After the death of his sister, Astaroth is despondent. Then Asmodeus shows up uninvited...
Burn Into Me
She screamed, a pure sound full of pain, and of fear, and of will, a desperate will to live. Such screams have been as music to me, the only true and vital thing in all this withered kingdom that I chose for myself. I barely looked up. It seemed suddenly so flat to me, hollow. Scream as she might, she would die. I would kill her, and I would neither care nor remember, and in the end, all her will, all her life will have meant nothing.
My torturers glanced nervously towards the dais as they practiced their art, searching, trying to judge my reaction. They forced longer, louder cries from her raw throat, seeking to please me. Ha. Useless creatures. How many times had I considered giving my own body into their hands? To feel the sting of leather and the bite of steel on my skin, the bright, painful immediacy of it. To allow them to rend and destroy the angelic purity of my form... for was I not once an angel?... Ah! but I knew I would never do it. I had contemplated killing myself, ending this tired game, this draining sameness that had become my existence, but I found I had no more will to bring about my own death than I had to go on living. Sometimes my own sloth disgusted even me.
A little winged demon offered me a bowl of the girl's blood. Lazily, I dipped my fingers into it, watching with mild interest as one viscous red drop snaked a course down to my wrist where it soaked into the lace of my cuff. The blood, like everything else, was moved by a force greater than itself, and it could no more choose its course than I could.
"This isn't quite the use for which I intended my gift.
The voice startled me. It was deep and rich, at once polite but mocking. It was a voice well-suited to the Prince of Lies, but it belonged to the Grand Duke. He had appeared, as only a demon of his calibre might, in this chamber in the centre of my labyrinth, and now he stood, warming his hands callously over the coals in the brazier where iron brands and pokers were heating.
"Asmodeus," I said flatly, and he inclined his head with a small smile. "I was under the impression that the disposal of a gift, once given, was left to the discretion of the recipient. Am I mistaken?"
Again that wry smile. He went to the rack, and the torturers moved out of his way, uncertain if they should stay or go, and so unable to do either. Jewelled fingers slipped through limp, blood-matted hair. He looked down at the girl with something approaching pity, and the look she returned him was desperate and pleading, as if she looked to him to be her saviour. Ridiculous.
Impatiently, I waved the torturers out. "Release her into the labyrinth," I ordered. Even battered and torn as she was, let her dream of escape. Let her hope until it ate at her inside and hollowed her out like it had me. The foolish thing didn't realize how much more merciful it would have been to kill her here. But mercy has never been a virtue of mine.
Asmodeus watched the torturers go, bearing the girl with them. One of his many whores, the girl had been a gift to me, his fellow Satan. Asmodeus was a grand one for gifts. "What a waste," he tsked.
"Forgive me if I don't share your perversions," I replied coldly.
"Oh, you could hardly be expected to. I imagine your own take up a significant portion of your time." He stroked the bloody spikes of the rack idly. "Now, your sister, she was a beautiful woman. I bet she would have..."
"What do you know about it?" I snapped. Astarte. What she wouldn't have given for a kind word and a warm touch. She had been desperate and lonely enough to mistake lust for love, and to want both. She would have spread her legs - our legs - for him in a heartbeat.
"Was there something you wanted?" I asked pointedly.
He gave me that smile again, that infuriating smile. He had seen his barb draw blood, and he was pleased by it. Perhaps we weren't so different after all. He came up the dais. An arm snaked over my shoulders, behind my hair. It rested there just as she used to do... "Ah, but we all knew it was you she really wanted."
"Is that so."
"Oh, yes. A pity, wasn't it, that she could never touch you." One jewelled hand skimmed down my chest lightly and back up, slipping up under my shirt. "She couldn't give you her body, but in the end, she contrived to give you back your own. How romantic."
I tipped my head back against the high back of the draped throne. "God damn you, Asmodeus," I said dimly. As if He hadn't already. As if He would hear any prayer from me, one of the seven great demons of hell. What right did He or anyone else have to make me feel guilty?
"You're just like that cursed jester, Belial. You think you're so clever," I said. "You don't understand anything.
"Oh, but I do." This he whispered against my ear. "You're alone. Completely and totally alone. Adrift. Directionless. Empty." The whisper became the barest kiss. "Without her, there seems no point to any of it, does there?"
In a haze of fury, I didn't think about what I did. I took up the bowl of blood at my side, and threw it in his face. I heard the silver bowl clatter to the floor. I heard his sputtered cry of protest. Angrily, I pushed past him, launching myself up out of my seat and halfway across the room before it seemed that there was enough distance between me and his poisoned words. Even still, I felt them burning into me like acid, no less painful because I knew they were true. And he was making me think about it all, and I didn't want to. I didn't want to.
