The heat of the rising flames was the first thing to awaken me. The coldness had departed only to be replaced by the next wave of impossible weather. Standing up, I glanced around the circle noticing that Ebony was gone.
“Callan? Callan!” I shouted, rushing over to grab his arm, shaking him awake. He woke up startled, not realizing he had fallen asleep on watch.
“Ebony? Where’s Ebony?” he said as he quickly gained his footing.
“I think I know—wake the others!” I commanded as I raced through the forest trees, tracing my steps from the night before where the shade had drawn me in. The trees blurred together as I finally realized why this place looked familiar. It resembled the suicide forests seen on Earth.
Standing on the shore of the water pool, I saw Ebony half-submerged from her waist up. The shade I had seen the previous night was standing over the black water once again, but this time, it wasn’t beautiful or enchanting. It was swathed in torn, gray rags, with sores all over its skin. The woman was no longer young, but an old hag with messy, unkempt gray hair. Her eyes turned to me as she opened her mouth in a silent scream.
Rushing towards the water, just as Ebony went under, I dove into what I thought was a shallow pool. It was impossibly deep, dropping off into the ground suddenly. I saw Ebony, sinking to the bottom, her eyes closed as the water pulled her under. Swimming towards her, a tentacle slithered around her waist about to pull her to a watery grave.
Summoning my energy, I sent a pulse wave through the water, stunning the enormous creature, as I grabbed Ebony’s hand, dragging her back towards the light above. She didn’t fight me like I had fought with Gabriel the night before, which worried me. As I swam back towards the surface, another tentacle hooked itself around my leg, clutching me with barbs ripping into my flesh. Yelping underwater, bubbles rose up to the surface as I pushed Ebony upward, hoping the others had found their way to us.
The tentacle dragged me further down as I saw it’s piercing yellow eyes and its monstrous beak-like mouth open wide. I was running out of air and strength, the world turning black before me. A voice inside my head whispered to me, soothing me as if it were reciting my last funeral rites. Suddenly, the creature let me go as if it had heard the same voice I was hearing. It backed away, deeper into its hole at the bottom of the pool as I struggled to bring myself to the surface.
Breaking free through the surface, Gabriel ran out towards me and scooped me up, carrying me the rest of the way to shore. Dragging my body out on the sandy ground around the pool, I flipped over on my side, coughing up the water I had inhaled. Gabriel patted my back as I expelled fluid from my lungs.
“Ebony,” I gasped as I instinctively reached out to her. I could see Callan using CPR on her, my sight going blurry.
Willing myself to get up, I crawled over to where she lay as Callan continued the chest compressions. Glancing back out over the water, I saw the shade, smiling with rotten teeth, her mission completed. She vanished into a cloud of mist that settled over the pond.
Taking my hand, I placed it at the center of Ebony’s chest, concentrating my energy on her heart. I sent a small wave of electricity, trying to restart her heart as she twitched from the jolt. As I was about to send another, she doubled over, coughing up the black liquid while gasping for air. Lowering my head, I felt a wave of relief wash over me, a force so great I could scarcely withstand it. She blinked her eyes as she looked over at me, lifting her hand to my face.
“My Queen…” she said before she passed out. At least she was breathing. Gabriel helped me to my feet as Callan picked up Ebony, cradling her in his arms.
“This has been an eventful morning,” Gabriel commented as he led us back to the campsite.
Ashlin ran towards us, stroking Ebony’s wet hair. Without saying a word to each other, we left the forest behind us, not wanting to stay there another minute as Gabriel directed us with Maisie’s map. According to him, we were close to a bridge that connected the outer circles with the beginnings of the inner circles. If this was what we had to deal with in the outer rings, I wasn’t too keen about the rest.
“It let me go,” I said more to myself than the others as we walked along. Ebony was starting to wake up in Callan’s arms.
“What let you go, Kas?” Ashlin asked from beside me.
“The creature at the bottom of the pond. It looked like some kind of giant octopus or squid,” I recalled as I put my hand absentmindedly on Fenrir’s shoulder. The hellhound nuzzled me on my cheek before returning to his constant scanning of the area.
“He says not to worry, that since you’re with me, he’ll protect you too,” Gabriel said with a smile, petting his familiar.
“That’s really nice of him. You think he could call some of his buddies so we can score a ride?” Josh said, holding a hand up to shield his eyes from the boiling light of day.
“Not here,” Gabriel replied. “He says his family is located in the inner circles.”
“Then what was he doing with a slave driver?” I asked.
“He was captured on one of their hunts and forced into submission. Basically, they withhold food and water until they break them, bending them to their will. He was blinded by rage by this until he saw you, Kas,” Gabriel relayed.
