“She has returned!”
Those ringing words were first I heard as I entered the Pale, screamed not in horror, but in joy. Everything was mild, pleasant, and muddled. Joy felt like a foreign concept to me, like I had only learned about it, never felt it.
The judges huddled around me, no longer too bright to see, but like my dreams; nearly translucent skin, billowing white robes, and long white hair. The light seemed to pass through them. I looked down at my hands, faintly surprised to see they were the same.
“What is going on?” My voice didn’t sound like my own. “Are Lucielle, Michael, and Luca okay? Did I save them?”
They seemed uneasy and concerned about my later questions.
“Yes, you saved them.”
“They will be fine.”
A wave of relief washed over me, faintly. That brought me to ask another question, one that I already knew the answer to. “What am I?”
All the voices at once answered me. “You are one of the Fallen, the first. You disobeyed and fell to Earth and the Five watched you live your human life and became jealous, deciding to fall as well. Because of their willingness to fall, we made them fall further, beneath the crust of the earth, to the realm of the evil souls. With them ruling, we foresaw the balance in Hell tipping, crumbling, and you were repurposed because you are the key. You have been reincarnated lifetime after lifetime as we patiently waited until one of your reincarnations was eligible for damnation, so we could send you to Hell to complete the prophecy and restore the balance. Once it was completed, you regained your status and ascended. We raised you from Hell.”
Brief flashes of my past lives surfaced in my memory, only for a moment, and slipped away. They were always short, no afterlife in which to take a brief reprieve. I was faintly surprised to see that I had spent them as male, female, and varying degrees between, but the judges had no gender until they fell. I was too good in life? Back to the human world I went, with no knowledge of my true self that had been lost in my first human lifetime. “Why was it not obvious that I was one of you when I first arrived?”
“It took time for you to regain your power: the mortal lives drained much of it and being in Hell did not help it further. It steals the power of light, slowly siphoning it away from you. It should have been clear early on, from your attack on us before you fell, your inability to be marked, and your immunity to Hell’s disease. That, of course, does not include the fairly obvious sign as you regained your strength: your ability to destroy a human soul.”
I pondered over this information, all seeming plausible. “What am I to do now?”
“Your purpose is at it always was, if you remember it. You should.”
I did. It was to watch over human souls, judge them, sort them, and either damn them or welcome them to Heaven. All overseeing in this pale afterlife, clouds, mist, and fog. I did as I was told, because that’s what I remembered. I was not allowed in Heaven, only the Pale. We belonged to the Pale and we were part of it.
The Persephone Flemming of my previous life drifted away as time went on, what felt like an eternity. She felt like a fleeting dream, some other world where that couldn’t possibly have happened. A Heavenly Judge, turned mortal and sent to Hell? That couldn’t be. I was losing my sense of self. I became we. We served a purpose and nothing else. We were robotic in nature, nothing more, nothing less.
We observed the comings and goings of mortals in their lives and afterlives. Their existence seemed ultimately insignificant, but odd, intriguing, and different from us. To love the sunshine, to feel pain, to fear death, how strange and frivolous it all was. Everything was observed from a very distant haze, like looking through misty glasses, except everything was crystal clear.
Only when the groups of mortals were damned to Hell that this entity ever felt distant twinges of memories, something that was confusing and private. How could this entity relate to them and remember what longing and envy felt like? Why was this remembrance possible?
This separate entity, this form, was sent away from the rest. Something distant that mirrored confusion surfaced. Why did we… why did I get sent away? Like a rubber band, I snapped back into something closer to what I once was. I was different from them, whole even when separate, and curious.
What were they doing? This was highly unlike all the previous patterns they had exhibited. Privacy was a foreign concept, meaningless, here.
We were all connected, so I listened to what they were saying, even though they expected me to follow orders, and watched from their perspective. They were discussing, something that rarely ever happened because they usually thought as one, circled around some kind of viewing portal that I had never seen before. Perhaps they were keeping it from me, though I wasn’t sure why.
