Verona had always been renowned for its beautiful landscape, complemented by tiny borgoes with typical, pale houses and magnificent villas, an emblem of a gracious prosperity. Phoenix and I were sat outside at a café on wrought iron trendy chairs with padded seats, along the Corso Porta Borsari, soaking up the sun. I watched with intent as the locals sauntered down the cobbled street, hardly noticing the exceptionally well-preserved Roman gate as they passed under its great arches, eating gelato, gossiping or checking out one another’s clothing.
“I wonder if they’ll be a portal in Paris,” Phoenix wondered aloud whilst picking the nuts off her muffin’s top.
I looked past the flower centerpiece on the lace tablecloth, waving slightly in the breeze, “Paris?” I queried.
“Mmm,” She agreed, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, “I’ve always wanted to go.”
I laughed, “I’ve always wanted to come to Verona but not under these circumstances.” I looked down and scraped butter across my bagel, “I can’t enjoy myself.”
“If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Paris,” Phoenix continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.
I glanced up from my freshly brewed coffee, she seemed in a daydream. I assumed she was thinking about what living in Paris would be like, doing her weekly shop and eating the finest of cheeses on the best baked bread in the world. “We’re hardly on our dream vacation ’Nix.” I complained.
“I know,” She grimaced, stirring her sugar into her coffee, “I’ve just never been to Europe before.” Phoenix turned her eyes to stare at a hostess, standing next to a chalkboard with the café’s specials written on it, beckoning people from the street to have lunch with a stack of menus in her hand.
“Neither have I,” I confessed, “Let’s enjoy it while we still can, it’s quite beautiful here.” My toasted bagel crunched as I bit into it, the melted butter oozing onto my fingertips.
“I agree,” Phoenix complied, taking another sweeping glance of the busy street before swinging her coffee, “It’s lovely.”
I licked some crumbs lingering on my lips and feeling the hot sun on the back of my neck I observed through the crowd to watch a nearby musician playing the violin, filling the street with music. He was sat on a bench outside a bakery where a line of customers were queuing to buy fresh bread and pastries.
“I hope Elle’s okay,” Phoenix muttered dragging my gaze back to our table, setting her china cup down with a clink.
I leaned back against the hard metal of the bistro chair, exhaling, “Me too,” I admitted.
“All those last minute sleepovers she used to have,” Phoenix’s mouth played around the edges of a smile. “She was so great, so fun to be around. So spontaneous.”
I listened to the birds chirping sweetly over our head and let myself remember.
It was nearly Christmas. I was sat on the porch, wrapped in a duvet in the back garden watching as the snow fell and it covered the ground like a white blanket. The air was crisp and when I exhaled the moonlight caught my breath as it escaped from me like mist.
Benjamin and Mum had gone to bed hours ago. I couldn’t sleep. No matter how hard I tried my eyelids refused to stay shut. I tossed and I turned until eventually crawled out of bed and made myself a mug of hot chocolate.
I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew it was the early hours of the morning. I yawned, even though I wasn’t tired. I cupped the mug tightly in my palms and felt the warmth of the liquid seep into my hands. I brought the mug up to my lips and took another sip.
I was curled up on the porch swing, my knees tucked under my chin as I tried to conserve heat. It wasn’t as cold as I expected but it was still pretty chilly. I stared at the indigo sky, dotted with stars, and sighed. School was taking its toll on me, it was exam season already. It had come by so quickly and I wasn’t ready to be taking my first set of modular exams.
There was a faint ringing of a phone somewhere deep within the depths of the duvet. I dug around and answered it with a soft, “Hello?”
“Hi,” Came the reply, “I was hoping you were awake.”
“Hi Elle,” I smiled, “I was wondering when you were going to call. What time do you call this?”
“I’ve only just got back from my date with Ryan,” She gushed excitedly.
“Elle,” I giggled, wrapping myself tighter into the blanket, “What will your dad say?”
Elle laughed down the receiver, “He’s in bed, I don’t think he has a clue!”
I finished the last few droplets of my hot chocolate before asking, “How is it possible for you to be getting in this late? Or should I say early? What have you been doing?”
“We just lost track of time. He drove around us for hours, just talking to each other. I can’t explain it, he make me feel so… so…”
“Fuzzy?” I suggested.
“Yes!” She exclaimed, “That makes perfect sense, but at the same time no sense at all!” Then after a short pause she said, “Can you come over? I’ve already phoned ’Nix and she’s on her way.”
“This is a very last minute slumber party, Elle.” I joked.
Elle scoffed, “Slumber? You think I can sleep? No way, I’m too buzzed!”
I shook my head at her even though I knew she couldn’t see, “I’m on my way.” I hung up, put my mug in the sink and left for Elle’s.
And that’s how simple it was, that’s how easy our friendship used to be.
“The boys are back.” Phoenix stated, gulping down the last mouthful of her coffee.
I turned around, shielding my eyes from the sun, to see them. They were both in chino shorts and patterned vests in the warm weather, Alexander wearing sunglasses. Eztil was wearing the necklace made from wooden beads he had bought from the market yesterday. It suited him.
I beckoned a nearby waiter and asked in Italian for the bill. He rushed off, tucking the pad and pen in the pocket of his apron as he went. He came back shortly after, the bill in his hand. He put it down on the table with two complementary mints. I thanked him before he went to clear another table of a white mug with a pink lipstick stain around the rim.
Alexander and Eztil had interlaced their way through the crowd over to our table. Alexander took his sunglasses off and said, “We found it.”
