This is the next chapter of my book, Summoning Persephone.
The story so far: 18 year old Persephone holds a vendetta against Zeus, God of Thunder and the Heavens, for murdering her sisters for reasons as yet unknown to her. Zeus is also well known as a tyrant who enjoys killing people for blaspheming him, including people from Persephone's home. For these reasons, Persephone conspires to kill Zeus by offering a tribute at the Summoning Ceremony to Athena, the Goddess of War. Through this process, she hopes to gain the powers of Athena as her disciple so she's strong enough to end Zeus once and for all. But things go awry when Athena discovers her plan to wage war against another god, and she rejects Persephone at the Summoning Ceremony. On top of this, Persephone has angered Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, because she killed the winter stag, an animal that Artemis holds sacred, as a tribute to Athena. Now Artemis wants her dead for disrespecting her and the other gods.
At the time when Persephone killed the winter stag, she met Hades, who took an interest in her. He shows up at the Summoning Ceremony just to see how things play out with Persephone's motivations. After suffering the consequences of angering both Artemis and Athena, Hades intervenes by Summoning her. He mostly does this to save Persephone's life, but also because he sees her potential to be his disciple in the Underworld. Persephone agrees, and Hades takes her to his kingdom, where he reveals to her that he wants her to be his first Reformer - helping choose souls to bring out of Tartarus (Hell) to be reborn.
During her time in the Underworld, Persephone discovers that there is a weapon hidden away in Tartarus that can destroy both gods and titans. Now her mission is to retrieve the weapon so she can kill Zeus with it. Hades does not know about her motivations and he does not know which god she has a vendetta against.
In Previous chapters, Persephone got what she needed to get into the prison (Hades armor, keys to Tartarus, and a mysterious flaming weapon). In this chapter, she enters the first level of Tartarus to look for Soul Chord.
Suicide Forest continued
The darkness wraps itself around me like a pair of unwanted hands. Invasive and unwelcome and burdensome. The absence of light here is more than just that; it hangs on me the way a set of iron chains might hang on the limbs of a slave. The deeper I go into the first level of Tartarus, the heavier and drearier I feel. It’s as if the blackness was created to bring down the human spirit. Beyond that, the air is almost unbearably cold, and tinged with the bleak odor of death and misery.
I am treading down a sloping path, trying to stay calm and focused. The ground is thick and pliant with dirt. Sadi’s lantern marginally illuminates my way; a few miserable shrubs and trees no taller than I am grow along my path. I can barely see anything beyond the scope of the firelight. There is no sky, no atmosphere that I can see, only an infinite black rift. The wood is contained and claustrophobic and suffocating.
The darkness floods and weakens my senses, crushing my mind and body and soul. I don’t know how I find it in myself to keep moving, to come outside myself despite the nothingness pressing in around me. I just do.
It’s just a forest. I tell myself, pushing on. How bad could it really be?
By some means, I have the will to push back against the darkness. The hill angles sharply down, and I pace across it with frantic breaths. The descent is seemingly endless. Just how far do I have to keep walking before I reach level ground? Cate’s words suddenly flood back to me.
Tartarus is as far into Oceanus as the earth is from the sky. You’d be searching for weeks. If you could even survive being in there for that long.
Her warning weighs heavily inside my chest. Maybe...maybe I should have listened to her.
It’s just self-doubt. I tell myself tenaciously. It’s just this place playing tricks on your mind.
It’s the only reassurance I have to hold on to, and I cling to it with determination. I keep going.
A long stretch of time passes, maybe a half hour, maybe longer, before I reach level ground. The terrain is no longer empty and barren; the trees grow bigger and thicker the deeper I tread. The lonely light of Sadi’s flame falls the way ahead, and I have to watch where I step; I have entered a labyrinth of bare, twisting, overgrown trees. They are hideous and distressing just to look at, like creatures with deformed limbs reaching out to grab me.
My path becomes more and more disrupted the further I go. Before I know it, I have my knife out and I’m cutting away at the overgrowth to make way for myself.
More time passes as I wander into the forsaken wood. An hour, two, maybe more, with only Sadi’s fire creature to keep me company. My legs ache, and I’m certain I have blisters forming on my skin. Weariness starts to creep into my muscles, and I’m beginning to feel the first pangs of hunger and thirst.
The only thing that keeps me from stopping to rest is the rise of paranoia. I don’t know if it’s real or imagined, but I swear I can hear the whisper of scurrying feet. I have the dreadful suspicion that I am being followed. The sheer darkness only makes it worse.
The sounds come from all around - a creeping in the trees, a flutter from above. It occurs to me that I’ve not encountered any of the souls that are trapped in here. Where are they? The suicides?