“That’s awful,” I said while petting the creature. “Your kind has done so much for me. You deserve more than being someone’s fight dog.”
“He’s thanking you,” Gabriel revealed. “I don’t know what it is, but you do have a way with creatures. Of course, except for the one that ambushed us in the mines. That one was definitely going to kill us.”
“I wonder why,” I mused. “The shade didn’t show much regard for me either. She knew what was down in the depths of that pool. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was trying to kill me as well.”
“I’m glad the thing you saw at the bottom had the decency to let you go. If not for that creature recognizing you, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” Ashlin declared, giving me a small hug.
“Fenrir says it’s because only a few of them can recognize you in your human form. He says we all look like ordinary souls wandering around,” Gabriel said.
“What? Ordinary? Excuse you,” Ashlin joked with the creature.
“That’s what Aunt Helen was talking about when she told me I should drop my guard,” I muttered under my breath. “But these creatures have never seen my demonic form. I don’t understand how it helps.”
“Fenrir said that they have seen your form. There are murals in the Kingdom dedicated to it,” Gabriel replied. “That’s really interesting. I wonder if they gathered it from the prophecy.”
“Whatever the case, it’s worth a shot,” Josh said. “Anything to keep these monsters off our back until we break into the city.”
Josh dropped his human form, revealing his webbed hands and scales upon his skin. Fins and gills exposed themselves as his eyes changed to an icy greenish hue. Ashlin was the next to join him, her fingernails elongating into claws with her eyes a glowing red, fangs protruding from her lips as she licked them seductively. Ebony was the last to follow suit, returning to a dark mass in a person’s form.
“This feels so good. It’s like taking your bra off after a long day of work,” Ashlin remarked, hugging herself.
“Come on, Kas. We’ve all seen you before,” Josh said, placing his hand on my shoulder. I glanced over at Gabriel.
“I love you, demon and all,” Gabriel whispered in my ear, knowing my hesitancy was due to him.
Sighing, I let go of all that was and let my powers flow freely as the dark liquid pulsated through my veins, causing my skin to appear as cracked porcelain. My eyesight enhanced as I knew the darkness had filled them. Ridges formed over my knuckles and down my spine, strengthening my bones. I allowed for my full façade to be broken as leathery wings protruded from my shoulder blades with spikes at the tips, ripping through my shirt. Fangs elongated inside my mouth, drawing a little blood as they pierced the top of my bottom lip.
“There you go,” Josh said, clapping me on my shoulder. “A right and proper demon.”
“Your wings are different from your celestial powers,” Gabriel commented.
“Everything is different with those powers. It’s like I’m two separate people in one body,” I answered. “Kind of strange, huh?”
“Not strange,” he said, shaking his head, “simply different.”
Fenrir bowed his head in my direction, and I knew he was officially welcoming me into Hell as his Queen. We moved forward until we finally reached the edge of the forest where a long, forgotten rope bridge swung aimlessly in the air over a deep canyon. Peeking over the canyon’s side, I noticed a small river with many sharp rocks around it and through it. Definitely not an area I’d like to take a dive in.
“So our choices are plummeting to our deaths, or cross the decrepit rope bridge and probably still plummet to our deaths. I choose the rope bridge,” Josh mocked, raising his hand in the air.
“Kas, you think you could fly us across?” Ebony asked, pointing to my wings.
“This is kind of a solo flyer kind of deal. I don’t think I’m strong enough to carry people. No offense, Callan,” I finished.
“That’s okay. I know I’m heavy from being built with solid muscle,” he teased.
“We’ll just cross one at a time then,” Ashlin said. “I hope the view is good, at least.”
“I’ll go first,” Gabriel spoke up, putting a foot on the first rotten board. The ropes groaned underneath his weight as he inched his way across the bridge. One of the boards snapped underneath him, falling to the river below.
“Gabriel, be careful!” I shouted from my side. Stepping off the ledge, my wings carried me to the other side, where I waited patiently for him. Grabbing his hand as he neared the end, I pulled him the rest of the way.
“Show off,” he muttered with a smile. “Ok, Ashlin! You’re up!”
Ashlin tried to mirror where Gabriel had placed his footing on the bridge. I could hear her praying from her spot through the connection I had. I breathed a sigh of relief as she made it safely to our side with Ebony not too far behind. Knowing his weight was too great, Fenrir chose to climb down the canyon side and climb back up the other.
Josh was next to enter the bridge, the rope straining against all the use it was getting since being left to rot. I heard a snapping sound from the ropes on our end, tied to the wooden posts. Rushing forward to grab the rope just as it snapped clean off, I saw Josh wavering on the bridge. I held the rope as taut as I could with the others behind me, helping. Callan got on the bridge behind him to race across.
