We moved along the corridor in silence, not wanting to attract whatever creature was down here. I moved the lantern in a sweeping motion so that we could peer into the dark crevices to avoid an ambush. Eventually, my light rested upon an exposed corpse upon the ground. It appeared a lost soul had been placed in the shaft as punishment to be devoured by whatever stalked the darkness. All that was left was its broken ribcage and a few bones with scraps of flesh hanging from them.
Ashlin and Ebony hugged each other, turning away from the sight, as I stepped over the remains to continue our trek. Whatever had taken its fill of the soul was still out there, and I didn’t feel safe as a standing target. The others followed as I could feel morale dropping within our group. While Alastor had provided us with a way out, he had led us into a beast’s lair.
“What do you think did that?” Ebony whispered to me.
“It’s hard to say without seeing the creature, and I’m not particularly searching for it,” I answered.
I stopped abruptly at the sound of wings flapping ahead of us. A screech resonated throughout the shaft, sending fear into my being. As much as I loved my people, some of the creatures in Hell were not to be trifled with. This was one reason most of us never ventured out of the Kingdom to explore the rest of the realm. While the Kingdom was a haven and a home for demons, the outer and inner circles were dangerous.
“Whatever it is, it’s right ahead of us,” Callan whispered from behind me.
The hellhound growled low in its throat as it stood beside Gabriel in a protective stance. I appreciated its willingness to serve us, especially when other creatures in the realm weren’t so obliged. This creature wanted one thing: to feed.
I pushed forward as the others stayed a short distance behind me. I was glad for space as it would ensure that if I had to fight, at least they would be safe. As the flames touched the floor and walls in front of me, the glint of a clawed foot slithered back into the darkness directly ahead. I held my hand out in front of me with a shaky breath as Gabriel held out his own beside me.
Summoning my power as Gabriel recited a spell, the darkness in front of us illuminated with electricity as the creature’s screams filled the chamber. The light fell upon its features revealing a tall bat-like creature with massive fangs and claws. I immediately recognized it as a Manananggal, a man-eating creature as aggressive as it was formidable.
Its clawed hand swung out at me, knocking me to the ground as it grabbed Gabriel’s foot, dragging him away into the darkness. Coughing, Callan, and Josh helped to my feet, as I heard the creature bellow. The hellhound bounded down the tunnel after Gabriel as we ran together frantically searching for him. Tears filled my eyes as I listened to his yell for help coming from somewhere ahead of us.
My feet carried me faster than the wind; I dashed down the shaft, the hellfire lamp bouncing its light around every inch of the tunnel. Skidding to a stop, I held the lantern up as the tunnel split in two directions. Peering at the ground, I saw drag marks on the sandy floor down the left tunnel. I had to make a decision, and I had to make it fast.
“You guys head down the right tunnel. I’m going after Gabriel,” I exclaimed.
“I’m going with you,” Callan said.
“No!” I shouted. “You need to get everyone else to safety. I can do this.”
Callan let his hand drop with the hellfire lamp as he watched me run down the left tunnel in the dark. Using my own flames to cast light throughout the passage, I entered into a small cavern. Letting my flames extinguish, light filtered into the room from small holes in the rocky ceiling above. Bones littered the floor as they crunched underneath my feet. While souls resurrected to endure pain repeatedly, their remains littered the floor, a painful reminder of their agony.
The orange light of the outside world had dulled to a bluish-gray signifying Hell’s descent into night. While the days were sweltering hot, the nights were blistering cold. Ash fell through the holes as if it were snow upon the ground covering the bones near the chamber’s center. Inching out into the room but sticking towards the walls, I bumped into a cocoon the size of a person. It writhed underneath my touch as I heard a muffled voice from behind the silky wraps.
Picking up a sharp bone from the ground, I stabbed through the cocoon’s fibers and ripped it open where the head would be. Gasping for air, Gabriel laid behind it. Shushing him so he would know it was me, I cut through the rest of the fibers until he dropped from its clutches. Helping Gabriel to his feet, I hugged him, tears streaming from my eyes as I realized I had almost lost him.
“Look out!” he shouted as he pushed me out of the way as the Manananggal barreled down from its perch in the ceiling of the cave.
