The Seventh Circle of Hell
MY HEAD WAS killing me.
Images were flashing through my head at two-times speed and indistinct sounds were warbling against my ears. I could hear my heart pounding through it all as if trying to remind me that I was still alive.
How am I still alive?
I struggled against an invisible weight and forced my eyes to open. I blinked to focus my vision and it took me several moments to realize I was on the cold, concrete ground of an old prison cell. I saw a wall and part of the cell bars in my current line of vision.
A dull ache replaced the flashes, and I let out a soft groan when I tried to use my hands to push myself off the ground. My body hurt all over, but I had to figure out where I am and why I was alive because the last thing I remember...
The last thing I remember is saving Berith.
Frustrated with my inability to move, I positioned my hands flat against the ground and pushed off forcefully in one quick move. The action made me dizzy, but I was finally sitting up, improving my perception dramatically.
In all my angst to move, I didn’t even realize one of the things limiting my range of motion was the handcuffs on my wrists. I followed the chain with my eyes back to the wall behind me.
I couldn’t think about why I was chained to the wall of an iron-barred prison right now. I needed to get out of here and find some way to contact my friends. I started tugging at the chains to test their strength, but the loud rattling made me stop.
It was loud enough to alert someone that I was awake. Forgoing the progress I made, I quickly laid back down on the ground, this time with my face angled toward the bars so I could see my captor.
I heard footsteps click against the ground, getting closer and closer to where I was. I closed my eyes until I heard the steps stop. Slowly, I opened my eyes and thanked God for my black strands curtaining my face.
Wait. Why is my hair black?
Okay, not important, Zara. One problem at a time.
I narrowed my eyes to get a better look at the figure leaning against the bars and peering in to look at me. The blonde hair took me off guard, but then I realized who it was.
“Lillian!” I hissed at the girl. I pushed myself off the ground and gave her a wtf? look.
“Why the fuck am I chained to a wall?!” To enunciate my point, I started tugging at the handcuffs aggressively while shooting her a glare. “Let me the fuck out! Now!”
She’d changed since the last time I saw her, resembling the girl I had seen in Berith’s memories than the one that had followed me into the Circle’s underground. Her long brown hair was now slicked back in a high-ponytail and dyed a light blonde color, but you could still see her brown roots. She was also no longer wearing the stolen baggy clothes she had on when we met--she was dressed in skintight black cargo pants with a utility belt and a short sleeve black crew tucked in.
I could see the conflict in her eyes before she finally gave in and unlocked the prison door, stepping tentatively into the room. “Are you...you?” She asked warily.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded as I continued pulling at the chains. “Can you unlock these and tell me what the fuck is going on before I lose it?”
She took another step closer, but questions still lingered on her features. “You attacked me,” Lillian said slowly, as if I was a child. “We needed you contained. That’s why your locked up.”
What the hell is she talking about?
“When did I attack you?” I ask in exasperation. ”Why would I go after you? You’re not making any sense.”
Suddenly, Lillian stilled. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
I muster the best are-you-kidding-me expression I could come up with. “Dying,” I finally say flatly. “Or at least I thought I died. But clearly I didn’t because here I am: talking to you which requires breathing.”
While I was talking, I felt a familiar tingling sensation go through my body, but I shook it off quickly. Whatever that was, it can wait.
“Why am I still chained up?” I ask harshly. “And where the fuck is Berith? Because if I’m alive, then that means he has to be--”
I cut myself off because the last thing I wanted to think about was the demon prince that had inhabited by body for sixteen years was now dead because of me. Despite myself, I could feel my heart rate speed up at the thought and the onset of a panic attack must’ve been brewing because Lillian finally stopped gawking and moved over to where I was sitting against the wall.
“Calm down,” She instructed as she took my wrists in her hands and unlocked the cuffs one by one. “Berith is fine, I promise.”
He can’t be dead. He can’t be dead. He can’t be--
Lillian must’ve realized her words fell on deaf ears because she forced me to look at her brown eyes. “Zara, he’s alive and so are you. Just don’t...” She trailed off and wiped the skin under my eyes with the heel of her palms. “Don’t cry.”
