I felt the floor beneath my feet shift and the frame of the building groaned under the pressure as support beams snapped. I was running out of time. I ran into my closet and threw a bunch of clothes into my bag in a hurry. When I re-entered the living room, the floor shifted more violently and I stumbled. Metal screeched somewhere in the building, sounding like a scream. The glass in the massive window cracked, splintering and spreading rapidly. I had wanted to take in the view one last time but it was dark and fragmented.
The front door burst open, kicked in. “Persephone, come on! We need to get out of here!” Michael helped me up as I grabbed the bag I had dropped. Together, we raced down the flights of stairs, knowing the elevator wasn’t working. The lights in the stairwell went out and we plunged into complete darkness. I could hear people screaming and pleading for help every floor we passed but there was no time to save them. They would survive a building collapse, but they would be stuck under the rubble. I pushed the thought out of my mind. The walls were cracking and debris was falling around us by the time we reached the lobby where Ethan was waiting for us, surrounded by flame and smoke.
“Where is she?” Michael coughed, holding his hand to his mouth.
“In the bunker. I was told to wait for you and lead you to it. Let’s go. The building is about to come down any minute.” He led us out and we broke into a full sprint away from the building, avoiding large chunks of cement and steel beams falling from the sky. Some of the people who were lucky enough to escape the complex were unlucky enough to be crushed.
“Don’t look back, Seph!” Michael yelled over the noise, like a series of bombs going off. We were going to be deafened for some time after this.
We ran all the way to the outer district before Ethan pulled us into an abandoned building. I ignored Michael’s advice just then, and looked back to see our apartment building finally collapse in a fiery explosion of smoke, glass, and concrete. A large cloud of dirt and dust expanded from the scene, racing towards us at an alarming rate. I was pulled into the building by Michael just in time to be thrown to the ground by the force and glass rain down on me. I lied there for awhile, unable to move from the shock.
This time, it was Ethan that pulled me up. who looked unharmed for the most part, but he hadn’t stuck around outside like I had. Michael was still on the ground, face down, covered in cuts and bloodied glass. He had been impaled with part of a metal window frame. Ethan braced his foot on Michael’s back and yanked it out. I grimaced as Michael writhed in pain and Ethan dragged him by the arm across the floor and motioned for me to follow. I grabbed my bag and shook the glass off of it and followed Ethan down the set of stairs in the corner of the room, into a basement with a heavy metal door. He knocked in some weird pattern that I couldn’t hear and it was opened immediately.
We were taken in by people I didn’t recognize and had no choice but to trust. Michael was taken away and I could see they were all talking, asking questions, maybe, but all I could hear was almost unbearable ringing in my ears. Ethan joined his other team members, which gave me some comfort that Michael and I hadn’t been lured into some enemy compound, but I was led further into a sectioned-off office. I stopped short when I remembered my first encounter with Luca in his office, me pressed against his desk.
Over this desk, Lucielle turned around to face me in a swivel chair, raising an eyebrow when she saw my appearance, and tried to speak to me.
I pointed to my ear and shook my head. “I can’t hear anything,” I tried to say, which hopefully wasn’t too loud. I dropped my bag on the ground.
She pointed to the mirror hanging on the wall and I walked over to it to take a look. I just started to laugh at how horrible I looked. Pieces of glass adorned my hair and were stuck in my cheeks. I was surprised that I couldn’t feel the ones piercing my skin and picked them off, then sat down in a chair in front of her desk. She got me a glass of water and I just leaned back and rested my eyes, which must have been for awhile because I woke up with my hearing returned, voices murmuring low behind me.
“Well, are you, is everyone, okay? I saw the building come down from my sector and I knew.” Unmistakably Luca.
Lucielle replied. “We’re fine, clearly. I had made preparations in case it happened.”
“You could have prevented it if you wanted.”
“I’m well aware, but I was getting sick of the place. You know how changeable I am, plus, it saved a lot of resources instead of knocking it down myself.” She paused for several moments. “We know you’re awake, Persephone. There’s no need to eavesdrop.”
I stood and turned to see her standing with Luca in front of the doorway, who bristled at the sight of me. “What is he doing here? I thought this place was supposed to be safe.”
“It is a safe place. He is our ally, you know.”
“You look like shit,” Luca remarked, none too apologetically.