“Hurry!” I shouted as they made it halfway. Callan fell through a rotten floorboard, dangling in the air as Josh raced back for him. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but I saw Callan push Josh away, trying to get him to leave.
Before I had time to react, the rope at the other end of the bridge snapped, causing the bridge to collapse as Josh and Callan hung on for dear life, smacking into the canyon’s rock face below. Fenrir dove down the cliff’s side, trying to reach them as we held onto the ropes at the top, keeping it from falling down even further.
Fenrir came back up with Josh clutching his back and Callan hanging on to his tail, dragging them to our side. We rushed over to them as they panted heavily. Ashlin scooped Josh into her arms, kissing him as Callan sat up, trying to shake off what just happened.
“Are you two, alright?” Ebony asked, kneeling beside them.
“Eh, I’ve been in worse predicaments,” Callan said, brushing off his near-death experience.
“We all knew that bridge was danger,” Josh said, in between Ashlin’s kisses.
“At least we all made it safely to the other side,” Gabriel pointed out.
“Not for long,” Ebony said as we turned to see what she was talking about. About a dozen bounty hunters stood behind us, with arrows pointed in our direction.
We all stood up as Fenrir growled from beside us. Gabriel held his hand out to the creature so that he wouldn’t attack prematurely. I waited for any sign of movement as one of the bounty hunters stepped forward from their triangular formation. Throwing back his hood, I saw Seth standing before his crew. Placing his hand out to lower the arrow of the nearest hunter, they all followed his lead. Seth knelt before me, bowing his head as the others mimicked his show of respect.
“Welcome home, Kasdeya, Queen of Hell,” Seth said as he stood up. He walked forward and held out his hand as I shook it, grateful for showing compassion to him when I did.
“Seth, how did you know I was here?” I asked.
“We received word from a shade you were heading in this direction. I convinced Beleth to send me and the men and women of my choosing in lieu of another platoon,” he explained. “I’m here to make sure you get to the Kingdom with no problems, and all these people are behind you.”
I glanced over their faces as they revealed themselves to me, smiling, proud to serve. It was the most glorious and uplifting thing I had ever seen, a moment I wanted to savor. This demon—this Herald, had managed to gain followers for my cause all because I was honest and compassionate with him. Although those traits may not suit the Antichrist, they proved to be my greatest assets in this trying time.
“Beleth is still against me?” I asked Seth. While I appreciated the efforts of the ones before me, I was concerned that one of the Lesser Kings was still on the hunt for me.
“He’ll take more convincing than I am capable of,” Seth admitted. “Leviathan and Beleth are close allies now. I was hoping once you claim your throne, you’ll be able to persuade him otherwise.”
“Dark Lady, I am Trista,” a female bounty hunter said, stepping forward. “Seth told us of Leviathan’s treachery and of the plots against you by our late King. We will only support the true heir of Hell and fight beside you in the coming wars.”
“I’m hoping to avoid war altogether,” I replied. “Thank you for your service and support. Hopefully, we can end this without more bloodshed. Each and every one of you are not only my ally but my family. I don’t wish to see more pain among our demonic brethren.”
“Of course, Dark Lady,” Trista replied. “Forgive me, but we’re not in the best of positions at the moment. We must hurry to the walls around the Kingdom.”
“What position are we in?” Callan asked.
“Currently, we’re standing upon the Isle of Wrath,” Seth answered. “We need to hurry before we’re afflicted with the emotion ourselves.”
“Great,” Josh mumbled. “I’m starting to miss Earth more and more.”
Fenrir flopped down on his back, panting from the burst of energy he had used to rescue Callan and Josh. While hellhounds were strong, they weren’t the best when it came to stamina, tiring quickly after excessive exertion. Gabriel walked over to him and rubbed his underbelly as the creature basked in his master’s praise.
The hunters formed a protective ring around our group as Fenrir jumped back to attention, defending Gabriel. He stroked his snout, whispering to the creature to calm him around the hunters. Seth walked on my right side, while Trista took to the left. While we had made it out of the forest, the land we were now on was a field of tall grasses. If we weren’t careful, we would easily be consumed.
The brush was tall enough to where if one of us strayed too far, we wouldn’t be able to see each other. It was daunting, to say the least. It made me wonder if Seth knew where he was going since it seemed likely we could easily be fooled. While there was no breeze to catch their blades, the grass swayed mysteriously around us.
“I don’t like it here,” I heard Ashlin say from behind me.
“Neither do I,” Ebony answered her. “Once this is all over, we’ll never have to set foot here again.”
