Leaning against the car door with my arm slightly hanging out the window, I rested my head in the crook of my elbow. A tender breeze drifted by causing tendrils of my auburn hair to float about my face underneath my baseball cap. The world appeared gray beneath the oversized sunglasses Ashlin had loaned me for the trip. While it wasn’t my style, I had obliged to swap clothes and accessories to conceal my identity—one that I was no longer sure of.
Callan leaned against the car on the driver’s side, pumping gas into the dusty Suburban as the others raided the convenient store for supplies on the road. While the drive from Brimstone to Massachusetts should’ve only taken us about half a day, we had to stay strictly to the back roads to avoid detection. The highways and interstate roadways had too many eyes and cameras for Callan’s liking. He would know, considering he used road cameras all the time to track demons for the Vatican.
My head felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. I could only assume the battle between myself and my father had caused me to be jolted around so violently that it gave me a severe migraine. Because of my pride, I didn’t want the others to know how ill I was after the events we all went through. How was I supposed to lead Hell if I couldn’t remain strong for them?
The gas pump clicked, and Callan quickly mounted it back in its port before hopping into the driver’s seat. The boys were taking driving shifts so they could rest since being up the entire night before. Gabriel had made sure to get us as far away from Brimstone before stopping in this little town surrounded by thick woods. It amazed me they even had a store open at this time in the morning.
“How are you feeling? Tired?” Callan asked, attempting to make idle chit chat.
“Not really,” I lied. He and I both knew that I hadn’t closed my eyes since coming to this place. My body was starting to wear out from the exertion I had placed on it from my battle with my father. It took all my strength to bring Lucifer to kneel, yet I knew my war was only beginning. My throne was sitting in the bowels of Hell, waiting for its next ruler, and I had to claim it before anyone else.
Callan sighed as he leaned back to stretch in the seat, his muscles rippling underneath his thin white T-shirt. His long, straight black hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, the first I had seen him with all of his hair back. The heat of the summer sun was to blame for that. Gripping the steering wheel with his strong hands, he blew out another sigh as we waited for the others, growing impatient.
“So…” Callan began.
I straightened my posture in the passenger seat and turned my head to look at him, the movement giving me a sense of vertigo. Trivial conversation wasn’t what I wanted to do at the moment. Thoughts were pushing themselves into and out of my head so fast, and I felt like I didn’t have time to comprehend them all, not with the pulsating pain I was feeling. As much as he wanted to comfort me from the fact that I destroyed the world’s most evil fallen angel, I only wanted to be left alone and maybe take a hot shower.
“I know this can’t be easy for you,” he blurted out. “Lucifer meant different things to each of us, but that will never change the fact that he was still your father.”
“Glad you understand,” I mumbled as I stared out the window at the door to the store.
“You don’t have to talk about it, but I do want you to listen. What you did was something I could never do. I hate my father too.”
My attention snapped back to the conversation. “What? But your father was an angel.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Callan replied. “He still chose to leave me as soon as I was born. My mother took care of me until she died when I was seven. She had cancer, and there was nothing I could do, no evil to be fought. It was simply a plain, old human disease. After she died, I was placed in an orphanage in Canada. From there, I was recruited into the Vatican.”
“I know you said they found you because of your father’s sword. You kept that with you all that time?” I asked.
He nodded. “It was the only thing I had left of either of my parents. I used to have a picture of my mother and me when I was born, but I lost it along the way.”
“I’m so sorry, Callan,” I said, unsure whether my words would be of any consolation. For someone so brave and good, it surprised me why an angel wouldn’t want to be there for their child unless it was out of protection. My thoughts harkened back to my mother’s words, who revealed that all Nephilim children were destroyed as soon as they were born, a blasphemous abomination to God. Searching Callan’s eyes, I couldn’t see any of that here.
“I’ve always hated my father for abandoning us and leaving her to die. He was an angel, and I thought that if he had stayed with us, my mother would still be alive. I suppose, in a sense, I blame God as well,” he finished.
“I’m not defending your father’s actions, but there’s a chance he left to protect you. Nephilim children are not the most revered on Earth. They’re generally hunted down like dogs. It’s amazing that you’ve survived this long,” I pointed out. While my words may have sounded harsh, they were the truth, and Callan needed to know that.
Callan smiled warily at me. “That’s why it’s our secret. I found that out after I trained with the Vatican and learned the secrets of Archangels. I’m not sure which one sired me, but I’ve been trying to find out ever since I left the academy.”
“Maybe one day, we can find out together,” I mentioned.
