THE ONLY entertaining part of my prison sentence was planning the escape. Since I’ve been sentenced for over seventeen thousand lifetimes, I didn’t lack motivation. Though here in Tul Sar Naar, formerly known as Tartarus, time possessed little meaning.
I got out of the bed, my skin itching beneath my steel collar, and started stretching. The prisoner sharing my cell, Loki, was already finishing this morning’s warm-up. Well, technically speaking, he has been sharing his cell with me since the Nordic god has been imprisoned here for two years while I arrived less than a year ago. Our cell featured little other than the two bunk beds and a tiny lavatory embedded into the room. The steel floor chilled my feet as I started the basic workout.
“Another day in damnation,” Loki said, mischief playing on his lips. “Still planning your grand escape?”
The bastard asked me this question every day for the past half a year. I should have never told him I was working on that. “I wouldn’t call it grand.”
“What’s the rush, Lucas?” He stood smaller than me, leaner and less muscular, with short brown hair and an unremarkable, clean-shaven face. He had the same steel collar I wore, which limited his ability to use magic the same way mine did.
Telling him anything may not have been strategic, but I couldn’t hide everything from him. Especially since he was a part of the plan. “I promised someone I would be back in a year.”
“And you still believe that whoever escapes this place and reaches the shore will be pardoned of all crimes?”
He asked in a joking manner, but desire bubbled underneath. Yes, the Hand of God was so confident in their prison they taunted everyone with the promise of a pardon. “The Devil herself told me.” And in the supernatural world, her word was an unbreakable law.
Sirens thundered through the air, the official alarm clock. The cell’s steel door flung open, displaying the abyss beyond. Like in a twisted beehive, cells were built inside the walls of a massive tower-like column with no paths leading from the door. The male part of the prison housed about four hundred prisoners, a wild mix of old gods, newly reborn demi-gods, rogue mages and witches, werewolves, and pretty much everything else supernatural that the Hand of God deemed fit for imprisonment.
The air in the tower blew upward in a strong current. With heavy rumbling, a steel contraption unwrapped like a blooming blossom above us. As if not having a path from the door wasn’t enough, the only exit—the corridor leading to mess hall—had its own, special door.
This place wasn’t merely a prison, but also a factory where we were the basic materials. Everything magical in the world ran on aether, the arcane energy that powered all magic. The main purpose of this prison was to extract aether from the prisoners, liquefying it into aether batteries, which were a prized commodity in the supernatural world.
Sirens changed their tone into a staccato. Time to go. I glanced over my shoulder. “Remember when I told you what the first move would be? We’re doing it today.” And like all the other orange-jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, I leapt into the open space, letting the magical updraft carry me. The air was wet and lifted me up as if I weighed nothing.
The spell allowing us to leave the cells was a simple one, but quite effective given the updraft ended at the only exit, the tunnel leading into the mess hall.
I enjoyed the short flight, watching the other prisoners floating nearby, and landed into a wooden hallway. Thousands of oak-made cubes formed the walls, floor, ceiling, and sculptures within the tunnel. The sculptures were a wild mix of animals, men in armor, and women in dresses. A smile crept onto my face from the pleasant change of scenery. This was by far the prettiest place in our prison.
Yet like everything else in Tul Sar Naar, this had a purpose. The corridor presented the only path to and from the cells and contained powerful detection magic, which scanned the prisoners for any object we weren’t supposed to have. Wood was the material that interfered the least with magic and cubes were a shape that was easy to filter out. The sculptures themselves served for the scan’s contrast, like the black background on a negative.
Loki landed next to me and we walked ahead. The detection tunnel’s magic made my fingers tingle.
Ignoring the ever-present stench of sweat and misery, we entered the mess hall. The usual set of angry glares welcomed me into the near-barren room. I loved being popular. Iron tables and chairs made rows like in a school dining hall and we stepped into the waiting line. One by one, the prisoners walked to the small window in the steel wall where a machine served breakfast.
The prisoners were spread into their usual groups. The gods and demigods—who were all really just humans with immortal souls—grouped up by their pantheons, fallen angels sat together, and so did the werewolves, mages, and everyone damn else. And most were here for the same reason as me. Divine souls would eventually revive if killed, so ending our lives was suboptimal. Imprisoning us forever, however, was much more efficient. Given we also produced large amounts of aether, which this facility was built to extract, jailing us here was also a lot more economic. And if the Devil, the prison’s owner, loved anything, it was money.
Loki and I took the trays carrying our portions and sat at the far end of the furthest table. I chose this spot because we would be alone at the table, but also because a group of prisoners concentrated around the Aztec pantheon sat at the table behind Loki.
We weren’t very popular. Nobody wanted to talk to Loki because he was, supposedly, a treacherous bastard, at least as far as his legend described him. I, on the other hand, used to work as a private investigator. Over seventy people were imprisoned here because of my short-lived career. The man I arrested last, Sora Izanagi, was giving me the usual glare. I threw him a wide grin and he looked away.
We dug into the cereals drenched in milk. Next to an apple, a banana, and a small bottle of orange juice, this breakfast was so boringly healthy it made my stomach twitch. But hunger didn’t care.
