tagSci-Fi & FantasyUnknown Ch. 02

Unknown Ch. 02

bysensanin©

When I first arrived in Sharica, I thought I'd walked on the set of a horror film. My mind couldn't process the gray blobs in the distance, or the mild temperature in the middle of a Washington D.C. Summer. I thought that I must have gone through a hotel door onto the set, that somehow the prestigious Intercontinental hotel had a room with ceilings stretching up to a gray sky and wide enough to house large gray-black structures.

Then I thought, after pushing the bellhop cart around for half an hour, I must be in Hell or the Underworld—if the two weren't mutually exclusive. Any second I was going to meet the Devil or the Grim Reaper and he was going to tell me I'd died and my soul was forever damned.

I didn't know then how right I could be.

I sit, legs crossed in an emerald brocade chair, chin cupped in my palm as I stare out at raging fires, blackened mountain peaks, and deserts of red-sand that I think are only red because they have been so thoroughly stained by blood. Walking across that sand are all manner of creatures, big, small, horned, forked, snake-like, and ... not snake-like.

I'm in Hell.

No movie set could be this expansive, no extras' makeup that impressive.

I turn away from the window, fogged at the edges from a mysterious air conditioner running in the background, when I see a rail-thin man being dragged by the neck by what looks like a burnt-orange minotaur in cut-off jeans.

Cut-off jeans.

I can't remember how I got here. Fragments of memory pierce my skull, but help about as much as a migraine. Cold and blood. Angels and statues. Shit that can't be real, but I still run my hands over my arm, fingers sliding over the place where my gash should have been.

I've never been one to stick my head in the sand and avoid what's shoving itself into my face. I'm in Hell. I accept that and move on to the bigger issues: why and how.

The place I'm in gives little information besides telling me demons have taste.

A circular room with a high, pointed ceiling makes me think I'm in a turret of a castle. Across the dark-polished stone floor is a circular gold rug made out of thousands of carefully woven leaves.

It's soft on my bare feet as I move around. I stare at the tapestries on the walls, each depicting one gruesome battle after another, but so well done I can't help but appreciate the craftsmanship.

One half of the room is a library with a gigantic white marble fireplace carved with animals in mid-run, all hunters, all deadly. I run my hands over the dark wood bookshelves on either side of the fireplace's mantel, surprised when they come away clean.

I turn in a wide circle and look at the circular table on the other side of the room, wood matching that of the book case. Six chairs surround it, but one is turned toward a window. It's mine, emerald brocade matching its five siblings and one shade darker than the runner on the table.

There's more, little things here and there that look like they belong in a museum. My palms itch, but I'm not stupid enough to steal from a demon. That would keep me in Hell forever, and I need to make sure there's no way out.

There is a definite one. Adjacent from me in the form of two imposing doors carved with the same deadly animals on the fireplace, but I don't go near it. Britney would berate me, call me an idiot whenever I looked at a mark who was about three hundred million dollars above my pay grade. She always told me that rich steal from rich, any other thing is a nice fairytale told to kids.

So she made me rich in every sense of the word except the monetary, the only one that really counted. But being able to rub elbows with the elite also gave me the chance to steal diamonds off their necks, wrists, and fingers.

Rich steal from rich. Demons are probably the same way.

A second before I can draw on my next insight, the door slams open and a small entourage strides in. In front is a woman dressed in the tightest fitting white skirt I've ever seen with a matching billowy white blouse. Gold earrings and shoes add to the sense of pureness and richness of the whole outfit. Only her skin and hair clash. She's a demon with magenta skin, shock-white hair down to her waist, and eyes as bright green as Spring grass.

The hair reminds me of the dream I had about an angel. The black as sin man at her side proves it was no dream and that he is no angel.

The demons behind her fan out around the room, setting up shop in the chairs at the table, a chaise I hadn't noticed, and stretch out their bodies on the golden carpet. The woman comes closer to me, heels clicking on the stone before being absorbed by the carpet. Ten paces from me she stops, dark angel at her side, and cocks her hip, letting her gaze slide predator-slow down me.

She smiles and I keep myself from fainting by sheer force of will. Fangs slide against her lower lip and I swear I see blood coat them, but she licks her teeth and the color is gone.

