The Demon in the Cage

“I don’t see it,” Hinaru confessed through gritted teeth, dropping his head in frustration and embarrassment. “I’ve stared at that cage for half of the day and I have not seen anything but empty bars.”

He felt a hand settle on his shoulder. The Chain Breaker, the head of the Demon Guard stood behind the ornate, velvet-cushioned chair where Hinaru sat. The man had remained in the stone hall with him and waited patiently for hours, allowing a potential new initiate every opportunity to pass this final test. But it had been wasted time.

“Forgive me, Breaker Allito,” Hinaru said, trying to keep the stinging in his eyes from resolving into tears. It was bad enough he had to admit defeat, he would not have the highest-ranking soldier in the city see him cry. He could not live with that shame. “I’ve failed you. I will collect my property from the barracks and leave at once.”

“You will not,” said the old soldier behind him. “You have failed no one and you are not going to be banished.”

The Chain Breaker walked around the chair to stand in front of Hinaru. His craggy face, marked deep with the passage of time and painted with a gray stubble along his jawline, was surprisingly kind. He paused a moment, waiting for the younger man to look up and meet his eyes. “You have passed every other test we have administered. You are smart, courageous and, if your instructors are to be believed, one of the finest swordsmen they have trained in years. Even if you can’t see the demon and are unable to join the Demon Guard, you have earned a place with us, Hinaru.

“And, the test is not necessarily over.”

The leader of the Demon Guard pointed to the wall on Hinaru’s right, indicating an assortment of twenty-three swords hanging from metal brackets. Each weapon had a gleaming, narrow blade the color of milk. They appeared as delicate as porcelain, but Hinaru knew they were made of the hardest substance known to the Realm. Forged in Hell, and stolen from the demons during the human uprising, they were nearly indestructible. And they were the only defense men had against any future assault from the underworld.

Several tens of empty brackets were also visible on the wall.

“How many pale blades belong to us?”

“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.

“Fifty-seven,” Breaker Allito repeated. “Very good. You have been paying attention to your lessons. Of those fifty-seven, thirty-four are currently in the hands of guardsmen and twenty-three remain hanging uselessly on our wall. That is not good for us. That leaves us weak and vulnerable. We need men to wield the swords.

“But, we need the right men.” The graying soldier turned his back on Hinaru to face the cage located in the center of the hall. It was a gleaming white monstrosity, all sharp edges and jagged points welded together. The structure was four paces wide and four paces deep; rising from the floor to the height of two tall men. “Do you know why we have the cage, Hinaru?”

“To test new potential soldiers,” he responded. This was common knowledge. “You cannot kill a demon if you can’t see it.”

The Chain Breaker flapped a hand dismissively at his answer. “Yes, yes. But, do you know why the cage was built?” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the metal structure before him. “The humans collected almost two hundred swords from the demons in the uprising. Why do you think building the cage was so important that men would destroy most of the weapons Lars Itarsa, the first Chain Breaker, worked so hard to gain?

Two hundred, thought Hinaru. That was not part of his training. Why would anyone use a hundred and fifty swords to build a cage when those blades could be so much more useful in the hands of trained soldiers?

“I didn’t know about the other swords, Chain Breaker. I thought we always had the cage. I don’t know how to answer your question.”

Breaker Allito nodded, expecting such a response. The man hooked his thumbs into his red leather, sword belt, then turned back to face Hinaru. “It is not a secret, but neither is it discussed much openly. Many thought it a mistake at the time, and some still do now. But that decision was made long before I was even born, so questioning it serves no good purpose. I can tell you the reason it was done, however, if you care to hear the explanation.”

Hinaru nodded quickly, and the Chain Breaker smiled at his eagerness; an expression that sat unexpectedly well on the old soldier’s time-worn face.

“When men organized and revolted against the demons, we won because we outnumbered them, and they had grown careless enough to allow us access to weapons. They did not believe that we were intelligent enough or courageous enough to turn on our fearsome masters. At the time of the uprising, every man, woman, and child in the city could see the demons. We believed this was normal and did not find the fact remarkable.

