The Hard Place

by beautifulduckweed

Ashtarag’s new assignment was curled face-down in a tense ball on the stone floor: a human man, naked and chained at wrist and ankles, with a faint rime of frost lying unbroken across his pale skin. They alternated between keeping the cells brutally cold and swelteringly hot, switching the temperature at unpredictable intervals, all calibrated for maximum unpleasantness per each individual human’s dislikes. It was one of their key value propositions and major differentiators, a crucial part of the neverending cascade of banal suffering that made Kur, Inc. stand out in a field crowded with run-of-the-mill hells. Here at Kur, they offered bespoke environments, artisan demons dedicated to the art of torment—none of those newfangled machines, every torture meticulously hand-applied—and the finest blend of modern and traditional techniques in sexual degradation, violation, and pain.

That was their specialty. Every hell was, inherently, a personal hell, but the efficiencies inherent in consolidating and specializing had become clear very early on, which resulted in a few large outfits that operated with remarkable efficiency and standardization but that lacked all soul despite being packed to the rafters with them. Within even the most popular and homogenous fields of practice, however, there was room for boutique operations, which was where small shops like Kur came in.

Ashtarag looked over the man, its four eyes independently tracking every scrap of information that could be gleaned from his body. His breathing was shallow but steady; goosepimples rose and subsided in waves across a taut and finely-muscled back. His dark brown hair was shaggy and unkempt: just long enough to get in the way of his eyes, not quite long enough to tuck away behind his ears. A good length for pulling. His aura was strange: muddy with suffering, yes, and underlaid by resignation, but there was also….

Yes. There was definitely also pleasure. A satisfaction in surrender. And, unmistakably, a frisson of anticipation. Ashtarag rubbed the side of its head and recalled the assignment’s dossier. A dozen demons had tried to break him, but none had succeeded. The notes in his case file had been riddled with comments that swung between incredulity, confusion, and outright despair.

“Subject wept and protested repeatedly as insertion progressed, but their aura conveyed otherwise. Multiple orgasms achieved over course of treatment, even with every attempt to suppress pleasure.”

“Despite repeated violations of every orifice and whippings per protocol, aura readings indicated subject enjoyed it.”

“Every attempted punishment only makes him come harder, and when denied release, he likes it even more. This is a professional embarrassment. I quit.”

And here Ashtarag was, lucky number thirteen. Its reputation was spotless: thousands of souls broken, crushed, and then re-formed, ready to be released to Heaven or rebirth. It was, in the grand scheme of things, new to the business—it knew demons who had millions of souls under their belt—but it was determined to maintain its streak.

It took its time and walked around the man to draw out the tension. Demonic forms were by nature malleable, shaped as much by their human assignment’s expectations, fears, and desires as by the basic template they were assigned upon creation. As it paced, the claws on its feet grew longer and clicked on the stone floor. Its scent grew stronger, muskier. More animal, less sulfurous. An extra set of arms emerged from its torso, which would no doubt become useful at some point—handy, even, it thought, and chuckled internally at its little pun. It looked down at its groin, and—right, there it was. A massive membrum virile dangled where none had been before, along with a heavy set of testicles. Ashtarag found the entire arrangement a bit cumbersome, personally, but the man obviously had strong feelings about this particular configuration.

When the man’s fear began to taste sharp upon its tongue, it finally decided to act. It nudged him with a foot, rough enough to almost be a kick. The man flinched and uncurled. The frost crazed and cracked on his skin, then flaked off as he moved. Ashtarag gave him another nudge to hurry him along.

“On your feet,” it said.

The man stumbled, staggered halfway up to his feet, and immediately fell. The pain was delicious to Ashtarag: the humiliation, the bruising fall, but most of all, the near-debilitating flare of agony as the man’s circulation returned—though properly speaking, it was all memories and expectations translated via a complicated metaphysical process back into a perfect simulacrum of physical pain, given that he didn’t have a body anymore, much less a circulatory system.

“Useless,” said Ashtarag. “Pathetic. Incapable even of standing.”

“Please,” gasped the man, “A moment—my feet—”

Ashtarag reached out a hand—now tipped in heavy black talons, it noted—and grabbed a handful of hair, nails raking against scalp. The man gave a cry, and then another one, even louder, when Ashtarag dragged him upright. The chains clanked and rattled as the man’s feet slipped and flinched against the slick stone floor. His hands fluttered, then subsided, as if he wanted to shove Ashtarag’s hands away before realizing the futility of the gesture.

Ashtarag kept lifting the man until his face was level with its own. His feet dangled and kicked fruitlessly, the barren cell echoing with the sound of clashing chains. Ashtarag had grown larger since the man had caught sight of it, which was a relief; its cock no longer felt quite as ridiculously disproportionate. The man’s aura shimmered with a haze of agony, and Ashtarag flicked out a tongue to taste it. It was almost perfect: effervescent with fear and sharp with shame, ruined only by a hint of pleasure . The man flinched at the sight of the tongue, but the disgust was tinged with a desperate, humiliated desire.

A sharp shake refocused his attention beautifully. “You are a worm,” said Ashtarag, “and you serve at my pleasure. When I tell you to stand, you will stand, and if you fail to obey orders, then you will face the consequences. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said the man, his face rigid.

Ashtarag brought the man closer. His lean, long face was dominated by large, deep-set eyes of luminous grey, the only remarkable feature in an otherwise unremarkable visage. Ashtarag did not stop until they were almost nose-to-nose. Sweat was starting to glisten on the man’s skin despite the chill. “Yes, what?” it asked.

“My lord,” the man whispered. “Yes, my lord.”

