“The underground fights are big in my sector mostly, for obvious reasons. Usually, they’re different, though. They use props and weapons. This one was fairly tame.”
“What would you like to see next?”
I shrugged. How would I know what to pick from?
“Sector Lust, then?”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I grimaced. “I’m not really in good favor with Callista, apparently. Something about me being special, her being tired of it?”
“I think that does sound familiar,” Luca smirked. “She wants me on her side, and will not do anything to upset me. On the other hand, she probably won’t be where we’re going. Besides, if she wouldn’t do anything when you were under Lucielle’s protection, she certainly isn’t going to find the courage now.” He leaned in closer to me, another fight was starting and it was getting loud again, to say something else. Instead, his gaze drifted down to my lips and suddenly, the excitement from the fight became a different kind of excitement. I was overcome by a suffocating desire to be closer to him and to be one with him. It was a need that blazed in my eyes and reflected in his and our lips crashed together in synchronization.
In the back of my mind, I knew all of this should have sickened me and made me want to run as far from it as possible. I had not been like this when I was alive, not that I remembered. The brutal violence of the fight, how I enjoyed it with morbid curiosity, and how I was suddenly lusting over my justifiably evil Lord of Hell boyfriend.
When I realized that both of us were tugging at each other’s clothing, I had to use a lot of willpower to pull back, just slightly. Peppering more discrete kisses down his neck, I whispered, “Here is not the place.”
“I know,” He replied with a raspy voice and rested his forehead against mine. “I just… want you, Persephone.”
“I know,” I repeated back and stood up, pulling him with me. I had never been a fan of public displays of affection and nearly having sex with Luca right here was a part of that. “I think it’s time to go.”
“Home?” His grin was wicked.
“I wish,” I laughed. “No, to Sector Lust.”
He didn’t try to hide his disappointment, but in a matter of minutes, we were outside, breathing in air that always smelled like smoke instead of air that smelled like rancid blood. We shared a few more moments in the privacy of an alley; hot lips against bare skin, nails scraping against brick as fingers curled, and involuntary moans. I never wanted it to be over but I did have places to be. We managed to pull apart from one another eventually and start to make our way there.
“Why isn’t Hell bigger? I mean, it’s huge, it’s probably the biggest city I’ve ever seen, but all the evil people since the dawn of humanity reside here?”
“Hell expands when it needs to.” He turned wistful. “It was a lot smaller when I first came here but I think it will expand soon. As to why it’s not more spread out, modern architecture is letting it go higher, instead of outward, lately.”
We walked for quite some time. We had to walk the entire length of Sector Violence, Outer District to Border District, go through Center Sector, and to Sector Lust. My feet were starting to hurt but I wasn’t going to say anything.
I strutted out in front of Luca and whipped around playfully. “Okay, but why aren’t there any vehicles? Fancy, shiny sports cars and motorcycles are things I’d expect here.”
“I don’t know, maybe because they aren’t necessary.” He mused but kept walking.
“But is any of this necessary?”
“Point taken.” He smiled and I kissed him on the mouth. He was so beautiful when he smiled, something inside me ached. “Cars were certainly not around when this place came about. Now that I’m thinking about it, they would be a nice addition.”
“Boys and their toys, even the ones who aren’t human.” I teased.
“Sports cars, motorcycles, how exciting.” Somehow, his eyes seemed young for a brief moment. “I’ll keep it in mind when the place updates itself.”
“Wait a minute, do you even know how to drive?” I stopped dead in my tracks, looking at him expectantly.
“I… well… uh…”
I laughed, partially in disbelief that Luca didn’t know how to do something so mundane, throwing my head back.
“Shut up. There’s no point in knowing that down here.” In the artificial light, the only light down here, it was hard to tell if he was blushing. He certainly did look embarrassed, which I had never seen on him before.
“Humility suits you,” I winked and chuckled.
“I wouldn’t know.” He grumbled but grinned. “I do look pretty good in everything, though.”
I rolled my eyes. “Even lingerie?”
“I have to see it before I believe it.”
