The way you experience death is completely based on how you die. It can be pleasant, like dying of old age. You simply feel like you’re waking up from a long, restful sleep, with your body feeling ten years younger and as fit as can be because of the simple truth that it actually is. My experience wasn’t quite that nice. When I arrived in Heaven, I felt like my throat had been torn out. There is a very good reason for this. It had been.
I arrived in Heaven, collapsing and grabbing for my throat. The malaiki in charge of new arrivals for that shift didn’t bat an eye. This was undoubtedly normal for him. Or her. Let me explain about malaiki. They’re . . . odd. They look like rejects from the gods’ first attempts at animals. There is a great story behind this. They actually are, in one sense, rejects, though they are by no means the first animals created.
The gods couldn’t agree on the one animal to be placed on the earth. The greater gods, the felines (i.e., when push comes to shove, the ones who get their way), all wanted the animal to resemble themselves. A malaiki has the head of a leopard, the torso of a cheetah, the mane and forelegs of a lion, and the hind legs and tail of a tiger (I had no idea what a tiger was until I got to Heaven. I’d never seen that much orange before). Each of the four animals have a paw to themselves, ending in something that looks . . . well, like I said, odd.
The malaiki, however, are perfect, but perfection doesn’t prevent a smart mouth. The first smartass comment it is known to have made came when it was being created. The original was so tired of his body being changed over and over that he finally yelled out, “Well why don’t you just give me wings while you’re at it, too?” The gods turned to him, yelled, “Fine!” back, and gave him a wonderful pair of muscular air-beaters.
I finally noticed I had my throat back and stopped thrashing and slowly got to my feet, seeing if my throat actually was there with a paw. I looked up to see the malaiki sitting there patiently. It did absolutely nothing threatening, but I was absolutely frightened of it. They can be a very scary sight. They are perfect.
I thought my body was nicely toned, but I felt insignificant. The malaiki look like they’re sculpted, and might as well be statues. They can sit perfectly still for years on end (or at least that’s what they say, I never stuck around one long enough to see). They are magnificent creatures, their muscles rippling with the slightest move, their claws able to cut through literally anything if extended. They are taller than any living creature, and their size is magnified by the fact that they keep their wings almost fully extended, just slightly curled at the end, each wing seven feet in length. No exaggeration.
This was the animal that commanded me, in a voice that had no mercy in it at all, only compassion, “Come here.”
I had never actually shaken with fear before. It’s strange, because you know you’re doing it, but you don’t feel it. Your vision’s a little jumpy, but other than that, it’s just how you walk. The eyes of that malaiki never blinked as I walked toward it. I had no reason to fear it. But the malaiki have one strange quality: those that are condemned always fear them. Always. You know how I was classed.
But I don’t want you getting any ideas about the malaiki. They are perfect. They don’t have character flaws (although I might beg to differ with a few), and they are incapable of doing wrong. They love you, and their love leaves no room for mercy. That is the precise thing that made my time with Azl such a hell. The malaiki may not have flaws, but they can create a perfect replica of any flaw, such as pride or arrogance, even hate, the kind of hate that isn’t pure. I’m telling you this so you won’t judge Azl harshly, that he did only what he was ordered.
I walked before this malaiki and sat down, staring at its paws, ashamed to look at its perfect face. “Name?” it asked gently. I hesitated. I didn’t know what to say. Then I drew strength from the clarity of realizing who I truly was, not who I was called.
“My name is Taraju.”
The malaiki had a large rectangular object appear before it. The object was hundreds of thin white rectangles, held together by a clear, sparkling larger rectangle that covered three sides of the stack of white rectangles. The malaiki opened the object, going through the white rectangles. The white rectangles had squiggles on their front and back, some squiggles in front, the rest in black.
“T’s,” the malaiki muttered. It ran its digit down a column of squiggles. “Taraē, Tarain, Taraja. Here we are,” it said in a louder voice. “Tara . . .” It stopped as it saw the name wasn’t in gold or black, but red. “Hmm. See . . .” I stared at the red in horror for a moment before it was whisked away, the malaiki putting more white rectangles on top of it as it turned to its left in the object. It stopped as it muttered, “Alana . . . Akab, Akasan.” It spoke the name I wanted to hear least of all. “Here we are. Akasare.” It laughed. There was a single, solitary line of red on this page, too, the squiggles in three groups; a big one, a smaller one, then a big one.
I couldn’t help myself. “What? What are you going to do to me?” I still hadn’t looked up at the malaiki’s face.
“Well, it’s right there. Go ahead.” It spun the floating object around one hundred eighty degrees so that I could see it. It meant nothing to me.
“I—I don’t see anything.”
“Oh, that’s right. Newcomers can’t read.” It pointed at the red with a digit. “This is their little idea of fun. It says ‘Akasare: see Taraju’. And over here,” it said, extending a claw and sliding it under several thousand rectangles, then lifting it up with the pages. The first line of red was visible again—“it says ‘Taraju: see Akasare’.” I stared at the line, trying to see that. It still meant nothing. “It makes sure I ask my superiors.”
“But—bit what does it mean?”
“It means you have a very special opportunity.”
“What?” I asked, looking up from the red line to the malaiki’s face. I almost immediately looked away, looking only long enough for the malaiki to start the next sentence. I looked into the eyes, the eyes that seemed to stare right through me, see all about me.
“I can’t tell you.” It put a paw to my face after I jerked it down, slowly bringing it up. I felt powerless to resist. “Such a pretty face . . . and such nice eyes . . .” The malaiki traced a digit gently across my face, across the two scars that came close enough to count as one, the scars that met on the bridge of my nose. The malaiki dropped its paw. I slowly shifted my gaze down to its chest. “You did a very noble thing.”
“Sir?” I said.
The chest moved in a small laugh. “I’m female,” she said. I looked down, then looked back up at her face again to see a smile an instant before I turned away again. “Really.” She sighed. “There’s just no way to tell with us malaiki. Unless you know what to look for.”
“What are you going to do to me?” I was very, very afraid.
My fear must have showed. “Nothing.” Her voice was gentle, reassuring. I’ve called my superior, he’ll tell me soon.” She paused. “I’ve always wanted to ask this. Why do you fear me?”
“I—I don’t know.” I looked down at its paws. There was silence for some time. I have no idea how long it was.
“Well, you can go now.”
“Through there.” I followed her waving paw to a rectangle of savannah, jutting out in the stark white of the place I was in. “Just walk through. Hopefully you’ll call this home.” I walked through with one last glance back to her smiling, perfect face. I didn’t feel anything walking though to the savannah; no tingling, no rush of air. I just walked to it. I looked around, taking in my first glimpse of Heaven.
My eyes landed on two lions standing, their red manes full and proud. However, one wore his mane, the other’s mane wore him. The second one’s body, which in life had seemed so proud, so arrogant, was humiliated, his mane seeming to weigh him down. The other lion I hadn’t seen for years. They came from separate parts of my life. One I remember with love and compassion. The other I killed. “Dingane?” I said incredulously.
The humiliated one blinked, obviously not pleased to see me. “Yes,” he said.
“Taraju,” the other one said gently. I stared at him, trying to place his face. It suddenly leapt into my head.
“Granddad?” Simba nodded. “Granddad!” I tackled him to the ground happily, laughing.
“Oof!” Granddad grunted. I got off. “You’re not the cub you were.” He looked up at me with a smile.
“Not at all,” said Dingane bitterly. I turned to look at him. He was angry. His voice was too perfectly controlled. “Look at what little Aka grew up into. Added a T to the front of his name.”
“I’m sorry for what I did!” I said. “I paid for it.”
Dingane burst into laughter. It wasn’t pleasant. By any stretch of the imagination. IT was hysterical laughter, the laughter of an animal gone mad. “Paid for it?” he said, the insanity slipping into his voice. “You’ve paid nothing! Nothing!:
“Dingane,” said Simba softly. There was compassion in his voice. He was sorry for Dingane.
you dare tell me to shut up!” Dingane snarled. “You have no idea!”
“You—you deserve it.”
“Do I? Do I?! No one deserves it! He killed me, and I wouldn’t wish it on him. He deserves it much more than me! But he gets a free pass! And you think the gods are fair?”
“They are fair. Even if it hurts.”
“Well let’s see how much you keep that attitude with ’Sare.”
“His name is Taraju.”
“Which one did he go by when he killed me? Which name did he go by for his entire life?”
“My name is Taraju,” I said coldly.
Dingane turned to me. “No one asked your filthy opinion.”
“Dingane!” reprimanded Granddad.
“I didn’t even ask to be here! They dragged me out here to see this! Just to gloat this in front of me! You know it!” Then, suddenly, surprising me completely, Dingane dropped his head and began to sob. “I want to go back . . . I want to go back . . .”
I stared at him, my mouth hanging open. Something very, very bad must have driven the proud lion I once knew to this pathetic, pitiful thing. I thanked the gods I had paid my debt, that I had repented, and I wouldn’t have to go through that. I looked up at Simba, who stared at Dingane in pity. “Send him back,” he said quietly. It’s best. Just say to send him back.”
Dingane looked up at me in fear. “No! Please! You have no idea! Please don’t reject me, ’Sare. Have a heart.” He was actually bowing to me, begging me not to send him away, when just seconds ago he had said he didn’t want to be here.
“Go back,” I said miserably. Another rectangle opened. Vines shot out, grabbing Dingane, who was trying to run. They pulled him back into the rectangle.
“Damn you, ’Sare!” His eyes were wide, desperate, pleading, even as he was dragged back into his personal hell. “Damn you!!”
I watched him disappear into the rectangle and kept staring even after the rectangle had disappeared. That had been horrible. I only saw Dingane one more time, and I’m not sure I actually saw him. He was just part of a crowd, a horrible, miserable crowd. I turned to Granddad. He was staring at me. “Why?” I asked.
“For what he did in life.”
“What are they doing to him?”
“Unimaginable things. It—varies for every animal, I’m told. So they’ll pay for the things that they did.”
I looked back to the spot where Dingane had been. “He wasn’t that bad of an animal. He couldn’t have been that bad of an animal.”
“You were worse,” said Granddad matter-of-factly.
I couldn’t bear to ask the question. I said hesitantly, “I’m glad I paid for it, then.” Granddad looked away. It was all the answer I needed. “No . . .”
“I tried, Taraju. They allowed me to see you before . . . well, before you go.”
can’t believe this!” I yelled. I began to walk away, then turned angrily. “I
paid! I didn’t even know it was wrong! I was raised to kill!”
“I said the same thing. But the gods wouldn’t hear me. They’ve already decided.”
“Damn the gods! Damn them, you hear me?” I did not want to end up like Dingane. When someone entered Heaven, this was meant to be a happy occasion, with the family welcoming you. My only member got to tell me I had to go to Purgatory. “This isn’t fair!”
“They shortened your sentence.”
“There should be no sentence!”
“Please stop yelling.” I quieted down. It was a habit. If I disturbed Granddad too much, Dad used to punish me. The punishments weren’t big, but big enough to make an impression. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t be pissed. Just one.”
“Let me explain the system. Everyone who does horrible things is put into Purgatory. However, if they correct it in life, go out of their way to change things, their sentence is destroyed.”
“So I should have lived? I shouldn’t have just thrown my life away? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Granddad looked at the ground, ashamed. “It may have made a difference instead of you just sacrificing your life.”
“Oh, for Aiheu’s sake!” I walked away again, turned around again. “I gave myself up. Willingly. Doesn’t that mean anything to their high-and-mighty asses?”
“They shortened your sentence because of it. That and your upbringing. You had no control over that cheetah that took you, you had no control over Dingane or Sicwele. You only have one hundred years because of it.”
“One—one hundred years?” Dingane had only been gone three.
“That’s life-years. Not death-years. Time flows differently here.”
“Sometimes it’s just like you were alive. But the rest of the time . . . well, the land of the living slows down, compared to here.”
“You’re joking. Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m sorry. That hundred years . . . it could be a thousand.”
One thousand years. One thousand years of pain, of torture, of insanity, of growing far, far worse than Dingane. “There has to be a way out,” I whispered. “There has to be another way.”
Granddad said, “There is. But I’m begging you not to take it.”
“What?” I begged. “Tell me.”
“You join Afriti. You give away your soul.”
“I was stunned. “But . . . but isn’t Afriti where I’m going to?”
“No. You’re going to Purgatory. Afriti resides in Hell. It’s the only other option. The gods will either put you through Purgatory, or you’ll choose to go to Afriti.” He bit his lip. “But don’t, Taraju. Please don’t give into that.”
I had heard of Hell from Sicwele. Aiheu hurt Afriti badly, right where it hurt most. In the heart. It was from the First Hurt that all the evil in the world finally came about, all from an accident, a little misunderstanding.
Afriti and Aiheu were the closest of all the gods, like brothers. More than that. Afriti created strong ties with a group of gods, and Aiheu with the rest. The groups didn’t dislike each other, but they had their differences. Afriti and Aiheu were the connecting point, the ones who healed any differences. The gods, unlike the malaiki, are not fully perfect. They are now, but Afriti and his group weren’t. At least, not in that sense.
Afriti and Aiheu were like night and day, two related but separate parts. Aiheu was good, kind, and loving. Afriti was as well, and so were the gods with Afriti, but only out of growing up that way. They all carried the seed of dissension (at least, that’s what Sicwele called it. I’d call it EVIL, in nice big, capital letters like that). If they had been born (or the equivalent of being born, the record gets kind of sketchy here) on their own, they wouldn’t have had the good of the other gods to rub off on them.
Afriti and the others were the Damned. They would never achieve true happiness; they would always want more. However, with the other gods around, all of these terrible things were suppressed. Then Aiheu hurt Afriti.
The gods competed. I would imagine it gets pretty boring up there, being holy all day, just talking for century after century after century after—you get the idea. And there are only so many animals that you can smite. So the gods competed. The competitions were always close. Afriti and Aiheu competed the least of all, however. Afriti tried to love Aiheu, and did the utmost to overcome those evil emotions. Afriti made an honest effort.
The two of them competed, Afriti made just as much of an effort as when trying to love, if not more. And Afriti usually won. But then Aiheu insulted Afriti when Afriti was bragging, telling Afriti the equivalent of something like “drop dead” playfully.
It was taken it the wrong way. Afriti was away from Aiheu for some time after that, and spent it thinking. From that one comment Afriti began to unravel, and began to see things in past conversations that weren’t there. Afriti saw that no matter how much effort was given to make Aiheu proud, no matter how much Afriti loved him, Aiheu still thought little of Afriti.
Afriti told the others the conclusion of those thoughts. They, too began to see that their brothers and sisters despised them. Aiheu’s group couldn’t begin to understand hate, but it came to Afriti and the others naturally. The thoughts of their loved ones despising them hurt so much.
