THE chains burned into Lau’s flesh. Agony pierced his entire body like fine needles whenever he tried to move. Even through the pain, he bared his teeth in a vicious grin so that she, his torturer, would not think that such feeble attempts could actually hurt him.
“Last chance, Lau.” When Anlai spoke, not a muscle moved in her face. “Make it easier on yourself. Admit to your wrongs and ask for forgiveness.”
His lungs felt like they were filled with molten metal, but he laughed. It was just too much fun to laugh in her face, her perfect face with its self-righteous scowl, knowing everyone was watching. He would never cower before these fools. Never let them see him grovel at her feet, begging her to rescind the punishment. He hadn’t screamed when they’d whipped him, even when his skin had split and blood had run down his back and legs in one thick stream. Blue blood. Blood of a demiurge, pooling at his feet. He was not about to start now.
“So you refuse. You throw my mercy back in my face?” Her voice did not betray any feeling. The words were just protocol, her entire demeanor seemed to say. But he knew he was hurting her. And deep down it made him feel better.
In guise of answer, he spat at her, mostly blood.
She didn’t flinch, looking him straight in the eye. The mother goddess’s eyes were blue and bottomless, and within each, four pupils, black as the eternal chaos, rotated slowly. In them, he read sadness, and pain, and disappointment that she was not showing outwardly, not showing to anyone but him, her wayward child.
“Is there anyone here who would like to speak on his behalf?”
Her voice rang out powerfully over the rows of observing demiurges. He did not need to look up to see that not one of them moved. He chuckled to himself.
Anlai took three slow steps toward him, until she was so close he could have touched her if he wasn’t restrained.
“My verdict, Lau. On behalf of Eris and every living being within it. I declare you guilty—”
The roar of approval drowned out her words. He winced. The idiots. He was one of the most powerful demiurges of Eris. Naturally, they were thrilled to convict him on the first charge they could think of.
Anlai waited for the crowd to go quiet. “Of the violation of the Elder Laws,” she continued. “Of callous disregard for another world and another race….”
“They are nothing,” he snarled. His throat felt dry and raw, but he couldn’t allow his voice to falter. “They are a weak, ephemeral mockery of sentient beings. And their world….”
Anlai raised her hand. Her luminous eyes narrowed, grew darker, now closer to a sea in storm rather than the cloudless blue skies.
“There is nothing I can say to make you understand,” she said quietly—this was, he realized, for his ears only. The other demiurges looked on. He could feel their hungry, curious stares on him, feel their energy, their hatred, their eagerness to see him fall. He could feel them straining to hear what Anlai would say. But she was too powerful. If she wanted no one but him to hear what she had to say, then no one would. “I have tried. I’ve really tried. If only you knew how much I wish this wasn’t necessary….”
He scowled. “You’re still hoping I’m going to beg, aren’t you?”
She sighed. Once again only he heard it, only he saw the sharp vertical line between her perfect eyebrows appear and vanish. “No, Lau. I’m not.”
“Good. Now go on, tell the idiots your verdict. I don’t have all day.”
She pressed her lips together into a thin line.
Then she took a deep breath and spoke loudly again.
“You are condemned to expiate your faults in the human world, as a human.”
The assembly grew so quiet he thought he’d gone deaf. The air rang with tension. He could hear them all hold their breath.
“You will live the life of a human, and suffer like a human, die like a human, and be reborn as one. You will not be redeemed until you earn the love of another….”
“Anlai!” cried out a voice. He shuddered. He recognized him instantly. Rui. The bastard who turned him in to her in the first place. It was because of Rui that he was in chains now.
He flexed his jaw, fighting for self-control.
Slowly, gracefully, she turned her head in the direction of Rui’s voice.
“Mother,” he said. Lau could not see him from where he was, but he could picture him perfectly—the smug look on his face, the cold gleam of his eyes. The ice god, the one who made those chains that were inflicting such agony upon him.
“Mother. I believe….” His voice momentarily failed him, but he regained control. “I believe the punishment is insufficient.”
She didn’t blink. “Why do you think that?”
