Over the course of the next few days, weeks, who could honestly tell, Callista’s sector was utterly demolished by Vincent’s forces and looters from all the other sectors had done the rest. Residents had been taken as war prizes, destroyed, but many were trying to take refuge in other sectors, mainly Pride because it was the only other sector other than Greed and Gluttony, the enemies, that wasn’t completely destroyed. The more refugees that came in, the more actual residents got upset, and the more crimes were committed. We couldn’t even uphold the safe-zone policy because our resources were spread too thin. Pride residents were literally getting kicked out of their homes. Lucielle made Michael and I deal with what we could, which wasn’t very much. The violent refugees were destroyed by the hands of myself or Lucielle.
Lucielle was currently lounging on my couch, sipping champagne and resting her eyes, looking very queenly. I leaned against the wall and looked out the window. So few skyscrapers were still standing, most of ours, a couple of Luca’s, and the one in Center Sector. It filled me with a sense of melancholy even though I couldn’t rationalize why I cared about a few buildings.
I looked down at my hair, running my fingers through it. I had noticed it was getting lighter like Michael had said and I was actually concerned. The white strands I found kept multiplying. Was I going gray in Hell? I could have asked Lucielle about what was happening to me but didn’t want to voice my minor concerns.
“This is exhausting.” She muttered with one of her arms still covering her eyes.
I clicked my tongue in agreement with her. I was very, very tired and worn out. I sipped my champagne, she insisted I drink with her, before speaking. “Do you think they’re going to try to bring down our buildings? This one?”
“Most definitely, but Vincent won’t do anything just yet. He’s been testing the waters.”
“What will we do when he takes this building down?” I had to admit, I’d miss the view.
“Go underground, like he did.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s all kinds of underground sewers and facilities spread throughout Hell. I’m not worrying too much about it.”
“You should,” I whispered.
She opened her eyes to address me in a more direct manner. “Vincent is smart, but I’m smarter. You seem to be forgetting exactly how long I’ve been preparing for this. You shouldn’t worry. We will win.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“They told me. The judges, I mean.”
I had absolutely no idea how they could contact her. Maybe she dreamed about them, too. “It could be wishful thinking on their part, you know.”
“I’m very aware, Persephone.” She glanced towards the window and her eyes narrowed, barely noticeable, but I knew she was thinking about all the destruction, the barren wasteland of crumbled buildings and ruined afterlives. There were people starving and being attacked and taken and their homes destroyed and whatever other terrible things that were happening. This wasn’t the same place as the one I arrived in and I’m sure it was even more alarming for Lucielle.
“I dream about them,” I blurted out suddenly. I hadn’t told anyone about the dreams, not even Michael. “I hear what they’re talking about, this war, you, Vincent, me…”
The right corner of her mouth lifted, just slightly, which meant she was amused by my sudden forwardness. I had grown all too used to her slight expressions and what was meant by them. “They know.”
“That’s… a bit unsettling, really.”
“Tell me about it. They’re a pain in the ass. Believe me, I’d know.” She got up and came to the window. “Luca’s sector has been quiet lately.”
“Because there’s nothing left to destroy,” I said quietly.
“Maybe so. This is unfortunate, but I think we’ll have to convince him to side with us.”
I laughed in disbelief. “Good luck.”
“Vincent wants him. I know that.”
“He was trying to convince us before…” I trailed off. She knew what I meant.
“Luca isn’t interested, as far as I know, but he definitely isn’t interested in forming an alliance with us.”
“They don’t want me to, either. Too much of a loose cannon, they said. I think it’s better to have him at least pointed in the right direction, though. Beats the alternative.”
“Which is?” I asked her to elaborate.
“They want you to kill him, but I don’t think you have it in you.” She watched my reaction. I tried my best to not give anything away, but failed. I inhaled sharply and my eyes widened. She laughed. “That’s what I thought.”
“Fantastic.” I was sarcastic. “I hope you aren’t going to make me do it. I haven’t been in his good graces lately.”
