The Devil promised Cassian everything.
Devils always did, and the one advantage Cassian had was that he was older and wiser than he appeared. Devils mistook his apparent youth for naïveté, and as such Cassian always came out unscathed.
This particular Devil went by the name of Alexis Hargreaves, and his poison was among the sweetest Cassian had ever tasted.
“It must be Hell, to be trapped forever in a child’s body.” Alexis Hargreaves said it with a condescending smile, as if he rejoiced in Cassian’s suffering but thought Cassian still too immature to detect his schadenfreude. Even the cleverest of men had difficulty truly seeing through Cassian’s appearance.
“You know what I want,” Cassian said coldly. “False sympathy is unnecessary.”
Alexis’ lips twitched at this, in danger of transforming his lovely face into a hideous snarl more suited to his true personality. “Your task then, boy,” the word slipped out with deliberate malice, “is to keep one of my monsters.”
Cassian had woven his way through the underworld enough to be wary when Alexis Hargreaves mentioned his “monsters”; they ranged from pitiable to deadly, and the prudent knew to stay far, far away. Cassian was desperate enough that he couldn’t afford to be prudent.
“There are monsters enough in the circus,” Cassian replied.
The light danced in Alexis’ eyes like he was in on a joke Cassian could never comprehend. “You understand then, how a monster must be trained. Take the sweetest disposition, apply precise, calculated cruelty, and even the purest of souls becomes the vilest of beasts.”
Cassian fought back the shiver down his spine at the unadulterated glee in Alexis’ words.
“This monster is imperfect, of course,” Alexis’ tone turned disinterested, “not my prize experiment. But the carnage he will rain down on mankind should still be amusing to watch.”
“Fine,” Cassian said blankly. “Show me to him.” He had little patience for Alexis’ mind games.
Alexis’ lip curled in disgust upon realizing that his mad schemes would receive no appreciation from his current audience. Cassian could see that Alexis brushed him off in that moment as a mere stable boy, a servant unworthy of Alexis’ notice. Cassian knew enough to realize that such lack of regard from Delilah’s Cardmaster was likely to save his life many a time over the following years.
Alexis snapped his fingers, and two of Delilah’s lower members emerged from the shadows, each wearing a black hood and mask to conceal their identities. “To the doctor,” Alexis ordered.
It was a calculated move. Cassian was disgusted by all of Delilah’s actions, but that one word – “doctor” – promised hope of the cure Cassian so desperately sought. If he had been tempted to waver, now he followed the first masked servant and Alexis through the secret passage that opened in the castle wall and down the winding staircase into the blackness of Hell.
The servant that led the way held one torch; the other held a second and followed behind Cassian as they spiraled ever downward into the abyss. The two flames provided the only illumination and created the illusion that they were encased in the only light left in the whole world.
Cassian quickly lost track of how long they’d descended, but the staircase seemed to wind down forever until finally they reached an old, wooden door with a wrought-iron bolt holding it closed.
The realization created a creeping feeling on Cassian’s skin. He had no desire whatsoever to find himself the victim in one of Delilah’s dungeons.
The servant before them placed his torch in the sconce on one side of the door and then, with great effort, pulled back the giant bolt. The iron creaked and groaned and finally yielded. The second servant, who still held his torch, led the way inside. The door shut behind them with finality. Cassian took some comfort in the fact that, as long as he stuck to the Cardmaster’s side, at least he’d be allowed out of this hellhole again.
The dungeon was made of cool, damp stone, but other than that it wasn’t like the subterranean prison Cassian had imagined. Shiny, silver lab tables lined the room, each covered with modern medical instruments. Somehow, that was even more unnerving than ancient torture machines would have been: a modern hospital buried within the castle deeps.
This dungeon did have its own prisoner, though.
The boy in the hospital bed couldn’t have been much older than Cassian’s outward appearance. He was a frail-looking boy with delicate features. As Cassian watched, the doctor slid a needle through paper-thin skin. The boy’s eyes had been fluttering open, but as the drug was injected into his body, he fell back into unconsciousness.
The doctor pulled out the needle and looked up at them with a disturbingly jovial smile. “Cardmaster,” the doctor said pleasantly. “As you can see, my research continues apace.”
