Pulling under the overhang of Bianca’s home in the central courtyard, Callan and I watched in awe as golf-ball-sized hail fell from the sky. We escaped the brunt of the bizarre weather, but I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that accompanied it. Glancing around at the darkened windows, I grabbed Callan’s arm, the hair on the back of neck prickling.
“Something’s wrong,” I whispered as we moved towards the entrance.
Callan touched the door, gently pushing it open. It swung on its hinges as the crimson moonlight filtered into the foyer. Gasping, I covered my mouth from the strong scent of demonic blood, my hunger flaring.
“The others,” I mumbled, racing through the halls as silently as I could. Callan searched in the opposite direction for our friends.
Making my way upstairs, I slowed as I stood before the long hallway, where the guests’ rooms tapered off on either side. A trail of blood was smeared across the floor to the end of the hall and into a back bedroom. Stepping stealthily around the bloodstains, I walked to the hallway’s end, leaning against the wall beside the doorway. I was preparing myself for whatever lay beyond it.
Peering around the doorframe, I quickly scanned the room, seeing the hand of a person lying outstretched behind the bed upon the floor. Stepping into the area, I rushed over to the body, finding Bianca’s corpse encased in a pool of blood. Her throat had been completely ripped out with multiple claw marks etched into her body and face. Falling to my knees, my breath quickened as her lifeless eyes stared into mine, a terrified expression frozen upon her face.
“I’m so sorry…” I whispered.
A hand slithered around my mouth, pulling me back forcefully and into a dark corner of the room.
“Shh…it’s only me…” I heard Gabriel’s voice quickly whisper into my ear before I had the chance to stun him with my abilities.
He released his hand slowly as I turned to hug him, relief washing over me that he was alive and well. Kissing my cheek, he pushed me away to take my hand, leading me out of the room and down the hallway. Knocking upon one of the guestroom doors in a sequence of taps and thuds, the door unlocked, allowing us access.
Ashlin and Josh were the first to greet us with Ebony sitting on the floor in the corner. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, hugging her knees to her chest. Callan appeared in the doorway behind us, closing and locking the door.
“Two bounty hunters in the kitchen and two in the living room. All dead. What happened here?” Callan inquired.
“We were attacked,” Gabriel answered. “They got to Bianca first before we even knew they were on the grounds. We held them off as best we could, but…”
“But what?” I asked frantically. “Where’s Penelope?”
“They took her…” Ebony cried as Ashlin knelt beside her, placing an arm around her shoulders.
“How? They retreated? Maybe we can catch them,” I stated, spinning around to exit. There was no time to waste.
Gabriel grabbed my arm. “No, Kas.”
“What? What are you talking about? She’s your sister!” I shouted, not understanding his hesitancy.
“She’s safe…for now,” he replied. “Believe me. The first thing I wanted to do was go after her, but that’s what they want. That’s what Leviathan wants us to do. To make it easy for him to separate us and pick us off one by one until you go insane with worry. We’ll get Penelope back, but we need to get you to your throne first.”
“He’s right, Kas,” Callan agreed. “We need to leave, find Maisie, and set sail tonight.”
“You!” Ebony exclaimed with a shaky voice as she found the strength to rise. “Why weren’t you here?”
She came forward, brushing Ashlin aside as she tried to stop her. Bee lining for me, Ebony pushed me hard, causing me to stumble backward. The boys came to my aid, but I held my hand up to them, causing them to back off.
“You did this! Where were you—why weren’t you here? This—this was all your fault!” she sobbed as she continued to shove her arms into my chest, backing me up into the wall. When she could push me no further, her fists lashed out. I caught Ebony’s wrists as she dissipated into tearful cries. She rested her head against my chest, her arms wrapped around me tightly as I held her close. The others stared after us, as I mouthed for them to start packing up and head for the car.
They bustled around the room, slinging duffel bags over their shoulders as they left, leaving Ebony and me alone to speak to each other. She pulled her head back to look at me.
“We’re going to save her…right?” Ebony pleaded.
“Of course, we are,” I replied, placing my hands around her face. “I’m going to bring Penelope back. I promise.”
“She saved us. Her and Gabriel’s protection ward around this room was the only thing keeping them at bay,” Ebony revealed, hiccupping.
“If she was in the room, then how was she taken?” I inquired.
“She left to search for Bianca. We didn’t know she was already dead,” Ebony answered. “I tried to stop her…but it was too late.”
“Ebony, the only people to blame here are the bounty hunters. We’ll find her. I’ll make sure she comes back to you,” I assured, wiping the tears from her face. “We need to stay focused.”