“I’m aware. I’ve given him weeks to cool down. I’ll do it myself later, you and Michael have work to do here. There’s another apartment building that’s been overrun in the Outer District. Take the team and just eliminate all threats. We don’t have the time or resources to do anything else.”
She looked around my apartment. “Where is he, by the way? Usually, he’s hovering.”
I laughed. “He does tend to do that, doesn’t he? I think he’s sleeping.”
“Oh.” She turned away from the window but paused, thinking. “Let him sleep for awhile longer, he needs it. He isn’t as resilient as we are.”
“I’ll see you two later. I’m trusting that you’re capable of handling this current problem by yourselves. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” She opened my door and looked back at me.
“We’ll be fine, and good luck.” I gave her a small salute and she nodded and left.
It was interesting to see how much our relationship had changed from Day One. Now you could find us here, chatting and lounging in my apartment. Maybe it was just because of our circumstance, thrown together because of war, because I wouldn’t say we were friends, but she treated me as more of an equal than she did Michael. I found it… strange.
I turned back to looking out the window, seeing Lucielle walking away into the darkness by herself. I was struck by a sudden sense of fear. What if Vincent and Lennox took her? It would all be over for Michael and I. We would be treated like war captives, but I had no idea what Vincent would do to me. He had expressed interest, multiple times. I knew I couldn’t worry like that. She was strong and capable, skilled in combat in a way that I would never have suspected. I doubted Luca would hurt her, he had never shown any kind of malevolence towards her or any of his other siblings, but I also doubted that he would protect her. Who knows what this night would bring?
I waited for awhile longer, wanting Michael to get as much sleep as possible but not procrastinating until the situation in the other apartment building got worse. Lately, I had been functioning incredibly well for how little sleep I was getting, a few hours every now and then. I took as long as possible to get to Michael’s door.
“Hey,” I banged on the door. “Time to get up. We have a situation.”
I heard him grumble and moan from inside his apartment, but shuffle towards me. He opened the door, rubbing his face from exhaustion. “We always have a situation. What is it this time?”
“Apartment building overrun in Outer District.”
“What did Lucielle say about it?”
“We get the team and have to take them out.”
“Alright, let’s go get them.” He shrugged on a shirt that was hanging on a nearby chair and we departed, only to find the team, a group of various black ops trained soldiers, waiting in the lobby. They were the same people Michael was with on his so-called rescue mission for me.
“She told us to wait for you here. Are you ready?” Ethan, their captain, reported.
Ethan nodded for two of his people to hand us guns. Michael shouldered his and I did the same, only recently did I properly learn how to use a gun. “The building is this way. Plan of attack?”
“Incapacitate them, round them up, and bring them to me.”
“All of them?”
“All of them. She wants me to destroy them.”
So we ran to the Outer District of Sector Pride. I remember entering this place when I was first sent to Hell, how shoddy and run down these slums were, but they had been nearly decimated. Buildings were falling apart and the stench of human excrement mixed with rotting wood was unbearable. I coughed and covered my mouth and nose. People of Sector Pride peered at us from dark alleys and behind cracked windows. We were Lucielle’s elite, powerful, respected, and untouchable.
We found the building, the tallest in this district. We raided all twenty floors of it, systematically checking each room for violent refugees. Michael and I split up, each taking a team member with us, so we could check the floors faster. I kicked down doors and dodged bullets, destroying the ones I could as I found them. Michael had been scared of what I could do, I had seen it in his eyes. I would shoot, disarm, and destroy them all in a matter of seconds. Guns were a trivial thing, but it was much easier to tear someone apart when they’re writhing on the ground in pain instead of fighting back.
My companion was not very talkative so I talked mainly to myself over the sounds of the shootout happening a couple floors beneath us. I wasn’t too worried, my team was capable and I was the only person other than the Lords and Ladies that could destroy a soul. “I am sick and tired of these pieces of filth coming into our sector and stealing homes from the residents, you know? Lucielle needs all the allies she can get. If they had just asked, I’m sure we would have given them shelter, but scum is scum. What can we do?”