This was typical banter between us.
“Persephone, shut up.” He grabbed me with some force and planted a heavy kiss on my lips. “Do you want to go to this or not?”
“Yeah, what’s taking you so long?”
He growled but he lacked conviction, as he often did when it came to me, and I slipped my arm around his. The silence between us was not uncomfortable as it so often is with other people and it let me focus on things other than him. The people around us were bowing when they realized who he was and it never took long because his aura seemed to be able to expand to fit any room.
It made me remember a time when I had to run an errand for him and came back to find him attending a deal. One of the men was familiar and I realized he had been in charge of one of the parties at the first deal Luca took me to. His name was Phillip. They were alone and I was unsure if the deal had finished already or hadn’t even begun, so I stayed low and listened to what they were talking about.
Phillip was leaning against stacked crates languidly, comfortable somehow, and pulled a box of cigars out of his pocket as well as a lighter. He offered one to Luca, who declined. I noticed that I had never seen Luca smoke. “I don’t know if it’s my place to say this, but…”
Luca crossed his arms, muscles tensing and posture straightening. “Then it probably isn’t.”
“I’m going to say it regardless and you can punish me if you wish.” He puffed on the freshly lit cigar. “I don’t think it’s wise.”
Luca humored him. “You don’t think what’s wise?”
“A woman like that as your second.”
My heart had hitched. I knew he was talking about me.
“Someone beautiful like that could complicate things and change you.”
“Trust me, I’m aware of the risks.”
“She isn’t just your second.” There was a pause as Luca looked at him with surprise. “If you were trying to keep it subtle, you’ve failed miserably. Everyone knows. Why are you getting so close to this woman? What is the point? You need to cut the strings before it’s too late.”
“I don’t see how this is any of your business.”
“We’ve known each other a long time. I was the closest thing you had to a friend, to a second. Then this girl comes along, starts changing things, disrupting the order, starts changing you, and you just let it slide?”
A chuckle erupted low in his throat. “Are you jealous, Phillip? Were you aspiring to be my second?”
“She’s not even part of Sector Violence.”
“Don’t say that. She’s a better fit for this place than anyone realizes.”
“She doesn’t exactly hide the fact that she doesn’t have a sector tattoo. Those outfits she wears show plenty of skin…”
Luca grabbed him by his throat and raised him into the air until Phillip’s feet dangled above the ground. “That’s it. I’ve heard enough.” He set him down. “You would do well not to bring this up ever again.”
That was the end of it. Phillip didn’t talk about it again and even smiled at me when I thought it was safe to appear. Unfortunately, I could tell it wasn’t over for Luca. A seed had been planted and he was troubled by it. If I was changing him, I certainly wasn’t doing it on purpose. I wasn’t trying to change anything. I died and magically became the center of this very unspecific prophecy. They never even said how I was supposed to help and I sure as hell didn’t know.
“What are you thinking about? You’re frowning.” Luca pulled me out of my thoughts.
“Nothing important.” I faked a smile and that was enough to make him leave it alone.
The rosy haze of the pink neon lights that Sector Lust was known for came into view, turning our skin unnatural colors and reflecting in our eyes. I admired how confident, how certain, Luca looked all of the time, even when he was bathed in pink light.
“What’s in there?” I asked, nodding my head to the massive building in Center Sector as we walked past it. “I asked Michael once but he said he didn’t know.”
“No one, except us, does,” Luca shrugged.
“But why so secretive? What’s in there? A way out?”
“There is no way out of here, without divine intervention, and I wouldn’t count on that here.” He frowned, but then he grinned. “Besides, who would want to leave this face?”
“Who, indeed.” I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “But you still haven’t told me what’s in there.”
“Not really anything too interesting.”
“You have to be lying.”
“We can make the levels whatever we want. We’ve sort of run out of ideas lately, but there’s this one room…”
“What about it?”
“I’ll just have to show you later if you want.”
“I’ll be the first person to go in the upper levels, won’t I?”
“I have been deemed worthy!” I cried, throwing my arms up into the air.
