Rose woke to pain.
That in itself wasn't unusual – the knocks, bumps, aches and pains that came with being... well, a prisoner, sometimes got bad enough to drag her from a restless sleep in the middle of the night. But this pain was new, and incessant, and made her want to scream.
Gritting her teeth in an effort to keep silent, Rose sat up awkwardly – the manacles around her wrists and ankles made free movement difficult – and stepped over the chain that bound her hands. Then she gently felt up her back, groping towards that intense pain.
The first thing she felt was the blood.
Her mouth growing dry, Rose gave her skin a gentle prod. The blood was oozing out of a vertical slit in her back, about a foot long, from what she could tell. Her skin was sticky, as if she'd been bleeding for a long time.
Oh Mercy, no.
It had been late. Very late. And Mercy, she thought she'd actually managed to avoid it. Slip the noose. Thought that she hadn't been one of those that grew wings, only to have them hacked off the minute they were discovered.
Breathing became difficult.
Rose hunched forward, burying her face in her hands. The blood on her fingers stuck to her scalp, spiky with dark, hacked-off hair, but she didn't care. She'd seen Isaac being dragged away just under a year ago – seen him fight and kick and bite and punch as he was hauled down the low-ceilinged, narrow corridor. And when his screams finally vanished from earshot, she'd curled up, rested her head on her knees, and stared blankly at nothing for more than an hour.
After Isaac had stopped sobbing, he'd explained it to her. And it had given her nightmares for months; she'd woken up screaming so loud that her back was checked every morning for weeks, because the guards thought she had finally succumbed to the pain. She would be chained to the floor, and her wings would be tied to butchering blocks. Th-there had been a chainsaw, Isaac said in a hushed whisper. A roaring chainsaw that sprayed blood everywhere as it amputated his wings, shredding through skin and muscle and bone. It was like a show, he said. Demons came to spectate, to watch as he was disconnected from the sky for eternity. Of course they would – any illegitimate hybrid being tortured was worthy entertainment. They were unwanted, unseen, and had no voice. Who would care about their wellbeing?
Whenever a hybrid was born, they could barely draw their first breaths before being handed over to a Deathbringer, who attempted to mark them for death. In a hybrid's case, there was no way to know if it was possible until it was tried. If it worked, the baby died. If it didn't, they were locked in cells to live out their miserable existence.
None of them would ever fly. Never taste the wind. Rose herself had never even glimpsed the sky, but there were nights... the quiet ones, when she felt that the wind was on her face, kissing her skin.
And then she'd be dragged back to this brutal reality.
Rose shut her eyes and told herself to breathe. Maybe she could hide it. If she could hide the pain, and keep the wings hidden under her clothes, then it was a possibility. A pitiful thread of hope, but she clung to it like she was drowning. The thought of going through an ordeal like that made her heart pound so hard and fast she could hear the blood thrumming in her head.
Another wave of agony hit, more intense than the first, and Rose gave a quiet hiss through her teeth as more blood streamed down her back. The agony wrapped around her spine anddug underneath her shoulder blades, and Rose stifled a groan, clenching her jaw so hard that a deep ache spread across her face.
It took a few minutes to pass.
Rose sagged when it finally left her, a sheen of sweat gleaming on her forehead. She'd bitten her lip to stop herself from crying out, and the coppery taste of blood filled her mouth. Oh Mercy, how long did it take for wings to grow in? A month? Several? Isaac's hadn't even been fully grown when he was dragged away – the wings had been half out of his body, and covered with a thick layer of sticky blood. Not that that had stopped the executioners.
As if he knew what was going on, Isaac stirred in his sleep, and opened one piercing eye. At the sight of Rose's stricken, sweaty face, he frowned, sitting up awkwardly, manoeuvring himself around the shackles. As he rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand, he mouthed the words, What's wrong?
Rose opened her mouth – not entirely sure how she was going to break the news to him – but her back arched as the split in her skin widened, and fresh blood trickled out, soaking into her shirt. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around her torso, trying to contain the agonized scream that built and built and built, begging to be released. But she clamped down on it, bowing her head and squeezing her eyes shut. If a guard were to walk past now, all would be lost. There wouldn't be any hope of hiding the pain, and her wings – the wings that she already loved and hated so much it made her head spin – would be gone forever.