I was crying? What the hell is wrong with me? Why did I feel like I felt everything and nothing at the same time? Every breath I was taking felt like I was getting closer and closer to the onset of an anxiety attack.
“Where is he?” I heard myself say hollowly. “I can’t...I-I need to see him.”
I can’t just take her word for it. I need to know for myself that he’s okay because in what world do we both get to live at the same time?
Lillian nodded repeatedly like her only goal was to passify me long enough to get me to cooperate. “Okay. Okay. I’ll talk to him, but right now we need to make sure you’re okay enough to leave the cell. Can we do that first?”
I took a deep breath in, an attempt to calm myself. “Yeah,” I whisper to her. “Whatever you have to do.”
She glanced behind her and gestured for someone to come in. It was a tall man--somewhere in his late 20s--that came into the cell. He had light brown hair in curly tuffs on his head, brown eyes, and a sharp well-defined face. He was dressed in black as well, although not combat ready like Lillian, and gave me a curious once-over.
“This is Thanatos,” Lillian introduced him to me as she sits on the ground next to me. “He’s the one that helped me save you.”
I furrow my eyebrows as I look at him. “You’re...Death?”
He nodded, “Most cultures believe I am the personified spirit of Death which is partially true. I’m the son of one of the Firsts. My job is to harvest the souls of those who have died and deliver them to Limbo.”
“Before we went into Dante’s catacombs,” Lillian began to explain from next to me. “I forced a crippling amount of dark magic into your body, so that if you died, you’d be marked. Thanatos could bring you to the Seventh Circle and keep you from being lost in Limbo.”
I tried to process their words, “Are you saying...” I swallowed hard, “I died?”
“Yes,” Lillian says matter-of-factly. “The dark magic in you sent your soul somewhere else. Someplace that you could fight your way out and back to life.”
I blinked, “I don’t...I don’t remember anything other than forcing Berith back to Hell.” I held my head in my hands as I tried to conjure up any memories of me being in some otherplace, but nothing came. “I’m sorry. Are we in the Hell dimension?”
Thanatos nodded. “We’re in Phlegethon castle, one of the old military strongholds in the Seventh Circle.”
“You said I tried to attack you?” I direct at Lillian. “Why would I do that?”
He answered instead. “It was probably a side-effect of you waking up. You may have been in some sort of trance where your actions there were effecting your actions here.”
I felt myself calm down slightly now that I felt a little more informed. “Can I go back to the Ark? Does my dad know I’m down here? Or my friends?”
Thoughts of Amalia, Zander, Samuel, and Ross filtered into my mind. I’d been so worried about Berith that I didn’t even think about how learning of my death could negatively impact them.
“We made a decision not to let them know about any of this,” Lillian tells me plainly. “It wasn’t worth it.”
“Wasn’t worth it?” I croak out in disbelief. “They think I’m dead. They could be sad and depressed and angry for no reason because, guess what, I’m not dead.”
Thanatos and Lillian exchanged wary looks. “We didn’t know if you were going to wake up,” Thanatos informs me. “Not to mention, what we did wasn’t very ethical. We took a big risk and would’ve received a lot of backlash for it.”
Lillian scoffed. “Berith refused to look me in the eye for three months after I told him.”
We fell into a still silence. “Where is he?” I finally asked.
“Tracking down Asmodeus,” Lillian supplied with a sigh. “I can reach him but if he isn’t near a reflective surface, it’ll take a while.”
I let out a shaky breath. I need to see him, to talk to him. I had to explain why I did what I did, even if I still haven’t fully come to terms with why I decided to die in his place. I need him to understand.
I hate that the only person in my life that was never out of reach was now separate from me.
I swallowed the sinking feeling and nodded. “Okay.”
Lillian shot Thanatos one last look before she walked out of the room, the heels of her stilettos clicking behind her.
