Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 136

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The Devil You Don’t Know

The soldier steeled himself.

Arnau looked as shocked as the soldier felt relieved when nothing happened. “I am you and you are me,” he repeated with more force and urgency than he had used previously. Still, the soldier remained as torn and bloody and “living” if not exactly “alive” and – more to the point – very human and not very dog. The blind ghost’s face contorted with rage. “I am you and you are me!”

“I don’t think we’re the same, actually,” said the soldier, whose confidence was beginning to return. “I mean, I don’t think I’m cursed. And even if I am, I don’t think it’s for being a bad person. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done some bad things. I’m not perfect and I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I’ve been unkind and cruel and mean upon occasion, but I think that makes me a normal person mostly. I’m sure I deserve some kind of punishment somewhere down the line, but I don’t think I warrant eternal damnation.” He was aware that he was babbling but couldn’t seem to stop himself. A part of his mind noted that he was probably mistaking a flood of relief for confidence and that his incessant speech was a result of that.

“How can you not be cursed like me?” stormed Arnau, nearly a match for the howls from outside the cave. Before the soldier could answer, the count went on, “There are other punishments besides joining me,” and opened his palms toward the soldier. From each finger and from three toes on one foot sprang a dog. With each one, Arnau grew more and more substantial and solid. “Kill him!” The dogs ranged one one side of the soldier, thirteen of them in all.

The soldier’s relief turned to abject fear and still there was no sign of the great horned spirit. “What was that you were saying about freedom?” he asked the dogs as he backed up.

“Freedom?” repeated Arnau, and laughed. “Ha! They believe their punishment will only last until the demons rend me apart. They are correct that there is a respite, but they are wrong to think that their lives will return to them. This is only the first part of the rest of their punishment.” Several of the dogs cringed at his words, others whimpered and whined, forgetting the soldier as their master’s words lashed at their backs and hides. His scorn punished them, visible in the welts that rose along their skin. “Their only hope is that in obeying me and carrying out their charge, that they may do some good before they are well and truly punished.”

The soldier bumped into the wall. Behind him the sounds of the demonic storm grew louder as he inched ever closer. “Even if they can’t kill me right away, they’re bound to hurt me further.” Every step he took re-opened some scar or wound. “Better the hope of the unknown,” he concluded, and ran from the dogs and Count Arnau out toward the creatures that threw themselves against the stone.

The ghosts screams combined with the dogs’ howls, fury and despair mingling in horrible measure, underscored by the hunger of the tempest into which the soldier ran. He did not take but one step outside the cave before he was struck in the chest and knocked to the ground. He lay on his back, frozen with fear and the weight of the dark thing sitting atop him. “You’ll do,” sang one voice, even as another whispered in his ear, “It’s time.”

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