AMALIA ROMANOV COULDN’T find the words that could express how much she dreaded seeing her mother.
Amalia, Ross, Samuel, and Zander left the Ark with a twelve-person tactical DSD team behind them. The portal, carefully opened by Zander under Andromeda’s watch, opened directly in the main lobby of the Winterstorm Palace. Amalia shook off the uneasy feeling she had been back in the castle that she’d come to loathe.
Everyone looked at Amalia expectantly. She didn’t want them to, but she understood why. Her mother was second-in-command of the Winterstorm coven, if she hadn’t already staged the coup Amalia was almost certain she’d been planning for years.
“My mother could be anywhere in this castle,” Amalia told the DSD agents with an assertive tone. “Split up and search the castle. If you find her, do not engage. Come back here and radio me.”
The mercenaries nodded once in and split up in various directions, some going up the large spiral staircase, others going down separate hallways.
“What about us?” Samuel questioned. “Shouldn’t we be helping?”
Amalia pursed her lips and looked at Zander, who was deliberately avoiding her stare. She huffed a sigh of annoyance, “We’re going somewhere else. Khimki forest, it’s a ten-minute walk from here.”
Ross gave her a quizzical look, “What’s in Khimki forest?”
Answers, Amalia thought to herself. “I’ll explain on the way. We have to get this done before they find my mom.”
She tugged on Samuel’s jacket and the werewolf shot a ”help me" look behind him to the other boys as she pulled him out the front doors of the palace. Zander, knowing full well what Amalia was after, silently communicated to Ross to follow after the pair.
Once they were off the palace’s compound and out in the snow, Ross pulled Zander slightly behind to question him. “What the hell is going on? Why are we going to Khimiki forest?”
“Did Amalia ever tell you why she left camp?” Zander asks lowly.
Ross scoffs. “She hasn’t been in a talking mood if you haven’t noticed. She’s so closed off...I want to be there for her but she won’t let me.”
“She’s trying to get her powers back.”
The pyromancer stopped in his tracks and turned to Zander in disbelief. His eyes flashed from brown to an irate orange before returning to their normal color. “Are you kidding me? I thought she gave up on that.”
“Apparently not,” Zander told him and kept moving so the necromancer in front of them wouldn’t ger suspicious of their conversation. “Khimki forest is the rumored burial site of a First.”
Ross shook his head, “This is insane. She’s taking us away from the mission, which is to find her mom in the middle of a demon takeover in the mortal realm, to follow some kind of story about something that isn’t real?”
“Keep your voice down,” Zander hissed. “Yes, but we just need to let this play out. She’s using this to not deal with the fact that her best friend died. When she realizes this is pointless, and she will, we’ll be there to deal with her inevitable break down.”
He sighs and looks at the girl who was eyeing a parks map in Russian. All Ross wanted to do was help her, but every time he got anywhere close to talking about her feelings, she shut down.
And every time she shut him out, Ross couldn’t help but feel hurt.
“I’m in love with her,” Ross says the words so quietly, the harsh winter winds nearly blew them away. “And she won’t even let me help her.”
Zander shook his head and snorted a bitter laugh. “At least she isn’t dead.”
They continued in silence—what could either of them really say to that anyway—and followed the desperate girl trying to hold on to the little piece of mental sanctuary she had left. As annoyed as Ross was by her cold demeanor, he knew that she didn’t want to deal with Zara being gone. It’s not like Ross or Samuel were any better off than Zander and Amalia.
Ross’s grief was rooted in guilt. If they hadn’t left Zara and Lillian to infiltrate the Circle alone, Zara wouldn’t have had to do the killing.
But she’d want all of them to move on. Zara was an unstoppable force, even when Kace died, she used her anger to take down the Circle. The best any of them could do is finish what she’d started.
Ross looked up to see Amalia and Samuel stopped in front of a large tree. Ross immediately recognized it as the source of the entire forest—it spread and interwove with the branches and leaves of the other trees like a mother with its offspring.
Sighing, he walked from his position on the trail to where Amalia was pulling things out of a brown backpack and setting them on the ground.
“Please tell me that’s not an ouija board,” Samuel groaned as he glanced down at the wooden board Amalia had yanked out.
She rolled her contact-lensed green eyes at the werewolf and gestured forcefully to the ground. “Everyone sit.”
“Still think we should humor her?” Ross muttered to Zander as they sat down in a circle around the board in the snow.
Zander said nothing, but his face gave away his apprehensiveness at Amalia’s antics.
She set out four candles around the board and then gave Ross a pointed look.
After sighing, he glanced down at his left hand and a small orange-red flame ignited above his palm. Wordlessly, the flame separated into four equal parts and lit the candles.
She gave him a small, grateful smile. “Thank you.”
For a moment, Ross didn’t feel like he was looking at the shell of the girl he’d gotten to know for the past nine months. He was taken back to the Academy before their world was turned upside down by the Circle.
Amalia redirected her focus to the ouija board and placed her finger on the small, silver planchette.
She took in a deep breath and asked the first question. “Are the spirits of the Khimki with us?”
The Seventh Circle of Hell
“You can stop shining that thing in my eyes now.”
I batted at the miniature flashlight Thanatos had been moving steadily between my two eyeballs in his attempt to track the movement and dilation of my pupils. It was one of a series of physical exams he’d subjected me to, furiously writing notes in one of the several open notebooks scattered in his messy room.
Maybe his room was so messy because it resembled a destroyed library of sorts. The only source of light was the few lanterns scattered in the room, illuminating the corner where his bed and dresser were, the middle of the room with the couch and books on the floor (I was sitting on the aforementioned couch), and the far side of the room with a whiteboard with scribbles of diagrams and more books.