“Where do you think Lucifer’s soul is now?” Callan asked, changing the subject.
I shrugged. “Demons return to Hell if they’re destroyed on Earth. I don’t know what happens to angels. Surely, you would know?”
“That’s not something they taught us. We may know some mysteries, but not all of them. Do you have any regrets about what happened?” Callan asked.
“I did it to restore the balance between the realms. Lucifer was threatening that balance, but so are Gabriel’s and Penelope’s parents, the Melchoms. They got away, and that’s my only regret,” I replied through gritted teeth.
Callan put his hand over mine on the console of the vehicle. “We’ll find them, and we won’t let them get away so easily next time.”
His russet-colored skin was in stark contrast with my own upon my hand. Callan had been through so much and killed to stay alive to fight another day. Here I was, a girl who lived a privileged life having someone who had never known true kindness trying to make me feel better about my actions. It was an injustice to everything he had sacrificed for the good of this world.
The warmth of his hand left mine as we saw the rest of our crew returning to the car with grocery bags in tow. Ashlin skipped up to my open window and pushed a bottle of water inside. Thanking her, she jumped into the backseat with Ebony and Penelope, while the boys, Josh and Gabriel took the very last row near the back. Plastic bags rustled as everyone got settled, taking out snacks and popping open soda cans.
“I got this for you too. Thought you might need some endorphins,” Ashlin said from behind my seat as she handed me a bag of M&M’s. “Who knows when we’ll get to splurge like this again.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, suddenly feeling guilty about my friends giving up their lives. Josh and Ashlin should’ve been getting ready to go to Harvard to start new lives together. Ebony and Penelope had to put getting that apartment in New York City on hold. The weight of all their dreams crashed around me, and I wasn’t sure I could handle any of them giving it all up for me.
“Here’s some coffee, Callan. I figured you’d need it. I got some for everyone,” Ebony intervened, sensing that I was growing tense with worry. I knew she could feel all my emotions roiling within me being the empath that she was. I appreciated her efforts to help keep the crew together without asking too many questions of me.
Callan took the coffee and took a sip before placing it into the cupholder between us. As he started the car, I rolled my window back up, blocking the breeze and the warmth of the sun rays. We rolled out of the parking lot and got back on another twisting road through the forest.
“Ugh, I’m so tired of looking at trees,” Ashlin commented. “Here’s the map you ordered, Callan. Not sure how much good this will do you. GPS would’ve been much easier if we hadn’t had to give up our phones.”
“They can track you that way,” Penelope stated.
“I’m not sure demons will be the only thing tracking us,” Callan prompted. “I’m sure the news of Lucifer’s demise has surfaced not only in the underworld but also in the one over us. The faster we get Kasdeya to her throne, the better it’ll be for us.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do as Queen, Kas?” Ashlin asked, a grin on her face. She was always so light-hearted in our group. It was annoying and pleasant at the same time.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” I said, shifting in my seat. I suddenly wished I had gotten out of the car to stretch my legs when we were stopped for gas.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” she declared.
“So, Callan, should we be worried about any of your brothers in arms trying to attack us?” Gabriel announced from the back of the car.
“That depends,” Callan said. “Our main mission is virtually over, but the Vatican will most likely assign new Paladins to go after the next in line.”
“The Vatican seems kind of dumb, don’t they?” Josh piped up. “I mean, what’s their end goal? Eradicate all demons that ever existed?”
“Not exactly,” Callan said, checking his rearview mirror to glance at the boys. “They don’t want any demons on Earth. They believe they should all stay in Hell where they belong.”
“What about angels? They get a free pass,” Ashlin pointed out.
“Angels aren’t trying to create souls for Hell’s army. They do the work of God, which is what the Vatican thinks they do,” Callan answered.
“Do you really think the Vatican does that?” I inquired, catching his tone.
“I think they believe they do, yes. The Vatican is comprised of humans, and even humans have their flaws. While most of what they do is for the greater good, it would be naïve of me to say that everything they do is in God’s name,” Callan admitted.
“Do I sense some discord in the Holy Church?” Josh chuckled.
“Let’s just say that not everything that comes from the Church is pure of heart,” Callan replied.
“You know something, don’t you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.
Callan gripped the steering wheel a little harder. “I saw some things when I was there. As much as I hate demons, not even I would dissect them the way they did.”
“Dissect?” Ebony asked, a hint of nervousness in her voice.
