Chapter 12: Still Alive
Ava did not fully understand all that she had observed inside the walls of Dem. She would not allow herself to witness her husband’s final moments, a demise that he willingly chose for himself by trading his family’s well being for the pursuit of unbridled passion. The justice of his end gave her no comfort. She merely accepted the fact that he had ensnared himself with the very cords he would have used to trap and betray her and the boys, his own sons.
Unknown to her, however, Les had survived his encounter with Cam. Had Les been able to sense her presence in the gallery that night, it would certainly have been the end of Ava. But, they shared no common spark, no mutual awareness that she imagined true lovers to possess. She managed to come and go undetected and unseen, for his heart was not knit to hers. Indeed, her love and loyalty to him were rewarded with indifference if not hatred.
What she turned away in time to miss was not a tearing asunder by Cam’s bare hands as she expected and believed to have happened. She recognized her husband’s voice in the agonizing cry that followed her down the escape tunnel; but it was not his final tortured cry as she supposed. As Cam leapt down from the platform; he took hold of Les by the throat and raised him up off the floor. He seemed to stretch, growing ten feet in height as Les’s feet rose further and further off the ground in his clutch. The warlord’s face became that of a ghoulish wolf as he drew Les’s face closer to his own. Indeed, Les believed he was about to be devoured by the great fiend. Instead, Cam returned his sword to its sheath and placed his finger on Les’s chest, feeling the maddening beat of his racing heart. The claw of Cam’s finger grew longer and longer, piercing through muscle and bone until he reached his core. There Cam slowly etched the letter C on the wall of Les’s heart without rupturing his vital organ. Retracting his claw, he dropped the bleeding and wincing deceiver to the floor. Holding a menacing open palm above Les’ head, all the council stones suddenly flew to his hand and became a magnificent flame of fire.
“They seek passage through the Wall of Fire,” his booming voice snarled after reading the fire he held in his palm as if it were a book. “If they succeed,” he threatened, drawing Les’s face up just inches from his own with the pointed spike of his index finger, “I shall feast on your living flesh!”
He threw the stones down beside Les, who crouched trembling at his feet, encircling him with a wall of flame. Then with great dragon’s wings, he flew back to his perch on the platform and let out a mighty roar that resonated around the Chamber walls, echoing through all the tunnels and passages, even booming into the night sky above the walls of Dem.
The hordes of spectators answered with an eruption of howls and hollers. They were divided in their satisfaction of this outcome. Bloody brawls broke out among Cam’s devoted followers. He watched them butcher one another in hand-to-hand combat with great pleasure. Most of the survivors were those who wanted to see Les die that night. Such were the associates that Les had chosen above his family.
Griff and Gorudon, the companions Les had brought to his home earlier in the week, escorted him off the platform, lest the bloodthirsty mob charge at him for more sport. The two spies continued the charade as loyal friends to the wounded fool whose self-deception was so complete that he could not fathom the obvious fact that they were the informants against his family. Secretly, they had charged that the family he sacrificed to obtain his first tattoo was merely a mistress and her progeny of uncertain paternity. However, Les did butcher his own mother before the masses, mingling her blood with theirs in his great show of submission and allegiance. His mother had informed Griff and Gorudon that Les’s real wife, Ava, lived further north.
Now the trembling coward could barely put one foot in front of the other; he was hardly cognizant that he still drew breath. His friends not very gingerly got him back to his lodgings. Dumping him off to recuperate and tend to his own wounds whenever he awoke, they rejoined the revelry with the intent to set out on the morrow to retrieve his family without him. They would make better sport of them in his absence.
Hours later, a chambermaid entered Les’ quarters with an earthen goblet and enjoined him to drink the potion in the cup. Without question, he did as instructed. He was greatly parched and gulped down the liquid that was both sour and bitter.
“More,” he panted.
“Are you sure? You do not know what effect this will have on you . . .”
“More!” he demanded, not caring what effect anything had on him, as long as he was still alive; and whatever that substance was he ingested helped him to feel very much alive. Even pain was better than numbness. A numb emptiness was all he had known for years. The degradation of his visits to Dem brought sensations he had never known before to the surface of his mind and body; but they were short-lived. He needed ever greater levels of pain and debauchery just to keep from forgetting that he was alive, to keep from feeling numb.
