Cloaked in crimson, Stella proceeded down the platform. Each step was shaky, her heart pumping so hard, she had become dizzy. Surrounding her was a pool of black liquid, the substance thick, and giving off a pungent, metallic scent. Her nostrils burned as she inhaled the unholy odor. This was the scent of sacrifice—of death.
Stella was still a child, yet she carried herself in a manner that aged her. She always wore a frown, a deep destiny weighing heavy on her small frame. She lost her childhood the day she came here. The day her life was no longer her own. She had grown up way too fast, her life revolving around nothing but mediator training and school.
Holding out her hands, she halted. The long sleeves of her robe fell back, revealing the milky white of her sheltered skin. Her oversized hood blocked out everything but the task in front of her. Everything was riding on the next few minutes. She had to make contact with the demons of the Underworld. If she failed, she would be killed.
She could see fresh blood on the platform at her feet, skid marks from a body that had been tossed in before her. A person who had failed. Stella didn’t want to share that fate. She had to conquer this challenge.
Closing her eyes, she begged in a soft whisper, “Please, hear me.”
Then, she began reciting her spell. Her words were murmured and quick, her concentration at its height. But the minutes passed and still she had not succeeded.
They were but a whisper in this world, but Stella could hear footsteps approaching from behind. When they got close, Stella ended her spell and spun to face the source.
With heavy breath, her eyes snapped to the ceremonial blade in the man’s hand. It had been sharpened, but not fully cleaned, years of death staining its surface. She took one step back, but stopped.
This was the end. She had failed.
She glanced at the edge of the platform behind her, then at the dark liquid that lay still around it. One slip and she would be cast to the Underworld. The demons would feast on her screams, her flesh devoured by the fires that separated this world from Hell. She had seen it so many times before. The screams of those sacrificed still fresh in her ears.
“Please,” Stella pleaded with hands clasped. Her hood bounced as she swiftly fell to her knees. “Let me continue. I beg of you.”
His thick hands reached down, clasping the thick fabric of her robe. The cloaked man did not speak, but his forceful actions did. Yanking her to her feet, he ripped down her hood. Stella trembled, her eyes filled with tears as she sobbed.
Then he spoke, his voice deep and mighty, “Hear me, my king! I sacrifice this girl in your name!” He took a firm hold of Stella’s shoulder, bracing himself against her as he plunged the blade deep into the tender flesh of her stomach. Stella’s scream pierced the thick silence, its shrill sound awakening the pool around them. The demons were now responding to her, but not in the way she had wanted.
The water raged, its color now a sparkling green. It lit up the darkened room, illuminating the icy blue of Stella’s eyes. Now, she could see into her attacker’s face. See his grin. His insane happiness as he feasted on her pain.
Twisting the knife, he forced a grand scream from the young girl. “May this small gift bring you happiness in the Underworld.”
He retracted the blade and watched her fall to her knees. Wetness covered Stella’s fingers. Thick droplets fell like rain from the gaps between them. Stella could hear him chanting, but to her, it sounded muffled. She was losing consciousness and begged for death to meet her here, instead of at the gates of Hell.
Then, she felt it. Several more stabs. She collapsed to the tile, her blood feeding the pool, and making the liquid grow brighter. She could feel the light’s warmth, but her vision was clouded. With her last gulp of stale air, she lost consciousness.
After a few final words, the man shoved her over the side.
Floating downward slowly, Stella’s body pulsed with a soft, white light. Long, translucent wings surrounded her, tucking tightly around her frame.
She broke through the gates of Hell, her body falling like a dead weight to the land below. Dust churned around her like a smoky screen, the earth of the Underworld grey, like the ashes of the dead. The fragile wings that surrounded her shattered into sparkling specs of dust that disintegrated when they hit the cold earth.
Howls and shrieks pierced the air, the stench of rotting flesh poisoning it. Her body now lay on a pile of skeletons. This was the resting place of the sacrifices that came before her, some with bones still wet.