“Do not forget again.” Ashtarag opened its hand, and the man fell in a heap; the sound of meat and iron crashing onto the stone floor was glorious. “Now back on your feet.”

The man lurched upright. His chest heaved; fine shivers ran up and down the length of his body. Ashtarag smiled. “Face against the wall, arms above your head and legs open.”

The man froze. His eyes were dark, only the thinnest rim of gray surrounding the black pupils. A trickle of blood from one of the deep scratches on his head worked its way down the side of his face.

“Did you not hear me?” said Ashtarag. It took a step towards him. “You dare disobey?”

The man drew in a sobbing breath and shrank back. “No, my lord,” he said. “I hear and I obey.”

He shuffled to the wall and assumed the position, recoiling a little at the frozen surface. Ashtarag released the manacles; the skin underneath was pink and chafed, on the verge of blistering. It contemplated them with pleasure. Some bruises to match would be just the thing.

To that end, it stepped in and grabbed the man’s wrists, tightening its grip until it could feel the bones grinding against each other. The man’s aura glowed with discomfort. It pressed its hips forward, rubbing its cock, hard and beginning to leak hot, clear fluid, against the man’s back. The man shuddered and mumbled a word against the rock.

“What was that?” asked Ashtarag, though it knew perfectly well what he had said.

“Nothing, my lord,” said the man.

“Are you lying to me?” asked Ashtarag. “You think there is any part of you safe from me, any corner of your meager soul you can hide?”

“No, my lord.” Another shudder racked him.

Ashtarag leaned closer and allowed its tongue to flick the man’s ear with every word. “Every attempt to gainsay me will receive punishment. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes.” The man’s voice cracked on the single syllable. “My lord.”

Ashtarag did not deign to respond, instead snaking out its tongue over the man’s body to take a proper taste of the aura close to his skin. The man stayed still save the panting of his breaths as the tongue slid down his neck then traveled lower, unspooling endlessly from Ashtarag’s mouth—until its thin prehensile tip idly flicked a nipple. The man began shivering then, a moan caught right between his teeth, which was when Ashtarag realized that he had been expecting—braced, in fact—for pain, not pleasure.

It could work with that. Unwilling pleasure often inflicted worse suffering than straightforward pain.

It kept firm hold of the man’s wrists while another hand encircled his throat with a touch that could just as easily turn into a stranglehold as a caress. A fourth hand raked its talons lightly down the man’s back with a pressure nicely calculated to skate the edge of discomfort.

The man’s aura flared with a pulse of distress, pain and pleasure mingled, and Ashtarag drank it in. It was becoming used to the undercurrent of pleasure—found it not unpleasant. It had every confidence it could break this man yet, but until it did, there was no point in letting the sweetness ruin the experience. It would not do, after all, to remain too narrow-minded. A traditionalist would have recoiled and insisted on pure, uncut suffering, but Ashtarag thought that the pleasure, jarring though it was, added a certain…piquancy.

The man’s anticipation and dread surged as Ashtarag’s tongue worked lower; by the time it began to wrap around the base of his cock, his breath was wet and ragged, coming out in uneven hitches. Still he remained silent.

Ashtarag tightened the hand around his throat and brought its fourth hand around to his mouth , pushing  two fingers against lips wet with tears. The man reflexively clamped his lips, which was futile, of course; Ashtarag pried them open and shoved its fingers into the man’s mouth until he choked, then began thrusting them in and out. Meanwhile, its tongue had fully wrapped around the man’s cock, which was hard enough to break concrete. The man sucked away at the fingers, tears dripping down his face silently as Ashtarag’s tongue tightened and loosened on his cock in a milking motion.

Satisfied at the state of its fingers’ lubrication, Ashtarag pulled them out unceremoniously and brought them to the man’s entrance. It did nothing but circle the rim with the pads of its fingers, but its effect on the man was immediate: he shrank away and said, in a small, miserable voice, “No.”

Ashtarag did not bother responding—its tongue was busy, and the man had been warned. But more than that, the man’s massive spurt of fear pushed out every instinct Ashtarag had other than to give that fear shape, to make it true. With little ceremony, it pushed in one finger, popping the tip past a ring of resistance and into tight, slick warmth.

The man gave a loud cry and tried to buck away. Ashtarag coiled its tongue brutally tight and crowded the man against the wall. Its hand tightened around his neck until he struggled for breath. Ashtarag allowed itself to blow out an especially heavy breath, the steam unfurling in the cold air like a white sheet in the wind; its pleasure in that piece of showmanship was short-lived, however, when it shoved  a second finger into the man.

A wave of suffocating hopelessness, despair, horror, and pain, slammed into Ashtarag, accompanied by a deep thrumming pleasure, which in turn inspired humiliation and more despair and horror, this time at himself for taking pleasure in any of it—for wanting this violation so much that he could not even plausibly deny it. The unstoppable force of the man’s pleasure meeting the immovable object of his shame.

Ashtarag had never felt anything like it. It had always prided itself on carefully attuning its actions and reactions to the needs of its assignment, but the crackling wave, hot and roiling with mortification, overwhelmed it, dragged it under, cored out its own will and compelled it to act on pure instinct—not its own, but that of the demon that lived in the man’s head. The relentless, unfeeling violator who would force the man to submit to every degradation, every debased act.

A growl spilled from its throat, growing until it became a roar. Ashtarag, as it knew itself, had ceased to exist, overwritten by the man’s desire. In its place was something else. Something unthinking, bestial. A hot knot of tension pulsed deep in its belly. Its sole animating principle was to break the man. To grind him into paste. To take its pleasure, and then discard him as the street leavings that he was.

