Something had changed.
The first week, Luca stayed home with me nearly the whole time. At first, it was nice. We pretended we didn’t have any responsibilities to attend to; languid days and nights filled with cuddling and kissing and him getting me anything I wanted. He even tried cooking for me. My injuries had healed by the time we got home from Margot’s but he still pretended like I was wounded or sick. I didn’t have PTSD, that was for sure, but I let him pretend anyway. Maybe that was selfish of me. I started to get antsy staying home that entire time. I knew we had responsibilities to this sector and forgetting about them for so long was bothering me. Then, he couldn’t ignore the responsibilities any longer. Phillip had dropped by the house and they talked privately in Luca’s office in hushed but harsh tones. They left together. I had gotten up to go with them, but Luca told me to stay home and rest.
“I’m not fucking bedridden, Luca. I’m fine!” I had yelled.
He hadn’t cared.
The welcoming parties were canceled, Luca had informed me later that night, which was a surprise to me. It was the first real sign that the routine was getting disturbed. The cancellation was until further notice, and that caused riots and more destruction, though I couldn’t be sure if it was really because of that or if it was the different sectors warring against each other. Everything seemed to be happening and changing so fast suddenly, even us.
Luca would be gone for hours, even days, at a time, his only instructions for me were to stay home. After the bombing and kidnapping, his coddling had turned to overprotectiveness, which would be understandable, except for the fact that he wouldn’t let me leave his house whatsoever. For the first few days after Phillip had stopped by, even the first week, I thought it was a joke, a test, and then I realized it wasn’t. Even after my realization, I tried naively and foolishly to cling to the idea that it was all some elaborate joke for weeks. After multiple foiled escape attempts, he stationed guards outside the front door when he wasn’t home for my “protection.”
Staying there and doing absolutely nothing productive with my time was driving me crazy. I could hear gunshots, explosions, screams, and shattering glass outside at all hours. Fires spread across the streets, which could be seen from some of the windows and shone on the walls. I had to sit there on the couch, eat, shower, sleep, and pretend everything was just fine. Every gunshot I heard just made me more and more furious.
When Luca would come home, he would be silent and so would I. He offered no explanations of where he had been, what he had been doing, why there was blood on his cheek. He would shower, sleep, and leave again. Sometimes he would try to sit next to me, and I would move, or he would lie next to me in bed to try to hold me, the movement waking me up, and I would hiss, “don’t touch me.” He would leave again and I would be alone.
This went on for what felt like years, and didn’t seem like it was ever going to stop. I decided to stop waiting for Luca to let up and realize he was being cruel to me. In this prison, I had no idea how bad it was out there, but I had to get out.
I just kept thinking about how this entire time Michael had been trying to tell me that I needed to act, and I had stubbornly refused, and now that I couldn’t, it was driving me insane. I felt helpless, which was something I was no longer used to. The helplessness made me feel weak.
I was his prisoner or had I been all along, though in less obvious ways? Did he really care about me or had I just been naive? Someone who cared for me wouldn’t do something like this. What had I expected out of a man that had abused me? Why had I let that happen to myself? Nothing made sense anymore.
Even sleep was not a repose for being awake. The dreams were getting worse. I was haunted by visions of the judges arguing about me in their white wasteland. “The Incorruptible has been corrupted,” they repeated more than once. Their debates were always about the same thing; if I was too far gone, if I hadn’t been the right one after all. I would wake up with their screaming echoing in my head, screaming myself.
I was confused, hurt, and angry, and it wasn’t going away. Forgiveness was not something I saw in my future for him. So, I started trying to plot my escape, which was hard because I had once again taken up heavy drinking and drug use. With the guards guarding the only exit, I had very few options, if none at all, and decided to leave it to chance, to wait and see if something would happen that would allow my escape.
Eventually, it did.
Luca came home one night, more bruised and exhausted than usual, and immediately started drinking and doing lines of coke. I watched him for awhile in disgust, but I had just been doing the same thing earlier, so I knew I was being hypocritical. I went into the bedroom to lie down, my brain working a mile a minute. He joined me later, after a shower, and passed out.
That was when I had my idea.
Usually, when he came home, he dismissed the guards, but he was a light sleeper so it had not given me any higher chances of escaping than when they were there. But he had never done as much coke and drank as much alcohol as I had just seen, so he actually might have been unconscious. Even if he wasn’t, it had been a long time since my last escape attempt and he might not have been expecting me to do it again.
I decided to try my luck.
I inched towards the edge of the bed, slowly, trying to make as little movement as possible, my heart pounding in my chest. I didn’t dare to even breathe. One foot hit the floor, then the other, and I tried to drag myself off of the bed. He didn’t even move. I was finally off of the bed, standing up, breathing shallowly. I turned to leave, my eyes watching him warily.