"My name is Luci," she says softly. "And you are...?"

"In Hell."

Her smile deepens, eyes flashing with humor. "Not in the biblical sense of the word."

"What does that mean?" I ask, forcing myself not to shake as the demons around me strip me bare with their eyes.

"Have a seat first." She makes a gesture, and a second later something cool and wooden bumps the back of my knees and clawed hands force me to sit.

A chair appears behind Luci and she sits down too, crossing her legs as she does so. "You think Hell is the place you go after death based on whether you were good or bad in your human life. Fact is demons have nothing to do with religion. We're an evolved race like humans. We just crawled out of a different swamp.

"But," she continues, crossing her legs again, "we do like to fuck with minds. Some time in the Middle Ages we started screwing with humans for the fun of it. They called us demons, servants of Lucifer and we just ran with it." Luci pauses, leans forward in her chair, and drops her voice, "And sometimes we kidnap humans and bring them here."

I'm not scared, I tell myself over and over again. I'm not. "You kidnapped me."

It's not a question, but she answers it anyway, "We found you." She nods to the man standing beside her, one dark hand on the back of her chair. "Asmody found you."

I don't say anything. She's a demon, we're in Hell, and everything sort of pales to that. The silence stretches. No one speaks or moves. I don't even think the demons breathe. I check myself to make sure I'm breathing, feel the air rush over my upper lip as I exhale through my nose.

"Luci, can we—" a demon lounging on the floor by the chaise murmurs. I feel a spike of air hit my left side twice before I hear incoherent words and gurgling. Fear tightens my body so tight, if I was a bow string I would have snapped. Woodenly, I turn in the chair and peer into the semi-darkness where I saw the chaise.

Lying at its wooden feet is a twitching brown-skinned demon in a pool of his own blood. The crimson liquid seeps, a small stream, from a deep slash in his neck. Whatever color I thought demon blood would be, red isn't it.

Red is human blood—red is me.

I turn back to Luci. She licks her fingers in a long swipe with a forked tongue and smiles at me. This time I know the red on her teeth is blood.

I want to say something stupid like, "You monster! How could you?" but I hold myself back.

I adapt. That's my survival method. "Does finding me mean you'll keep me?"

Luci blinks, taken aback. A tinkling laugh falls from her lips and she gracefully covers the sound with blood-stained fingertips. "I haven't decided yet. You're interesting. Not frightened easily."

She looks me up and down again, shrewd. "You've killed someone..." I stiffen all over. Indignation is me. "No, no," she amends, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "A...thief? Hmm...yes. I think you were a thief."

I've never been spineless. "What if I was?"

A look passes her face, but I can't decipher it. Luci places her hand on the arms of her chair and pushes herself up. "You remind me of myself. What's your name?"

"Laverna."

Her eyes spark and she leans forward. "Really?"

Traps are sprung in moments like these and I shift my feet, ready. "I think I'd know."

"Laverna," she pronounces every syllable, wrapping the letters around her tongue. For a second I fear I've made a mistake. Spirited Away was one of the few movies I was able to see, and I wonder if I've given her power over me by giving her my name.

My name. No, I chastise myself. Laverna is not my name. It is the name given to me, but it's not mine. If a name gives her power over a person, then she has power over a ghost.

Luci rises and runs manicured hands down the front of her white skirt. No blood is left in their wake. "Let me give you a tour of my home, Laverna."

I don't take my eyes off the demoness, even when I hear shuffling behind me. The demons spread out across the room slither, crawl, and walk back to Luci's side. Fleetingly, I wonder which one of them will clean up the body or if a maid will do it, but then I see him. Hand at the back of his neck, tilting his head, while his slit throat heals. I watch in horrified fascination as his flesh knits itself back together.

My shoulder tingles. I did cut myself. I cut myself in Sharica and there was a gash in my arm. It's healed now. I wonder if that's because of Hell. I'm not a demon, so maybe something in the air has healing properties.

Luci crooks her finger quickly and turns on her heel, "Come, Laverna."

The demons part down the middle and I follow in Luci's footsteps, keenly aware of the multi-colored eyes following my path. "Will you take me back to Earth when our tour is done?"

If demons can kidnap humans, than they have a way to get to Earth. I could stand to be in Hell if I knew I would return home.

