Hell wasn’t too difficult to navigate, surprisingly, even though I couldn’t see anything beyond the massive buildings that lined every street in the Business District; casinos, clubs, and bars. I stuck to major roads and avoided the dark and more than slightly suspicious alleyways. Despite being slightly tipsy, I had to play protector to the intoxicated Fia and ward off unwanted advances that came from shady-looking men who seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
One man paused in front of us, forcing us to stop walking. “Hey, pretty ladies, where are you headed?”
“None of your business,” I snapped, crossing to the other side of the street.
Another man popped out of an alley. “Wanna have some fun?”
“We’re not interested.” I pulled Fia along at a faster pace and was regretting my choice of footwear. I needed athletic shoes for this.
“What are you in such a hurry for?”
“We’re expected somewhere. Please just leave us alone.” I was exasperated and ready to break into a full sprint. Any of these men could easily take us and I know a few would try. Fia wouldn’t be much of a help and my slight stature wasn’t going to get me anywhere in a fight. I had been beaten in fights too many times to think otherwise.
The guy finally got the hint and fell back, much to my surprise. I didn’t feel safe doing this. No one would even care if we were taken or try to save us. Unfortunately, another man jogged up to us. “Hey, beautiful.”
“We’re protected still, just leave us alone.” I was really at my breaking point.
“Woah, I’m not going to try anything. You two having trouble this evening? I just wanted to know if you needed some protection. I’m sure you’ve noticed Hell isn’t the best neighborhood, but I’m glad we live in Pride. It’s a little more chill than the other sectors.” He stepped into the circle of light cast by the streetlamp; it was that guy who was in my apartment building. “You guys are safe until you leave this welcome party.”
“And what do you want for it?” I asked, guarded and unsure. He had seemed normal enough, but I couldn’t be sure. Everyone in Hell was here for a reason and none of the reasons were good.
“Nothing except your company. I forgot to introduce myself in the lobby.”
“You better not try anything with us, buddy.” Fia glared at him, her reaction extremely delayed.
“Fine, but like Fia said, don’t try anything.” I narrowed my eyes at him but continued walking towards the central sector, the massive building coming into view. Thank God we’re almost there.
“So your friend’s name is Fia? She isn’t Sector Pride, is she?” The guy looked her over.
“Yeah, Fia Clarke. I’m with Sector Lust.” She stuck out her hand, grinning with a certain kind of confidence I didn’t think I’d ever have.
“Persephone Flemming.” I gingerly stuck out my hand and shook his firmly.
“Persephone…” He repeated my name on his lips, smiling faintly. “Greek mythology, I like it. It’s awesome to meet you two lovely ladies, Lady Lucielle’s favorite and her friend. I’m Michael Knight.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean? I’m not Lady Lucielle’s favorite.”
He threw back his head and laughed, his wavy blond hair bouncing back into place and the skin around his amber eyes crinkling. “You got the penthouse. You’re clearly her favorite.”
“I am not. She said it’s been vacant and it just happened to be filled by me. She acts like she hates me, or generally dislikes me.”
“She acts that way with everyone. She won’t even pay attention to us unless it’s something serious, and you were just out there having a conversation with her. She likes you.”
“Alright then.” I grimaced but smiled when I saw the gateway that led to the Center Sector with people filing in. “So does everyone come to the welcome parties?”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty big thing. Most people go just to check who’s arrived and just because it’s sort of a tradition.” Michael glanced down at my body for a second, eyes snapping back up quickly, but not fast enough for me to not notice. “You’ll make quite the impression.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what I was going for.”
“Not the smartest idea to go walking around, though.”
“True.” I nodded my head as we passed through the doorway, the massive center skyscraper towering above us, made of glass that reflected all of the neon lights. “So what is this place?”
“Center Sector is where the sector leaders live. The top floors are their apartments, supposedly, and the other floors are just whatever they want them to be. I’ve heard they like to change them a lot. Other than the welcoming parties that are held once a week being on the first floor, no one has ever been invited to any of the higher levels. So, really, all of what I just said is merely speculation.”
“Adds an air of mystery.” I laughed, falling in line with the rest of the people waiting to be let inside. “Are the sector leaders even human? Are they like us?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. Lots of rumors about them. You want my advice?”