They left the gods, Afriti and all of the rejects, and created Hell. They no longer had the influence of the others, and their hatred and evil grew. Sicwele told me this when I was a cub. He assured me I wouldn’t suffer, just as he wouldn’t. His logic was that I was being forced into what I was doing; he openly told me that they were brainwashing me, in a way. He thought he had a justifiable reason. But I was going to suffer. Either that or I could join Afriti and the others.
“I’d never think of that,” I told Granddad.
“You will. I’m begging you, don’t go. Just—” Granddad suddenly stopped speaking, staring over my shoulder.
“You’ve told him more than enough, Son.” I jumped, turning around to see another lion behind me. I had no idea who he was. He did look somewhat familiar, as if I had seen him before. I had. In me.
“Yes, Father,” said Granddad. I suddenly realized that his was Mufasa. I had met his mate, but never him.
“You’re my—great-grandfather?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mufasa said to me, then to Simba, “Did you tell him about the job we have fore him? Or the funeral?”
Mufasa sighed. “The funeral will start soon.”
“Good point.” Granddad turned to me. “One right all animals have is to attend their funeral. If you really feel that you have to, you can appear to one other animal. To give them support.” It was obvious who I would choose. My love. Tumai. But a horrible thought struck me. It could only make her sorrow worse. To see visions of me, hallucinations, when I was dead and gone. I couldn’t do that to her. I loved her. “Taraju,” said Granddad’s voice, cutting through my thoughts, “this is undoubtedly selfish, but we want to ask you to show yourself to Fujo.”
“We—well, we can keep you out of Purgatory a little longer. About a month. With an extra five year on your sentence for each day.”
“Anything,” I begged.
“We want you to talk to Fujo,” said Mufasa. “We want you to lead him to a place. The episode will take about five days. You will stay out a month, with the wait. If you show yourself to Fujo now, he’ll be used to the idea.”
I as never brilliant at counting. I prayed my stupidity continued. “That’s—that’s one hundred fifty more years?”
“Yes. Actually, one hundred forty, given it takes only twenty-eight days, really,” said Granddad.
“I’ll do it,” I said. Anything to put it off just a little longer.
A rectangle opened a short distance away. I saw the backs of lionesses in it. “Alright,” said Mufasa. I walked through. I turned around to see Granddad and Mufasa staring at me through the rectangle before it suddenly shrank out of existence. I turned around to look at the den. It was morning. An entire day had passed. I found out later I had spent much more time staring into that malaiki’s eyes than I thought. I’d spent almost the entire day in New Arrivals. It was a day since my death.
I walked around the circle of lionesses until I reached a gap where my parents were. I gasped. There was my body, in the center of the circle, looking as if I was asleep. My neck was a bloody mess, the only indication that I wasn’t alright. I unconsciously rubbed my own neck, seeing it. I tore my eyes from my body and looked around the pride. They all had their heads bowed solemnly. They didn’t cry for me.
Then I saw Fujo, his head bowed, eyes hidden by his mane. Then there was Tumai, right next to him, her sorrow obvious. Tears dripped from her face, a small puddle actually forming at her paws from the tears she had said. A puddle. I continued to look around the circle. There was Aunt ’Tani, crying silently. And then there was Mom and Dad, sitting together, Dad’s foreleg around Mom as she wept into his chest. Dad didn’t cry. It was obvious he wanted to. But he couldn’t. He needed to be strong. I shook my head. He was still the detached lion he had been when I died, the one that couldn’t commit himself out of the fear that his passion for violence that would rise up again, hurting others.
Then, amazing me, Fujo began to speak, still staring at the ground. “Taraju . . . you’re gone now. You shouldn’t be. You were better than that. You deserved to live, no matter what you thought. I only knew you fore a few short hours but . . . but you were a good lion. A kindhearted lion. And I loved you. You told us all what you did, you didn’t hide it in a back corner.” Tears began to drip to the floor, yet his voice remained steady. “We needed you, Taraju. You brought us order. For a few, wonderful hours everything was fine. No worries at all. And—and then you did the noblest thing I’ve ever seen. I just can’t help but think that if you had just stayed . . . if I had gone instead, that the kingdom would have been a much happier place. We . . . we miss you, Taraju. We just hope that we’ll carry on, like you would have—would have wanted us to . . .” Then, quietly, in a whisper, “I miss you, brother.”
I was moved. It wasn’t especially eloquent, but it was—heartfelt. Then Dad said, his voice wavering, “It’s cruel, for him to have been reunited with us, only to be take away so soon.” A tear slid down his face, followed by another. He will be remembered, not only as a killer, but as the just lion he came to be.” I smiled. Maybe he had changed. Maybe.
I looked around the den again. I wouldn’t ever call it home again. I looked at Fujo. He seemed to glance over my face, then suddenly snap back to it. I gave him a warm smile. Then he did something that really hurt. He tried to show me to Tumai. She didn’t see me at all. I just shook my head. No, Fujo, she can’t. I took one last look around the den before I smiled at Fujo again, the den dissolving away. I was back in Heaven. I looked over at Granddad and Mufasa. They smiled.
“Come on,” said Granddad. “There’s a few relatives I want you to meet.”
I spent my time in Heaven savoring every moment. I couldn’t think about Purgatory. I had fun, lots of fun. I spent it all with Granddad and Mufasa, really. Them and malaiki. The malaiki were the best; the were always there when you needed anything. It was actually their job to wait on us, I’m told. Nevertheless, they still scared me. I couldn’t stop thinking of those claws, and those teeth . . . gods.
But then the day finally came. I’d finished my job. Fujo had met Taabu. When Granddad and I arrived in Heaven, there was a malaiki waiting. Needless to say, fear overwhelmed me. “I’m here to escort the prisoner, sir,” the malaiki said.
Granddad nodded. He turned to me, placed a paw on my shoulder. “Be well, Taraju. And please, don’t give in. Don’t break. You’re better than that.” I hung my head. “We love you.”
“If you please, sir,” said the malaiki respectfully to Granddad. Granddad stepped back, a rectangle opened, the only thing on the other side being a dark abyss. “In you go,” said the malaiki, not rudely, but with none of the respect he had shown Granddad. I walked through. I turned around to see that the rectangle had already disappeared. I didn’t get a last look at Granddad. I didn’t see anyone I loved for years.
I looked around my new home. It was black, and the walls, if there were any, seemed to be a million miles away and appeared to have smoke swirling inside them. The place where I stood was lit, along with a decent portion of the area around me, but by no apparent light source. I’d noticed the gods tend to like these kinds of places, places where you can’t accurately judge distance or depth. I tried walking around. It seemed to do no good. Nothing seemed any close, on any farther away. The light never moved from being around me, no matter how much I moved. I sat down, then lied down. I couldn’t tell how long I waited. Time was an illusion here. I fell asleep.
When I woke, a set of four massive, different paws was in front of my nose. I looked up the massively muscular and extremely well-toned forelegs, up past the black mane, up to the leopard head. The malaiki’s violet eyes stared at me. “Good evening,” it said. “My name is Azl, and I will be your malaiki for this evening.”
I sat up, looking up and down Azl. My month in Heaven had shown me that malaiki weren’t the same. They were very nearly exact, though. But the way they talked and held themselves separated them by worlds. Azl was, and still is, the most impressive malaiki I had seen. He was arrogant, to a very, very small degree. It was more like pride. But he had a right to be proud.
“My—my malaiki for this evening?” I asked.
“Yes. As well as the next fifty-one thousand, ninety-nine evenings, mornings, and days. I think we’ll get to know each other very well.” I didn’t like his tone, or the smile on his face. But I had nothing to worry about. Malaiki were good creatures. They would never hurt anyone. “Are you—male? Or female?”
His smile twitched. “Male,” he said in a slightly amused voice. A rectangular object, just like the one the first malaiki I had seen had, appeared. “As long as we’re talking,” he said, flipping through the floating object, “why don’t you sign the record to make sure you’re present and accounted for?” He finally stopped tuning the white rectangles, and stopped with one rectangle that was completely blank, and the rectangle opposite with a large, red spot on it that looked like—but no, it couldn’t be—
Azl whipped his claws across my neck, eliciting a scream from me. It had nearly severed my head from my body. As it was, it flopped lifelessly, me feeling the pain. I screamed. I don’t know how, but I screamed bloody murder. Azl took one of my paws, cut it off with his claws, and placed it in the endless fountain of blood from my neck. He took the bloody paw and placed it in the object, leaving a perfect imprint, with no run-over or any spots missing. It was my exact pawprint. My body was suddenly whole again, me sitting in front of Azl. I stopped screaming, but my mind still staggered with the amount of pain I had gone through.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked, his voice caring, gentle. “See? All better.”
“Don’t do that again,” I said, my chest still heaving. “Don’t.”
“That? That’s just a one time process for the records. But you know what? Now I just feel bad. How about some food? You want some food?”
He controlled his voice and movement perfectly. He seemed to care to no end. But it was much, much less than a malaiki should have cared. I didn’t notice his flawless act. I suddenly found myself noticing the slight hunger pangs in my stomach. “Yes,” I said uncertainly. I was understandably wary of the animal who had just sliced me open.
Azl waved his paw. A long line of carcasses appeared; juicy, fat carcasses, each one obviously fresh. I looked up at Azl. His wings beat slightly as he said, “What? Go ahead. I’m not stopping you.” The hunger pangs suddenly shot through my body, increasing for a split second. I dug into the first carcass eagerly. Azl took a bone from the second carcass, the wonderful meat dripping blood. Some of it dripped from the bone that was held casually between two digits onto his paw, which I realized, looking up for a split second, still had my blood on it. He began to like all of the blood off, mine included. I was nauseated. I looked away, all nausea forgotten as I stared back down at the carcass. I dug in, devouring the meat.
After I finished the first carcass, I ate the second. Azl sat, staring at me, obviously bored, taking an occasional bite out of his meat. If he finished, the bone simply refilled itself. The same appeared to happen for the carcasses. As soon as I stripped one clean, it was moved, and another completely fresh one put in its place. I ate carcass after carcass after carcass, Azl sitting and watching. Then the last carcass disappeared down my gullet and was shunted off to nothingness. I continued looking down, waiting for another carcass to come to assuage my ravenous hunger. I stared down where the line of carcasses had been when I had been eating.
They were gone.
I looked up at Azl. He was finishing off the last bits of his bone. He swallowed and said, “My, you must have been hungry. All that meat in that little body.” He tossed the bone casually down. I could see the gristle that he had so carelessly left on it. I pounced on it, the bone disappearing. I looked back up at Azl. He was smiling. “There. Doesn’t that hunger feel better?”
I stared at his face in disbelief. I realized suddenly what you must have already figured out. Azl, Azl the good, kind, benevolent malaiki, Azl wasn’t here to guide me safely through Purgatory. He was here to give me hell. I felt as if my stomach was eating itself away. My hunger was indescribably painful. And he sat there, knowing how it grew with each mouthful of meat, with that sadistic smile on his face. His apparent schadenfreude knew no bounds. I couldn’t believe this. Malaiki were the kindest creatures I knew, and he was doing this to me. Needless to say, with all of these revelations came unspeakable anger. I leapt up at him, ready to kill him before he did anything else.
He hit me out of the air casually, on my torso. My body felt as if a thousand rocks had suddenly rained down on it as I flew to the side with his causal blow. The pain was overwhelming. I landed with a horrible crack, undoubtedly more bones breaking. I spit out all the blood that had suddenly rushed to my mouth. He walked over to me, looking down at me and shaking his head. “Fool.”
He pressed a paw down onto my head. I felt every bit as my skull fractured into thousands of pieces under his effortless effort, the pieces of it ramming into my brain. I couldn’t scream. And then something worse happened. I couldn’t see. Darkness descended upon my eyes. I heard his laughter as my body squirmed, trying to get out from underneath his paw.
Then, suddenly, I was fine. I was sitting up, perfectly fine, with him in front of me. The horrible episode played itself out in my head again. I should have been dead. I shouldn’t have felt that pain. No one should have felt that pain. But I had already died.
My thoughts were interrupted as my neck was grabbed by Azl’s paw. He lifted me into the air so my face was level with his. He wasn’t strangling me; I could breathe freely, despite the enormous amount of pressure on my windpipe. “Now what have we learned?” he asked. “Azl is the boss. Azl makes all the decisions, and we don’t cross Azl. Do we understand?”
“You’ll just do it anyway,” I said. “You’ll torture me anyway, you son of a bitch.”
Azl smiled. “Well, you’ve learned something.”
“You’ll never break me,” I whispered fiercely.
Azl laughed, laughed long and cruelly and mercilessly. “I won’t break you? I won’t break you?” He laughed again. “I have gone through hundreds of animals. And I have broken every single one.” He tossed me to the ground. “You are no different.”
“I am unique,” I said. I would not end up like Dingane. I would not go insane.
“You’ll be broken all the same.” He leaned close to me. “And not just broken. Shattered into thousands of pieces. You will regret being born.” I hated his smile, this truthfulness with which he spoke. “There is no escape. There is no time limit. You have all eternity. All eternity to suffer like the damned lion you are.”
Damned to an eternity of hell . . . I knew he had to be lying. “The gods would never allow it,” I said desperately. “They know I paid.”
He sat back and smiled at me without any pity or remorse. “You paid nothing. You gave Mvushi what he deserved. You didn’t give yourself up. You ran to him and begged him to kill you because you couldn’t live with yourself. You’re a coward, and you know it. You could have chosen to die any other way, but you just couldn’t face any other death, could you?” He began to circle me. “You could have jumped from Pride Rock. You could have drowned yourself. You could have starved yourself. You could have thrown yourself into the Outlands and let yourself die.” He shook his head, his smile growing wider. “You’re a coward. And you have no idea what you’ll go through.”
“You—you’re good. You’re a malaiki. You won’t do this.”
His smile grew still wider as he drew back a paw and hit me across my muzzle. I was lifted from the ground, my neck breaking as my head was turned completely around. I had never seen it, but I had heard of animals that had their necks snapped and lived. You could feel nothing. I felt everything. You have no idea. Half my bones felt like they were broken from the impact of hitting the ground, and my neck—oh, gods, my neck. I tried to scream and felt vertebrae puncture my throat. I saw his face come into my line of vision, grinning evilly.
“I will do this.” He grabbed me by my neck again, my body still breathing, despite the snapped neck, despite the torn throat. “And there is no escape.” My eyes streamed with tears. “You will die so many, many horrible deaths. And all for my pleasure. But that’s just the beginning. He dropped me again. “I’ll leave you to think your situation over.” He left through a rectangle, leaving me on the floor writhing in agony. I prayed for my body to go back to normal. It didn’t until he returned.
And when he returned, the torture continued. He would leave occasionally, letting me lie on the ground of that dark place, screaming in pain. I honestly don’t recall one minute of his torture where I wasn’t in physical pain; not in this part. The worse torture came later. He worked up the pressure. He explained his reasoning to me, saying that you can only feel so much physical pain. “But mental anguish has no bounds.” He would make me regret my life as well as my death.