Slowly, the pain ebbed... and passed.
Isaac was pale as death when she looked at him through the kaleidoscope of tears, trying to hold herself together.
Perhaps it was worse that she couldn't die. Worse to have to endure this for an eternity, or at least until the demons tired of her – as they all eventually did – and dumped her at the gates of heaven for the angels to do as they would. Tear her to bloody shreds, most likely – her mixed blood wouldn't do her any favours with them. Sometimes she wished to be pulled from her cell in the middle of the night, if only so the endless torture could be ended. Deathbringers only affected humans – and some lucky or unlucky hybrids, depending on which way you look at it. Angels and demons existed outside of death, neither alive nor living, so it seemed fitting that only they could kill each other. And probably level a mountain range while they were at it, too.
It made her shudder every time she thought about it. The Deathbringers might be terrifying and mysterious, with their grey skin and hair and glowing purple eyes, but when it came down to it, a battle between angels and demons could be far, far worse.
Isaac's claws instinctively punched through the ends of his fingers as a solitary tear slid down Rose's face, but this wasn't a danger that he could fight. He could only watch, wide-eyed, offering silent encouragement, too scared of discovery to say anything.
When Rose finally looked up and gave him a weak smile, the expression on his face was one of utmost pity. I'm so sorry, he mouthed.
Rose only shook her head and curled up on her side, tucking her hands under her armpits in an effort to thaw her frozen fingers. Isaac didn't comment; he knew as well as she did that the problem wasn't one that would be fixed anytime soon. She would be caught, or she wouldn't. There wasn't really any way to predict the outcome.
Still, sleep didn't come easily that night. She got perhaps an hour's total rest, too stricken, too panicky, in too much pain to fall asleep. Instead, Rose periodically jerked awake, gasping with fright and pain as the slit in her back slowly widened to accommodate the wings trying to force their way out.
By the time the guards – lesser demons and Deathbringers alike – began their morning rounds, her heart was pounding so hard she could hear the blood thrumming in her head. If there was any time she would be caught, it was going to be now, when the guards checked their eyes for tears and listened carefully for any whimpers of pain that might indicate something was amiss. Any offenders would have their back checked, and woe betide them if even a drop of blood was found.
Rose had smothered the back of her shirt in handfuls of muck from the floor of her cell, hoping to disguise the scent of blood. Hiding her fear, however, much a much harder enterprise. She sat slumped against the wall, staring out of her cell with half-open, puffy eyes, praying she looked like waking up was an effort. Even though every too-shallow breath felt like a knife being dragged down her spine.
A Deathbringer stopped by her cell, slowly turning his head to look inside.
Her heart bleated in terror and threw itself against the bars of her ribcage as those glowing violet eyes met her own brown ones.
Oh Mercy, save me. Mercy...
She knew this one – he was the one to patrol her corridor in the morning, and occasionally stopped to glare at her with such hatred Rose felt it in her bones, as if he had some, kind of personal agenda against her. Of course he did – she was less than dirt, in his opinion. Rose sometimes wondered if he had been the one to hold her at birth. Perhaps he hated her because she had, when all was said and done, been stronger than him, even as a child.
He possessed the same unearthly perfection as the rest of his kind, he stood surely, straight and tall. His dark grey hair reached his ears, and a few tendrils fell over the bridge of his narrow, straight nose. His skin was a few shades lighter, and utterly smooth and unblemished. He wore a shirt and trousers – no shoes or socks.
His image seemed to undulate, ripple as is Rose was looking at his reflection in a disturbed pond. As if her half-human eyes couldn't quite comprehend the pure power that seemed to emanate from him in thick waves. And the noises that surrounded him – the faintest whispers and echoing screams – so quiet that Rose couldn't be sure if she was really hearing them or if the endless hours of confinement had gone to her head.