I ignored both of their comments as I shouldered my bag and made a point of avoiding looking into the mirror again. “How’s Michael doing? Is he alright?” I made sure to act extremely worried about him, for Luca’s benefit.
She paused, smiling knowingly before indulging me. The illuminated clipboard appeared in Lucielle’s hands and she slid her finger across it, going through its contents. “He’s made a full recovery and is sleeping soundly in your room. You don’t mind sharing one with him, do you? The compound is only so big.”
Bless her, she knew exactly what I was doing and didn’t seem to mind helping me out. This was the kind of emotional manipulation she enjoyed and it was beginning to become a bad habit of mine as well, though I was a decent enough person to refrain from using it on Michael. Luca, on the other hand, was all too worthy of it. I had to fight extremely hard not to smile, even as I saw Luca stiffen and his nostrils flare slightly. “I don’t mind at all. I’ve been practically living with him as it is. Care to give me directions? From what I saw, this is a pretty huge complex.”
She glanced back at her clipboard. “Seems like Ethan is free right now as well. Good God, what’s with all my people having free time?”
“It won’t happen again, I’m sure. You’ll dream up different ways to keep us busy.” I laughed, knowing she would do exactly that.
Luca looked between us, like he was trying to figure something out. Did he suspect us? My heart rate sped up.
Ethan appeared in the doorway, looking extremely surprised to see Luca standing here with the two of us. He had taken the time to shower and put on some casual clothes. I had only seen him in fully body uniform and helmet, dirt and grime included, and was mildly surprised to see how attractive he was, all damp curly hair and a tight white t-shirt that showed exactly how melanin-filled his skin was. He bowed slightly. “Lady Lucielle, Lord Luca.”
“Can you show Persephone to her room or give her a tour of the place? Whichever she prefers, of course.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Luca didn’t seem too happy about Ethan’s choice of words, but I ignored him. “Room first, please. I need a shower. I don’t even want to know what I look like.” I could feel the grime covering me and tried my best not to think about it.
Lucielle moved past me and Luca had no choice but to follow. I left with Ethan, keeping my head down and avoiding direct eye contact with everyone that we passed. It was all cement walls, horrible fluorescent lighting, hallways leading to God knows where, and heavy metal doors.
“Yeah. It’s completely functional by itself, with dorms, kitchen, mess hall, rec rooms, communal bathrooms…”
“I have to shower in a communal bathroom?” I’m sure I sounded slightly horrified. I liked my privacy and other people tended to be very unsanitary.
“No. You, Michael, Lucielle, and my team all have different suites with private bathrooms.”
“That’s certainly good news.” I sighed. “So how many people are here?”
“Around 200 or so.”
“Is it just anyone who made it or what?”
“They were chosen.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Lucielle does like to control most things.”
“It was explained to me as everyone here has their purpose.”
“That sounds exactly like her.” I chuckled. “Are we there yet?”
We had been twisting through hallways and various rooms and I was hopelessly lost. It was like a maze down here, which was a very unpleasant thought.
“Yep. This hallway is where all of our suites are. Lucielle’s is the very last at the end of the hall and yours is to the right of it.” He pointed and unlocked his door. “Have fun with that shower.”
“It’s much needed.” The door in front of me had a keypad just like my old apartment. I pressed my hand to it and it opened, the lights turning on automatically. I braced myself for more harsh lighting and a metal cot but was pleasantly surprised by a full furnished suite approximately the size of my previous home. It was carpeted and painted, comfortable looking.
I wandered down the hallway, past a closed door and a bathroom, and found a bedroom. I threw my bag onto the bed and turned on the light in the bathroom. There was a damp towel on the ground and traces of blood in the shower, which had to have been Michael’s doing. I threw the towel into our laundry room and got a fresh one before hopping in the shower. I stood in the hot water for a long time, watching the blood and dirt swirl down the drain. Showers had always been a source of healing for me.
Michael’s door was still closed even after I got out of the shower and snuck to my bedroom in a towel to change. I had no idea what to do after that, trying and failing to sleep on my bed, then trying to sit on the couch and failing at that too. I found myself knocking on Ethan’s door.
“I’m restless. Still up for that tour?”