“One such as him is a trickster. A deceiver and liar. He could easily gain the love of a hapless human by his deceitful means and his false charms.”
Anlai folded her hands in front of her. “Rui, I know the minds and hearts of men as well as gods. Do you think I would not have thought of that?”
At least that shut the bastard up. Lau waited. She turned back to him and continued.
“You must earn the love of another, and learn pain, and loss. Do you understand, Lau, Demiurge of Fire?”
Only then the panic started to set in. The ice-cold hand of fear gripped his insides. It took all of the willpower he had left to keep his face impassive, to keep his body from shivering. Him? In the human world? As a….
He wouldn’t show his fear, he decided. He would not give her or that bastard Rui or any of them the satisfaction.
He tried to clear his parched throat.
“Burn in Chaos, Anlai.”
He did not hear the approving cry of the crowd. A high-pitched ringing in his ears drowned out everything when she stepped up close and cradled his face with her hands, warm and soft as he knew they were—but he recoiled at the touch.
He saw her eyes up close, terrifyingly close. The four pupils rotated slowly, blurring into one. Darkness was drowning everything around her, slowly encroaching on her face until all that was left were the eyes.
“I am sorry, Lau….”
She shut her eyes, and the rest of the world faded with her.
ONE of his first clear memories was the waiting room of the man that the two adults referred to as “Doctor Evans.” He was a balding man with Coke-bottle glasses and a ridiculous lisp, but for some reason he was supposed to be consequential. Lau feigned interest in a plastic truck with two wheels broken off as he listened in on the worried, hushed voices in the opposite corner of the room.
“I just don’t know what to do,” repeated the woman. “He is just not… adapting.”
“Unfortunately, this is a commonly encountered problem with adopted children,” replied Dr. Evans. “There are many theories that the first few days of life—”
The man interrupted him. “This is ridiculous. We treat him with nothing but kindness.”
“But he still shows signs of aggression,” the doctor finished for him.
The woman sobbed softly.
“A certain amount is normal in really young children.”
“No.” She had been tapping her foot nervously against the chair leg. Lau found those tics of hers extremely annoying. “This is not normal. He attacks others. He tried to stab another boy in daycare in the eye with a pencil….” Her voice quivered. God, he thought, why can’t she just shut up? She had the most irritating voice he’d ever heard. Whiny—like a cat whose tail has been stepped on—even when she was not bawling her eyes out.
“And he….” Lau paused in pretending to play with the truck and couldn’t resist the temptation to look up when she rolled up the sleeve of her blouse to show off his handiwork. Or rather, his tooth-work.
“A lot of children bite,” said the doctor, but he didn’t sound so certain anymore. Lau stifled a laugh. “Maybe he just doesn’t realize he is hurting you.”
“He does,” she murmured. “I was trying to tie his scarf, and he let me. He just stood there like a good boy, and I thought, thank God, for once… maybe the worst is over… and then….” She covered her face with her hands. “And the worst, his eyes. His eyes when he did it, he knew, he knew….” She sniffled. “And he looked happy that he was hurting me, and… and… evil.”
“Don’t be silly, Marie,” said the man, patting her back. “He’s a child.”
The doctor shook his head.
“I’m afraid this is not just silliness,” he said gravely. “I hate to say this, but it would appear that he exhibits some signs of sociopathic behavior.”
“I don’t understand,” Marie murmured. Lau thought of her as “the woman,” the man called her Marie, and he was apparently expected to call her “Mother.” Ha! He already had one mother, and he’d told her to burn in hell, if he could recall. “He is so beautiful, and wherever he goes people are instantly drawn to him! Strangers coo over him on the street… and all the kids want to be his friend, so why would he….”
“It’s a common trait,” said Evans. “Superficial charm.”
Marie looked up at him. Tears mixed with mascara and gathered in the wrinkles under her colorless eyes. “Do you really think Andy could be a sociopath?” she whispered.
Evans frowned. He folded his hands in front of him on the table. “I will need to talk to him, of course, and to test him. But you were right to come see me without delay. Those things need to be addressed immediately.”
Then the other two were outside. The doctor smiled a phony smile at Lau. His teeth were a deep beige, and his breath smelled like cigarettes. Lau winced in disgust and didn’t hide it.