They stared at each other, and Rose knew she had to present some front of normalcy, to make them think that the loud, bold girl hadn't been replaced by one that wanted to whimper in fear. So she smirked, and raised her middle finger at him. Lazily, as if he wasn't worth her time.
The Deathbringer merely shrugged and walked away.
Rose waited a good few minutes before letting out a quiet breath of relief. Isaac nodded encouragingly, offering a small, sympathetic smile – the most he could do at this moment in time.
Mercy, it was hard to imagine she'd once wanted to rip his throat out.
Isaac had been shoved into the opposite cell early in Rose's tenth year, after the Other Isaac had been dragged away to Mercy knew where.
The Other Isaac had been an adult archdemon, imprisoned in the opposite cell for reasons Rose didn't know. But she had seen his face from as early as she could remember, and Isaac quickly became the closest thing she had to a father.
He told her stories, he educated her by scratching numbers and letters into the wall of his cell using those three-inch claws. And when Rose was dragged into the fighting pits for the first time at the age of six, he comforted her as best she could while her wounds slowly closed for hours afterward.
He told her about the human world, he named her – no one else cared enough to do so – and told her what it was like to fly, even though he never would. Like the other offenders, his wings had been hacked off in front of an audience the moment his mysterious crime was discovered. But, he told her, there were ways of getting wings back. It was difficult, but it could be done.
That was the last straw, as far as the guards were concerned.
Rose remembered waking in the middle of the night when they came for him. He fought like a warrior, letting the monster in him show for the first time. Rose had been equally terrified of her father figure and the inevitable horrors that were coming his way.
His roars of fury had echoed through her mind for days.
And when she realised that he was truly gone, Rose became a different person.
The fighting pits were a popular form of entertainment for both the higher and lesser demons. Pitting two hybrids against each other was found to be an art form, and bets were taken on fatalities. Rose remembered fighting to the death with a half-angel hybrid when they were both just eight years old – the sticky, warm feeling of his blood on her hands as she shoved her claws into his gut.
After Isaac was taken, Rose lived, breathed and ate the impromptu battles. Any hybrid that faced her was unlikely to walk out in one piece. She became something of a favourite among the many spectators, and was spared from the usual hybrid duties, such as spending a few days as a slave to whoever required it, so she could be shoved into the pit more often. The demons cheered when the tiny hybrid with her abnormally short claws spread her feet apart and growled viciously through gritted teeth. They laughed when she raked great red lines on the chests of her opponents and gouged their eyes out. Rose hated them for it.
And she hated herself for becoming such a monster.
But she persuaded herself that there was no other way. There was win or lose, kill or be killed. There was no room for morals or feelings. So she fought, and bled, and drowned any regrets in that ocean of roiling rage that never calmed, never went away. In those battles, sometimes she would release just a trickle of it.
And then came the day when she was put against an angel-demon hybrid.
Isaac had told her they were the rarest of them all, since the two species harboured a mutual, deep-set hatred for each other, and most resultant hybrids were stillborn anyway, because divine and unholy blood just didn't mix well. But there her opponent was, with his short, gleaming claws and his bright quicksilver eyes, looking her in astonishment as the crowd hushed each other, waiting for the noise they knew so well.
Rose's growl had brought a look of utter terror to his face. She allowed herself a split second of remorse, of hatred, before lunging and opening four scarlet scratches on his arm.
The fight lasted for hours.
Rose could die at his hands, but the same couldn't be said for him, so her only hope was to run her opponent to the ground and be declared the victor because he simply couldn't stand anymore. They tumbled across the floor, kicking and punching and scratching and – in Rose's case – biting with those gleaming razor-sharp demon's fangs. Roaring profanities at each other. Spitting mouthfuls of dark red blood onto the floor.
It ended when the boy rested his head on the ground, his blood-streaked chest heaving with rapid breaths. And didn't get up.
Rose just stared at him, stared at her hands, stared at the blood on her – mostly his – and wondered how she managed to do it. How her half-human hands and teeth and feet and claws could possibly inflict so much damage on a boy who was full of ancient, immortal blood. Blood that she had spilled across the floor.
