My name is Loch Lacey, and I am sexually attracted to red flags—the more of them shoved into a vaguely man-shaped form, the hotter and dumber I get.
I’d say that trait would end up killing me, but it already had. Five years ago, I’d let some fuckwit tell me pretty lies and sold my soul for his benefit, which left me spending my afterlife here in the Chasm as my punishment.
And even though I should have known better, a part of me saw the man across the bar, Tyrus, with a flashing neon sign above his head saying death two here. I didn’t believe in love at first sight but fuck if ‘my future bad decision at first sight’ wasn’t a thing.
Tyrus sat at his normal table in the back. He ran this place—much like he ran many of the businesses here. Whereas most bosses, especially ones with as much on their plate as Tyrus had, would half-ass the actual day-to-day headaches, he never seemed to. He was always here.
Right now, he was talking to someone else, his arm out on the back of the bench as if to prove himself in charge. Talk about posturing.
Of course, Tyrus was all about his posturing. He liked to play the game and from what I’d seen, he excelled at it.
“Another?” The bartender, Koya, put a new drink down in front of me before I got the chance to answer. Then again, my empty glass suggested I needed more. I didn’t have a whole lot of talents, but I could drink most people under the table while staying on my feet. Call it a gift from a life spent trying to escape the ugliness of my reality.
I nodded in thanks, then brought the new glass to my lips. The liquor burned, but I didn’t so much as flinch as I swallowed down a gulp.
“Hey there, pretty thing. You new here?” The unfamiliar voice made me struggle to resist the urge to roll my eyes like a petulant child.
I turned on my barstool to find a damned behind me, his body already twisted beyond recognition. He had horns that curled back from his temples and bright red eyes, his face having shifted into a muzzle. When I’d died, five years ago, the thought of talking to something as terrifying looking as him would have sent me screaming. Now, however? I was used to it.
Fangs, feathers, claws, scales? Big fucking deal. So long as they didn’t drool or spit acid on me, I didn’t much care.
“Nope,” I answered before taking another drink and peering out at the dim bar again.
The Chasm was always dark. Even inside, even with lighting, it never got bright enough. Trying to do puzzles here was a fucking losing battle. It made me wonder if the very air here absorbed the light.
Wouldn’t surprise me. Seemed yet another way to remind us all that we were the bad guys and this was our punishment.
“But you still look human—you can’t have been here that long,” the man added on.
I gave him a side-eye because I’d heard this shit before plenty of times. People showed up in the Chasm in two forms—as damned or as demons. They all looked human at first, but the damned quickly twisted into monstrous forms. They grew fangs and claws and became animalistic. Demons, on the other hand, kept their human body. They had another form, a demonic one, but they didn’t have to take that. Demons were rarer and more powerful, putting them above the damned.
I still appeared human because I’d been one of the few who arrived as a demon rather than damned.
“Nope,” I assured him. “Been here in this depressing paradise for five years.”
“So why haven’t I seen you?”
“Because I’ve been really fucking lucky so far?”
He narrowed his eyes until they looked like some cheap Halloween decoration, nothing but a red spotlight staring out from his not-at-all human face. “You’re mouthy for someone who just got here.”
“Again—didn’t just get here. Why don’t you go look for someone who might actually find you charming?” Like there’s anyone who would…
He leaned in closer, bringing his face just in front of mine. His breath was hot and smelled of rotting flesh. “You need to learn how this world works. People survive by clinging to someone more powerful. You’ll lose those looks of yours before you know it, get twisted into something just like the rest of us, so why not sell that pretty little human body while it’s still worth something?”
My stomach didn’t even roll. Was that how far gone I was already? That even this disgusting thing whispering into my ear in the middle of a bar, suggesting things I’d never take him up on, didn’t even warrant any stomach churning? Not at least a rumble or threat of vomiting all over him?
I really am jaded, aren’t I?
I’d suffered with assholes like him plenty of times, damned who took one look at my unmutated form and wanted to own and break me. I knew what I looked like, which was exactly the same as when I’d died. I didn’t have to dye my hair green anymore, since it was like that when I’d taken the bullets that had killed me. I still had the small tattoo on each of my cheeks, hadn’t grown more than my pathetic five feet in height and didn’t put on or lose weight. Basically? In death, we ended up stuck. It made me feel bad for those who died with not-so-great trends like shaved off eyebrows or shitty tattoos.
On the plus side, I’d shaved the morning I’d died, so no worries about body hair! I had to find the silver lining where I could, or the dreariness of this place would get to me.