“You’ll be deemed unworthy in a second if you keep that up.” He rolled his eyes as we passed out of Center Sector and into Sector Lust.
Just like that, the number of intoxicated prostitutes multiplied. They giggled and clumsily bowed, stumbling around in heels that were too high to be worn safely while inebriated. “It’s been so long since you’ve come around, Lord Luca.”
“We’ve been starting to miss you.”
He tried to avoid looking at me, knowing full well the look I was giving him. They’ve been starting to miss him?
“Who’s this?” Prying eyes landed on me.
“She’s my second.”
“She doesn’t look like a second to me.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think.” Luca snapped, pushing us through them. “You’re just some slut from this sector.”
No one said anything as they started to remember their place.
“You didn’t have to be so rude,” I whispered into his shoulder, for their benefit. I knew well enough now that even though everyone was supposedly equal, the people in Sector Lust were looked down on.
“I’m always rude. Besides, they disrespected you.” He looked arrogant and smug.
“Whatever.” I knew that’s what he wanted everyone to think. I knew him better than that now, in a deeper way. He wasn’t as two-dimensional as that.
He suddenly pulled me into an alley and then led me through a maze of more of them. They were filled with dirty people chain smoking cheap cigarettes, others doing business, or trying. It was very… interesting that people would willingly have sex in public and that others didn’t seem to mind at all. Someone, I couldn’t remember who, had said to me that Hell was raw. People were no longer held back by restricting societal values and that they could give in to human desires as often as they’d like with no repercussions. Personally, I didn’t ever want to have sex in public with an audience, but hey, different strokes for different folks.
Every alley connected to countless more, like an intricate network of passageways that I probably couldn’t recall if I wanted to, but the journey was short and sweet. We arrived at a nondescript metal door embedded in a brick wall. Luca knocked once, a peephole creaked open, and the door opened without question.
“Been a long time since you’ve been around here.”
“Haven’t been too interested in the merchandise.” He waved the guard off.
The guard then looked at me, gave me the once over, and said, “I see why. What brings you today? Is she the adventurous type?” He finished with a grin.
“You could say that,” Luca chuckled. “Is the room open?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I know the way. See you later.”
“I’ll send a waitress to your room.”
“Great.” Luca took me by the hand and led me through a rounded hallway, lined with doors on one side. The last door he opened, revealing a small room with plush carpet, a few chairs and a couch, a small bar, and a window looking down into a darkened room. He closed the door behind us and sat down on the couch, pulling me onto his lap.
“Care to elaborate?” I wrapped my arm around his neck securely.
“You’ll see. It will start soon.”
With narrowed and suspicious eyes, I asked, “Are you aware of time passing here?”
He didn’t hesitate to answer me. “Yes.”
“How?” I asked out of curiosity. “And why aren’t we aware?”
“Perks of the job, I suppose, but time is a very unnecessary thing here. You spent your whole life obsessed with time, everyone does, but you’re dead. There’s no point now. You have no places to be. I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of time passing.”
“I suppose you’re right but is it like an instinctual thing for you? You just know?”
“You’re telling me you really don’t have any idea?”
“A little, when there’s going to be a welcoming party, and if I really try to pay attention, but it gets really hazy. I honestly have no idea how long I’ve been here.”
“That’s what I thought.” He paused, taking on a very pensive look. “It’s not just instinctual, there’s something else. I’ll show you later.”
“Always this cryptic comments. You know I really hate them.”
A brisk knock on the door. “Refreshments.”
A masked waitress in a tight mini dress came in, carrying a tray with a martini, a glass of brandy, and a small remote. “With compliments from the host, of course.”
We both took our glasses and Luca took the remote but I was the only one who said thanks.
“It will be starting shortly.” She murmured and left so quietly I didn’t even hear the door shut.
I took the olive out of the martini and sucked on it softly. Luca watched me intensely, his pupils widening, and I smirked. “So, am I adventurous?”
I leaned closer and kissed him on the lips. It drove me mad how much I felt like I needed to be closer to him all the time. I was hopelessly addicted to him and I didn’t care if it was a problem or not. I opened my mouth impulsively to say something foolish, but a voice came through the speakers.
