Free falling to the Earth from such a height was the most exhilarating feeling I had ever felt. While I had flown before during battles, it was nothing compared to this weightlessness. The sun disappeared as we penetrated the clouds heading closer towards the ground below. Their water crystals dampened my clothes and skin, with Gabriel right behind me, holding me tight.
I felt the warmth of his hand leave me as he pulled the ripcord, releasing our parachute into the sky as we broke through the rest of the clouds. Our bodies stopped their dive with an upward jerk and instead floated over the rocks and trees below. While Gabriel steered us towards the mountain’s side, I saw the others with their chutes successfully open, blowing out a sigh of relief as I saw Ashlin with her hands over her face and Josh laughing behind her.
“Landing is going to be the tricky part,” Gabriel shouted over the wind whooshing by the sides of my face.
“How so?” I shouted back.
“You see the cave entrance right there?” he asked, pointing. “There’s not much landing space for us, so you may want to brace yourself.”
As I looked at the ground below me, I understood what he was talking about. Before the cave entrance, there was this small rock platform. If we didn’t time it just right, we would crash into the side of the mountain or straight into the ground, and since we had to land three parachutes, it wasn’t going to be easy.
“Undo your belt before we get to the platform,” I shouted.
“What? Are you crazy?” he yelled back.
“Just do it! I’ll make sure we land where we need to, but I need to be down there to help the others,” I replied.
Gabriel grumbled behind me, but I couldn’t hear his words over the wind carrying us. As soon as we got close enough to the cavern, I shouted, “Now!”
Gabriel undid the chute from us as we fell towards the platform. Our parachute fluttered somewhere down the mountainside as I focused on our landing. Holding my hands out, I manipulated the wind around me, causing our fall to slow, allowing us to step lightly to the ground. I unhooked myself from Gabriel and spun around to see Josh and Callan gliding towards us.
“They’re too close to each other,” I cried out. Raising my hands in the air, I used the wind to push the two parachutes away from each other so they wouldn’t become tangled. Unfortunately, by doing so, it knocked them both off course.
“Unhook yourselves!” I screamed from my perch, waving my hands in the air.
Callan unhooked him and Ebony from their chute first, falling to the ground like a stone. Gabriel recited an incantation that formed a bubble around them, ending their sudden descent. While Gabriel handled them, I used my powers to safely bring Josh and Ashlin down to our level. I watched as our parachutes entangled on the cliffside below.
“For a second there, I thought we were going to die,” Josh exclaimed as Ashlin looked at him in horror. “I mean, of course, we didn’t.”
“So, the party’s finally arrived,” a voice from behind us near the cave entrance said.
Turning around, I saw a tall man, built like a linebacker. He had short black hair and a scowl upon his face. I knew instantly that this had to be the Paladin Callan had been talking about. A deep scar ran from the corner of his mouth all the way to his ear, a battle wound, no doubt.
“Marcus,” Callan said as he approached him. “Did you receive word from the Vatican?”
“Ay, but I when they told me why I couldn’t believe my ears,” he said, his Irish lilt evident in his speech. “Has the brave Callan gone soft on me?”
The two men clasped hands together. It was apparent they had a fondness for each other, being brothers in arms. It was the same kind of understanding I yearned for with my own people.
“We need to enter through the gate,” Callan continued. “Where are the other Paladins?”
“It’s just me here for now. They’ve been sent on other assignments around the world. It’s going to shit out there, you know?” Marcus replied.
“What do you mean? I thought they were to never leave their posts,” Callan asked, surprised.
“It appears that we’ve got a new force to reckon with. There have been reports of some bloke running around claiming to be Christ on a cracker,” he explained. “He appeared out of nowhere. Been showing up outside of churches and the like, performing miracles out on the streets.”
“There’s always someone claiming that—”
“This time it’s real, Callan. We’ve seen stranger things, but the Vatican recruited my men to track him down and invite him to Vatican City to be judged,” Marcus continued. “I mean, the Antichrist is right here, so it’s only a matter of time before we discovered the Second Coming, yeah?”
“What’s his name?” I asked, not able to contain my curiosity.
