Our victory over Beleth was fleeting as we soon discovered news about Penelope’s condition from one of our newly acquired allies. Not long after Penelope’s capture, she had been interrogated by Leviathan about our whereabouts and about my strengths and weaknesses. Through this process, her torture had been so great that at certain points, the hunters feared their captive would die at their hands without the information they longed for.
Trista returned to our group with a small handkerchief she carefully unfolded possessing several fingers and toes. Ebony turned away from the sight, covering her mouth as Ashlin held onto her. Trista covered them quickly and handed me the handkerchief.
“Gabriel? Can she heal herself from this?” I asked him.
“Pardon my intrusion, but witches don’t have powers within the Kingdom. It was a prevention method set in place by your father if ever a witch tried to use their powers against him,” Trista revealed.
Gabriel shook his head. “With those being gone for so long, we’ll be able to heal the wounds later, but as for growing back the missing parts…we might not be able to.”
Ebony held back sobs as she stifled herself with Ashlin’s shoulder. Ashlin placed her hand around her to console her friend. Guilt and shame rushed back as I tried to tell myself it wasn’t my fault like my friends had tried to convince me. It was hard because Penelope didn’t deserve any of this, and neither did Ebony.
“Thank you for the update, Trista. We need to hurry,” I spoke calmly.
“The wall is about another day’s journey. We should make it there by nightfall tomorrow, but tonight we should rest. I know of sacred ground that is a neutral gathering space. We’ll head that way,” Trista replied as she went to gather the troops.
“I don’t know if Penelope will last another day, Kas,” Ebony whispered, her voice barely audible.
I sighed heavily, unsure of how to respond. While I knew her fear of losing Penelope was great, and I would in no way invalidate it, I couldn’t risk us continuing towards the Kingdom through the night and exhausting the men and women laying down their lives for us. I had to put everyone before our own needs, a decision that was difficult to convey to a grieving friend over her lost lover.
“It’s okay, Ebony. My sister and I have always had a strong connection, and I know she’s still keeping strong. I can feel her,” Gabriel said before I could gather my thoughts. He smiled at her, giving her a false sense of hope.
Ebony left us, as she went to aid the other hunters for our trek. Turning towards Gabriel in protest, he placed his finger over my lips with a weak smile that told me everything I needed to know. Penelope was in dire shape, but it was easier to lie to Ebony than cause her to make an irrational decision based on her need to save Penelope. We needed everyone to have a level head during this war.
“We’re ready to move out,” Trista said, pulling her dreads back into a ponytail. “We’re not far from the ancient ruins where our shelter awaits. We should make it there just before nightfall to give us some time to set up a base camp.”
“Ruins? What are they ruins of?” I asked.
“It used to be a sacred place of worship for the Archdemons until Lucifer moved the site to the Kingdom. The ground there will always be sacred, neutralizing demonic and witch powers so we can rest easy knowing we won’t be blinded by any magical attacks,” Trista confirmed.
“Are there other places in Hell similar to that one?” I asked, curious.
“The only other location is inside the Council Chamber and the Hall of Sorrow where your throne awaits. It was designed that way in accordance with preventative measures,” Trista informed us.
“Duly noted,” I said, as we began our hike out of the fields along the trails to our next destination.
As we walked throughout my realm, I noticed more and more how desolate it was. While the Kingdom itself was touted as a second Eden, the rest of the realm was dangerous and unforgiving. It was the ultimate punishment for misdeeds, and the further we ventured into the inner circles, I saw how harsher the conditions were.
I found myself having pity for the souls that were stuck here. I believed I felt that way because I knew that some of those souls belonged to innocent people. Once I found my seat upon the throne, I vowed to send those souls through Lethe’s waters to be purified and go to their next destination without having to endure another moment of agony in this realm. It was the least I could do to repent for the wrongdoings of my father.
How did his soul become so twisted? Once a beautiful angel, a servant of God, and one of the most beloved, fallen from Grace to become the monster I knew him to be. Was it due to all his years spent down here with all the other tortured individuals? Did it cause him to lose his mind? Would I lose mine?
The questions surged throughout my mind as I wondered what my own fate would entail. I was still struggling with the constant static of prayers I received day and night. How could I control the rest of the realm and my subjects if I couldn’t have a semblance of peace from the noise? I had to keep reminding myself that I wanted this, I wanted to keep the balance and restore peace, to rebuild our incredible home.