Before it reached Gabriel, the hellhound leaped out from the shadows, tackling it to the ground. We covered our ears at the creature’s high-pitched shrieks as the hellhound ripped through its arm with its savage teeth. It tried to get away, but the hound grabbed its leg dragging it back to the ground, finally tearing open its throat and silencing it for good.
Gabriel and I remained in the corner of the cave, holding onto each other as the hellhound strode back over to us. It sat down in front of Gabriel and wagged its tail, waiting to be praised. Gabriel stood up, leaving me by the wall, as he slowly approached the creature with an outstretched hand. It stared into his eyes, its own glowing a brilliant red from the fire that burned within.
I watched as Gabriel formed a bond with this creature, unsure of what exactly I was witnessing. A glowing light between Gabriel’s hand and the animal’s forehead signified an understanding that I couldn’t begin to discern. The hellhound rested his head on Gabriel’s shoulder as he got closer. Patting its head gently, Gabriel glanced over my shoulder back at me.
“He’s my familiar,” Gabriel revealed. “I don’t know how but it’s true. His name is Fenrir. At least, that’s what he told me.”
“You—you can speak to him?” I stammered amazed.
“He says your pretty,” Gabriel chuckled, grateful his newfound familiar approved of his girlfriend.
“That’s amazing, Gabriel, but we really need to get out of here,” I said as I headed for the cave exit.
Rushing down the tunnel, we managed to find our way back at the fork and continued down the right tunnel, just as Alastor had told me. With the light of the flame in my hand, we followed the others’ footsteps until we finally found our way at the end of the tunnel, where a soft light promised our escape. Stepping outside upon the soft powder of ash, the others had waited for us among the trees. Ashlin was the first to rush forward, embracing me in a tight hug.
“I thought you were dead!” Ashlin exclaimed.
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence,” I muttered as she let me go to turn her attention to Gabriel.
As the others gushed over us, I scanned the area. It appeared that we were in some type of forest, unlike the one I had been in the last time I was in Hell. It had tall trees that resembled pines in the human world that were laid in neat rows. The falling ash settled upon the ground, making the world appear gray under the night sky’s light glow. The temperature had dropped drastically, causing me to shiver as I rubbed my forearms for warmth.
I wasn’t too keen on spending the night in a haunted forest setting, but my friends and I were safer here than traveling with the underworld’s shadows. Fenrir came up between Gabriel and me, placing his head down on the ground before us. I imagined he was as tired as us after the day we had.
“Do you think it’s safe to set up camp here for the night?” Josh asked, surveying the land once more.
“It’s hard to tell,” I stated. “I’ve never been to this area before. What does the map say?”
Gabriel pulled it out for us to glance over. “I’m not sure a place called the Forest of Shades is the safest place for us to rest.”
“Shades are just dead people,” Ebony said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine for our purposes for the night. Just stick close.”
We entered the forest as a group, unsure how far we should venture out if we needed to seek shelter elsewhere. Hell was an unpredictable place for all of us. Even Josh was wary about staying within the forest’s confines, and he had frequently visited, albeit only within the Kingdom.
Once we were decided on a place to settle, Callan and Gabriel took Fenrir to gather some wood for a fire. Ebony and Ashlin dug out a small firepit in the center of our makeshift camp to keep busy, removing the ash that had gathered there. I couldn’t help but sense that I was being watched from all corners of the forest. It was an eerie feeling, the silence more deafening than the screams we heard in the mines.
“This forest is totally haunted,” Ashlin said, her teeth chattering from the cold.
“What is with you and thinking everything is haunted? You thought the motel we stayed in was haunted, the city of Salem was haunted—”
“All of which were valid, Ebony,” Ashlin interrupted. “You can’t sit here and tell me that you don’t feel a billion eyes staring at you right now.”
“I agree with Ashlin on this one, Ebony,” I replied. “I’ve felt like I’ve been watched the first moment I stepped through that tree line. What’s with this forest anyway? It’s so…perfect. The trees are in perfect rows, there’s not a leaf on the ground, and it’s just so pristine.”
“I find it to be satisfying, but that’s because I have a touch of OCD,” Josh said.
“It’s not funny, Josh,” Ebony stated. “This is the Forest of Shades. They’re doomed to wander around for all eternity never being heard, but they can be seen, sometimes.”
“What do you mean? They can manifest?” Ashlin asked.
“They usually require energy to manifest, and if we don’t keep our voices down, we may attract them,” Ebony warned.