“Thirty years later, during the Second Wave, the demons almost took the city back. We were lucky there were only a few tens of the creatures that attacked our walls in that assault. Even so, many men died. We discovered that of those born after the uprising, only about one in five could actually see a demon. At first, we thought this was because of something the demons had done to blind us to their presence, but that idea was soon discarded.

“The truth of what was happening was discovered when survivors of the original uprising shared stories of the demons murdering and eating children by the hundreds. Four out of every five children born were killed. It was believed that these numbers could not be coincidence. Do you see?”

The Chain Breaker paused to allow Hinaru an opportunity to answer, but the young man had not yet made a connection between the story he was hearing and what the soldier wanted him to understand. When it was obvious his young student was unable to respond, the older man continued.

“Only one in five men has ever been able to see a demon. When the creatures ran the city, they eliminated those that could not see them. A slave is of very little use if it cannot see its master.”

Light dawned in Hinaru’s eyes as he digested the information. The people of that time believed that everybody could see demons because everyone alive had the ability. They also thought the death of children at the hands of the demons was a random act rather than the specific selection process it truly was.

“I think I understand. The cage allowed them to test their soldiers and find out who could see the demons. So, the demon in this cage is dead? The body was collected after the Second Wave?”

“Of course, it’s not dead,” snapped Breaker Allito with some disgust at the suggestion. He began to pace, slowly making his way around the chair where Hinaru perched. Hinaru was forced to shift sideways and crane his neck to follow the Breaker’s movements. “A dead demon decomposes too rapidly. Besides, why build a cage to hold a corpse? No, the demon is quite alive.

“When the Second Wave was over, and the Chain Breaker of that time, Samanth Ken, realized the nature of the problem, he gathered the soldiers who had proven themselves able to see the enemy. He formed the first Demon Guard, then collected all the white-metal weapons in the city and placed the pale blades in the hands of those that could most effectively use them. Finally, he put the members of the Demon Guard in charge of the rest of his forces. He made certain that at least one of them was always on the city wall, watching for the demons’ return.

“Time passed. Forty years went by and there were no more attacks. Members of the Demon Guard were growing old and dying, and there was no effective way to test for new recruits. Breaker Ken, himself, eventually died, and Todrick Bortu replaced him. Breaker Bortu was the man who ordered the cage built. He knew that when the last of the Guard was gone, the city would be unable to properly protect itself. The best they would be able to do was to arm men at random and hope by sheer chance that the right people were fighting when the demons came again.

“Because the white metal is the only thing we know that can effectively harm or hold a demon, he ordered that most of the swords the Realm possessed be reforged and made into a cage. He justified his actions, explaining that the only way to protect future generations from the same uncertainty experienced in the Second Wave was to capture a demon and use it to test new Guard members.

“He was taking a great gamble, because if the demons came again after the last of the Demon Guard had died of old age, the reduced number of remaining swords lessened our chances of survival. Although not building the cage, he believed, carried bigger risks.”

Breaker Allito dropped a heavy hand onto Hinaru’s shoulder, startling him. The old soldier leaned forward to speak softly into his ear. “But, you can guess what happened next, can’t you? We are, after all, still here.” He stood, not waiting for Hinaru’s answer, and resumed his pacing.

“Whether by a fool’s luck or by divine intervention, the Third Wave struck the city barely one year after the cage was created. We turned the demons away from our walls and captured the creature that now resides in the cage before you. It was fortunate that Breaker Bortu took the gamble that he did, as it has been over a hundred years since the Third Wave was defeated and there have been no subsequent assaults on the city. There is not a man alive today that has ever seen a demon.”

The Breaker paused in front of Hinaru and pointed a finger, directing his gaze to the center of the great hall; to the gleaming white bars. “Except for the one trapped in this very room.”