But he didn’t do that in the beginning. He subjected me to every physical pain and torture you can imagine. He made me die, deaths no animal should have to go through, let alone live through again and again. It was here that I learned why they had the expression of “salting the wound.” I had never seen salt. Not before he conjured up a pile of it.
Then I forgot all about the pile of salt as my body caught fire, horrible, burning fire, with him sitting there, occasionally twitching his tail in amusement. It didn’t burn enough to burn the nerves, it simply burned enough to make me feel the horrible, horrible pain. My fur wasn’t just singed, it was burned off my body completely. My flesh was massacred in the holocaust, the flames burning the blood vessels shut, stopping the flow of blood.
He watched as I rolled on the floor, screaming, trying to put out the flames. They finally disappeared. I continued to writhe on the floor, screaming. There is a sad fact: you get used to pain. After at least hours, probably days, the burnt flesh became somewhat bearable, so long as I stated on the floor and didn’t move. But that wasn’t good enough for Azl; it wasn’t good enough to have watched me burn. Most malaiki would have been content with letting me burn. Some malaiki would have done what Azl did, burn me, but stop the flames before they burned too deep so I could feel it. Few malaiki would have done what he did next.
Azl, having sat completely still while I rolled on the floor, writhing in pain, Azl, who had been as silent and still as a statue, Azl stretched out a paw to the pile or salt. He took as much as he could in one paw and spread the grains over my body. I screamed and began rolling again, trying to get it off. Azl took another pawful and rubbed it into my stomach vigorously. I don’t know how long the torture lasted, with him putting the salt on my body, feeling it work its way into the body like a poison (and they say it’s good for you). He finally stopped on and let me continue to scream on the floor, me pushing it further and further in with my every movement.
It finally stopped. I sat on the floor as if nothing had happened, as if I had always been sitting. I had possibly one second’s sweet relief before he plunged me into another nightmare, one second for the endless amount of time I had spent burning and rolling and screaming. That one second made it so much worse. One second between those nightmares, emphasizing what was relief compared to what was pain. I went from one torture to another.
Drowning in a cave full of water, having it slowly fill up as I tried desperately to stay above the water, only to have it finally go over my head, myself drowning as Azl floated next to me, perfectly fine.
Being dragged, screaming, clawing at the ground furiously for a hold as I was dragged, tail first, into a pool of acid, with Azl sitting there, watching as my body slowly burned away as it touched the surface.
Falling, screaming, grabbing at the air for a wall or vine that wasn’t there, watching as my death rushed forward to me, multiple times, each time with the same result: impalement, but not death, as Azl sat between the sharp rocks and grinned.
Being slowly stretched apart, feeling my forelegs pop out of their sockets while my hind legs broke under the impetus of an invisible force which tore further and further at my body, tearing my legs and head from my torso.
Having Azl slowly and painfully rip my flesh from my body, watching him swallow it, by blood dripping down his muzzle as he declared that it was so good, that it was the best he’d ever tasted.
Being tossed into a scorching desert, with no food, no water, only with searing heat and Azl as my constant companions as my body dried up, the moisture sapped from even my blood as I slowly withered under the merciless sun.
Azl sat there, smiling the entire time, smiling a vicious, bloodthirsty smile that could have just as easily been on my face at one time in my life. I don’t remember all the ways I “died.” I’ve remembered enough to still have nightmares nearly every night. I “died” over and over in horrible ways. I suffered after the death, feeling what no one should feel. Death is a wonderful release from pain. I never felt death. Only more and more pain, intolerable pain.
I didn’t go mad from the pain. That came later.
Occasionally Azl left, as I mentioned, leaving me there, suffering. And when he came back, he’d still continue, either with the same torture, right where he left off, or start a new one. And each time he switched, he gave me that horrible second of relief. Then, one time, it went beyond a second. I sat in front of him, my head hanging, my chest heaving, waiting for him to begin again. I still held onto the hoe that someone would stop this. Granddad, or Mufasa, someone would free me from what had undoubtedly been millennia of torture. I hadn’t broken.
But I sat there waiting. His face was blank. The seconds ticked by. I finally shouted, “Do it already! Do it!” He smiled. “Damn you, do it!”
He laughed that long, merciless laugh of his. “No.”
“Gods damn you!”
“The gods made me.”
“Damn you, start again! Don’t leave me waiting like this!”
His smile grew wider. “Don’t you enjoy it? The relief?”
He laughed. “Yes. You just don’t know when I’ll decide to strangle you, or crush you, or tear you apart bit by bit.” As he listed off each item it was done to me. Then I sat in front of him again, fine. He lashed out at me with a set of claws. I recoiled from the blow that never fell. He laughed. I opened my eyes to see him sitting there, all four paws on the ground. “Look what you’ve turned into.”
It was true. There was a time when I would have stood my ground, when I would have attempted to block the blow, no matter how useless it would have been. But Azl had reduced me to this, a monster that Dingane and Sicwele had told me again and again the never wanted to seem me turn into, a horrible monster: a coward.
“Damn it, stop laughing! Don’t you have any sympathy? Don’t you even have a heart?!”
Azl put a paw to his tear duct and pressed hard against it. “Wait, wait!” He drew his paw away, looked at it, and held it out to me. “There you go. A tear. And it’s a real one!”
“You stupid son of a bitch!” I leapt at him.
He caught me by the neck with a paw. He sighed. “We just haven’t learned, have we?” He pinned me to the ground by my neck and placed his other paw on my neck as well. I struggled, trying to get out of his unbreakable grasp. He began to beat his wings. We soared into the air, our heads to the sky, my feet struggling madly for ground. “We don’t mess with Azl.” My body was pressed against his by the air rushing by. I wrapped my legs around him and sank my claws into his body. He dropped one paw from my neck and brought the other up to his face’s level, along with my head. My claws retracted, feeling as if they were going to break off as he moved my body up. They hadn’t even scratched him.
I sank my claws into his back again from my new vantage point. His eyes lit up as his face seemed to be possessed by an even more maniacal grin than before. He bit into my neck. I screamed with pain. He burrowed hungrily into the place where my neck met my torso. He finally took his head away, my blood over his muzzle, his violet eyes screaming for more. I felt my injury heal over as he suddenly arched his head backward. Our bodies followed. We spun over and over vertically in the air in the air in a circle, gaining speed. I heard his frantic, excited breathing as we went faster and faster. He finally tossed me to the ground as hard as he could.
We were very high up. Even with the force of his throw, my fall to the ground must have taken at least half a minute. I screamed every inch of the way. Every bone in my body broke when I hit. Of course, I lived to feel the shards pierce my organs, plunge into my brain, and jut out through my skin. Then all of my injuries were miraculously healed once again, but instead of sitting again, I was lying down. Then Azl landed, making the ground shake, and let out a tremendous roar.
Nothing he did has ever scared me as much as he did, right there. Malaiki are able to become irrational beasts, just like us when we feel too much emotion. We go out of control. So do they. But it is infinitely scarier. Every single claw comes out, all of their teeth are bared, their wings are fully spread, and it is quite obvious to anyone that they will use every part of their six-foot-high-at-the-shoulder bodies to destroy you utterly. This was the thing that advanced on me, its tongue licking its muzzle clean of my blood, the taste only egging it on for more.
“Azl,” I begged, scooting back, “Azl, please!” I was so very, very scared. My pleas were useless. It continued to advance. Azl wasn’t there to appeal to. This thing simply wanted me. I believe I’ve made it clear that it scared the complete hell out of me.
I curled up into a little ball, absolutely overwrought with fear. I looked up to see Azl’s slavering jaws over my body. He threw his head back. I screamed. He brought it partway down, then suddenly stopped. He blinked, seeming to regain control of himself. I suppose he did. The entire thing came that close.
He looked down at me and sighed. “What a shame.” He got off of me. “You wouldn’t believe what you were about to go through. We must try that again some time.” I still hadn’t moved. He shook me gently. Gently. If this was a trick, this was a cruel one indeed. “Snap out of it.” I slowly got to my feet.
“I’m . . . free?” I dared to ask.
He laughed. “Not by any stretch of the imagination. But this is a chance to be free.” A rectangle opened, myself barely being able to tell the difference between the darkness of the rectangle and the darkness of my prison. I walked through it slowly. Azl followed me.
He told me later what he was going to have done to me, and how ashamed he was to have lost control. I don’t know which scares me more, having him over me, his claws and wings extended and teeth and teeth bared, or what he would have done. You see, my claws had triggered a reflex that was very, very specific to malaiki, right there in the back where I had placed mine. The reflex is always, always followed by the act. Azl wasn’t going to kill me. No, no. Azl was going to o something far more disturbing.
Azl was going to try to mate with me.
I walked through the rectangle to find myself in one wall of a large gorge. The walls of the gorge sloped down, almost like a valley, but still being too steep to be called one. The walls curved to meet off in the distance, creating a sort of semicircle out of the gorge. I was pretty high up. The ledge I was on gave me plenty of room, though, even after Azl had come and sat down next to me. The place itself didn’t shock me. It was the lighting that it had. It seemed like all of the color had been sucked out of that forsaken place. Even I was paler, my black mane appearing to go even darker, my tan legs seeming to be infused with a shade of gray.
I looked up at Azl. His color hadn’t faded in the least. For some odd reason, I felt proud of him. His face didn’t have the manic grin I had seen pasted on it so many times. His expression was solemn, maybe even sad. “Why did you bring me here?” I asked him.
“I was ordered to. Once every decade you’ll come here.”
“What is this place?”
“The beginning of the Black Line.”
“The Black Line?”
“Yes. Where Afriti collects Hell’s souls.” I looked around me. I wasn’t alone. On thousands of other ledges animals sat or stood, each with a malaiki by their side. Even as I looked, more animals appeared. They filled the gorge, they filled the ledges below me and went on to the ledges above. They all had varying states of the same haunted expression, the expression making it obvious who had stayed here longest. As the expression became more and more severe, the number of animals wearing it became fewer and fewer. Very, very few had been here in Purgatory too long, having left long ago for a horrible fate. I knew that I wore that same face, and I knew they were in my position, where they begged for release of pain.
“Why did you bring me?” I asked again.
“I was ordered. You have a choice. You can leave. Or you can stay. The First will be here soon. You’ll have to hear it from him.”
“Just wait for him to come.”
I sat down. From what I understood, it could take some time. There was a very, very slight hum of conversation as the other prisoners conversed with their malaiki in deadly serious tones. Every ledge was filled, as far as I could see. There had to be at least some that were empty, though.
My head turned with all the others as a lion came walking through the mouth of the gorge. I stared at him, stunned. Somehow I could make out his every detail, even from my high perch. I knew the others must have, too. But what shocked me most was that that lion could have been—me. I saw him lift his tan face up, the face that was surrounded by thick, black mane. I stared into the emerald-green eyes, amazed at the similarity. Then he began to speak, and I didn’t pay attention to how he looked . Only the words.
“Animals! Listen to me. I have come to give you your freedom. You know that you deserve it. You do not deserve to stay here and go through this agony. You are better than that. You are more than that. I know what you are going through. I, too, have suffered at the paws of these monsters, these demons called malaiki. You have been told, undoubtedly, that they are good creatures, kind creatures, and are only capable of love. My fellow sufferers, this is not love. All of you know what love is, even if it is the smallest amount. All of you know what love is, even if it is the smallest amount. You know that love does not torture and maim and kill. Love is pure and good. These creatures—what they give is not love. It is all the things that love brings. Jealousy, and misery, and pain, and suffering. These creatures do not love you. They have never loved you. For love is a myth.
“There is no love in the world! There is no love. The gods hoard it to themselves. And yet, they have allowed other animals to discover it, to revel in it. I know you all have been hurt, all of you hurt dearly by one you though loved you. If you do not think so, look deeper. It is there. How even the most loving of animals had deceived you, how they have manipulated you and controlled you for what they want. And you have seen it! How they have slipped and let down their mirage of love. If they loved you, where are they now? Now, when you suffer endlessly, all for the amusement of the malaiki. They hoard it like the selfish beast they are. You may beg, you may grovel, but you will never know love.
“I offer you more than love. I offer you a place with Afriti. I offer you a reservation in Hell. And I offer you hate. Black hate, malicious hate, hate which you all know. You feel it right now. Look to your side and tell me you do not! Look at these heartless monsters the gods keep as pets! You were thrown to them with no say, all because you have yourself a chance at what you desired. At what you deserved! I know how you hate them. How you wish it was you who could tear their insides out, you who could watch them die, you who would laugh as you destroyed their will, you who left them as a shadow of an animal, YOU, not them. You deserve that chance.
“Brothers, sisters, Afriti gives you that chance. Afriti offers you hate, hate stronger than any love that could ever be produced, an ever-flowing fountain of hate that will be shared, unlike the gods and their love. Infinitely better than the gods and their love. Love can be tainted, love can be turned black and sour, but hate can not be touched! Afriti saved me from my torture; I begged for relief and was answered. Afriti now answers you, with pure hate and evil. Follow me! Follow me to Afriti, give up your soul, and Afriti will give you all you desire. A chance to be free from this torment, a chance to destroy these creatures when the time comes, when we will make them suffer for the things that they have done to us! Brothers! Sisters! You have nothing left here for you. Come with me. Join Afriti. You will be free.”
His words were hypnotizing. His words echoed around the gorger. Then a leopard broke the spell, walking down to the First. He stood before the First. The First spoke to him, and the leopard sat, waiting. Other animals came. I watched as they walked down to the First, taking his offer. The first turned and exited the gorge, followed by the other animals in a long, single-file line. I watched as they left, following him beyond the must just outside the gorge. More walked to join the line. Some passed right by me. Some walked defiantly down to the line, certain in their path. Others went hesitantly, a few stopping and turning back, then almost immediately turning back to the First and his group. No one who left their ledge returned.
I didn’t know what to do. Freedom was just below me. I could leave and never, ever come back. I could say goodbye to Azl and my prison. I would never be tortured again. But Granddad . . . Granddad had warned me about this He had asked me not to go. He loved me. But what was love to him? The First spoke the truth. Why wasn’t he here, suffering with me, or in my place. He had simply argued for me, then given up. He had no idea what hell I went through. But still . . . he had reduced my sentence, hadn’t he?
I turned to Azl and asked him, “How long is my sentence? Really?”
“Two hundred forty years.” His face was absolutely straight and serious.
I was taken aback by his honesty. I didn’t know the malaiki were required to be honest here, and forced to undo whatever damage had been done to their charges so they could reason clearly, think clearly. “How many do I have left?” I dared to ask.
“Two hundred thirty six.”
“I’ve been here four years?”
“Only four. Four life-years, that is.”
I four years I had gone through all of that torture. And I had so much more to go. It would only get worse, I knew that. But in Hell . . . it suddenly struck me that I had no idea what Hell was like. I turned to Azl again and asked, “What should I do?”
“I’m sorry?” he asked politely.
“Should I go?”
“I’m not supposed to influence you.”
“Please. I want to know.” He didn’t answer. “What would you do if you were me?”