Somehow, I think I know. A voice, perhaps born from fear and the worst parts of my imagination, whispers to me:
In the trees. In the trees.
I quicken my pace, but it doesn’t help; my path is almost entirely blocked off by branches. Even using my knife, I have to contort my body between the web of trees to make any progress. It’s like moving through a labyrinth of deformed human flesh. All the while, the fluttering above me gets closer and louder. And then the sound of high-pitched shrieks pierce through the quiet.
Prompted by fear, I don’t stop despite my aching body screaming at me to halt. I have no idea what manner of beasts are here, but they know I am here. And I can’t even see them.
Cate’s words echo in my mind, and now it’s harder to push away the self doubt.
I swing my knife uselessly against the branches. I struggle against the constraints of the trees but make no progress. I am trapped, and the shrieking, fluttering beasts are closing in on me.
The squawking becomes louder and more shrill, and without having to look up, I know that something is descending upon me. Instinctively, I try to drop lower, try use the overgrowth as a meager defense instead of fighting against it.
It’s useless. The branches suddenly get ripped from the roots, and it’s not a fortunate thing. The beasts - I don’t know how many there are, three, four? - swarm around me. I hold out the lantern to try and get a glimpse of what the hell they are, then cry out as something sharp and hard jabs at my back like a knife, followed by a demonic-sounding squawk. Another winged beast pecks at me from the front, barely missing the opening in my helmet over my mouth. Its beak scrapes at the hard surface of my headgear as I try uselessly to ward the creatures away with my knife and lantern.
More birds of prey appear, and I’m being assaulted by a flurry of giant, feathered wings, sharp, curling talons, and incessant, pecking beaks. I cry out in pain and desperation, swinging my knife blindly, and I manage to slice one of the creature’s legs. It screeches out in pain and backs away for just a moment, but the others keep attacking me, and the suit is ineffective at protecting my body from them. I quickly realize that the knife is not going to help me, and that the only chance I have at saving my own life is unleashing Sadi’s beast.
I drop the knife to the ground and fumble with the latch on the lantern, holding it out away from me. Before I can open it, the lamp is knocked from my hands as one of creature’s bites down on my arm.
I scream. The lantern tumbles to the ground, ensnared in the web of branches, out of reach. I am left with only my fists to fight them off. Angry - at myself, at them - I start beating at their heads with clenched hands, for all the good that it does. Which is none. Fighting them only seems to make them more vicious, and the fact that I can’t see them increases my panic tenfold.
And the swarm is getting bigger. I can feel dozens of pairs of wings flapping against my body, talons and beaks pecking, each trying to rip off a piece of me. Using my fists doesn’t do anything, and finally, realizing that I’m not going to escape, I push myself down to the ground and cover myself with my arms, succumbing to being carrion for the beasts.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. Not hunting in the wilderness. Not facing Artemis. Not even being terrorized by the wrath of Zeus my entire life.
What the hell was I thinking? I should have planned better. Figured out where exactly Soul Chord was before even entertaining the idea of coming here. I shouldn’t have come at all. I should be doing anything, be anywhere else, anywhere but here. I should be considering a future as Hades’ Reformer. Or not. I should be in the meadow, with the sun on my skin, saying goodbye to my sisters. Preparing to go home to my family.
Remembering their faces is the final straw; I break. With a quiet whimper, I start to cry, unable to hold back the anguish any longer. Tears rush down my cheeks, regret washing over me like a tidal wave. Was the prospect of defeating Zeus really worth putting myself through this?
Crouching there, curled up like a child, weaker and more vulnerable than I’ve ever been in my life, I brace myself for being the birds’ supper. They jab and stab at my body, but the suit doesn’t rip. And then, suddenly, one of their talons wraps around my leg, and I’m lifted into the air.My scream pierces the darkness. Hovering higher and higher, I’m hanging upside down like a ragdoll, staring down at the web of trees. Sadi’s lantern glows like a bright halo where I’d dropped it, and I lament not having it in my hands now.
The birds fly up and surge around me in a stream of feathers and claws. I stare at them with wide eyes. Gut-wrenching terror rips through me. They are going to tear me limb from limb.
Somewhere in the midst of all the fear, a rational part of my brain screams at me to call for Hades. It’s my only option now.
I open my mouth as the swarm circles around me. His name is just a breath away from my lips when a tiny ball of fire bursts up from below.
The flame whistles up toward me in a calculated arc, striking the beast right above the talon. An arrow.
