Lionhearted

Kidnapped at the age of thirteen, Lin has already faced death hundreds of times in his short life. That's why, when a strange boy offers him friendship and calls him brother, he doesn't question it. Lin's friend warns him that he cannot save him; however, this new relationship gives Lin something he's never had in his imprisonment: hope. But as the slave of a demon for whom horror is both pleasure and compulsion, hope may be more dangerous than anything Lin has yet experienced.

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6. A Twisted Love Song

Something cold and wet striking his face roused Lin from heavy slumber. His eyelids twitched then fluttered open, and he cried out in alarm. The slave boy sat bolt upright, looking this way and that wildly; what he saw did nothing to ease his anxiety. Either he was experiencing a mirage as an adverse affect of heat stroke, or someone had carried him far from the fortress where he’d spent the longest months of his life. He was laid out  in a patch of shade beneath a palm tree. Actual lush, green blades of grass sprung up between his fingers, and a small lake provided the source of the water that had splashed on his face, awakening him. When he scrambled backwards on his hands and knees, panicked, he felt rough bark scrape against his skin. All around him, as far as the eye could see, green plants flourished. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before; too perfect to exist in a world that also contained Nefertiti. “Am I in heaven?” he mumbled, groggily.

“Mom, he’s awake!” A young boy, about eight years of age by the look of him, tore out of the trees. Full of the peppy enthusiasm of something innocently joyful to be alive, the kid skidded to a stop on his knees in front of Lin. Stretching out flat on his belly, he propped his head up on his hands and regarded the slave boy inquisitively. “We saved you,” he informed Lin. “What were you doing in the middle of the desert, anyway?” He didn’t pause to wait for an answer. “Me and my mom are on vacation.” 

“Oh,” said Lin, feeling lost. Just then, the boy’s mother joined them. Like her son, she was tall, pale and blond; she reminded him of the demon boy, except that the skin of her  nose and cheeks was touched with sun and her eyes were green. 

“Hey,” she addressed Lin. “I’m sorry if we’ve frightened you, but we found you passed out in the middle of the desert. If you need to get somewhere, maybe a town nearby, we have a tour guide and we’d be happy to drive you anywhere.” She sat down next to the two boys.

Lin eyed her nervously. All of a sudden the damn broke; his reserve cracked wide open. “Take me back,” he begged her, feeling the tears rush to his eyes. 

“He’s crying,” said the son in wonderment. Lin flushed with shame and averted his gaze.

“Kevin,” the mother scolded. “That’s not polite. I’m sorry,” she apologized for him to the slave boy. “He’s still learning his manners.” A furrow creased her forehead. “Why would you want to go back there? No one else was around within miles. We couldn’t just leave you there...” She seemed to expect some kind of explanation, but there was nothing he could say. He just shook his head, shredding chunks of grass with his fingers. “Do you live around here?” the mother asked. Her voice was patient, warm with the same kindness and sympathy that pooled in her eyes. “Where are your parents?”

He could think of no other option, so he told her the truth. “I have none.” When that didn’t seem to satisfy her, he added, “I never met my father. My mother is a prostitute. I’ve been a slave since I was four years old.”

The young woman gasped; her hand flew to her mouth. Her son, on the other hand, fixed Lin was a knowing glare. “Don’t lie!”

“Kevin!”

“But mom, he lied!” he insisted. “It’s wrong to lie. There’s no such thing as slaves,” he informed them both condescendingly. “Not since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” 

His mother tried to look stern but ended up shaking her head in fond exasperation. “Well, at least I know you pay attention in your American History class.” She ruffled his hair, provoking laughter from the child. Lin felt a stab of pain, thinking of Shem.

A new idea occurred to him. “Your son is very smart,” he told the woman, thoughtfully.

She smiled at the compliment, but looking at the kid rolled her eyes. “He’s a smart aleck, if that’s what you mean.”

Addressing the boy, Lin asked, “Do you happen to know how to kill a demon?” 

The woman blinked rapidly, taken aback, but the boy answered quickly. “Guns work in some video games. What kind is it? What does the demon look like?”

