v. queen of broken hearts
ALEXANDER JOHNSON WAS no stranger to grief.
At the ripe age of fifteen, he watched his former girlfriend go insane and was forced to kill her before she killed the rest of the school. He spent two years hating the girl that caused his girlfriend’s spell to go haywire, Amalia Romanov, before learning his hate was misdirected.
It wasn’t until Zara Storm came into his life that he found out the Circle of Judecca (using his “friends” Matti Santiago and Jesse Leviathan as proxies) was responsible for Laura dying. A short time later, he realized he was never in love with Laura at all since she used a crippling love spell on him for God knows how long.
How many guys can say that their ex-girlfriend died, came back to life married to a demon, and attempted to kill their now-deceased crush?
Zander tried to stop his daily spiral into self-depreciation before it began by sending an aggressive punch into the black punching bag in front of him.
This was how he spent most of his days for the past six months: physical strength and endurance training. Every morning, he and Samuel were up at 5AM to run the entire five-mile perimeter of the Ark’s main camp. After that, the two would lift and spar on the mats under the direction of Conner, one of the DSD mercenaries rescued from the Circle.
Conner never mentioned it, but Zander knew he was the one that had trained Zara. Before shit hit the fan with the Circle, Zander was frequently paired with Zara in Magical Combat. From the early beginnings of Conner coaching Samuel and Zander through fighting styles, Zander picked up movements he’d seen Zara execute in class.
Training usually lasted until the camp leaders had their daily briefing, but Zander stayed behind to work through his stress. He had a million things on his mind—Zara, Amalia leaving, Andromeda’s plans, and the world being overrun by Marcus and Leviathan’s plethora of possessed supernaturals.
Zander shook his head in annoyance as he sent another sharp jab into the punching bag. And another. And another.
Andromeda wanted to talk about next moves, but they had no idea where Leviathan was anymore. For all they knew, he could’ve already carried out his master plan.
Whatever the hell that was.
The chain holding the weighted bag to the ceiling of the constructed tent shook hard enough for concern, but Zander kept going.
“You’re gonna punch a hole in that thing.”
Panting heavily, Zander dropped his arms and allowed the bag to swing forward so he could catch it.
“What are you doing here, Amalia?”
The necromancer walked across the black mat to the wooden bench where Zander had placed a towel, his sweatshirt, and a water bottle.
She sat down carefully. “Mom hasn’t reached back out to Andromeda. We leave tomorrow morning.”
Zander eyed her carefully and walked over to grab his water bottle from the bench.
After taking a swig, he spoke. “I thought you didn’t wanna go.”
Amalia bit her lip and pulled out a stack of older looking pages, joined together by a rubber band from her black sweatshirt pocket.
She unfolded the pages and handed him one. “I didn’t, but then I saw that.”
Zander took the page from her and scanned over it quickly. ”Pervaya ved’ma."
The words were unfamiliar and he gave Amalia a flat look, “I don’t know Russian. Mind telling me what this means?”
She sighs, “It’s why I left.”
Zander looked away from her and focused his vision on the punching bag that was still swaying slightly. Amalia and Zander were left powerless after Laura used their magic to re-power her physical body. Despite Jackson and the few Healers at the camp doing their best for weeks, they couldn’t figure out how to get their magic back.
Zander had resigned to the idea of no longer being a conjuror—hence the extensive physical training.
Amalia, on the other hand, had not.
“There’s a legend about how witches got their powers,” Amalia continued. “I tracked down a scrying warlock who told me that every form of magic has a First: a witch that got their powers from Beelzebub and Hecate.”
Zander looked at her in disbelief, “Are you serious, Amalia? You risked the Ark’s security on a bedtime story?”
He couldn’t believe it. Wait, no, he could believe it. Amalia refused to come to terms with Zara’s death. After shutting herself into an isolation tent for a week, she refused to come to the funeral—opting to drink herself into a oblivion.
From then on, she’d become focused on finding a fix to losing their powers—locking herself up with books and talking to older supernaturals at puns camp. She became disinterested in anything that had to do with Marcus or the Circle or the Ark itself.
All she cared about was getting her powers back. And for what? Zander had no clue.
“It’s not some made up story,” Amalia gritted out. “It’s true. The First Necromancer was Russian and that,” She pointed obnoxiously to the paper he was holding. “Is proof.”
Suddenly, Amalia’s reasoning behind wanting to go to Russia came into clear view. “You want to find the First.”
She nodded, “I want my powers back. She might be the only one who knows how.”
Zander scoffed. ”If a First even exists, they’re probably dead. Magic has been around since the beginning of time. We have long lives, but we’re not immortal.”