His eyes snapped open. “Where are you going?”
“To the bathroom.” I snapped, thinking my cover had been blown, edgy from the cocaine. “Do I need your permission for that?”
He grumbled and his eyes closed and his breathing relaxed again.
I walked down the hallway slowly, but stopped to go into the bathroom. I waited for a minute, then flushed the toilet and hoped the sound would cover my escape. I walked faster towards the front door, grabbed a jacket silently, then opened the door. The hinges creaked, I winced at the volume, but I could still hear the water in the toilet and I looked at the hallway. No movement. I could barely breathe and I felt like I was going to pass out. I slipped out the door, leaving it open, put on the jacket, threw up the hood, and ran as fast as I could.
I knew where I had to go, the only place where I would be relatively safe from Luca. I ran directly there, but was stunned at the amount of damage this sector had. Entire buildings had been blown apart, fires raged, smoke making everything hazy, but I don’t think I saw a single soul.
They were all in the Center Sector, rioting and fighting. Mindless violence. I stayed to the outside and kept my head down, not knowing if I would be targeted if my identity was known. I was stunned again to see the destruction hadn’t just been contained in Sector Violence, the once beautiful parts of Hell destroyed, the neon lights no longer flashed. For the first time since I had been there, it was dark, and it terrified me so much I stood still. I had never craved sunlight, true light, so much in my life. I wanted to fight through the mob of people to get to the center’s building, to go up to the top floor and just sit in front of a picture of a meadow, or a beach, or a desert.
Then I sensed him near. I don’t know how I always knew, but time and time again, I had felt his eyes on me and even when I was staying with him, I knew before he opened the door that he was close.
I ran through the crowd of people in an attempt to lose him and bolted into Sector Pride. My mind was flying, paranoia creeping into the edges and blurring my judgment. What if he catches me? All of this will be for nothing. What if I can’t find them in time? What if Michael doesn’t even live in the building anymore? So much has changed, so little of this familiar. I prayed for some good luck as I ran directly to my old building and didn’t stop until I was on his floor.
I pounded on his door. “Michael, Michael, it’s me. Let me in!” No answer. I kept screaming desperately for him to open the door, that I needed his help, that I was sorry, but nothing. My voice was hoarse and I was far beyond rational thought by the time I finally gave up and slid down the wall in defeat, tears of desperation leaking down my cheeks. “I can’t go back… I can’t.”
As I was on the verge of passing out on the floor, from the drugs, from the exhaustion, from both, I had no idea, I expected to be taken back by Luca. Of course he could find me here, back in my old building, in front of an old friend’s apartment. I gave up. There wasn’t anything else I could do, this had to be enough, I decided painfully as I slipped into some kind of deep sleep or unconsciousness.
Some time later, I faintly remember hearing, “Persephone? Oh, God, what happened to you?”
“Michael?” I murmured hopefully as I was lifted up.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me.” He shifted my weight as he opened his door. “Let’s get you inside.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“Shhhhh, Seph.” The door closed and I was set on what felt like his couch. “Me too.”
He sat down next to me and rested my head in his lap, stroking my hair. “I heard you were kidnapped awhile back, after the first bombing in Sector V, and ended up in Vincent’ sector.”
“You just went off the grid after that. Was this time on purpose too?”
“No… He wouldn’t let me leave.” I admitted quietly, expecting his judgment.
I opened my eyes to look up at him. “Luca wouldn’t let me leave his house.”
Michael looked absolutely horrified. “This whole time?”
“Yes.” I wiped a tear out of the corner of my eye before it fell.
A throat cleared across the room. “Well, are you going to tell her we told her so or do I have to?”
Michael sighed. “Lucielle, don’t start with this.”
“Just look at her. She’s a cokehead now. Completely unsurprising.”
She laughed, her sharp and cruel laugh that was unmistakeable. She didn’t look too hot either; dressed in plain clothes, no makeup to be seen, and her hair tossed up in a careless ponytail. I had always seen her in impeccably clean and pressed fancy clothes. “I think you and I have very different definitions of the word.”
Michael didn’t reply.
“Get her cleaned up, and sobered up, if you can. Persephone and I need to talk business.” She grinned.
“Can’t it wait? Just fucking look at her. She needs more rest.”
“I’m not harboring her if I’m not going to benefit from it in any way, especially if I have to face the brunt of Luca’s wrath. That’s all there is to it.”
“Fine.” I sat up and tried my best to ignore the disorientation. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do, but… I have to be able to come and go as I please.”
“Deal.” Lucielle said immediately, “But I still have things to discuss with you and I’d like you to be cleaned up first. You reek of sweat.”
Michael got me up and into his bathroom while she waited in the living room. “I’m sorry it turned out like this. I never wanted you to be hurt.” He turned around and kept his back to me when I turned on his shower, leaning against the counter.