Azl paused, looking down. “Afriti would treat you well,” he said. “You would be rewarded. The others not so much, but you—you’re what Afriti wants. A killer. Someone who cares only for themselves. Someone who won’t let themselves be hurt by emotion. Hell might even welcome you into its own, private den.”
Oh, gods, it was tempting. “I gave that up. I changed. He wouldn’t want me.”
“Afriti’d strip away the goodness. Everything that made you you he’d destroy, any quirks that displeased him. He might leave you whole, if you didn’t show too much. But he would still corrupt you into his way of thinking. You’d turn more heartless than you ever were in life.”
That was all. I’d just see things in a slightly different—and possibly better—light I walked to the edge of the ledge, staring at the still-growing line. It was an escape. It was my escape. “But what would you do?” I suddenly asked. “You never answered my question.”
Azl paused, hesitating to tell me. “I’d stay.”
His words hit me like one of his blows. I had nearly forgotten about her. If I left, I would never see her again, not until Afriti decided it was time to destroy Aiheu. And then I would only try to kill her, to leave her body mangled. I would never do that. The First was wrong. There was such a thing as love. I loved Tumai, and she loved me. I wouldn’t leave her. Not while she loved me.
“No,” I said. “Take me back. I want to go back.”
“I can’t,” Azl said simply. “We have to wait for all of them. You have to just sit . . . and watch . . .” I honestly saw his eyes tear over. “Poor souls.”
I sat. I waited. The line continued to grow. Animals continued to make their decisions and join Afriti. I don’t know how long the long, slow procession took. It took days, or at least it seemed to. Finally the last of that black parade ended. Then a cheetah, a poor little girl who couldn’t have been more than two suddenly shot down the side of the gorge. “Mommy! Daddy!” she yelled. “Wait for me!”
“How did she get in here?” asked Azl out loud. “She shouldn’t be here. She’s innocent.”
“Daddy!” The cub ran toward the end of the gorge. “Mommy, wait!” The gorge closed, blocking off the cub. She clawed at the wall. “Mommy! Daddy!” she shrieked. I suddenly realized what had happened. Somehow she had found her way here, undoubtedly having searched her whole time that she had been here to find a way to see her parents, only to see them walk away from her forever. “Mommy! Mommy, Daddy, come back!” I could see the claws tearing at the rock.
“Time to go,” said Azl quietly.
Horrified, I turned and went to the rectangle. I stopped and turned around to stare at the cub again. Several malaiki were flying to her, the cub never ceasing her efforts to break through the rock. “Come on,” said Azl softly. I walked miserably through the rectangle, Azl behind me.
There is one good quality that I attributed to Azl during my time in Purgatory. Nothing swayed him from his job. As soon as I walked in and turned around he began to work on personally breaking every bone in my body by paw, making sure every one was a compound fracture. None of the kindness or softness he had ever showed me in that gorge entered my prison.
He decided after a while to up the torture. He stopped killing me and making my body whole again. He began to starve and dehydrate me. It’s not a pretty thing to watch someone tear chunks off of their own body just to soothe their hunger and cut open their arteries to drink their blood. But that meat and liquid never reached my stomach; it never left my mouth. I would disappear even as I swallowed. I put myself through that pain for nothing.
But then I began to forget about the hunger and thirst. It’s my opinion that Azl put it at a more manageable level, as it never did go away. He didn’t want anything to distract me from what he did. He began to insult me. I heard quite a few that I’d never heard before. But curses weren’t the only things he said to me. He belittled me in every way possible. He had been tight; mental anguish was far, far, worse. I felt that I was less than nothing. He attacked every belief I had about myself, every bit of pride I had, and destroyed it utterly. He went on for days undoubtedly, me being forced to listen, feeling smaller and smaller. He compared me to himself, his perfect self. I was humiliated utterly. He finally ended by saying contemptuously the thing that had hurt the most: “And you believe she could love a thing like you. Pathetic.”
But this gave me strength. I proudly spoke what I knew was true: “She loves me.” It was enough.
A flower appeared in midair. Azl plucked off a petal, and then plucked off another for ever sentence. “She loves me not. She likes me. She loves me not. She’d rather have me stay here for eternity than lay eyes on me again. She loves me not. She’s undoubtedly found another mate and move on, leaving you with less than nothing.” He plucked the last petal from the flower. The stalk and empty head burst into flames, burned to ash. “She loves you not.” He stated it as a cold, hard fact.
“She loves me,” I said. “Nothing will change that.”
He smiled. “You mortals and your desires for what you can’t have.” He turned and opened a rectangle. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”
I wish he hadn’t left. He left me to think about her love. He knew his job very well. Because I began to doubt. I began to wonder if she did love me. And if she did, why? Why did I love her? There were undoubtedly better lions there for her, even my brother was there. Maybe I didn’t love her like I thought I did. I thought I had loved before her, too. Was I just groping for something that was out of the ordinary, for a beautiful lioness like her? It wouldn’t be beyond me to do that. After all, I was the lowest form of life to inhabit the earth. I wasn’t even fit to be in anyone’s sight, let alone a goddess like Tumai. She had undoubtedly pitied me, just pitied me. She felt no love for me. I had been a fool.
But then a voice would scream, blotting out all other thoughts: SHE LOVES YOU.
But what if she didn’t? Back to the whole line of thought again.
Azl finally came back in, his face blank. I said defiantly, “She loves me.”
“Tumai. She loves me.”
His face broke into a grin. “So you name emotions, do you? So what’s happy?”
He was distorting my words. I shut my mouth. I wouldn’t fall into his trap. But he made me play along. He began to strip away yet another part of me, the most precious part of me. He had decimated my strength, shattered my willpower, destroyed my ego. Now he tore away at my sanity. He blurred the lines between dreamland and reality. He held up three digits. Of course, it was actually two, or maybe even four. Who knew, it might actually be three. Because three is four is two is seventeen. Or so my logic began to say. Azl slowly peeled away layer after layer of my mind, punishing me when I gave him the wrong answers, pummeling me, making me even more frightened of him than I already was.
I sat there, one time, staring at his paw, a paw with four digits and a thumb up on the leg. A normal leg. And two digits were extended. “How many?”
I guessed. “Four.” And I prayed, prayed desperately that I was right.
“Why?” I repeated.
I couldn’t believe him. “There are four, aren’t there?” Two, I reminded myself. Only two.
“Do you believe there are four?”
“Yes. Yes, four. One, two, three, four.” Oh, gods, please, just don’t let him be angry. Just let me be right. I don’t want to die again.
“But there are two.”
“Yes.” Yes, there are two—I mean, four—oh, gods, what does it matter? Just don’t hurt me.
“But I thought you said four?”
“I . . . I . . .”
“How many are there?”
“Two!” I exploded. “Two, four, fifteen, however damn many you like!” I shut up. That one outburst would cost me. I knew it would. Tears began to stream down my face in apprehension of the beating. “Don’t hurt me,” I whispered, pleading. “Don’t hurt me.”
He lowered his paw. “Taraju, don’t you see how it hurts? You lie, and it hurts so much. And you have no idea how much it hurts me. Much more than you. Do you know why I’m doing this?”
For your filthy, sadistic pleasure. “No.”
“I’m doing this because I love you. I want to help you. Don’t you see? You’re insane, Taraju. I only want to make it better. I only want to make you right.”
“I’m fine,” I protested. “My mind is fine.” I couldn’t tell how he was tearing it apart.
“No, Taraju. You need help. I’m giving it to you. Come here.” He held out his foreleg. I rushed to him. I actually went to him, my torturer, all because he offered me comfort. I was that desperate. And the hug . . . oh, it was wonderful. To be held, to be drawn close, to have my sorrow eased as he let me sob into his mane, his wings wrapping tightly around the both of us. Malaiki hugs are wonderful, truly wonderful. There is nothing like them. I wept.
He finally let me go. “Taraju, please, be honest with me. I want to help you. Truly.” I nodded. He held up his paw. “How many?”
He shook his head. “Wrong.” He whipped his paw mercilessly across my face. I saw seven now. And with that blow it all came rushing back, about what he had done to me. I tried to remember life outside of my prison. I barely could. He continued to beat me. For his pleasure. I’m fine. I’m fine oh gods how it hurts. Two digits. Two. Four, he wants four. Two. Four. Just make the pain stop. Please just make the pain stop. I don’t want to lose myself.
The torture went on. Without pause, without rest, without mercy. But then I had something hit me. Something I didn’t expect at all.
I got a visitor.
It was Tumai.
Azl raised back a paw to hit me again for the wrong answer. After all, birds don’t fly? How could they? They have wings. Why, birds don’t even have feathers. Hyenas have feathers. They keep them under their lips. I should know that. Azl was about to hit me, then stopped. “Shame,” he said. “We’ll pick up when you’re done. Through there.” He pointed to a rectangle that had opened.
“Why?” I asked.
“You have a visitor.” He gestured impatiently toward the rectangle.
I walked through, not even taking a look back. I saw the last person I expected to see walk into the room. I had walked into. Tumai stared at me, her eyes wide. My heart leaped for joy. She had come for me. I smiled at her shocked face. “I must not look like much, do I?”
“No,” she said. I walked toward her, bumping my head on an unseen wall. I looked around, trying to find some indication of it. The room was lighter than my normal one. It hurt my eyes, despite it being rather dark. I almost cried as I put my paw against the wall. I couldn’t touch her. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
I realized that it wasn’t almost; I actually was weeping. Tears ran down my face. “I can’t even touch you. After I’ve dreamed about you so long . . .”
She swallowed. “I—I’ve thought about you, too. A lot.”
“How did you die?” I asked. It couldn’t have possibly been old age. Or had I been in there that long? Long enough for the ones that I knew to grow old and die?
“Hunting accident.” She bit her lip before saying, “Malaiki.”
A malaiki appeared on her side of the wall. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Get rid of the wall.”
“Do it.” Nothing appeared to happen. “Now leave.”
“Ma’am—” began the malaiki.
“Leave us. I’ll be fine,” said Tumai sternly.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the malaiki, and disappeared.
I hesitantly approached her. The barrier wasn’t there anymore. I put a paw to her face. “Oh, Tumai . . .”
She slapped me. Hard. I staggered under the blow. I looked back up at her. “Don’t you dare touch me again, filth,” she spat.
“Tumai,” I said, shocked.
She clubbed me again. “Don’t you dare speak my name, rogue.”
I stared at her, horrified. “Why? Why do this?”
“Because I hate you.” She hit me again. She smiled in satisfaction. “I certainly couldn’t do that through the wall.”
“You love me,” I pleaded.
She spat in my face. “I detest you, rogue. You are less than nothing. And I—I can’t believe how stupid I was. I can’t believe I actually offered myself to you!”
The hate in her eyes was terrible. “Tumai,” I protested, “I love you.”
Her claws tore through my face. “I despise you. You think you can simply come back after eight years and just act like the den is your den? I can’t believe how you think you can simply say you love me and—oh, gods! And I believe you!”
Her claws raked me one last time. “I hope you rot in there. I hope you never escape.” She turned and left into a rectangle of golden savannah. I broke down and wept. I had nothing left now. She hated me. Gods knew why, but she hated me. I was reduced to a weeping, wailing mass on the floor. I don’t know how long I took. I finally picked myself up and threw myself into my prison. Then I saw something that horrified me even more.
There was Tumai, sitting there, waiting for me. I let out an anguished cry. Then the strangest thing happened. Tumai’s pelt was shed, like a second skin. Azl’s massive body emerged from it, smiling. “I love playing pretend.”
“You monster!” My hatred of him won out over my fear. I leapt at him, tackled him to the ground. I dealt a furious blow across his face. But when I hit him, just before I touched, the face changed. I hit Tumai. I tore through her face. I let out a horrified cry.
She looked up at me, blood dripping. “Why?” she pleaded. “Taraju . . .”
The face suddenly changed back to Azl. He laughed. “Oh, the look on your face! Priceless!”
I hit him again, with the same result. I couldn’t believe how horrible she looked, with that gash down the side of her face. Then I did what I never thought I would. I hit her again and heard her cry of pain. “You aren’t real!” I shouted. I hit her again and again. “You aren’t real!”
“Taraju,” she begged, “Taraju, stop! Please Taraju—”
I continued to hit her over and over, horrified at how effortlessly my paws seemed to kill her. I slowly clubbed her to death. Even after she was dead, with a trickle of blood coming out of her mouth, I continued. “It isn’t REAL!” I finally got off her, staring at what I had done, tears flowing down my face. I had murdered her. It isn’t real. She had died at my paws. It isn’t real. Tumai was dead. “It isn’t real,” I said to myself hysterically. “It isn’t real it isn’t real it isn’t realitisn’titisn’titisn’t—”
A paw waved in front of my face. “’Sare.”
I turned to the owner. “IT ISN’T—”
Sicwele clubbed me across the face. “Shut up or you’ll get us all killed. Now, once again, are you ready to go or not?”
I stared at him in amazement. “You’re . . . dead.”
“What is your—Look, insanity isn’t going to get you out of this. Now come on. We need to get down there.”
“Down there?” I asked stupidly.
He took my face and pointed it at a gorge. I recognized it. Suddenly what I was doing came back to me. I was helping Sicwele get his kingdom. And Scai’a. “Down there,” he said. “Now shift that black and white backside of yours.”
I slid down the side of the gorge, barely paying attention. I tired to comprehend what was going on. I had done this. I had done this, and seen how badly it had all gone. But—but it didn’t make any sense. Sicwele was dead, Dingane was dead, and I had been the cause of death for both of them. But there was Sicwele, just below me, leaping off the gorge wall and landing silently. I did the same and looked to see where Dingane should have been. And there he was. It didn’t make any sense. I’d done this. Unless . . .
The gods had given me a second chance.
The gods were benevolent. They had given me a second chance, an opportunity to do it over. They had showed me what lay ahead, what would happen if I didn’t change. It was far too late to stop Asari’s death, but maybe . . . maybe I could save Sicwele. I would do my best, and I wouldn’t ever, ever meet Azl. I would go to Heaven and never set a single digit inside Purgatory.
“Took you long enough,” said Dingane.
“If you want to have a pride to rule after this is done, then you should be glad I’m doing this carefully,” said Sicwele.
“Are you sure they’re ready?”
“Yes. ’Sare had a little problem, though.”
“He’ll cope.” Dingane turned to the den and roared, cutting though the night sky. “Hear this,” he shouted. “We have come to avenge the murder of our beloved king Mpande. Come out, and we may be merciful.”
I looked over at Sicwele. He stared toward the den, his face strained. He wanted to see Scai’a so much. I looked behind me and saw what I knew I would. Lionesses coming down the back of the gorge, lionesses that weren’t ours. “Behind us!” I yelled. The pride turned, unable to see the other lionesses all that well in the moonless night. But they charged. The enemy cut them down viciously. They just cut through the lionesses, coming for all of us. I roared, charging into them, killing one after another, and feeling the wonderful, warm glow that was my adrenaline-charged bloodlust. Kill. The only word that mattered.