“Hard pass.” I brought my drink to my mouth again, letting the heavy glass smack him as I did so.
At least that caused him to lean back and give me a bit of space.
“Who are you bound to? I’ll just buy your soul off them.”
The name caught on my lips. Talk about an answer I hated to give. Then again, that was how the Chasm worked. People didn’t wind up here because they were bad people—though, to be fair, most of us were—but because we’d all sold our souls. Just admitting that I didn’t own my soul made my mood plummet.
And given I was this far into a bottle on a…Tuesday night? Yeah, my mood was already dragging ass.
“I’ll find out,” he assured me. “And I can be extremely persistent. You’ll be mine by the end of the week, and I can’t wait to fuck up all that soft human skin. Bet you won’t look so pretty when I’m done with you.”
“I would personally advise against that,” said a deep voice that made the man freeze. He turned slowly, as though if he took long enough, he’d find something other than what he expected behind him.
Except it didn’t change. No matter how long the man took, Tyrus still stood there, his dark eyebrow lifted in an obvious challenge.
“She yours?” the man asked, a waver in his voice that made it clear he wasn’t rising to that challenge.
“Then why do you care? Unless you’re enjoying her right now, in which case, I’ll fucking wait. I don’t want to step on any toes.”
“Hardly,” Tyrus said with so much disgust in his voice that I was pretty sure I should feel insulted. I might not be sultry or sexy, but he didn’t need to say that as if I were some rotting carcass. “She belongs to Gorrin.”
And there went the color from the man’s cheeks. In fact, forget some parting snarky shot—the man was lucky to stay upright as he fled the bar just as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“Coward,” Tyrus muttered as he watched the man leave, then turned toward me. “Why didn’t you tell him about Gorrin? Mentioning his name would have resolved this instantly.”
“Somehow, it bothers me to admit being owned. Imagine that?”
Tyrus leaned against the bar beside me, giving me the chance to see him up close. How was it that someone could look that dangerous, even dressed in a suit, as civilized as a man could appear? He had tan skin and dark features, with deep brown eyes and black hair slicked back in true gangster style. He had facial hair that rode the line between being well-maintained still looking like he had a five-o’clock shadow.
He was terrifying in a wholly unusual way, and when he stared at me, I felt as if he saw me naked.
No, worse than naked. I could deal with people seeing bare skin—what did that matter? Plenty of people had seen my tits and I wasn’t conceited enough to think they were special in any way. The left was better than the right, but neither were real superstars. Tyrus saw deeper than that, though. He peered into my soul—what a shitty turn of phrase since I’d sold that already—and saw things I wanted to keep hidden.
“You wouldn’t deal with people like that if you gained your own power and made your own name,” Tyrus added on.
It’s always back to this, isn’t it? Seemed it was lecture time yet again.
I took another drink, hoping the burning liquor would dull my senses and the conversation. “I’m fine.”
“No, you aren’t. In the Chasm, the only things that matter are power and connections. You need to obtain both to survive here.”
“I’ll do that about when hell freezes over, which it hasn’t in five years, so I think I’m safe.”
“This isn’t hell.”
“Close enough. I’m not about to go around stealing souls just to make myself more powerful.”
“It isn’t stealing—it’s bartering. When you were still alive and human, did you not exchange money for goods and services? You do the same here. The only difference is that we use souls as currency.”
I thought back to how I’d ended up here, to when I’d sold my soul, to that crushing regret when I’d realized it had all been for nothing. The memory threatened to close my throat, but I shut my eyes and took a deep breath to push it all away.
The Chasm wasn’t the sort of place to show weakness, and certainly not in front of a Demon Lord like Tyrus.
The four assholes who ran this place—Tyrus, Gorrin, Hale and Yazmor—held the souls of nearly all the damned between them. This gave them the power to stand mostly unopposed. They ruled the Chasm through fear, threats and a good old heaping of violence just to really flavor the whole recipe.
“Thanks for the completely unsolicited advice, but no thanks. I’m good.”
“You really aren’t. You have stagnated here for five years. You’ve survived this long only because of your connection to us—that won’t save you forever. It is an imperfect defense that chips away each time you use it. Eventually, it will crumble, and you will have to stand against threats on your own. You can either be moral or you can be strong. You will have to choose between the two.” With that, he peered at Koya. “That is her last drink. She does not need to be drunk on her way home.”
“Didn’t think the devil cared.”
“I am not a devil.”