Marcus looked towards Callan before answering my question. It was as if Marcus was asking Callan permission to speak with me. I would’ve been offended if not for the fact that Callan’s connection to the Church was under review because of his involvement with me.
After receiving a small nod from Callan, Marcus answered, “His name is Sam. I doubt it’s his full name, but he seemed to appear out of thin air. There’s no record of this kid before a couple of days ago.”
“That is pretty odd,” Gabriel mumbled. “How old is he?”
“Maybe sixteen. It’s hard to say since we haven’t been able to locate a birth certificate. It’s like he never existed,” Marcus added. “It’s compelling evidence for Christ, but His Holiness will be the one to decide that.”
“Something’s coming,” Ebony said, garnering our attention as the brush below us moved unnaturally.
“We need to go,” I declared as I ran towards the entrance of the cave. Marcus stayed behind, forming a defensive stance against whatever was following us.
“Marcus!” Callan shouted, trying to aid his friend.
“You go, Callan! I’ve got this. Do whatever you need to do, my friend, and good luck!” he yelled over his shoulder as something crawled over the edge of the ledge towards him.
Pulling Callan away, the cave’s darkness consumed us until we hit an area with a bottomless cavernous pit, too dark to see where it ended. Striking the entrance wall with my hand, boulders crumbled down overhead, entombing us within the cave. The only light was the rays of the sun through a hole at the top of the chamber.
“You think it can get through there?” Josh asked.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“How come the Order has never sealed this cave before?” Ebony asked as the dust settled.
“It was forbidden,” Callan replied.
“Oops,” I mumbled.
“It’s fine,” Callan said. “We kept it open as a reminder of what happened here. Nothing has ever come out of this gate, only gone in.”
“Why and what happened here?” Ashlin asked.
“This is where my father fell from Grace,” I replied, staring at the hole above us. “His fall was so great, he was driven into the ground, and that’s when Hell formed.”
“Hell was already there,” Callan said. “Your father just colonized it.”
Our voices echoed throughout the silent chamber. My energy tingled throughout my body from standing beside that dark, mysterious hole into the underworld. There was no telling exactly where it led, and if we would be safe once we entered. It was a leap of faith, literally.
“This is it,” I said. “Hell’s right below our feet.”
“So, how are we going to get down there?” Ashlin asked, biting her nails.
“Oh, Ash…” Ebony said. “I’m afraid you’re not going to like the answer.”
“You have the map, Gabriel?” I asked.
“Right here,” he said, patting his buttoned pants pocket. “I figured you would be running out of room with your pockets.”
Holding out my hand, I took Gabriel’s in mine. Ebony reached for my hand and took it with Ashlin and Josh on her other side. Gabriel took Callan’s hand as we stood there, forming a unified chain. I took a deep breath.
“Don’t get separated,” I said more to myself than for them.
I stepped off the ledge with each of them. That weightless feeling returned, except this time, it was more foreboding. My breath caught in my throat as we descended into total darkness for what seemed like an eternity. I felt Ebony holding onto my hand with such strength that I thought my fingers were about to snap. Gabriel’s hand remained firm and steady.
Passing through the darkness, I saw a bright light near the end of the tunnel. I wondered if this was what people saw when they died. Except we weren’t heading for the Pearly Gates here. As we fell, we were blinded with violent light from the flames that ignited the skies. The burst of heat struck us immediately as I saw our final destination below us.
“No…” I said to myself. We were heading straight for the center of the River Acheron, the first body of water souls crossed to get into Hell. The river itself burned the flesh of all who entered, thus the reason for the ferryman, and I was sure it would do the same to us. As if reading my mind, Gabriel looked at me with sorrowful eyes. His look of despair jolted me from my thoughts, allowing me to take action.
We crashed into the waters below as its boiling temperature seared our flesh. Summoning the power within me, the water parted for us, rising high into the air on either side like tall pillars. I fell harshly to the rocky river floor, scraping more of my burning flesh away. The others screamed in pain as they landed around me, holding their extremities close to their bodies, trying to soothe the pain.
Holding the water at bay, I stood upon shaky legs and held my hands out in front of me, using my strength to push the water forward and away from us, parting the river towards the land on the other side. There was no turning back now, and we had to make our way from the shore behind us and soldier on if we wanted to survive.