She wasn't able to comprehend it before guards seized them both and hauled them away, flanked by raucous cheers. To Rose's horror, the boy was shoved into the cell opposite hers, as if the guards couldn't be bothered to drag him to his proper place. That was probably the case.
When the boy woke up, he looked at her through expressionless puffy eyes, those silver irises gleaming.
"You let me win," Rose said quietly.
"No I didn't." He replied, and sat up, wincing. Rose felt a twinge of guilt for the extensive injuries she had given him, and then shoved it down. No room for morals. No room for feeling. He would heal, after all. She felt a pang of jealousy for him and his rapidly fading bruises, when the tender ache in her joints was only just beginning to diminish.
The boy looked around his cell with mild interest, a slightly vacant look in his eyes, as if he were only half conscious. His gaze paused on the markings Isaac had etched into the wall. "What are these?"
Rose fought against the surge of bitter hatred that arose with the question.
"That's none of your business," she said with deadly calm.
"I was only asking."
"Well don't, or the next time I go in with you, I'll tear you limb from limb." An empty threat – she couldn't kill him.
But the boy had obliged, even as they beat the crap out of each other over and over again for the next year. They became crowd favourites after a time, and the bets placed became higher and higher and higher, until each of them had a following that screamed in delight when they walked – not fell – into the pit.
Rose won most, but lost others, mostly due to the boy's incredibly fast healing, borne from his equal parts holy and unholy blood. Several times, he had her gripped by the throat, snarling, those claws digging into the soft skin of her neck as his quicksilver eyes flashed with anger. But, for some reason she just didn't understand, he never chose to rip her throat out. The fights had to end in some way, so he would pummel her until she was unable to continue. Rose couldn't decide if she hated him for it.
It was a whole year before they had another conversation, when they had both reached the age of eleven. The boy was staring at the marking on the walls, as he so often did, his expression thoughtful.
He opened his mouth, but Rose cut him off with a warning growl.
"I meant it," she hissed. He didn't need to ask what, exactly, she meant.
"I'm bored of living like this," he replied with a small smile that didn't quite meet those metallic eyes, "Being torn limb from limb might liven things up a little."
Rose blinked. Once. Twice. Not at the way he seemed to utterly unafraid of her, but at the... tone in his voice. Light. Conversational. And so utterly foreign she was, for the first time in her life, caught off guard.
"I'll make it quick, though," he promised, doing another quick scan of his cell, "What are these?"
And Rose, much to her own surprise, whispered, "They're words."
The boy frowned, his brow furrowing, "Words? What do you mean, they're words?"
"The letters – they're sounds. And they make words. I can read them," Rose said quietly, swallowing hard against the lump that suddenly arose in her throat, "I could teach you."
After that, the animosity between them slowly faded.
Rose taught him his letters and numbers, though sometimes she had to stop the lessons abruptly, overcome by some memory of The Other Isaac. The hybrid boy never commented.
And, over time, she told him everything. All the happy moments and sad ones, how Isaac's screams still sounded in her nightmares and how she sometimes wished he had never existed, and then hated herself for thinking such a thing.
When she reached the end of her long, miserable story, she asked the boy if he had a name. And when he said no, she gave him the only one she knew, besides her own, and told him to wear it with pride.
Four years on, the two of them had found a companion – a very rare occurrence among other hybrids – and though they were still tossed into the pit whenever the demons felt like some entertainment, they still managed to smile weakly at each other through the bars of the two cells, as their blood dripped onto the floor and the broken fingers slowly knitted back together. Rose felt it was a mark of an extremely strong friendship, if they could brawl for hours on end in the dust and still have a civil conversation afterwards. Granted, there were moments when they would hiss and snarl at each other, brandishing their claws and teeth, but those moments always passed. Eventually.
With the newfound pain in her back, the sight of Isaac was all that kept her from falling apart as the guards paced up and down the corridors, their eyes searching for anything off. She smirked at them, gave some of them the finger, and others she ignored entirely. Bored. Disinterested. A front she had to keep maintained above all else.
More held-back tears of agony as the wings slowly tore open her back.