Wind rushed through her thick, blonde hair and branches scratched her face as she ran through the thick, dead forest. The screeches of the harpies were on her heels as she ran faster and faster, snapping branches and twigs all along her path. Faint cries echoed behind her with each crack of the wood, but she had no time to stop running.
Her feet bled, her hands were raw from pushing brush aside, and her hair stuck to her face and neck. She hadn’t the time to push the loose strands behind her ear, but it would never matter since the next branch that scraped her face would just tousle it again making it impossible to see and concentrate on her steps.
By now, Marie was completely turned around and lost in the wood of the suicides. There was no way out and there was no escaping the horrible harpies that closed in on her like vultures.
A whoosh of hot air rushed past her, and she stopped to look up. One of the birds swooped down and hovered over her head. It looked down at her wish such contempt, but their stares revealed intense malice and anger toward each other. Desperate to hide again, Marie sprinted off back the way she came and took a quick left turn to try and lose the bird of prey. But the unmistakable and shrill squawk filled her ears and made her shudder with fear. The bird came down in a nosedive and dropped right in front of her making her stop dead in her tracks.
Without hesitation, the harpie stabbed Marie in the stomach with her long and trained talons. Marie screamed out and clenched her stomach in pain. Blood pooled on the rags of her dress and her knees went weak, but she was determined to not submit to this demonic fowl. She steadied her feet and stumbled forward, thrashing her right arm in the air as if to shoo mosquitoes rather than a monster the size of a hound.
The harpie wore a small smile on her angelic face as she pumped her wings above Marie. It let out a shrill shriek to signal the other harpies to feast on their prey, but when the harpie looked back down, Marie had managed to stagger off. From the shadows of the broken wood, Marie spied the searching bird. It made her chuckle, but the pain in her belly was no laughing matter.
Marie tip-toed carefully and quietly around the forest not to disturb any of the desperate souls to give her position away. Her breathing became more labored with each step and blood dripped from her wound in constant staccato. She felt herself getting weaker, and she slumped next to a tree in a vain hope of rest.
“What are you doing? You cannot be here.”
The voice from the tree startled Marie, and she jumped to her feet. “I am not. I merely needed a rest.”
“You cannot rest here. If you are seen, you and I will both be punished. Leave.”
“Where shall I go?” Marie’s desperation could hardly be hidden, but she was so tired from running. She had little desire to go any further into the wood let alone another step from rest.
“Turn to the right, and you will see a place of rest. It will not last forever, your respite, but it will give you some relief.”
“Thank you, kind sir. Before I go, may I ask your name?”
Marie looked up at the tree. She could barely make out the eyes and face of the soul trapped inside the decaying wood, but she could definitely see pain in his eyes. “You must go, Marie. You cannot stay here.”
Marie took a few steps backward wanting to imprint the man’s face and what it must have been in her mind. But before she turned, she stepped on a twig and the snap echoed in the underworld. The shriek of the harpie signaled her position, so she ran. The branches of the dead trees continued to hinder her path, and once again, she was turned around. But she didn’t care. She ran.
Finally, she started to see a clearing up ahead, and she ran full force toward it not caring how many limbs and wounds she created on her fellow souls, and by the time she realized it was a cliffside, her body hurtled toward the edge and flew off.
Instantly, Marie was in the air, suspended away from the wood and in relative freedom, but as her body began to fall, fright filled her senses as she began to scream. She reached her arms out from her body in desperation, but felt nothing except the rushing air. Her vision was blurred by her tears, but there didn’t seem to be anything to see anyway.
Suddenly, her hands brushed on rough rock edges and she felt soft foliage. Without hesitation, she gripped hard and thankfully, her descent stopped before hitting the ground. Breathing heavily, she looked around. Her vision was frantic, but she could make out only red and black.
The rock to her side was black as night and the red below her and into the horizon looked like blood. Her grip was tight, but she felt the splinters embedding themselves into her tender fingertips.Her breathing did not quell, but she felt relief in her position.
“Why do you hurt me?”
Marie shrieked when she heard the voice, but she maintained her grip. “What, pray you?”
“Why do you hurt me? Have I not suffered enough?”
Marie looked around and saw that her grip was firmly placed around a branch on an old willow tree. The face of the soul was positioned right in front of hers, and the eyes were unmistakable. “I am sorry, but there was nothing to break my fall. You have saved my life.”
“There is no life here.”
“I am sorry that I hurt you, but you must understand that I have no choice.”
“Yes. I understand.”
A crack in the tree signaled Marie of the temporary nature of her position. Panicked, she asked the tree’s name.
“Khada’an. But I am too weak to speak. Leave me be.”