The doctor was a kindly-looking, elderly man with thick spectacles and an even thicker grey mustache. He was heavyset in a way that made him look comfortable in old age, but not yet too sedentary. He reminded Cassian of images of Father Christmas, which just made this medical-horror dungeon seem more nightmarish.
In the bed, the boy wheezed, and his skin took on a faintly bluish tinge.
“Carry on,” Alexis said dispassionately as he watched the child struggle for life. “I’ve brought you another assistant in the meantime.”
The doctor’s eyes flicked toward Cassian, and for a moment they seemed to glow greedily in the darkness. “Spare parts?” he asked eagerly.
“Companionship,” Alexis corrected. “Every boy should have a friend his own age. Don’t you agree, Jizabel?”
And then, for the first time, Cassian saw the other boy. The doctor’s bulk had blocked him from Cassian’s sight until now. But Alexis’ question caused the boy to rise from where he’d been focused on watching their prisoner slowly waste away.
The other boy’s eyes met Cassian’s, and they were as different from that victim in the bed as night from day. This boy was roughly the same age as well and also rather frail, but frail and beautiful in a way that their victim never could be, even if he hadn’t been whim to these experiments. There was a regality to this boy’s face, a superiority etched in porcelain features and flowing, honey-gold locks.
The boy took one look at Cassian, and a disgusted sneer curled his lips. “You know humans repulse me, Father, my age or otherwise.”
Alexis all but beamed at this, like a master whose dog had performed an exceptionally clever trick. “I knew you boys would get along.” His hand rested at the back of Cassian’s neck, and he squeezed for one moment threateningly, before he shoved Cassian into the lab of horrors. “I’ll leave you to your work, then. Doctor.” Alexis nodded to the doctor and then left. The door shut behind him and his servants with a bang.
Cassian heard the message loud and clear: for whatever reason, he was to pretend to be another child in front of this boy. Jizabel, the Cardmaster had called him.
“You can help Jizabel hold him down,” the doctor said disinterestedly. “Sometimes the lab rats squirm even with the sedatives. And Jizabel has the unfortunate bad habit of letting his grip slip when there’s too much blood.”
Jizabel fixed the doctor with an angelic smile and murderous eyes.
“I need to prepare the vessel. Jizabel, you can explain the procedure to your new friend.” There was such friendly malice in those words, like the doctor knew of Jizabel’s distaste and reveled in it.
“My name is Cassian,” Cassian said when the doctor had retreated to a room even further back in the dungeons.
Jizabel ignored him in favor of drawing a scalpel line with his fingertip down their experiment’s wheezing chest. “If Father says you must work with us, then listen closely. You can hold the legs, and I’ll hold the arms. That will allow me a better view, in any case.”
Cassian felt his stomach roil. He’d seen enough of the world that this sort of cruelty was nothing new to him. But even he felt disturbed by what he was about to witness. Jizabel, a genuine child, showed less concern for the human life that they were about to extinguish.
“What’s the experiment?” Cassian asked, and he didn’t even have to fake the hesitation in his voice. It wasn’t due to childish terror, though, of course. More to the fact that Cassian knew how heavily the deal he’d made with Alexis would weigh on his conscience for the rest of his life. It had been easier to make such a deal before he’d known the true depths of Alexis’ perversity.
“First, we slice open his chest and saw apart his ribcage. Then, we remove all his organs, one by one, and preserve them in vats of human blood. And then,” Jizabel’s eyes sparkled, “we transplant them into the doll I’ve created.”
Cassian nodded slowly. Such things happened on the black market, of course. He’d just never heard anyone discuss them so coolly before.
“Humans are disgusting creatures.” Jizabel swiped his fingers over the boy’s damp forehead and scrunched up his nose at the beads of sweat he found on his fingertips. “We slaughter innocents just to further our own survival. We’re all murderers. Butchers. We all deserve to rot in the sin we’ve created.”
