It was the stink that he noticed first. Razoul stepped through the fabric that concealed the darkened room, and immediately, the smell of rotting meat washed across his face. Reactively, he held a small container of scented herbs to his face as he lifted his torch high into the air with his opposite hand. The room was instantly filled with a brilliant light that chased away all the warping shadows and terrors of the night, but what frightened Razoul most was not a remnant of the dark.
It was what the dark had concealed.
Lying there, across a beautiful, hand-woven carpet, was a mutilated corpse. Razoul’s eyes strained to adjust to the light’s transilience, but even then he could tell; it was just like the others. Coolly, Razoul crossed the room as the light flickered softly from his hand. He dropped to one knee and scanned the body from wound to wound. The chest cavity had been sliced open, and the eyes and tongue were missing. Claimed by the murderer. Razoul’s stomach turned slightly as he struggled to comprehend what purpose the victim’s eyes and tongue might serve, but that was a question without answer, and his nights suffered endlessly because of it.
The blood had ceased its flow many hours ago, and already, the flies had claimed their meal within the victim’s open wounds. Satisfied with his observations, Razoul turned to his second-in-command and said, “What is this now, number three?”
“Yes, Razoul,” the man said tonelessly.
Razoul looked down to the large incision spreading across the victim’s chest. Holding the jar of herbs closely against his nostrils, Razoul extended his hand and spread the wound open. A fresh surge of blood pumped from the chest, but Razoul did not notice. Instead, he saw something that suddenly made everything click in his mind like clockwork. Razoul rose to his feet and turned back to his men.
“The killer f****d up. He’s not killing these people for the sake of it. He’s feeding on them.”
Razoul’s second-in-command made a small sound, but Razoul ignored him and continued, “He’s cutting the bodies open to claim his meal. He didn’t have time to finish this last one. The heart is still within the chest. There are bite marks on it.”
“Why does he remove the eyes and tongues from them?” the smaller guard asked.
“I’ll be sure to ask the man, just before I remove his,” Razoul said grimly.
Crouched in the dark, Aladdin lifted the meat to his lips and tore a fresh bite from it. The liver was never his favorite. He always preferred the firm texture of the heart; the purest source of blood, and filled with such nutrients that delayed starvation like no other part of the body. However, that last one was difficult. The man squealed more than Aladdin had expected, and before he could properly tear the heart from the chest, the sounds of neighbors had forced him to flee.
Aladdin lifted his arm and smeared the thick fluid from his face. He paused to look down at Abu. The monkey sat in silence; its pale, hairless body twitching in the dark. Aladdin did not need to see; he knew what the animal was doing.
It was always the same ritual.
Following every successful kill, Abu would retrieve its tiny dagger from Aladdin’s robes and cut a fresh mark onto its arm. A mark for each victim, a mark of remembrance. Although he could not speak with Abu, Aladdin had always felt a certain closeness with the animal. He felt it in his heart that the monkey did not take life without acknowledging that each kill brought with it a degree of loss in its own nature.
As if each meal required a sacrifice of spirit.
Aladdin had always respected the macabre nobility the animal possessed. In many ways, he felt like the monkey was the closest link he had with humanity, if that indeed made any sense at all. He could still remember when Abu had found him as a child. Alone and starving, he was on the verge of death when Abu, rejected by all as a disfigured monster, had come to him with a piece of meat. It had been the first morsel that he had eaten in days, and it had unquestionably saved his life. Gifted with an almost demonic cleverness, the monkey had only fed him one piece at a time; never once revealing from where the meat had come. Aladdin, starved and young as he was, never cared to ask. It was not until the taste had been established that Aladdin had discovered the source. To feed him, Abu had cut meal after meal from the bodies of the wandering vagrants that had died alone and forgotten in the streets of Agrabah. By then, Aladdin’s hunger for human flesh had become too strong to suppress, but he smiled as he remembered how horrified he had been. It was weeks before he succumbed to the craving again, but for a time, he refused to feed on anything but those that had died from other means.