She smirked and Zander was once again taken off guard by how much she’d changed her physical appearance.
“That’s why we’re going to do a seance.”
The Ninth Circle of Hell
“I thought you were the youngest ruler,” Atropos grumbled as she tried to avoid the rust and mold accumulating on the ladder she was currently climbing down. “How do you have a secret bunker in one of the deadliest places in the dimension?”
Berith resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead concentrated on putting one foot on the rung below. Atropos was right, he was the youngest of the eight, but he didn’t want to go into the details of how his father forced him into a role of responsibility before he was ready.
I just need to find Asmodeus and get back to Zara, He thought to himself.
Once Berith felt his back foot hit the rocky surface of the bunker floor, he carefully stepped back.
“We’re at the bottom,” He called up to Atropos who was still descending. “Watch your step.”
She didn’t say anything, but he heard her take uneven breaths until she hit the ground next to him.
“Where to next?” She asked breathlessly.
Berith felt around the familiar stone walls until he found what he was looking for.
He took the torch off its holder and used his powers to ignite it with his green flame wordlessly.
“Now,” Berith directed the torch down the first hallway of his labyrinth. “We hope we don’t get lost.”
Atropos’s blue eyes widened when she saw where Berith had brought her to. “You do know how to get through this maze...right?”
He sighed, “I can get us to where they’re hiding.”
She eyed him carefully, “Is there a problem?”
“Depends. Would you consider the Minotaur a problem?”
“Are you kidding me?!” Atropos whisper-shrieked as they began their walk down the darkened stone hallway. “What the hell is down here that’s worth protecting with a giant hell beast?”
“I don’t know, okay?” Berith replied sharply and they made the first turn. “My father didn’t tell his secrets to anyone. All he told me was to come up with safeguards, a way to protect those secrets.”
Atropos calmed down a little when she saw that Berith was navigating through the stone labyrinth with little difficulty. “This isn’t the only place you’re hiding something?”
Berith shook his head no. “Asmodeus is the only one that knows what’s hidden.”
“Because he was going to take over from your father,” Atropos supplied warily. “That’s why you need to find him. You think he knows what item is hidden where.”
Berith nodded stiffly. They couldn’t afford to waste time hunting down every object his father had tasked Berith with securing across the realm. Asmodeus could easily narrow the search down to one location: the place where their father was harvesting the metal that could kill a demon.
They continued walking silently and Berith felt a small pang of regret go through him. While Atropos’s company wasn’t horrible to keep (physically, and mentally, she was the youngest of the Morai), Berith knew that he shouldn’t have forced her to accompany him on his hunt for Asmodeus.
But it was an insurance plan and his only way to make sure that if Leviathan went knocking on the Fates’s door for help tracking Berith down, they didn’t help him.
Because if they gave away his location, Berith would kill Atropos.
“Over here,” He gestured to a door in-between two torches. Berith pushed open the door and nearly sighed in relief when he saw hundreds of people milling around the space on cots and getting food. And at the center of it all?
Asmodeus and Astaroth.
Atropos let out a low whistle as they stepped down the stairs into the crowded refugee camp. It reminded Berith a lot of the one he’d seen on the Second Plane, the Ark, but less refined and definitely much more crowded.
They weaved through women sorting through blankets and clothing and handing them to young children, giddy to take the items back to their families. Others were counting fruits and vegetables in barrels with a clipboard and, a few feet away, there was a station where food was being cooked and distributed into dishes.
Berith’s older siblings were too caught up in their conversation to even see their younger brother or the blonde Fate approaching them.
“...We need a better plan for housing,” Astaroth was saying in her signature demanding tone. “We’re running out of space.”
Berith stopped behind the blonde princess and the well-built brunette prince with curly hair, clearing his throat to get their attention. The two turned and their reactions were nearly identical. Disbelief, confusion, and then relief crossed their faces in that order before Astaroth threw her arms around Berith.
“I thought you were dead,” She holds him tightly with inhuman strength and Berith tried to get her to loosen her arms. “We searched everywhere for you.”
Finally, she let him go and her green eyes shone with tears. As much as Berith believed Astaroth was singlehandedly the most selfish person he’d ever meet and entirely insufferable, he knew she was telling the truth.
He gave her a tight smile and looked at their eldest brother. The ruler of Lust still looked the same as he did a thousand years ago, maybe a little more stressed out. His pale eyes were just as bright against his tanned skin and the signature scar on his thick brown left eyebrow was still distinctively his.
“Where’s my Minotaur?” Berith asked him. He meant for it to come off as a joke, but the idea of the labyrinth being left unprotected bothered him.
Asmodeus smirked and threw an arm around the smaller prince. “We couldn’t have that giant thing scaring off all of the refugees.”