“This turned out marvelous, didn’t it?” I was bitter. “I should have known better.”
“Do you want me to argue against that because…” He sputtered and trailed off. He had warned me, after all.
“What’s been going on? He hasn’t told me anything. What I saw when I was running…”
“Chaos.” His voice was deadly serious. “Nothing is the same anymore. People try to go on doing whatever they were doing before, but then their buildings blow up. Lucielle will probably tell you more.”
“Well then, can you get me some clothes? Forgot to pack before I made my escape.” I tried to joke, but it fell extremely flat. I did not find my experience humorous in the least.
“Yeah, sure. Take your time.” Michael moved to leave, but paused. “On second thought, don’t take your time. Lucielle is waiting, and I think it would be best if it wasn’t for very long.”
“I’m sure,” I muttered. He probably couldn’t hear me over the cascading water, but that was best. I still didn’t trust him. I couldn’t. Lucielle had to come first for him, and she always will. I didn’t blame him for that anymore, but that didn’t mean I could trust him. I had trusted him once, and I had trusted Luca, and look how that turned out.
He came back with a complete outfit; undergarments, boots, leggings, a shirt, and a black leather jacket. “I felt like you needed to look like you can kick ass and take names.”
“I already can. Toss me the towel and get out.” He did and I dried off and got dressed as quickly as I could.
When I emerged, Michael looked at me with a funny expression as I was trying to towel dry my hair as fast as possible, rubbing the fabric over it repeatedly before tossing it onto the back of one of his chairs. “What?”
“Did you… dye your hair?”
It was my turn to give him a funny expression. “What? No.”
“It looks a lot lighter.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.” I hadn’t noticed it getting any lighter but it was possible I wouldn’t and he would. He hadn’t seen me in a long time. I was already blonde; there wasn’t much lighter I could go.
Lucielle stood. “Let’s take a walk, Persephone.” She looked at Michael directly. “You can stay here.”
We went up to my old apartment in silence. It was more empty now, but the furniture was still there and covered with tarps. I went over to look out the massive window in my living room and she followed me silently, eyes flickering across the display in front of us.
Hell’s landscape was changed, scarred with signs of war. I had stared out this window long enough to pinpoint exactly which skyscrapers had been bombed and collapsed. The lights had been turned off in many buildings, making them appear like silhouettes against the rolling clouds, except when the dancing orange light of flames reflected off the glass. The colorful lights were gone, replaced with orange, red, gray, and black. It was starting to look extremely dismal.
“Sector Lust.” I nodded in its direction. I noticed it had all but been demolished.
“Ah, yes, Sector Lust… Callista did not think things through very far and it shows.” Lucielle was calm and collected, hands clasped behind her back. “I told you she was an absolute joke.”
“Did you ever think this would happen?”
She knew I meant the war in general. “Eventually, yes. We have always grasped at higher things we shouldn’t, couldn’t, have. Despite our differences, our natures are identical. We are too much alike in the ways of pride and greed. As if we could equally split and rule Hell forever. It was bound to happen.”
“You don’t sound as if you’re too upset about it.”
“Maybe it’s because I think I’m going to win, or maybe it’s because I don’t care.” She half-smiled. “Apathy is a gift. Most do not consider its true value.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“But even now, just look at us.” She motioned to us in the apartment. I thought it was odd that she would use the inclusive word. “We are still on the top, we still have power. This is mine.” She paused, thinking. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
A spark of recognition. “Luca has said that before.”
“Some English poet or something wrote it a long time ago and it became our motto.”
She turned to me, interested. “He didn’t tell you, did he, about where we came from?”
“No. I just know you weren’t ever human and you didn’t originate here.”
A slow smile spread across her features. “That’s intriguing. He basically showed you everything else… Don’t give me that surprised look. I know he took you to the Mirror in Center Sector’s building. But he was always touchy about this subject. Still is, I suppose.”
I nodded for her to go on. I had always been curious about this. Luca’s vague explanations were not enough for me.
“You know those judges you attacked before you were sent down here? Yeah, there used to be a few more.”
“What?” I had to take a moment to realize her meaning. “All of you were judges?” I took a step back and mulled this new information over. Luca, a Heavenly judge? I gave her a wild look.
“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? We were once angels, judges, whatever. It was so long ago.” She waved it off. “It was horrible, you know. Everything was a blur, just white, no sense of self, just created to serve a purpose, not to mention being androgynous. I happen to enjoy my lady parts now, along with everything else here.” She nodded out the window. “This is our kingdom.”
“So it was worth it?”
“You briefly saw what it was like up there. What do you think?”
I was silent. She was right, of course. If I thought the day to day things here were getting repetitive and boring, I couldn’t imagine what it was like up there. “So what happened to push you to fall?”