“We are alive today, Hinaru, because of the foresight of the Breakers who led this city before me. They decreed that only those who can see our enemy may become soldiers of the Demon Guard. I will not go against their orders. However…”

“Yes?” asked Hinaru when the Chain Breaker paused. “However, what?”

The Breaker smiled again, his bright, blue eyes sparkling kindly. “However, the decision does not have to be made today. You may come back tomorrow morning and try once more to see the demon. It does not happen often, but there have been instances of soldiers who failed on their first attempt yet were later able to see it. Perhaps you will be one of those few.”

Breaker Allito patted the younger man on the cheek like an affectionate parent, then turned and strode away.

Hinaru remained in the chair a moment longer, listening to the soft pad of the Breaker’s leather boots on the stone floor as he exited the chambers. A door opened, hinges groaning slightly as it swung out then back to its closed position.

With one last disgusted glance at the empty cage, Hinaru rose to his feet and stormed angrily across the room to the main entrance of the great hall. There were only two ways in and out of the Chamber of the Demon, as it was called by the soldiers in the barracks. The Breaker had exited through a private passageway to the south that led to his personal chambers, while Hinaru retreated to the massive, wood and metal, double doors at the north end, through which he had originally entered.

As he pushed through the doors, back into the labyrinthine passages of the Demon Guard’s keep, he was intercepted by one of the guardsmen.

“Hold up, Hinaru. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”

The man was tall and thin, with a long beard of black hair oiled and twisted to a single braid that hung almost to his belt. He wore the red and brown uniform of the Demon Guard, and pinned to the left breast of his shirt was a small gold medallion in the shape of a closed hand. His name was Oatha, Hinaru recalled. He held the rank of Fist; responsible for the training and supervision of five soldiers. Hinaru stopped and bowed formally.

“Of course. How may I be of service, Fist Oatha?”

“First, you can stop bowing. I am not here as a fist, but rather as a friend.”

Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.

“You didn’t see the demon?” continued Oatha. “No, don’t answer that. I already know you did not. How could you? There was nothing in that cage to see.”

“What?! What do you mean by….”

Oatha draped a friendly, but firm, arm around Hinaru’s shoulders. He guided the confused young man down one of the many hallways. “Walk with me, Hinaru. A moving conversation is much harder to overhear, and I do not want what I am about to tell you to become common knowledge.”

The two walked in silence for several seconds, Oatha occasionally glancing down branching hallways, or cocking his head slightly as though listening for pursuing footsteps. When he seemed satisfied that they were not being followed or spied upon, he spoke.

“The demon in the cage is a test designed to remove undesirables from the Demon Guard. It is a final challenge for anyone who has passed all the other requirements but, for one reason or another, is still deemed unfit by members of our order. Before you pass the test, a current member of the Guard must judge that you are worthy to join us, then let you in on the secret of the initiation.

“I have seen you spar, and I know you are quick witted enough to make a fine addition to our ranks, so I have decided to give you the information you need to pass this test. Just as another member of the Guard did for me before I joined.”

Hinaru paused, forcing Oatha to stop and turn to face him.

“I still don’t understand,” Hinaru said, his face pinched in thought. “It isn’t real? But what about the white metal? What about the swords, and what the Chain Breaker told me about the Third Wave?”

Oatha placed his hands on Hinaru’s shoulders, squeezing lightly and forcing the recruit to meet his gaze. “I believe that demons used to exist, a very long time ago. They seem as reasonable an explanation as any for the origin of the white metal. But they have been gone a very long time and I think it highly unlikely they will ever return. They probably died out following the Third Wave.”

Oatha slipped a hand behind Hinaru’s back and started them walking again.

“Regardless, whether there were ever demons in the first place, there aren’t any now. If there was a demon in that cage, it died over a hundred years ago because there is nothing at all currently between those bars.”

“The Chain Breaker told me….” Hinaru began.