Nodding, she detangled herself from me, and we headed downstairs towards the waiting car in the courtyard. It felt strange taking Bianca’s car, but we had no other choice. Callan was in the driver’s seat when I hopped in. We left the courtyard in silence, no one knowing what to say. Deep down, the gnawing pain of guilt rested in the pit of my stomach. While I knew Ebony’s words were spoken in anger, she was right. I wasn’t there.
If I had been, none of this would’ve happened. There was no telling what the bounty hunters would do with Penelope. One thing I knew for sure was when they took prisoners, it was mainly to sell them to the highest bidder. No doubt, Leviathan knew if I had been around, his fellow demons would be slaughtered. So he decided to go after my friends instead. He knew, just like Lucifer had, how to break me.
Glancing around the car at my friends’ forlorn faces, my worst fear had finally come to fruition. One of my own was missing, a piece of my heart gone along with her. I could only imagine the loss Ebony was feeling. It was the same brief moment of intense fear I had when I thought Gabriel was dead.
Facing the winding road towards Civitavecchia, I hoped Maisie hadn’t encountered the hunters, but a part of me knew that if they found Bianca, there was a chance they discovered her as well.
“We need to hurry, Callan,” I stated.
“On it,” he grunted. His grip tightened on the steering wheel as he disregarded any speed laws in the area.
Resting my head against the back of my seat, I closed my eyes, hoping to finally contact Baku about the mysterious weather-related events happening around the city. Could it be possible this wasn’t isolated?
I felt myself drifting away from my body as my eyes opened. I was suddenly in the car’s back seat, my body still in the passenger seat up front, asleep. A strange white light filtered into the car windows from all around me as everyone had disappeared, except for Baku, seated next to me.
“What’s going on?” I dove right in.
Baku turned towards me. “Your mother is currently in the process of trying to figure that out. The world is suffering, I’m afraid, and no one seems to understand why. Theories are being rumored around, but none of them have exactly been proven.”
“What’s happening at Brimstone? Have they been experiencing the same blood moon and hail that we did here?” I inquired.
“The blood moon, yes. The other phenomenon has been different all over the world,” he replied.
“Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes. Mother Nature is most displeased, I would say,” Baku revealed.
“What about rumors of war?” I asked, hoping my hunch was incorrect.
Baku’s eyes had a strange gleam to them. While suffering would naturally entice him, the grimace upon his face said otherwise. The feeling was mutual.
“I suppose you’re wondering if pestilence, famine, and death, are to follow,” he sighed. “What have you done, Kasdeya?”
“I…” His accusatory tone stunned me as if it didn’t matter either way if I ascended the throne because the apocalypse may just be beginning. I knew that one day, as the Antichrist, the end times would be triggered, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.
“You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” Baku continued, not allowing me to finish my previous thought.
“You know about him? The man with the sweet, intoxicating scent? Who is he? What is his purpose for appearing to me?” I wanted to know.
“He appeared to your mother in the same form when you were first born,” he answered. “If he’s appearing to you now, then there must be something great and terrible about to happen to this world.”
“Baku, who is he?” I impatiently asked once again.
“The Archangel Michael,” Baku revealed. “Our kind isn’t visited very often, but it generally leads to our downfall. Kasdeya, you must not reveal to anyone your visit from the Archangel. It may impede your ascendance to the throne to know angels are behind this…awakening.”
“Baku, I have doubts—”
“Then keep those to yourself as well. Focus on the next step in your journey, and don’t let any distractions deter you. Madam Lilith will continue to watch the demonic world until you come into that power. Stay strong and stay alive,” Baku warned.
Before I could say anything further, my eyes flew open as we pulled into the harbor. Callan slowed down to a crawl. All the lights from the buildings and streets were out.
“A blackout?” Ashlin asked as we found the pier we left Maisie on.
“Let’s move,” I said, jumping out of the car. The others followed suit as we headed down the pier in a group.
Being this close to the ocean, I expected to feel a breeze coming from the waves, but all was still and silent. Not even the sails made noise. It was an eerie feeling, the silence, and darkness all around.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Gabriel whispered under his breath as we neared Maisie’s boat.
Josh was the first to climb aboard, holding his hand out for me to join him. Taking it, I helped myself past the railing, landing on the deck with a thud.
“I’ll help the others. You go find Maisie,” Josh whispered. “If she’s not here, I’ll get us to Sicily.”
I left him to assist the others as I began my search of the ship. Starting in the cockpit and working my way down towards the cabin, my worry grew stronger with each passing moment. Maisie would never abandon us, and my thoughts soon turned dark.
