“So what you’re saying is that there’s this covert war going on between all of the sector leaders for singular control of Hell that no one knows about?” I stared at Michael and Lucielle incredulously. It had to be some kind of twisted joke between the two of them. How couldn’t anyone know about it? We all lived in the same city. It’s hard to have a war in a confined area without anyone noticing.
“People know about it, those who are participating, our soldiers, our seconds…” Lucielle looked at Michael briefly before continuing. “It seems like it has been going on for eons, just under the surface, but it’s been changing lately. I don’t think it’s going to be very covert anymore.” She sounded ominous like she intended to scare me. “But, yes, you’ve just summed it up.”
“And tell me again, why am I in the middle of it?”
“You’re different. You’re not able to be marked, you’re able to resist the effects of Hell and even make it so the people around you can, or so I’ve been told, and you could resist the compulsion of the judges and even touch them. No one has been able to do any of that, ever. You’ve been sent here to change things.”
“What do you mean I was sent here to change things? By who? God?” I spat out the name in disgust. It meant nothing here.
“Well, obviously not. The judges sent you here to help me.” Lucielle looked at her nails and continued on sarcastically. “I know, it’s so hard to believe.”
“I don’t know. Ask the judges that.” Lucielle snapped but a slow grin grew on her face. “Oh, wait, you can’t. You attacked them instead.”
“I was freshly dead and had no idea what was going on. Not like you’d know what that’s like.” I shot her a pointed look and she returned it. “It seems like my destiny just happened to slip their minds when they sent me here so it must not have been all that important. Why would they even want me to help you?”
“They really don’t care about what goes on down here. They look down at us and think we’re filth. If you ask me, I happen to enjoy being filthy.” She clearly meant it in the metaphorical sense and smiled again. “I suppose I’m the lesser of the five evils in their eyes. I’m the most responsible and I believe they think I will rule Hell in the manner they wish. For all their misgivings, they aren’t exactly wrong.”
She stood in one graceful movement and pushed my bedroom curtains aside to point out the other sectors. “Who else could do it, really?” She jabbed at Sector Lust. “Callista? She’s an absolute joke. Don’t even get me started.” Laughing maliciously, her finger moved to Sector Gluttony. “Lennox simply doesn’t have the drive needed and doesn’t really care what happens so long as he gets to keep his sector.” Her nail scraped against the glass and she glanced up at the spotlights circling the clouds around Sector Greed. “Then there’s Vincent, who’s the only other real contender. He’s ambitious and has befriended Lennox to benefit his own means, I’m sure.” Her hand dropped from the glass and she turned to briefly glance at me, then shared a look with Michael. “Luca hasn’t decided what he wants to do yet.”
“I don’t see why all of this even matters to me. Don’t you get it? I don’t care! I don’t want to be a part of it.”
“You already are whether you like it or not.” Lucielle looked back at me and narrowed her eyes. “Are you on drugs?”
“You’re on drugs. Believe me, I can tell. I’ve been here far too long to not know what using drugs looks like.” She gave me a closer inspection. “Cocaine, most likely.”
Michael gaped at me. “Persephone!”
“Don’t even start, Michael. It’s none of your goddamn business.”
“I’m going to presume this is because of Luca. You’ve been spending too much time with him. He’s polluting you but that’s to be expected. It always happens with the people he decides to surround himself with.” She smirked to herself for a moment but turned her attention on Michael with narrowed eyes. “I told you to make sure she didn’t get involved with any of the others. Look at what’s happened! Everyone in Hell thinks she’s his second now!”
“I apologize for my failure, my lady,” Michael gave her a stiff bow.
“Yes, well…” Lucielle trailed off, looking out the window distractedly before crossing the room. “You need to handle this now. I have more important matters to attend to than persuading some petulant girl trying fruitlessly to avoid what has to be done. You will join us eventually, Persephone, whether you like it or not.” Michael moved out of her way when she exited my room and a couple seconds later, I heard my front door open and close.
Silence settled as I looked anywhere but Michael. When it was clear he wasn’t going to leave anytime soon, I heaved out a passive aggressive sigh.
“Drugs, huh?” I remained silent and stoic so he wouldn’t get the pleasure of seeing me react. He wasn’t in any place to judge my actions. “And I suppose you drank that entire bottle by yourself.” He must have been talking about the nearly empty bottle of tequila on my nightstand. Again, I said nothing. “But Lord Luca… Really, Seph, really?”
I had been trying to bite my tongue but his nickname for me, usually used with affection, was out of line. “Don’t call me that.”
“Whatever, Persephone. You involved yourself with the most dangerous person in Hell. You haven’t been home in weeks. Have you relocated to Sector Violence? You’re his second? What were you even thinking?”
“You have no room to judge me or try to look down upon my actions. I don’t even have to explain myself to you.”