Luci's shoulders rise and fall in an elegant shrug. "I haven't decided yet."

I console myself with that. For now, I'm an interesting distraction to her, but at least I'm a living, breathing one.

***

The castle has cardinal wings; we begin in the east. It's a right turn out of the room for us, and a left turn for the demons that leave Luci and me to our tour. Asmody is the only one who remains, but he keeps to the tapestry draped stone walls, less a follower and more a guard.

"These," Luci waves her hands at the myriad of wood doors lining the hallway, each spaced roughly fifteen feet apartment, "are the... guest quarters."

Her pause leaves lead in my stomach. When I see an older green, goblin-like demon crouched outside of one of the doors, mopping up a dark puddle and ringing blood into a metal bucket, dread and fear set up camp on top of the lead.

Horrors are everywhere in this place. I force myself to stare at the back of Luci's hair for fear of seeing another crime scene being poorly cleaned or demon being brutally tortured and killed. At least I haven't eaten, so the nausea is just a feeling, not a warning.

"This part of the estate was built at the turn of the nineteenth century by Richard F. Clark and Damien Sue," Luci comments offhandedly as she steps over body parts. She glares at the demon trying to clean up, eyes promising similar treatment if the job isn't done quickly and perfectly. "They were very talented men that worked with the Lucifer before me."

"Before you?" I ask, deciding that I'm more likely to stay alive if I keep talking. Talking, asking questions, providing tidbits about myself to humanize me. Demons surround me, but I seek their humanity. It's stupid. A last resort.

"Lucifer—which I shorten to Luci—is a title." She waves her hand at paintings and portraits we pass, firing off their significance with words and flare a curator might use. I wonder how many times she's done this, how many other 'Lavernas' have shown up and amused her.

We turn a corner, and I glance over my shoulder, tracking my path, mentally depositing bread crumbs. But a thick white braid catches my attention, hollow yellow and red eyes ensnaring my gaze. I force myself to turn around and stop placing bread crumbs.

Asmody found me. Put me in that room. A cage.

I can't put down breadcrumbs if I have no memory of the original path.

Refocusing on Luci, I try to remember what she's said so far. But I can't remember any of it. None of it seems to be important anyway, just a long stream of names and titles I've never heard that mean about as much as the paint used to render their owner's likeness. "How much longer until the tour is done?" What happens next?

Luci turns her head as she walks, cocks it. "Laverna." My name isn't so much a word as it is a taste on her tongue. And the chomp of her teeth on the last syllable sends a shiver down my spine and into the arches of my feet.

They twitch. A wordless plea: run. My return is a curl of toes: where?

"You said that was your name."

It's not a question, so I don't answer.

"Do you know what a name is?" Luci asks silkily, slowing her steps. She doesn't wait for my response, "A brand. Not always our own, but one that keeps us tethered nonetheless. Burning every time we're called."

"How poetic."

She laughs, the sound pitched too high, scraping against my eardrums. I blink slowly, keeping my glare carefully hidden behind my eyelids.

"When humans come here, either dead or living, they can't remember their names. Everything else they remember. How good or bad or mediocre they were, but never who they were." She sighs, stopping in front of the biggest portrait to date in the middle of the hallway, adjacent a massive grand staircase and foyer. It's illuminated by the flames of Hell licking across a wall of glass, broken only by a giant pair of double doors in the center. "Names hold a large piece of their identity, their soul."

Your soul, I hear.

"Laverna," she says again as if she's trying to ascertain something from the three syllables. Eat me. Use me. Keep me. I'm not sure what she wants, or how she thinks the name will give her any power. "You didn't hesitate to answer."

I think I've felt the cool slide of Death along my senses too often. Those natural instincts to meet her eyes with wide, fearful ones. Quiver my lower lip, shake, beg, cry. Too accustomed to make any rational or expected move, even to myself.

My hand lifts, hovering over the portrait of Luci with her head tilted back, eyes half-closed, a blue orb held above her open mouth by two pinched fingers. Mountains make up the background while corpses and ash litter the ground underneath her marron clawed feet. It seems all her attention is focused on the orb, but a snake crawling up her calf is caught in her other hand, crushed in a fist.

