The Haunting Hour (TWH #2)

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xi. stupid

Phlegethon Castle
The Seventh Circle of Hell

THERE WAS LITTLE I could do to convince Berith, Lillian, and Thanatos that I was fine.

I’m not an idiot. There is something wrong with me. I’m constantly reminded that I’m missing something and it was accompanied by an overwhelming desire to get it back, no matter the costs.

I’ll do whatever it takes to get back what belonged to me, but I don’t know what’s missing or why I need it so badly.

They are wasting valuable time, time that we needed to track down Leviathan. Something is telling me that he has what I’m missing and I intend on getting it back before I send his soul someplace he’ll never see the light of day again.

The Waste.

“Waste,” I whisper to myself. Maybe saying it aloud would make it make sense. “What’s the Waste?”

Thanatos must not have been listening in on the private conversation happening a few feet away near the double-doored entrance of my room because he strode over to me with his black-jean-clad long legs.

He kneeled in front of where I was sitting at the edge of the bed, forcing me to look into his brown eyes. “What about the Wastelands?”

I blink. Wastelands. At the mention of the location, I saw a flurry of images in my mind. A black raven, flying cards...my reflection.

But it was wrong. The vision where I kept seeing myself looking back at me...it was almost a perfect copy of what I looked like. Long silver hair, dark skin, white enhancement rune on the inside of my left arm.

I tried to focus harder on that image...

Her eyes. They were brown, not gray.

That wasn’t me.

I clear my throat uncomfortably and refocus on the brown-haired man kneeling in front of me. “I think I went there,” I whisper the words slowly, like a child. “I-I...saw a bird and someone that looked like me, but wasn’t me.”

Thanatos sent a glance over his shoulder to see that Berith and Lillian were still engrossed in their own conversation. He turned to look at me, lowering his own voice to a whisper. “Did you talk to the person that looked like you?”

I struggle to sift through the hazy vision. In the image, her mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear anything. It was muffled. “Yeah,” I tell him, nodding anxiously. “I can’t tell what she was saying. Maybe...” I see the deck of tarot cards on the table between us. “Telling me the future?”

“Why would you say that?”

“Cards,” I say quickly. “She had a deck of tarot cards.”

Thanatos closed his eyes and swallowed hards. “We have a problem,” He announces loudly, getting the attention of both Berith and Lillian.

I immediately began to shake my head. No. What is he doing? The only problem we have is trying to find Leviathan, not trying to fix me. I don’t care what happens to me.

“Zara,” Thanatos implores as he stands up to his full height. “Please.”

I shouldn’t have said anything.

“Her soul was in the Wastelands for the six months she was dead,” Thanatos explains while looking at me. “While there, she encountered one of two ancient spirits: Punishment or Nemesis, both of whom were considered the great wielders of tarot cards and banished to the Waste for their crimes near the beginning of time.

“Zara made a deal with one of them in exchange for a chance to come back,” He continued carefully. I felt myself begin to hyperventilate again as more images flooded my mind.

I was drowning, I was in a forest, I was lost, I was talking to a bird.

Thanatos went on as if he didn’t see me losing my grips on sanity right in front of him, “She owes one of them a set number of souls. Once she achieves this number, she’ll have the rest of hers back.”

“I take souls, split them up into pieces, and sell them back to their owners. If you haven’t guessed already, this is where I sell your soul back to you.”

No. No. No. Stop.

“But it’s never that easy,” His voice begins to fade away as a cacophony of sounds crash into my senses. “She’ll never be satisfied.”

“Don’t you have a score to settle anyway?”

Stop. Stop. Please stop.

"Only the unlucky know me."

This time I could feel the blood trickling out of my nose, the coppery liquid managing to make its way to my lips.

“Take the deal and we’ll make sure they pay us what they owe.”

“Deal.” I didn’t even realize that I completed the most damning part of the memory aloud until I looked up to see the others looking at me in concern.

Berith hissed out a breath at the sight of the blood, but I shakily took the box of tissues I’d had from the first fiasco and began to wipe it away.

I remember everything now. I remember waking up in the water, swimming to a forest, and being guided by Raven to Poena’s lair where I promised to bring back 98 souls in exchange for the rest of mine.

“Poena,” I mutter as I toss the bloodied tissue into the garbage can. “The spirit’s name was Poena. She told me she was one of the original conjurers.”

“Punishment,” Berith supplied. “One of Circe’s offspring and the first known case of soullust.”

God, I’m so stupid. “Why didn’t I tell her no?” I croak out drily as the memories playback. “I didn’t want this.”

Lillian gave me something of a look of sympathy and took a seat on the bed next to me. It shifted at the added weight, but I kept my eyes focused on the door. Berith and Thanatos share a troubled look.

“Sometimes our will to survive is so strong,” Lillian starts, sounding slightly detached. “That we’re willing to do anything for it.” I watched as Berith locked eyes with her. “We don’t want to, but we have to. Because the world isn’t finished with us yet.”

Her words sounded repeated. Something she’d either told herself several times over or something someone else had told her. I lift my head to look at her and her normally inexpressive face was arranged with an emotion akin to bitter remembrance.

“Did you-,” I cut myself off when her eyes met mine. “Is that what happened to you?”

A humorless chuckle left her lips, “No. Soullust only affects people who die. But,” She licked her lips. “It was something similar.”

Lillian stopped talking and I could see her visibly close off as darkness clouded over her eyes. “I’m going to see what I can do about food,” She says abruptly.

With that, she walks out of the room without turning back.

“I’ll talk to her,” Thanatos offers and follows her out.

For a moment, I wondered if there was anything going on between the two of them or if something had happened between them. Lillian didn’t strike me as the type of person to bear her heart and soul to people (our conversation was a good example), but whenever I saw her and Thanatos together, it seemed like they understood how the other worked.

