This story is by Sam Roche and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Fingers like iron wire coiled around my neck, making it clear that struggling was useless.
“You can’t escape.” Her voice was a breathless, furious growl, stripped of its semblance of humanity.
This was close to a fight to the death, and she was right: I couldn’t escape such a grip. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t give up and let her take me to court, where I would be sentenced to death. This creature that looked like a human woman, she would take my life if she hadn’t been instructed to take me alive. Condemned for condemned, I would struggle until the end.
Smiling, I tumbled into the mindset of a liar easy as breathing, something that had taken a lifetime of practice to achieve. I knew I looked worn out, and the smile made it all the more obvious. I risked a glance into her eyes, satisfied to find a fleeting gleam of fear. My act was good so far; she dreaded to see me drop dead, or at least fall unconscious.
“I could never escape you,” I whispered, and closed my eyes.
She jabbed at my ribs, more brutally than I had hoped. My eyelids flew open as I gasped in pain.
“Easy,” I rasped. “You don’t want me dead, do you?”
“I’d be delighted to see you dead,” she spat.
She meant every syllable of it, but I knew better than to be afraid; she had orders to follow.
“Come now, Theia. I’m just a man.”
I could feel in my chest bones that my performance was well-executed, that I looked and sounded every bit as pathetic as I wanted. There isn’t a better way to explain this; it was some kind of vibration, a hum that was rightly tuned.
Her nails dug into the tender skin of my neck. “You’re not fooling me, demon.”
A delighted shiver hurried across my body at these words, urging me to laugh. I fought it down, forcing a pained gasp out of my throat instead. I shut my eyes for just a second, so they wouldn’t give me away. I had known from the moment she had bound my hands that she was mistaken about me. She did not believe I was human, even as I had every trait of humankind. She had treated me like a full-blooded demon, and with this she had made her biggest mistake.
One second her iron handcuffs were biting into my bony wrists, and the next they crumbled into ash, leaving my blood free to rush back to my fingertips. I moved them carefully, testing them.
“Listen to what you’re told,” I said in my best lecturing voice.
Quick as a snake, I raised my hand to slap her cheek. It could have looked like a smack had I not held my hand in place. An icy cold seeped into my palm and spread to my wrist, causing my nerves to howl in pain. I gritted my teeth and maintained contact, grinning at the wisp of smoke that rose from her skin. She grabbed her lance and whacked me across the chest, pushing me back several feet and knocking the wind out of me.
As soon as I could draw a breath, I looked up. My hand was numb with unnatural cold, but I was pleased to see a deep, nasty burn on her cheek.
“Steel for humans,” my voice boomed theatrically, “iron for demons and silver for devils. Has no one taught you the basics?”
For a heartbeat I was proud of my taunt, but then wings of light sprouted from her back, giving her superhuman speed as she charged me. The tip of her spear was aimed at my heart, gleaming as in joy. In panic I shouted an instant command, raising a shield of force in front of me. Immediately I felt my body being drained of energy. I scolded myself for having taken time to gloat rather than to begin an incantation. My opponent crashed into me with a violent blow to my chest. The shield had saved my life, but barely. If I didn’t fight back now, Theia would kill me. Her eyes glowed with divine fury, blind to the orders she had been given. There could be no more running away, no more dodging.
I took a step back and let my mind fall into the path of Calling. Raising my hands, I spoke the words:
“Through the glow that keeps your life in chains, return to ash!”
Deep as I was into the paths of magic, I couldn’t see her reaction. I imagined she would be afraid, for as soon as my words had died, a storm of fire shot from my hands. Theia fell screaming as the starving fire engulfed her to devour her, crackling lovingly; gratefully. A part of me breathed and burned with the flames and it took over, consuming every conscious thought. In the space between this heartbeat and the next, I blazed with the relief of temporarily satisfying my ever-burning hunger. I knew that there soon would be nothing left to burn, and that I would die once more, but nonetheless it was the most delicious sensation in the world. I would enjoy it until the end. I would burn her to the ground.
I snapped to my senses just in time to see her shoot out of the flames, reaching out, her skin widely charred. I raised my hands to protect my fragile throat, knowing that I had no time for even the quickest spell. Too late, I understood she wasn’t aiming a lethal blow at me. Her fingers tapped my forehead just lightly, and my vision went white.
Damned be the angels.
I felt myself falling with nothing to slow me down. I fell into the past, into myself and through the night sky, catching glimpses of stars whooshing past me.