“What are you guys talking about?” Gabriel asked as he and Callan returned with kindling and a few more substantial pieces of wood.
“Scary ghost stories,” I replied. “Did you see anything out there while scavenging for supplies?”
“Nothing to report back. There’s no food out there either,” Callan said, setting the wood down in the fire pit. “Who’s got a light?”
Leaning over from my seat, I stretched my hand out over the wood igniting it with my magic. The flames glowed a brilliant blue as we were finally able to feel some heat, warming our bodies against the frigid cold. We moved closer to the fire partially for its warmth but also for the security it brought us within the darkness of the forest. At times, I thought I could see shadows peeking out from behind the trees at us.
Fenrir twirled around before finding a comfortable position to plop down, ash billowing out from underneath him. Gabriel leaned against the beast motioning for me to join him. Sitting down beside Gabriel, I rested my back on Fenrir’s silky skin, feeling his heat sink into my bones. Gabriel wrapped his arm around my shoulders, pulling me closer towards him. I rested my head on his shoulder, staring into the flames before us.
“I thought I had lost you,” I whispered, choking back a sob. My breath caught in my throat as I tried to say more, but I couldn’t do so and keep myself from crying.
“I’m surprisingly hard to kill,” Gabriel said as he brushed back a piece of my hair with his free hand. “I’ll never let you run into fire alone, Kas. I hope you know that.”
“But I wish you would,” I answered, straightening to face him. “Not every fight is yours. As much as you want to protect me, I need you to stay alive. Don’t you see that? If I lose you…”
“You won’t,” Callan interrupted, overhearing our conversation. “I’ll look after him for you.”
“We’ll look after each other,” Ashlin commented, piggybacking off of Callan’s statement. “This whole trip, I’ve been terrified, but I still feel safe when I’m with all of you. Even though there’s probably a ghost staring at me right this second from behind those trees.”
Laughter erupted around the fire pit as we agreed with Ashlin on that one. I was glad that I wasn’t the only one feeling the unease in the forest. It was all so quiet, and I found it disturbing.
“Why do you think Alastor helped us?” Ebony asked.
“He’s on our side,” I replied.
“But why? Isn’t he friends with Leviathan?” Gabriel asked. “They were both present at your ceremony and seemed to know each other pretty well.”
“They do, but Alastor and I have an…understanding with each other. I wasn’t sure of it until I saw him again,” I admitted.
“Kas, if this is going to work out in our favor, we need to know whatever you’re hiding from us,” Callan stated. “We can’t work together if we’re keeping secrets from each other.”
His words resounded throughout my mind back to my encounter with the Archangel Michael. I was keeping more from my friends than my meeting with the lead torturer of Hell.
“Alastor was one of my trials. I impressed him with my affinity for torture and my passion for justice. He admires the fact that I do what must be done,” I responded, echoing Alastor’s final words to me.
“He’s right, Kas,” Josh assured. “You do what you need to do to save those around you. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what the Queen of Hell is expected to do in order to fulfill her duties.”
“I know,” I replied. “I keep telling myself that.”
“Do you regret it?” Callan asked. “Torturing that soul?”
“Look, I don’t think—”
“No, it’s okay, Gabriel,” I said, cutting him off. “It’s a valid question, and I don’t mind sharing it. Did I regret it? No, I don’t. I don’t know if that makes me heartless, but that soul was not a very good one. In fact, I would gladly use the term evil to describe it. That’s our job, isn’t it? To punish the wicked?”
“You can also forgive,” Callan said. “You’ve been doing it all along with your demon brethren.”
“Forgiving isn’t what I do. That’s something for angels and God. I manipulate people into helping me because they believe I’m destined for some higher purpose. It’s exactly what I did with you, Callan,” I admitted.
“You really believe that of yourself?” Gabriel asked, surprised by my response.
“Since we’re being honest, sometimes. Lucifer was the greatest evil this world had ever seen, and I am his daughter, dead or not,” I continued. “We’re all here—You’re all here because of me, on a suicide mission.”
“We’re here because we believe in you, Kas,” Ebony stated. “Where is this doubt coming from? This isn’t you.”
“How do you know?” I said. “Do you think I act like the Queen of Hell? Even Gabriel said I’m too trusting, and I was accused by another demon for being too merciful. My own people think I’m too good to rule over them. What’s up with that?”