While down in the cabin, I saw a small desk lamp on over a coffee and a magazine. Touching the coffee cup, I felt it’s warmth through my fingertips, indicating it had been brewed recently. Walking towards the tiny bathroom, I knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” I heard Maisie call from within.
A massive sigh of relief escaped my body. “Maisie, it’s me.”
“Oh, Helen, I’ve been expecting you!” she shouted back.
What? I wasn’t Helen. She knew that.
Breaking the latch on the bathroom door, I slid it open and saw Maisie with a knife held to her throat from behind. Grabbing her attacker’s hand, I sent a pulse of electricity through his body, stunning him. Maisie ran out of the bathroom to a safe distance away as I threw the bounty hunter out into the center of the cabin.
“How many?” I asked Maisie.
“I don’t know!” she shouted back as I made my way out of the cabin towards the deck above. The others had boarded the ship as I saw bounty hunters making their way hastily towards us from the pier.
“Maisie! Get this ship moving, now!” I bellowed over my shoulder as she ran towards the cockpit. “Josh! Cut the ropes!”
Gabriel conjured some knives and helped Josh cut the boat from the dock. Ebony and Ashlin fought off the hunters as they jumped onto the deck, blades whizzing past us. Summoning my powers, I held my hands out towards the two hunters attacking Ebony and Ashlin. They burst into a pillar of blue flames as their screams filled the night air turning them to ash.
An arm caught around my neck from behind as the bounty hunter I had stunned earlier awakened from his stupor. The sharp pain from his dagger buried into my side made me yelp as I grabbed his arm, flipping him over me. His blade was still embedded before I pulled it out. Kneeling over him, I stabbed the same knife deep into his gut, twisting it as he screamed in agony.
I felt the boat moving out of the docking area as more bounty hunters raced down the pier after us. Standing up, I saw them cease as we were too far out to sea at this point. Their howls of rage filled the air as they disappeared back into the night.
“He’s still alive, Kas,” Gabriel said from behind me as he knelt over the bounty hunter’s body. He was grunting in pain, his hand covering his wound.
“Take him as a prisoner,” I said. “I want to have a little chat with these hunters for myself.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Gabriel asked.
“I need to know what Leviathan is planning and where they took Penelope,” I stated. “Besides, if I’m to be the next Queen, I might as well start practicing my torture methods.”
Gabriel and Callan lifted the bounty hunter up while Josh searched his person for more weapons. After completing that task, they dragged him down into the cabin and tied him to a chair with rope and chains.
I pulled his hood back to reveal his true form. His skin was as dark as night, with eyes even darker with only a sliver of white around the edges of his enlarged pupils. Bounty hunters were designed for hunting and therefore had a keen sense of sight and smell to blend in with the darkness. There wasn’t an ounce of hair to be seen anywhere, his skin as smooth as a seal.
“Did Leviathan send you?” I asked, wanting to establish a baseline for the truth.
The bounty hunter remained silent, staring at me with hatred.
“Your brothers didn’t fare as well as you. Why would you choose to hunt down your Queen?” I inquired.
The hunter spit at my feet and grinned, his sharp teeth gleaming in the dim light. “You are not my Queen.”
“I met a demon recently with the same sentiment,” I remarked.
“Did you murder him like the rest?” he hissed.
“No,” I answered. “I showed him mercy.”
“Then you are also a fool,” the hunter growled. “They’ll reveal your treacherous ways to the rest of our kind. You will never gain the crown as long as I breathe.”
“What makes you think you’ll be breathing for much longer?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “I only showed that demon mercy because he was willing to listen and because he hadn’t hurt one of my friends. Why would I show you such a luxury?”
The hunter tensed in his seat, fearing his end was near. I pulled up a chair and sat down in front of him, my hands clasped between my legs.
“Every time I kill one of my subjects, my heart weeps for them. I don’t take my actions lightly, but when it comes to protecting the people close to me, I will do what must be done,” I whispered to him, my voice soothing. “Now, are you ready to listen?”
He nodded slightly, anything to keep himself alive.
“Kas, are you sure?” Gabriel asked, concerned with the compassion I was showing him.
Ebony stood up from the bed and punched the demon square in the jaw, shouting and spitting in his face.
“Callan! Take her out!” I yelled as he obeyed my orders, wrapping his arms around her and dragging her out of the cabin. “Everyone out!”
The others glanced around at each other, unsure if I was serious.