I brushed the crumbs off my hands and onto my plate, “Okay.” I got to my feet, leaving a couple of notes on the table for the check, “Let’s go.” We strode away, leaving the clattered of cutlery on plates and murmuring appreciation of the good food behind us.
The two boys led Phoenix and I into an abandoned church.
“This,” Phoenix complained, “Is where the portal is?”
Alexander nodded, walking towards the alter at the head of the room.
Phoenix huffed, “You could have at least warned us, the dust will ruin my new shoes!”
Alexander raised an eyebrow at her, “Since when did you become a girl?”
“I’ve actually got news for you, Alex.” Phoenix folded her arms.
“Will you two stop for a second?” Eztil rumbled, “We have a job to do.”
As we approached the faded glass window behind the alter, I tried to make out what it was but couldn’t. The glass was too old and worn. There was a statue of Jesus depicted on the cross with a crown of thorns on his head before the window, out of the corner of my eye I saw Eztil making the sign of the cross.
I sat down on one of the creaky, old pews and waited for Phoenix to summon the Wraith. Alexander was stood next to her, shifting from foot to foot to loosen the muscles in his legs. Phoenix bent down and, like before in Alaska, lit a candle. She jumped to her feet, raised her hands into the air and, once again, lit a red candle then began to chant the words that would summon our Wraith.
When she was finished, everybody else joined me on the pew and we waited. For the first proper time, I took in our surroundings. Spider webs covered all four stone walls of the church, which had the stale smell of old incense and burnt wax. Dusty, wooden pews were arranged into rows like soldiers and the air inside was cold. I heard the squeaking and skittering of rats foraging for food from somewhere to my left, but where exactly I couldn’t be sure.
It had been a good half an hour before the Wraith appeared. The hard bench had started to numb my buttocks and uncrossing just to re-cross my legs wasn’t waking them back up.
Then the Wraith was there in front of us. Its very appearance made my skin crawl. “Who dares to summon me?” It thundered again, exactly the same as last time.
“Me again,” Phoenix danced over to it, “In Verona.”
“Master,” It glowered, not mirroring her happiness, “What can I do for you?”
“Open the portal here,” She replied, batting her eyelids at the demon before adding a sickly sweet, “Please.”
It wet its cracking lips and gave a jerky nod of agreement. “Of course.” It snarled.
It raised its gaunt arms and clicked its lengthened fingers together. Exactly like before the portal appeared, it was still as beautiful and calming as I remember. The clouds swirled around, dancing before my eyes.
“The portals are linked.” The Wraith grinned sinisterly, baring shark-like teeth.
I shuddered. This demon really was a disgusting creature, it made me feel sick to my stomach so much so I actually thought I was going to vomit. I didn’t notice the foul, recognizable stench of rotting earth until it was too late.
I watched in total horror as a Shadow clamped his claws firmly around Alexander’s neck. I tried to block out the sounds of Alexander struggling for breath from reaching my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut and swallowed a scream.
When I opened them, light flooded in and all I could see was the silhouette of two men, one being thrown across the room towards me with his legs flying out in every direction.
I crashed to the ground, Alexander landing on top of me. He landed with such force it knocked the air from my lungs and stomach. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe because of the weight of Alexander crushing me to the floorboards. He gurgled and wheezed at me, his eyes closing as he blacked out.
With all my strength I pushed him off and rolled him onto his back, springing into action. I rubbed my hand down both of his cheeks, “Alex!” I cried, patting him gently in attempt to wake him, but his eyes were shut and his expression was set in stone. “Alex!” I yelled again, taking both of his arms and shaking him.
I was dragged violently from my position and back along the aisle towards the church doors. I tried to reach round and claw or hit the Shadow but my arms wouldn’t bend that way without snapping in half. In a desperate attempt to grab onto anything nearby, to stop myself being taken any further, my fingernails dug into the ground to no avail.
The friction of the cobbled, stone floor against my back was burning, I could taste my tears in my mouth before I knew I was crying. For the first time in a long time, I was scared. I could die, right now in this moment, so unexpectedly. I heard a scream before realizing it came from my own mouth. My vision was blurring as the hold on my throat tightened, choking all the air from my lungs. I used my remaining energy to lash out at the Shadow, thrashing around like a fish out of water.
Next thing I knew there was a glass-shattering screech from behind me and I became stationary. I rolled to my feet, my flashlight in my hand. I span to face my attacker to see it already writhing around on the ground before me. It was clutching its head and shrieking. I stood there, mouth open, and watched it catch fire and burn away to ashes.
Where the Shadow had lay was the Wraith. One of Alexander’s double-ended torches in its crippled hands.
“You saved me?” I questioned utterly baffled, not completely believing it myself.
The demon stood in front of me shrugged, “Your friends had their own Shadows to fight.” It explained.
“Why?” I gawped, “Why did you save me?”
The Wraith looked at me with its hollow, dark eyes. “I want my freedom. I doubt Master,” It spat the word, “Would give it to me if you were killed.”
“Oh,” My chin dipped to my chest in disappointment, avoiding eye contact with it, “Well, thanks anyway.” I mumbled.
“Be careful on the way to the next portal,” It warned in a scathing tone, “It’s in Peru.”
“Peru?” I said with my lips pinched together, “What’s so bad about Peru?”
The Wraith laughed, but it sounded more like a chesty cough, “Peru is the birthplace of all Shadows.” Its word were seething, as if to provoke me, “You better have your wits about you Ivy Taylor, I won’t be there to save you next time.”