“Yes, I know what he told you,” Oatha interrupted. “The older officers will never openly admit the truth. Particularly not the Chain Breaker. The Demon Guard is an elite force, destined to carry the pale blades and defend the city from the hordes of Hell. So, consider this: how elite would the Guard be if it became common knowledge that there are no demons? Even though it is a lie, the cage is a symbol of our position. The secret must be kept if the Guard is to survive.

“I believe in you, Hinaru. I think you belong with us, and I think you can keep our secret. That is why I am talking to you, now. I’m going to tell you how to pass your final test.”

Hinaru stopped again and bowed deeply toward Oatha. “Thank you, Fist Oatha. I will not disappoint you. What do I need to do?”

“It’s simple,” said Oatha, taking Hinaru’s arm with exasperation and standing him back up straight. “You must describe the demon in the cage.”

Hinaru’s face fell. Was Oatha toying with him? Was this all an elaborate joke by the Fist before the soldier escorted him to the gates of the keep and kicked him out?

“Fist Oatha, I have not seen a demon. How can I describe something I have never seen?”

“That is the easiest part,” Oatha assured him. “I’m going to tell you what to say to the Chain Breaker. You must describe the creature exactly as I explain it to you. That will let the Breaker know that you have been approached by one of us, and that you are not just guessing.”

“I’m listening.”

Oatha held up one finger. “First, the creature is hideously ugly. Its face is a cluster of horns and spikes over a massive mouth filled with long pointed teeth. It walks on two legs, standing half again the height of a man, and it has two arms that each end in narrow hands with three, clawed fingers. Although tall, it is still slender, and the body moves like that of a serpent. But most importantly, you must mention that in the center of its chest…”

“…there is an eye the size of two closed fists, blood red in color with a slitted pupil,” Hinaru finished.

The Chain Breaker nodded and smiled his pleasure at Hinaru’s description. “That is indeed our demon. Congratulations, young Hinaru. I welcome you as a brother and as a member of the Demon Guard.”

The old soldier raised a hand, gesturing to the wall of swords. “Go and select your weapon from among the pale blades.”

Hinaru rose from the padded chair he had grown to hate so much only the day before. Today, however, he felt nothing but triumph. He bowed deeply to the Chain Breaker, then turned to face the wall of milky-white weapons. He stepped slowly, deliberately, toward the demon-metal swords, savoring the moment. As he drew near, one weapon in particular drew his attention. It was not noticeably different from its kin, and it did not call out to him with any kind of magical urging; still, it held his eye. The sword was beautiful – they all were – but this one just seemed … right.

Reaching out with a shaking hand, Hinaru grasped the pommel. From that moment, the pale blade was his. He turned to the Chain Breaker and laid the blade flat across his chest, from left shoulder to right hip, in salute to the commander of the Demon Guard.

The Chain Breaker drew his own blade and returned the salute.

“There is one more thing, Guardsman, that you need to know before you return to the barracks to celebrate with your brothers.”

Hinaru thrilled at being addressed as Guardsman. It was a title he had worked his entire life toward achieving, and to hear it from the lips of the Chain Breaker was an ecstasy he knew he would remember for the rest of his life. “Yes, Chain Breaker? What do I need to know?”

He almost expected the Breaker to tell him that there was no demon in the cage and that it was all just an elaborate hoax to keep the Demon Guard in charge of the city, but then he recalled Oatha’s statement that the older officers never discussed the matter where others might hear.

“The sword you hold, Guardsman, is more than just a weapon. It is also a key.”

“A key, Chain Breaker?” Hinaru asked, wondering if this was a literal statement or some sort of analogy.

“Breaker Bortu not only built the cage and trapped a demon, he also anticipated a time when the demon might die. An empty cage is a useless thing if it can never be opened. So, in preparation for the day the cage would need to be opened and re-secured, Breaker Bortu created a lock for it that would only open with a special key.”

The Breaker pointed toward Hinaru’s chest. “That sword in your hand is the key that opens the lock.”