My wounds were healing rapidly, which wasn’t the case for some of the others. Ebony and Josh were the only two in good shape. Josh, being the siren that he was, could withstand the waters while Ebony had healing abilities. As I focused on maintaining the connection with my power, Gabriel stood behind me and healed Ashlin and Callan before tending to himself.
“We have to keep moving,” I said. “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.”
“Parting the seas, I see,” Callan grunted beside me, clutching his side. “I’ll make sure to remember that.”
“I’m not who you think I am, Callan,” I growled.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that,” he mumbled as he walked ahead of us. The others gathered around me as we trekked towards peaks and valleys of the outer circle. Our bodies ached, but we pushed forward until our feet finally landed upon the pebbled beach, embers glowing upon the ground. I released the waters behind us, and they cascaded down into the pit I had created, causing monstrous waves to ripple across its waters towards the Shores of Purgatory. A part of me hoped its waters had reached the bounty hunters, scalding them for their misdeeds towards the crown.
“I thought you guys said Hell was your home?” Callan questioned. “This looks like a barren wasteland to me. How could you possibly live here?”
“This is the outer banks where the wicked souls slave away under the boiling heat for their penance. The Kingdom itself is a paradise, or at least, it was before Hell started to crumble under my father’s rule,” I explained. “I’ve never visited the inner city myself, but my mother and Aunt Helen have. From what they both described to me, it’s a second Eden.”
“They’re right,” Josh said. “My mother has been living in the inner city for years. I visited her there during my breaks from school. It’s our own version of Heaven only accessible by demons—uh, oh.”
“I can’t cross the threshold, can I?” Callan asked, knowing the answer as we all glanced around at each other. Callan had integrated so smoothly into our posse that we had all forgotten about the alarms.
“It’s not that you can’t enter, but you have to pledge yourself to me to do so,” I said. “I understand if that’s a lot to ask—”
“I slept in a closet for nearly two weeks on a tugboat, escorted you to Vatican City to plead your case, and dove headfirst through Hell’s gates. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve pledged myself to you, Kas,” Callan smiled. “God can judge me when I’m dead.”
“Hear, hear!” Josh exclaimed, holding his fist in the air. One by one, I watched as my friends raised their fists in solidarity towards our plight.
“Then I guess we have a deal?” I asked, extending my hand towards Callan. He took it without any hesitation and shook it, cementing his life to mine.
It was funny, but being in Hell, in my home, silenced the constant static that was always resounding in the back of my mind. It was like someone had flipped a switch off to the voices that were continually praying to me. I wondered if my father had felt the same peace, and that’s why he stayed in Hell for long periods, not resurfacing unless dire circumstances warranted it.
“Where does the map say we should go from here?” Ashlin asked. Gabriel pulled the watered parchment from his pocket and carefully unfolded it.
“It looks like there’s a pass just north of us through this valley that’ll lead us straight towards a reflection pool,” he replied.
“Wait, I know that pool of water,” I said, tracing its rock formation path. “I landed there during the Samhain ritual last year. We can’t go that way; the path is blocked.”
“You know for certain?” Callan questioned.
“I’m certain. The pool led underneath the stone and did come out on the other side, but the cliff faces fell when I was there, cutting off the pool’s exit. It’s a dead end,” I assured.
“We could take the high route, but it’s going to take much longer on foot,” Josh mentioned.
“What if we’re not on foot?” I asked, a grin tugging at my lips.
“You going to tell us or keep us guessing?” Ashlin asked as I savored the moment.
“When I was in the valley for my trials, there were hellhounds nearby. I may be able to summon them once we get closer. They can climb,” I revealed.
“Gabriel, did I ever tell you, you have the coolest chick ever?” Ashlin teased.
“They listen to you?” Ebony asked, stunned. “They’re such noble and proud creatures. They’re not particularly docile and easy to tame.”
“Apparently, the creatures of Hell have a lot more respect for me than the demons do. Interesting, right?” I replied.
“Very,” Ebony admitted.
“We have a plan for the most part. Time to head out,” Callan said as Gabriel placed the map back into his pocket.