The slave boy’s mind instinctively shied away from describing Nefertiti’s appearance. He couldn’t, because to say that she was dark, or that her eyelids were heavy, her brows strongly arched, her nose prominent, her mouth tight, it all paled in comparison to reality. None of those things described the demon queen, not even the heavy black lines of dried blood that she used to line her eyes and eyebrows as a throwback to the traditional makeup of the Egyptian goddess for whom she was named.  No one could think of those things, looking at her, because to look at Nefertiti was to look at a violin string snapping; the plucking of painfully high pitched notes creating dissonance. A long time ago, in another world and another life, he’d once seen a crow hopping joyfully about the carcass of an animal that had been struck by a car; it’s insides were smeared gruesomely across the asphalt. The bird just began rolling in the mess, coating its body in gore. Passersby had clearly been disgusted, but still, instead of moving on quickly many stopped and watched, morbidly curious. Finally a man came by and shot the bird. Lin didn’t know how to explain it, but Nefertiti was that crow. Not only that, but to truly understand her was to absorb all of those concepts, comprehend them fully, and then to realize that, in her mind, her dance around splattered roadkill epitomized the sensual and erotic. He didn’t think Kevin’s mother would appreciate him describing such vileness to her young son. So instead he just told him, “Well, one of the ones I know is very very pale, like a ghost.”

“Do they drink blood?”

“Kevin, please, this is -”

Lin’s hand rose of its own accord to the thick knot of scar tissue over his heart. He shuddered inadvertently. The woman was looking at him strangely now; she’d stopped making any attempt to interrupt her son. “Yes,” Lin murmured quietly, then in a stronger tone: “Yes, she does.”

“That sounds like a vampire.”

“Yes!” He was excited, now. “Yes I heard her say that word! Vampire.”

The little boy nodded, pleased with himself. “Well then, all you need is garlic.”

At last the woman couldn’t contain herself. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. Is this a local legend? We’re only tourists.” Then she blushed. “Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to say.” She offered him her hand to shake in a more formal introduction. “I’m Ariel Hunter, and you already know my son Kevin.”

“Lin,” Lin told her, returning her smile. “You have a beautiful name.”

The way she looked at him, she seemed very sad all of a sudden. “Thank you Lin. Are you sure there isn’t anywhere we can take you?”

He shook his head. “Just - back where you found me.” He wrung his hands anxiously, trying to think of a way to communicate his desperation. “I may not - have parents, but - I have a family, and someone,” he looked at Kevin, rolling over happily in the grass like a puppy, “someone who’s depending on me. I have to get back to them. There isn’t much time.” The sun would be setting soon. Bright color was bleeding into the sky, painting the clouds violet, and scarlet. “Red as blood.” He spoke under his breath so that the woman wouldn’t hear him, but her green eyes were studying his face closely; clearly she sensed that there was something he wasn’t saying.

Before she left him alone in the desert the woman climbed out of their jeep to talk to him privately. “I wish that there was more I could do for you.” She hesitated, an unreadable emotion in those eyes. “I don’t like leaving a kid out here. I could offer you a cot in our hotel room, but not much else since we’re not from this place. I get the feeling you’re in some kind of trouble, that you’ve seen a lot - a lot more than a boy your age should see. I don’t know what or who you’re here to find, but if you ever need anything, we will be in the white desert for a few more days; remember, Ariel Hunter is a name you can trust.”

Lin nodded, feeling touched and embarrassed. There was a certain sadness in watching her jeep shrink to the size of tiny grey green ant and then disappear, but there was also relief, relief not to have anyone wonder, or care.

Inside the fortress, the pale one was doing neither. He was huddled in a corner of the large dining hall Nefertiti had converted into a sort of throne room. His face was blank. One of his spidery hands hugged his knees to his chest; the other was pushed up into his newly dyed black hair. His eyes glowed a vivid scarlet, and if he felt anything it was a tiny stirring of shame, that they were rimmed red from weeping. He had been digging deep rents into the side of his legs with his fingernails all day, wishing he could make them stick, but they always vanished quicker than the heartbeat he didn’t have. He experienced no physical pain, but trying at least occupied his mind, numbing him from the hard reality that played out in front of him.

Nefertiti lounged in a wooden chair she’d set up like a throne in the center of the room. One arm was thrown over the chair’s armrest; the other waved back and form, its fingers skimming the top of Shem’s naturally dark, downy hair. She’d placed a metal collar around his neck, from which ran a chain that ended in a loop circling one of the chair legs. The little boy hadn’t stopped crying, even to draw breath, since Lin was driven from the fortress hours before; he kept calling out Lin’s name. It was obvious from the rictus curling of Nefertiti’s lips how she felt about it. At any moment, she would snap, and her ritual, usually reserved for the dead of night, would begin early. The pale demon was prepared. He’d deadened himself inside as he knew he’d have to, to be able to watch tonight. No one was compelling him to be there, of course, but he disdained himself too much to take the coward’s way out. He had set this in motion; the least he could do was watch. His nails scraped along his femur, producing a sound like teeth grinding together. He withdrew them, watching in unmitigated boredom as the wound knit back together, fading without a trace.