And then the thing I dreaded would happen occurred. The ground shook violently. I collapsed on top of another lioness’s back and looked up to the walls to see them cracking, debris falling from them. I ran for the wall I had come down, only to have a huge rock crash down in front of me. I stood there, stunned, just staring at it. I was suddenly tackled by Sicwele, hearing him yell, “Move!” I rolled from the impact. I looked up to see another rock, and another as I dodged them. Then it stopped. The shaking just ceased.
I got to my feet. I could see nothing in the dust. “Sicwele!” I called. “Sicwele, where are you?” He didn’t answer. “Sic—” I stopped, seeing a struggling form, the back half pinned under a rock. I ran to it, praying it wasn’t him. It was. I knelt by him. “Sicwele.”
He coughed. “That you, ’Sare?”
“Yeah. I’m going to get you out of here.” I made to move the rock off his back.
“’Sare, no,” he groaned.
“’Sare, yes.” I pushed. It wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder.
“’Sare, stop. Please,” He begged. “For Scai’a. She’s alive, I know it.”
“I’m not letting you die.”
“You’re going to die yourself, ’Sare. Get out of here. And find something for yourself. Some—”
“I’ve got you to live for. So shut up and let me move—unh!” I stopped pushing. The rock just wouldn’t move.
“’Sare, come here. Please.” I went to his head. “Get out of here. As one last favor. I don’t want you to die. I want to see Scai’a. Please, just give me these two things.”
I was stunned. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I had a second chance. I was supposed to stop this, wasn’t I? But maybe . . . maybe there’re some things you can’t change. I stared at his pleading face. I felt tears begin to slide down my face. “Please, ’Sare,” he whispered. I turned and ran back up the side of the gorge. Dingane would be there. And I’d tell him . . . I’d tell him Sicwele was dead.
I pushed myself up the last bit of the wall to find Sicwele staring at me, an amused look on his face. “Didn’t I tell you not to go too close to the edge?” I stared at him, then down into the gorge. I could just make out Dingane’s red mane if I looked hard. I stared back at Sicwele. “You okay, Sare?”
“Uh . . .”
“Okay, as okay as you’ll ever be?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Good.” Sicwele began to slide down the side of the gorge, some of the fide following him. I went as well.
“Sicwele—” I said as I reached the bottom.
“Shh!” he cautioned. He crept stealthily over to Dingane. “Let’s do this.”
Dingane roared into the night. “Hear this. We have come to avenge the murder of our beloved king Mpande. Come out, and we may be merciful.”
I didn’t know why I was reliving this again, but I didn’t waste any time. I turned Sicwele’s head as soon as Dingane began speaking. His eyes widened as he saw the enemy coming down the wall behind us. He ran toward them, yelling “Behind us!” He was one of the first in the charge. I ran after him, then stopped with horror. Sicwele had his head thrown back by an uppercut from another black-maned lion. The lion slashed through Sicwele’s chest. Sicwele’s head dropped back down. The lion slashed through Sicwele’s face twice before it hit the ground.
“Sicwele!” I yelled. I finally found my legs. I ran forward, slashing through lionesses, feeling the bloodlust that came to me so easily. I sank my jaws into that lion’s throat, heard his quickly stifled scream. He fell to the ground as I tore out his throat. Then the shaking began again. I ran to Sicwele and covered his body with mine. It would have been a useless effort. If a rock hit me, we’d both be trapped underneath it. But I wasn’t thinking. Nothing touched me, other than a few smaller rocks, just enough to give me aches and pains the next morning. When the shaking finally stopped I opened my eyes that I had shut in fear. I looked at Sicwele. He was a mess.
“’Sare,” he breathed.
“I’m getting you out of here,” I said.
“No . . .”
“Too bad.” I lied down next to him, grabbed a foreleg, turned, and stood up with him on my back. Easiest way to lift and carry an animal. One of the first things Sicwele had taught me. I doubt he ever expected me to use it on him.
“Put me down,” he muttered feebly. I felt his warm blood trickling down my side.
I was about to tell him to when I heard numerous snarls. I looked left and right, seeing lionesses I didn’t know emerge from the dust. A proud, older lion stepped forward, staring at a corpse on the ground that I was standing on. I looked down to see my paw in the mess I had made of the neck of the lion that I killed. “My son is dead,” whispered the lion.
“’Sare,” begged Sicwele, “run.”
It was a wonderful idea. I did so, knocking a lioness out of the way. They ran after me. One leapt onto my back as I began to climb the side of the gorge. Sicwele was thrown from my back. I looked down, then kept climbing. Going down was suicide. I finally reached the top of the ledge, ridden with guilt once again about leaving him. He had done nothing but raise me, actually making an effort sometimes to be kind of me, and—
—he was standing right there.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go too close to the edge?” asked Sicwele. I gaped at him. He tapped the side of my face with a paw. “’Sare, snap out of it.”
I knew my breathing was labored. “We have to go back,” I said.
“What?” came from Sicwele and several other lionesses.
“You’ll die,” I said.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Now come on, we’ve got a job to do.”
I put my paw on his shoulder, claws slightly extended. “I mean it.”
Sicwele looked at me. “What, are you going to kill me?”
“There’ll be a—a thing. Ground shaking. Rocks falling. Please. Don’t go.”
“‘Ground shaking’?” he said skeptically. “‘Rocks falling’?”
“You expect me to believe that?”
I suddenly realized the position I was in. I knew exactly what was going to happen—but how was I supposed to explain that. “Please, just trust me. I just watched you die a third time. I don’t want to see it again.”
“I’ve come this far, I will not wait.”
“Just wait five minutes,” I pleaded. “Just five more minutes.”
He sighed. “Fine. If you really think we need it, fine. We’ll wait.” We waited five minutes, and another five under my urging. Nothing happened. “We’ve waited long enough,” Sicwele finally said. He started down the slope.
“I’m staying,” I said. “I’m staying, and you should, too.” He stopped as the rest of the lionesses slid down. “Please.”
“If you want to be labeled a coward, fine, ’Sare.” He lowered his voice to a whisper so that the lionesses below wouldn’t hear. “But this kingdom will be mine.” He continued sliding. I watched him go helplessly. When he went over to Dingane, they both shot me a look. Then it all began. The announcement. And then, without the help of my warning, the scream of the first lioness to be killed by the enemy. The horrible, blind charge, half of the pride heading to the empty den, the others occasionally attacking themselves. And then the shaking. The horrible, horrible shaking, and screaming, and death. I looked away.
A magnificent chest stood before me. “I really think you want to watch this.” I looked up to see Azl’s smile.
“Me.” He grabbed my head, turning it toward the gorge. “Me, me, me.”
I watched as the falling rocks decimated the pride. One died after another. Every one of them died screaming, pleading for help from others that would never come. I looked away to see Azl still there. “Why? Why?!”
“Don’t you want to know what happened to poor Sicwele? Take a look.”
I tried to resist. Curiosity got the better of me. My gaze wandered down to Sicwele struggling underneath a rock. He was the only one left alive down there from my pride. And then the other pride came. They circled around him. I saw him looking around, then heard him say joyously, “Scai’a! Scai’a, it’s me!” A lioness stepped forward and said something inaudible. And then, to Sicwele’s horror, she turned and nuzzled another male, about Sicwele’s age. He stared in disbelief, then let out an anguished cry.
I turned away as Scai’a’s mate advanced on Sicwele. Somehow I still heard Sicwele’s last gasp as the lion tore out his throat.
Oh my gods.
I felt horrible sorrow, unbelievable sorrow . . . watching every single one die, every single one of my family die, and then this . . . I looked up at Azl. “Why are you doing this?” I whispered.
He smiled. “Oh, don’t tell me you don’t want this. You’ve played it over and over in your head, trying to find something that would make a difference, something that you could have done to change things. Now you have your chance. Enjoy.”
“I don’t want to watch them die again and again! What kind of sick pleasure do you think I’d get from that?!”
“Oh, but you have so many things you haven’t tried yet. Go ahead, try out everything. You’ve barely used a fraction of the plan’s you’ve thought of.”
I pushed him to the ground, my paws on his chest. “Damn it, you keep changing it! How am I supposed to beat it if you keep changing it?!”
“Why not try?” He stretched out a foreleg. I followed it to see Sicwele staring at me.
“’Sare, come on,” he said.
“Yes, ’Sare, go on,” said Azl, his eyes mocking me. “Save him.”
I stared at his face for a moment before I ran toward Sicwele and slashed him across the face. He went to the ground, and I quickly tore out his throat. I spat it out disgustedly. “You aren’t real.” I turned to Azl. “This isn’t real!”
“Murderer!” a lioness yelled. She tackled me, biting down. I cried out in pain. The other lionesses attacked, each trying to kill me. Some threw themselves on top of me, knocking me to the ground. I cried out in pain as Azl was blocked from my vision, his mocking smile the last thing I saw before a lioness’s stomach covered my eyes.
Then the lionesses were gone and I was safe again. Safe meaning I wasn’t in imminent danger of being attacked. I stared at Azl, back in my prison. “I won’t play your games.”
He laughed at the thought. “And you really thing that will work? Here, let me show you my résumé.” A cheetah suddenly appeared, proud and standing straight. “Before,” said Azl with a smile. “After.” The cheetah was no longer the magnificent specimen it was. It was hunched over in fear, its eyes wild and scared. “Of course, this is just my first. Early days for us all. The second went off without a hitch.” The cheetah disappeared to be replaced by a leopard, just as impressive as the cheetah. “And after I worked my magic . . .”
The leopard was the epitome of fear. He seemed to have shrunk as he tried to make himself as small as he could, his eyes completely witless. He trembled in fear as he looked from me to Azl. He slowly shuffled backwards. Azl impatiently hit it across the face with a paw. It collapsed to the ground, covering its head with its paws as it curled up its body. Only noises escaped its throat. There were no words.
“Look at it,” Azl said. “Look at that pathetic—thing. It cowers just at the sound of my voice. I could just motion, and it would yelp in fear. There is nothing left of him. Nothing. This is just an empty shell.” The leopard disappeared and Azl turned to me with a look on his face which could only be described as “evil.” “And you will be no different.” His paw shot out to grab my neck. He pulled my face so it was only an inch from his. “I’ve heard those words of defiance over and over. And every single one of you has fallen. You have no idea how much I enjoy watching you writhe in pain. It is an obsession. I take pride in my work, Taraju. In breaking your pathetic forms. But I won’t just break you. I will shatter your pathetic mind. You will beg for my mercy. And I will laugh. You’ll be driven like all the others, until you’re nothing but a witless brute, cowering at every bit of the world. It’s only a matter of time.”
I saw the truth in those eyes of his, as well of every bit of my hopelessness.
It continued. He attacked my mind, slowly tearing it apart. I’m sure he could have done it quickly. But that wouldn’t have caused me pain. I was going insane, slowly, steadily, and with full knowledge of it. I couldn’t fight back. The brink came further and further toward me.
But then I got a visitor. Two of them. I got to see how far I’d actually gone.
“Through there,” ordered Azl, his muscular forearm pointing to a rectangle.
“I won’t play your games,” I said. My resistance still burned.
“Through there. Or else.”
“I went miserably. The else would no doubt be much, much worse. I walked into a lighter room, the room I had seen “Tumai” in. There, across the room, were two animals that I hadn’t expected to see. It was Asari and Mpande, both dead because of me. I hung my head. Neither would have anything good to say to me.
“Akasare,” said Mpande, his voice shocked.
I thought of it as a summon, as it used to always be when he was my king. I walked up to the middle of the room, then stopped and hesitantly held out a paw. It pressed against the unseen wall. “I can’t go any further than here,” I said.
The two of them walked to me. They didn’t speak; they didn’t know what to say. Then Mpande finally said, “What have they done to you?”
I knew they saw my haggard face, its desperation etched deep into it. “Nothing, yet,” I said. “At least, that’s what I’m told. The best is yet to come.”
“Aka,” said Asari softly.
“Please,” I said, “just say what you came to and let me go back.” The waiting only made it worse. It was something I should have learned when I first came here. I could have skipped out of a hundred forty years of this. “Just get it over with.”
They stared at me, like I was a horrible thing. Which I was. I wasn’t fit to even be near them. To be near any of them. I was one of the condemned. This wall kept my filth from them. “Aka,” said Asari softly, “I’m so sorry.”
“For . . . for this.” She gestured at the room.
I laughed bitterly. “Yes, we’re all so sorry, aren’t we? So sorry for Aka.”
“I’m sorry we had to see you like this,” said Mpande. “Really. I never imagined . . .”
“Never imagined what? That you’d find me here?”
“Yes,” said Mpande. “I mean . . . you changed. You repented.”
“One death wasn’t enough to pay for what I did. The gods aren’t that benevolent.”
There was an embarrassed pause. “We came to try to help,” said Mpande.
I gave a real, honest laugh. I heard the slight note of hysteria. “There’s nothing you can do to help! There’s nothing anyone can do to help!”
Mpande sighed as he blinked his healed eyes. “Do you want us to go?”
“I don’t give a damn one way or the other. I’m beyond caring.”
Mpande looked at me sadly, then turned. “Come, Asari.”
“I—I want to talk to Aka, Daddy,” she said, embarrassed. “Alone.”
“Very well.” Mpande stepped through a rectangle. “I’ll wait,” his voice echoed back.
Asari turned to me and placed her paw on the wall. “Aka . . .” A tear slid down her face. “I can’t believe it . . .”
“It’s true. I left you to die. I could have saved you.”
She shook her head. “No. I know that. It’s just . . . you look horrible. Like you’re dead.”
I smiled wryly. “Don’t we all?”
Asari gave me a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Aka.”
“For . . . for Sicwele.” I’m fairly sure my mouth dropped open around this point. “You saw it . . . all of it . . .”
“How do you know?”
“They let me see it. I—I’m sorry. Please understand,” she begged. “I thought you were gone. I didn’t know.”
“What are you saying?”
She bit her lip. “Malaiki,” she said.
One appeared. “Ma’am?”
“Can you get rid of this barrier?”
“Do you really think that’s wise, ma’am?”
The malaiki sighed. “Very well, ma’am. There you go.” It vanished again.
Asari approached me hesitantly. She crossed where the barrier had been. She came the rest of the way and put a gentle paw to my face. “I—I love you, Aka.” She nuzzled my mane. “I’ve wanted to tell you so much . . .”
I pulled my head gently. I looked at her magnificent, blue eyes sadly, those blue eyes that I loved so much, staring at her body that had given me my first feelings of lust. So much had gone by since we had first met. “Asari . . . I love someone else. I love Tumai. I—”
“No! Please! You love me, I know you do!” She pressed herself against my neck. “Forget about Tumai! Just forget about her. You love me, not her. You love me.”
I suddenly realized what I fool I’d been. I tipped her face up to mine with a paw. I smiled. “No, Azl.” He should have known it wouldn’t work twice.