“I think it’s stupid we’re even here now,” Ashlin commented. “It’s not like this is our fight to begin with. We’re only here because Kas couldn’t do this on her own.”
“What?” I asked, turning around to face the two girls.
“What? We didn’t say anything,” Ashlin said. “This place is a little creepy, though.”
Turning back towards the front, Seth looked over at me. “Are you alright, my Queen?”
I nodded, not sure if I was hearing things or if my two closest friends actually thought I had placed them in all this danger, which I supposed, in a sense, I had. They were all here because of my actions. Before, they had been willing to help me, but everything was suddenly real and dangerous now that we were here. Perhaps, there were feelings of resentment I had overlooked.
“Do you think she’s going crazy?” Ashlin asked Ebony. Her voice was only a whisper behind me.
“It’s possible. She’s been through so much trauma and hasn’t taken a chance to breathe. Murdering your father can do that to you, I suppose,” Ebony replied back.
“What is wrong with the two of you?” I snapped, spinning around to face the pair once again.
“Kas, what are you talking about?” Ebony questioned. “Are you okay?”
“Why would you say something like that, Ebony?” I asked, my anger rising.
“She didn’t say anything, Kas,” Ashlin began.
“You two are back here talking about me as if I’m not standing right in front of you!” I shouted. “If you have something to say to me, then say it to my face!”
Before I could stop myself, my fist flew towards Ashlin’s face as she dodged my attack. The others in the group stopped abruptly as several hunters restrained me, holding my arms back on either side. Ashlin’s eyes widened as she watched me buck against my captors, trying to free myself from their grasp so I could go for her once again. The rage I was feeling inside was boiling over, and I needed to satiate it the only way I knew how.
“Grab her!” Callan shouted at Gabriel as their hands flew into the mix.
“Let me go!” I screamed in vain.
“They’re not really your friends,” the voices whispered. “If they were, then they wouldn’t be so afraid of you like they are now.”
“Why isn’t she listening to us? Kas, you have to fight the voices. They’re targeting you because they know your mission!” Gabriel shouted, trying to help me regain control.
“That Gabriel doesn’t even love you. How could he possibly love a demon? Witches stay to their own kind, and they don’t deviate. You were doomed from the start,” the voice egged on.
Ripping one of my arms free, I sent a wave of electricity at my crew, sending them flying in all directions within the tall grass. Standing in the center of the field alone, not seeing the others, the voice got stronger.
“That’s it. Kill everyone. You don’t need them, you never did. They only ever slowed you down,” it hissed.
Clutching my head, I fell to my knees, trying to suffocate the disembodied voice speaking to me. Everyone was gone, stranded somewhere in the tall grass because of me. It was all my fault I was all alone.
“Poor pathetic, Kas,” Ashlin said as she stepped through the grass’s blades towards me. Her eyes were gone, only sockets remained.
“You’re not Ashlin,” I said. “You’re not real!”
“Oh, but I am,” she purred into my ear as she got closer.
“So am I,” Gabriel said, stepping into my small circle, his ocular appearance mirroring Ashlin. “I never loved you; I simply wanted the power and title of being with the most powerful demon in Hell and on Earth. You’re only a pawn in this game. My father taught me well, but you’ve always suspected that.”
“Kas,” Ebony’s voice echoed through the brush as she appeared near my side. “I always knew someone would get hurt because of you. You let them take Penelope because you were jealous of her. She was always smarter.”
“That’s not true!” I shouted as Callan grabbed my chin. “You’re not real!”
“I am real, Kas. You have to fight this,” Callan called out to me. “Whatever you hear right now, it’s not your friends. It’s the darkness that lurks out here in this field.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Ashlin said, wrapping her arms around me from behind. “Doesn’t this feel real?”
Ashlin licked the side of my face as I knelt upon the grass, immobilized. Callan dropped before me, trying to force me to focus on him as the others vied for my attention. Their whispers turned to shouting as I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to tune them out with what little will power I had left.
“Kas…come back to us,” Callan pleaded, desperately trying to rouse me from their spell.
“Stay here, Kas,” Gabriel said over Callan’s pleas. “Destroy us.”
Turning my head to glance over Ashlin’s shoulder, a wicked smile upon her face, I stood up. Spreading my wings, I took to flight out of the field, trying to get myself away from them and find the others scattered. As I did so, I felt the grass reach out towards me, wrapping itself around my ankles as it dragged me back down towards the creatures whispering hatred into my heart.
As I struggled to stay abreast, the blades cut into my ankles as my wings couldn’t carry me any further. I fell to the ground as the grass enveloped around me, not letting me rise. The hallucinations of my friends stood around me and watched as they whispered their lies, hoping to break me under their twisted, inhuman faces.