, “My Master,” It bowed sourly, “What can I do for you?”
“Open the portal.” Phoenix repeated, she lifted her chin confidentially.
“Fine.” It spat back at her. It lifted its bony arms and clicked its elongated fingers. The portal appeared almost immediately, it was the purest thing I had ever seen. It looked like a twirling cloud, light filtering from it gently as if we were in the heavens. I gaped at it in complete wonder, wanting so terribly to reach out and touch it.
“What do we do now?” Eztil asked. I was unable to make out who he was addressing, was it me or the demon?
The Wraith answered for me, “Verona, go to Verona.”
“As in, Verona, Italy?” I drew my brows together, lines forming between them.
“No, as in the Verona in Kentucky.” The demon sneered sarcastically, its lip curling up in disgust, “Of course, Italy.”
Phoenix squealed excitedly, her proud stature fading away in a split second, “I’ve always wanted to go to Europe!”
“You’ve what?” Alexander rose from the ground, closing the book and placing it into his backpack.
“Didn’t you hear?” I arched an eyebrow at him inquisitively.
He grinned, “I think only canines can hear noises that high pitched.”
We watched as Phoenix lit a black candle to dismiss the Wraith, she lifted her hands to the sky and chanted, “The death God has given thee to me, and now he calls you back!” She dropped the candle on the ground.
There was a blinding flash and the demon ignited into a ball of orange flame, billowing outwards. Great rags of fire, changing from yellow to red to violet went soaring up into the atmosphere. They twisted and squirmed, turning from dark fiery smoke in one moment and belching flame with crackling white lightning the next.
The Wraith had exploded, travelling back to the Underworld.
“We leave the candle here to burn out, like before,” Phoenix stated flatly, packing her bag. She stood up and went into the middle of the clearing, near the whirling light of the infernal portal and placed the candle beside it. “Come on, let’s go back.”
Leaving the black candle in the clearing, we practically ran through the cave and to Hilda’s house, excited to leave for Italy. Alexander slipping on the snow a few times on the way in his haste.
We burst in through the door, nearly tripping over one another in our rush.
“We have to leave.” Eztil announced loudly, grabbing his bag.
Phoenix and Alexander followed his lead and the three of them bounded out of the house, calling something back along the lines of warming up the van.
“Thank you, Hilda,” I clasped both her hands in mine, “We couldn’t have done this without you, I really am so grateful.”
“Not a problem at all dear,” She smiled softly, walking with me to the door, “If you ever need anything, you know where I am.”
Suddenly I was sad to leave the old lady behind, I let go of her hands and gave a quick goodbye before climbing up into the van. It started with a groan from the engine. Eztil put the van into gear and we drove away from the little village in Alaska called Ruby, just south of the Yukon River, without a word spoken between us.
One portal down, another four to go.