It pressed its fingers deeper into the man and found, easily enough, the sweet bundle of nerves inside, the place that made him desperate, that drove him mad and forced him to relinquish all control. It pressed against it, hard, tipping the sensation from pleasure into pain; the man choked off a scream. A clear bead of fluid, salty and viscous, drooled out of the man’s slit; Ashtarag’s tongue pulsed and reveled in the taste; it sent the tip slithering to the crown of his cock to lap up more as its fingers stroked him from the inside with rough, insistent pressure. The man’s whimpering devolved into a litany of pleas—to please stop, to let him go, that he was sorry, that he would do better, if only my lord would stop.

Lies, lies, lies.

The end of Ashtarag’s tongue dipped lightly into his slit. The man’s pleas changed in tenor, became more desperate; a true note of panic crept in. The fear only spurred Ashtarag. The tip narrowed, stiffened, and began to work its way inside.

The man’s knees gave way; if it were not for the brutal grip Ashtarag had of his wrists, he would have crumpled to the floor. Ashtarag pushed deeper with tongue-tip and fingers even as it tightened and loosened itself around the man’s cock, creating an undulating rhythm that danced in counterpoint with the thrusting of its fingers. The rippling pressure cushioned by the walls of the man’s cock felt a little strange—and stimulating. The man himself had dissolved into incoherence, his head dangling limply, breath sobbing in and out of his open mouth. Tears pattered on the stone floor.

Ashtarag did not know what drove it to twirl the tip of its tongue. Perhaps it wanted to gain a deeper taste; perhaps it wanted to push against the hot, slick confines, test its bounds, feel the flesh push back against it. It did not matter, because the effect on the man was electrifying. He snapped his head back and shouted, his entire body stiffening, then thrashing. Ashtarag leaned its considerable weight against the man, pinning him against the wall, then flickered its tongue again, and again, faster and faster, until it was thrumming hummingbird-fast inside him.

The man writhed—or tried to—and screamed, the sound muffled against the wall. Ashtarag crooked the fingers it had inside him, pressing against that most tender places with unrelenting pressure, and coiled its tongue more tightly around his cock.

The burst of pleasure showed itself in the man’s aura before Ashtarag felt it in the hardening of its cock, in the clenching around the fingers buried inside him, in the pulse and jerk of the passage surrounding its tongue. Come flooded out of the man’s depths but slowed to a trickle as it hit the blockade, then slowly squeezed its way out, fat white drops oozing and falling onto the floor alongside the man’s tears. Grief and life, pain and pleasure, all of it bitter beyond bearing, but still the man wanted more, even as he screamed and screamed, and Ashtarag, drunk on suffering and rapture, was more than ready to give it to him.

It pulled its tongue and fingers out. The man keened, his voice a ruined rasp. Ashtarag’s tongue was coated in spend, droplets splattering against the wall as it uncoiled from the man’s cock and retreated to its mouth. It turned the man around, hitched his legs onto its arms, and unceremoniously impaled him on its cock.

It was slow, dry going. The dampness that had leaked out of its cock was not quite enough to lubricate the way, and Ashtarag was massive: wider around than the man’s wrist and longer than his forearm. The man looked down at the demon cock slowly being sheathed in him, then looked up at the ceiling, a ragged moan falling out of his mouth. His own cock, glistening with semen and demon saliva and still hard, gave a twitch. A dribble of fluid spurted out weakly. The stretch and the friction hurt, but the man craved it anyway, and hated himself for it in equal measure. The ragged edges of those feelings, along with the helpless clench and flutter of his internal muscles, was enough to tip Ashtarag over the edge. It roared, and in a series of scalding-hot pulses, pumped stream after stream of come into the man.

The man tried to squirm away from the searing heat, but his position afforded him almost no leverage; all he could manage was a weak wriggle. The come, however, had the salutary effect of coating him with slickness, and that small movement was enough to slide him deeper onto Ashtarag’s cock. He gave a small, winded gasp. Ashtarag laughed and pulled him down with inexorable force until its cock was planted to the hilt, the contours bulging through the slender curve of the man’s abdomen. It rumbled with pleasure and stroked a hand down the faintly discernible shape, pressing against the man’s belly to better delineate it.

“Look at you,” Ashtarag said. “You can hardly take all of me. Better than nothing, but just barely. One hard thrust, and you’ll burst like a rotten wineskin.” 

The man said nothing, his eyes closed, tears streaming out steadily. Ashtarag slapped him, then seized his chin when his eyes snapped open.

“I told you to look,” it said.

The man took a shuddering breath. “Yes, my lord,” he said, and looked down. Ashtarag began to thrust in and out for the sheer pleasure of seeing itself move under the man’s skin. The wet, sucking sounds as Ashtarag’s cock moved in and out were obscene—almost as obscene as the sight of its cock head pushing against the tautness of the man’s belly, as if it were a live creature trying to burrow its way out.

“God,” the man whispered. “God help me.” He closed his eyes again and thumped his head back on the wall.

Ashtarag laughed. “No God here. Only me.”

And then it hitched the man’s legs more securely in its arms, and began pounding into him with bone-cracking force.

It did not know how often the man came; it lost count after the fourth time. Each flare of agonized pleasure intoxicated Ashtarag more; every whimpered plea to stop drove it into a frenzy. When the man finally descended into a stupor, however, his body falling limp, Ashtarag decided he had had enough. With a grunt, it came again, releasing another torrent into the man, rocking its way through the spasms until it had milked out every drop.