“So it’s okay if you’re the giant scaring off the refugees.”
His brother let him go at that remark and ruffled his hair, causing Berith to scowl in annoyance.
“So,” Asmodeus clapped his hands together and sat down on a makeshift bed on the ground. “Where have you been the past millennia, brother?”
Needless to say, it took a long time to fumble out everything that had happened from the last time the two were together.
Asmodeus and Astaroth listened carefully as Berith detailed Lillian forcing him through a portal, prompting him to jump around the globe and possess people every three or so months for the better part of a thousand years until he spitefully possessed Richard Wrath’s newborn daughter. He explained that she was half-human and half-witch making her powerful enough to serve as his host for an extended period of time, but Allegra Storm exchanged her own life to place a curse on Berith to prevent him from killing Zara.
Then he went on to tell them about how they discovered Leviathan had infiltrated the mortal realm using the Circle of Judecca to track Berith down and kill him. In their final showdown with a resurrected and vengeful witch, Zara had killed most of the Circle and triggered the curse, forcing him to return to Hell and for her to die.
Berith struggled with telling that particular part of the story.
Asmodeus let out a low whistle when he concluded the tale. “I wish we could tell you something that exciting but we’ve spent the past thousand years trying to survive.”
“We found this place and turned it into a refugee camp,” Astaroth went on to explain. “Slowly, we’d been leaving clues all over the dimension for displaced souls to find us here, so we can offer food and shelter.”
Atropos glanced around the camp, “Looks like you’re running out of space.”
Asmodeus sighed in response. “We found the surviving Guerrieri early on.” Berith perked up slightly at the mention of Lillian’s elite class of assassins. “They’ve been searching the realm for survivors of the war and rescuing captives. I fear they may be a little too efficient at their jobs.”
Astaroth gave Berith a sarcastic smile, “Guess your little pet was good for something.”
“Asta,” Asmodeus said in his favorite warning tone before turning back to a slightly irritated Berith. “They’ve been helping with grabbing food from where they can, but some of the refugees from Greed have been useful in growing food here.”
That made sense. The fourth circle of Hell, also known as Greed, was the region where people that committed acts rooted in greed during their lives were sent. As a result, its residents were responsible for providing food to the rest of the dimension as a part of their eternity.
Atropos clicks her tongue, “You can’t sustain this forever. The longer you wait around and the more people that show up, the more likely Leviathan will find you here.”
Berith couldn’t help but nod in agreement, “Things are worse now that I’m back. Leviathan will be looking for me and he’ll tear this whole dimension apart in his search. Not to mention being here makes you all sitting ducks. If Leviathan sends in a tac team, that’s it.”
His older brother laughed lightly and Berith narrowed his eyes at him in response.
“Don’t worry, baby brother,” Astaroth says with an edge of condescension. “Leviathan isn’t a military tactics prodigy like you. He’s just pissed which means he isn’t thinking clearly. That’s how we’ve been able to fly under his radar for so long.”
Berith’s mind worked in a million different ways, all of which couldn’t understand why his brother and sister were insisting on staying in the same place with nothing other than a labyrinth and frozen dead bodies keeping Leviathan and his forces out.
Atropos seemed to be thinking in the same headspace as Berith was because she leaned forward on her knees, allowing her expertly curled blonde hair to curtain her side profile. “What if we could offer a better solution? One that provides more space and a real base of operations?”
Berith caught on quickly, “What if we told you we have a plan to fight back? Get Leviathan exactly what he deserves once and for all.”
The idea of revenge seemed to appeal to Astaroth as a dark gleam of curiosity lit up in her eyes, “What exactly did you two have in mind?”
The younger prince looked over at Asmodeus, “A thousand years ago, Leviathan stabbed me with a crystalline metal that almost killed me. A few weeks before Zara Storm died, she was attacked with the same metal and it almost killed her.”
“The infamous Vuskian metal alloy,” Asmodeus supplied without missing a beat. He let out a humorless laugh. “Father told me about it the night before my coronation.”
The coronation he never had.
“We need to find Leviathan’s supply,” Berith started tactically. “Take some of it and burn the rest to the ground. And then we kill him with it.”
Asmodeus didn’t say anything for a while while the other three watched him in deep thought. “Okay,” He finally said. “But I don’t know anything about it. Father only gave me was a book--I didn’t even get a chance to read it.”
“Where is it?” Astaroth asked.
Asmodeus looked around the crowds apprehensively before lowering his voice. “It’s not here.”
"Obviously,” Astaroth shot back flatly. “Where in Hell did you hide it?”
He bit his lip, “That’s the thing: it’s not in Hell.”