I stood before the rack. The girl's blood had dried to a sticky film on the spiked rollers, mingling with the stain of others who had come before her. Her heat was long gone from the dark metal. It was almost as if she had never been there at all. Thoughtlessly, I gripped the rollers with my hands. The spikes cut into my palms, but I didn't care. The pain chased everything else out of my head.
"Well, now," came Asmodeus' smooth voice from behind me. I shouldn't have turned, but I did if only because I didn't want him at my back. His face was streaked with blood. His fine clothes were stained with it. They were ruined. The grand duke had killed people for less, but he would not kill me.
He stepped into me, forcing me back against the rack, and his mouth went to mine, his lips like bitter copper, red with the blood of a dying woman. He tasted of pain. I had no patience with his nicety. I bit him. The salt-sweet taste of his blood flooded my mouth, and his tongue chased it, probing, licking, stealing it back from me. He took one of my bleeding hands, licked the blood away. "If that's what you want," he said, "I'll give it to you."
He thrust one jewelled hand into my hair. It spilled between his fingers like rivulets of fresh blood, and he pulled on it, dragging me closer. He forced my head back until I could no longer see his face, and my breath came harshly through my tight throat. Asmodeus bent me beneath him until my back was bowed, and I could feel the spikes of the rack against my skin. They snagged on my clothing and in my hair as if they were clawing for me.
With my head tipped back, I could see my own instruments arrayed on the nearby table. Their cruel edges gleamed in the torchlight. I saw it spark off his rings as his fingers reached for a slender misericorde, the blade called "mercy". And in his hands, perhaps it was. He drew it across my collar. A stinging line of blood beaded where it passed, tantalizingly close to the vital artery in my neck, but Asmodeus' grip on my hair precluded me from moving my head. He bent towards me, and his weight pressed me down onto the rack. I hissed as the spikes bit into my flesh, and Amodeus' tongue laved along my shoulder, licking up the blood he had drawn.
He drew away again, and he trailed the knife down my sternum. He slipped it under the laces of my shirt, cutting them one by one, and then he paused, considering the whiteness of my bared chest and belly as if they were a blank canvass.
The first cut was deep, and it followed the line of my breast bone, bisecting my body neatly with a stripe of burning pain. The blade was so sharp that, for a moment, I did not bleed, but then I felt it. Red, red blood welled hotly, and rolled down the planes of my chest. My body, my blood was no different in that than any other's. The next was quick and shallow, and traced along my collarbone, mirroring the one that already graced the other side. Even bleeding and pinned against my own rack, I could laugh at his sense of symmetry.
Again and again, Asmodeus slid the blade over my flesh. Each new gash fed the burning, added to it, until I felt it all over, and so it was only as the last cut sliced across a nipple and almost to my underarm that I realized what he had done. Into the smooth whiteness of my chest, he had carved the shape of each bone that arched under the skin in livid red relief. His fist loosed my hair, and finally able to look down at his work, it was as if I were seeing myself from the inside out - the jagged bones, scaffolding of the temple of my body, stripped of all fleshly raiment. Me in my most essential parts.
I stared down in awe. But he was not finished. From the brazier and its bed of white coals, he took a brand. The end burned brightly orange, and its glow was reflected in Asmodeus' gleaming eyes. My eyes met his. In that moment, I could have refused, but something stopped the command in my throat, and the moment passed. The brand laid its searing kiss over my heart, and the vicious hiss of burning flesh was swallowed in my scream.
That sound echoed, doubling and redoubling in the vaulted heights of the chamber, until it filled the room - filled me - with the aching purity of its message; that this should end, end, end, end. And then there was only the Void.
I awoke. I lay crosswise on my throne, my head pillowed roughly on one armrest, and my legs dangling over the other. Hastily, I righted myself, looking around for Asmodeus or anyone else who might have the serious misjudgement to spy on me in my weakness, but I saw no one. Shoving my tangled hair out of my face, I took stock of myself. My shirt was still agape, but my numerous lacerations had healed to only the faintest of lines, and soon those too would be gone, leaving no trace that they had ever been. But one mark had not faded. Burned black upon my white breast were the horns and the crescent that had been my seal. Our seal. The mark of Lucifer's magic on us. For as long as I could remember, I had born that mark on my forehead, that odious sign that my body was not my own. And then, on That Day, on that most miserable day, it had vanished, dissolved with the spell that had bound us together. Now, I wore it again, and I found my fingers tracing its lines lovingly.
I sat in quiet contemplation for a long time, and finally, deciding that I had best change out of my ruined clothes, I stood. The clatter of folded parchment hitting the floor was loud in the silence. Curious, I bent to retrieve the note. Written in a flowing script, it said only this:
I have burned her into your soul.