I had an off feeling about these people, but I couldn’t tell why until they were all together on the ground floor.
“Something isn’t right,” I whispered to Michael.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t they seem a little different than the other refugees from Sector Lust? I just… have a feeling.” I quit whispering and looked to Ethan. “All wearing long sleeves, isn’t that interesting? Ethan, can you pull one of them up for me. I need to see their tattoos.”
He dragged one of them, a woman, to her feet and ripped off her sleeve. Her forearm shone blue. He was alarmed and looked to the rest of his team. “The others, now.”
All of them belonged to Sector Gluttony.
“They aren’t refugees,” Michael said as I began tearing them apart as quickly as I could.
“Michael, we need to get moving as fast as we can. This must have been a distraction.”
“For what? Another attack?”
“For Lucielle. She went to talk with Luca before I woke you up.”
I looked at him sharply. Why did he even bother asking a question he already knew the answer to? “Yes.”
Michael sighed in frustration, not needing to voice what we were all feeling, but waited for me to finish. He knew by now that I was a powerful ally. We took most of Ethan’s team with us but made a few stay behind to thoroughly search the area for any more of Vincent or Lennox’s minions. We raced through crumbling streets towards Center Sector, which was full of smoke but otherwise empty.
“I think we should invest in some gas masks,” I joked wryly. “All this smoke can’t be good for our lungs.”
“Look, over there!” Michael pointed at two figures emerging from the smoke.
Lucielle appeared first, holding her arm like it was injured, with Luca trailing after her, looking around. He stopped when he saw me and I did my best to look at anything except him.
“What happened to you? Are you alright?”
Lucielle showed us her arm. There was a small black, smoking scratch on it. “I just got to Luca’s sector when Lennox and a bunch of his people attacked me. I assume the apartment building attack was a distraction?”
“Yep, all Lennox’s people as well.” Michael inspected her arm from a distance. “Does it hurt?”
She stared at him. “What do you think, Michael?”
I was just thinking about dismissing myself from their presence when I saw something move behind them, a shadow in the smoke. “Behind you!”
They turned just in time for Luca to be pulled backward. Lucielle started to move forward but Luca yelled, “Stay back!” My heart went into my throat. All we could hear was muffled fighting and arguing and occasionally the smoke would clear just enough to show two forms battling.
“Should we intervene?” Michael offered.
“No, it’s already over.” She was back to holding her arm again.
“Will that heal?”
“It’s small, so yes, eventually, but it will be quite a hindrance for some time.”
A scream came from the smoke, and then silence. I held my breath until Luca walked out, hands in the process of returning to normal. There were traces of dust still on them, though. He met my eyes for a brief moment and probably saw my worry, but he glared and looked away. “He didn’t give me much choice.” Luca murmured quietly. “I tried to make it quick.”
“I’m sorry this happened.” Lucielle sounded remarkably sincere, which made me suspicious. “I thought he had run off.”
“It bothers me how Vincent makes everything a game, and tries to use everyone as pawns, even his own friends. You know he was behind this. Lennox couldn’t hurt a fly by himself. I just…” Luca paused and exhaled. I saw his shoulders bow with a heavy weight. He had just killed Lennox. “This was unnecessary.”
“He will be greatly hurt by this. I fear for your safety.”
“I’ll be fine. He can throw whatever he wants at me. Just get back and rest.”
Lucielle nodded, then looked to Michael and me. “Let’s go.”
When I turned my back, I immediately felt his eyes land on me, burning holes in my skin. This time, the chills I was getting were not from excitement, but from fear. It was not a good feeling, being on his bad side, and I was starting to understand how everyone felt about him.
As soon as Lucielle and I were alone in my apartment again, she threw herself onto the couch with a heavy sigh. “It’s so annoying having to pretend to care about people’s feelings, but it can be a useful tool.” She grimaced noticeably. “I just don’t see how people can actually care.”