Thanatos’s eyes flashed a dark red color before he rubbed his temple and groaned. “Alright, I need to check you out really quickly and then we can go.”
I knit my eyebrows together in confusion, “Go where?”
“I have to harvest some souls and since I can’t leave you unattended, I’m taking you with me.” He starts walking out the room and slowly I stand up and follow him.
I might not remember much, but something tells me my life was a lot less complicated when I was dead.
The Ninth Circle of Hell
In the next thirty minutes, a lot of different things happened. One: Asmodeus refused to say the location of the mysterious book until he was sure they were in a secure location where they couldn’t be overheard by lurking spirits. Luckily for him, Berith and Atropos were very much aware of a secure location they could go to discuss the book’s whereabouts at length.
That led to the second thing that happened: Asmodeus and Astaroth refused to leave anyone behind. Berith made it clear that once Asmodeus told him the location of the book, they were hunting it down, and then going after Leviathan. This wouldn’t be a day absence--it would be several--a risk neither the prince or the princess were willing to take.
This resolve led to a key suggestion. Atropos suggested that the Phlegeton castle was big enough to house the refugees and anymore the Guerrieri brought back to Asmodeus and Astaroth.
Lillian and Berith had gone over an extraction plan for when Berith found Asmodeus. The two had been communicating through a spelled mirror that allowed the users to communicate with each other across dimensions for as long as one was speaking through the mirror and the other was by some other reflective surface.
The mirror also had transportation capabilities: going through the reflection can make the mirror serve as a portal to wherever the other person was. Berith planned to reach out to Lillian when he found his brother and both of them would go through.
Now about a hundred people would go through with them.
After much convincing, the Astaroth and Asmodeus agreed to the extraction plan and began telling the camp leaders to urge everyone to pack any necessities they may have. They’d have about an hour--Asmodeus and Astaroth would lead them out of the labryinth while Atropos and Berith made contact with Lillian to tell her what to expect on the frozen surface of the wastelands.
Berith crouched down to his reflection in the frozen lake outside of the pothole entrance of the maze. Atropos stood behind him while he touched the reflection, silently willing Lillian’s face to make an appearance.
She appeared quicker than usual.
Berith saw his reflection morph into a standing Lillian in one of the Phlegeton castle rooms. Even in the slight distortion, he saw a certain degree of angst written across her features.
“What’s wrong?” Berith demanded.
Lillian’s chest heaved in a sigh, “Zara’s awake and she’s asking about you.”
Berith stilled and he felt his chest drop slightly. Part of it was relief and the other was fear. She’s awake, but at what cost?
“Whatever you’re doing, you need to get back here,” Lillian continued, crossing her arms over her chest. “She won’t be calm until you’re back, so you need to ditch this inseguimento pazzo and come back to her.”
“We found them,” Berith told her quickly. “That’s why I need to talk to you because about a hundred displaced souls are coming to Phlegeton.”
Lillian’s eyes narrowed. “You found them? Who else besides Asmodeus and the refugees he’s housing. And where are you?”
Berith gave her a warning look, “Long story. And we found Asmodeus and Astaroth.”
Lillian began shaking her head, “No. Astaroth can freeze to death for all I care.”
Internally, the demon prince said a quick prayer for patience. “We’re coming. Whether you like it or not, so get ready.”
The pothole opened and Asmodeus climbed out, followed by the first group of women and children clutching their belongings. Berith gave Lillian one last meaningful look and stepped aside.
“Okay!” Atropos called out to the crowd. “I know this might seem scary, but we’re moving all of you to a safer and more secure location. That being said, you will each need to step on the ice to pass through the reflection of the castle to get to that location. Someone will be waiting on the other side, but we need to do this as quickly as possible.”
Berith motioned for the first young girl to step onto the ice. The little girl, who couldn’t be more than five-years-old, held on to her ragged teddy bear tightly and let go of her mother’s hand. She stepped on the ice and instantly disappeared, her mother holding her hand to her chest in relief.
One down, Berith thought. And 99 more to go.