“Could have fooled me,” I muttered as I gulped down the rest of the liquor and slammed the glass down on the bar top.
Tyrus said nothing else before he turned on his heels and headed back to his table. The other man still waited there patiently, telling me Tyrus had left his meeting to intervene on my behalf. It made his words sting more and irritated me worse than the cheap liquor.
And yet that annoyance didn’t stop me from noticing the way he filled out his suit. Most men I’d known who wore such outfits mixed different colors. They’d have a black suit with a white shirt and red tie—something to create a balance. Not Tyrus, though. He paired a black suit with a black shirt and a matching tie.
It wasn’t how he looked that garnered the fear and respect of others, though. It was his power, his demon form, his absolute ruthlessness that had earned him his place at the top. I’d yet to see that other side of him, and honestly? I never wanted to. Seeing my own demon form had shocked me enough when I’d first arrived here.
I peered back at Koya, who offered me an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Loch. If it were anyone else, I’d say fuck it and give you another, but I’m not about to piss the boss off.”
“Thanks anyway, Koya.” I shrugged and slid from the bar stool, the world shifting as I moved for the first time in a few hours and more than a few drinks.
Guess Tyrus hadn’t been wrong about cutting me off.
Koya set something on the bar, and for a moment, I smiled. Had he given in to my meager charms?
Of course not. Instead of more alcohol, a cup made from a small skull sat there, the dark liquid inside no doubt coffee. “Should help clear your head a bit,” Koya said.
“Thanks.” I picked it up and took a drink. When I’d first arrived, the idea of drinking from a skull would have grossed me out. Funny how quickly things can become normal for people.
Demons and damned and skulls had been nothing more than Halloween jokes for most of my life, but now? Totally average. In fact, a day where I didn’t see anyone brutally murdered would strike me as odd.
I headed toward the door, coffee in hand, ignoring the weight of Tyrus’ gaze. Something about the way he watched me always let me know it was him even if I wanted to pretend otherwise. No matter how distracted, how busy, I always felt the weight of his gaze.
But I refused to look backward and acknowledge it, because men who were bad for me had already fucked up my life more than enough.
I could fuck it up all on my own now, thank you very much.
* * * *
The sound of someone crying was like background music in the Chasm—so normal most of us ignored it. Much like screams, we preferred to mind our own damned business.
However, some part of me had always found a soft spot for women and children, so when that sobbing was higher-pitched, I turned to find a female damned backed against a wall, another with his hand on the wall above her, caging her in.
“You’re working, right?”
She nodded, though the motion screamed that she wasn’t happy with the answer. Then again, one look at her body told me all I needed to know.
She was twisted as all damned ended up, her limbs so thin that they had a child-like quality. In a lot of ways, she really had an ethereal beauty to her that was rare. Of course, the barely there clothing, location and her words said she was a sex worker—and not because she wanted to be.
People in the Chasm did what they had to do, just like back on Earth. In fact, it mirrored the surface a whole lot more than most people liked to admit. Any vice that could be found there was replicated here, because we were all the same.
“So what’s the problem?” the male asked as he pressed in closer.
“Last time…” The woman’s voice drifted off.
“You look fine now. You healed up, so why’re you bitching?”
Oh fuck that. I found my feet moving about all on their own. The woman kept going with weak denials, but each one only seemed to egg the man on.
“If you refuse me, you think that’ll make Tyrus happy? You think that’ll go well for you?”
“Enough,” I said, breaking into their little back and forth.
The man twisted to look at me, but no recognition flashed in his eyes. I tried to keep my head down for the most part and not make too many waves. The benefit was that I didn’t have a ton of people who had reason to hate me—the negative was that I didn’t have a ton of people who respected me, either.
Not that the odds had ever really stopped me. Even when I made calculated risks, I tended to do the math horribly.
“This doesn’t concern you,” the man snapped, then turned back to the woman as though he were done with me.
“Sure it does. Doesn’t seem like she’s falling for your sales pitch, so why don’t you back off?”
The man stepped away from her, but only to take a big, aggressive step my way. Instead of showing any fear, I took another drink of the coffee Koya had given me.
“She’s working, isn’t she? My money spends like anyone else’s.”
While souls were the main currency used in the Chasm, we still traded crystal shards as well. It was a more convenient way to keep track and people seemed to like the jingle from carrying them.
“She still gets to decide what clients she takes and which she sends packing. You seem to be in the second category.”