She smiled in that knowing way of hers and looked out the window. “Tonight worked out surprisingly well.”
“How do you figure?”
“I knew about the attack and figured Lennox would follow me if I left by myself. I also knew that if I got to Luca’s sector in time, I knew he would help me and be forced to kill Lennox.”
I was very surprised by this, but I knew I shouldn’t have been; she was the master of manipulation.
“He’s on our side now, whether he likes it or not, and I hardly had to talk to him. Flawless, if I do say so myself, though I didn’t plan on actually getting injured. I didn’t move out of the way fast enough.” She looked down at her arm. “Stings.”
“I’ll get some bandages.” I went to the bathroom where a kit was. “You know, for a brief second, I thought you actually meant those things.”
“You greatly underestimate me, but that’s fine.” She chuckled to herself. “Vincent did, too, and look where he is now; ally-less and cornered. I have you and I have Luca. He has nowhere to run and no more powerful friends.”
When I returned, she handed me her arm and didn’t even flinch when I disinfected it. I wrapped it in gauze carefully. “So, it all worked out according to your plan?”
“Of course, impeccably. Vincent will make his move soon, I know it. The men always let their feelings influence their decisions.” She rolled her eyes. “Vincent was always like Luca in that aspect, but Lennox wasn’t.”
“I never really knew Lennox,” I admitted, packing things away in the medical kit. “He didn’t seem very threatening.”
Lucielle pushed air out of her lungs as she looked away from the window for once and back at me. “He wasn’t threatening but he was powerful in his own right, when he chose to be. He wouldn’t have needed to be disposed of if he hadn’t been under Vincent’s thumb, but there wasn’t anything I could do. He always had been submissive, a follower, and Vincent seized the opportunity to use him.” She almost sounded regretful; it was probably the closest she could get to actually feeling that. She gave me a pointed look when she noticed me scrutinizing her. “Vincent considered him a friend. They could have even been lovers, though I was never sure. I do not like to pry in romantic affairs. Regardless of the nature of their relationship, Vincent will be clouded with emotion and think his hand will be forced.”
“Will we be ready?”
The look in her eyes was the answer.
* * *
I went to sleep when I found the time and dreamt of the judges, like usual. The nature of these dreams had toned down since my inner turmoil had after I escaped and quit using drugs. They were no longer nightmares and I didn’t wake up screaming anymore. The exercise, the freedom, and the sense of purpose helped with it, or maybe it was because I was finally doing what they wanted. I didn’t remember anything specific from the dream, but woke up with a phrase stuck in my head.
“She who walks the floors of Hell finds the key to the gates of her own Heaven, buried there like a seed.”
I had no idea what it actually meant or if it was significant in any way, but there was a war going on and I was too busy to be doing anything other than helping out.
The bombings increased in frequency, and eventually we couldn’t prevent them anymore. Lucielle wanted us to save our strength and her resources. She did occasionally send us out to plant bombs in the remaining structures in Sector Greed. I asked her why once, thinking it some sort of intricate and well-thought-out strategy, but she laughed and told me it was because she thought it was funny to destroy what little Vincent had left. I had a feeling she was partially lying, she did take pleasure in destroying his sector as revenge, but there had to be a reason.
I was forgetting that she was a ruler of Hell, a fallen judge, and not just my boss, or a friend. She did things simply only when they suited, amused, and benefitted her. Every action of hers was a well-calculated one. She thought before she spoke, plotted before she set her thoughts into motion. I admired her greatly for it.
She kissed me, once.
It was during one of the many times we talked in my apartment while Michael slept in his to recuperate. Those had always been private times for us, confessions and ideas and even the occasional joke shared between us. That time had been no different, exchanging words and long pauses while we looked out over Hell and shared the couch in my living room. She turned to look at me and I looked at her. She leaned in. The light pressure of her lips fell against mine for a brief moment, both of our eyes wide open; mine in shock and hers watching. She leaned back to gauge my reaction from a distance, her cool exterior not dropping even then. The kiss was no exception to any of the other things she did, planned and calculated.