Her body was now covered in a slimy goo, her hair now soaking up the ashy earth. She lay still for a few minutes, a pool of blood staining her bed and spreading out around her.
Slowly, creatures crept from the darkness. Sniffing the air, the ungodly beings followed the scent of fresh blood.
Feeling a thick wetness splash on her face, Stella tried to force her eyes open, but could barely do so. Her eyes settled on something hovering over her. It had a circular face that looked almost human. Her long lashes fluttered as she tried to focus on it. But when she finally did, this being turned out to be inhuman.
The creature resembled a cross between a bear and a canine, multiple rows of sharp teeth lining his jaw. Behind him was a pack of similar demons. All of them eyed her hungrily. Her face scrunched and Stella struggled to move.
Her rousing angered the feral demon, who belted out a screech. Seeing him lunge, she closed her eyes and prepared for the attack.
She then felt a rush of wind, followed by the low growl of a large cat. Now standing in front of Stella was a panther-like demon, his midnight fur standing on end. He leapt forward and attacked her pursuers. Ripping the flesh of the demon’s neck, the cat shook the dog until its neck snapped. He then tossed its bloodied corpse to its pack.
Instead of fighting back, the dogs scurried off.
“What have we here?” A man chuckled as he walked over and circled her. He regarded her like a foreign body dropped from the heavens. “A live human? Here in my Underworld? No. It cannot be.”
He then whistled, the large cat coming to his side. He addressed the cat, “Samson. Turn her over.” The cat nudged at Stella’s side, then sunk his teeth into the fabric of her damp robe. He pulled, and her almost lifeless body flopped on its back.
Stella was barely able to stay awake. The pain radiating through her was unbearable. “Help me.”
“Ah…” Letting out a hearty chuckle, a great happiness filled his deep voice. “What a treasure I have found in the boneyard.”
Her eyes begged, Stella mouthing the words, but they were barely audible, “Please…”
“All right. But let’s make a deal.” Kneeling at her side, the man studied her face, his neon blue eyes locking on hers. “Give me your soul, and become my servant. Only then, will I save you.”
Stella’s eyes slowly fluttered open, her lips struggling to form the words.
“Hurry, my little one.” He glanced at the puddle of blood under her. “You don’t have much time left.”
“Take it.” Closing her eyes tightly, Stella’s hot tears stung her eyes.
“You have to say it or I cannot help you.” He glanced casually at Samson, who was watching Stella curiously. “Give it to me.”
“I give you my soul.”
“Good girl.” He laid his hands on her shoulders, but she couldn’t feel them. Her eyes looked deep into his. He drew closer, every inch slowing her breath.
His lips met hers, but she couldn’t feel the flesh of his kiss. All she could feel was a coldness spreading from the source and covering her body. It was an amazing feeling—tingling, like the taste of mint. She closed her eyes and took in his sinful kiss. His magic was healing her.
Her eyes shot open when she felt him pull away. They snapped to his, the man now standing. She could no longer feel any pain and quickly hopped to her feet. Reaching down to her stomach, her fingers wiggled playfully through the holes in her robe. There were no wounds, only the wet blood that stained the fabric remaining.
Now that she was fully conscious, she smelled it. That horrible, over powering stench of death. Covering her mouth, she coughed. Then, she vomited. It was a violent reaction, Stella holding her stomach as she struggled to breathe.
The man laughed at her reaction but didn’t seem bothered by the stench. “Ahh…the boneyard.” He glanced at the mountains of bones that lay before him. “The welcome center of the Underworld. I forgot how weak you humans are. You cower at something so insignificant.”
He then motioned for her to follow. She could barely breathe or look up at him, so the large feline tugged on her robe, pulling her in the right direction.
Now doubled over, Stella was dry heaving like a cat, as she hobbled along behind them. When they got a good distance from the boneyard, the smell dissipated enough for her to speak.
“Thank you.” Overcome with gratefulness, Stella rushed to hug him. But to her surprise, she went right through him. Jumping back, she put a shaky hand to her lips. “You’re a ghost?”