The heat of Ashtarag’s come managed to shock the man out of his half-swoon; the sensation of the come flooding into him, then dripping out, was enough to inspire a dry spasm from his spent cock that was as much pain as it was pleasure. His face twisted into a grimace, his mouth falling open, but he did not even have the strength to cry out. It was all he could do to breathe through the pulses that gripped him. His thighs and bottom were a slippery disaster. A small, scummy puddle had formed on the floor: two orgasms’ worth of demon ejaculate quite thoroughly fucked out of the man.

Ashtarag slumped forward and stayed there for several moments as the man shiveried and sobbed against its chest. It was filled with the strangest sensations: a throbbing warmth, a lassitude. Satiation? Was that what it was feeling? Satisfaction?

Alarmed at the alien feelings that had invaded its every crevice, Ashtarag pulled out and dropped the man unceremoniously onto the floor. He crumpled bonelessly, his limbs not making even the smallest attempt at supporting his weight. He did not so much as whimper at the impact, merely curled into a small, forlorn ball.

Another sensation, utterly novel, crowded into Ashtarag’s chest as it stood over the man and brooded over the small, orderly knobs of vertebrae marching along the length of his spine. It would, in the normal course of things, be contemplating something to do with those vertebrae—some horrible method of pulling each one through the skin, perhaps, or ways to pulverize them into a pulp and then reconstitute them, causing untold agony each way. 

Instead, it felt what could only be described as an ache. A melting ache.

It shook its head and gathered the tatters of its composure about itself. It didn’t know what had happened here, but it needed to get out, now. It still had enough presence of mind to spit on the man as a final flourish before it stalked out of the room, the door of the cell slamming shut with a hollow clang behind it.

It was the little details that mattered.

###

In the time following that first session, Ashtarag found itself in what it could only characterize as a crisis of identity. 

It was only natural for the expectations and fears of its assigned souls to warp its form and guide the direction of the sessions, but it had never encountered a subject so desperate for their own destruction. It had, with time and practice, formulated techniques to resist the will of its assignments so they did not run roughshod over it, but generally it had to work against treating them too gently, to resist taking them down the easy paths that avoided the painful lessons they needed to learn.

Ashtarag had never had cause to build defenses against pleasure. Against desire. Against the sheer force of the man’s will, of his hunger for pain that was rivaled only by his revulsion. The man had warped not only Ashtarag’s form, but its very core: driving it to want something as if it were its own fondest desire, wrenching it into doing his unspoken bidding despite every appearance to the contrary.

Ashtarag did not possess a soul—or rather, it was made of nothing but soul-stuff, and in the nature of all things metaphysical, the extremes at either end merged, so that everything and nothing were functionally indistinguishable—and it did not, properly speaking, have anything that could be violated, but it felt fundamentally altered by its experience.

It understood a little better now the reams of frustrated comments in the man’s dossier.

The second session did not proceed any better than the first. It fucked the man’s face until his voice was too ruined to scream; pissed on him; filled him so full of come that his belly distended grotesquely, and then pushed down on him so he squirted it all out again; held his face to the mess and made him lick the floor clean. Ashtarag left feeling even more raw and strange than before. Certain images would not leave it, ambushing it when it least expected them. The man’s swollen belly. The snail-slime shine of its seed as it oozed down his thigh. The sight of the man’s lips stretched tight around its cock, dusky pink against lurid red. The click and crackle as it dislocated his jaw with its girth.

The look on the man’s face while he came, and came, and came.

It re-trod the ground traversed by the demons before it in subsequent sessions. It turned its semen into an aphrodisiac, filled the man to the brim—ass and mouth—and took away his ability to orgasm. It tried the same trick, and then forced him to come until the orgasms became indistinguishable from pain. It whipped him, chained him, pierced him; racked him and broke him; fucked him hard and fast; fucked him with excruciating slowness. Every time, Ashtarag found itself subsumed to the man’s will. All its efforts to resist only made its inevitable failure more humiliating.

Worst, it enjoyed it. Began to crave it. To anticipate the next session; to dreamily plan how it would crack the man open with pleasure so it could better lap it all up.

In desperation, it returned to the man’s file, hoping to glean some insights it must have missed the first time around. Hoping to discover why. Why this particular hell. Why sexual torture in general, and these forms in particular.

The files typically lacked the whys; they consisted, by and large, of a dry recitation of facts: the subject’s name—Aaron, in this case, which Ashtarag had missed the first time around, since it had not been relevant to its treatment plan; notable events of the subject’s life;  the means of their death; and their treatment plan, which the demons had some leeway to interpret but which served as a blueprint. Attempts to deviate too widely, to apply too much discretion, were not only viewed as a shocking breach of professional conduct, but were frequently impossible. The system simply did not allow it, and demons who were repeat offenders were often dematerialized.

Something was wrong here, but what? Aaron’s death had been abrupt, but nothing especially outré: a dark, icy night; a slick staircase; a misplaced foot. He had lived an exemplary life, with no clues as to why he—

And that was when it hit Ashtarag.

There was no reason for Aaron to have been assigned to hell at all. He had lived an exemplary life. The only surviving child of stern, deeply religious parents who believed too much affection spoiled a child; a teacher beloved by his students; a man who gave his time, money, and energy to various worthy causes—not even the typical meaningless acts of charity, or acts of conquest under the guise of charity, but causes that expanded compassion and brought about actual good in the world. He had made sacrifices, done brave, difficult things: broke with his church, broke with his parents, and did his best, always, to hold the powerful accountable as best he could, even when he was the one in a position of power. Especially then. He was a man who, to all appearances, believed strongly in duty, honor, and doing the right thing in the teeth of difficulty.

He had remained celibate, by and large, except for a small handful of furtive trysts with men. Anonymous encounters, none of them satisfying, none of them remarkable in the least. Nothing that could have justified the acts he drove Ashtarag to inflict upon him time and time again.