I was stunned because it was different to the others I had experienced here: kisses shared with Fia were all for show, and here we had no audience, and kisses shared with Luca were fire and passion, emotions like love and hate too muddled to tell each other apart. Different was the only way I could describe something as the relationship I had with Lucielle, always testing the lines between superior and subordinate, stranger and friend. Nothing could be determined from her apathetic exoskeleton she wore like armor. In all fairness, it probably wasn’t an exoskeleton. That was just how Lucielle was, even deep down.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why not?” She replied.
Moving cautiously toward her on the couch, I kissed her back. I didn’t know her intentions with me and didn’t care. What we did that night didn’t seem to change anything between us, because it wasn’t supposed to. I could not realistically expect anything out of Lucielle other than her cool indifference but the kisses she pressed into my skin and the fingers she brushed down the back of my thigh to my knee made that completely fine.
Meanwhile, the forces of Sector Greed, along with the few people from Gluttony that hadn’t gone into hiding, had amassed at our doorstep and were ready to make their move at any time, but we had the forces of Pride, Violence, and those from Lust that wanted vengeance patrolling our borders. Michael and I were so busy we hadn’t even been sleeping at home.
“It feels like it’s been a week since I showered and a month since I last slept.” Michael sat on a window ledge with me and a sniper rifle in his arms. We had been camping in the Border District in one of the taller buildings, watching the entrance to the Center Sector. I had studied the walls and practically every inch of this empty room; a broken metal bed frame and a shredded mattress were the only other things accompanying us. Stakeouts were incredibly boring.
“Yeah, you’re starting to smell.” I joked. “Hey, I have a question I’ve been wanting to ask someone since I’ve got here, I just now remembered.”
“Oh? This should be good. Shoot.”
“Okay, so you know how all those famous ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians? They weren’t Christian so do you think they got sent here? Are they still here? How have they adapted to the changing times?”
“You mean like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras?”
Michael turned pensive before answering. “Honestly, I don’t know if they’re even here. This isn’t just Christianity’s Hell. I think we call it Hell just to simplify things, or mainly because that’s the current religious fad and has been for ages. It’s the place bad people go when they die, for every religion, so technically this isn’t religion-based at all. That’s what I’ve been told. So if they are here, they wouldn’t have been sent because Christianity wasn’t popular back then, you know what I’m saying?”
“But if they are here somewhere, it’s because they killed someone or a plethora of other evil acts.” Michael turned to the window again and shifted his gun. I wondered if he had killed when he was alive, why he was sent here. “I don’t know how you’d find them, though. Hell is too vast to go on a blind search for people like that, and you know they wouldn’t be the same. We’ve all adapted to the changing times. You think they had skyscrapers back then?”
“I know.” I murmured and continued observing him. I had been watching him almost fall asleep for quite a long time, eyes fluttering closed, head slowly falling against his chest, only to be jerked up suddenly. I was trying to let him sleep but he was stubborn, to say the least. “Jesus Christ, Michael, just go to sleep. I’ll keep watch.”
“I can’t.” He looked like he wanted to accept.
I knew he needed to. “Put down the gun and come here.” I let him rest his head in my lap and stroked his hair lightly. “You need your rest.”
His eyes fluttered closed and I felt his muscles try to relax. “And you don’t, Seph?”
“I do, but…”
“Not as much as me?”
I nodded. I also didn’t want to sleep if I was just going to dream about the judges arguing over me. Michael was asleep in no time in my lap and I just looked out the window. All was quiet like I knew it would be. They weren’t going to attack us right now.
I heard footsteps approaching from the stairwell, calm and unhurried. It used to be the click of heels but only practical footwear was allowed now. Lucielle appeared in the doorway. I looked down at Michael as a way to tell her to be quiet.
