Weird Tales Entry
|She didn't die well, the woman in the red dress. She ran headlong for the bars of the closed gate, arms outstretched frantically, shrieking wordlessly, when the lion pounced from behind. That was when the great beast, starved to madness, snapped her neck, and the cries were cut mercifully short. The spear she had been given was cast uselessly behind her. He had known her a short while only, but he had wished her more.
John's thoughts were uncharitable, but the fear of his own approaching demise dimmed the light of his humanity to a flicker. He had only a few moments to reflect on his former pride, his former idealism in clinging to the ancient beliefs, as the lion fed. There would be another for him soon, a predator saved just for him, in a tradition older than his own religion, but resurrected for those who defied the Council. Fitting, they said, that mother nature would reclaim the man who defied the matriarchy of the Just. Not that they had an ounce more kindness reserved for any man or woman who endangered the innocent with the Old Ways. He had few illusions that he could defeat the predator they would send, or about the freedom that surviving trial by nature would bring. He only prayed that he had the strength to die with dignity.
The gate opened too soon, to sand that despite the blood reminded him of childhood, of days spent in the hot sun, tasting the salt of sea spray, swimming with his brothers, laughing. Brothers. What would it have been like to have normal parents, who obeyed the Council, raising only one child in the harmony of Gaia? Would he have sat in the stands with the rest, cheering the recycling of the patriarchs and the unclean? Or would he have been as he was, forever on the run?
"Your spear," the guard proclaimed, laughing behind her mask, "since you love it so," and tossed it through the bars that closed behind him, with the clacking of archaic spokes and turning wheels.
The grating opposite him rose, and the crowd roared, with delight and hunger. Mothers pointed out the spectacle below to sons and daughters. Thus ever to tyrants. The lion itself was a surprise, one that turned his knuckles white, and shook his grip. So little time left, John thought, but by God, he's beautiful.
And he was, from his great tawny hide to his massive fangs, from his broad padded feet to the cruel golden orbs. The last regarded him with careful malice, opening and closing to slits. There must be some mistake, for this was no shriveled creature of desperation. This statuesque figure was magnificent.
"So," it spoke, "there remain souls on which to feed, and not only bodies. What an unexpected pleasure."
John's jaw nearly dropped, though his own eyes narrowed. "What demon are you? It matters not. Get it over with. I'm not afraid."
"You lie," the lion responded, with a purr like an earthquake, with a drawling laugh like a shout. The crowd continued its chant, unabated, calling for his death. It saw but did not recognize, listened but did not hear. The voice of the lion echoed in his heat and mind, though its mouth was open and fangs bared. "Did you think hunger was mindless, or nature without cunning? Pitiable man. A long line of fools will have its end in you. But no, you bring a son? I will have him too."
To John's great horror and despair, the guard had indeed opened the door enough to shove a young man after him, a gangly teenager with his own short spear. "Don't sit there talking to an animal, Dad! Kill it! Kill it, and set us free!"
The boy wasn't supposed to be here! He was safe, after his mother - and yet, here he was, the last thing in the world that John cared about. "They've gone too far," he said, snarling. "Will, you laugh, beast, when we kill you? They've enslaved you as much as I."
The laugh of the beast in his skull drowned out everything: the jeers of the crowd, the beating of the drums, the beating of his heart. "Know you so little, son of Adam? They serve me, as they've always served me. And now, it's your turn."
His son, hands shaking, extended his spear. The great beast swatted it down with a negligent paw, as John lurched forward to intervene.
"No!" John cried, thrusting forward awkwardly with his own weapon. "Not him, me!"
Then the great lion leaped forward, with a speed that surely no earthly body could contain, crashing into John, enveloping him, lowering its jaw to his neck, as he feebly poked it in the leg with the splintered remnants of his spear.
There, as men, women, and children in the stadium above roared to their feet, it whispered, a single enormous eye glowing before his. "You were so afraid of them, so afraid of me. Foolish."
And John knew it was right, and where the voice came from, and that the most dangerous enemy was even now inside, and had always been. But he laughed, as the claws tore into him, as his bloody breath began to burble, for his son was not afraid, and the great eyeball of evil sprouted the steel tip of a retrieved spearhead. He was free.