“He wasn’t supposed to remain.”
“Lucielle can handle him. He has no desire to rule singularly.”
“But he could, eventually!”
“The prophecy still worked out better than we could have hoped. Callista, Lennox, and Vincent, all of them are gone, and many, many souls too.”
“And the first returned to us.”
“The first was the one to initiate the Fall… Too powerful, dangerous, and revolutionary to be left in Hell.”
I could see they were gazing upon Hell from an aerial view, some buildings still piles of rubble, but a few new skyscrapers and other structures. The walls separating the different sectors had been knocked down. Tiny specs moved through the pattern of streets, damned souls. The memory of Hell being very empty surfaced.
“Yes, all according to plan.”
“It was a great purge.”
“Maybe now they will actually punish the souls we send.”
“Doubtful. You remember when they remodeled the place after Dante Alighieri’s works were published, don’t you? That certainly didn’t last long. They grew bored of it. There’s nothing we can do about that except hope.”
The seeing mirror zoomed in on Lucielle and Luca, who looked like they were bickering about something trivial and giving orders. Upon seeing them, memories of Persephone Flemming’s afterlife came back to me in a rush of vivid colors and emotions, so foreign to me, but familiar at the same time. This had been me. That was my afterlife. I had felt all those things; the fear, the courage, the joy, and the love. The view from my apartment in Sector Pride, the taste of expensive liquor, the moment I realized I was powerful and didn’t need to rely on anyone, Luca’s bare skin on mine…
I had just left them, in a blaze of light and fire, Michael recovering from his wounds and Lucielle towing Luca away as I gave them third-degree burns. How could I have done that?
All of the sudden, I was no longer an ethereal, robotic being. I was Persephone Flemming. She might have been only one of my lives, but it was the longest one I had, including the time spent in Hell, and the most meaningful.
Why the Hell was I still here? I didn’t live to follow, blindly carrying out orders. I lived for myself, to feel wild emotions and to not care about eternal balance, like the humans do. I was sick of this fog that blanketed my mind and the landscape, this pale and barren land. Everything was the same; predictable, boring, colorless. I wanted pulsing laser lights, rich pomegranates, bass that I could feel pulsing in my chest, and hot lips falling against mine. My brain was starting to wake up again, and I started to miss what I once had. I missed the neon lights pulsating and dancing across the clouds, the food that made my mouth water, the feel of silk sheets on my bare legs, Michael’s laugh, bottles of champagne I shared with Lucielle, and Luca. I missed Luca terribly.
There was only one thing I could do.
I heard the judges in the background of my own thoughts.
“The first is changing, reverting.”
“She’s going to fall!”
They couldn’t reach me in time. I laughed as they raced after me, my white robes billowing in a nonexistent breeze, but the clouds beneath my feet opened up and I started to fall.
“This time, I know where I’m landing!” I yelled back at them and dove through the air.
It was just like falling the first time, the wind, the clouds, the bright blue sky, the storm, and the hurricane, but I didn’t fall wildly. This time, there was no pain or fear, only anticipation. This time, I knew where I was going and who was waiting for me. The fall was straight down, like I was an arrow cutting through the air. I plummeted into the dark, broke through bedrock, fell through black clouds and lightning, and landed on my feet. My impact left a crater on the ground, like I had been a meteorite, but I was unharmed and felt stronger than ever before. The sky above was clear of the clouds, showing the hole I had made, and flashed a white light as bright as the sun, signaling my arrival, before returning to normal.
People stopped what they were doing and stared at me in awe. I had just destroyed a building, after all. I climbed out of the rubble, wiping off my tattered and formerly white robes, and looked down. I was in full color again, my flesh normal, my hair white-blonde instead of just white, and I was Persephone. My link to the judges was severed, the numbness and apathy of my previous state wearing off.
“What the fuck was that? You guys are supposed to fix these buildings, not tear them down. Bloody fucking idiots.” I heard an annoyed female voice approaching from around the building I had just demolished.
