Seven years ago…
The water with the ethereal green glow has been called many things by many people in many languages.
Elixir of Life.
Fountain of Youth.
No matter the name, it’s almost certain that the men and women who first used the pools of life-gifting waters never thought to turn them into instruments of torture. To them, the waters were a blessing from their gods. Something holy. Something to be revered, respected, cherished, and protected.
However, nothing is sacred in the hands of a motivated sadist.
He’d lost track of how long he’d been there. It was so hard to keep track of days and nights when one couldn’t see the sky. Back when his mind was only fractured, he tried to keep some semblance of the time by counting lives. It was a morbid method, to be certain, but it was the only thing that took place with any clockwork-like regularity. At least it was until the demon realized what his captive was doing and threw the schedule into chaos. By the time that happened, though, keeping track of the days didn’t really matter anymore. With every passing life, his mind had fractured a little more, until where once was brilliance was nothing but fragments.
Dying was never what caused the most damage. The captive’s first death had been the most traumatic, the demon made certain of that. However, the suffering he had endured at the end of his life paled in comparison to the agony and madness he experienced in his rebirth in the pool of glowing green liquid. The poor young man had been so confused when his sanity returned that inaugural time. Why would the demon murder him, just to return the gift of life back to him? Was this some semblance of mercy on his captor’s part?
He soon realized that mercy was no motivation for the demon’s seeming generosity. The truth was violently learned as he felt the blade of a curved dagger suddenly plunge into his body, ending his second life and thrusting him into the path of his third.
With every subsequent life he lost, his body was afterward made whole by the mystical restorative waters. However, the repetitive traumatic process had the reverse effect on his mind. Every life lost took something with it when it was ended.
The fifth life stole the memory of his mother and father’s smile…
With the eighth vanished the names of his brothers…
Life thirteen took an important circus photograph…
As the twenty-first was ended, a silhouette of a bat in the night sky flickered out of existence…
The thirty-fourth life was different, though. It was the first life that gave something back, instead of stealing something away. It was during the thirty-fourth that he realized he wasn’t alone.
“It doesn’t stop hurting, does it?” a stranger’s voice asked gently in the near pitch darkness. “Even though your body is mended, the pain still lingers inside.”
The captive’s eyes snapped open. “Who’s there?” he murmured, his voice barely a whisper so that the guards beyond the locked door of his cell wouldn’t hear him speaking. He gingerly rose up on his arms to look for the source, but when he did, he saw he was still very much alone. As he laid back down and tried to rest, his heart ached. When was the last time anyone spoke to him with any kindness?
During life thirty-seven, the mysterious voice returned. This time, the captive kept his eyes closed, and they were able to talk for longer.
“Do you have a name?”
“Sorry. I can’t seem to recall one.” the unseen one answered honestly.
The captive almost chuckled. “S’alright. Names are overrated.” He tried to swallow to ease the discomfort he felt in his throat. The thirty-sixth life had been ended by a blade drawn across his neck. Despite being healed, it still hurt to speak.
“You don’t have to talk,” the stranger said. “Rest. I’ll keep watch and let you know when the demon returns.”
For the first time in many lifetimes, the captive slept without nightmares, without dreams of any sort. The nameless stranger did exactly as he promised, and woke him only when the demon or his minions arrived to take steal more of his lives away.
The fortieth life was a return to prolonged agony. Something toxic burned through his veins, and for over a week the walls of his cell reverberated with his screams. He begged and pleaded for an end to the pain, but every word that left his lips fell on deaf ears. Toward the end of that week, he was so relieved when he realized his body was failing him. He hoped and prayed that this was finally the end.
The stranger, now his sentinel, comforted him as best he could as anguished, hopeless sobs racked his body throughout the entirety of life forty-one.
With every passing life, as the captive’s mind and spirit became more shattered and despondent, the sentinel’s voice became stronger and more focused. Somehow, the demon didn’t see him, never realized his captive had acquired a guardian. The sentinel hid when the demon and his minions were around, and came out only when they were both alone. He was the only comfort the captive had, the only thing that kept him from falling completely to pieces despite all the abuse he’d been forced to endure.
“I’ll get you out of this. You will be free from this hell one day. I’ll make sure of it.”
The captive cared nothing for freedom anymore. “All I want,” he whispered back. “is to be left alone. No more living or dying. Just peace.”
There was a moment of silence from the straw mat that the captive lay motionless on. “Well, I do miss seeing the sky.”
Life fifty-four was the turning point. It was the only other life that gave something back instead of taking something away. The sentinel kept watch as the captive slept, as he always did. Then he heard the footsteps. He almost woke his charge, but stopped short. Something was different. The footsteps were too soft, too light to be the demon or any of his minions.
When the door to the cell was unlocked, it was done by a hand that was trying very hard to be as quiet as possible. The turn of the key was slow and tentative. Similarly, the latch was lifted gingerly. As the door swung open with barely a whisper from its rusty hinges, a feminine silhouette was revealed by the torchlight from the hallway.
… This was a difficult chapter to write. I nearly deleted it several times as I was typing it up, but the muses were adamant about leaving it in.