“Lords and ladies, salutations!” the tattooed girl said.
The giant door had opened out onto the street of a slum, the sky blood red above. The girl had been waiting for us.
“Name’s Persis,” she continued. “And you… are right on time.” Her accent was thick. Her demeanor was flippant. I couldn’t take my eyes off the weapon she held. It was a stout cleaver, rusted, with a long handle wrapped in bloody strips of cloth. Almost a machete. The tip was rigid and uncurved, squared off. It handled lightly.
“You see that?” Ash asked me.
“See what?” Anna inquired.
I did. “Stay away from that cleaver,” I told her.
Persis cackled, pivoting around to walk away. “What else you notice?”
We stepped into the stronghold, following her at a distance. In the streets and around the shanties a few Damned lingered. We passed several standing around a burning trashcan, warming their hands. These Damned were in better shape than those from the Labyrinth. There was safety here.
Persis skipped close and before they could react, she lopped the Damned’s head clean off. The others just stared as she carried on walking.
“You set the traps in the Labyrinth,” I said.
Persis threw up her blade. “That was me.” Found our witch. “Not for ya’ll, per se. Just those nazi types. Her, type,” she pointed to Anna.
“I-” Anna was about to say.
Not getting diverted, I talked over her. “They were ineffective.”
Persis had walked us to a set of doors which barred our way into a monstrosity of a building. A mixture of gothic architecture and rubble propped up to create a dome of stone, wood, and stain glass. She turned to us and, walking backward, kicked the doors wide open. “Really?” she slyly challenged.
The doors showed an open court, rows of church pews facing a wall of seven thrones. Through the glass, a kaleidoscope of light fell on the room. Shadows obscured the corners and nooks, but I could tell what I was looking at. The conclusion was clear and damning.
“There is no one here,” Odessa said it.
We descended the steps as Persis proudly went to sit on the largest throne at the room’s far end. I fell into a pew seat and put my head into my hands.
“She warned them and they left,” I announced. “There’s nothing here.”
“On the money, Sweety. Welcome to the city of the Damned.”
A breeze howled in through the open doors to our back. That was the only sound as the situation sunk in. When I looked up to Ash, he was simply watching me. I realized this hadn’t changed anything for him.
“I’ve been waiting since the beginning,” he said.
Waiting for me to catch up. This is all the mercy we get.
“What?” Anna asked. “What are we going to do?”
“You,” Persis interrupted. “You know where you’re going.” She waggled her weapon at me, grinning. “Don’t you?”
“I’ve been mostly resolved,” I replied.
“Doran,” Anna sat down beside me. She grabbed my arm, squeezing it. “If we go back to Kendall, he’ll kill us. But we can’t stay here.” Obviously.
“Here, there? There’s really no difference, is there? We’ll live.” I had my eye on the witch. I wasn’t really in this conversation.
“I can’t live down here!”
“It’s better than what Kendall has in store, isn’t it?” When I asked, both Odessa and Anna seemed to take a moment to think and remember.
“I can’t live here,” Anna restated, determined, angry, and with a hint of fear.
Odessa picked up and slammed down her sword. “I’ll die before I return to face a fate with him. There’s honor here, in penance,” she countered.
“This isn’t divine punishment!” Anna retorted. “It’s digesting in a giant cosmic fucking flytrap. I won’t watch myself rot here like those Damned.”
“Then provide an alternative,” Odessa challenged.
“What?” I asked. I withdrew the card Kendall had given me. The spell to return home. “We can’t stay here, we can’t use this thing. There’s really no question about it. Ash figured it out before me. The solution is not pretty.”
Ash nodded. “Kendall doesn’t have a strong enough grip.” He sat in the pew with me and Anna, scootching in between us, putting his arms behind us. “He’s not powerful enough to, over all the distance, stop Doran from doing nothing. If Doran chooses inaction, then there’s nothing that faggot can do. He can’t compel with interpreted will. He can freeze, not force. And with no clear path back for the rest of us, and no orders, guess what happens to our binding?”
“It’s nullified,” I said. “It’s already happening.”
I tore the card in two.
A weight lifted off my shoulders. I could feel my connection to Kendall dwindle to nearly nonexistent. Yet, Christopher still had a hold. But I wasn’t anchored anymore. I was adrift, singular. My own.
“No!” Anna cried. She stood up. “You just destroyed it.”
“It wasn’t an option. The portal opened directly back to Kendall, and with his binding, there would’ve been nothing we could do. You’d be frozen like a statue if he only snapped his fingers. He would end us like he pledged to.”
“So what, then? We can’t stay, Doran!”
“I know!” I shouted back. “Don’t you think I know that?” I knocked Ash’s hand off my shoulder and stood up.
He’s got what he wants, I thought, seeing the shiteating grin he wore. Hell was no obstacle to him. He had his freedom.
“Then what, Doran? What are you planning?”
Sosias’ prophesy was on my mind. “I’ve got to go back.”
“How? And – and what do you mean you have to?” Anna paced some, running a hand through her hair. “I’m getting really fucking tired of being ordered from place to place, you know? And you two, scheming crap. Acting reasonable. Handling me like a child. I see this is what you wanted, Ash. Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” he smugly accepted.