For a moment Cassian wondered whether Jizabel really was a child. Maybe Jizabel was like Cassian, an adult trapped in a child’s body. Truly, no child could be so warped, could he? But then Jizabel smiled – a crazed, lost smile – and that wasn’t the smile of a man hardened by cruelty. It was the smile of a boy, unhinged by the unimaginable horrors he’d witnessed so young, who had retreated into the comforting arms of madness to preserve what little remained of his soul.
Cassian, for the first time in as long as he could remember, felt sorrow for another being.
“What are you looking at?” Jizabel’s face turned vicious. “Stop looking at me like that, or I’ll—”
At that moment, the doctor returned to the room, though, and Jizabel turned sullen but obedient once more. “Lay out my surgical tools, Jizabel,” the doctor ordered as he felt for their experiment’s pulse.
Jizabel turned to the lab tables at the back of the room and began setting out scalpels and knives in neat, clinical order.
“Jizabel is to be my disciple, you know.” The doctor laid a fatherly hand on Cassian’s shoulder. “And such a pretty disciple he is, too.” The doctor’s tongue, thick and obscene, slithered out of his mouth to lick his lips. “What about you, boy?” he asked Cassian. “I could make you a surgeon as well. If you’re willing to…learn, that is.”
Cassian resisted the urge to break every finger of the old man’s hand. He was fairly sure that was counterproductive to his goals, if this doctor was the surgeon who was eventually to cure him…
The doctor leaned in closer to Cassian, hellfire flickering in his eyes, and then – suddenly – went slack.
Cassian staggered back as the doctor fell to the floor in a heap.
Behind the doctor’s fallen body, the light gleamed off the syringe in Jizabel’s hand.
“What…?” Cassian began.
“I trust you have no objections?” Jizabel asked haughtily. He rose to his full height, and although he was slenderer than Cassian, he was a good two inches taller. He also still held a syringe half-full of heaven-only-knew-what. “He would never turn his back on me when it was just the two of us. I waited months for my opening, endured…” Jizabel’s eyes fogged over for a minute, before he shook his head. “But he never let his guard down. You made an excellent distraction. I suppose I ought to thank you for that much, at least.”
“You’re planning to escape?” Cassian went with the flow. He had an inkling that Alexis had anticipated something like this, and that was why he had slipped Cassian into the mix. “How are you going to open the door?”
Jizabel blinked at him. “Escape? Why would I want to escape?”
Cassian took a step back. There was something wrong with Jizabel’s eyes, a madness there that could turn on him any second, like a rabid dog.
“I am my Father’s disciple,” Jizabel said coldly and took a threatening step toward Cassian, “not this bastard’s.” He kicked the doctor in the ribs casually as he passed the fallen body. “I shall master every last capillary of the human corpse, learn how to drain life and how to restore it. I will become my Father’s angel of death. But, to do that, I can’t teach myself with substandard ingredients.”
Jizabel kicked the doctor again and this time it was enough to roll the old man onto his back. Cassian took another step back
“The experiment will continue.” Jizabel picked up a scalpel from the table. “Only with a healthy subject this time.”
Cassian eyed Jizabel’s weapon and assessed their positions. Cassian was faster, stronger, and trained in combat. If he could get to the tray of surgical tools, he could easily throw one of the knives squarely through Jizabel’s heart before Jizabel would have the chance to blink. None of those advantages would mean anything, though, if Jizabel got in one lucky swing of that scalpel before Cassian could get by him.
Cassian was just about to time his move when Jizabel said, with what was almost a sweet smile, “So, are you in or are you out?”
Cassian froze for a moment. Then Jizabel knelt down by the doctor’s side and placed the scalpel against his throat, and Cassian suddenly realized that Jizabel had never intended Cassian to be his victim at all.
As Cassian watched, Jizabel slowly sliced back the doctor’s shirt, exposing his chest to the cool dungeon air. Clearly, Jizabel thought Cassian was intimidated and no longer a threat. Any mere child in this situation would be.
Cassian understood then, with perfect clarity, that this was why Alexis needed the false child in Cassian. Just as Jizabel had been waiting for the doctor to let his guard down, so Alexis had been waiting for Jizabel to let his guard down. Cassian needed the doctor alive so that Cassian could reach true adulthood one day, and thus it was predetermined that Cassian would act the way Alexis wanted. This was the reason Alexis was the Cardmaster.