“My sword?” asked Hinaru, incredulous.

The Chain Breaker nodded. “And mine,” he said. “And the swords on the wall, and those on the belts of every Demon Guard soldier. There are fifty-seven keys to this lock. None of which must ever be used until the day that the cage is empty and needs to be refilled.”

“Until the cage is empty….” Hinaru repeated to himself.

“Enough talk,” said the Breaker, returning his sword to his belt then clapping his hands together. “It is time to show off your new blade to your comrades and to celebrate the addition of another Guardsman to our ranks. Find your friends and tell them I ordered them to buy you ale and a meal. I do not expect to see you again until you report to Fist Grana for your patrol assignment, two days from today.”

Hinaru sat with three of the younger guardsmen that he had befriended while going through training. The men had claimed one of the badly hewn wooden tables in a back corner of the ale house, choosing to be as far from the cook fires in the kitchen as possible on such a warm humid night. Like his companions, his new pale blade hung from a ring on his belt rather than in a scabbard. The Demon Guard wore their swords in this fashion so the cream-colored blade was always visible, and even if they were out of uniform, as the four guardsmen were this evening, anyone with whom they came into contact would immediately know their status.

The table held wooden bowls and plates that had hours earlier been used to serve Hinaru’s and his comrades’ meals, but these dishes had quickly been emptied and pushed to one side to make room for worn pewter mugs, and a procession of pitchers of frothy amber liquid. It had grown late, and Hinaru was quite drunk by the time the majority of the tavern’s customers had vacated the business to return to their homes. Only Hinaru’s party and a few other stragglers currently remained in the establishment.

“Well, you may be ready to carouse all night, Hinaru,” said one of the men sitting across the table from him; a youth about Hinaru’s own age. The boy had mousy features, with a long straight nose that tapered to a point and narrow black eyes. The guardsman pressed his hands flat on the table and pushed himself unsteadily up to his feet. “But, I need to be on the wall when the sun comes up tomorrow or the Breaker will use my balls to feed his pet demon.”

Hinaru raised his mug. “It’s still early, Morro,” he pleaded. “How about just one more?”

“Sure,” agreed Morro. “Just one more. Then just one more after that, and then tomorrow I can try to explain to my fist why I missed my patrol. I like you Hinaru, but not enough to have Fist Grana mad at me.”

“Grana?” asked Hinaru. “Hey, Grana is supposed to be my fist, too!”

“Well, I wish you better fortune than the rest of us have had with old Grana,” said Morro, raising his mug in salute then downing the last of his ale before slamming the cup back to the table. “Guardsmen, old and new, it has been a pleasure. Hinaru, congratulations, and I will see you on the wall.”

As Morro staggered away in search of the exit, the other two men at Hinaru’s table also stood to leave. They expressed their desperate need for sleep and apologized for leaving him with an unemptied pitcher still on the table. Despite Hinaru’s protestations for them to stay, they clasped his hand, clapped his shoulder, and bid him goodnight.

Alone at the table, Hinaru grabbed the pitcher and refilled his mug. Leaving now would feel like a defeat, but if he at least finished the ale before making his way back to the barracks to pass out, he could tell himself the party ended because he was ready for it to end and not because he had been abandoned. He brought the pewter rim of the cup to his lips and drained most of its contents in three large swallows.

“Where did your friends go?” asked a feminine voice, surprising him.

Hinaru coughed and sputtered, then lowered his mug and glanced over his shoulder while mopping at his chin with his sleeve. One of the tavern’s serving girls had approached his table and now stood beside him, her head cocked to one side and a bemused smile on her face. She was pretty, in a fresh, innocent way, with a heart-shaped face and sparkling brown eyes set above a delicate upturned nose. Her long dark hair had been pulled behind her head and tied so it trailed behind her to the middle of her back, although several shorter locks had pulled free at some point during the evening and now curled against her cheek. The girl’s figure was a delight as well, and the open laces at the top of her wool blouse showed a generous amount of flesh.