“I don’t think that was them…” A male voice that was slightly more faint.
“Hey, I’m home. Did you miss me?” I grinned as they saw me.
Lucielle remained fairly stoic, but I could tell she was surprised and even impressed with me. She looked well, no signs of burns and her arm was healed, and dressed in civilian clothes, a formal black dress, like she used to. I was rewarded with a benevolent smile. “What took you so long?”
“How could I keep my valued companion waiting?” I approached her slowly and opened my arms cautiously. She accepted my hug and I brashly kissed her on the mouth, not caring if Michael was watching. “You knew?”
“I had my suspicions.” She pulled away, her smile knowing as it always used to be. We both cared for each other and she had missed me. “You were never made for that place.”
I looked down at my hands, my fingers lengthened into black claws and I felt a rush of energy. Glancing curiously at a piece of shattered glass in the debris, my eyes glowed white and I wondered if that had been my color all along or if it was only because of my deteriorating judge status and if it would change eventually. I laughed to myself. “Do I get to rule my own sector now? What do you think would be a fitting sin for me, in their opinion?” I looked to the sky as I toned down my powers. They were unnecessary now. The war was over.
The war was over.
Lucielle didn’t reply; my words were rhetorical questions that she knew not to answer.
“Treachery, probably,” I mused and laughed. “Choosing to fall from Heaven twice probably warrants that one.”
“Persephone?” Michael looked like he couldn’t believe his eyes, but he looked good too. It filled me with joy, such a pure, good feeling, to see them both healthy and whole. “You look… more.”
I had no idea what he meant by that, but I kissed his forehead and hugged him. “To answer your question you asked before my little vacation, I’m one of them. Come to think about it, your warning to stay away from them when I first got here was a little redundant, but we couldn’t know at the time.”
“Seph, I have so many questions…” He handed me his jacket, which I gratefully accepted. The ruined robes were hanging on by threads and I was essentially naked. At least I had my rocking body back.
“I have an eternity to answer them all, multiple times if needed. I won’t be leaving anytime soon.”
A tall figure walked up behind them, wild black hair and even more wild gray eyes, another person I cared about more than my own afterlife. “What are you two doing? What happened? I saw the light…” His eyes connected with mine. “You… You’re…”
Luca couldn’t seem to find any words. I smiled. “It’s me, in the authentic, humanoid flesh.” I flexed my limbs. He hadn’t seen my display earlier. “Is this how you two first felt? This… this is power. I feel like I could conquer the world.”
He took a step forward, but stopped to look up at the sky, his expression worried. “You fell, didn’t you?”
I shrugged, like it was no big deal, though I’m sure it was. I was a permanent resident of Hell now, no more reincarnations, no more second chances. “What can I say? I can’t let you three have all the fun, though I hope there’s still room for me.”
He shook his head and laughed, but took a few more steps towards me. I launched myself towards him and he caught me in his sturdy arms, even though I knew I was probably just as strong as him now. I inhaled him. I had forgotten how he smelled, how this felt. He pulled away to kiss me, on the nose, on the cheeks, on the mouth, laughing in disbelief and relief that I was here. “Of course there’s room for you here. I’d build you a damn castle with my bare hands if I had to.”
“Disgusting,” Lucielle commented in her own endearing and sarcastic way and left us. She understood all too well that although she had secured a place in my heart forever, my heart belonged to another and her heart, if she even had one, belonged to no one. Our valued companionship was built upon mutual understanding for one another.
I laughed against Luca’s lips. I had missed this so much. I hugged him again and listened to his heart beating in his chest, never wanting the embrace to end. I whispered into his neck, figuring if he didn’t get the underlying meaning of my falling from Heaven, now would be a good time to tell him. “I love you.”
“I know.” He rested his forehead against mine, it was clear in his eyes that he felt the same.
I pulled away, just slightly, to shake my head and laugh. “Did we just quote Star Wars?”
“What’s Star Wars?”
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