“Sorry.” His tone was anything but apologetic, but he still managed to turn the light off and took more notes in his bound leather notebook that seemed to be tearing apart at the seams.
“Did you figure out what’s wrong with me?”
He glances up from his notes and closes the book with a sigh. He eyes me curiously before choosing his words. “Physically, you’re okay. Steady heartrate, above-average reflexes, and no signs of ocular distress.”
I tense at the unsaid words, “But?”
“I thought bringing you back will have its consequences,” Thanatos tells me honestly. “Looks like I might’ve been wrong. You got lucky, Zara Storm.”
I’m not sure I was feeling too lucky right now. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Everything seemed heightened and dulled at the same time. It was almost like I was too aware of everything happening outside of my body and insensitive to the sensations I knew I should be feeling internal.
But I couldn’t tell that to Thanatos. Not when he was standing between me and my chance to see Berith without prison bars between us.
I swallowed harshly and nodded. “Is there anything else you wanted to check?”
He thinks for a moment before remembrance washes over his features. “Ah, yes.” He pointed to the glass of water on the nightstand next to me. “We need to check your magic. Can you boil the water?”
Taking in a deep breath, I focus my attention on the glass of water. Instead of reciting the boiling spell I’d learned when I was eight, I simply willed for the water to heat up. I don’t know how or why I thought that would work (witches are bound to use spells as a way of concentrating magic), but...
Thanatos and I watched as condensation formed above the waterline. The water began to bubble and a small sliver of a nearly translucent cloud began to leave the water. Unlike the other times I’d used magic, I didn’t feel my eyes burning or my powers dampening--it felt so easy, so hypnotic.
Whatever trance I had been in was broken by the sound of shattering glass.
“I-I...,” I looked over at Thanatos who was giving me a worried look. “I’m sorry. I don’t...I wasn’t paying attention.”
He shook his head in understanding, “Don’t worry about it. You’re six months out of practice, I expected something like that to happen.”
His reasoning behind the glass shattering faded away as I focused on a specific part of what he said. “Did you just say...six months?”
Suddenly, Thanatos didn’t look as relaxed as he’s been this entire time. Based on his change in demeanor, I knew Lillian must’ve told him not to disclose how long I’d been...dead.
“Technically,” He started sheepishly. “In our world, it’s only been a day. One day in Hell is the equivalent to roughly six human months.”
Oh my God. They all thought I’ve been dead for six months!
I could feel myself about to start hyperventilating again when Thanatos placed a strong hand on my shoulder in a calming gesture. “You have a lot to adjust to here, Zara. Being in Hell isn’t the same as being with the mortals or the Second Plane. There’s a darker element one must become accustomed to before you lose your mind.”
“How do I go back?” I ask hollowly. “This is only temporary...right?”
The look on Thanatos’s face made my stomach sink. Either none of them knew how I was going to get back to Earth or they already knew that I was going to be in the Hell dimension permanently.
Instead of the planchette and Amalia’s finger moving to the yes or no on the board, darkness fell over the forest as the sky, once clear of clouds, began to turn a decisive graying black.
Part of Amalia felt relieved that there seemed to be some preternatural response to her question, but another part was dreading what powerful force she may have awakened. Across from her, Ross was looking from the board to the sky in awe. Samuel’s eyes glowed a brilliant hue of gold, likely adjusting to the loss of light, and Zander just gave Amalia a look crossed between disbelief and disappointment.
“What do you want?”
The scratchy words caught the group by surprise and their heads whipped to their left to see what had spoken. At the base of a tree sat a whispy, golden spirit that had loosely taken the form of a young woman. Her brown locks flowed in waves down her white, willowy dress to her knees and her green eyes reflected an old soul.
Amalia blinked several times in surprise, but managed to form her thoughts into words. “Are you...the spirit of the First?”
The spirit scoffed, “Circe would not respond to such a childish summoning. Clearly her son could not be bothered to appear on her behalf either, which leaves me. My name is Illiana and I’m the dryad of the Khimki.”
“The Firsts are real,” Ross breathed out in wonder. Their world was complex with impossibilities and impracticalities, but the origins of magic had always been the most debated among supernatural and non-supernatural scholars alike. Now, here they were, learning that each form of magic had an ancestor that bestowed gifts upon their lines.
Illiana didn’t appear moved by his realization. “Yes, they are,” She supplied drily. “Before Circe crossed into the Wasteland, she charged me with guarding her physical body here in the Khimki which makes me her proxy.”
Her eyes narrowed on the ouija board before rolling her eyes and redirecting her attention to Amalia. “Something’s bothering you, offspiring of Circe. What’s the problem?”
If Amalia was surprised at Illiana recognizing that she was a necromancer, even without her magic, she did her best not to show it. “My magic, our magic, is gone,” She briefly glanced at Zander when she made the correction. “I figured if anyone knew how we could get it back, it would be the First Witch.”
Illiana let out a deep sigh, “Magic isn’t a commodity or a pet. It doesn’t break and it doesn’t run away. It’s a part of you--your spirit and your soul--therefore, no one can take it away. Others may pervert it or channel it, but you are its sole owner.”
Zander furrowed his eyebrows and looked at Illiana in her green eyes for the first time. “Are you saying...our magic isn’t gone?”
The dryad nodded as if she couldn’t believe that they hadn’t figured it out for themselves. “Something happened to you, both of you, that has led you to believe that your magic is entirely out of reach. It could be a debilitating feeling of guilt, fear, loss, or a combination of them all.”
Zander looked away from her and Amalia went deathly still.
“Until you confront the weight on your souls,” Illiana continued as her spirit began to fade away and the sky lightened up again. “You will never be able to access your abilities again.”
And with that, she was gone.