His memories temporarily suspended, Aladdin reached up and picked a piece of muscle from his teeth as he ate. He noticed that Abu had not begun eating.
“Eat,” he said, as the monkey looked up at him.
Abu’s eyes were pale and without color. Albino from scalp to tail. Never had Aladdin seen the animal’s likeness. Slowly, Abu lowered his dagger as he gave a small chirp of acknowledgment. The monkey reached down to his waiting meal and lifted the bloody folds of muscle to his face and began to feed. Smiling faintly, the memories came flooding back to Aladdin as he watched his savior and only friend. He could remember the time they had taken their first life together. He had been so young, so frightened, but Abu kept close to him. Its presence made his breathing calm and controlled. With practice, Abu taught him h*********l quickly and painlessly, so that their meals would never suffer. Still, Aladdin had never loved the act of killing, nor did he enjoy inflicting pain. For a long time, the lingering regrets of those he killed made it difficult for him to keep his food down. Ever the watchful guardian, Abu had shown him how to stop the shame, just like everything else. Aladdin realized that what he feared most was the dead eyes that stared up at him after he had killed his victims. It was the way their tongues lolled in their mouths as they fell to the floor, limp and without life. Aladdin still shuddered to think of what the dead eyes could see; of what the souls would say with their languid tongues.
Abu had shown him how to solve it.
With his tiny dagger, Abu neatly carved each victim’s eyes and tongue from their heads. The dead could no longer watch him feed. They could not shame him with their words.
The nightmares never bothered Aladdin again. Now, here they were, moving through the city day by day, never lingering in one spot for more than what they needed. The more Aladdin killed, the easier it became, until the day he realized, the poor and forgotten scarcely have the meat to sate his hunger. Under the cover of night, Aladdin and Abu had begun to sample the delicacies of the fat and rich. As Aladdin finished his piece of liver, he looked down at Abu once more.
“We’ll have to eat here more often,” he said.
Abu gave a muffled screech of agreement when he suddenly bolted from the ground onto Aladdin’s shoulder. Abu gripped Aladdin’s ear tightly as he gave a series of low, guttural sounds that Aladdin instantly recognized.
Smearing the stains of blood from his arms and face, Aladdin stealthily rose to his feet and pressed against the wall of the alley. Abu darted down around his feet and disappeared like an apparition in the mist. Aladdin’s eyes darted around him warily as he inched ever closer to the street. The silence was stifling, and the night concealed all but the sleepy glow of lamplight from the windows of the city. Patiently, Aladdin listened for several moments until his heart finally began to slow its frantic pace. Exhaling slowly, Aladdin turned back towards the alley, when an enormous, shadowed figure stopped him.
“A little late for dinner, isn’t it?” the figure said.
Without thinking, Aladdin turned on his heel and began running in the opposite direction, before colliding with two muscled men who twisted his body down onto the rough stone of the street.
“This is him! By Allah, he stinks of blood,” one of them said through gritted teeth.
The shadowed figure stepped into the street, his scarred face illuminated by a fleeting beam of moonlight. Aladdin recognized him immediately. Razoul, captain of the guards, the man responsible for more children sent to the slave pits than Aladdin could care to count. It was only by the smiling face of fortune that he had evaded him for so long. With surgical precision, Razoul dropped to one knee and lifted his falchion under Aladdin’s chin. The blade caressed his throat like the fingernail of lover.
“I hope that last meal of yours lasts you till morning, street rat, because it’s the executioner’s block for you at first light. Any words you’d care to share with us before your head rolls down the Bleeding Stairs?”
Aladdin stared up into Razoul’s hideously mangled face. He smiled pleasantly; the moonlight glinting off his eyes like mad fire.
“Gotta kill to eat, gotta eat to live. Otherwise, we’d get along, right?”
Razoul rose back to his feet.
“Take this vermin to the cells.”