“Our stars are stories from another world,” my father said to the boy I once was, dark eyes shining with wonder.
“There are other worlds,” my Teacher explained as my former self stood before him, “and we draw power from them.”
Power rushed through my veins twice as fast as my blood and burned me – shot from my hands and burned the man to death. I didn’t know who he was, or whether he was my enemy. I heard him breathe his last and I sank to my knees, weeping.
“Remember this, whether you become servant or king.” My father’s eyes were dark as mine, and through this resemblance, our bond grew strong as steel in this moment. “Malik. Don’t ever hurt another creature. Defend yourself if you must, but never fight with the intention to harm.”
Then I heard another voice, my friend’s voice.
“Keep your heart good. Strive towards the light.” The memory of her was too much to bear.
I broke free, my mind slamming back to consciousness. I realized I was cowering on the ground, racked with sobs violent as convulsions. I was dimly aware of the weight of Theia’s shadow over me, judging me. I searched for the fire to hate her, but it had gone out. Her angelic touch had forced back into my mind the memories I had been pushing away for years. I remembered who I had been before sealing my fate with a pact. I remembered who I had been before I first killed. Every wall I had built around myself was stricken down, leaving the dark-eyed boy at my core shivering and crying. Without the infernal chains that held me together, I was ripped apart by guilt and fear.
“Confess,” Theia murmured to me. “Confess your sins and you will be saved.”
It was so much more than an enticing offer; her tone sang with honest promises. I cast a glance at my life, at my descent into damnation, at the cracking and falling apart of my father’s morals. I couldn’t tell how long it had been since I last had felt hope, which was what Theia held in front of me. Salvation. Redemption. The yearning was so strong that I almost blurted out my darkest crimes.
Deep inside the roots of my heart, something held me back. It was like the memory of a mother’s touch, something that had always been there. There had been times when it had shouted out with every beat of my heart, and times when it had remained tucked under my arteries. The feeling brought back memories of a dancer, her arms adorned with coiling tongues of flame. She whirled and sang, and the fire obeyed her every word. I also saw a little boy with dark hair sitting right in front of the fireplace, gazing into the flames. It felt strange to watch an image of myself, but it gifted me with a rough awakening.
Theia had made another mistake; in forcing my repressed memories back into my head, she had reminded me of my humanity. By her touch, I was human; it wasn’t only something I claimed to escape the clergy and their holy warriors. It was deeper; it was ancient. I was human, and thus I was flawed. From the depths of my heart, my lifelong greed arose.
I felt a smile on my face, grim as a splatter of blood.
“I confess,” I began, my voice steady, “I have traded my soul to a Devil both knowingly and willingly. I have taken lives to obtain greater power. I have lied to protect my identity as an Infernal Warlock.”
I rose to my feet with slow, determined moves. My body and mind screamed in pain, but I ignored them. I was in control. I looked straight into the glow of Heaven in Theia’s eyes.
“Do you regret what you have done?” she asked, her voice brittle with doubt.
Before she could react, chains of black energy sprang from behind me and latched onto her, binding her wrists and ankles. She threw me a murderous glare, forced into silence by the negative force that coursed through her. Grinning still, I raised my hand and proceeded to end my own trial.
“By the voice of my master, Prince among Devils, I ban you from this world. By the power of your name, Theia; by fire and bone, by ash and blood, I command to you. Begone.”
For a half second her eyes locked onto mine, alive with pure hatred. I couldn’t kill her with the little strength I still had, but I could send her back from where she had come. With this I knew that she would never stop hunting me down. She wouldn’t rest before I lay dead at her feet. The thought of having an archenemy, instead of worrying me, made me feel accomplished. I waved at her, and she was gone in a burst of blinding flame.
Left alone, I sank to the ground. The banishment spell had cost me more energy than I had to spare, so that I wanted nothing more than to sleep, or so I thought. I realized that something other than the lack of energy had thrown me to my knees; it was a part of me, like a version of me I hadn’t known of. I pictured him as younger Malik, crouching and praying, unable to keep the infernal influence locked away. He had existed before I had given in to greed and accepted the gift of power. I thought I had killed him, but as the mental image grew sharper, I realized I could never completely erase my morals – my father’s morals – even if I tried to. I could not kill my younger self, nor could I murder the past.
“Stop crying.” I wiped my tears.
I held out my hand to see my younger self catch it, reluctantly. I pulled myself to my feet, not without pain. My head felt clearer than it had been in a long time, because my mind was whole again.