Berith was still looking at me. I forced myself not to read too much into his gaze. It was a weird transition--going from a state where I never knew what the demon prince in my mind was thinking for most of my life to him no longer making it a point to hide his feelings from me.

“I’d rather you not look at me like I’m broken,” I say quietly as I become fascinated with the ancient floorboards.

He scoffs and takes a seat on the other side of the bed, positioning himself against the four-poster’s headboard. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Really?” I ask incredulously. “What are you thinking then?”

Berith smirks wryly, “How to fix this.”

“Can’t fix something that you don’t think is boring,” I shoot back easily as I reposition myself to face him from the opposite end of the bed.

A moment of silence passes through us before I speak again, “You know you have to lock me back up, right?”

“I’m not doing that.”

Maybe he’s the stupid one. “You just brought the hundred remaining souls of men, women, and children into this castle to keep them safe from Leviathan. Sooner or later, this...soullust or whatever is going to force me to kill them. For good.”

They don’t need protecting from Leviathan, they need protecting from me.

Berith leaned forward against his elbows and narrowed his green eyes at me, “I can’t lock you up, okay?” I swallowed hard at the intensity of his stare. “This isn’t up for debate. We can come up with a plan.”

I shake my head, “What we need is a plan to find the demon-killing rock, find Leviathan, and send that fucker somewhere he can’t come back. You can’t focus on me right now.”

Berith took in a sharp breath and scowled at me. ”No. You don’t get to play martyr twice. You’re alive and I, among others, would like you to stay that way. You’re not driving anymore, Zara. This is my dimension and my kingdom, so we’re doing what I want.”

My body flushed with annoyance, but this was a side of him I hadn’t seen before. I’ve dealt with sadistic Berith, bored Berith, worried Berith, and enigmatic Berith, but angry, demon prince Berith?

That’s new.

But as angry as he was, I could tell that he was misfiring. He wanted to say something else, he’s angry about something else, but he’s holding back.

I sigh and brace myself for this inevitable conversation. “Say it.”

“Say what?” He spat back.

I raise an eyebrow, trying not to let my anxiety show on my face. Who knows? I could be hopelessly failing. “We shared a mind for sixteen years. Just because you can read me better than I can read you, doesn’t mean I can’t tell when you’re annoyed about something I did.”

His body tenses even more and his jaw ticked. “You shouldn’t have sent me back here.”

Ding. Ding. Ding.

“I’m not sorry for saving your life,” I say with a touch of sarcasm. “And, if presented with the opportunity, I would do it over again.”

Berith looked like he was going to rip his hair out. “Why would you save me?” He demanded.

“Because I was tired of letting people die for me!”

He groans in frustration, “I’m not people, Zara! I possessed you as a baby and spent most of your life tormenting your thoughts and dreams so you would kill someone. I basically signed your death certificate in exchange for my survival. You should’ve let me die.”

I blink. Everything in me freezes because it was true. Before I went to the Academy and started dealing with Circle, Berith and I had been at odds at every step of my life with the exception of him thwarting the Circle’s early attempts at killing me when I was younger.

Berith used to scare the shit out of me and I don’t scare easily.

But, to me, saving him wasn’t just the right thing to do. It was the only thing I could do. I didn’t think twice about dying for him.

And when I woke up? I didn’t think about my father or my friends or Devyn. He was all I could think about.

Fuck.

I press my palms against the side of my nose in an attempt to block any of my thoughts from being expressed on my face. I don’t know what any of this means and I’m not sure I want to find out what any of this means, but I can’t let Berith know I’m worried about it.

“I can’t tell you I’m sorry,” I finally say hoarsely. “Because I’m not.”

He looks at me like I’m crazy and all I offer is a half-hearted shrug. What am I supposed to do? Tell him that, despite everything he’d done to me for fifteen years, three months of getting along led to me being unable to imagine living in a world without him?

I actually cannot do this shit right now. “Can we talk about something else?”

Berith looked like he was about to roll his eyes, but managed not to. “Fine. We haven’t been able to find—”

“No,” I cut him off with a tired sigh. I could feel sleep threatening to take over my body. “Talk to me about anything else. Tell me about...Hell before Leviathan.” My back sagged against the wall as I scooted back.

He sighs lightly, but I″m grateful when he starts talking. “This is my home,” He starts wistfully. “It’s been a day and it’s hard to believe that I’m back here.”

My eyes flutter shut.

“Growing up here wasn’t bad,” He continues. “I lived in the Ninth Circle with Father by myself since I was the youngest until I turned eighteen and he gave me Violence. Had dinner with my siblings once a week and we used to run around King’s Town Market giving hell to all the merchants.”

“Is Berith your real name?” I hear myself ask.

He pauses for a moment, but answers. “No. My mother named me Benjamin and my subjects called me Berith. Several hundred years of being called that made it stick.”

“Benjamin,” I try out softly. “I hope you know that’s what I’m calling you from now on. Maybe you’ll start calling me Zara.”

“Nice try, sweetheart.”

I let out a soft laugh at the nickname. I didn’t realize this before, but the only time he’d call me by my first name was when he was mad at me or trying to get me to do something.

“What was your mom like?”

I don’t open my eyes to see his reaction. I figured his mother wasn’t in the picture since she’d come up so little. “Beautiful,” He began. “Always complimenting Father’s strictness. When I left, I learned she had sent herself to the Wastelands. She was never a fan of immortality but wanted to watch all of her children grow up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter,” He responds softly. “It was thousands of years ago.”

“You’re such an old man.”

He barked a laugh and I hear it fade away as I’m pulled into unconsciousness.

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