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The pain he understood. The burning. The fear. The white-hot agony of the shattered bones in his arms. Even the mocking and the screams were familiar, almost a balm.
The smell was the thing.
The rope was covered in pitch, the mixture of sulfur and burning flesh and hair making his eyes roll as he snapped at the air, heart pounding furiously in his chest. They were laughing; he could hear them, laughing and watching, the rope going tighter and tighter around his throat, burning into his skin. His bloodied toes brushed the dust, his fingers caught behind him.
So long. He'd managed to run longer than anyone he'd know. This posse hunted like none other. He'd run, but they'd driven him into the ground, followed the trail he'd left without question. No one escaped judgment.
"I warned you, dog. Did I not tell you the punishment for the crimes you committed?" The voice settled in the base of his neck, something new within him screaming out in fear and sorrow. Part of him rejoiced. He'd hidden his prize away in the hills, buried deep upon land that burned his very skin, slowed him until he was prey.
He could see her, see her eyes in his mind, see her fear as her parents led her down the valley, toward the black smoke that billowed up into the sky. He'd known the punishment for what he'd done. The pain.
He'd known, but he'd done it anyway.
So part of him knew that he had won.
The rest of him was rage.
The rope pulled again, then again, and his eyes rolled, entire body fighting for breaths that he hadn't needed only days before.
"You were my most trusted, my most feared. I loved you more than any other, so you will suffer more thanany other ever would have." He could feel the edges of those words inside him, tearing into him like knives. Glowing red eyes pinned him, stared down into his soul. His soul. What had he done to deserve that? "You have betrayed me. Betrayed your brothers."
There weren't no use to deny it. He had. He'd've done it again. The words were lies. Those eyes had never known love. Only hunger.
Another tug on the rope filled him with agony. "Beg me for death, Aquilon. Beg me."
Fuck that. He'd never begged, not even before he'd changed sides. He spit, as best he could, the tiny bit of wetness sizzling on the bastard's face.
Claws flashed out, splitting open his stolen clothes, his skin, the fire sharper than anything he'd ever felt, and he tried to cry out, the sound a mere gurgle, a bubble in a closing throat. The rope tugged again, his feet leaving the ground altogether, blood pounding in his head.
"Beg me and I will show you mercy. I will make a special place for you in Hell."
"L ... liar." That he knew. They lied. They always had.
That smile grew, teeth like a rattlesnakes, sharp and dripping with a venom unlike any other. His bladder let loose and he shuddered, frozen right down to the bone. Hands landed on his shoulders, tugging him down into the burning pitch, then easing the pressure, allowing him the mixed blessing of one more breath, one more second. "Beg me, dog. Beg me, and I will kill you."
He shook his head and those eyes flared, staring into him. "Do you honestly believe for a moment that you will win, dog? That you can survive me? Survive your punishment?" Claws dug into his flesh, each one pushing through with a pop. "I will keep you like this for days, until there is nothing within you but pain and you will be on your knees, offering me anything for it to end. You will be nothing but meat."
Something nipped at his ankle and he kicked out, a pained yelp ringing through the air. Animals swarmed around his legs and he kept fighting, kept kicking and hurting, making each of them hurt in turn. The growls and snarls were music to him.
He knew music. His eyes rolled, the memory of a high, soft voice singing to him, soft fingers in his hair as he ran with her in his arms, ran from the black, oily smoke.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Sing with me now. What, you don't know the words? Didn't no one ever sing to you? That's awful sad. I'll teach you, Hawk. I will. Ma showed me real good. You reckon Ma's in Heaven, Hawk? You reckon I'll see her there? It goes I onced was lost, but now I'm found. Was blind, but now I see...
Something behind him moved, shifted and the rope jerked him up hard enough he snapped. He felt the skin in his throat pull and tear, then snap, the rope and pitch inside him. "No. No, you stupid bastards! You pulled too soon!"
The red eyes disappeared, howls and screams filling the air around him, fur and blood flying into the air as the crowd faded, disappeared, leaving him to swing. He could hear it, the creak and groan as his muscles jerked and danced, bouncing on the end of the rope.
Hawk--she called him Hawk--thought he saw something at the edge of the firelight, something still and strong, something watching him like he was a great puppet on a burning string.
The ground trembled as it came forward, hooves lashing at the fire that was growing around him.
Death was coming for him and he didn't have the breath to beg.