“Sometimes, instead of destroying a demon, we’re requested to capture it alive. The Vatican will tell you it’s for religious studies, but really, it’s so they can create weapons and tactics to better hunt and kill demons. There are many species, and we’re discovering new ones every day, but how they go about it…”
“They’re experimenting,” I finished for him. “I’m surprised you would care. Demons do kill people, after all. We wreak havoc and mayhem wherever we go.”
“It didn’t bother me at first,” Callan admitted. “In fact, I didn’t give a damn one way or the other.”
“What changed?” Gabriel asked.
“I met all of you,” he answered. “Demons trying to live a normal life amongst humans, one that doesn’t involve all the bloodshed of innocents. I’ve learned a lot from being around you guys these past few days. More than I ever did when I was training at the Vatican.”
“The Vatican still isn’t wrong,” I pointed out. “My father has been rewarding demons for every kind of soul, including the innocent ones.”
“But that’s about to change,” Callan remarked, a smirk on his face. “I think this could be the start of a great relationship between you and the Vatican. We can enforce your rule to ensure demons only take the souls of those who are truly evil.”
“I’m not looking for a task force here on Earth, Callan,” I replied.
“But it could help you restore the balance you’re looking for, and it gives the Vatican a new purpose,” he assured.
“Kas, that actually doesn’t sound too bad,” Penelope stated. I turned in my seat to see all eyes on me.
“How the hell are we going to convince the Vatican to hunt only the bad demons? How would they even know? Humans can’t determine an innocent soul from an evil one; only demons know the difference,” I questioned.
“Once this is all over, come to the Vatican, and we’ll talk to them together,” Callan said.
“And have a diplomatic discussion between the new Queen of Hell and the Pope? Are you serious?” This was beyond the plan I had in mind.
“We can go with you,” Penelope said. “You don’t have to do it alone.”
“Let’s focus on getting my throne back, and then we can focus on this special Vatican task force you guys are all cooking up,” I remarked.
“I want to be on the task force,” Ashlin whined. “Why do only Paladins get to have all the fun going after rogue demons?”
“That is certainly a thought, and it would help Paladins know which demons are actually rogue if they worked alongside us,” Josh commented. “I’m in.”
I sighed and leaned my head against the window as the car was abuzz with conversation about new decrees for my realm. It was starting to overwhelm me. Not only was I caught up in hellish affairs but also earthly ones now. This trip was going to be a long one if I could even manage to control the throbbing within my skull.
Staring out the window at the line of trees passing by, my eyes started to droop. I felt myself slowly slipping into darkness as a ringing noise sounded in my ears. I rubbed my forehead as the sound intensified the pain. Voices started growing louder inside my head as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the voices amplified. It was people of all ages and gender speaking to me whether they realized it or not. Grabbing my thighs with my hands, I dug my fingers into my jeans, trying to cause pain to drown out the noise. My breathing quickened as I tried to decipher the messages among all the white noise but to no avail.
“Kas, are you okay?” Callan asked as the voices ceased as quickly as they had appeared.
“Yes,” I said breathlessly. “I’m fine.”
Callan glanced over at me with a worried look and returned back to his driving. I had no idea what was occurring, but something had changed after the night’s ritual. Unfortunately, I had no one to teach me about these changes, secrets the last King of Hell took to his grave.
“I think we should stop for the evening. We’re all exhausted, and it won’t help if we’re distracted,” Gabriel said.
“I agree with that,” Callan replied. “What does that map say?”
Penelope opened the map and started tracing down the road lines with her finger to the next town. “It looks like we’re a few miles out from a little town called Rock Cove. Never heard of it.”
“That’s fine. As long as they have a bed I can crash in,” Josh stated. “My back is killing me from sitting for so long.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to stop? I mean, I can drive if you want,” Ebony replied. Her being nervous was making me feel the same way.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. If a demon or angel attacked us right now, I would have to admire their excellent detective work,” Ashlin chimed in.
“I think she’s right,” Gabriel said. “We need one night of rest, and then we’ll be back on the road as soon as the sun is up. Sound good, Kas?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, barely able to keep my eyes open. The voices had left me with my headache, and I reached into the glove compartment to take another dose of aspirin. Gulping down the water Ashlin had given me, I slammed the compartment closed after throwing the pill bottle back in place.
As much as I wanted to rest, I only agreed to the notion because I knew the others needed it. I was on Ebony’s side about stopping. All it took was us to be off our guard to have an attack turn deadly, and with the voices infiltrating my head, I had no idea if I would be able to fight to keep my friends safe.
Resting my head against the window, I let my eyes close as I quickly fell into a deep, dark slumber.