“I feel terrible about this. He’s so exhausted. I wish he could sleep for as long as he needed.”
Her usually hard expression softened. “He cares for you quite a bit, you know. The way he pined for you when you were away.” She rolled her eyes.
I glanced down at him to see if he was still soundly asleep. “I care for him as a friend but nothing more, I’m sure he knows that.”
“He’s painfully aware.” She chuckled and gazed at him. “Unrequited love amuses me.”
I knew Michael had romantic feelings for me and I had known for awhile. There was nothing I could do about that and he respected me enough to not push me, unlike many other men. He knew I wouldn’t tolerate that.
“I’m sure it does.” I was completely unsurprised by her statement. She was a very emotionally removed person, a sociopath, I guess, but it was surprisingly refreshing how terrible and honest she was. It was becoming endearing, in a messed up way. “Have you ever cared about something? I’m asking in a curious, not malicious way.”
“I wouldn’t care regardless of your intentions.” She paused, giving my question some thought. “I would say no, but I cared about the others once. We were all the same, when we first fell and gained these forms, these identities.” She clenched her fist. “It was very disorienting and confusing at first, but those days have long since passed. All of us have changed during our time here, shaped by different desires and I don’t like what the others have turned into.”
“You and Michael should go home. You won’t have one very soon.”
I looked sharply at her. “What?”
“I told you it was only a matter of time until they took down our building. I’ve intercepted some plans.”
Lucielle rolled her eyes. “With spies, Persephone, how else?”
“Why don’t you ever send Michael and I for those missions? Seems a lot more interesting than watching the border. The boredom makes me want to blow my brains out.”
“That would be a waste of ammunition.”
“I don’t send the two of you on those missions for a variety of reasons. Both of you are valuable assets to me that I’d hate to see compromised. You are untrained in the ways of stealth and subterfuge and there isn’t enough time for the training. Also, the two of you are very well-known. Do you really think people would not recognize you if they saw your faces?”
“You have a point.”
I heard a few sets of footsteps climbing the stairs behind Lucielle. “Your replacements are here.”
I shook Michael awake. “Come on, let’s go home and get you that shower.”
He groaned and muttered, “Five more minutes.”
Lucielle raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you’d like to stay and keep watching the border--impeccable job you’re doing, by the way--be my guest.”
His eyes snapped open and he jumped up so quickly I couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m sorry, Lady Lucielle. It won’t happen again.” He looked at me suspiciously. “This evil temptress deceived me into sleep, I swear.”
I laughed again. “The fault is mine, that’s true.”
Even Lucielle was smiling with amusement. “Good thing Persephone can pick up your slack, Michael. Go home.”
One of our replacements spoke. “Lady Lucielle, I hate to interrupt but there’s a fire that broke out in the business district.”
She turned, just barely, as an acknowledgment of what they said. “Is anyone taking care of it? Some independent thought would be nice for once. I shouldn’t have to tell you to take the initiative.”
“My apologies, but everyone is busy with other tasks.”
Her shoulders heaved a massive sigh and she looked at us expectantly.
“We’ll handle it on the way home,” I offered. Michael gave a barely audible sigh beside me and I jabbed him in the ribs with my elbow.
Michael handed his sniper rifle over to one of the soldiers and complained about how I volunteered us the entire way to the business district, which was really on the way back to our building. “She was going to let us go to sleep.”
“She was about to tell us to go do this anyways. We’ll be fine for another hour, tops.”
“You will be, Miss Doesn’t-Need-Sleep-At-All.”
“Hey, I was planning on a shower and going to bed, too. Let’s just help her with this. The sooner this is all over, the better.”
When we got there, a couple people were already on the scene and either it had been tamed down or wasn’t even bad in the first place. We were handed fire extinguishers and were put to work.
Michael waved his around and pointed at the fire. “Behold, the great fires of Hell!”“Hilarious, Michael.” I rolled my eyes and sprayed at the fire. “I thought you wanted to go to sleep. Start spraying.”