Jizabel was distracted, his fingers trembling on the scalpel in preparation for his first cut. He didn’t even see Cassian coming.
Jizabel fell easily, weakly, beneath Cassian’s strangling fingers. Cassian twisted the scalpel from Jizabel’s hand and slipped it easily into his sleeve with his free hand. His other hand squeezed relentlessly down on Jizabel’s throat. Jizabel gasped, wide-eyed, the perfect bow of his lips parted in surprise and the golden halo of his hair fanning out about his head on the cold, stone floor. He looked angelic like that, defeated and on the verge of death.
Jizabel’s lips moved in silent, breathless words, and Cassian let his thumb release Jizabel’s trachea for a moment.
“What are you?” Jizabel asked, puzzled but unafraid. If anything, part of him looked blissful that his torment would soon be ending.
Cassian’s mind reeled. If he killed Jizabel here and now, that would still leave him with the doctor. The doctor could cure him, perhaps, but Cassian was beginning to believe that wasn’t a price he was willing to pay. He could kill the doctor as well, of course, but then there was no guarantee that he’d ever escape this dungeon. Alexis could leave him to rot, failed in his mission (whatever that was supposed to be), and Cassian would go slowly mad in this chamber of horrors buried deep beneath the earth.
As Cassian weighed his options, Jizabel’s lips moved again. Cassian, against his better judgment, let him talk.
“You’re one of the Arcana, aren’t you?” Jizabel’s voice sounded hoarse and fragile. “Father put you in that child’s body to deceive me.”
Cassian, startled, let his grip relax on Jizabel’s throat entirely. It wasn’t entirely true, but it was as close as anyone had ever guessed before without Cassian telling them of his curse. “Only God trapped me in this cursed body,” Cassian correctly shakily.
Jizabel smiled at that. “Ah. Fascinating.” Curious, scientifically minded eyes surveyed Cassian’s body, but they weren’t wicked the way the doctor’s eyes had been. “And it only makes sense that one betrayed by God—”
“—Would turn to the Devil for recourse,” Cassian finished. He sat back abruptly, trying to process this. In all his years and through all his hardships, he’d never once encountered understanding like this before.
“You had best kill me, then,” Jizabel concluded, still lying back on the stone floor helplessly, even though Cassian no longer pinned him. “It is what Father ordered you to do, after all.”
Cassian eyed him warily. “The Cardmaster’s orders were…hazy,” he admitted.
Jizabel giggled at that, a deranged laugh that echoed eerily through the dungeon. “That is Father’s greatest cruelty,” he told Cassian. “He lets you choose your own Hell.”
“And this is yours?” Cassian asked.
Jizabel smiled to himself. “That man,” he waved one hand vaguely in the doctor’s direction, “saved my life. My body was rotten, dying around me. And he took those nearest to me – my beloved sisters – cut open their bodies, and gave me the healthy organs inside.” Jizabel sat up suddenly, eyes wild with insanity. “That is the kind of monster my Father has made of me.”
Cassian heard an innocent child’s plea buried beneath the lunacy that gave him pause. “And what choice has he given me?”
“Trapped in a cursed body, hmm?” Jizabel considered Cassian’s predicament. “I suppose this doctor could cure you as he cured me.” Jizabel sneered at the sight of the doctor.
“A cure worse than the curse?” Cassian said snidely. “I’ve lived like this long enough that I don’t care about the price.”
“How…human of you,” Jizabel accused. “But I suppose I am only human, as well. I’m willing to offer you a deal.”
“I’m listening.” Cassian slipped the scalpel out of his sleeve and weighed it in his palm with a knife-thrower’s expertise. Jizabel may have been young, but he recognized a skilled murderer’s touch when he saw it.
“Perhaps the doctor could cure you, perhaps not,” Jizabel said smoothly, unconcerned by the implied threat to his own life. “But he is an old, twisted man. He will not live much longer, even without my intervention.”
“You’re just saying this because you want to kill him.”
“Of course,” Jizabel agreed pleasantly. “This deal isn’t to spare my life; it’s to let me be the one to end his life as painfully and brutally as possible. My life was forfeit the minute I was born my Father’s son, in any case.”