The eyes fluttered closed as Marie held on to Khada’an’s branch. She wondered what she touched. An arm? A leg? Her neck? Marie glanced down and saw it was still a long way to the bottom and surely it would mean a painful fall. She tightened her grip and heard the tree moan softly.
Marie then looked up and saw the cliff’s edge. She had thought she fell for an eternity, but the edge was just barely within reach. If she could climb to the shoulder’s of her new companion, she was sure she could reach the cliff and pull herself up. “Khada’an, I am so sorry to do this, but I’m going to try and climb your body so I may relieve you of my weight. Please hold on. I do not wish to hurt you so.”
“Thank you,” was all Marie could hear. But as Marie reached out to grab onto another branch and hoist her body up, she realized how much blood she had lost from the harpie attack. Her grip loosened and her vision became blurred. How was she to climb when all she could do was fall?
She let go of the tree with her right hand and reached up with empty promises and accepted her fate to fall to the sand below, when a hand gripped hers with such force and strength, it took her breath away.
“Madam Antoinette, what are you doing down here. You are misplaced.”
Marie looked up at the harsh voice and saw the unmistakable face of Virgil. It was mere moments before Virgil used his inhuman strength to pull Marie up completely to the cliff’s edge, leaving a decaying Khada’an to her lonely cliff. “Virgil, why do you rescue me and not let me fall into the next realm?”
“It is not where you belong. You must not alter your fate. Now go, before the demons find you and give you the punishment you deserve for trying to escape.”
Marie sighed. “But I cannot run. I am bleeding.”
Anger filled Virgil’s eyes as he reached out and broke a limb off of a neighboring tree. The poor tree yelped in helpless pain and blood immediately poured from the open wound. “Do you have any idea how much these souls crave to escape even if they bleed? You will always bleed. Now run, damn you. And do not try this again.”
Marie nodded and clenched her stomach in pain before shuffling off. Twigs snapped and branches tore in her path, but she did not care. Her will was weak, and she had only the desire to not be stabbed again.
* * * * *
Virgil watched Marie go off into the thick wood once again. Remorse washed over him as he hung his head. But a soft murmur broke his concentration as he turned back toward the cliffside. He looked straight down at the tree that held Marie so firmly. The bark was brittle where Marie had gripped as if it were nothing more than a shell.
“Khada’an, can you hear me?”
A strained whisper replied. “Yes.”
“Why did you help that woman?”
“I have helped others in this realm. Why should I not?”
“Others? You mean Captain Smith?”
Virgil heard a sniffle. “Yes, Captain Smith.”
“You know that I cannot help you in return.”
“Yes. I did not expect you to.”
“Then, what do you expect?”
Virgil waited for a response, but the long, damp silence hung in the air. Finally he heard, “I expect nothing.” Virgil bent down and laid on his belly over the cliff’s edge to better see Khada’an’s form.
“You do not even expect resurrection?”
Virgil saw a bit of movement in the old willow below and saw a twig snap off and hurtle toward the steaming sand below. “Resurrection? I knew of no such thing.”
He hung his head. “I am sorry to have told you for it is unlikely for you anyway.”
“Why is that? I have helped others, and I have suffered by seeing my villain every day of my hell. Why should I not be resurrected if there were such an option?”
Virgil looked at the site where the twig had broken off of Khada’an’s body. No blood dripped or pooled at the wound site. “Why do you not bleed?”
“I have been drained of blood by the black widow. I have nothing left to flow through my veins. I am nothing. I took my life, and I did nothing for myself.”
“That is too true, Khada’an. You threw your life away when you plunged that dagger in your body. You have nothing, and you are nothing.” Anger rose in Virgil as he spat these facts at the whimpering soul. “I do not apologize to you for your sin is unredeemable.”
“Thank you, sir, for confirming my plight. Now leave me to suffer in my silence. You have done nothing for me but add to my pain.”
Virgil stood and looked down at the helpless tree. What few branches remained stuck into the decayed trunk shook with weeping. He didn’t know why such malice rushed through him, but something in him snapped. Maybe it was the centuries of darkness that he had stored in his soul. Day after day, he saw horrible things, and never once did he have any relief, so what audacity that this woman, this slave, have to ask for redemption?
Virgil turned away and walked back into the wood of the suicides with stone in his eyes. And before he took one more step, he heard an unearthly scream come from the other side of the cliff.
But it was no woman.
To be continued…
Who’s scream caught the attention of Virgil in the seventh ring of Dante’s Hell. Stay tuned next week for the final installment of Khada’an’s first chapter.
To read more or start from the beginning of Dreadful Dantes, click here.
(c) Copyright 2017, Alison C. Wroblewski. All rights reserved.