Damiel kicked his heels against the wall, trying to free himself from Skalosak's grip. It was useless. He could not budge. The Siberoo probably had more power in her smallest digit than he had in his entire body.
"I won't let this happen," snarled Skalosak, her face a scowl of pain. "I won't let you become one of us."
"Skal!" gasped Damiel, trying his best to sound calm. "I want to be Initiated. I need this."
"Don't lie!" Skalosak roared. "You don't know what 'this' is. You have no idea."
Her other hand - the one aimed at Damiel with its razor claws - began to tremble.
"This is what I've always wanted," said Damiel. "Please, don't take this away from me. You are not a murderer."
"This is not murder," said Skalosak. "This is mercy. I know you are afraid. Afraid of what She will make you do, afraid of what She will make you become. I can't let that happen."
"Then you're the one who's afraid!" shouted Damiel.
Skalosak did not respond; she only trembled some more.
"Skalosak, please listen. I have to accept this duty, no matter how hard, no matter how horrific. I need it."
"Why?" Skalosak cocked her head and glared at him. "You do not belong here. You must -" She seemed to choke. "You must ask me to kill you. I need your permission to kill you."
"I'm sorry, but you're not going to get it. Do what you want, but you'll do it without my approval. Then they'll punish you."
"Punish? A year's suspension from work, a few extra nightmares, re-education. I can take it."
"Can you now? Can you live with having killed me? Then just -" He gulped. "Do as you will. Obviously I'm too weak to stop you. I'm completely defenceless."
Skalosak froze, then hissed as if in agony, and gently lowered Damiel to the floor. She took one step back and crouched, still taller than any human. She raised her hands to her face and brushed them through the fur on her cheeks in a sort of harsh massage, sweeping them over her ears as if violently desperate to soothe them.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's my fault. I made it so pleasant for you. I made you want to stay."
"I don't hate myself as much as I used to," said Damiel. "I have you to thank for that."
"I don't regret that for one millisecond. It may be the best thing I have done in centuries. But there are other things I could have done as well. I could at least have hinted - You had a whole week to decide. You could have turned back at any time. But instead of staying to be punished, you stayed to - become the punisher. Like us. Why do you want this so badly?"
"Because I've always believed in the necessity of punishment."
"For others as well as yourself? Do you not find it blasphemous to do something only God is supposed to do?"
"My work does not conflict with my beliefs. I believe that God is cruel. I have seen nothing in this galaxy to convince me otherwise. In many parts of this universe, God makes the innocent and guilty suffer equally. She is not gentle with the innocent. I am. At least -" She closed her eyes for a few seconds, probably embarrassed. "I aspire to be. Even the Queen of Pain Herself - who has engineered torment to the limits of physics and chemistry and biology - refuses to harm the innocent. In a way, that makes Her - that makes both of us - morally superior to God. We use our power responsibly, and yet the God of infinite power does not. That, in my mind, is part of what justifies the Queen's actions. That also justifies my servitude. I may pray to an abstract, unknowable God in times of trial and sorrow; but in my most lucid hours, I serve the Queen, knowing She is real, knowing that Her needs are real, and based on a moral system that is consistent, that makes sense to me."
For a moment Damiel was speechless, aghast that Skalosak could arrive at these conclusions and still believe in God. Finally, he said "The ways of the Lord are-"
"Enough!" said Skalosak, raising her hand as if swishing away an insect. "I do not want to hear theological arguments I have already heard a hundred thousand times before. Even the Queen Herself scoffs at such theories of faith. She does not care what gods we believe in. They cannot alter the duties She has set for us. She knows that, deep down, we all have doubts about such abstractions, while She remains a force in our lives that we can neither deny nor disobey. The irony amuses her." She grinned as if silently snarling. "But if it's the mysterious ways of your God that you want to discuss, then all I can say is this: if God distributes cruelty in a random fashion, then we are simply redirecting that cruelty to areas more appropriate. Is this what you want to take part in?"