“Azl?” he asked, his filthy self using Asari’s mouth.
I pushed him away. “Don’t play stupid. I won’t betray Tumai. You’ll never get that pleasure from me. You can torture me all you want, but I will never stop loving her.”
“Aka, please,” he said, pressing himself against my chest. He wrapped one of Asari’s forelegs around me. “Aka, I love you.” He licked my neck.
I pushed him away, harder. “Liar!” I spat. I whipped a paw across Asari’s face, knocking him to the ground. Moments later I was on the ground myself. The malaiki had reappeared and had hit me with enough force to send a rhino down. I gave a cry of pain.
“Taka,” the malaiki spat. It turned to Azl. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t have let it happen.” He gently helped him up with a paw. “Are you alright?”
I let out a startled cry. It was Asari. And I—I had been paranoid enough to—oh, gods! “Asari,” I said suddenly.
“Aka, no!” she cried. Something grabbed each of my legs. I looked down to see vines curling up them from a dark rectangle I recognized all too well.
I began to thrash wildly as the vines pulled me toward the rectangle. “No! No! Asari—Asari, forgive me! Asari!” She disappeared as I was dragged through the rectangle, the rectangle vanishing the instant I was through. The vines disappeared.
“Bravo! Bravo! Encore!” I looked to see Azl clapping his forepaws together, supported by his flapping wings. He wiped a tear from his I. “These dramas—I get so emotional. They’re beautiful.”
“You rat bastard!” I shoved my face into his, or at least, as far as mine would go up to his. “How could you?! How could you do that to me?!”
He laughed. “I did that?” He laughed again. “You did it. You did every—single—bit.”
I was horrified. I didn’t want to believe it. But it was true. He had no part in it.
It still went on. I was, as predicted, being reduced to nothing. My mind was slowly pushed toward insanity. I was beaten when I gave Azl the wrong answer, the blows taking less and less to get the desired impact of utter fear. I died over and over without dying. Azl never let up. My mind was being torn apart.
I had two more visits. One was my father. Kovu told me to hold on, just to hold on a little longer, son, and that he loved me so much. His words did nothing for me, despite the hour-long heart-to-heart we had, me describing every detail of what went on in my life nowadays.
Shortly after I was visited by Fujo. I put on my best face for him. He was innocent; he didn’t need to know what went on in there. Some of my anger slipped out. But none of my despair. I had enough control for that. I watched him leave the room, knowing I would never see what was beyond the visiting room, save for that rectangle of golden savannah they always left from. Not as me. I would only see it as a shattered, broken mess.
I worsened. And then the day that changed everything came. Azl had left urgently, not even giving a warning, just leaving. I sank to the floor, amazingly without injury, having the luck to have him go right after he had healed my body. I lied on the floor, relieved, so happy that my pain was over, at least for now. Any moment without him was a moment to be relished. He still managed to torture me, though. My stomach rumbled and my throat burned. I had forgotten the taste of food. I really had. I tried desperately to think of what meat tasted like, with nothing coming to mind. I hadn’t eaten in so long.
Then Azl came back, ending a relief that had been far too short. “Sorry about that. Something’s come up. Little trouble. Happened in the Pridelands, actually.” My ears perked up slightly. “You want to go home, don’t you?” he asked, his voice soft, gentle, sweet. Torturous.
“I want to go anywhere but here.”
“What a shame. All those travel plans. Anyway, news from home.” A long, white rectangle appeared in front of him, which he grabbed. “Da-dat-da-dat-da . . . Here we are. Kovu—dead. Kiara—weeping. Fujo—dead. Tumai—alive.” My heart leapt for joy. He went through the rest of the pride, listing off an astonishing amount of those that were dead. But Tumai was alive. She still enjoyed life. I was happy for her. “Now that that’s out of the way—Jadi’s taken over, has ruled for a year, has slaughtered countless, blah, blah, blah. Uchu—”
“Who’s Jadi? And Uchu?”
“Fujo’s son and his mate.”
“Uchu has had a son, still continues to beat the lionesses whenever she feels like it, especially Tumai. The son will grow up, destroy the Pridelands after brutally cutting down Tumai in the worst way he can think of, will go on to either destroy the world or rule it forever, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Destroy the Pridelands?”
“Yep. Just go and go and reduce ’em to ash. In fact, the little guy shouldn’t even exist. He’s part pure evil, part lion. Doesn’t happen. Anyway, I just came back for a second to check in on you, see how you were doing, beat you bloody because this is all your fault, then attend to other business.”
The bloody beating began with my head. I was sent to the ground, his claws ripping through my face, scratching out an eye. I screamed in pain as I had done far too often of late. “Your fault. If you hadn’t been a coward—” he sliced open my stomach—“none of this would have happened! You’d have been king! He rained down blow after blow. I’d stopped trying to fight back long ago. I sobbed, bones breaking, piercing my skin and organs. “You’d have stopped this! You would have never let this happen!” His voice had gone to a yell. I really do believe that he let out some of his anger on me. Gods knew he needed something at this time of all others. He stopped, then spit on my face. “I’ll be back later.” He left.
I was left alone with my thoughts and my pain. What he had said was true. I could have lived. I undoubtedly would have been picked king over Fujo. Tumai was being beaten—supposedly—because of me. I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. But Azl was gone. He had been there for everything, always. He undoubtedly was truthful this time.
Suddenly my body was healed. I looked around for Azl. He wasn’t there. Then pain flooded my mind again. It seemed to tear at me, ripping me apart. I sank to the ground, my paws pressed tightly against my skull. Then, just as suddenly as it started, it stopped. I felt—pure. Like I could do no wrong. I looked up to see myself looking up. This must not make any sense at all. It was like looking at a pool, but in three dimensions. My reflection stared back at me. We spoke. “What the . . .” We stared at each other.
An evil smile crossed his face. “I’m coming,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
He stared at me, his expression slightly curious. “You don’t hear it, do you?” He shook his head. “But I can still show you the way.”
“Yes. Come on, we can get out of here!” His paw pointed toward a dark rectangle. I hadn’t noticed it. And it was a rectangle that looked too much like a place I had been before. The Black Line.
“I won’t join Afriti! And to think you think it’s even an option—” I stopped. We both realized in that instant what had happened. I thought he felt as I did. He felt nothing remotely close to it. We had the same body, a perfect replica of each other, but nothing filled his mind but—for lack of a better word—evil. Somehow—I don’t know how—somehow I had been torn apart cleanly down good and evil. I was Taraju. He was Akasare. I wanted to please the world, he wanted to dominate it.
And he wanted to escape.
The same thought crossed out minds. We both darted for the rectangle. He nearly made it. I tackled him, holding on as tightly as I could, for once praying for Azl to be here. He struggled, reaching for the rectangle. I couldn’t let him escape. What he would do to the world . . . he had no inhibitions. No one would be safe. Not from him.
I sank my jaws into his back. He roared out in pain as he arched his back inward, allowing his muscles to relax. I took the moment to pounce on him, wrapping my legs around him and trying to roll away from the rectangle. I got in two or three of them before he stopped me, him on top. He stared down at my face with a grin, then began to club it with his right paw, sending four blows across my face before I blocked it and rammed my head into his. I took his momentary daze to whack him across the face and off me.
And toward the rectangle.
He fell to the ground, but we both knew how to fight. And one of the first rules was that you never wanted to be on the ground. It left too much of your underside exposed, the easiest place to hit for a good injury. He was back on his feet quickly. And he wasted no time at all running toward the rectangle. I tackled his back, wrapping my forelegs around his torso near the hind legs. He placed a paw inside the rectangle, and then another one. He looked back at me, an evil grin on his face.
“Enjoy your stay.”
He pulled as hard as he could. My paws began to slip on their grip. His head went through, and his body, and then his hind legs, the rectangle throwing me off him completely as soon as I touched it. I was sent flying backwards, only to see the rectangle shut as I looked up. What hit me first was how quickly it had gone. Just a few blows, and I had lost him, a perfect example of why you couldn’t easily defeat an enemy that was trying to run. I stood there, staring at where the rectangle had disappeared. I couldn’t believe it. He was gone. Akasare was looks in the land of the living. And I was still here, doomed to suffer.
Or would I?
I suddenly realized what this had done. I was pure. I was clean. There wasn’t a bad bone in my body. I had no reason to be punished. I wasn’t nasty at all. It was my evil side that had done all those things that I was imprisoned for, right?
I felt good for the first time in Purgatory. I was going to explain it all to Azl when he came back. And I would be free. He finally did come back, after what seemed like hours. “Alright back to busine . . .” He was staring where he must have left me. He looked around and saw me. “Didn’t I leave you in a broken, bleeding mass here?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But you’re in a perfectly fine, not bleeding mass there.” He was honestly confused. “Oh, well,” he said. “I’ll just begin again.”
“Azl,” I said, “I’m clean. You can stop now.”
He laughed. “Repenting won’t do you any good.” He hit me across the face brutally. I cried out in pain. “Now let’s try this again. How is the vilest scum in history?”
“Azl, please,” I begged through a nearly dislocated jaw, “please, just stop! You don’t need to do this!”
“But it’s so much fun. And wrong answer.” His claws raked my body. It went on like this for hours. He never believed me. I was stuck here, forced to endure torment that I would never escape.
I had one more visit. It was the last I got. Azl had made far more progress with me than before. I screamed, constantly, for him to let me go, that I didn’t deserve this, and also for my mother. I was constantly in tears, partially from the pain, partially from the knowledge that I shouldn’t be here, taking this punishment. My only companion was Azl, Azl who rejoiced in my pain, Azl who delighted in my anguish. Fujo visited me again, giving me a wonderful break from Azl’s torment. I wouldn’t go back to my prison, I swore it as I entered the visitor’s room. I could see from the shock on his face how bad I looked.
“Oh, Taraju . . .”
“Fujo,” I said, “this is all a mistake. I’m not supposed to be in there.”
“I know,” he said miserably.
He had no idea. “No, you don’t. I’m Taraju.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
I tried to explain, and messed it up wonderfully. “I’m Taraju, not Akasare. He’s gone now. I’m good, I’m clean, I’m pure. I’m not supposed to be punished, he is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Akasare’s gone,” I explained desperately. “He’s left me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Jadi did it. He brought Akasare back, but not me. I’m free. And I’m not supposed to be in here now. You have to do something. I can’t go back in there. I just can’t.”
“You’re not lying?” I saw doubt in his eyes. I realized how insane I must have seemed. Who knew, maybe the entire thing was just another one of Azl’s tricks. If it was, it was working. Despair had become just as much of a companion as him.
“No, just have them look, have them check, and they’ll see. Just get me out of here.” I pressed against the barrier that they had absolutely refused to let down now, not even for my father, not after what I did to Asari. “I can’t go back. Fujo, I’m going insane.”
“I’ll try,” he said.
“Please,” I begged desperately. “Hurry.” I felt a strange feeling in my hind legs. I dropped my paws as I looked down to see vines wrapping around me. They grabbed my forelegs as well. I struggled as hard as I could. I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t go.
“Time to come back,” said a Azl’s voice, floating out to me unmercifully, Azl putting every measure of fear he could into it.
“No!” I screamed at him. “No! I won’t go back! I won’t go back!” Azl laughed mercilessly. The vines tugged unevenly and I fell to the ground. I looked up at Fujo who was staring at me in shock. “Fujo,” I begged, “—please—help me!” I was pulled through and saw Azl’s face above mine.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Your session is up.” His jaws clamped down across my neck. He tossed me across the room, my neck trailing blood. I landed with a sickening thud, letting out a scream of pain as I landed.
Fujo did try. He achieved nothing. No one would listen to him.
I continued to suffer under Azl. His mind never failed to find new ways to strip away mine. Every second under him I slipped closer to insanity. I was turning into that beast he said I was, one that only thought of itself, of its survival, the animal that was dumb and witless and scared of all things. I was going downward even faster than when Akasare was with me. I fought back as hard as I could, forcing him to wrench away every fiber of sanity that he took from my grasp. I begged him to stop, I pleaded with him, I tried to bargain. His torture continued.
I tried everything. I fought back, being swatted down every time. I tried to run. The room was endless. There was no escape. Azl could outrun me any day with his muscle-bound legs or his massive wings. But then I tried something so desperate, so stupid, it had no chance of working. After he healed me, I grabbed his face in my paws and pressed my lips against his. He pushed me away after a stunned second, his eyes wide. He said four words.
“I’m not like that.”
“Listen to me,” I said. I had finally gotten him to stop. Yes, it was in a way that disgusted both him and me, but it worked didn’t it? “You need to stop. I am pure. Please, stop.” I tried to put every ounce of honesty I had behind my words.
“You kissed me!”
“Um . . . well, yes.”
“Oh, for—that’s a first! Of all these years—”
“You know, I really just touched your mouth.”
“Kissing is done with the tongue,” I pointed out.
“Like hell that wasn’t a—”
“Listen! Please! I had to make you stop!” His face turned into a snarl as he heard those words, realizing what I had done. He drew back a paw to hit me again. I cowered, begging him, “Wait! Please! Just listen to me! Listen, and I’ll never, ever try anything again! Just please listen! Just this once!”
He slowly lowered his paw as he looked at my desperate, tear-filled eyes. “Talk.”
“I—I don’t have any evil in me. It’s the truth. You have to be able to see that. I’m pure. Jadi tore me apart. It’s the only explanation I have. Please, just check it. I’m good. Doesn’t that mean I should be free?”
He stared at me. “Yes . . . maybe.”
“Please, you have to believe me. Please.”
“You’re telling the truth?” I could see his eyes looking into mine for a sign of deceit.
“Yes. All of it. Please believe me.”
He stared at me. Just stared, looking at me. Then he did something I hadn’t expected. He drew me close to him in a hug with his forelegs, supported by his wings. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He drew back from me. “Forgive me. Please.” He was ashamed. I could see that.
“Just get me out of here,” I said.
He smiled. “Fair enough.” He turned and walked toward a rectangle that had just opened, full of golden savannah. “I’ll do what I can.” He paused before he left, turned to me, and waved his paw. “Here. I imagine you’re hungry.” A carcass and a pool of water appeared. He made for the rectangle and stopped again. “If I find out you’re lying . . .”
“Alright.” He walked through the rectangle. I smiled as I watched him go. Actually smiled. It closed, then suddenly reopened as he stuck his head in again. “And that—thing. With the lips and all that—”
“Great.” He left again.
I sighed. I had hope. There was something different about that conversation. Then it hit me. I was no longer scared of Azl. I hadn’t been for quite some time now. Not since I had been torn apart. You could put me in with any malaiki, and I’d be fine. I really was fine. I began to eagerly tear strips off the carcass, my need being assuaged for the first time in I didn’t know how long.