“Don’t worry. That paper will dry out in no time down here. I’m more worried about it catching on fire, to be honest,” Josh said, patting Gabriel’s shoulder.
We searched around the cliff faces until we found an opening that allowed us to walk along a semi-flat surface between the mountainous terrains. The flames from the sky beat down upon us as we sweated what little water we still had left inside of our bodies out. The canyons gave us no relief, no shade, and no water to keep us hydrated. It was brutal weather, but it was designed that way for the souls who entered our domain. Being demons, we could withstand the brutality, but I feared that Callan and Gabriel would have a more difficult time.
Taking out my bag of blood, I thought about what I needed to do. I could save myself, or I could save my friends. Holding it between my hands, I focused on the water contained within the blood, purifying it to the best of my ability. Opening my enclosed hands, I saw fresh, clear, sparkling water.
“Here,” I said, tossing the bag towards Callan and Gabriel. “Use it sparingly. I can’t afford either of you to pass out before we get to the Kingdom.”
“How did you do this?” Gabriel asked.
“Not another word from you, Callan. Instead, you should be thanking me,” I cut him off. While I was secretly flattered at the idea that he thought I could be something more than what I was, it was my demonic half that was pulling all the stops while we were in Hell. My angelic side had yet to reveal itself down here in any way, which was probably for the best.
We started to see the tracks of souls along the way where they were moving boulders around on the cliff sides. It was worrisome since there was no cover for us to disguise ourselves with, and I didn’t want Alastor to catch wind of us. He often worked with the souls as the lead torturer of Hell and would undoubtedly be close by. Pausing behind a large boulder as souls passed by chained together, the others stopped alongside me.
“What’s wrong, Kas?” Ebony asked.
“It’s Alastor. There’s a possibility he’s down here, and he knows my face,” I replied. “If he catches us, we’ll be reported.”
“He’s loyal to Leviathan?” Callan asked. “You sure about that?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t want to risk it,” I answered.
“Is there a way we could blend in with them?” Ashlin asked, motioning towards the wretched souls before us.
Ebony shifted into one of their forms, rags hanging from her body barely covering her. “Gabriel, can you glamor them?”
“I can try. Obstrepat,” he said, waving his hand over us as our bodies morphed. It took a while for us to figure out who was who.
“This’ll be interesting being a guy for a change,” Ashlin said. “Hey, I still sound like me.”
“You’re going to,” Ebony answered. “It’s just an outward appearance for you, whereas mine is my entire body, including my vocal cords. Just don’t say anything, and you’ll be fine. You shouldn’t be talking anyway unless you’re looking for punishment.”
“We better move if we want to join this line,” Callan said, pointing towards the last souls bringing up the rear.
I bent down and rubbed ash and dirt all over my body. “Here. You better rub this over you unless you want the other demons to smell you before we get very far.”
The others followed my lead as we waited for the last trailing souls to make their way past our boulder. Stepping out from behind the massive rock, we blended in with the rest of the line. While some of the souls were chained, others were not as they broke away from the formation heading for their work stations. Trudging along through the intolerable heat, we passed by several demons with whips attached to their hips, watching us intensely.
I kept my head to the ground, maintaining eye contact with the rubble beneath my feet. It was the only way to keep the attention averted from myself and the others so that we could pass through the canyon undeterred. As we drew closer towards Hell’s first inner circle, one of the guards had a length of chain strapped around the necks of a hellhound he was trying to control. It snapped against its restraints, lunging at the souls in front of us as the demon toyed with giving it slack before violently reeling it back in.
“Keep moving, you stinking lot!” the demon shouted as the souls shuttered under his watchful gaze. The hellhound growled furiously until its sights set upon me. Retreating, it released a small whimper.
“You there! Come here!” the demon yelled, grabbing my shoulder and yanking me away from the formation. “What is it about you that has my mutt showing mercy?”
The demon spat right in my face as he squeezed my upper arm tightly, cutting into my skin. I held back a yelp of pain as I tried to look away from his eyes. The others were still moving along with the group but stole glances over their shoulders to see if they needed to report back.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, you putrid animal!” the demon bellowed once again as his hand grabbed my chin, forcing my face towards him. His breath reeked of death and decay, a stench so foul that I felt myself starting to faint as black spots formed in the front of my eyes.