“Andy,” said Evans in a saccharine voice.
He didn’t stir. He had decided a long time ago he would not respond to that stupid human name.
“Andrew,” Evans repeated a little more sternly.
“That’s not my name,” he condescended, without diverting his attention from the truck.
Out of a corner of his eye, he saw that the doctor frowned but quickly disguised it. The other two must have warned him.
“Very well,” he said, with feigned calm. “What should I call you?”
“Lau,” he said. He was getting bored. “Do you have any better toys?”
The man smiled triumphantly. “Maybe. And I’ll let you play with them if I can ask you some questions.”
“Did you try to stab your friend in the eye with a pencil?”
Lau ignored him. He rolled the truck across the standard-issue gray carpet.
“Andy… ah… Lau,” the doctor said, confused. “You just said….”
“I said you could ask me questions,” replied Lau smugly. “I didn’t say I’d answer.”
The man sighed. He hadn’t meant for Lau to hear it, but he did. He was smarter than his peers, the teachers had said. Well, of course he was. He knew that. He was a demiurge. He was not certain what a demiurge was, but he knew it; he knew that he was not like the rest of them. That he was something better, something greater. He was above.
“If you answer, I’ll give you a brand-new truck that has all its wheels. And you can keep it,” said the doctor in a syrupy voice.
Lau shrugged. “Deal.”
“So did you….”
“Yes,” he said simply. “Happy?”
“He tried to take that stupid pencil away from me.”
“Your teacher says it was his turn,” said the doctor carefully.
“An… hm. Lau. You have to share with your friends.”
The man blinked. Lau chuckled under his breath. It was obvious he was not used to encountering beings like Lau. He was used to idiotic human children.
“It’s what people do. Share.”
“Then we’re good. ’Cause I’m not human.”
He did not need to look up to see the plain and undisguised alarm on the man’s fat face. He stifled a giggle.
“Then what are you?”
“A demiurge,” he replied solemnly.
There was a long pause. “Do you know what a demiurge is, Andy?”
He didn’t reply.
“Lau,” the doctor snapped.
Reluctant, he had to shake his head. “But it’s better than them.”
“No one is better than others.” Finally, Evans had gotten all that false sweetness out of his tone.
He looked up at Dr. Evans and smiled charmingly, knowing the effect of this on his already angelic looks. “Come on now, Dr. Evans. You know that’s not true.”
THAT woman was holding him. Pressing him into her flabby chest so hard he thought she’d suffocate him in her acrylic sweater and her cloying perfume. He wriggled furiously, trying to get away, but she held on.
“Andy,” she whispered over and over again. “Little Andy.”
“A psychiatrist….” Dr. Evans’s voice droned on somewhere. “Perhaps with adequate medication… delusions… severe personality disorder.”
Her chest began to shake. She was sobbing, sniffling. Her nose always ran when she cried, and her eyes swelled so much they barely opened. He wondered if she realized how hideous it made her.
“I’m sorry,” she wailed. “I just can’t do it. Maybe someone else. Someone better… will find a way to get through to you. But I can’t.”
Finally, he thought with cruel satisfaction. He stopped struggling and went limp, patiently waiting for her to go away.
“LOOK, it’s An-dre-a.”
Lau ignored him, didn’t even turn around as he walked across the schoolyard to the hole in the chain-link fence through which he could leave whenever he wanted.
“He looks like a girl. Come here, girly, gimme a kiss.”
He stopped, looked at the boy over his shoulder. Flipped him off. “Blow me.”
“Oh, did you hear that, Jeff? ‘Blow me.’ Betcha don’t even have a dick. So why don’t you come over here and blow me.”
Lau slowly let his beat-up backpack drop onto the wilted grass. He smiled cruelly. If that asshole wanted a fight, he’d have it.