What I didn’t know was that I was going to have to get accustomed to that restlessness. Lucielle kept us down here for what felt like an eternity and even though Michael, Ethan, and I tried to distract ourselves any way we could, with vigorous exercise at the gym and various other recreational activities. I never had time to do this when I was alive and the boys thoroughly enjoyed teaching me the ropes for different sports, like basketball, tennis, and bowling. As much fun as it was, I felt caged.
My hair was driving me insane as well, the length not functional for dangerous missions and it was still being taken over by white hairs. I made an impulsive decision when my insomnia was keeping me up and later, Michael found me in the bathroom with scissors and locks of white-blonde on the floor, staring at the reflection of my choppy, shoulder-length bob. He was silent at first, taking it in and then taking a step towards me, touching a short lock softly and tucking it behind my ear. “I like it.”
More time passed, slipping away like the strands of my hair as I had cut them.
Absolutely no one could leave except for Luca. I would always pass by Lucielle’s office and see her conversing, and sometimes even arguing, with him. When we asked about why we were being held down here, she would say that she was biding her time until the optimal moment to strike.
I told her keeping me here was a breach of the agreement we made, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Persephone, I know this seems very unfair to you and how Luca-esque this whole situation is. I do, really. But we have to stay down here.” We were sitting on a couch in her suite, a bottle of champagne between us. I visited her every so often, despite my anger, when everyone was asleep. She ran her fingers through my hair, trying to get used to its new length.
“I feel like I’m going insane. I want out.”
“At least I’m not trying to say I’m doing this to protect you.” She paused. “Was that a low blow? Well, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need protection and we both know that. What I’m trying to say is that this is all part of the plan. There’s a reason behind this…”
“There’s always a reason behind everything you do!” I snapped. “My hair is going white. Does that happen from stress down here? I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t…”
I was cut off by the suddenness of her lips on my neck. “We are weathering a storm that is being raged by Vincent. He will tire his forces out, become confident that he was taken over, and we will strike. That is how we will win.”
“It’s not just about winning, Lucielle.” I sighed into her embrace. “I am not something that fairs well in captivity.”
“So I’ve realized. If you’re so restless, even after all that exercise with those boys, I could help you find a release, by other means.” She held my hair back so she could kiss my shoulder.
I took her up on that offer. The beauty of this was no one had to know and it never had to mean anything. It was uncomplicated and, even better, it helped. I had already realized she wasn’t just skilled in manipulation, stealth, combat, and strategy.
Afterward, she started looking at me, tracing the vertebrae that stuck out of my back as I sat up in her bed. “What is it, Lucielle?”
“I… value your companionship, you know.”
I looked back at her, a smile spreading across my face, and I laughed. “You made that as impersonal-sounding as it could possibly be, considering we’re both naked in your bed.”
She rewarded me with a wry but languid grin. “I try.”
I let myself fall back into the pillows and rolled to my side to face her, my fingertips touching her pale shoulder softly. “I’m well aware of that.”
“There has never been another soul like you, with your power, your determination, your beauty, and your heart.” She paused, her eyes going distant and then refocusing. “I saw your life, Persephone. You were barely qualified to be damned. You were right on the line and they chose to send you down here. Most cases like yours, they would keep you in Heaven. I always found that interesting about you. Some characteristics of yours have become more noticeable since then, so maybe…”
“I don’t want you to think I’m some puzzle. I was just sent here. I have no other explanations.”
She remained quiet and I left shortly after, knowing that me staying with her for longer than an hour or so would raise suspicion. I crept back into my place with Michael and went to sleep. I decided to try my luck the next day and ask Lucielle if I could leave, even for ten minutes, and I was shot down.
Some valued companion I was.
I was getting cabin fever and a lot of other people were as well. Despite how nice my sleeping quarters were, the walls were getting cramped and the air was getting stale. The worst part about it was this feeling of dread, like something bad was going to happen, that had been growing in my stomach for awhile now and how we were just sitting here doing absolutely nothing. I started to devise a plan to escape, which I eventually told Michael about.
I was sitting on the couch in our suite and Michael was at the mini bar. I had noticed his hands had started shaking lately, before our apartment building collapsed, and he had started drinking more, which seemed to help the shaking.
“I’m planning on leaving soon.” I tried to casually fill the silence.
He turned to me, eyes slightly squinted. “What do you mean?”
“Like, I’m going to escape.”
“That’s… a terrible idea.”