The point of the treatment plan was to lay bare the person—to bring to light crimes that had been hidden; to punish them for sins committed; to give them a taste of what they had served to others in their life. Everything Ashtarag uncovered about Aaron showed a man who was lonely, and a bit rigid, but who was, at heart, profoundly kind. And profoundly kind people did not, generally speaking, end up in hell.

The way it saw it, Ashtarag had no choice but to resort to drastic tactics. Something no demon had ever attempted, as far as it knew. Something viewed as so manifestly nonsensical, even terrible, that if Ashtarag had tried to bring it up with any of its colleagues, it would have been drummed out of its job and consigned to the void.

At the next session, it would talk to Aaron.

###

Aaron was in his usual position when Ashtarag entered the cell: curled face-down in the center of the floor. It had decided to override the default temperature control so the room was, as Ashtarag understood it, pleasantly warm for once, at least by human standards. His skin wasn’t covered in frost or sweat, so Ashtarag assumed it had come reasonably close.

With one gesture, Ashtarag conjured two chairs into existence. With another gesture, it banished the chains and manacles that shackled Aaron. Aaron did not so much as twitch through all of it.

Ashtarag did not bother telling Aaron to stand up: it was an impossible request, one designed for him to fail so Ashtarag would have a convenient fiction for inflicting punishment. Instead, it picked Aaron up and dumped him into a chair. A look of comical shock wreathed his face as he wobbled and almost fell over. The urge rose to growl at Aaron over his uselessness, but Ashtarag recognized this as Aaron’s desire and expectation warping it yet again. It swallowed the desire.

Instead, it took a seat across from Aaron as the man watched it with wide and wary grey eyes. His long, sharp features were stiff with tension; his fingers pressed against the raw, angry bands left by the manacles, as if he could not quite believe they were gone. Or perhaps he needed the reassurance of the pain.

The shadowy shape of an insight flickered in Ashtarag’s mind.

“I have been reviewing your file,” said Ashtarag with no preamble.

“My…my file?” Aaron’s brow furrowed.

“The facts of your life, as they are made available to us. Your achievements, your failures. Everything you have ever done right; everything wrong.”

Aaron flinched down into the chair. A wave of distress—true distress unleavened by pleasure—rolled over Ashtarag. Interesting. It should have tried this ages ago. It ignored the pang in its belly that, had it been possible for a demon to feel worry, would have been worry.

“I confess, I am confused,” continued Ashtarag.

The furrow on Aaron’s brow deepened. His mouth, thin-lipped yet mobile, fell half open. Ashtarag was overcome, for a few moments, with the full sense-memory of those lips wrapped around its cock, saliva running in rivulets down to his chin, his gagging muffled as it pulled his head down and forced him to take all of—

Ashtarag blinked forcefully. It could not even blame Aaron; this was all its own doing.

“What is there to be confused about?” said Aaron. “I am in hell, am I not? For my—for my sins. For the filth I have conjured in my heart. For the depravities I have committed.”

Ashtarag could not help it: it snorted. “Two half-hearted blowjobs and three attempts at buggery, only one of which ultimately succeeded? Please, those do not even rate here. I didn’t even catch them until my third read-through. I was expecting detailed accounts of the rapes you had committed, or the children you had sold into sexual slavery, and instead was assaulted by descriptions of your tireless campaigning for universal suffrage and all the free tutoring you provided your struggling students—none of whom you molested. Do you know how rare that is for a boarding school master? It is truly a feat. Half of this hell is filled with boarding school teachers who’ve done unspeakable things to their students.”

Aaron blinked. “Good God, I would never— Not my boys! But.” His nails dug into his wrist. “But I have sinned, in, in other ways. In my heart.”

Ashtarag roared with laughter. It could not quite comprehend what it had before it; it was like trying to discuss depravities with a nun. Worse, actually: most of the nuns Ashtarag knew were all too well-versed in depravity.

When it had recovered, it leaned back and wiped its eyes. “Sorry, didn’t mean to lose it quite so hard. We don’t go much for thought crimes here—if we did, we might as well assign a berth for every human as soon as they’re born, and Heaven would be empty.”

“But my self-abuse—”

Ashtarag leaned forward and held up a finger. Aaron shut up immediately; a wave of anxious desire lapped at Ashtarag, enticing it to take the familiar path. It resolutely ignored it.

“That doesn’t even merit a mention in your file. I have no idea how often you flogged your meat raw imagining yourself being split in half by whatever strapping young man caught your eye, but whatever you get up to with your prick in the privacy of your room is not a sin, much less something worthy of punishment.”

Again that pulse of distress, and more—defiance. Disbelief. Ashtarag was beginning to get somewhere. “I’ll tell you how I see it: you were a man riddled with petty flaws, and the ones you think count the most are ones that matter the least. You were a fine man, a good man, and led a good life. You were beloved by those who knew you, and those who chose not to had their reasons, but their reasons were wrong—I am very much talking about your mother and father, here, and your pastor. You are the best man I have ever encountered, and it’s not even close. You don’t deserve this rough treatment.”

Aaron’s discomfort slammed into Ashtarag with the force of a battering ram. It deliberately gentled its voice. “And if you want the treatment anyway, whether or not you deserve it—whatever that even means to you, or this cosmic system of reward and punishment we have seen fit to create—you can have it. But it has nothing to do with your virtue, or lack thereof. It is enough that you want it.”

“No,” said Aaron. He licked his lips. “No, what I want is—is foul. Unspeakable.” He closed his eyes. “No decent man could want what I want. No decent man could give me what I want.”

