The Haunting Hour (TWH #2)

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iv. on my way

Phlegethon Castle
The Seventh Circle of Hell

LILLIAN WASN’T SURE if she’d gotten her hopes up in vain.

After Zara’s episode with the scribbling on the walls, she’d passed back out on the ground against the wall of her unintelligible drawings, random letters, and uneven streaks. It all led back to where she was laying calmly.

Sighing, Lillian looked away from Zara’s motionless body and turned her attention back to the large map of the Hell dimension in front of her. The last place Lillian had been able to track Leviathan was at the edge of the Styx. It appeared that he had been following the river downstream from Elysium Meadows in the Ninth Circle.

He should’ve followed the Styx all the way back to Limbo, where Lillian and Nikkole were able to approximate as his new base of operations. But instead, the last place he was sighted was the Second Circle and that was about a week ago in human time.

What would he need in Lust? Lillian wondered to herself. Asmodeus, the former ruler of the Second Circle, was MIA and Berith was sure he was in the Ninth Circle in hiding.

Before Lillian could ponder it more, she saw Zara’s fingers twitch from the corner of her eye. Or, at least, she thought she did. When Lillian turned around to get a better look at her body, she was still again.

Lillian shook her head. She’s been down here way too long--she couldn’t wait for Thanatos to get back, so they could switch off and he can be on Zara watch. Anyway, Lillian needed to update Nikkole and Andromeda on what she’s found (well, in this case, what she hasn’t found) and a trip out of Hell was looking more and more appealing.

Lillian’s eyes glanced over the notes she’d gathered from Thanatos’s endless pile of books and other jottings based on what she already knew about Hell and the crumbs of information Berith has managed to give her when he wasn’t hellbent on finding Asmodeus.

Something didn’t feel right to Lillian.

Contrary to popular belief, Hell operated very similarly to the Second Plane and even the mortal realm. The observable sensation of an abundance of wandering spirits and disembodied demons is one of the few things that sets Hell apart from the other dimensions.

A sixth sense that Lillian was so used to experiencing that she immediately felt when it was...gone.

Turning on her heels, she nearly reeled back at that sudden appearance of Zara Storm, right in front of her.

Lillian blinked several times at the spot the girl had been a few moments ago to where she was now...standing and alive. Lillian didn’t even know how relieved she was to see the Storm witch alive until she felt the tension leave her body.

“Zara,” Lillian gave her arms a squeeze as she moved past her. “I can’t believe you’re actually awake. We have to tell--”

She was cut off by the strong force of someone hooking their leg around Lillian and forcing her facedown to the stone floors of the castle room.

Lillian gritted her teeth in a combination of pain and annoyance before looking up and confirming that the person holding her down with vehement strength wasn’t some incomprehensible invisible force.

It was Zara and her eyes were glowing a deadly red.




King’s Town

The Ninth Circle of Hell

“See anything?” Berith asked Atropos as they continued to walk around the decimated town square of Hell’s capital.

Despite arriving in King’s Town hours ago (maybe days ago, Berith was in no state to keep track of time), it had taken several more hours to get through Elysium Meadows and past Hades’s abandoned castle to reach the town square in the center of the city. Ordinarily, Berith, and Atropos both possess the ability to move around the Hell dimension using black magic, but neither of them could afford to make such a risky move.

Lillian and Thanatos are tracking Leviathan and his soldiers’ movements from their use of black magic. Lillian warned that it wasn’t a novel trick and that Leviathan could just as easily track Berith if he were to use black magic as well. As annoying as traveling Hell by foot was, Berith can’t be captured and killed by his psychotic brother.

Berith needed to be the one to kill Leviathan. Unfortunately, Berith won’t be getting any closer to that end goal without Asmodeus.

“Looks like everywhere else,” Atropos calls from where she was examining a larger-than-life fallen statue of Berith’s late father, Beelzebub. “Completely destroyed by Leviathan’s forces and abandoned.”

Berith bit back a groan of frustration. That’s not what he wanted to hear. “There has to be something. Keep looking.”