“Move!” I shouted at them, standing from my seat and pointing towards the stairs to the deck above. They followed my orders this time, shuffling out of the room to leave the hunter and me alone. Taking my seat once again, I faced forward.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“So you can have dominion over me?” he spat. “Not a chance.”
“Do I look like an Exorcist?” I asked, amused. “No…I want to know how to address you. Your name is yours. Not mine.”
His eyes were skeptical, and yet, he answered. “My name is Seth.”
“Nice to meet you, Seth,” I said with a disarming smile. “I know that I’m not anyone’s favorite person at the moment. I’m not even my own, but I need your help. I want to save this world, and I want to save our home—”
“Our home? You have never lived there or even dined to do so,” he hissed. “Hell is my home. Not yours.”
“And if you don’t help, it will be no one’s home. Not anymore. Hell is falling. It’s a shadow of its former glory. Have you asked your master those questions? Or are you too afraid to speak your thoughts to him for fear of your life?” I growled back.
“Is this your plan? To bore me to death?” Seth chuckled.
Standing up, I held my hand out, touching the side of his face. “No.”
I let my hand drop as his breath caught in his throat at the gentle touch. His eyes transformed into that of an average human, dropping his demonic form, a sign of comfortability around me.
“Why are you doing this?” Seth whispered.
“Doing what?” I asked as I backed away, leaning against the door to the cabin. As cold and hard as I wanted to be to force the information from him, a part of me didn’t want to resort to my previous murderous ways. Only the wicked are to be punished, not fellow demons obeying the orders of someone they presume to rule over them. I had yet to take the crown, so I couldn’t blame him for his betrayal.
“Compassion. That’s not the way of a demon,” he replied.
“I’m not simply a demon,” I answered. “But you already knew that, and so does everyone else. Why was it so simple for you to follow my father, devoid of any demonic blood, and yet, you can’t bring yourself to follow me?”
“You murdered our King,” Seth replied.
“I defended myself against someone who planned to murder me,” I corrected.
His head snapped to attention. “What?”
I stood tall away from the door. “You mean…you didn’t know?”
“What are you saying?” Seth asked, dismissing my previous question.
“Lucifer intended to kill me at my coming of age ceremony. I thought everyone knew by now,” I answered.
“No…we didn’t,” Seth said. “This changes everything…”
“What? What does it change?” I asked quickly, kneeling before him.
“Leviathan…he told us the story of Lucifer’s fall, how you struck him down with your blade. How you planned to takeover Hell without him by your side so that you could ruin us,” Seth revealed.
“Did the others agree with his version of events?” I wondered.
“Others? He said he alone was present trying to save our King,” Seth replied.
I shook my head. “Mammon and Alastor were both there. They saw the whole thing. Gabriel and Penelope were also present, and that’s why they choose to follow me. They know the truth.”
“Penelope…the girl we took—”
“Where is she?” I interrupted, hoping Seth and I were coming to some sort of understanding. He coughed, blood trickling from his mouth as his panting increased. Glancing down at his stomach, I touched the wound I had inflicted. Seth was dying, and I needed him alive.
“Gabriel!” I shouted from the door as I rushed over to it. Gabriel came running down the stairs as if he were waiting for me above.
“What? Are you okay?” he asked, touching my face.
“It’s Seth. I need you to heal him for me. Quickly!” I said, pushing him towards the bounty hunter.
Gabriel knelt down, placing his hand over the room. He recited a quick incantation that immediately took effect, Seth’s breathing returning to normal. I watched as Seth’s eyes fluttered, closing as if going to sleep.
“Gabriel, what’s happening?” I asked, worried.
“He’s just resting,” Gabriel answered. “Why would you want to save a bounty hunter?”
“I need the information. He started talking before his wound got the best of him. I think he knows where Penelope is,” I replied.
“Kas…he’s a demon—”
“And so am I!” I snapped, walking away from him and back up to the deck of the ship.
Gabriel didn’t follow me, knowing that I needed the space from all I had been through. Instead, I sought out the company of Ebony by the bow of the ship. Sitting beside her on a bench, we didn’t speak for some time, although she let her head fall upon my shoulder. I lifted my hand and stroked her hair away from her face as we stared out at the mist covering the top of the ocean. It was daybreak, but everything appeared gray with the overcast of clouds.
“It hurts so much,” Ebony whispered as I felt her tears soak into my shirt.
“I don’t know what to say…” I replied, tears threatening to break through the surface.
“Just sit here with me,” she begged.
I swallowed hard as we sat together a while longer. I thought I knew what Hell felt like, but I realized there were worse things out there.