He had just turned twelve, or so they told him. He didn’t care—he was much older than their human years, so it had nothing to do with him. After three foster families had given up on him, he had ended up with the Barnards—they didn’t get in his way too much. In fact they didn’t care where he was or what he was doing, as long as they got the government check. Around the same time, he had started looking at himself in the mirror, sometimes for hours on end, with a kind of fascination. His brain, not yet fully developed, could not quite wrap itself around it, but deep down he knew he would soon understand. This was not his real body, he realized, but it looked like him. He found himself beautiful. He had shockingly pale skin and long red hair he wouldn’t let anyone cut—one of his previous foster mothers had once held him down and shaved his head. For two days he seethed with fury and desire for revenge, and then he wrecked the entire house, took her hidden stash of cash, and ran. Naturally, they were not eager to take him back afterward. His eyes, shockingly large on his fine-featured face, were brown—they used to be yellow, he thought, without really knowing why—and almond-shaped. This, together with his slight build, was the reason kids at school sometimes teased him for looking like a girl.
Oh, well. He could always stand up for himself. He would now.
Slowly, with a smirk on his face, he walked in the direction of the two boys.
“Wouldn’t you like that,” he drawled.
He intimidated them. He could plainly see it, even though the boys put on a tough air. He took another step toward the one who’d been taunting him, amused at how it made the boy squirm.
“Get the fuck away from me. Faggot.”
“What’s the matter? Afraid you might like it?”
The punch came as a surprise. Lau stumbled back with an exclamation, pressing his hand to his nose. He hadn’t expected the boy to lash out. His ears rang and he suddenly smelled copper.
Slowly he pulled his hand away from his face, staring in shock at the blood that covered it. Thick, red, human blood.
He knew he bled red, of course. But seeing it like that, so much of it, something inside him refused to believe it. It wasn’t right.
He didn’t say another word. Without warning, he tackled the boy, threw him to the ground, and punched him. Punched him again until the boy’s blood covered his hand, mixing with his own. The same, red and coppery.
No. No! It can’t be. I’m not… I’m not like them!
Lau punched him again and again. Somewhere on the edges of his consciousness, he was aware of the other boy screaming his head off, of people running from the school toward them, but he couldn’t stop. He kept pounding the boy’s face into the ground, spilling red human blood onto the yellowed grass underneath.
“MY NAME is Lau.”
The doctor—yet another doctor—stared at him impassively across his desk. It was infuriating. No matter what he said or did, nothing seemed to get a reaction out of this man.
“Andrew, if you want me to help you, you need to let go of your delusions,” he said.
“My. Name. Is. Lau!” he snapped. “Not fuckin’ Andrew. Not Andy. Lau.”
“We will figure out why you made up a name for yourself, among other things. If you let me help you.”
The doctor tensed. At the same time Lau acutely felt the heavy bracelet around his wrist, with its blinking red light.
“Do you think you are a… demiurge?”
Lau narrowed his eyes. “I know what I am.”
The doctor picked up his pen and scribbled something on a clipboard, the contents of which Lau couldn’t see. “So the medication had no effect,” he murmured to himself. “Perhaps we should up your dosage.”
“No!” he growled. The “medication” made him dizzy. It made his mind sluggish and foggy, unable to work properly. He would sit there for hours on end like a vegetable, unable to will himself back to normal. That body. That fucking body refused to do what he ordered it. It was weak. It betrayed him at every turn. He hated it. God, how he hated it….
“Then cooperate with me, Andrew.”
“My name is not—”
“Calm down before I have the orderlies throw you in solitary.”
“I know what I am,” he repeated.
“You’re sick, that’s what you are,” remarked the doctor.
Lau lunged at him, across the desk, punching blindly. He heard a sickening crunch. Then there were cries of alarm, the strong arms of the orderlies pulling him off. He kicked out but only grazed one of them, and they threw him down on the floor, twisting his arms behind him so hard he thought his shoulders would dislocate. He howled from the pain, and then he felt the numbing cold of a needle in his neck. The numbness spread, ice cold, cold as death, until he couldn’t feel himself, couldn’t move a finger.
Then he was naked, curled up in a fetal position on the cold floor of a cell. He heard the door swing shut with a loud clang. Bouts of nausea made him retch, helpless. His head spun, and his temples pounded.
“My name is Lau,” he whispered, over and over, until he blacked out.
He was fourteen.