“Welcome everyone. The bidding is about to begin.”
The remote in Luca’s hand lit up and spotlights came on in the room below. An average-looking girl wobbled out onto a raised platform and turned around in circles. I could see from even here that she was long gone. Her eyes were vacant and reddened.
“Place your bids.”
The remote started buzzing and Luca looked at it without much interest. “They bring out the ones worth less first.”
“So this is…”
“Sex trafficking, yeah.”
“And is this… consensual?”
“Some do it for the free drugs. They keep them too drugged up to function properly, usually. Others, not so much. Falling in with the wrong people, getting caught up in debt, pissing off Callista, whatever.”
Pissing off Callista made me think of Fia. I couldn’t help but ask. “Is Fia… Did Fia…”
“No, never. Callista destroyed her.”
“She’s just gone, Persephone. It happens. I didn’t think you still cared about her after what happened at that one welcoming party.” He paused and looked back to the girl. “There’s an economy here, supply and demand, you know?”
“And you’ve been here before? Multiple times?”
He was quick to make excuses. “Mostly with Vincent and Lennox, or when they’ve had problems that have needed taken care of.”
“But it’s not your sector.”
“Big problems,” He corrected. “Besides, I don’t need to buy women to sleep with them.”
“So, what other deep, dark secrets are there in Hell?”
“Too many, Persephone, too many. Underground ruthless gambling in Greed, torture chambers spread out through my sector and others, and kidnapping is common. Don’t even get me started on Sector Gluttony. The cannibalism there is distasteful, to say the least.” He went on. “Did you know that when you skin a man here, after awhile, his skin just comes back? So do eyeballs and extremities. Pretty wild, huh?”
“You sure do know how to turn a girl on,” I chuckled, pleasantly surprised at how I was taking this. It was wrong, I knew it was, but I simply didn’t care. I was adapting to my environment like any true survivor would. I looked out the window to another girl being shown off, this one more pretty, but more drugged, and realized I was never going to let myself become that.
I wasn’t going to just survive in Hell, I was going to take it between my teeth and thrive.
* * *
When Luca found more free time, we ventured into the first floor of the building in Center Sector, which was dark and eerily quiet. I had only been here when the bass was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. I had the feeling like I was going to break into somewhere I shouldn’t be. Luca even seemed nervous as he led me into the hallway, an elevator door appearing on the wall out of nowhere.
“I’ll just take you to the most important floor, for now.”
“I’m tingling with anticipation,” I laughed.
He arched his eyebrow as the elevator doors closed and he pressed a button to the top floor. “Tingling, huh?” We kissed as the elevator went up. It was how I enjoyed spending the time and he didn’t seem to disagree. It didn’t take long for the elevator to reach the top floor.
I stepped out of the elevator to see a complete three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of Hell. It had been awhile since I saw all the glittering lights and spotlights illuminating the clouds. The way lights bounced off glass windows, the ever-turbulent clouds, how the entire complex extended from with exact spot in surprisingly neat little rows, and just the grandiose of it all. For a second, it took my breath away. I hadn’t realized that I missed the view from my apartment, even though this was certainly better. It had been awhile since I had officially moved in with Luca and there aren’t very many spectacular views in Sector Violence, with its squat and sturdy cement buildings.
“For such a terrible place, it sure is beautiful.” I murmured, my fingers pressing against the glass in an unconscious attempt to reach it. “I don’t know how I keep forgetting.”
“Terrible things are often beautiful. Isn’t that why people are so captivated by them? Unable to look away because it’s just too unbearable? It’s a kind of beauty in a category all its own; terror, excitement, awe, and all things too sacred to put into words. Do you know what belongs in that category?”
“What?” Like he said, I was unable to look away from the view of Hell. This was my home.
I blushed and said nothing. He was always reminding me of my potential and my power, how awe-inspiring I was. It wasn’t evident to me but it was a heavy compliment. I felt powerful when I was with him.