“Stay away from them. Don’t try to figure them out.”
“The people who have tried tend to disappear.”
“Oh.” Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. “So, the welcoming parties are held once a week? How often do people get here? I mean, I know they come in groups and stuff.”
“Persephone and I were group mates!”
“I’ve gathered that.” Michael chuckled at Fia, then turned to answer me. “I’m not entirely sure because it seems pretty random. Sometimes more people get sent down here and more separate groups come; a couple times a week to every day.”
Finally, the line started to dwindle until we got inside. It was dim, and the music wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be. People, most dressed incredibly well, were socializing and sipping drinks. “This is it?”
Michael looked at me and laughed so hard his eyes started to water. “This? Oh, hell no. It hasn’t started yet. The welcoming ceremony is the beginning and after that, the party really starts.”
“Everyone who got here in the past week will be called up and basically introduced. Then you’ll get your mark from your sector leader.”
“What’s a mark?”
“Almost like a faint tattoo that looks like a flame, but the color varies per sector. I’m not sure why. But your sector leader just touches you and then you have a mark. It’s pretty faint, but sometimes it gets all reflective and glowy.” Michael rolled up his sleeve and held his forearm up to me, shifting it back and forth in the light. The outline of a flame did indeed reflect and shine purple.
“Why do we get marks?”
“We just do.” He shrugged, rolling his sleeve back down. “I think it’s a way to distinguish who’s who and what sector they belong to.”
Fia glanced over. “I think it’s pretty.”
“Pretty?” Michael scoffed, pretending to be offended. “Please never describe a man or anything he has as pretty.”
“Fragile masculinity?” I whispered the question to Fia and we both laughed, but as we moved further inside and we caught sight of a bar, Fia made a beeline for it. She got a drink and came back to us when Michael yelled after her that the ceremony would be starting soon.
As if on cue, the lights turned on and the sector leaders appeared on the massive far stage.
“You guys better head over there. I’m sure you’ll be able to find me later.”
“Come on, Fia.” I dragged her through the crowd of people as she hurriedly tried to finish her drink.
“Good evening, sinners,” Lucielle called out with a wicked smile. “Most of you know what this is, and what we do, but the newbies need to learn as well. Welcome to the weekly welcome party. Newbies will come up and be introduced with the others in their sector, then get marked by their sector leader. After the ceremony is over, the real party can begin, so let’s get this show on the road.” The flickering board appeared in Lady Lucielle’s hands once again and she began to call out names.
I realized why the stage was so massive, as people walked up the steps and stood with their sector leader and group; it had to fit a lot of people. The ceremony seemed to be sorted by sector. First, the new souls in Greed were introduced and marked by Lord Vincent before being dismissed and the same thing happened with Gluttony and Violence. It was easy to make judgments about the sectors because even now, the new souls started to fit the stereotypes one may think of. It seemed that the people sorted into Sector Gluttony and Sector Violence didn’t seem to care too much about their appearances, favoring comfortable clothing to the expensive and showy attire that the people in Sector Greed decided to wear. Gluttony’s people tended to be overweight whereas Violence’s people were rough-looking and tattooed.
Every time a woman’s name was called and that woman turned out to be attractive, the crowd would cheer. When Fia’s name was called with the rest of the people new to Sector Lust, she paused to squeeze my hand and whisper, “Confidence is key. Show that dress off. Smile. You know you look good and that’s what matters.” The crowd’s cheers got louder than they had before when they saw Fia.
I was anxious but watched her movements while she was on stage and she came back to stand next to me when Sector Lust was finished. I still couldn’t help but fidget with my nails. Confidence was nowhere to be found, but I snapped to attention when I heard Lady Lucielle call my name. I had to be confident. I started to push through the crowd until the steps were right before me and felt everyone’s eyes on my back.
I look good.