Before I could think of how to escape, the hellhound at his side jumped up and bit down on his arm, severing it from his body. The demon howled in misery at his lost limb as blood splattered the ground. I fell, feeling arms tugging me to my feet as I saw Gabriel standing over me. The others had broken their formation, ready to fight Alastor’s men as they spotted the commotion.
Before we could take another step further, a crack of thunder sounded nearby, knocking each of us off our feet. It was so close, I could’ve sworn I had been struck by lightning. As the dust settled from what I assumed to be an explosion, Alastor stood glaring down at me in all his glory. Picking me up by my neck, my feet dangled from the ground as I grabbed his wrist, trying to gasp for air. The others were quickly apprehended by his men, restrained in various positions.
The hellhound who had helped me before sat silently beside Alastor, its head hung low, knowing that it would be severely punished for its actions against its master. Alastor eyed me as his gladiator breastplate gleamed in the light of the glowing embers all around. As his eyes met mine, something changed in his facial expression. It was so slight that I thought I had imagined the look of recognition upon his face. Dropping me to the ground, he glanced around at the others.
“Release them,” he barked at his men. “They will come with me for the time being as I will deal their punishment as I see fit.”
Alastor’s men obeyed his commands as they released my friends. Heading back to their stations, I could hear the crack of whips and the screams of souls in the distance as the men took their frustration out on the damned. I stood up and brushed myself off, knowing that Alastor would never offer me a hand, even if he did suspect who I was.
The hellhound approached me cautiously before bowing its head from me to scratch. At first, I did so but then snatched my hand away, remembering that a Hellhound would never allow a normal soul to touch it. We filed in behind Alastor as he led us down a secluded path into a mineshaft where the souls were slaving away with pickaxes at the walls. Grabbing a lantern as we neared the final part of the mine, Alastor turned towards a rock wall.
Drawing symbols upon the stone that glowed underneath his touch, the wall vanished, revealing a hidden shaft that was devoid of all light. He handed the hellfire lantern to me, practically shoving it into my hands. Was he planning on sealing us away forever?
“I knew who you were the moment that hellhound spotted you,” Alastor began. “This shaft will get you to where you need to go, but be careful. Lost souls will not be the only entities you will encounter along the way.”
“Why are you doing this for me?” I asked, curious as to his intentions.
“Because you do what must be done,” Alastor replied. “Quickly, before I change my mind.”
The others entered the shaft before me. As I set foot over the threshold, I felt a small tug at the rags around my waist. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the brave hellhound with a scrap of my skirt between his clenched teeth, whining softly. Alastor smirked at the beast before leaving me with his final words of wisdom.
“Stick to the tunnel on the right,” Alastor revealed before turning to leave me to my own devices.
I watched him disappear down the shaft, realizing that my allies were many and were in the most unlikely places. Smiling, I jerked my head towards the hidden shaft for the hellhound to follow behind us. It trotted past, the happiest creature in the world.
Bringing up the rear, I walked into the shaft as the entrance vanished with only one way to go from here. The light illuminated our faces as Gabriel reversed the glamor over us, and Ebony shifted back. I giggled as the hellhound licked Gabriel’s face.
“He likes you,” I grinned.
Gabriel placed a hand on its snout. “I didn’t realize they were the size of horses. I thought hellhounds were hard to tame?”
“Maybe he’s special, but he seems to like you and wants to help,” I answered.
“Where do you think this leads?” Ebony asked as Gabriel pulled out his map.
“From what I can see, we’re underneath the mountain right here. Unfortunately, this secret shaft could take us anywhere—”
A blood-curdling scream echoed throughout the silent, dark corridor. It ceased as the sound of fluttering wings followed by a sickening crunch made its way to our ears. The hellhound growled, baring its sharp fangs and rows of dagger-like teeth.
“We need to get out of here,” I said, taking the lead through the tunnel.
“Agreed,” Ashlin confirmed as we made our way through the darkness, our only light-source a small hellfire lamp.