“Persephone, do you remember what sunlight looks like?” His voice was behind me, with a tone I hadn’t heard before.
I thought for a few moments. “I… I don’t know.” The only light I knew now came from light bulbs and strobe lights and candles and lightning. How could someone forget what sunlight looks like? I turned to see what he was doing. The elevator door had disappeared and a different door reappeared in its place.
“That’s what I thought.” He opened the door and ushered me inside.
The room had no windows, but flashes of images and videos were scattered across the walls and ceiling. Some were focused on people, others on landscapes, events, some were videos cut from news channels. They were confused, jumbled together and seemingly unrelated.
“What are these? Movies?”
“No, Persephone. This is what’s happening with the land of the living, right now.” He moved closer to a wall, and moved the clips around with his hands, like it was touch screen, and they flashed past my eyes. “Elections, natural disasters, you name it.”
“So this entire time, you all have had this? To see what was going on?”
“Indeed. It’s cool, I guess, but sometimes I really wish we didn’t, to be just as oblivious as the rest of you.” He sighed. “It’s just like it’s teasing us. Looking but no touching. This was something the judges gave us and their malicious intent has been noted.” He glanced back at me. “I envy you.”
“Don’t. It’s not that different from here, honestly.”
“But the weather changes! Sunshine, rain, snow. What does rain feel like?”
“If you’ve ever taken a shower, you would know.”
“Alright, smartass.” He bit back but genuinely seemed offended.
“Hey, sorry…” I reached out to him tentatively.
He turned his back to me. “No, it’s fine.” His fingers flew across the walls, flashing past all kinds of clips, like he was looking for something specific. He paused when he found what he was looking for. “Sometimes I just like to pretend.” He blew up the clip until it stretched across all the walls and the ceiling.
It was a sunny meadow with clear blue sky stretched above, full of wildflowers that were swaying in a breeze I couldn’t feel. The vibrant colors and sunlight stunned me for several moments. It was so bright. I was unsure if this was a clip that just kept replaying or if it was current and real, somewhere on Earth. It felt like an eternity had passed between the last time I had seen a sight like this and now. I was filled with bitter nostalgia because this was something I could never get back.
I was dead, though I hadn’t ever cared about that fact until that exact moment.
This sort of sentimental stuff was not something I had ever expected out of Luca and it made me fall silent. I had absolutely no idea what to say. He walked behind me and wrapped his arms around me, resting his chin on the top of my head and sighing. “Tell me what sunlight feels like.”
I swallowed before speaking, thinking of how to phrase it properly. “It’s very bright, you know. So bright compared to false lighting that when you would come inside after your eyes had adjusted to the sun, rooms would seem as dark as night. It’s so bright, even if you close your eyes, you can see it through your eyelids. They’re illuminated and you see a warm red glow. You’d know what direction it is because you can feel the warmth on your face. I remember the warmth of sunlight on a spring day after a long winter. It’s nice, comforting, so comforting that it makes you feel like everything is going to be okay for a little while. It makes you sleepy, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to tan and fallen asleep instead.”
Luca was quiet for a long time, but I could hear and feel him breathing, his chest pressing into my back and breath ruffling my hair. “That does sound nice.”
“Do I want to know how long it’s been since I died?” I paused. “It suddenly feels like it’s been a very long time.”
“Do you? I could tell you exactly. You were pretty… memorable.”
I released a small smile but thought long and hard about it. “You know, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ve felt more alive here than I ever did when I was living. If this is too sentimental, I’m sorry, but I’m glad I met you.” This was just another sign that I was letting my past go. It was easy with his arms around me. I don’t know if anything else had ever mattered to me this much. It was a dizzying thought.
“No, it doesn’t.” He answered my rhetorical question softly and kissed the top of my head.
I gulped. “Luca, you know I…” I didn’t know where I was going with that sentence, so I just trailed off.
“Thank you for showing me this. I can tell it’s personal and means a lot to you.”
“Persephone, thank you.” His arms unwound around me so he could reach the wall. One swipe and the meadow disappeared, the room plunging into darkness.