The creature lets out a loud, scraping howl, and its grip on my leg wrenches open. I yell out in surprise as the ground comes swirling up to me. My fall brings me down through the treetops, and I hold my hands out instinctively. For a moment, I think I’m going to break, but thankfully, I sink right through the branches as they slow my fall. I land hard, face down on the bed of dry overgrowth.
It takes me a few seconds to recollect myself. To breathe. I’m not severely hurt, mercifully. The wind is knocked out of me, and the blows all over my body sting. Am I bleeding? I can’t tell.
I turn over on my back, staring up at the dark sky. I can just barely make out the movement of the vultures. Another fiery arrow shoots out from the darkness, striking its target; a moment later, the shadow of the bird comes sweeping down right at me.
Immediately, I roll to the side, trying to dodge the attack. I hear it land a few feet to my left and instantly push myself up into a sitting position, sliding myself away with wild gasps. I can only push myself so far; the intertwining branches form a wall I have to strain against. Covering my head again, I brace myself for another attack, but it doesn’t come.
Slowly, I lower my arms and peer out.
In the dim glow from my lantern, I see that the bird is laying still on the ground, an arrow sticking out from its breast. Dead.
With fire surging through my veins, I grab Sadi’s lamp and crawl over to the creature, staring at it. It’s a strange, oversized vulture, with a long, two-pronged beak and a pink, fleshy breast. The size of its talons are twice as big as my head.
Disgusted, I turn away from the animal and look up.
More flaming arrows fly upwards from forest, and I can hear movement in the trees. I search all around me, but I can’t make out anything or anyone. It only takes me a second to put two and two together and realize that whoever is shooting at the birds saved my life.
Two more fall to the ground, just a short distance away. Another. Another. The archers are definitely good shots, but there are too many vultures to take them all down quickly.
Swallowing hard, I search within myself, trying to regain control. I summon up the courage to rise to my feet, standing up to my full height. Adrenaline flows through me like lightning, and I hold the lantern up to the sky.
Whatever Sadi’s monster is, I hope it flies.
Reaching up, I hook my finger underneath the latch.
Startled, I turn to face whoever shouted. The next thing I know, someone barrels right into me, knocking me to the ground.
My breath sweeps out of my lungs as I land onto my back, the lantern rolling out of my hand. A strong, surprisingly strong person climbs on top of me.
I look over, and someone throws a cover over the lamp. Solid blackness falls all around me.
“What the hell!” I shout. A hand quickly clamps down on my mouth.
“The harpies are attracted to light!” a girl’s voice hisses at me.
Quickly understanding, I glance over at where the lantern fell. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, but in the darkness, I can see the dim burn of the lamp hidden under a blanket.
“Put it out,” the girl orders.
“No!” I cry out. The girl tries to hold me down, but I quickly shove her off of me. “Don’t!”
I run over to the light, where I have to push back whoever is trying to keep it from me and wrench it out of their hands.
“This isn’t an ordinary flame,” I say quickly, holding the covered lantern to my chest. “You can’t put it out. It’s...it’s dangerous.”
My vague explanation of Sadi’s weapon is followed by a brief silence. And then a burst of flame bursts out from somewhere in the distance, lighting up the rift. It’s only now that I can make out my environment, the forest of sweeping, barren trees, the pale, thin faces of my saviors. Many of them are wielding makeshift bows and arrows, and all of them are dressed in ragged clothing, their skin is muddled with a film of dirt. They are staring at me with wild and weary eyes, searching over me from helmet to boots, not knowing what to make of me. One young woman, with a small frame, stringy blonde hair, and brown eyes, is watching me with an unsavory look. And I know she’s the one who tackled me.
The screeching of the harpies above distracts me momentarily - I look up, and now I can fully see them. Dozens and dozens of them fly in a black, snake-like circle over the treetops, searching for prey. They loop over us in a curving path to the distance, heading straight for the fire beyond.
A diversion, I realize. Someone must have lit the fire to give us a chance to escape.
I turn my attention back to the girl. She takes a confrontational step towards me, looking at me as if I’m trespassing in her territory.
“Keep that fire hidden,” she warns me, gesturing to the covered lamp in my hands. I nod.
“Let’s go,” she says to the others. She turns away from me and starts walking into the trees. The others go after her, and I don’t know if I’m meant to follow. I stand there awkwardly.
Realizing that I’m not moving, the girl stops and turns around. Irritated again.
“Well? Are you coming? Or do you want to be left alone out here?”
Though she’s a complete stranger, she did sort of save my life. The others, too. It seems I have no choice but to put my trust in them for now.
After a moment of deliberation, I nod at her again. Despite the bitter look she gives me, she holds the branches aside to reveal a cleared away path in the trees.
With a tensed breath, I step onto the path, following the suicides deeper into their purgatory.