“You seem to be lost in a dark place, Kas,” Callan said from beside me. “Want to talk about it?”
His voice pulled me from my thoughts. “How did you know?”
“I’ve been there a few times myself,” Callan revealed as we walked along a winding trail down a hillside into a valley.
“I have so many questions and not enough answers. I’m afraid I’ll never understand them because the only person who knew about this realm is dead,” I said flatly.
“You’re talking about Lucifer. I think you underestimate yourself. Your entire time at Brimstone, you were studying for this. None of that helped you?” he inquired.
“I guess you could say it’s kind of like going to a human school to find out you have no idea how to do your taxes. Similar concept,” I joked.
Callan chuckled. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, but look at what you’ve accomplished. You’ve saved your friends on multiple occasions by recalling your studies with Penelope—so, you know your enemies. You’ve mastered your demonic abilities and have discovered how to tap into your celestial ones, as evidenced within the dead zone. We just fought our first battle, and you defeated your foe, causing all these people to have renewed faith in you as their leader.”
I glanced around me at my friends and all the hunters who had joined our ranks. Callan wasn’t wrong about any of it, and it helped my self-esteem. I just hoped it was enough to save our friend and my realm. There were still many others to convince, and there was no telling what lies Leviathan had spread about me.
“Thanks, Callan,” I replied. “I needed that.”
“You have good friends, Kas. Remember that, and you’ll never be alone,” Callan smiled.
“Halt!” Trista shouted as our line stopped abruptly.
“Trista, is something wrong?” I asked, walking up beside her.
“For once, everything is going as planned,” she said with a grin as we gazed over an ancient temple’s ruins from our perch on the mountain’s side. We were closing in on the place where we could finally rest in peace without fear.
We started our walk again with a newfound enthusiasm. A few hours later, we approached the temple surrounded by a thick forest. Vines crawled their way up the crumbling stone walls with deep red flowers resembling lilies upon them. The temple itself appeared like a gothic cathedral, a blasphemous representation of Catholic churches. The temple’s ground was bare as if no other plant would dare to touch it except the vines already present.
As soon as I set foot upon the dust-covered floor, I felt my powers go dormant except for those connected to my celestial being. I watched the others as they, too, felt the weight of their demonic abilities lift from them. Trista was right about it being sacred ground. It made everyone equal.
Trista and a few of her troops were the first to enter through the temple’s archway, the doors having disappeared with age and time long ago. It was a shell of what it once was, but it would do for what we needed it for tonight. They inspected the large hall, their boots echoing throughout the building as they ascended stairs to the second floor overlooking the grand entrance.
Much of it was crumbling with some areas that couldn’t be explored. Once they reappeared, the rest of us entered the massive stone building. Stone benches lined the walls with degraded wooden pews along the center. The stained glass was broken, but some of its fragments still clung to the windows portraying battles and war between Heaven and Hell. Statues stood on either side of us of Archdemons, some still living and others lost to this world forever. Many of them were broken as vines threatened to overtake them.
“Who are all these demons?” Josh asked in awe as he stood before a siren dressed in traditional war attire for their species.
“I’d like to know as well,” Ashlin said, eying a succubi statue whose name had long since been forgotten.
“Those are the ancients of our people—of many people,” Trista answered. “When I was younger, I would sometimes come here with my parents to pay our respects to them. They were the first demons to settle within this realm, making it a home for everyone, until Lucifer was crowned King over us all.”
“Did he show respect to them as well?” Ebony asked. It was a question I wanted to know.
“That, I don’t know,” Trista replied. “Lucifer was an angel, and like his brothers and sisters, he didn’t have a deep connection to us since he wasn’t one of us.”
“Then why make him King?” I questioned.
“Did Queen Lilith not tell you the story?” Trista asked, skeptical.
“She told me about their relationship and that Lucifer was made King initially because of God. Later, he accepted his role based on the political reasons of the Archdemons. Is there more to the story than what I was told?” I inquired.
“Queen Lilith’s marriage to Lucifer was all arranged by the Archdemons. They were the ones who ultimately decided to let Lucifer retain the throne because he let the Lesser Kings keep their rule over their own people and subsequent territories within the realm. By doing so, they would be at Lucifer’s disposal when needed,” Trista revealed.
“So, what you’re telling me is that no matter what I do, the Archdemons will have the final say over my ascension,” I said.
Trista bit her lip, knowing I was catching on to what she was saying. “There’s a chance that even if you make it into the throne room, you’ll have to go through judgment over your fitness to be Queen.”