I smiled to myself as confidence started to flood through my system, and I walked up the stairs, meeting the wide eyes of the sector leaders. I heard Lord Vincent say, “god damn,” and Lady Callista breathily reply, “you’re damn right.” Lord Luca’s gray eyes swept my body, unashamedly settling on my assets, but it was the way they caught my eyes that thrilled me; pure, unbridled, desire. I kept his gaze for a long time, daring him to look away. I grinned as I took my place next to Lucielle and saw the entire crowd go still as their eyes wandered my body. I leaned on one leg, resting my hand on my hip to show off the dangerously low neckline, and let the slit fall open to reveal the other smooth leg; the slit went up until it almost, but not quite, showed off my black thong. I kept my head held high as I looked over the crowd, grinning because I knew I looked good. Finally, someone started cheering, as if the shock wore off, and the rest of the crowd joined in until it was deafening.
I laughed as I watched the crowd, and heard them calling my name. “Persephone, Persephone, Persephone.” An intense feeling washed over me because I knew this was power. I had power over all of these people in this moment and I laughed because it was so simple.
Lady Lucielle looked incredibly annoyed, more so than ever before, and that look made the crowd go silent so she could continue and yet, their eyes still stayed focused on me.
Fia gave me the thumbs up from the crowd while Lucielle called out names, and I shook my head at her and mouthed, “thank you.”
My sector leader proclaimed she was finished with introductions and that it was time for her to mark her sinners. One by one, the other people new to my sector were all marked, or tagged like cattle, depending on your perspective. She went down the line and placed a hand on them, and the new souls would have a mark on their forearm. Lucielle had saved me for last, scowling at me, but placing her hand on me. I waited to feel something, but nothing happened. Lucielle frowned and furrowed her brow, trying to touch me again. Nothing happened. She hurriedly pulled back my sleeve and inspected my arm, turning it under the light. I didn’t see anything. She hissed under her breath and jerked up, meeting the eyes of the grinning Luca. Something in her expression caused me to take a step back, but then she looked back at me and smiled, which was somehow even scarier than before. She moved on and then started a speech about how all of us were marked and it symbolized the beginning of a new life, our death, which concluded the welcoming ceremony and the welcoming party could commence. The crowd cheered, everyone left the stage, and the party truly began.
The lights were shut off, throwing the room into an excitable darkness, but then the laser lights came on and raced around the massive room. A DJ was set up on the far end, the bar had been restocked, and people were getting out glow in the dark paint to turn their bodies into canvases. Music pounded as cages came down from the ceiling and revealed painted and naked male and female dancers inside. Fia grabbed me and tried to race off to the bar, but not before my eyes caught Luca’s once again, and he lifted the corner of his mouth up into a knowing grin.
What the hell was going on?
I decided not to worry about it. It was finally time to have fun, especially since Fia was forcing drink after drink into me; shots, cocktails, mixed drinks, champagne, everything. My dancing skills somehow magically improved and I swayed to the music by myself until Fia saw what I was doing and joined me. So many people danced with us, but most of the time, we only danced with each other. I rolled my hips in synchronization with hers as she backed up against me and the people around us cheered. I felt unfamiliar hands wander over my body; fingers racing up my leg until they were dangerously close to where the slit ended, or sweaty palms applying pressure to my butt. I swatted them away.
“God damn, you two are hot. Both tens.” Some cute guy yelled at us, smelling strongly of alcohol.
“Let’s make it twenty,” Fia yelled back and suddenly turned around, unexpectedly smashing her lips against mine.
I was startled as I felt her tongue slide into my mouth, but my lips were numb from all of the drinking. I kissed her back to the best of my ability, because this was all for show, and let my left-hand tangle in her hair and my right slide around the soft curve of her hip. Her hands curled themselves in my hair and shook it out of its updo.
The guy went nuts, yelling and pointing until most of the other people on the dance floor were paying attention to us. I threw my head back and laughed, the feeling of being wanted so much more intoxicating than the alcohol flowing through my bloodstream, as Fia started to kiss my neck and chest. Even though the room was spinning, my eyes were drawn to the balcony that overlooked this level of the center sector’s building. I could see the lords and ladies, watching over the crowd, and Lord Vincent get pulled away by some little brunette. Lord Lennox and Lady Callista were doing body shots off a naked girl, occasionally pausing to kiss the area below her navel. Lord Luca stood tense and leaned against the railing, as Lady Lucielle said something to him, but his eyes were on me. The gray reflected the light well, so I knew without a doubt he was looking at Fia and I. They narrowed and he looked away, leaving my view of the balcony.