I was bored. That’s the blunt fact. I had been waiting so long for Azl. I hadn’t seen anyone. I know it probably sound kind of bad to be bored when you’re entire future hangs on the entire word of an animal, but I was. At least I was well cared for. The carcass refilled itself when I wanted more and the pool . . . well, who had ever know to a lion to drink an entire pool? I had only had one complaint. It was a wildebeest carcass. Now, anyone can get tired of eating the same thing day in and day out. It’s predictable that I would have gotten tired of it. But when I didn’t really like it in the first place . . . ugh.
Azl finally walked into my prison again. I stood up, ready to leave, and to finally get an antelope instead of a wildebeest. Even a buffalo, or a zebra. But a small party of me said He’s here to torture. Not to free. His face was unreadable. “Well?” I finally asked.
“Through there.” Azl pointed to the pure white rectangle he had just come through.
“Am I free?”
I slowly walked through the rectangle. The place was so bright. My eyes seared with pain for an instant, and then they were fine. I felt—better. Whole. The best word would be “sane.” I felt as if everything done in my prison had been a horrible weight, and it had all been lifted, all at once. You have no idea what sweet relief that was.
I looked around. On pedestals of varying height there sat animals, some which I had seen before, others which I hadn’t even heard of. These were the gods, I realized. They were in a semicircle in front of me. Around each one of them shone an aura. I suddenly noticed a seemingly minor detail. They were all carnivores. Not all of the gods were here. Just the bigger ones. I swallowed, feeling insignificant. I didn’t know what was expected of me. A lion sitting on the highest pedestal addressed me.
I hesitantly stepped into the semicircle. I looked over at Azl. He obviously felt none of the pressure and need for formality I did. He was lying down on his back. I would have thought that would be uncomfortable with wings, but he seemed right at home with it. I looked up at the gods. They stared down at me, some solemn, others cheerful. I bowed low. It brought out a few more smiles. They weren’t exactly happy smiles. More amused, as if I’d done something wrong.
Which I had. “Oh, get up,” said a female cheetah. I straightened up.
“You don’t need to bow,” said a second lion.
“Yes, sire,” I said nervously.
“Sir.” I turned to see Azl with a paw in the air, one digit extended. The paw dropped back down, Azl being the perfect picture of laziness.
More déją vu followed. “It’s quite alright, Azl,” said the first lion. He looked back at me. I suppose we should begin by saying that we are sorry for what we’ve done to you. Please, don’t think badly of Azl. He is one of the most compassionate malaiki there are.”
“Yeah, sorry, no hard feelings and all that crap,” said Azl.
The first lion’s smile twitched. A cat with a beautiful, black and orange striped body, the first full tiger I had seen, spoke. “Although his composure could do with some work.” Azl smiled.
The first lion spoke again. “If you are angry with anyone, it should be us. You see, we ordered Azl to do this. We can only trust malaiki to carry out the acts in Purgatory. They will not become emotionally involved, and they will do their best. They can’t be merciful; their compassion leaves no room for it. Azl wanted to get you through there as quickly as possible after he was told your situation. We all did. We are very proud of your sacrifice, Taraju. Azl especially. He pushed you harder than we thought he could. You could have been out after ten years.”
“But—but you sentenced me to two hundred forty. Sir.”
The lion smiled. He opened his mouth to speak, but a leopard beat him to it. “Those old years mean nothing. They were there for when the malaiki were inexperienced. Years could go by and there would only be minor progress. They were repulsed by what they are forced to do in there. They still are. But they’re better now. They understand the reasons why. Ever since the first one was released, they have worked so much more efficiently. Especially Azl.” Azl smiled up at the leopard.
“Although he did make one rather large slip this time,” said the second lion. The grin vanished from Azl’s face. “And that would have had some very interesting consequences if it occurred.”
“You gave us that reflex,” said Azl, pointing at the second lion. “It was your idea. You, specifically.”
“Well, you have to mate—”
“Mano, don’t you think this has gotten a little off track?” asked the leopard. His mate smiled as Mano, the second lion’s smile faded slightly. “Aiheu, can we please get back to what we came here for?”
Aiheu, the first lion, nodded. “Thank you, Rahimu.” Aiheu looked down at me. You see, the malaiki torture you so that you pay for your deeds. They go until they reach a point where they feel that you’ve paid enough.”
“Until they break you,” said a hyena in a low, menacing voice.
Aiheu nodded. “Yes. As Roh’kash says, until they break you. Some cases don’t have to go that far, but they are very, very few. We do not put an animal in Purgatory unless we are certain that they deserve it.”
“No one deserves it,” I said. “You have no idea what it’s like in there. Sir,” I hurriedly added.
Aiheu gave me a sad smile. “That may be. But it is the best option we have. It’s much kinder than the alternative.”
The tigress spoke again. “We could have let them stay in Heaven,” she said. “We did with the first few. They weren’t happy with the rules. They broke them. The others suffered, horribly. We had to punish the ones that did wrong. Purgatory was created as a temporary thing. The animals were released after, at most, a year. But they continued to sin.”
“So we had to resort to more permanent measures,” said Rahimu. “We have them hundreds of years in Purgatory, judging them before they even came so there would be no more suffering in Heaven. They were thrown in as soon as they came. Like you almost were. Very few of them ever saw Heaven.”
“But Afriti came along and demanded some of the souls,” said Roh’kash. “Afriti wanted a share. We let one be taken while we debated. It was Afriti’s choice of which one to take. Afriti took a particularly miserable lion. One that looked astonishingly like you. But Afriti said that one wasn’t good enough. Afriti freed the first one, and demanded that we empty Purgatory.”
“We decided to do it,” said Mano. “But it took years. Afriti just grew angrier and said we were stalling. Made threats to wreak destruction on the world.”
“You see, we had no choice,” said Aiheu. “We couldn’t stop Afriti. We had been the cause of our own undoing when we made mortals like you. Imperfect. Easy to tempt. And Afriti did tempt you. Afriti argued that the ones in Purgatory were the ones that had evil in them, and he was right. They were miserable in Heaven, trying to follow our rules. Afriti appealed to our sense of virtue, saying that we were condemning them to suffer pointing out that even if they served their term, they would only sin again, and be put in Purgatory once more. Afriti wanted to take them to Hell.”
“It was logical. It was most likely true that the animals would fall into their old ways after they left Purgatory, even if it took hundreds of years to undue the inhibition we placed by the punishment,” said a cheetah. “They had broken inhibitions before, why not this one, too? So we let Afriti take the first soul and we let the two of them speak to the animals in Purgatory. Nearly all of them followed.”
Aiheu sighed. “It wasn’t until later that we realized the mistake. We freed the animals that did stay after their terms had been completed. None of them had broken as you would have. Few were in as bad shape as you were. The malaiki didn’t understand enough then. But none of the animals that were released, not one, has done a single wrong thing. They are good, caring souls. We never expected it.”
“They chose to stay,” I pointed out.
“Yes,” said the tigress. “We came to that conclusion. But Aiheu exaggerates when he says that they have never done any wrong. Every single one of them has done a wrong thing. But they have done nothing more extreme than the souls who never went to Purgatory. Even in Heaven there are little fights.”
“As Fela points out, they have done minor things,” said Aiheu. “I meant, however, that there was none of what there was before. There used to be rape, and bloodshed, and betrayal in Heaven. There is no more of that.
“Just one big happy family,” interjected Azl.
Aiheu smiled. “In a sense. So Purgatory was established. And we made our biggest mistake. Every ten years Afriti sends the First to collect the animals from Purgatory. And we watched them go, animals that could have been good, if only we had waited and hadn’t listened to Afriti’s persuasion. He hopes to become stronger than us, and to use his power and numbers to destroy us, and bring about what he feels the world should be like. So far, it has not come to that. There is still more good in the world. We have more strength.”
“For now,” added Rahimu pessimistically. All of the smiles shrank a little.
“Maybe not even now,” said a cheetah.
“What do you mean, sir?” I asked. I half-expected them to say that I didn’t need to know. I didn’t know that the gods rarely withheld information from us.
“A cub was born recently,” said Fela. “To your nephew. He could completely chance the balance of power. He will completely change it.”
“But that is not what we called you here for,” said a tiger, completely across the circle from Fela.
“We asked you to come here to give you a privilege,” said Mano.
I had imagined that this was the reason that I was here, but still, receiving my freedom was something that seemed like a dream. And now it was here. I would be privileged with my freedom. With seeing my family once again. “Sir—I don’t know how long I’ve waited for this.”
“Aren’t we cocky?” asked Roh’kash. I didn’t understand.
Aiheu smiled. “Roh’kash, he doesn’t know. Taraju, are here to offer you freedom. But we want to give you something else. You see, your soul is pure. Completely. There is no evil.” He paused. “So we want to offer you a place.”
“A place where, sir?” I asked.
“With us,” said Mano. “Taraju, we want to offer you the chance to be a god.”
I was understandably stunned. My mouth blurted out, “You must be joking.”
A ripple of laughter went around the group. Mano rarely joked. “No, Taraju,” said Fela. “You have a clean soul. It’s all you need.”
“Ma’am, I—I can’t be a god. I shouldn’t, should I?”
Fela smiled. “You’re thinking of your past. It doesn’t matter anymore. You have every right to be accorded this honor, especially after what we put you through. We want you to join us Taraju. We’re asking you.”
“I realize it’s an honor, ma’am, but . . .”
“Yes?” asked Fela politely.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be a god. I did some very bad things. I can’t just forget them.”
“Oh, there are ways,” said Roh’kash. Amused smiles flicked around the group.
“But I don’t want to forget them, sir. I want to be Taraju.”
“We’re not asking you to, Taraju,” said Fela. “We’re just asking you to join us. We could give you knowledge, Taraju. And power. Power to change the world, to make it a better place.”
My mind flicked to the paradise I had tried to change the Outlands to. It was tempting. But there was still that nagging doubt. That What if I misused it? I could hurt more animals than I ever had, than Akasare ever would. I wouldn’t hurt anybody intentionally, I couldn’t think about hurting anyone that way anymore, not unless I had a reason. But accidents happened. And the mistakes I could make as a god . . . I shuddered to think of the consequences. “Ma’am . . .”
“Is—is it my choice?”
“Your choice, Taraju. Only you can decide.”
My choice. And so much hung with what I said. I had no doubt that I couldn’t just change my mind in a few days and say that I wanted the other way instead. “Ma’am . . . ma’am, I just don’t think I could be a god.”
Aiheu asked, “Do you refuse the offer?”
I looked down at the floor. They should have given me more time to choose, really. You can’t just ask someone on the spot to be a god. Even if I had just had a day longer, that would have been a little more reassuring. But I think I still would have come to the same conclusion. “Yes, sir,” I finally said. “I refuse.”
Rahimu smiled. I later found out that he never thought I was capable in the first place. Only he and Fela, despite her pressuring, were the only ones who saw beforepaw. “Very well,” said Aiheu. “It truly is a shame. I believe you would have been a grand god. However, it was your choice.” He held up one of his shining paws. “But your soul is pure. We must grant you this.” I felt strange. I still don’t know the exact words for it. I felt a warm glow go through my body. Saying it was wonderful doesn’t do it justice. I looked down at my paws to see they were encased in a shining, golden aura, as was the rest of my body. I looked back up at Aiheu. “We name you Ilemi, Illuminati of Heaven.”
I looked over at Azl. Saint, he mouthed.
I turned back to the gods and bowed low. “Thank you, sir.”
Fela smiled. “Oh, get up.”
I took my first free step into Heaven and breathed in the air. I suppose I was expecting something like an epiphany, something startling and amazing, some revelation that all my tortures had given me. Just something that really touched me, made me feel—different. There was nothing that did that. I was just happy. Joyously, gloriously happy, but just happy nonetheless. The air tasted no different, the savannah was the same as the month that I spent there, the sunset was still beautiful, and it was nothing more than gloriously comforting to me to have this rather than the cold prison that I had inhabited for so long.
What touched me was the thing that hit me next. I mean hit me. Tackled me to the ground, laughing. I was stunned as I hit the ground, and turned over to see Asari’s smiling face. I smiled back. I reached out and touched her face gently. That one touch was wonderful.
You can take an animal away from its home, from its den, from all the land it ever knew, and they’ll be fine. But you cannot separate them from the ones they know. I began to cry, slowly, and then I broke down in a rush as I wrapped my foreleg around Asari’s neck and pulled her down to my chest. Gods, just to touch someone. I don’t know exactly how long I spent in that wonderful embrace. Minutes, I’m sure.
Dad was there, too. And Granddad, and Grandma, and Mpande, and Fujo. I couldn’t stop crying. It was so good to have them here. Azl should have done this to me, should have given me all of them, and then have taken them away. Nothing would shatter me more than that right now.
Asari pulled her neck free of my grasp and stared down at me happily. She licked away some of the tears that were on my face. “You’re home, Aka.”
“About time,” said Fujo, grinning. “Asari, are you going to hog him all to yourself, or do the rest of us get to welcome him back, too?”
She smiled as she got off my stomach. I sat up and had Dad grab me with a paw, drawing me into a hug. I embraced him as well, blinking away happy tears. “It’s so good to be back.”
“I don’t want to ever see you like that again,” Dad whispered. He leaned back. “You’re too good to go through that.”
“We kept on wondering when they were going to release you,” said Granddad. “They told us it’d be today.”
“Yeah, what took you so long?” asked Fujo. “Did they have to bind it with blood or something?”
Claws slashing across my neck, then cutting off my paw. A red pawprint on a white rectangle.
“Oh, uh, sorry,” apologized Fujo. “Touchy subject?”
I hadn’t realized it had shown that much. But those words had brought back that memory like a slap in the face. It hit me: none of those years were gone. I remembered them. I might be fine, I might be sane, but they were still there. This was how we stayed in line, all of us who went through Purgatory. We knew exactly why we didn’t want to do wrong.
I tried to smile. “Forget it, Fujo. I’m fine.”
He grinned. “Doubt it.”
“We were so worried about you,” said Grandma. She wasn’t like I remembered her last, all old and—old. I guess you couldn’t even say she was ugly back then. But now she was radiantly beautiful. It was obvious what had captured Granddad’s attention. She put stroked my face. “We thought you’d be out a lot sooner.”
“They wanted to talk,” I explained. “About my position.”
“Position?” came from everyone.
“Yeah. They made me an Illuminati. Named me Ilemi, like I actually needed a new name.”
They all seemed to notice my aura at the same time. “I can’t believe it,” said Fujo. “You have got to tell me everything they do up there.”
“Fujo, I don’t think that was in the list of duties.”
“It’s a bonus.”
I felt Asari flow against my body. She kissed me before saying, “We’re just glad to have you back.”
“Yeah. Hey, Mvushi,” called Fujo. “Come on out.”
My killer was hiding behind Granddad. Mvushi reluctantly came out from behind Granddad so I could see him plainly. The four scars that I had given him were gone. I wondered if the ones on my face were there. From what I remembered, I had seen them in the pool. I was sure I could get rid of them whenever I wanted.
There was silence as Mvushi stared at me. He finally said, “I’m not sorry for what I did.”
