Good always prevails. Eventually. (For Weird Tales, March. 987 Words)
|"Does Heaven burn your eyes?" The girl asked, her flaxen lashes batting beneath her downturned brow.
She was nude and bound, shivering in the damp air of the catacomb. A single glittering tear spilled down her cheek, landing just above her rosebud nipple.
Her charge wasn't prepared for this question. "What do you mean?"
"I mean when you see it."
He surmised she was poor and uneducated, like all of the gutter-waifs sent to Hassan.
"Sometimes Hassan can be merciful."
Though a falsehood, it was the only comfort he could offer. He had seen some truly horrifying things happen to the sacrificial brides, many of which plagued his dreams.
Hassan's family line ruled as earthly gods for generations, bringing wealth to the people. In order to keep this wealth, he demanded their daughters.
Anders understood the necessity of the ritual to maintain the greater good, but he was skeptical. In the scriptures, it was said a messiah would come, delivered by the true gods. No one knew what they'd look like or where they'd come from, but Anders was pretty sure gods wouldn't send a man as vile as Hassan.
After so many years, he was too exhausted and dead inside to question it anyway.
She sniffled and nodded. "What happens if a bride dies slowly? Will you take care of me when I'm dying?"
He looked at her for a while in silence. He didn't know how to answer.
"How old are you?" He asked.
She looked up at him, her blue eyes large and luminous as the full moon bursting through the cell bars. He saw innocence there, but something else, too.
"Wisdom," he thought. He suspected she could read his thoughts.
"Nineteen," she said softly.
His excellency usually preferred them younger- soon after the arrival of womanhood. He said the gods decreed that he should show them the carnal ways of man. "A gift for the afterlife," he called it.
Anders called it garden-variety pedophilia.
Now it was her turn to study him. "What's your name?" she asked.
"It is forbidden for any of the offered brides to know the names of the Guards of the Red Dagger."
"Of course..." she looked down, ashamed.
With the shift of her gaze, a pang of regret stung his gut.
"Hey, it's all right," he said after a long pause. "My name is Anders."
"You're nice," she said. A huge smile filled with gratitude lit her face. She was radiant. "I hope you're the one to take care of me if it goes slow."
His heart was breaking.
"It's going to be OK," he said, choking back tears.
Her face flooded with satisfaction. "Yes. It will."
The assuredness of her response was unexpected. Anders wasn't sure if that comforted or terrified him.
The loud clank of the iron lock on the door startled him. The guard sent to collect them swung it open with a groan, then gestured for them to follow.
They led her to the ritual chamber. She stood naked in front of the sacrificial slab, hundreds of disciples looking on. Anders had seen so many young women stand there, humiliated and waiting for death, but this girl was dignified. He heard shuffling and sharp murmurs from the crowd. They sensed the same- she commanded the room.
Hassan entered, his blood-velvet robes skimming the stone floor. The sacrificial knife, crusted with rubies glittered in his hand. As he drew nearer, his stride slowed. The sadistic gleam in his eyes dimmed, and his jaw fell open. An expression of raw, exposed terror froze on his face.
"Wh- who brought this girl here?" he stammered.
Anders stepped forward. "I did."
Hassan's expression morphed from terror to rage. "This is NOT the girl I bedded last night!" he shouted, his face reddening. "Sh-she is a demon sent to cast us into darkness and hell!"
"She was the woman waiting in the cell. I was not the guard who brought her to your chambers, nor was I the one who fetched her." Anders replied calmly. He felt the girl's gaze upon his face, soft and comforting.
"How DARE you question me!" Hassan's tone was getting more frantic. He needed to save face in his room full of worshippers.
"It doesn't matter," he hissed, leaning in. Rank breath and spittle showered Anders's cheeks.
"You'll both die today. Cut her bonds."
Anders complied. He gently held her wrist, taking care not to harm her as he cut her free. "I'm right here," he said. "Don't be afraid."
"Thank you, Anders," she said, shuffling out of the ropes and rubbing her wrists. She turned to face him, and lightning coursed through him as she caressed his cheek. Her eyes were no longer blue, but honey-gold. "You may want to shield your eyes."
The room was consumed in a flash of golden light, and the young girl transformed into a living goddess at its center. Within seconds, it was over, and she stood, clad in golden robes, with a halo of light circling her head.
Anders's head swam as he became aware of Hassan flailing about with his hands pressed to his face. Black smoke poured from between his fingers, and muffled shrieks filtered through his hands as the smoke gave way to blood. He crumbled to the ground and liquefied into a pool of tar.
"A new era of prosperity and peace shines upon us," her sweet voice swept the room. "You will live no longer with the fear and anguish of giving your children to a tyrant."
In slow motion, the people fell to their knees and prostrated before their new messiah, chanting in the ancient tongue.
As Anders began to kneel she took his hands in hers. "And kindness."
Tears filled his eyes as he gazed upon the divine leader of his people. His heart swelled with love.
The decades to follow saw true prosperity, just as she had promised.