I shook off my disappointment and kissed Fia on the mouth again, enjoying the way the crowd screamed for us. A full shot glass was shoved into my raised hand and I almost started drinking it, but someone yelled at me that it was for Fia to drink off of me.
Fia grinned and shoved me back onto a table, the cool metal against my back giving me goosebumps. Everyone surrounded us as Fia poured a little of the alcohol into my navel and I gasped at how cold it was. I laughed as I felt Fia’s warm lips press against my stomach and slurp up the liquid, feeling her moist tongue lick up whatever was left. She then gave me the rest of the strong alcohol in the little glass, which I downed, my stomach churning as it disagreed. Fia helped me off the table and pulled me to the bar.
Michael found us there, sipping a glass of whiskey, but looking pretty sober. “Hey. ladies. How are you doing?”
“Great!” We screamed together.
He shouldered up to me. “Uh, I didn’t want to say this earlier because it would’ve put you off, but I wanted to say that you look great. You’re gorgeous.”
“Aw, thanks, Michael!”I threw my arms around him and gave him a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
He blushed as Fia raised her eyebrows at us. “You look great too, Fia!”
We chatted for awhile, but some girl started talking to him and pulled him to the dance floor. He shot us a happy grin and we gave him thumbs up back. We caught glimpses of him as people passed, and the girl grinding her body up against his. She was hot enough, I suppose.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was some overweight, middle-aged man I’ve never seen before. “Hey, Persephone.”
“Do I know you?” I asked dryly, trying not to smile when Fia snorted. She thought it was funny, apparently.
“Well, no, but I was going to introduce myself. I’m Tony.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said blandly, not offering my hand and turning away dismissively.
He came up beside me and wrapped his arm around me, his hot breath puffing against my cheek and reeking of alcohol as he asked, “Wanna get out of here and have some fun?”
I jerked back in horror mixed with repulsion. “Ew, no, you’re like twenty to thirty years older than me.”
He laughed and pressed his body into me. If someone more fit had done the same, I might have felt a pathetically small bulge, but his gut prevented that from happening. “Ahh, little lady, you kill me. You are certainly new. Do you really think age makes a difference here?”
“It makes a difference to me. Fuck off.” I tried to get out of his grip but it only stiffened, his nails digging into my hip in a possessive manner.
“Hey, back off!” Fia warned and tried to pull him off of me, but he swatted her away.
If I wasn’t upset before, seeing his hand on Fia set me off. I twisted around and shoved at him. He wouldn’t let go, so I wound up my arm and punched him as hard as I could in the face. Pain erupted in my knuckles, but it was hardly noticeable after the satisfaction of seeing the skeevy guy fall back into other people, who turned vicious and started to fight him, and then fight each other when drunken flailing arms hit targets they weren’t supposed to. Screams of pain and anger mingled in the air with the music.
“Oh, shit,” Fia mumbled, pulling us away from the all-out brawl that was starting.
I pulled away, yelling over the din, “Bathroom!”
“You feeling okay, babe?”
“Yeah, I’m super drunk, but I’m fine.”
Were my words slurring?
She laughed at me. “I feel you. Find me later? I’ll be wherever the booze is.”
I shook my head and spotted a back hallway, figuring there’d be a bathroom over there. “God damn, that girl probably died of alcohol poisoning.” The hallway seemed to loop around the welcoming hall, and I followed it until I ran into a lengthy line of people waiting. “Oh, god,” I moaned as my stomach gurgled. “Crap, I think I jinxed myself.”
Without thinking, I turned in the other direction and ran back around the hallway, coming to a set of stairs which I climbed as fast as I could and gripped the handrail for dear life. Many doors lined this higher hallway, and I threw them open as I passed, frantically searching for a bathroom but finding lounges filled with naked people in various stages of sex in a variety of positions. Other rooms were like drug dens; smoke billowing out with noxious fumes as I opened the doors and sweaty drug addicts barely conscious of their surroundings looked at me with dilated, owl-like pupils. Syringes, papers, coals, lighters, and empty plastic packets littered the ground, but I closed the door as I shook my head.