“As you desire . . . ,” she purred as she left the room.
While the maid was out, the potion began to take effect. Les suddenly felt as if his flesh were on fire. The pain was maddening. He began to weep and howl. He rolled around on the straw bed as if trying to extinguish an unseen flame; but as every inch of his body made contact with the surface of his bed, he felt the burning sensation intensify. He wanted to stand to relieve the fresh agony his flesh suffered as it converged with the casing of his mattress. Even the feel of his clothes on his skin ignited an excruciating burning. He lunged off the mattress, feeling a stabbing reminder of the claw of Cam that carved his mark upon his heart the night before. He cried out in renewed anguish, tearing his clothes from his body. But his howls were only one more voice added to the deafening drone of souls in torment within the walls of Dem— torment of their own choosing, of their own making. As such, they embraced it, reveled in it. They found pain to be simultaneously exhilarating the more excruciating it was; it seemed to be the only reminder that they were, in fact, still alive.
The maid returned with a second goblet. The deranged Les grabbed it from her hands and threw it back as if it were the only refreshment he’d had in weeks. The effect was faster and more intense.
“More?” the maid asked when she saw his frenzied convulsions.
He somehow managed to exchange a knowing smile with the maid confirming his yet insatiate desire for more torment. This was sport to them both. She returned even more quickly with the third cup. Watching him writhe in agony for hours fed her desire, too. She participated like a purring cat rubbing its body through and around its master’s legs, demanding loving strokes. Ah, Dem, the great utopia of man’s own making . . .
Les awoke from this tryst hours later with every pore of his skin merely throbbing. Raising a hand to rub his aching temples, he saw spikes like those of a porcupine protruding from his arm rather than hair. Rolling off the bed he found his legs like those of a goat with cloven hooves. He was only briefly alarmed until he reached toward the chambermaid to demand an explanation; but at that same instant, he saw the direction of his spikes point toward her. Several shot forth through her. To her short cry, he rejoiced with surprised amusement and shot her with a few more. The dying maid became his target as he learned to control this new skill. He wanted to move toward the looking glass to examine his features, for his nose stuck out more like a snout. Learning to walk with these new legs would take a little more practice to master than aiming and shooting the spikes had taken. He tripped and fell a few times on the way. When he managed to stand before the dim, hazy mirror, he was startled by the image starring back at him. He let out an unexpected howl, which also surprised him. He let out another howl, and another, just to be certain the sound was emanating from his own cords. He observed two tiny horns protruding from the top of his head where his hair receded above an enlarged brow. He now had a snout that resembled that of a wild dog and more facial hair than he normally grew. His ears were pointed. All in all, he was satisfied with his new appearance. He had surpassed becoming a numan. He was a dongrel!
Oh, the sounds and smells he was suddenly aware of! He had to quit the room to explore the power of these new senses. Trotting out of his room, he let out another spontaneous howl of delight. The sounds and scents of vice were coming from every direction. He pranced about in ecstatic euphoria, like a dog chasing its own tail. Which direction to choose he knew not. He put his nose to the wall, to the ground, to the air above his head. He cocked his head to listen to a distant moan; then in the other direction, he was drawn to a sudden wailing. It was too much to take in, and he simply began to run and sniff and howl in every direction, galloping here and there, trying to absorb it all. He entered a dark alley and stumbled across a couple enjoying a tawdry interlude. He yanked the man away from the woman and spiked him through the eyes. Turning back to the woman who was further aroused by this display of power, he ravished her in savage fashion. In the throw of excitement, he bit her neck in two and continued to feast on her, devouring most of her torso. He let out another triumphant howl through blood-stained fangs before darting off in search of more adventure. He felt alive and powerful and drunk with deranged dissipation. Racing off to see what further mischief he could find, he found his feet began to feel heavy, his head also. His head began to swim. Everything seemed to be spinning in slow motion. He heard a dull thud as the ground appeared to reach up and grab his face. Then darkness and silence was all he knew. His whole body went limp and numb.