Anna continued. “I can’t do this anymore. Not anymore. I can’t deal with this, guys. The only reason I’m holding together is because I can’t break down. I won’t get stuck in hell. I-” she laughed abruptly, “-I can’t really imagine a worse scenario. And that’s a literal statement.”
Persis was like a statue, sitting on the throne above. She stared down at us, completely content to watch. What was she waiting on?
“I never wanted any of this,” I said to both Anna and Persis. “I can only try to do what’s true. And it’s hard. It’s not human nature.” Anna wasn’t understanding. Fuck. “I… I’m not sure what the right thing to do is anymore.”
“Christopher,” Persis said. “He was the one who set me loose.” As she said that, she had our attention. “See, I had slipped into one of your prisons. A locked down planet.”
“A relocation world?” Anna asked.
“That’s what you call them,” Persis confirmed. “Well, I did some naughty things there. A girly, a sorcerer, came to investigate. And I certainly killed her.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Odessa demanded.
Persis went on. “It caused quite a commotion, I heard. ‘Cause she couldn’t be revived. No magic could bring her back.”
That’s what I’d seen. The cleaver was imbued with something. Not a demon or a spirit or a force. It embodied a principle. One of tremendous power.
Persis wasn’t alive.
“While the investigators ran round like headless chickens,” Persis said, “that Christopher came right to me. He walked me straightly out, told me something. He took me here, very specifically here. Leaving me to my fun. And now I know why, ey? It was you.” She pointed her blade at me.
“He put you in my path. He’s orchestrating everything.” I approached the throne. “He thinks he can hijack us, my destiny. He thinks he can subvert everything, predestine my choices by controlling all of them, selecting my options and keeping me on a rigid path. That’s what all of this has been.”
“Christopher set this up?” Ash inquired eagerly. “Why?”
Persis took a hollow breath and leaned forward in her seat. She held out her weapon toward me, telling me, “take me, lord.”
I received the cleaver and her body withered in an instant. She crumpled forward and to the side, falling next to me.
How nice to be back, a voice in my head came.
“What the bloody fuck?” Ash said, looking to the desiccated body.
“I don’t know Christopher,” I told him. “But he knows who I am.”
“Nonono,” Ash insisted. “I got you figured out. You’re an incarnation, that’s it. None of this secret bullshit. Christopher is not my problem.”
“I’m an incarnation of someone.” I sat down on the steps of the throne, holding my weapon in both hands. “Not a force or spirit, Ash. A Primordial. I’m an iteration of one.” I put the tip of the blade against the stone floor. “I’ve been around long enough that I don’t remember where I came from. I made this at some point. Anyone else who picked it up would be possessed like Persis here was. That’s it. That’s what I am. Some Primordials survive straight through, others utilize reincarnation. I’ve done both.”
“And you’ve been hiding that?” Odessa demanded.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
Ash wasn’t happy. “You’ve got me caught up in shit like fate manipulation, you fuck? This is what I worked so carefully to get away from. I betrayed my lord to escape his manipulation. The fucker thought I was his, just like Kendall. I got us here! Not this Christopher cunt.”
“Your purposes were his. That’s what he does.”
Ash practically snarled. He started to swear again, but he stopped himself. His red hair had fallen in his face, and he didn’t brush it away. His expression then turned icy. “Changes nothing. I’m done with your kind. Immortals, sorcerers.”
Anna stood over him and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re together?”
“For my advantage,” Ash coldly told her. “That’s done now, little girl.”
“We’re… we’re splitting up?”
“Sorry, not so sorry.” Ash crossed his legs and sat back. He fixed his hair and looked up to the empty thrones, staring past us.
“I-” Odessa started. “My journey is done too, I think.”
“No,” I said. “I won’t abandon you, Anna. And Odessa? I wish I knew you better. Then maybe I’d know what I needed to say. To impart hope, inspire you to keep going. But I’m not even sure those words exist. Instead, let me just ask you. No half truths. Please come with us. We need you to protect us. It’s what you do, Odessa. I’m not powerful enough to do this on my own, honestly.”
She didn’t respond. She cut her eyes to the ground.
I fell to my ass beside the corpse. Anna and Odessa took a seat as well. This was the first time in a very long time that we had nowhere to go. I knew I would have to get moving eventually, but I could choose when. There was no bell waiting to toll. None of us were getting any older.
We’ve got a job to do, the voice whispered. I hushed it, shaking my head to clear it. The others said nothing.
I sighed deeply.
Ash brushed off and stood. He nodded to me, turning and walking up the steps.
He was going to leave. Just like that, we’d never see him again.
“Risk-benefit analysis,” I said. “Playing to win.”
He stopped in his tracks. Turning back with an eyebrow arched.
He’s a liability. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t see him go.
“You really think you have more control over your survival out there?” I asked. “What if I told you leaving now was leaving it to fate? Giving up control.”
“You’re full of shit, is what I would tell you,” he replied.
I cracked a weak smile. “Where does a demon find himself on Armageddon, Ash? Why do you think I’m here? Why do you think any of this is happening? It’s certainly for a reason, right? A plot.”
“Tell me,” he ordered, taking a step down.
“It’s the end, Ash. The end of everything.”