The room began to tremble again. The tremor subsided after a few seconds. If this was the Queen's doing, then she may as well have been a goddess to these people.
"I must take part in this whatever the cost," said Damiel. "My belief in cosmic justice has been at the core of my being for so long. I must - as we say on my planet, put my money where my mouth is."
"I see. So this duty you have been called to will fulfil your purpose in life?"
"That's what I believe."
"And do you know the price of such fulfilment?"
Damiel paused, recalling his first private conversation with Skalosak. "You mentioned nightmares."
"Sometimes," said Skalosak, "I hear screams in my head. I hear children screaming, children of a hundred different species. All afraid, all in pain. And I hear them screaming my name. They beg me to save them. But I cannot move. Then I wake up, I look around me, and I remind myself that it is not an illusion. Not really. Because the innocent are always suffering, in places where there is no justice, and sometimes many places beyond. This duty of mine helps me preserve the balance. It helps me make a difference. Because if I could bring the perpetrators of such suffering to justice, then the screams in my head will begin to dwindle. For a while. Usually a long while. But it gives me great peace of mind to know that the screams of the innocent are only temporary, while the screams of the guilty are forever. My peace, my happiness, depends upon the eternal suffering of the guilty. She has - conditioned me that way. She knows my every weakness, every desire. She knows what hurts me. And this knowledge that She holds ensures that I have no choice but to love my task, for there is nothing else left in my life."
Damiel stared at Skalosak's huge bowed head, finally beginning to realise the enormity of the path he had chosen. This magnificent creature, so full of potential good, had been mentally disfigured for life. Everything good inside her - her empathy, her maternal instincts, her courage, her pride, her desire to protect the weak - had been twisted, torn, and turned against itself, moulded into just another feeding tool for the Queen's insatiable hunger. The sheer callousness defied his comprehension.
"There are other times," she continued, "when I close my eyes and see my son." She raised her head and stared at Damiel, a slight grin lighting up her face. "I see the last moment I ever faced him, so handsome, so proud, so full of hope and ambition. Then I imagine him watching over me today, knowing what I do, and I see the shame in his eyes. I know that he would be ashamed of me. And, for all the pride I have for my work, I would not blame him." She sighed. "Obviously that's not the Queen's brainwashing. That's my own imagination doing that to me. My own free will, my own conscience. If there really is a Heaven, then I doubt I will ever get to meet him there. I have fallen far too deeply in love with Hell, and it's too late to turn back." Her gaze held Damiel. "Even for you, if you hold on to this life."
Damiel inhaled shakily, feeling himself infected with Skalosak's grief and anguish. "Even if my Initiation becomes my imprisonment," he said, "then it is an imprisonment I have freely chosen. I have to live to see it. I have to live through it, regardless of the cost. And I want you to be-"
"I won't be there for you. Only Marishison."
Damiel frowned. "Why?"
"Because the Queen knows that I would break your neck a heartbeat before She could touch your head. I have had - problems in the past. I do not regret them. But I cannot repeat them. I must respect your choice."
Once again, the room shook, more violently than ever before. The tremor rose in pitch, like the roaring of a great beast, then slowly subsided.
"Ahhh," said Skalosak, her eyes shut, her head floating as if listening to her favourite music. "The Queen is feeding. She has taken Her latest offering straight to Her Heart. One more vile sadist has begun his eternity, his true life after that blissful instant that was his former life. And I have no choice but to be grateful."
Damiel got to his feet, his eyes fixed upon Skalosak, upon what years of servitude had done to her. Will this be me in years to come? he thought to himself. Whatever the answer, it seemed that Skalosak herself was sure of it. Why else would she even think of killing him? Yet the shock of that moment was now far from his concern. Much worse was the fear that motivated her, the fear for his future. Clearly, she knew that there were many fates worse than death, and Damnation was only the most obvious, most extreme example. There were so many ways one could suffer, so many weary paths to tread. Had he chosen the right one? Did he secretly crave death in exchange for a long life of unpleasant, soul-wracking duties?