“Good thing you haven’t been assigned a decent man, then,” said Ashtarag. “Good thing you’ve been given a demon. Decency has nothing to do with how you want to get fucked, or the things you dream up and do nobody any harm. I don’t know why you’re trying to argue the definition of decency with a creature who was specifically created to punish and teach hard lessons to those who have failed to be.”

“Ah,” said Aaron, the note of triumph in his voice made sharp by his desperation, “but see, the very fact that I have been sent to hell, that I have been given to a demon, is dispositive, is it not?”

Ashtarag snorted and stood up, and took the two steps that put it at Aaron’s side. “Not necessarily,” it said, setting a fingertip to Aaron’s bottom lip. “See, what I think is, the Big Boss above”—Ashtarag gestured vaguely towards the ceiling—“is fully aware of what you deserve, and what you deserve is to have every depraved fantasy you have ever entertained enacted for you, over and over again. And the beauty is, here in hell, you don’t even have the constraints of a physical body to worry over. I could cut you and fuck your wound, send my tongue so deep up your ass that it comes back out your mouth, nail you to the floor and fuck you so hard that we fall into the level below—and at the end of the day, all of that exquisite agony will linger for as long as you care to hold on to it, but not a moment longer.”

“But I am foul,” whispered Aaron, his breath ghosting against Ashtarag’s fingertip. “Fallen, and broken.”

“Fallen or not, broken or not, none of that matters,” said Ashtarag. “What matters is that you want it. And that I can give it to you. And that is enough.”

Again, that recoil, that flinch. An avalanche of pain, and shame, and fear. This was what it took to cause true agony to this man: the truth, put plainly and gently.

Ashtarag could work with that.

“I am going to fuck a new hole into you today, Aaron,” it said. “But you need to understand that it is because you will it so, and there is nothing wrong with that.” It grinned, deliberately exposing all its manifold rows of teeth. “Now bend yourself over the chair.”

###

They settled into a strange rhythm. Ashtarag violated Aaron, inflicting perversity after perversity upon his body, which he loved and hated with equal intensity. After, Ashtarag would hold him and praise him and remind him of his inherent goodness, which Aaron hated and squirmed away from, even as part of him craved it. The former satisfied Aaron, while the genuine distress of the latter nourished Ashtarag.

It gave up resisting the warping effect of Aaron’s desires. Might as well try and stop an ocean wave by holding up a finger to it. Ashtarag was merely an instrument, and it discovered there was satisfaction to be found in being a well-honed weapon put to good use.

Time had no meaning in hell, but insofar as it could be reckoned by the number of times Ashtarag saw Aaron, a long, long time passed. And then one day, as Ashtarag stepped through the door into Aaron’s cell, it found itself transformed into a human. Tall, muscular, with large hands and blunt-tipped fingers, and—Ashtarag looked down to confirm yes, with an absolute monster of a cock. It didn’t know why it had expected any different. Aaron had one consistent desire, almost comical in its invariability, when everything else about Ashtarag’s form changed on his whim.

“Stand up, Aaron,” it said in a beautiful baritone.

Aaron’s head snapped up incredulously. He almost fell over as he scrambled to his feet.

“What punishment is this?” he whispered. The wave of suffering that crashed over Ashtarag was not pleasing, for once—this was an entirely new species of distress, nauseating and awful.

Ashtarag reached out a hand. Aaron stumbled backwards. The naked fear—genuine fear, not the usual heady mix of anticipation and dread—cut into Ashtarag. It hurt. Ashtarag had not known it could hurt so much

“Who do you see, Aaron?” asked Ashtarag. “Who stands before you?”

Aaron swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing with the motion. “Lucas.”

Ah. Aaron’s bosom friend; a fellow schoolmaster.

“Come here, Aaron,” said Ashtarag in a voice not its own—but then what was? It was a construct, malleable as clay, and this time it had been molded into this form; another time, it would be something else entirely. “Come to me. Beloved.”

Aaron began weeping silently in the way that he had—hot, wet, fat drops sliding out of his eyes and running down his face. Ashtarag could almost taste; it could, it thought, pick them out of an infinite array, so well did it know them. Its heart, human-shaped, human-molded, throbbed painfully at the naked longing on that lean face, which was nothing so trivial as handsome, but instead something far, far better.

Aaron remained unmoving, so it was Ashtarag who moved, Ashtarag who stepped close, Ashtarag who gathered Aaron into its arms, Ashtarag who moved its face down—its strange, flat, human face—and placed its human lips, soft and dry, against Aaron’s lips. Ashtarag who began the kiss, who sent its tongue to explore Aaron’s mouth; Astharag who gasped, then moaned Aaron’s name. Who devoured Aaron as if it were a starving man and Aaron a banquet in the wilderness.

Aaron wept, and kissed back clumsily, and drowned Ashtarag in a confused welter of feelings: love and shame and longing. So much longing. Aaron, who had not seen a human face in untold eons, finally seeing the one person he most wanted—but it wasn’t truly him, of course. It was a lie. They both knew it was a lie.

But oh, the lie was sweet; sweet beyond bearing. Aaron did not stop crying as Ashtarag pushed him onto his back, and kissed him until they both felt like dying, though one was dead already and one never alive to begin with. He did not stop crying as Ashtarag rose to its knees and pushed its cock into Aaron’s mouth, the length slipping in easily, its hardness nestling into his throat as if made for it. He did not stop crying as Ashtarag fucked his face harder and harder, as it lost itself in the perfect clasp of Aaron’s throat, as it came with a shout. He did not stop crying as Ashtarag pushed up his knees and fucked him raw and pulled his hair and bit his throat and clawed him hard enough to bleed and called him beloved, beloved, beloved. He did not stop crying as he came again, and again, and again, though he didn’t want to—the reluctance real for once, not born of that strange, torturous dance he insisted on dancing in order to justify taking his pleasure.