Cassian shivered at the conviction in Jizabel’s eyes as he judged his own existence as nothing.
“But,” Jizabel continued, “if you let me have my vengeance, I will trade myself for him.”
Cassian’s eyes flicked between Jizabel and the unconscious doctor. “I don’t understand.”
“I will cure you,” Jizabel promised.
“I am a child still, yes,” Jizabel conceded, “but I already wield a scalpel with as much precision as this scum. His best years are behind him, while my genius has yet to fully bloom. You should see the doll I’ve made, all on my own. My technique is still far from perfected, but in a few years’ time, who knows what kind of body I could make for you?”
“You are offering to be a better mad doctor,” Cassian concluded.
“I will do everything he would be willing to try and more,” Jizabel promised. “Let me show you my resolution. What I plan here tonight is only a sample of the work I can do in the future.”
It was a poor offer, really. An experienced, established doctor in exchange for an ambitious child, who was already driven half mad. The choice was obvious.
Cassian’s gut, however, was telling him something very different. And the only reason Cassian had survived on the streets while so many others had died, was because Cassian knew when to trust his gut.
It was insane – as insane as Jizabel or the doctor or Alexis himself – but Cassian’s gut was telling him to throw his lot in with this beautiful, broken boy.
“Show me what you’re capable of,” Cassian finally agreed and very carefully handed over the scalpel.
Jizabel smiled and cut deep into the doctor’s chest with only the slightest hesitation mark.
That night, the Cardmaster’s servants came to retrieve the three of them for supper. They found the doctor’s mangled, gutted corpse in the outer room. And in the inner room, two boys that were not – one by age and one by hardship – delighting over the half-living marionette that only half-jerked with realistic motions as the doctor’s organs slowly deteriorated from life within it.
“Longevity will come with practice,” Jizabel concluded, smiling up at the guards with blood streaked across his forehead.
“Master Jizabel,” the guard’s voice shook only slightly, “the Cardmaster requests your presence at supper.”
“Of course,” Jizabel agreed easily and rose gracefully to his feet.
Cassian stood behind him, as well.
“The Cardmaster will wish to see you, as well.” The guard glanced pointedly at the doctor’s body and what Cassian had obviously allowed to happen in that dungeon.
Cassian felt a shiver of fear run down his spine but followed. Jizabel gave him a final smile and a wave when they parted ways at the top of the dungeon stairs. Jizabel was led by one guard back to his rooms; Cassian was led by the other into Alexis’ presence.
Word of what happened had preceded Cassian, of course. Alexis smiled a shark-like smile when Cassian knelt before him, and Cassian waited for his death sentence to fall. He still retained half a dozen knives and scalpels from the operating room. He was thoroughly armed and saw, perhaps, an escape route he might take through the rafters and out one of the windows. No matter what happened here, he would not go without a fight.
“So, boy,” Alexis said deliberately, falsely, digging at Cassian’s deformity, “how fares my monster today?”
Cassian considered this for a moment and said, “He ripped the organs from your doctor and put them into a corpse he sewed himself. Then, he took the doctor’s eyes for his own personal keeping.”
Alexis’ teeth flashed in a wolf-like smile. “Real progress today, then, wouldn’t you say? More than these many months, at least.”
Alexis sounded happy, but Cassian knew better than to let his guard down yet.
“You’ve been an excellent influence on him, I think,” Alexis concluded. “I suppose that makes you worth more than spare parts at the moment.”
Cassian’s grip on the scalpel in his sleeve tightened as his verdict was handed down.
“Go,” Alexis ordered, “attend my son. This will, I trust, be the beginning of a profitable partnership.”
Cassian nodded slowly in agreement.
“And it never hurts to have a spare set of eyes on my own kin,” Alexis decided, as if Cassian were still his creature to command. As if Cassian ever had been.
“As you wish, Cardmaster,” Cassian lied through his teeth and returned to the charge not just given to him, but that he had chosen for himself.
Whether their partnership would be profitable or not rested on the shoulders of the mad child that Cassian had chosen as his lot and nothing more.
The Devil had promised Cassian everything, but Cassian had taken the word of a Fallen Angel instead.