“Because that’s not everything, is it?” Michael whispered quietly. “You’re not his second, are you?”
“No, I’m not his second.”
“Why?” The way Michael asked it made me meet his wide brown eyes.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you.” I repeated evenly. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
“No matter your feelings about me, you have to help Lucielle. You don’t know what the others will do if they take over…”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I spat. “Get out of my apartment.”
Michael smiled to himself as he removed himself from my bedroom. “We’ll see.”
“Get out!” I screamed, throwing the tequila bottle at the wall beside his head.
He looked at the shattered pieces of glass on the floor, then at me, and left without another word. I waited until the front door was closed and enough time had passed so Michael would have gotten into the elevator to start looking through my apartment for bags. I tossed the bags onto my bed and started to throw my things inside. It was anything I could think of on a moment’s notice, my favorite clothes, shoes, makeup supplies, and some music. I was like a tornado as I tore through each room in my apartment looking for items I would like to take. I had to suppress the urge to clean as I did it because I figured it didn’t matter anymore. I touched the sheets on my bed one last time as I grabbed my bags. As I turned off the lights in each room after taking long, wistful glances, I smiled because I knew something they didn’t.
I had no intention of ever coming back to this place.
* * *
“Persephone!” Luca yelled with more than a hint of despair, throwing his front door open so hard it banged against the brick wall. It was like he didn’t expect me to be here but his gaze found mine quickly where I was sitting on his couch and he heaved a sigh of relief, regaining his composure after a brief moment. “Lucielle told me she was going to confront you, and when I stopped by your apartment, you weren’t there, and I just thought…”
I looked down at all my bags. “I don’t know where to put my stuff. It’s okay that I brought it, right?”
He grinned, knowing exactly what this meant. “It’s absolutely okay that you brought your things. I shouldn’t have doubted you.” Luca came over and sat on the couch next to me, trying to pull me into his arms.
I pulled away unhappily. “You should have told me about this.”
He sighed and leaned back, giving me space. “Yes, I should have, but I wasn’t sure it was you. The judges never told me specifically. They aren’t helping me out because they don’t want me to rule Hell.”
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t even care.” He pushed air out of his lungs. “I’m fine with the way things are, us ruling our own sectors. Of course, the others aren’t. Vincent always wanted to have more power. He’s never kept that a secret. I didn’t think anything would actually come of it.” Luca helped himself to a bottle of scotch that was on his coffee table. It hadn’t been there when I left. “Power is a thing humans have always coveted for and even we fell for it.”
“I have to admit, I’m surprised that Sector Violence is trying to stay out of a war.” I gave him a closed-lipped smile, not wanting to offend him in any way. “Is there any other reason you’ve tried to stay out of it?”
He answered me immediately, not needing to think about it, and gave me a very serious, leveled expression. “We would like it far, far too much.”
I mulled that over internally before moving onto the next thing I wanted to say. “Luca, there’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I didn’t want to ask sooner because I thought it may be too personal.” Because I thought you didn’t trust me.
“What is it?” He asked after taking a long drink from the bottle.
“Are you like me?”
He paused for a second, sending a quick glance over me to gauge my expression. “What do you mean?”
I thought it was odd that I had to specify this for him. “Were you a human once? Did you die and get sent here like me?”
Luca smiled. “No.”
“So you didn’t have a mother!” I exclaimed, teasing. “Figures.”
“Shut up.” He rolled his eyes and pulled me close to him after setting his bottle down.
I settled into his chest with a heavy sigh, closing my eyes and listening to his heartbeat. “It doesn’t matter what you are, you know. I just asked because I was curious. It doesn’t change anything.”
“Why should it?” His chest vibrated when he spoke.
“I don’t know. People usually let pointless things get in the way of relationships. I don’t want that for us.”
We had never discussed being in an actual relationship or making anything official. I suppose me using the word was significant. I just didn’t care anymore. It was all too clear that we shared feelings for each other.
He stiffened in response to my remark and I anxiously waited for him to reply. Was he one of those men that would duck and run for cover at the moment a relationship was mentioned? All he said was, “Yeah, they do.”
I relaxed into him as he kept breathing. It was comforting in a way, to be held like this by someone you cared about, but I couldn’t chase this new feeling away.
My emotions were far too turbulent to calm after the cocaine and my outburst at Michael. Ever since my conversation with Sam, I had been trying to not think about what Michael had done to me but that just made the emotions stewing inside me even worse. I had been extremely hurt after being told by a complete stranger that he was Lucielle’s second in command. After all, I had forgiven him multiple times after I had found out he had been keeping secrets and he still had the audacity to keep something like that from me. Knowing what I know now, being a second was an all-consuming job. The fact that he was so easily able to hide it from me for months… It stung.
After awhile, I sighed again, and said, “I’m torn.”
He looked down at me, questioning. “Between?”