“WHAT is your name?”
“Andrew. Andrew Carlyle.” He looked his interrogator in the eye, his gaze the epitome of sincerity. It almost didn’t cause paroxysms of rage within him to say it anymore. If that was what it took to get out of here, he would tell them what they wanted to hear.
He had spent days, weeks screaming “My name is Lau!” at the top of his lungs, throwing himself at the steel door of his little cell until his flesh bruised. They shot him full of drugs that made him pass out, that left entire days blank in his memory. He shuddered when he even thought of it. If he had to submit to them, to humiliate himself to be free again, he would do it. He would do anything.
“How old are you?”
“Date of birth?”
“May 11, 1990.” That was the date they had recorded at the hospital on the day they had found him. The Carlyle Hospital, where he got his supposed last name from since there was no alternative. He knew it was bullshit. It was almost clear in his mind now, everything that had happened and what it meant. Anlai, her punishment. Rui. This world. This body.
But he knew better than to tell them that.
The doctor eyed him warily as he answered question after question without faltering or hesitating. Yes, he was here because he was delusional. He knew he had invented all that to deal with the fact that he didn’t have a family. He was sorry for the things he did….
After the question period was over, the doctor, the same one he’d punched three years ago—he still had a little scar on his upper lip, and Lau forced himself not to smile when he looked at it—sent the others out of the room.
“I have to release you now, you know that,” he said curtly the moment the door closed behind the last of the nurses.
Lau nodded. “Because I am fine now.”
The doctor’s face was hard as stone. “No. Because I have to. And because the state will no longer foot the bill.” When Lau said nothing, he continued. “I entertain no delusions about you being cured. Just so you know. I know you’re pretending.”
“I am not,” said Lau levelly. He decided he’d stay in character till the last second. Just in case.
“You are. And it kills me to know that I will be letting you out onto the streets….”
Calmly, Lau stood up. A cold smile played on his lips. “I will be going now. Thank you, Doctor, for such great… work.”
HE RAN his hand through his hair, enjoying the soft breeze on his skin, squinting in the spring sunshine. The intoxicating feeling of freedom made his head spin. He was out of there. He had nothing in the world but the old jeans and T-shirt they gave him back at the hospital, and a paper with addresses for some kind of government program and such that would find him a place to stay and a job in a factory. He reached into his back pocket, took it out, tilted his head, looked at it for a few seconds, and then tore it to little pieces that he threw into the wind, watching them scatter like white confetti.
Fuck that. He was free. He’d sleep on the street if he had to, but it was only a matter of time before he figured something out.
He walked along the highway until the sun began to set. Then he slunk into a bathroom of a gas station, where he drank greedily straight from the tap and then splashed cold water on his face. He looked up at himself in the scratched-up mirror. The face with the high cheekbones and full lips that looked back at him was as beautiful as ever. He smiled at himself.
So she wants some human to fall in love with me, he thought. That should be easy. After all, I’ve done it once, I can do it again.
And now that no one was there to keep him locked up, to tell him what to do… this human world was at his feet.
He emerged back onto the highway. He was getting tired, and his feet were starting to hurt. The cars were sparse, but he stuck out his thumb anyway. Someone would stop.
Another half hour or so went by. Once the sun set, the illusion of warmth had evaporated, and now he was freezing, his teeth clattering even though he wrapped his arms around himself to keep warm.
He was more than relieved when the old Honda slowed down and then came to a halt a few yards ahead of him, flashing its lights. Curiously, he peeked into the car.
“Hey, kid. Need a ride?”
He offered the man his most dazzling smile. “Yeah.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. This was going swimmingly. He looked his rescuer up and down out of the corner of his eye, evaluating the possibilities. He couldn’t tell how old the man was, but his hair was a mix of dark and gray, thinning on top. It looked like he hadn’t shaved in a while. He wore track pants and an old denim jacket, obviously not rich, but it would do. He’d let the man drive him to the city, and then perhaps charm him into letting him crash. Knock him out, take whatever was of value, and run for it.
The car drove off. The driver finally noticed Lau’s curious stare.
“Aren’t you something. What are you doing out here?”