At the end of it, covered in sweat and spend, both of them aching and empty, Ashtarag gathered Aaron into its arms, and kissed his forehead as he wept and said, over and over, “No, not like this, not like this,” each repudiation a bullet that struck Ashtarag squarely where its heart was not.

###

Ashtarag stood outside the cell door, the memories of the previous session sitting heavy in its belly. It was difficult to step through, but it was no coward. It would do what it had to do. It walked into the room and slammed the door closed; kept its steps slow and confident as it approached the huddled form in the center of the room. It remained in its template form, resisting Aaron’s subconscious tweaks and manipulations. The concept of a true shape was ultimately meaningless here, but this was as close as it had to one, and it felt important, this time, for Aaron to see it as it was.

“Stand up, Aaron,” said Ashtarag to that familiar curled back. It had bitten and licked every inch of that body, knew it inside and out. To see it unfurl felt like a gift.

Aaron’s eyes widened when he saw Ashtarag’s form, his relief palpable that it had not come to him as Lucas. “My lord,” he said, casting his eyes down.

“I have come to tell you—” Ashtarag stopped, astonished to find that its voice could crack. It cleared its throat and tried again. “I have come to tell you that today will be our last together.”

Blank astonishment, and then, astonishingly, shame and grief. Aaron held himself very still, as if a stray movement would shatter him. The silence stretched long enough that Ashtarag was prepared to walk away without saying anything more—anything to remove itself from the excruciating silence that bathed them in their twin misery.

“What does this mean?” Aaron finally said. “Will I be sent elsewhere?”

“No,” said Ashtarag. “You will be assigned a new demon. I will, ah. Explain matters. I have left detailed notes. I have no doubt you will be left in very capable hands.”

“I see.” Misery radiated from him, which confused Ashtarag. It had expected Aaron to feel relieved. Even elated. After another pause, he said: “What finally disgusted you enough to make you give up?”

The question made so little sense that it took Ashtarag several moments to understand. “I wasn’t disgusted,” said Ashtarag. “You have never disgusted me.”

“Then what was it?”

Now it was Ashtarag’s turn to be silent as it scrabbled for words. It finally decided that there was no graceful way to phrase it, so: the direct approach it was.

“I have become…inappropriately attached to you,” said Ashtarag. “Not only is it bad form, but it has the potential to compromise my professional judgment and hamper your progress towards learning the lessons you need to learn in order to graduate to Heaven.”

Aaron was shocked, confused, incredulous, but hard on the heels of those feelings was another, even stronger. Familiar, but elusive—pleasure, perhaps, but with sharper teeth—but it was rapidly supplanted by a sour and acrid fear.

“Inappropriately attached? Is that even possible?” asked Aaron. “How is that possible? You’re lying to me, aren’t you?”

“I’m not lying to you.” Ashtarag sighed and rubbed its face. “It did not quite become clear to me until I showed up last time.”

“As—as Lucas.”

“Yes.” Ashtarag felt a crooked, snarling smile distorting its face. “I did not think a demon capable of jealousy, but there I was, consumed with envy for this man—a man you wanted so much that you built me into his image. Which was when I realized I wanted you to want me in that way—except, of course, there is no me there; I am built to adapt to you. Your fears, your wants.”

Aaron was shaking his head before Ashtarag was halfway through its speech. It was difficult to suppress the instinct to stop him, to hold him down and dole out a punishment for his insolence. But he was not Ashtarag’s—not for much longer.

“No, you have that entirely wrong,” said Aaron. “I had nothing to do with you appearing as Lucas. I swear by all that’s holy—” He stopped, an arrested look overcoming his face. “Not that—”

“Right, not that that would count for much in this place,” said Ashtarag drily.

Aaron gave a small, pained laugh. “But I speak the truth. I wanted Lucas once, but it was an—an illusion. A delusion. A longing for closeness that could never have come to fruition because he was not inclined to men, much less my particular, ah, proclivities. Truth to tell, I have not thought of him. Not since—” Aaron broke off and looked to the side. “Not since you,” he said in a subdued voice.

Ashtarag felt as if he had been placed into a box and then very thoroughly jiggled. Everything felt upside down; nothing was where he thought it would be. “But I felt— All that longing. That was real.”

“It was.” Aaron fidgeted with his fingers. “It was a shock; I thought at first it was a new way of punishing me—by withholding you. By dangling before me what I used to want, so very much. More than air. And then you called me….” Aaron swallowed.

“Beloved,” said Ashtarag.

“Yes.”

“Because you wanted to hear it.”

“I did. But….”

“But not from—”

“Not from Lucas, no.”

“Ah. So I became Lucas because I wanted it,” said Ashtarag. “Because I wanted, just once, to feel as a human does.”

“I suppose, yes,” said Aaron. “But how could you? You are not a human, and never could be. You are something much, much better—infinitely better suited to me than Lucas ever could have been.”

The final piece clicked into place, and Ashtarag understood the bright, fierce undercurrent of feeling in Aaron that had pulled at it for a very, very long time now. The pleasure that was more than pleasure. The joy that dared to bare its teeth and sink its fangs into both of them.

Aaron looked at Ashtarag, and then away, shyness overwhelming him. “I must ask—I must be brave, because what point could there be otherwise to all of the lessons you have tried to drill into me—but…could you perhaps risk bad form, and stay with me? Because what if—” Aaron stopped, and licked his lips. “What if,” he continued, “this is it? This is all there is, for me? Because believe me, if they tried to take me away, I would drag you with me, kicking and screaming the entire way.”