I hesitated before saying, “There’s . . . no reason to be. It’s me who’s sorry.”
He looked at me hard before saying, “Just so long as we know that.” He opened up a rectangle to another part of Heaven and walked through. I don’t ever recall seeing him again. I’m fairly sure he’s avoiding me. I don’t blame him. I made his life a hell. There was no reason for him to forgive me.
Asari rubbed against me again. I smiled down at her. “I missed you,” she said happily.
“We all did,” said Granddad. “It’s good to know you’re free, Taraju.”
“That’s a weird name,” said Asari. “‘Taraju.’”
“It’s my name,” I said.
“You’ll still be Aka to me,” she said.
“Asari, please, I really would prefer Taraju.”
“It’s longer,” she mock-pouted.
“Then work for once in your life.”
“In your death,” corrected Fujo.
Asari kissed me again. I stared down at her and saw the same adoration that had always been there for me. “Why don’t we leave you two alone?” Mpande asked tactfully, speaking for the first time. The thought filled me with happiness, and scared me just the same. I knew what they were expecting to happen, and it very well might.
She flooded into my head unbidden. Yes, it was probably a very good idea to get Asari alone, even if just for that.
“Hey, some of us want to talk with him, too!” said Fujo. “I’ve seen him for less than a week, overall.”
“You grew up with him,” said Mpande.
“Yeah, but only for a little. And he’s changed.”
“Fujo, please, I promise I’ll make time for you,” I said. I had all the time in the world, I realized. I was free. More of a happy, warm, glow. “I just, uh, well . . .”
“Fine, I see how it is. You’d rather be with some beautiful lioness than an ugly brother.”
“Fujo, it’s not like that—”
“I’m joking. Gods, did they suck out your sense of humor in there, too?”
“Remind me to show you my sense of humor later.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, walking away. Dad followed him, along with Grandma and Granddad.
“Well, go on,” said Mpande.
I looked down at Asari. “I know the perfect place,” she whispered. She opened up a rectangle and walked on through. I turned to look at Mpande to see him walking away. I turned back and followed her through.
It was a hill, a hill where the sunset could easily be seen. It was beautiful, though it was rapidly fading. Night was coming on quickly. I walked up to the top of it, looking at the sunset, and was even more surprised to find what was on the other side of the hill.
“It’s just like home, isn’t it?” asked Asari. “That big hill, and the big lake. And you can even pretend there’s that cave if you look at that rock the right way.”
“It looks so much like it,” I said, amazed at the similarity. It was almost the same as I remembered it. So beautiful. It brought back such happy memories. It might not have been exactly like Lakeside, but the resemblance . . . I thought that if this was really a den I was on top of, just like Lakeside, I might even stay here. “How did you find it?”
“Those rectangles. You just think about what you want, and it opens a path to it. Just think of what you want. A place. An animal . . .”
I looked down at her. “That’s amazing . . .” My voice drifted off as I looked into her eyes, into her face that was so happy and hoping.
She buried her face in my mane. “Aka, I love you. So much.” I felt her teeth gently nip my neck.
“Asari . . .”
She looked up at me. “I’m sorry. Taraju.”
I smiled. “Yes, there’s that, too.”
She kissed me and pressed herself against me again. “I love you, Taraju.”
I swallowed. I knew what I was expected to say, and I could say it honestly. “Asari . . .” I didn’t finish my sentence. I looked down at her. “Let’s lie down,” I said quietly. She smiled as we did so. “Asari . . .”
“Asari, I love you. I really do.”
Her smile became even bigger. “I’ve been waiting so long to hear that. I’ve just been waiting for them to release you.” She kissed me passionately. “Taraju . . . Taraju, I love you.”
She was setting all of my senses on fire. I could smell the sweet scent of pheromones that drifted up to me, not strong enough to sway a male as they did in heat, but they were still there. I knew what she wanted. And I wanted it, too. I leaned closer, having her nuzzle me. “Asari—”
“Taraju, can we get married?” It was an honest request. She wanted it.
“Asari . . . I can’t do this.”
“You can, Taraju. For me. I love you, Taraju.” She was kissing me, nibbling my ear. She wanted it, and she was making me want it more and more. I had to stop it.
I put a paw underneath her chin and tilted it up to make her look at me. I loved those blue eyes of hers, those big, dark blue eyes. “Asari, I can’t marry you. I can’t make love to you. Not yet.”
“I asked Daddy. And I’ve got his permission. And Kovu’s. Just say you love me and we’ll be married.”
“Asari, I do love you—”
“Then love me,” she said, breaking free of my paw and licking me on the face.
“Asari, there’s someone else. I can’t.”
She drew her head back, her sorrow obvious immediately. “No . . .”
“Asari, I don’t know who I am. I love you,” I said, nuzzling her reassuringly, “but I . . . I just can’t. I love Tu—”
“I don’t want to hear about her!” I pulled my head back a little, shocked by the outburst. “Taraju, I love you. I always have. Please, don’t do this to me. I love you.”
“What is it that she has that I don’t? Taraju, I want to give you everything. My body, my soul, my love. I love you, Taraju. She can’t love you like that.” Her tone was pleading. I saw tears brimming in her eyes.
There was a time when none of this fuss would have taken place, when I would have yielded to instinct and been wonderfully happy that night. But the idea of betraying Tumai shocked me now. I’m sure now that if the situation had been reversed, I would have felt just as bad about Asari. Jadi had taken more than just my dark side; he had taken some of me. “Asari, I don’t know that. I love you, but I love her, too.”
“Then who do you love more?” she said bitterly. “Just say it and be done with it.”
“I don’t know,” I said quietly. “I really don’t. Asari, I can’t do this. I won’t dishonor Tumai like this. I’d do the same thing for you, I know I would. I want you, honestly, but not like this. I want you only when you’re mine, completely and totally. I don’t want to make a mistake I’ll have to live with for eternity.”
“This isn’t like you,” she said. “You’re different.”
“Yes. They said I would be. Asari, I was released because I’m only half of what I was. My soul was torn in two. I don’t know how. But doing bad things . . . they repulse me. I’m not the same, Asari. I love you, but I can’t do this.”
I could see her lip trembling. A tear slid down her face as she sniffed. She nuzzled against me again, but not with any of the lust that was there previously. I wrapped a foreleg around her. “I’ve been waiting so long for this,” she whispered. “I’ve waited for you for so long and now I can’t have you. It’s not fair.”
“It isn’t.” I could feel her sorrow. I loved her, after all, and here I was, breaking her heart, saying that she might not even be the one I truly love. I don’t have a doubt that she loves me, but I didn’t know if I loved her, truly and honestly. I still don’t. I won’t until Tumai dies. I kissed Asari gently on the top of her head. “Please, just understand.”
She looked up at me, her eyes rimmed with red. “I can wait,” she said. She pressed her head to my neck again. “I love you.”
The rest of the night was quiet. She finally drifted off to dreamland, lying next to me. Lucky her.
I felt bad about leaving Asari alone, but I didn’t want to be next to her when she woke up. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s the truth. I couldn’t help but realize every time that I looked at her that she wanted to give me everything that she could. And so did Tumai, I was sure. And I wanted to give myself to both of them. It seemed as if there was no happy ending. Someone would be hurt, and hurt horribly. If I could have both of them, I would. But I really doubt the gods look too happily on polygamy.
So I left her before she woke up. I tried to stay away from her as much as possible from that day forward, trying to make any pain that might happen more bearable for either of us, but it only felt worse to be neglecting her like this. We did meet, and we both enjoyed it. Neither of us did anything that would try to compromise my honor; Asari stayed as far away from that subject as possible after she knew how I felt.
After I left her, I went on to Fujo. I hadn’t slept all night, I’m sure. My mind was haunted with the prospect of what was gong to happen. From what the gods had told me, the world was coming to an end. And all because of the Pridelands, because of the cubbishness of a cub. Fujo’s son had no control over what went on as he was a cub; he was a cub. And yet the massive errors that were made.
Asari’s description of how to use the portals in heaven was correct. I simply thought Fujo, and I found Fujo, just a few meters away from the rectangle. And he was sleeping. Of course, I could have had plenty of fun with him. I decided to settle for tickling him, right in the gut. He bolted upright immediately. I laughed.
“Taraju!” he yelled.
“At your service,” I said with a grin.
“The sun’s not even decently up!”
“It’s not right.” I laughed. “It isn’t!”
“Fujo, nothing’s ever right for you.”
“Yeah? How do you think your little matchmaker session with me and Taabu worked out?”
“You married her?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah, that’s what you wanted, right?”
“Uh . . . not really. We just expected you to try to help her, not actually drag her back to the Pridelands to marry her. How’d you persuade the king to do that?”
“Uh . . . he was kind of dead.”
“So I killed him. He deserved it. Don’t think I’ve already gone through enough guilt over his death.”
“You’ve killed another lion?”
“I didn’t mean to. I just kind of turned, and . . . and that’s it. Just brought up my leg and hit him in the right place.”
“Gods . . .” I had never imagined Fujo to be a killer. I mean, I was the killer, not him. He was the one who made everyone laugh.
“It was just self-defense,” he said, as if reading my mind.
“I just can’t believe it.”
“I’m the same lion you always knew. Still as much of an ass to my brother,” he said with a grin. “Besides, it’s not like you didn’t have all that planned out up here.”
“Fujo, we never intended you to do anything about the pride. Maybe go back and get run out of the kingdom, but never this.” My mind wandered back to something the gods had stressed to me, along with all my other duties as an Illuminati. You could never interfere with the animals on the earth. Taabu hadn’t been intended to do anything. Fujo would just see what justice really was, and would learn that even if something was wrong, you couldn’t just dispense it. It wasn’t expected for him to actually go to the length of killing the king.
I had missed so much in my time in Purgatory.
“Well, it all turned out happy,” he said. “I got Taabu, Taabu got me, and we love each other.”
A thought suddenly struck me. “How much did she beat up on you?”
“She was a pretty free spirit. I doubt she’d take too much lip.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, looking away.
“No idea at all.”
“Such a bad liar,” I said with a grin. “Now come on, Fujo. What did you want to talk to me about?”
“I just wanted to talk. Can’t a guy just want to spend some time alone with his brother?”
“I s’pose.” I looked out at the scenery. “Want to walk?”
We started across the savannah. The sunrise was okay, I guess. I didn’t really notice it; I was staring at the ground the whole time. Until of course, Fujo inevitably talked. “What was it like in there?” he asked quietly. I was silent. “Look,” he said uneasily, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about—”
“It was bad,” I said. “It wasn’t a nice place. I didn’t want to live, Fujo. I really didn’t.” I looked up at him. “Does that answer your question?”
There was shock on his face. I guess I didn’t realize how quiet and grave I had been. He looked back toward the ground uneasily, shocked by the fact that I, his strong, unyielding brother, had said that. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s good enough.”
“Cheer up,” I said, for once trying to jolly him along instead of having the situation reversed. “I’m out now. And now you can stop worrying about me.”
“I’m worried about home,” he said. “Why does it seem like all the happiness is being sucked out of the world? I mean, I find that my son is a murderer, and then I find out that you’ve been tortured ever since you came up here, and now . . . Home just isn’t the same under Jadi.”
“He has a son,” I said.
“He does?” Fujo asked, surprised.
“Yeah . . .” The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it. Another thing the gods had said. Jadi’s son was unable to be seen. Fujo would never see his grandson, not until he died. And from what the gods said . . . well, he might never die.
“I wonder why I didn’t see him.”
“I . . .” I couldn’t believe what I was about to have done. I was going to have lied to Fujo. Gods, what a horrible thing. “Fujo, forget it.”
“What? Forget my grandson?”
“Yeah. Just . . . give him some time to grow before you make judgments.”
“I’m just worried.”
“Well, stop it. Otherwise I’m going to have to start making jokes, and I’m no good at that.”
“Uh-huh. Let’s hear one.”
“Uh . . . okay, there’s two hyenas waiting to ambush this lion that they hate—”
“Do all your jokes involve violence?”
“I grew up with it. Anyway, they know that the lion is supposed to be there around mid-morning. They’re there, but the lion isn’t. Midday comes around. Still no lion. Mid-afternoon, still no lion. It’s finally beginning to get dark, and one hyena turns to the other and says, ‘Gee, I hope nothing happened to him.’”
“Yeah, no more jokes for you.”
“Oh yeah? What do you have?”
“I don’t make jokes. I make witty, sarcastic comments and let myself be thrown around for others’ enjoyment. So there.”
“It sounds like you’re trying to advertise yourself.” We came to the top of a hill and sat down.
“Like you aren’t, Illuminated?” He gestured at the aura that I had shining around me.
“I don’t like it,” I said uncomfortably. “I asked them to take it away. I shouldn’t stand out.”
“Why not? You’ve got a pure soul. Show it off.”
“It’s restraining, Fujo.”
“Looks like you’re walking fine.”
“Not the aura. Me.”
“I . . . I can’t do things anymore. I can’t lie, I can’t cheat, I can’t hurt anyone. I know that sounds bad, but I need to do that. We all do. We can’t live without doing that. There’s fewer than thirty Illuminati, did you know that? Out of all the animals that have ever lived, fewer than thirty. I think we actually need to have an outlet like that. But I don’t have that anymore.”
“And? You’re a better lion for all of that, Taraju.”
“Fujo, I’m afraid I won’t be me anymore.”
“I can’t do what Taraju did. Maybe I’m not even Taraju anymore or Akasare, or anyone. Maybe I am Ilemi.”
“You’re Taraju. Always have been, always will be.”
“Fujo, half of my soul is literally gone. Didn’t they tell you what happened?”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“I can’t do any wrong, whether I want to or not.”
“It all just depends on what you define as wrong.”
“And what would you say is a good was to decide?”
“If it makes you feel good, do it. Worked for you before in life.”
“Fujo, I’m not proud of what I did.”
“Forget that. Be happy. Like me.” He grinned stupidly.
“It’s not right to be that happy.”
“Yeah, well, it works for me.”
“Fujo, I’m not you.”
He sighed and stared at the ground. “You just don’t want to be cheered up, do you?”
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” The world was coming to the brink of evil domination, and Heaven along with it. I wanted to tell Fujo everything, so badly. But that would be unthinkably wrong.
“So how was last night?”
“What?” I said, being blindsided by the question.
“You’re a bad liar, yourself.”
“Fujo, I can’t lie anymore. I can’t.”
“You really are worried about this, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I . . . I don’t know what Asari will think of me when she gets to know who I really am now. Or . . . Tumai.
“Well,” he said in a husky whisper, flowing up to me in a way that perfectly mimicked Asari’s motion, “I’m always there for you.”
I pressed my paw against his face and set him falling down the hill.
“Augh! Ow! OW!” He finally stopped rolling. “I’ll get you for that!” he yelled up at me. I laughed as he pushed himself up. Yes, he could still give me a laugh. Maybe things wouldn’t be quite as hard as I thought after all.