“I got lost,” he lied. “My friends ditched me.”
“You need better friends,” chuckled the man. “Anyway. What’s your name?”
“Lau,” he replied. It was such a relief not to have to hide behind “Andrew Carlyle” anymore.
“Lau? What the hell kind of name is that?”
For the next little while they drove in silence.
“We’re almost there,” the man spoke up when Lau could already see the lights of the skyscrapers of the downtown core in the distance. “Me, I gotta turn here, so….” He trailed off, turning his head to look at Lau, who was looking lazily out the window. “You look like hell. You hungry?”
Lau smiled to himself.
“HERE we are.”
Lau glanced out the window, taking in the surroundings. They were just on the outskirts of the city, in a glum-looking industrial area, and the car had parked in a deserted parking lot near a small cluster of dilapidated slum buildings. He cringed. There wouldn’t be much to take from that one. But… he figured he had to start somewhere.
Following his host up the flight of stairs, he looked around in disgust. It was even more miserable than the places where he grew up. The place stank like old cigarette smoke and garbage, and faded graffiti covered the peeling walls. The man fumbled with the keys and let them both in.
The place was dark and nearly empty, except for an old couch in the corner and beer bottles and cigarette butts scattered everywhere. He heard the muffled sounds of a TV coming from the bedroom and saw a thin stripe of light under the door.
“Wife home?” he asked with a chuckle.
“No.” The door closed behind him, and Lau heard the lock click shut. “Just a couple of friends.”
Lau frowned. He turned and looked quizzically at his host.
Something glinted dully in the man’s hand.
“That’s it, kid. Enough fucking around.”
“What?” Lau snapped.
Within a second he was at Lau’s throat, and the knife was pressing against Lau’s neck.
“Get naked if you don’t want me to carve up that pretty face.”
Lau laughed and grabbed for the knife, but the man was quicker. Lau wasn’t sure how it happened, it was so fast—he doubled over in pain, bright red stars swimming before his eyes after the man had kneed him in the gut. Another kick sent him flying, and he landed on the floor. For a second, the impact knocked the air out of his lungs—a second too long.
His attacker landed on top of Lau, and, pinning Lau’s arms to the floor with his knees, he grabbed a fistful of Lau’s hair and yanked his head to the side.
Lau felt the sharp jab of the knife when it pierced the skin, smelled the blood.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched through the red haze as the bedroom door opened and two other shadowy figures came out. He lashed out desperately, howling with rage, but the man held on tight.
“Hey, this one wants a fight,” the man said over his shoulder, grinning.
“Not very smart,” chuckled one of the others.
“I’ll show him. Hold the little bastard down.”
HE WAS shaking, and he couldn’t make it stop. They had thrown him into the bedroom and locked the door from the outside; he knew it was pointless to throw himself at it, and the window had bars. He was trapped here, and he was powerless to do anything.
His face burned. Just thinking about it, allowing his mind to wander in that direction, was enough to make him want to howl with helpless rage. And it had hurt. The floor underneath him was slick with blood. He thought he knew pain and fear and despair, from the foster homes, from the hospital. But nothing had prepared him for this. He pulled his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his knees, and shook so hard his teeth clattered.
Stop it, he tried to order himself. Stop it.
But he couldn’t. Just like he had no control over the men, he had no control over himself. For the first time it really hit him. He was just like them—no, worse. There were three of them, and they had knives, and he had nothing. He couldn’t fight them. He couldn’t rip the bars right off the window and run away. He was, for all intents and purposes, helpless.
Something was happening to his body, he realized with numb despair. What now, he thought wearily. It had betrayed him, again and again, too many times to count, and it was betraying him now. He didn’t know what was happening; his stomach muscles started cramping, twitching oddly, and suddenly he found it hard to breathe. His eyes burned and started to water, and there was a horrible, sticky lump in his chest that wouldn’t let him breathe, or speak, or scream. It choked him. Short, ragged gasps rattled his lungs.
He only had time to think, what is happening to me… when something burst within him, something broke, and he dropped his head onto his hands, and for the first time in his life he began to cry, his body shaking with painful sobs.