A tray clanged on the table next to me and a man sat down by my side. His hair grew wildly to all sides, as did his rugged beard. Sun Wukong smiled at me, motioning at my banana.
The usual trade. I nodded.
With a swift move, he switched his apple with my banana. Satisfied, he dug the spoon into his cereals and began eating. His mouth stopped around the spoon. Air swirled around his face, revealing him biting into an apple he now held.
Wukong tore the apple away, spitting out. “You had to do this, didn’t you?”
Loki and I chuckled. While the collars blocked most of our magic, we could still do minor tricks. This illusion was Loki’s.
The chair on the opposite row screeched and a bulky man stood up. Wukong’s spit hit his back and he turned, glaring at us. “What’s so funny?”
“Your face.” I smirked at the man and bit into my newly received apple. Keith arrived here after I arrested him. He used to run a sex trafficking gang on Long Island. I found him hiding next to a family whose son he kidnapped and buried, keeping him alive for blackmail. Back then, I shot him in both shoulders and the knee before rescuing the kidnapped son. “Heard your mom killed herself when she first saw you.”
Keith glowered at me, fuming.
Come on, Keith, punch me in the face. I needed a fight to happen and he happened to be good friends with Ricardo Xolotl, who sat behind Keith and would join. I needed to fight Ricardo but couldn’t engage him straight since that would be too obvious. “What? Want to prove you give the best head in the prison?”
His face turned red and the veins on his neck bulged. “You’ll pay for this.” He pivoted, grabbed his tray, and turned away.
“Sure, run to your butt-buddies,” I shouted as he walked away. Meh. Hopefully, Keith would gather more of his buddies later and come show me who’s the boss.
Loki snorted, but Wukong’s features froze. The monkey king glanced at me. Yeah, he knew a bit more about the escape plan than Loki did and now, he recognized the first move. “Our lovely stay seems to be coming to an end.”
“One way or another.” I returned to the breakfast and continued eating. Awkward silence marred the meal’s remainder. There was only so much to talk about when going through the same routine every day. The light shining in the center of the ceiling turned from green to orange.
That marked the start of our free time. We gave the trays to the designated machine and turned toward the sports hall. I gave Keith another smirk accompanied with an insult as I passed him.
The sports hall was one of the three facilities we could use. For our bodies to produce the maximum amount of extractable aether, we needed to remain in top shape and of a healthy mind, so the prison was designed to keep us that way. Our free time thus offered exercise and sports as the only possible sources of entertainment. Over time, everyone gave in as few things were worse than boredom. The three facilities we could use were two sports halls and the arena. But there was little to do in the arena unless a match was being held.
The first sports hall itself was a vast, square dome with three exits. One led to the mess hall, one to the local bathrooms, and one to the second sports hall. This hall offered dozens of exercise machines, basketball hoops, football keeps and, sets of mats, benches, and weights. By the end was a fence-guarded platform, which served as the delivery point for new prisoners. Water fountains rimmed the walls.
Loki split from us, heading for the rowing machine he favored. The story had it that when he was in high school, he was on a rowing team. The machine wasn’t quite the same, but a small reminder of the good old days was better than nothing.
Wukong and I went for our usual mat by the far wall. There was no truly secluded spot in the prison, but this one was the furthest from the basketball hoops. “I start on top today,” he said.
“Yeah.” I began to stretch and so did he.
Before obtaining the soul of the monkey king, Wukong was an agent of the Chinese Ministry of Defense. I tried to pry from him what precisely he used to do, but never got exact answers. Not that I cared much. Plus, I only ever told him the general idea of what I did as a private investigator. The important part was that he had martial arts training, so we had something to do. Since punching each other would be a problem without gloves, we focused mostly on wrestling, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Sure, we pulled a muscle from time to time, but that was much better than breaking each other’s faces.
I lay onto the mat and he got on top of me. The jumpsuits somehow simulated the traditional kimonos. We made for decent practice partners. While I was bigger, heavier, and stronger, he had better technique as he possessed a much larger degree of experience.
We spent the entire morning with him trying to catch me into submission and me defending. In the afternoon, we would switch, and I would be on the top. Sweat covered my body as I rose, and the water fountain provided blessed sustenance.
From the corner of my eye, I spotted Keith glaring at me. Finally. Things would be awkward if he swallowed the morning incident and did nothing. I turned off the water fountain and headed to the bathroom to answer the call of nature.
Much like the rest of the prison, this hallway was also made of barren steel. After nine months of living here, I got used to it. Though the lack of windows still annoyed me.
When I finished with the bodily needs, I grabbed two toilet brushes, steel rods with stinking brushes at the end, and walked back toward the sports hall. As I did, I flipped the brushes in my hands and hid them behind my back.
In front of the sports hall’s door stood Keith, flanked by four of his friends. Three were his fellow gang members and the last one was an Aztec demigod, Ricardo Xolotl. Good. This was going to hurt, but also went exactly as planned. I promised Evelyn I would come back to her within a year. Now, nine months later, this was the first step of fulfilling that promise.