“It’s because they’re not used to it, Kas,” Josh said. “I’ve been in Court. I know what it’s like in there and how everyone was constantly walking on eggshells around your father. I never met him in person, and honestly, I never wanted to. It’s a duty we all have—had to serve your father, but he wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to spend time with.”
“And yet, they choose to follow Leviathan and not me,” I shot back. It was a hard pill for me to swallow, knowing how unwanted I was by my own kind.
“You can’t base your worth off of Leviathan. He’s a ruthless demon who fought alongside your father in many battles to force respect from his fellow demons. Do you want to be like that?” Callan inquired.
I sighed heavily, contemplating his words. While I knew them to be true, it was a decision that haunted my thoughts. I didn’t want to be like my father, but in a way, his method of ruling garnered him more support than mine had. I envied him, and yet, I loathed him, conflicting emotions that would drive anyone mad if they dwelled on them for too long.
My eyes grew heavy as exhaustion overtook me. The flames dimmed as we all felt the day’s weight overcome us, unable to tend to the fire. I relaxed against Gabriel and Fenrir as their breathing grew deeper over time until they both drifted off to sleep. Letting my eyes flutter down, I too began drifting away.
“Wake up!” a voice hissed in my ear as I shot up straight, the hair on the back of my neck prickling. Looking around at the others by the light of the dying fire, they were all sound asleep. The ash was falling softly over us, and I stood up, shaking its accumulation from my clothes. The trees were steady around us with not a hint of movement.
“Behind you,” it whispered as I spun around following the sound of the voice. Peering into the forest, I saw a glimmer of dress flowing behind a tree. Watching, a ghostly apparition appeared out the other side, gliding along the ground. She called to me, and yet, her mouth did not move.
It was like a siren song pulling me towards her as I left our campsite to follow behind. My mind was screaming at me to look away and run, but I couldn’t do so. My feet carried me towards the ghastly glow of the woman with long flowing silver hair. She smiled at me as she beckoned to me with her hand.
“Come, my child,” she whispered, her voice soft and enchanting. She was toying with me. Every time I got close to her, she would drift off further into the distance. Eventually, she led me to a small pond with calm black water in the center of the forest. She had ceased her games and floated towards the center of it, staring at me as her billowing dress danced wildly about her. Without a word, she pointed at the water below her as my toes touched the shoreline’s edge.
I saw my reflection in the pond, staring back at me. The water was so smooth and inviting. The whispering grew in the background, unintelligible voices. The woman waited patiently for me, smiling towards me as I took my first step forward.
“Don’t!” Gabriel demanded as he grabbed my hand, pulling me away from her. I spun around in his arms and beat against his chest, trying to break free so I could follow the woman further into the waters.
“Kas, stop! She’s not real. You’ll get lost,” he said, wrapping his arms around me to keep me restrained. I struggled against him as he stroked my hair and spoke soothing words into my ear.
His voice calmed me enough to regain control of my mind and body. Gabriel held me for a few moments longer to make sure I was alright before guiding me back towards the campsite. I hadn’t realized I had traveled so far away. Being under the shade’s spell, it had only felt like a few brief moments.
Fenrir was awake and waiting for us by a newly rekindled fire. The others were still asleep except for Callan, who Gabriel had ordered to watch over them while he was away. My sudden alertness had awoken Gabriel, which prompted him to look for me, discovering I had entered deeper into the forest.
“Thank God,” Callan said. “I thought the forest had taken you.”
“It had,” I said. “If it wasn’t for Gabriel, I would’ve followed that shade till the end of time.”
“Hell is definitely not my favorite place,” Callan grumbled as he settled back down near the fire. “Stay put, will you?”
“I’m going to try,” I replied. “I wasn’t expecting to feel that way in here. Who knew that shades were so deadly?”
Gabriel chuckled. “Why do you think belladonna is called deadly nightshade? Shades can poison our minds.”
“I’ll keep watch and make sure my ears are plugged,” Callan said as Gabriel and I settled back down with Fenrir.
“We have a long journey ahead of us still,” Gabriel said, keeping a firm hold on me so I wouldn’t wander off again. “You need your rest.”
“Why does everything want to kill me?” I asked with a yawn.
Gabriel didn’t answer my question, only smiled as he watched my eyes close. He was right about one thing, the journey certainly wasn’t over.