He smiled back at her. Hinaru had noticed her earlier that night when she had taken their orders for food, but he could not recall her name. He did however, recall the way she had winked at him when she caught him glancing down into the depths of her partially exposed cleavage.

“They deserted me for the company of their beds,” Hinaru responded, snorting derisively. “Sleep is apparently more important to them than celebrating the newest of their numbers.”

The girl’s eyes glinted excitedly, and she moved around the table, clutching up her heavy skirts to perch lightly on the bench across from Hinaru. “You’re one of the Demon Guard?” she asked in a breathy voice. “You have seen the demon?”

Hinaru tapped at the pale blade hanging at his hip. “You’ve seen my sword,” he responded. “You know I am.”

“How wonderful,” she said. “Was it terribly frightening? The demon?”

Hinaru merely looked at her, blearily. It had not been frightening at all for him, but he could not say that to this girl. He remained silent, trying to think of an appropriate retort, but ideas moved slowly in the mush the ale had made of his brain.

The girl, apparently mistaking his lack of answer for bravado, spoke again. “Of course, it wasn’t,” she blurted. “You are a soldier. Demon Guard.”

“I’m Bethan,” she said, reaching a hand out toward Hinaru. Her forearm was pale and slender, but well defined from years of carrying heavy platters and pitchers in the tavern.

“Hinaru,” Hinaru answered. He clasped her fingers lightly as though prepared to kiss the back of the proffered hand but, realizing that the table between them made the gesture impossible, he quickly released her.

“Hinaru,” Bethan repeated. “Such a strong name. Fit for a warrior.” She blushed slightly as she realized that perhaps she was gushing a bit more than she had intended. “Sorry. I have not had many opportunities to speak with one of the Demon Guard.”

Hinaru nodded, pursing his lips and gazing at the table in a manner he hoped looked wise and contemplative. “There aren’t many of us to speak with.”

“No, there aren’t. Only a very few of us are able to see demons.” Bethan lowered her head slightly, forcing herself to look upward to keep eye contact with Hinaru. “Sooo, … Can I?” she asked.

“Can you what?” asked Hinaru, confused by the turn the conversation had taken.

“See the demon?” Bethan clarified in a low voice. “Will you show it to me?”

Hinaru sat bolt upright, glancing around the tavern to see if anyone else had been listening. He placed his hands on the table and leaned in as close to Bethan as he could get over the obstruction. He whispered, “I can’t! I can’t take you into the Chamber of the Demon. You aren’t a soldier.”

“The only ones allowed into the chamber are the Demon Guard, and the guests of the Guard,” Bethan said calmly. “I could be your guest.”

Bethan reached across the table to grasp the ale pitcher. She leaned forward, refilling Hinaru’s mug and at the same time allowing her blouse to fall a fraction lower. “Besides,” she continued, “if you show me the demon, perhaps I might by willing to show you something in return.”

Hinaru pushed at the heavy wooden door, swinging the right half out and away from its counterpart on the left.

Fist Oatha had been on-duty guarding the Chamber of the Demon tonight, which was fortunate. It was the only reason Hinaru had even risked bringing Bethan here. Anyone else might have turned him away, but Oatha had been the one who had taught him the secret of the empty cage and, if anyone was likely to turn a blind eye tonight, it would be him. They shared a bond. That, and Hinaru had promised Oatha two free pitchers at the tavern of his choice the next time they both had a night off.

Oatha obligingly slipped away to patrol the surrounding hallways, telling Hinaru that he and his ‘guest’ needed to be gone when he returned. Hinaru had agreed, thanking him profusely.

Hinaru held a finger to his lips as he and Bethan entered the chamber. Oatha might be gone, but if they made too much noise and drew the attention of the Chain Breaker then the beautiful sword on Hinaru’s hip might be back in a bracket on the wall by morning.