Ashtarag looked at Aaron beneath hooded eyelids, then stepped up to him and cupped his cheek in its hand. It leaned down and bit his earlobe, hard enough to draw blood.

“On your knees,” it said, savoring the iron and salt taste of blood in his mouth. “Worm.”

When the wave of feeling from Aaron washed over Ashtarag—strong enough to well-nigh drown him—it discovered it had a name for it after all.

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10 thoughts on “The Hard Place

  1. Ok how have you done this?? It’s sweet???? I love them???? I love this therapist demon and his religiously oppressed boyfriend

    • Well I love your comments so TAKE THAT haHA.

      I wanted to write a power imbalance story about a sad man and the demon lover of his dreams and this is what fell out. Some real manic pixie dream demon shit.

  2. This may sound a little strange, but something I really appreciated about this story was the implication that there was a purpose to the torments of Hell, an actual end goal for a soul as opposed to an eternity of suffering for what amounts to a blip of activity on a cosmic scale. Send ’em to the Pearly Gates or send ’em back, so long as they’re ready for the next step! I think it really works with the corporate-flavored torment you set up. Also refreshing to see stuff that plays with Abrahamic hierarchies that doesn’t immediately assume that organized churches are 100% correct (but also aren’t necessarily 100% wrong, given that sin and redemption and the concept of God are still present). Thoughtfulness matters.

    • Thank you for noticing and appreciating that particular element of worldbuilding! I was trying to build a somewhat more just framework for an afterlife, and eternal torment as the conseqence of a few decades of being a shit-ass didn’t quite seem proportionate, especially since I grew up Taoist/Buddhist and the whole being-stuck-in-hell-forever thing never quite made sense anyway, despite the best efforts of the Catholic nuns who ran my primary school. I honestly don’t think this version of hell is particularly GOOD, either; my vision of the divine here is definitely not of something infallible. I just think it’s more fun to play around with systems that are flawed but that have been built to purpose and are doing their best to fulfill their purpose. Part of me that thinks about, like, Ashtarag organizing its fellow demons and starting up a demon union n stuff, and what the implications would look like if all the demons in all the different hells went on strike, etc.

  3. What a fascinating take on the afterlife! I love that Aaron basically got stamped “too kinky for heaven, have fun in hell.” And then proved too kinky to torture for twelve consecutive demons. Please imagine me slow clapping over here, because DAMN Aaron, that’s got to be some kind of record. I’m glad both he and Ashtarag get a happy ending together. It’s remarkably sweet, given the inclinations of everyone involved!

    Also, idle curiosity here, did you get the idea of Ashtarag changing form in response to Aaron’s desires from something? I saw very similar wording on a lore entry in a video game I was playing the same day I finished this and did a double take. :)

    • Hahaha, yes Aaron is too kinky to torture but also the poor demons have zero experience with someone who likes torture (the kinksters who don’t sincerely believe they belong in hell make it to heaven and have a great time up there, is how I envision it). All that pleasure freaks their shit out, the poor babies. I envision the demons in this particular world as being very color-in-the-lines types of guys. They’re just trying to do their jobs, dangit!!!! And the job is to TORTURE, not have some guy COME ALL OVER THEM AND SECRETLY ENJOY IT, goddddd. It’s like going to work and finding out that your customer is masturbating to the Excel spreadsheets you’ve been sending them.

      Also, the demons changing form thing comes from…gosh, so much media; is it not a pretty common trope? I think the clearest progenitor for this story is The Good Place, where the demons don’t do a whole lot of shape-shifting but they do have their human form + their true demonic form. What video game are you talking about? I don’t play many at all (the three video games I’ve played in the last 12 years are Diablo III, Hades, and like…that one black-and-white puzzle platformer in which a poor little boy keeps dying in horrible gruesome ways when you fail to be sufficiently nimble or solve the puzzle quickly enough). I’m kinda curious to see how I accidentally brain-melded with a video game writer :D .

      • Okay, now I’m imagining almost the reverse scenario, with a demon who IS genuinely horny for totally normal human stuff like Excel spreadsheets. That is SUCH a hilarious idea. :D

        So I play too many video games — the puzzle platformer you’re thinking of is almost certainly Limbo! The one I’m playing now is Shin Megami Tensei 5, and it’s like… God is dead, collect a bunch of demons/gods/mythical creatures and people (like really weird Pokemon), become the new god and remake the world. So tons of demons! I found the lore entry for Ose (a cheetah in metal underpants, because the designs in this game are bonkers): “One of the 72 demons of the Goetia. Appearing as half-man and half-beast, it is said that he can change his form according to the desires of the one who summons him, though not for very long.”

        I didn’t figure you’d gotten it from the game, but I wasn’t ruling out that you’d gotten it from the original mythology the game stole him from! The timing was just so close I had to ask. :)

  4. the moment I read “one of their key value propositions and major differentiators” I knew this would be fun, hehehe.

    “lacked all soul despite being packed to the rafters with them” I love this line!

    “This is a professional embarrassment. I quit.” and this made me laugh out loud

    there are so many lines from this I enjoyed that I gave up trying to list them all, but in summary! this was unexpectedly sweet and I got truly attached to both Ashtarag and Aaron by the end :’) loved the lightness of the language despite the subject matter, and the worldbuilding with all its implications (which other have commented on in more detail than I can) were a delight.

  5. Why did I want to cry at this. I have no explanation, it’s just really sweet that Aaron doesn’t have to be tortured forever

  6. I know I’ve already scremed at you elsewhere about this but just had to drop a comment about how much the corporate structure made me LAUGH! Hot and thoughtful and snarky, I love it.

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