The man approached until he stood just before me, his eyes narrowed. He’d been tall, but his time in the Chasm had twisted him so he hunched forward, and tusks came up from his bottom jaw. “Tyrus owns her, so the only person who gets a say is him. Last I checked, you ain’t him.”
“I don’t have to be him. Go find someone else.”
A throat cleared behind me, and I didn’t need to turn to know who stood there. Saved by a devil again.
The man peered over my shoulder, made a sound of frustration, then stormed off the other way.
I didn’t bother to turn around—the person behind me would wait as long as I wanted. Instead, I focused on the girl in front of me. “What’s your name?”
“Kelly,” she whispered. “Is Tyrus going to be mad? What if—”
I could spot the downward spiral she had just plummeted into, one I needed to break.
“It’s fine,” I assured her. “It’ll be fine, I promise.”
I shook my head and took out a few shards from my pocket. I handed them over to her, enough to pay for whatever that man would have given her. “There we go. You earned, so you’re good.”
I doubted Tyrus would have been okay with anyone hurting the girls who worked for him anyway, but Kelly seemed to feel better once she had the shards in hand. “Just to be on the safe side.” I held my hand out to her. When she put her hand into mine, I pulled a pen from my pocket and wrote on her arm.
Give her the night off and deal with your own problems yourself—Loch.
She looked at the words, her eyes widening. “You can’t order him around!”
“If he has a problem with it, he’ll complain later, I’m sure. Now, go on.”
Kelly peered behind me, at the shadow waiting for me to pay attention to him, before she nodded and took off toward Tyrus’ bar.
“She shouldn’t be here,” I muttered.
“You don’t think anyone should be here,” the man behind me said.
I turned finally, struck yet again by the Demon Lord who stood there, his arms crossed and a permanent scowl on his otherwise handsome features.
Hale. The tattooed and pierced bad boy of the Demon Lords. He had light brown hair, shaved on the sides and longer on the top. His throat and chest were covered in tattoos, the designs all weaving together until it would take close study to figure them all out. A curved silver barbell went through his right eyebrow, above one of his shockingly blue eyes, and a horseshoe shaped ring hung in his septum. He had a lip ring, and the glint of light at his chest showed off his pierced nipples as well.
Of course, that was also because he thought an open leather jacket should function alone, since he hadn’t paired it with a shirt.
“I think you should be here,” I said with a sickly sweet smile.
He snorted. “One of these days your mouth is gonna get you into trouble that you can’t talk your way out of.”
“Probably.” I took another sip of the coffee, then turned to stare up at the walls of the Chasm, the dark cliffs that surrounded our little bit of hell on every side. Light came from one edge, the sky always glowing softly as if overcast, but never making it down to us. “What do you think the Plains are like?”
Bits of gravel groaned beneath Hale’s boots as he walked up to stand beside me. “Fucking perfect, I figure. If it wasn’t, what’d the point be? Probably boring, though.”
“Boring isn’t that bad. There’s an old saying about ‘May you live in interesting times,’ that’s really a curse. I think I’ll take boring over that.”
“Boring doesn’t sound bad when you’ve been here five years, but take a look at the older damned, the ones who’ve been here way longer, and you’ll find the biggest enemy is boredom. People don’t do well when they ain’t occupied. Fuck, maybe the Plains are just a big joke, nothing but bored-ass goody-two-shoes who off themselves after a year because they can’t stand waking up another day there.”
“Sounds like sour grapes.” At his look, I went on. “It means since you can’t have it, you decide it’s not good anyway to make yourself feel better. I wish I could see the Plains,” I admitted.
“Yeah, well, our kind doesn’t get up there. Closest you’ll get is when one of those fucking angel assholes comes down here.”
Which wasn’t all that common, given it hadn’t happened in the five years since I’d been here. I’d heard about them—apparently the white wings weren’t just a fairytale—but I’d never actually seen one.
“Stop looking so fucking forlorn,” Hale snapped. “Angels don’t come down here unless they got a really good fucking reason, which usually means they got reason to end someone big. In other words? You don’t want to see ‘em up close.”
“Maybe,” I said, even if I didn’t feel that way.
Sure, I might just be smitten with what I couldn’t have, might just think about how wonderful life would be if I were in the Plains because it wouldn’t ever happen. I’d traded that away when I’d traded away my soul, which shackled me here to Gorrin and to the Chasm.
Which meant staring up at that glow, at the place where the impossibly high walls of the Chasm met the sky, was as close as I could ever hope to get.
And that really wasn’t close enough for me.