His plan was to show Bethan the cage, commiserate with her briefly when she realized that she could not see the demon, then return with her to her room at the tavern to pass the rest of the night.

Hinaru braced the door as Bethan entered, then allowed the heavy portal to swing back shut under its own weight. Bethan paused at the north end of the chamber and Hinaru indicated the cage to her with a flourish of one hand.

“It’s awful,” said Bethan, lifting a hand to her mouth in surprise.

Hinaru looked at the jagged spikes and wickedly sharp lines of the sword-forged cage and agreed internally that it did look quite intimidating. He recalled his own awed reaction during the first time he had seen it. He stepped toward the white-metal structure, indicating with a crooked finger that Bethan should follow. It wasn’t until Hinaru had walked all the way to the center of the chamber, just a few paces away from the cage, that he realized Bethan was not behind him. She remained unmoving by the northern door.

“Should you be that close?” she asked from across the room.

“It is perfectly safe,” said Hinaru, distractedly peering at the front bars of the white enclosure. “This cage has been intact for over a hundred years, it will hold a few minutes longer.”

Stepping closer, Hinaru found his attention drawn to a flat metal plate inset among the bars about shoulder height from the floor. The plate was the same pale metal as the rest of the cage, but it was a smooth square surface with none of the sharp edges or angles that defined the rest of the structure. In the center of the square was a slit as long as his thumb and not quite as wide as his smallest fingernail.

Staring at the narrow opening, Hinaru was reminded of Breaker Allito’s words.

That sword in your hand is the key that opens the lock.

Hinaru drew his weapon and raised the point up to eye level. The gap in the plate looked just large enough to fit the blade of his sword. Breaker Allito had also said the cage must never be opened unless it was empty. Was he telling Hinaru it was okay to open the door? Perhaps he was suggesting that each of the Demon Guard should try their sword in the lock to make sure it worked, just in case the opportunity ever came to place a new demon in the cage.

He placed the tip of his sword to the opening and pushed. It slid easily through the slot, stopping about halfway in. Hinaru exerted pressure on the handle, trying to turn his blade in the keyhole, but it refused to budge.

He put more strength into his effort. Still, the lock held fast.

“What are you doing?” asked Bethan, her voice high and slightly unsteady. “Please, stop.”

“There’s nothing to fear,” Hinaru assured her, beginning to strain as he twisted the grip of his sword with both hands now.

“It’s awful,” Bethan moaned. “I can’t stand it. It keeps looking at me with that horrible red eye.”

There was a loud, harsh clack, as of something long frozen suddenly breaking loose. The sword rotated in Hinaru’s hands, stopping after only a quarter turn with the high bright tone of metal slapping metal. Hinaru felt a moment of exhilaration, followed by a sickening dread as Bethan’s last words penetrated through his alcohol-addled mind.

He turned his head to look at the girl.

“What did you –?”

The cage door burst open, the edge striking Hinaru in the chest and shoulder, driving him backward. He fell, sprawling to the ground on his back; his head striking the paved stone floor with a hollow thud. The impact on the stones left him momentarily dizzy and nauseous. The room began to spin around him.

Hinaru looked up in time to see Bethan grab up her skirts and flee the chamber through the north door. He thought she might be screaming, but the noise could also have been his ears ringing from the blow to his head.

Fighting against the debilitating dizziness, Hinaru placed his elbows behind him and attempted to push himself up from the floor. A heavy weight descended onto his chest, crushing him back to the cold stones and squeezing the breath from his lungs.

Too late, he realized what he had done.

Something massive and malevolent knelt on his chest. He could hear it panting; could feel its hot breath washing over his face.

Hinaru began to weep with shame at his arrogance. He had wanted to be a hero, someone the people would look up to. Instead, he had acted the fool and condemned everyone to suffer for his vanity.

Hinaru still could not see the demon that loomed over him, but there was no mistaking the feel of the clawed hand that closed around his throat.

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