“Maybe so, but if I can escape two Lords of Hell, I can escape Lucielle. What’s she going to do? Kill me? I don’t think so.”
“Vincent could be right outside our doorstep for all we know.”
“We don’t know so I’m still leaving. I’m just going to walk around, nothing special. I’ve just been so bored here. You can come if you want.”
“I’ll be fine here, not tempting Lucielle’s hand. I’m replaceable, you aren’t.”
“You’re not replaceable. Lucielle likes you.”
“Like is a very strong word for Lucielle.”
“I know. I mean that she tolerates you better than other people. I don’t think she would have made you her second if she hated you.” I watched him take a shaky drink. He was probably worried about me now. “That reminds me, how did you become her second? You haven’t really been here that long, relatively speaking. You must have climbed the ranks fast.”
“That’s a long and complicated story that I don’t want to get into right now.”
“When are you leaving and why did you even tell me in the first place? I’m obligated to tell Lucielle immediately.”
“You’re my confidant and you like me more than Lucielle so I trust your judgment.” I got up and put on my boots. I reached to open the door but paused when my hand touched the knob. “I guess I’ll go now. I shouldn’t be gone very long but on the off chance that something bad happens, you’ll have my back, won’t you?”
Michael had set his drink down and approached me. “Of course, Seph.”
I hugged him impulsively. The feeling that something bad was about to happen was unbearable but staying there even more so. “See you on the other side, Michael.” I winked and left in a hurry, walking at a fast pace through memorized corridors. Lucielle’s office was dark and empty.
At the exit, there were two guards. I hadn’t really thought about how to deal with them but they nodded their heads at me out of respect and acknowledgment. “Hello, Persephone.”
“Hey, uh, I need to leave.”
They stiffened. “I was under the impression no one was allowed to leave.”
“Well, yeah, but Lucielle needs me to do this covert thing and I’m not really allowed to tell anyone.” I was fully prepared to bash their heads into the wall if they tried to stop me.
“Oh, sounds good. See you later, Persephone. Just knock and we’ll let you in.” They opened the heavy door.
That was easier than I thought it would be. I jogged up the stairs and ran outside. “Ah, the toxic air smells so sweet. Free at last!”
I was intrigued to see what had happened to this sector while we were in hiding. All was quiet, which could have been a good or bad thing. I decided to play it safe and use cover, slowly moving from building to building. Even after several minutes I saw no one. Where were they? Taken or destroyed like those of Sector Lust? I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and ducked immediately.
A man with a gun was dragging a girl by her hair. She was shrieking, crying out in pain, and I was readying myself to spring forward but I restrained myself when the man started talking. “Shut your mouth. Lord Vincent is going to inspect you with the others.”
I decided to follow them, making sure to stay silent and out of sight. He dragged her down several streets until coming across around twenty people bound and lined up. He threw her to the ground next to them. “You run and we’ll catch you. This is the last one. You can come check them out now.”
Figures emerged out of the shadows and I recognized Vincent and Margot immediately, but a few others were probably just disposable henchmen. He looked over them and pointed out a few, sorting them and asking Margot’s opinion.
“We seem to be running out of good product. These few seem to be the last.”
Vincent stroked his face, frowning. “I do agree with you. Alright, take those ones back to my sector and I’ll take care of the rest. New arrivals will be coming tonight and I’ll be there for the selection. We can’t have just anyone spending eternity in my kingdom.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course Vincent thought he had already won the war, that all of this was his. I had been wondering how souls were being introduced to this place, or if they were even coming at all. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Vincent adopted the position.
Margot and a few henchmen took the people Vincent wanted and disappeared into the darkness while Vincent stayed with the rest. He destroyed them one by one. I quit watching and crouched below the window I had been looking out of. My cabin fever and curiosity had dissipated but now I was scared. If I got caught out here by them, it would be over for me. I’d rather have a second death than be a slave but knowing Vincent, he wouldn’t let that happen. I waited until all was quiet before peeking back out the window again, only to see Vincent smiling down at me from outside.
“Shit.” I jumped and fell backward. I glanced towards the exit but some of the henchmen came through the door and blocked my path.
“Persephone, Persephone, Persephone…” Vincent shook his head and laughed. “You think you were being sneaky? I could sense you as soon as you came near. You know so little about us, about this place, about yourself, even after all this time.”
“So I’ve heard. Let me just leave and go to the library and do my homework. I’ll be on my way.”