“Wanting to know everything that’s going on and not wanting to be a part of it. I’m tired of being told this is how Hell really is when it’s not.”
“I figured you didn’t want to be a part of this. That’s why I never told you. It wasn’t to keep secrets from you, I swear.” He paused, stroking my hair. “I know how you feel about secrets. I don’t want to do that to you.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I was ready. I might be now. I’m just so exhausted and sick of the lies and half-truths from the people around me.” I was bitter. “I just want to know what’s going on. Why is that so wrong for me?”
“It’s not. It’s perfectly natural to want to know things, Persephone.”
“I don’t even want to be a part of it. All I want is knowledge. Apparently that isn’t acceptable for me.”
“You don’t have to be a part of it if you don’t want to be. I suppose you could… observe… I have to admit that it may be difficult.”
“Lucielle said otherwise.”
I felt his chuckle in his chest. “She would, too. She’s like everyone else here, she likes to manipulate for personal gain. She’s quite good at it, you know.”
“Do you?” I asked quickly.
I felt him shift as he looked down at me, pausing before answering my question. “Not you, in case you were worried about that. I think you’d see through it anyways.”
I smiled into his chest. “Probably.”
“She’s just as dangerous as I am. I hope you know that, Persephone, and that you’re careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
I put up my fists playfully. “Don’t worry. I can handle her.”
He didn’t laugh. “This is going to be the darkest side of Hell, Persephone. You’ll probably see things that will bother you.” Luca warned, not as a way to scare me but as a way to prepare me.
“Things here have bothered me since day one. I should be used to it by now.”
“Leave it to Persephone to want to reinvent the way Hell works.”
“What happened to the good old-fashioned eternal torture?” I joked, looking up to see him smile. I wrapped my arm around his torso and lightly kissed his chest, then my teeth pulled against his shirt collar. “Though, I have to say that I do enjoy this more than I would the alternative.”
“I do as well.” Luca whispered and hooked his finger under my chin. He brought my head up to his and kissed me.
The alcohol, drugs, partying, getting anything you desired, and doing anything you wanted with no consequences was all well and good. It was fun, even I had to admit it. It kept you preoccupied. This, Luca’s lips on mine and his fingers pressed into my flesh, was the only thing I really cared about. I liked this. I liked him a lot, which was probably more than I should.
“He’s polluting you, but that’s to be expected. It always happens.” Lucielle’s words echoed in the back of my mind. I wish I knew what she had meant and it was starting to bother me but I pushed the thought away like I so often did with things that troubled me.
“When do you want to start?” He finally asked, after a few long moments of kissing. “If you still want to, that is. I wouldn’t be averse to taking this to the bedroom, either, if you want to do that instead.”
“Since when have I backed down from a challenge?” I stuck my tongue out at him.
“Ignorance is bliss or so they say.”
“That can be true but I’ve been ignorant for far too long--much longer than I would’ve liked to be.”
“Well then?” He prodded, shifting his body so he was sitting tall again.
I pulled away from him, biting my lip. After all, it couldn’t be so bad. At least I had Luca with me. “Now.”
“No procrastination this time, I like it.” He smiled, pulling me up to stand after him. “You know about all the arms deals and drugs that go on, you’ve been to them.”
“Well, they’re not just between gangs. Weapons come from my sector and I control most of their flow. I’m sure Lucielle told you that I have yet to put my official stance on this pointless dispute. You can see why the other leaders would like for me to participate.”
“I’ve been trying to keep most weapons in my sector alone, possibly out of spite, I’m not entirely sure myself. I just don’t want the other sectors to have it. It makes things a bit more difficult for them and interesting for me. Some of the deals were trading drugs for weapons that had already been in other sectors. Since the other leaders have finally started realizing what I’ve been doing, it’s getting more expensive and more difficult to continue. Some previous clients are less than willing to do business with me now that their sector leaders are keeping an eye on them.”
“But when did all of this, the sides, the fighting, when did it start? Has fighting even started?”
“There have been some unorganized disputes between them periodically, but nothing major. Most of it has just been covered up as meaningless brawls, but…” Luca sighed, rolled his eyes, and grinned. “It’s been a pointless, ongoing thing since the beginning, since we got…” He cut himself off abruptly like he had said something he shouldn’t.
This, naturally, sent attention to it and made me curious. “Since you got?” I prodded.
He narrowed his eyes at me, knowing he had slipped up and I wouldn’t let it go. “Since we got sent here.”
A spark of surprise traveled through me. I think I believed, and most other people here, that if they weren’t once human, they had just been in Hell forever, that they were made here with it. I was wrong. “But you weren’t ever human?”
“No,” He said firmly, eyeing the door, a physical response to attempting to avoid this conversation.
He cut me off immediately. “Persephone, I promise you I will tell you eventually, when it’s time. This is something that is extremely personal and painful to me. You know more than anyone, excluding the five of us, about what we are now. Isn’t that sufficient enough?”