Then he realised that his answer did not matter. It was selfish of him to obsess over his own cravings, his own fears. He had been lured here to serve the greater good, to make a difference to innocent and guilty alike. With death the only alternative, his true and bravest choice was to march forward, to complete what he had started in his heart and mind six long years ago.
It was Skalosak who needed comfort more than himself. Damiel wanted to walk over to her, to stroke her fur and tell her that everything was all right, that her work and wisdom made a difference to the unjust regions of the galaxy. He even wanted to thank her for trying to save him from a life of anguish at great personal expense. Yet as he took a few steps forward, a chill went through him. The dread of his impending Initiation, the irreversible death of his old life, lodged huge and heavy in his chest. For a selfish moment, he wanted to be the comforted rather than the comforter. He wanted to curl up inside Skalosak, to thaw his shivering nerves, to hide from this dark world and the Queen who ruled it -
- And suddenly the door slid open. Two hulking figures stood in the doorway, almost as large as Skalosak, both armed and coldly austere.
"Keep away from the boy," growled the giant muscular wolf.
"I haven't even touched him," snarled Skalosak, glaring at the two guards as if harbouring years of bitter rivalry.
"Don't give us that crap," hissed the second guard, who resembled a bipedal crocodile. "That was very cute of you to hack your own security system. You've just earned a decade of extra surveillance, and lost a few privileges in the deal. Now get to your feet. Right now."
Skalosak lifted herself to her full height, staring steadily at the guards as if challenging them. The guards barged in, batons outstretched and crackling with electrical energy.
"No funny business this time," said the crocodile, "or else you get this right between the eyes."
"Nice suitcase," said Skalosak, looking at his scales.
"Yeah, and nice carpet, bitch," said the crocodile, looking at Skalosak's fur. "Now prove you have more nous than pretty decor and turn around with your paws behind your back."
As Skalosak obeyed the reptilian guard, the wolf turned to Damiel, almost making him jump. "Are you all right?" he said.
"We were just talking," said Damiel. "She's done nothing wrong."
"We know what she tried to do," said the wolf, his voice softened to a more human level. "She's done it before. Her part of the net was temporarily blocked, but we fixed that as quick as we could."
The crocodile stood close behind Skalosak, fastening something silvery and noose-like around her wrists.
"Trying out big bouncy mammals, now, are we?" purred Skalosak. "Snuggling up for winter?"
"First you would have to drug me out of my fucking mind," hissed the reptile.
"Ah, yes," said Skalosak. You'd know a thing or two about that as well, won't you?"
"I know why she wanted to do it," the wolf said to Damiel, his golden eyes bright and sincere. "She obviously cares for you greatly, and I understand that you've forgiven her. But recruits must be protected by law as much as any one of us."
The reptile gently pressed the baton against the back of Skalosak's neck, making her hiss and throw her head back. The fur on her neck bristled like cactus spines.
"Don't hurt her!" shouted Damiel, running toward the Siberoo. The giant wolf reached out his paw and gently grabbed Damiel by the shoulder, holding him like a vice.
"She's all right," said the wolf. "In a few hours she'll be as happy as a kitten with a new ball of yarn. A few days of regular treatment and she'll be back to normal. We need her. For all her little quirks, she's still one of our best."
"Which is why she hasn't completely lost her privacy," said the reptile. "Yet." He herded Skalosak towards the door.
"Skalosak!" shouted Damiel.
The guard and captive paused on the threshold. Skalosak turned to face Damiel, still herself, her blue stare soft and stoic.
"Thank you," said Damiel. "Thank you for everything."
"Be strong," said Skalosak. "I'll see you after your Initiation. I'll greet you as one of us." There was a hint of sorrow in her final sentence. She turned away as the reptile herded her out the door.
"It's time for you to leave, too," said the wolf. "I'll escort you down to your guest quarters. Marishison will meet you there afterwards. But whatever you do, just get some rest first. You have only six hours until your Initiation. It would be best to keep your wits about you when you face Her Infernal Majesty."
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