"I should have," I say finally, pulling back. "The name only came to me recently. You're only the second person to call me that. I don't feel branded."

The hallway is the quietest it's been all tour. As if the staff have sensed the strange move, and hold steady to see their ruler's reaction: cruel, derisive, or something unfamiliar.

"You were named here?"

"Another place."

"Where?"

"I don't know."

"Take another name," she breathes after a tense moment, and the hallway expels with her. "One that carves past muscle and bone. You can be whoever you want."

But nothing comes. I like Laverna. It's all I have of Lexiss. The only decision made for me that I've willingly accepted. He's the one who branded me, who holds the tether. Even if I can wiggle out of it, can cast off that name, he'll always be the only person to hold dominion over me.

"I'm already who I want to be," I say, turning to face her fully, taking a stand that half an hour ago I would have been scared shitless to take. "With or without Laverna."

Her eyes flash again, and I wonder if I've triggered another trap. Probably. But I've never been good at playing games or dodging mines. If it's time for me to die, no amount of tongue holding or coyness is going to keep that from happening.

For the first time in months, I feel stable on an ever shifting terrain.

I don't see Luci's mouth move, but I swear she says, With or without Mira. But then she's talking and I'm breathing and I can't care what was muttered under her breath or not said at all, "You're not going back to the human world. You never fit in there anyway, I think. You can stay here. As a guest until you're... who I want you to be."

The thought of being her guest made me recall every horror movie and preview I'd ever seen in vivid detail. But the tickle on my lip, the air flowing through my teeth, over my tongue, grounds me. "And if I never become that?"

"What is that human saying?" Her lips turn into a mue, and she taps them with her index finger. "Ah, yes. Never say never."

***

Unsurprisingly, the demon world is cruel. Murder is mundane. Torture foreplay. And every other horrid, disgusting, tear-your-skin-off and gouge-your-eyes-out event par for the course.

But I'm only ever a reluctant observant, never participant. Never a guest.

Though I don't think it'll last forever. Hopes a feeling Luci feeds as easily as she crushes it, and I don't give her any of my emotions without a fight. The demoness simply takes it, my guarded answers and abrasiveness, with a curiosity that killed too many cats to count.

Not her.

"Tell me who gave you your name again," Luci asks beside me, ducking her head under the milky water and coming up smoothing the strands from her face. Bathing, in the demon world, is a communal activity. One of very few that doesn't involve something horrible happening. Rarely are there drownings, and blood is never split. It's the closest thing to a sacred activity as I've seen.

Too long. I've been here too long. Not that I know the length. At least in Sharica there was shadow that was lighter (the day) and shadow that was darker (the night). Here it's always dark, the only light coming from flames reflecting off various mountains. Sleep feels too long and too heavy; I only indulge when my body is pushed to the limit and I collapse. I'd tried sleeping in bursts and fits, aware of every creak as a killer coming to slice my throat in the middle of the night. But if they kill me, I don't want to be even a little awake. I'd fight and I'd lose and my last breath would be thick and wasted with fear.

"Lexiss," I remind Luci, returning to the warm bath.

A succubus whose name I can never remember offers herself yet again to Luci. Sometimes she agrees, taking the demonesses with a skill that makes me question my own sexuality. But never this one. Luci complains that she smells like poison, a lingering effect of her time as a human. Every person in Hell carries their finest and darkest moments as puffs of perfume around them, though I can't see it or smell it.

She's waiting for me to ask her what I smell like. I don't ever want to know.

Luci brushes the succubus away and turns to give me her back, her way of telling me to scrub it. "Lexiss. The man you've never met."

"Yes."

"Yet you let him name you. Took that special right away from your parents."

"I don't have parents."

She laughs, but the sound doesn't grate as much anymore. Either she's really ruined my eardrums, or like everything else here, I've become desensitized to it. "Everyone has parents. A man and a woman who screw and cum and nine months later bring a little nothing into the world."

"I don't have parents," I repeat, grabbing a washcloth on the side of the pool and running it over her back.

Slow, but firm, I remove the dirt and blood from her marron skin, careful of the wings at her back. I've cut myself more times than I can count on the sharp-as-knives feathers. She's quiet for a while and I don't stuff the silence full of inanities like

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