I sighed, knowing it wasn’t as simple as sitting upon the throne. “If I’m to be judged, then Leviathan will make sure I go to trial over my father, an element that could potentially stall my ascension or completely alter it.”
“Exactly,” Trista replied. “That’s why it’s imperative we have a plan in case things go south.”
“You’re talking about war?” Gabriel asked, snapping to attention from where he was leaning against a pillar. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid here.”
“Whether Kas convinces the Archdemons to accept her rule or not, there will be a civil war within our realm. Leviathan has many friends, and not everyone will be convinced to let Kas rule. As Lucifer’s daughter, it hasn’t done her favors with some demonic species,” Trista admitted.
“You’re suggesting that due to the treatment they received under my father’s rule, I’ll be blamed for his actions? Can these people not think for themselves?” I asked angrily.
“Some people are blinded by hatred and rage. It’ll take a great sacrifice to make it through to them,” Trista began. “We’ll try to find those who wish to do you harm.”
“And what?” I snapped. “Kill them? Force them into submission because that’s going to garner their respect, right? We can’t keep making the same mistakes as my father did. We have to progress, and this form of torture is not the way.”
“What do you suggest?” Trista asked, taking a seat on the floor in front of us. I joined her along with my friends as we sat in a circle.
We talked well into the night, going over a plan of action that would hopefully end in our favor if we played our cards right. Aunt Helen had given me valuable information about Leviathan, his pride being the center of her downfall. That was always the trickiest sin of all. If you weren’t expecting it, it would come back to haunt you. It was one of the reasons my father left his place in Heaven.
It was only a matter of time before Leviathan made a mistake, showing his true colors to the other demons. The seeds of doubt were being placed around the realm by Seth, and I was sure that at least enough of them would sprout. It was a type of discord that could work in our favor.
“Once we make it past the wall, my troops and I will head to find your friend in the Cage of Torture underneath the Kingdom. You’ll head in the direction of the throne room via the tunnels. Leviathan will inevitably be waiting for you there, and that’s when you’ll implement the rest of the plan,” Trista reiterated, making sure everyone was on the same page.
“You’ll be okay, Kas, and so will we,” Gabriel said, reassuring me. I was to enter the throne room alone while the others hid in the tunnels. I didn’t want them to get hurt if Leviathan decided to use them against me.
“We should get some sleep,” Ashlin said, yawning as she lay back on her makeshift bed of vines and leaves along with Josh.
I stood up and walked towards the back of the temple, taking a seat on a crumbling windowsill next to one of the broken, arched windows. Gazing upon the forest along the edge of the ring, shadows danced within the trees. While in other parts of Hell, this would’ve had a menacing feel, it was peaceful as the ash fell gently from the sky.
Gabriel walked over to me, sitting opposite me on the sill. I put my leg up in front of me, hugging my knee to me as my other foot was placed firmly on the ground. He didn’t say anything at first, simply watched the ash as I did.
“I don’t want to talk about the plan anymore,” I interrupted. “I know what I need to do and how to do it. It’s all up to me now.”
Gabriel placed his hand over mine. “I wasn’t going to say anything further about the plan. I know we’ve drilled you enough on it. I just wanted to say that no matter what happens, know that I love you and always will.”
“Don’t do that…” I said.
“I have to, Kas. There’s a chance I may not be able to say those words to you ever again,” Gabriel admitted.
Heat flushed to my face as I felt the sting of tears threaten to spill from my eyes. It wasn’t a goodbye, and yet, it felt as though it was. Gabriel leaned forward to brush away the tears streaming down my face. His soft touch led to a sob escaping from me as I covered my face with my hands. Wrapping his arms around me, he pulled me close as I held onto him desperately.
Kissing the top of my head, he said, “Promise me you’ll stay strong. No matter what happens. You won’t let them get to you.”
I nodded as I cried into the crook of his neck, praying I could be the person everyone expected me to be. This would be the first time I would truly be alone without my friends’ aid, terrifying me. Pushing back the negative thoughts trying to flood my mind, I sucked up what little strength I had left and blew out a shaky breath. Gabriel leaned his forehead against mine with his hand still on my cheek.
We stayed there until the others fell asleep before cuddling up beside a broken pillar. He leaned his back against the stone as I leaned back against his chest, his arms around me. Sleep came for me as did the feeling of peace within the ancient temple walls.