I couldn’t imagine being like that.
There was only one door left and I threw it open without hesitation, desperately hoping it was a second bathroom. It wasn’t. I had just stumbled into the balcony the lords and ladies were staying on. Lady Callista, Lord Vincent, and Lord Lennox all looked up at me with nearly identical bemused expressions, but Lady Lucielle and Lord Luca were too busy to notice me as they argued.
“You son of a bitch, you broke the rules!”
Luca grinned and shrugged.
“She was mine! She’s my soul, in my sector!” Lucielle screamed, getting into his face. Her rage was terrifying to me, as I was glued in place with fear, but it didn’t seem to phase him in the least.
“She doesn’t belong there.” Luca picked a shot glass up off of the table and took it in one gulp.
“Yes, she does. Any soul that doesn’t have something major goes to me. She was supposed to go to my sector. Those are the rules.”
“The judges ordered her to go to my sector.”
“So you care about their rules now, Luca? What the fuck?”
“Whatever.” He said bitterly, shoving Lucielle away.
Lucielle stared down at where he had touched her, silent from rage. “You’re the only one of us that’s had contact with her. Don’t think I didn’t see what you did back at the cavern, whatever the fuck that was.” Lucielle waved her arms animatedly around her. “You marked her, you motherfucker. She’s mine.”
“I tried, yeah.” He seemed to have no shame admitting that fact.
“And what does that mean?”
Luca shrugged. “It didn’t work.”
Lucielle sputtered, unable to find the right words. She probably didn’t want to repeat what she just said. “She’s Sector Pride. She stays with me.”
Lord Lennox cleared his throat as a way to attract their attention.
“What do you want?” Lucielle snapped.
“You know, my dear friends, you have an audience.”
“Speaking of the devil.” Lady Callista murmured and then cracked up laughing. I wasn’t sure if her amusement was from her terrible joke about the devil, my complete terror, or Lucielle’s scene with Luca.
Lucielle and Luca paused to finally acknowledge my presence. Lucielle stopped dead in her tracks, not making a sound, but Luca raised his eyebrows. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
I squeaked, finally able to move, and bolted back down the hallway. I ran into the line of people waiting for the bathroom and the woman I bumped into shoved me. I doubled over and vomited on her shoes.
She screamed in horror. “What the fuck is your problem, bitch?” She grabbed my hair and tried to slam me into the wall, but I threw my arms out and caught myself.
Vision spinning and dark spots blipping in and out, I somehow caught a hold of her. “Fuck you, it happens.” I punched her in the mouth and her lip came away bloody as she fell back into the person who was waiting in front of her.
Just like what happened near the bar, another fight broke out, and the girl was suddenly busy with more people to worry about than little old me. I collapsed onto the wall, retching yellow liquid once again, and my vision darkened. My legs gave out under me. I had been drunk before, and I had passed out before, but nothing like this. This was beyond alcohol. I felt someone grab me and I cried out feebly.
“Hey, Persephone, it’s okay.” A familiar male voice murmured in my ear, comforting me.
“Someone… put something in my drink…” I tried to remember what could have happened, but everything I had been drinking came directly from the bar, except that one shot that had been shoved into my hand and Fia took out of my bellybutton. “Fia! Fia drank half of it! We need to find her!” I tried to stand up, which worked at first, but I fell face forward.
His arms wrapped around my torso. “Fia, huh? You can’t find her in your condition, but I’ll have someone find her and take her back to her place. I’ll take you to yours.” I felt him scoop me up into his arms and I rested my head against his chest, feeling the strong urge to pass out looming. “You’ve caused quite the mess tonight, Persephone.”
“I didn’t mean to!” I moaned.
“I saw the punches you threw and getting into places you shouldn’t? Not the best first night.” He chuckled. “We’re going home now.”
I groaned. “Thank you so much, Michael. I’m glad I met you.”
“Michael?” He repeated questioningly and laughed. “I’m not Michael.”
My eyes snapped open, right as I hit the first tidal wave of whatever drug was in my system and I fell unconscious, but not before seeing those piercing gray eyes looking down on me.