The blonde Morai rolled her eyes at his command but walked over to the large carved stone that appeared to have once been part of the square’s pavilion design. It looked like a fractional piece of a mural of some kind.

But that doesn’t make any sense because none of the parts of the stone design beneath their feet was missing.

Unless...

“Berith,” Atropos called out to the demon prince who was looking at the structural integrity of the abandoned shops. She looked back at him, “Why would there be a duplicate stone piece of an intact mural?”

Berith furrowed his eyebrows in confusion and walked over to the large piece of painted stone Atropos was examining. “I remember when my father commissioned this mural,” Berith muttered as he looked from the piece to the mural on the ground.

“The Ninth Circle is Treachery and those,” He pointed to the painting covered in debris. “Are the Treacherous Four.”

“What’s significant about those four?” Atropos pressed. “Because I think it might be a clue as to where survivors of the demonochamy might be hiding in the Ninth Circle.”

Berith gave her a curious look but continued with the history lesson. “When Virgil led Dante here in the 1500s, Dante was able to identify the spirits of four infamous traitors in human history that had been sentenced to this circle.”

He began to point to them as best he could for Atropos to see. “Judas, who betrayed Jesus in Christian history. Ptolemy, a betrayer in Jewish history. Antenor, a deserter in the Trojan War. And...”

He trailed off as he pointed out the final one, “Cain, who committed the first homicide.” Berith sighed as a memory from hundreds of years ago with Asmodeus filtered into his mind. “I know where they are.”

He glanced over at Atropos, “And you’re not gonna like it.”

***

Phelegton Castle
The Seventh Circle of Hell

“Zara,” Lillian warned carefully. ”Let me go.”

Her warning was only met with a further twisting of her arm.

Fine, Lillian thought indignantly to herself. If Zara Storm wants to fight me, I’ll give her a fight.

In the back of Lillian’s head, she was aware that Zara wasn’t exactly Zara at that moment. Hell, this might not be Zara at all, perhaps some spirit masquerading as her to carry out some unspeakable deed. Whoever, or whatever, it was, Lillian knew she needed it contained.

With ease, Lillian twisted her arm out of Zara’s grip and brought her foot forward, hitting the witch directly in the head with her foot. Zara let out a groan of frustration but loosened her grip, allowing Lillian to push Zara off of her and roughly rise to her feet.

“Zara,” Lillian implored, but this time she braced herself for a fight. Her body tensed up as her back foot dug into the concrete and she raised her hands up in defense. “You don’t want to fight me.”

Zara didn’t respond, but her features hardened. “I don’t want to fight you,” Zara told Lillian evenly, devoid of any emotion. “I want to kill you.”

Before Lillian could even process her words, Zara was already swinging at Lillian with full force. She narrowly dodged her blow and propelled herself backward. Zara kept going, sending calculated strike after strike Lillian’s way with Lillian defending herself and blocking her hits. It was a stalemate between the two and while Lillian knew she could overpower her with ease, she didn’t want to run the risk of seriously injuring her.

Lillian’s focus on defensive tactics gave Zara an opening. Zara sent a sidekick into Lillian’s midriff and used Lillian’s shift off-balance to follow it with a heavy hit to the temple and another kick in the ribs.

Lillian felt herself getting angrier as she pushed herself back up against the wall, but tried to temper it down. She glanced down the hallway and her eyes locked in on an old prison cell.

She just needs to trick Zara in there.

Instantly, Lillian broke out into a sprint down the long basement hallway. She knew Zara had been caught off guard by her flight by the way it took a few seconds before footsteps were following after her.

Lillian nearly skidded to a stop at the silver-gated cell but managed to grab the rusting key on the holder next to the cell and kicked the door open in one movement.

The small victory was followed by a determined Zara throwing her body weight against Lillian’s. The two tumbled to the floor. Zara began hitting Lillian wherever she could, but the latter was twisting and pulling herself out of her grip.