“I suppose a few of us broke away from the Hive Mind. You really have no idea how valuable having your own thoughts are until you don’t. We slowly came to the realization that we were… different, and the culmination of it ended with our fall.” I watched her eyes look up at the rolling clouds. “Now, to get down to business.”
“What do you want me to do? Because, honestly, I’ve never had any idea what the hell you guys meant.”
“We’re going to start small.” She turned to me and smiled eerily.
I turned wary. “Okay…”
“Break up with Luca.”
My stomach dropped. “What?”
Lucielle rolled her eyes at me. “Ah, yes, because nothing says you want to fix things like him making you a prisoner and you having to sneak away.”
“But I don’t…”
“You don’t what? Want to break up with him? Of course you do. You’d be stupid if you didn’t, and it’s not like you really have a choice, remember?” She was sickly sweet, voice oozing with the reminder of her victory over me. “It doesn’t have to be now. I’m sure he’s still leveling half of his sector trying to find you. You wouldn’t want to see him when he’s angry. I think even Callista is going to keep her distance from Violence once she hears the news.”
What she said terrified me. I didn’t want to see him in a rage, I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like and the fact that I was the cause was chilling. Were people going to suffer because of me? Regardless, Lucielle was right, this was my price. “Fine.”
A knock on the front door. “Lady Lucielle, sorry to interrupt but there’s news.”
Lucielle looked annoyed and sighed. “Never a moment of peace. Come in, Michael.”
Michael entered, but two other figures waited outside. “Callista’s forces attacked one of those bars in the Border District.”
“They’re spread thin and desperate, pathetic.” She spat, but looked at me and her eyes glinted with an idea. “Luca’s been training you, right? Let’s go let off some steam.”
“Let’s go.” She said with a smile still in place, but more forceful. It wasn’t just a suggestion.
Michael nudged me forward, and the figures, two big and silent men, followed us as we headed out of the apartment building. There was smoke billowing into the sky in the distance, our marker, and gunshots.
“Is there some kind of covert plan that I don’t know about? Game plan?”
Lucielle used the side eye on me. “No. We’ll be fine.”
“Well, that certainly clears things up.”
People started running away from where we were headed, screaming in fear or pain, I had no idea. I noticed that Hell was starting to seem a lot more like Hell was supposed to be. One of the guys stopped, listened for a moment, and pushed Lucielle behind him before getting shot in the chest. He fell back on her and she pushed him to the ground with ease. He’d be fine after a little while. She wasn’t worried. “Game time.”
I could see figures moving around behind the smoke cover. The other guy went right after them and Michael went around the back. I followed Lucielle as she went into an alley away from the fight.
“Why are you going this way?”
“Be quiet.” She ordered without looking at me and cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening. She started to stare at the brick wall, accessing it and searching for something. Then she looked at me, her eyes glowing with a strange and unnatural violet light and her hand elongating into wispy black claws. “Because I know the way Callista works.” She plunged her hand through the wall, crumbling it with ease, and pulled out a person. I saw their tattoo flash red as they were tossed around like a rag doll, and then pulled apart cleanly by Lucielle, who laughed and ran off to go find more of them.
I was alone in the alleyway, the person had turned to dust and I knew you could recover from some pretty intense injuries here, but I didn’t think that was one of them. Had she just destroyed a soul?
I heard a faint clicking noise and turned around in time to see a gun pointed at me by another one of Callista’s people. He seemed to know who I was, though. I could tell with the recognition that flashed in his eyes. I froze.
Time slowed noticeably. I watched as his finger tensed on the trigger and I felt like I had all the time in the world to jerk away from the gun’s trajectory. Time returned to normal. The bullet flew past me and embedded itself in the brick wall. I had moved almost a foot out of the way. He looked confused and time slowed again. I reacted without thinking, using my leg to kick the gun out of his hand, disarming him, before I flipped around him, braced my hands against his back, and sunk my nails through his shirt and into his skin like I had seen Lucielle do. He, too, turned into a pile of dust.
“I see his training did come in handy. I like the way you move.” Lucielle had returned, leaning against the wall and watching with her weird, glowy eyes.
I pointed at my eyes. “Purple? Why do they look like that?”
“I could say the same to you.”
“What?” I glanced around to find anything reflective to check my appearance. Nothing.
“Never mind that now. We have work to do.” Lucielle looked past me. “Michael might need some help. He can’t do what you do.”
“Then let’s go.”
“So, how did that feel, to tear apart someone’s soul with your bare hands? There’s no coming back from that.” She nodded to the pile of dust at my feet. “You aren’t helpless, you know.”
I glanced down at my hands, the hands of someone who had just killed another person without even having to think about it. Wisps of white light were dancing around my fingers like smoke. I had no idea what it meant and I didn’t care. I clenched my fists and looked up with a smile that could only be described as savage. “It felt like taking out the trash.”