“I’m sorry, Luca.” I touched his shoulder softly, but he didn’t relax into my touch like usual. I made my touch more firm so he would look at me. I looked into his eyes for a moment so he could see the sincerity in mine. “Luca, I mean it.”
“Let’s go.” He said gruffly, pulling away from me to head towards the door.
His gray eyes met mine with a devilish expression, a challenge. “I thought you wanted to do this.”
“You can’t blame me for being curious.”
He arched a dark eyebrow, the skin on his forehead crinkling, that matched his bemused look. He often looked that way at me, a mixture of amusement and admiration, and I couldn’t help but love it. He held out his hand, which I took, to pull me close and kiss the top of my head lightly. “I know.”
I pulled away and opened the door, a slightly barbaric grin on my face. “So what do you have planned?”
“We’re going to a fight.”
I frowned. “But we’ve already…”
“Not fights like these.” His smile was feral.
* * *
It took a long walk to Outer District, three bouncers, two reinforced doors, and multiple back staircases before we were sitting down again. There was a cage in the middle of the room and the room seemed to be designed around it, stone bleachers filled with people screaming bets and horrible, graphic things at the fighters in the cage. The fighters used various and drastically different moves from every type of fighting sport I’ve watched and then some.
“Any rules?” I yelled the question over the deafening crowd to Luca, who was sitting beside me, his gray eyes flicking between the two fighters intently.
He glanced at me for only a second before returning to the cage. “They stay in the cage until one wins.”
That being the only rule would explain why they were biting, scratching, pulling on clothing, and sending painful-looking kicks to the groins. Luca raised his arm to signal for something.
“What are you doing?”
“Placing a bet.”
“But he looks like he’s losing…”
“You’ll see.” Someone came over and talked to Luca, writing whatever the bet was down.
The fight continued for a long time, the level of violence progressing. I could even start to hear the fighters yelling insults at each other, even over the crowd. A hard punch that wasn’t blocked sent blood and teeth spewing out of Red Short’s mouth, he reared back to dodge another swing coming his way and spat onto the floor. He backed up to gain some time, charged at the other one, and threw him onto the ground, using his weight to keep him down. Then, Red Shorts just started attacking--no, mauling--his opponent. Skin ruptured on the downed guy’s face, blood covering his features, what I could only assume was his nose crunching as it was shattered, and when I started to see what could only be bone, I wanted to look away.
I couldn’t. I was compelled to continue watching, just like everyone here. Despite the continual screaming, it felt like it was fading away as the fighters in the cage sharpened and became the only focus. This was something I should have found horrific.
The guy under Red Shorts was trying to fight back, feebly throwing wild punches in an attempt to get Red Shorts off of him. It was futile. I could see the blood bubbling up and out of his mouth as he struggled to breathe, even from here, but the look in Red Shorts’ eyes was what captured me even more. I leaned forward with an intense focus, just like Luca had been from the start, and part of me was aware that he was watching me right now.
His frenzied gaze was filled with a desperate, animalistic, and wild rage. I knew that even if someone tried to break up the fight, he would not let that happen. He was going to completely finish him. Everyone in the crowd shared a similar look in their eyes.
Why was it so capturing? I didn’t need to think about the answer because I already knew it. It was because it reminded me of me.
“What are you thinking about?” Luca asked curiously, probably surprised I had been so into the fight.
“I was attacked, you know, shortly after I first got here. I had been on my way home and some guy grabbed me. I tried to fight back, of course I did, and I almost got away, but he caught my ankle and pulled me down to drag me into an alley.” I said this devoid of emotion and almost like I was already bored of talking about it. “But I found this loose brick, and I hit him with it to get him off of me, and it worked, but I didn’t run. I just continued hitting him, over and over and over, until my fingers were numb and covered in blood that wasn’t mine and you couldn’t recognize the man anymore.”
Luca didn’t say anything. I had made it clear that this happened a long time ago and I had taken care of it myself.
“This just reminded me of it, that’s all.” I finished coldly, glancing at Luca, who was watching me with one of his unreadable facial expressions. “I do belong here.”
The fight, which I thought was nearly over, continued until the guy under Red Shorts wasn’t moving. I was unsure if he was unconscious or in that temporary death state. Red Shorts, in no fair condition himself, stood and raised his fists in victory, some of the crowd cheering and others yelling expletives from losing their money. The cage was unlocked and people dragged the loser away in preparation for the next fight. I expected them to wash the blood of the floor, but when they didn’t, I realized why the cage’s floor was a dark brown. It was the kind of dark brown only old dried blood could be.
Beside me, Luca leaned back with a grin on his face. “See?” He motioned to the cage. “I’m never wrong.”
I knew he wasn’t just talking about the fight.