Dammit, Lillian thought to herself as Zara managed to grab a hold of her neck with inhuman strength. The witch glared down at her expressionlessly as she tightened her grip on her neck. Lillian fought for air, but it was useless--Zara had her where she wanted her and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

Lillian felt her eyes begin to close when a loud bang resounded above them followed by Zara’s hand falling from her neck entirely and her body crumpling to the ground next to her.

Lillian began coughing and grabbed a weary-looking Thanatos’s hand, which was now outstretched to her. She noticed that his other hand had an old metal serving tray from the dumbwaiter.

“What,” Lillian was barely able to gasp out. “The hell was that?”

Thanatos guided Lillian outside of the cell and locked the door behind them. “I warned you that something could’ve gone wrong.”

His words sparked anger in her, ”Something?" Lillian demanded as she leaned against the stone walls of the castle basement. “You didn’t see her, Than. She was feral! L-Like, she needed to kill me.”

Thanatos looked over her head to Zara’s still body behind bars. “Did she recognize you?”

Lillian glared at him and rubbed her neck, “Sorry, but I was too busy trying to stop her from killing me to ask!”

He put his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. I get it. Do you want me to get anything?”

She huffed and started past him and towards the stairs, “I need to call Berith back here. Now.”




Caina Wastelands

The Ninth Circle of Hell

Most mythology and folklore describes Hell as a place of eternal suffering and pain, the place that can burn souls from the inside out for all of eternity. Berith understood that these ideas came from a place of control--humans, from the beginning of time, have always seen the world in black and white. Conceiving places like Heaven and Hell was their way of maintaining control over the actions of others and convincing them that their actions have consequences: those that are good are rewarded and those that are bad are punished.

But they often fail to see the ambiguity of good and evil. Some people do evil things for a good reason and sometimes people do good deeds to cover up their evil desires. One must think of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral dilemma: should a man steal medicine for his dying wife, even if the law prohibits it?

Some will answer no and the reason that it’s important to follow the rules, no matter what. Others will say that the man should steal the drugs because society has made it difficult to obtain medicine in a healthcare market that capitalizes on the suffering of other people.

There is no right or wrong answer (while others might argue that there is) and hence comes the ambiguity of good and evil. The answer to the dilemma and the reasoning behind the answer represents the stage of morality each person is at based on age and experience--a young girl is more likely to answer that “stealing is wrong”, but a thirty-year-old man in poverty will say “yes because the system has set us up for failure already”.

When the deities charged with ruling Hell or the Underworld or whatever people want to call it, they all agreed that evil lies on a spectrum, and whatever point on that spectrum an individual is when they die, that’s where they’ll be assigned.

There’s no actual punishment.

Souls generally live out their eternity in whatever circle of Hell their assigned--the sin that ruled the bad decisions they made in life, is the region they are sent to. The worst the deeds, the greater the debt they are required to work off on behalf of their demon ruler.

But there are some souls that are just evil and deserve to be treated as such.

“I thought this place was a rumor,” Atropos looked at the frozen wasteland she and Berith had stepped into. Before they was a wide expanse of a frozen lake where hundreds of souls were frozen in pain, reaching out of the water for help that’ll never come. There were frozen chariots, books, treasures, and ships scattered with their notorious owners.

Berith glanced over the bodies quickly before walking around a star-struck Atropos and heading down the shoreline of the lake. “This is where I sent souls that killed their family members in cold blood.”

He heard Astaroth run in the snow-ice mixture behind him to catch up. “This,” She gestured to the entire place. “This is owned by you?”

Berith gritted his teeth as he saw thick flurries of snow and ice begin to fall from the cloudy gray sky. “Yes. We have to hurry, we can’t be here long.” He glanced up at the chunks of ice coming down.

A safeguard Berith and Lillian had put in place that he was now beginning to regret.

He stopped walking when he felt his shoes come into contact with a large piece of metal. Leaning down, he brushed the snow away from the freezing cold and rusting wheel. He turned it with as much strength he could muster without magic and he felt the seal between the hole and the wheel give out.

Lifting it up, it revealed a ladder submerged in darkness going under the lake.

Atropos’s blue eyes widened in wonder and Berith glanced up at her, letting a smirk grace his face, “After you.”

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