“You can come quietly, or you can put up a fight. Lady’s choice.” He grinned.
My hands started glowing and I looked at him indignantly.
“I didn’t think so.” He nodded to his guards. “Boys, take her.”
They looked more than slightly hesitant. “But Lord Vincent, you know she can…”
“I know. What do I pay you for?”
“You don’t pay us.”
“Well, I don’t kill you, either, even though I often find myself very tempted. So, do your job.”
I assessed my situation quickly. I had to be on the defensive. There were three huge men blocking my escape through the only door and Vincent blocking the only window. If the time thing kicked in, I could take them out without issue, and then make a break for the compound. Vincent wouldn’t come down there by himself.
The first man charged at me, gun pointed. I disarmed him and used his body as a shield while the second one shot at me. Riddled with fresh gunshot wounds, I shoved the first man into the second as I ripped him apart and used his gun to shoot the third. It took less than a second to make sure they wouldn’t be helping Vincent ever again. I made a break for the door and planned on running the entire way back to the compound but after a few steps outside, I heard and felt a gunshot in my leg. I fell into the gravel.
“It’s about time you showed back up,” Vincent sighed.
“Sorry, I was busy.” It was Margot.
Clutching my calf, I turned around to see her put her handgun back in her thigh holster. Voice strained through the pain, I asked, “You shot me?”
She shrugged. “Nothing personal.”
“It’s so hard to find good help nowadays. Look at them.” He pointed to the ash piles in the building. “I have to say, you are a fairly capable woman, Persephone.”
“Thanks, means a lot.” I grimaced and looked down at my leg. The bullet went right through me and I could feel the hole closing itself, muscles stitching themselves back together.
“But Margot is also a capable woman.” Vincent gave her a stern look. “Don’t fail me. If you do, you’ll probably die, by her hand or mine.”
“Tough boss, huh?” I joked and struggled to get to my feet. I just looked up when I felt her elbow connect with my back. Pain exploded; most likely a broken rib. I jerked away just in time to dodge a knee to where my face had been. “Holy shit, Margot. Does he make you take steroids, too? Drugs are bad.”
“I work out. Pilates and stuff, you know?” She watched my foot movement, trying to see where I’d go next.
“I’m sure.” I knew she must have had advanced training, way more than I did. My mysterious powers kicked in, hands glowing.
“I’d advise you not to let her touch you, Margot. You know what happens.” Vincent called, safely behind Margot.
“Why don’t you come fight your own battles, Vincent?”
“All in good time, darling, all in good time.”
Him calling me a pet name made me a little nauseous, but Margot tried to strike me again. I wouldn’t have been able to lean out of the way without time slowing for me. Her speed was amazing but I was only slightly faster and with her skill, I wasn’t able to miss all of the hits. I was getting battered and bruised beyond belief, hardly able to go on the offensive and land any hits of my own.
“You trained under Luca and Lucielle and this is all you have to show for it, speed and glowing hands?”
“Glowing hands that can kill you.” I flashed her a smile.
“So far, I’m not too impressed.”
I was getting tired and I was getting angry. I had been shot and already fought three men and Margot was relentless. Lucielle hadn’t taught me much, only some words of advice about the art of stealth, and Ethan had taught me how to use a gun properly, but Luca taught me how to fight dirty. The only way I was going to catch Margot off guard was if I left her an opening and made my move when she made hers.
I blocked a hit directed to my face and then I stumbled, pretending to be in pain from my leg. I didn’t have to pretend that hard. As I received a very hard kick to the side and a few more broken ribs, I dove towards her, knocking her down into the gravel and ripping her gun from her thigh holster. I stood back up, only hunching over a little, and pointed the handgun directly at her.
She had no place to go, realizing I had just bested her. She crawled backward until she hit a wall, but her legs tensed and I knew she wasn’t about to lose easily. I shot her in the chest twice, tucked the gun into the waistband of my jeans while she was immobilized, and picked her up by the throat, sliding her up the crumbling brick. The act was a lot harder than it should have been; she had really done a number on me. She was struggling to breathe, but wasn’t completely gone yet.
“Your speed… Are you like me?” I asked quietly.
She coughed, hacking blood onto my face. I didn’t even flinch. She glanced behind me, presumably at Vincent. “No, you’re like them.”