“Shut up!” screamed Nefertiti. She stood and seized the top of the chair, hurling it behind her. It struck the wall and splintered, jerking sharply on the collar Shem wore. He toppled over backward, his head striking the stones with an audible crack. For a moment he was silent, in shock, then he began to wail even louder. Nefertiti roared, kicking the toddler savagely in the stomach. His crying cut off abruptly as he began emitting strangled gasps, kicking his legs wildly so that his heels drummed on the ground and jerking his arms in the air. “Fuck you,” Nefertiti cursed roughly, spitting. “Fucking son of a bitch!” she roared in the baby’s face, her bloodstained teeth inches away from the little choking figure. “Shut up before I cut out your tongue.”

Woodenly, the pale one rose. One foot in front of the other, he crossed the room, ignoring his fellow demon’s startled, wrathful expression. The pale demon knelt beside Shem, tore the metal collar from his neck, and lifted the little boy gently in his arms. He held him against his chest and stroked his back until the baby’s breathing steadied and crying resumed. “What are you doing?” Nefertiti demanded in outrage. “How dare you interfere. You know better than -”

“Enough.” Mephistopheles cut her off in his old, empty voice, devoid of all life. “You’ve gone too far, Nefertiti. This has got to stop.”

She chortled. “Excuse me? And what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” he replied softly. “I don’t know what I should have done all along. Maybe stand between you and each kill like I’m doing now and dare you to hurt me in any other way than by hurting him.” A single, now familiar tear rolled down his face and landed in Shem’s soft hair. “All I know is the gods are cruel. Because I can’t kill myself but I envy the dead because I don’t want to live anymore after what I’ve seen. So I’m going to sit here, with Shem, where I should have been all along, and you can fight me for the rest of eternity but if I have anything to say about it you’ll never shed another drop of blood again.”

Nefertiti’s face was purple with rage. “You’re bluffing - empty, as usual. I’d teach you a lesson but you’re already dead. You’ve got no more power to stop me than the corpse you resemble.”

“But I do.” Lin’s voice rang out from behind them. Before either demon had time to react, he stepped in between them, extending a palm full of garlic cloves in Nefertiti’s direction as if to ward off the demon.

“What is this foolishness? I warned you, boy. How dare you defy me.”

Lin faced her calmly. “He’s right. This is over. I’ve learned your secret. I found this hidden in the cellar, and I know it kills vampires -” she bit off a laugh “- so you can let Shem go free, or we’ll see if this tips the scales against you in a fight.” He used his nails to strip the papery thin tissue off one section of the herb, crushing it between his fingers to release a wave of its potency.

The female demon advanced on her slave, taking the time to let each step sway seductively; she managed to sexualize her every move. “You think you’re so much better than me,” Nefertiti sneered, blowing her vial breath in his face. “Go ahead, try and kill me. I want to see the look on your face as you do it; what are you hoping will happen? That it will burn me at the touch like acid? I wonder which you’d like more, the worthless shit you claim to be after, or the chance to pay me back in kind. I’d like to see you panting in desire as you try to pry yourself away from the chance to avenge every scream I tore out of you. Think about the night I fucked you under the acacia tree. Come on! You wouldn’t be able to resist doing it even if I gave you your precious little friend.”

“No,” Lin told her, with naked sincerity. He lowered the cloves of garlic in his hand. “I don’t want revenge; I accept my fate. I swear, I don’t want to hurt anyone, not even you, because I know I can’t do it without hurting my brother. Give me Shem. There’s a woman, Ariel Hunter, who can take care of him. Let me take him to her, then I’ll come back here and be your slave so that no one else has to.”

For the first time since he’d met her, Nefertiti was absolutely floored. “What?” she breathed, in a shattered tone. “You don’t - want - revenge?” Her speech became segmented, every word its own paragraph. Lin was about to reply when the look on her face stopped him in his tracks. Her eyes had lost all connection to reality; she was no longer seeing him, and she stared far into the distance in a manner that reminded him markedly of his friend, the pale one.

Nefertiti crumpled as a shadowy, misty form seemed to rip itself out of her body and grow, until it stood nearly eight feet tall. Droplets of sweat first beaded on its forehead, then slid down its neck, chest, arms, legs. The shape of the doppelganger became fuzzy, the lines blurred as if its particles were suddenly vibrating at a visible frequency. Its skin cells seemed to shimmer as blank space grew between them. Nefertiti’s spirit raised its hands, to stare into the beams of light being emitted from the pores between its fingers in horror. It threw its head back and let out a scream that was nearly as earsplitting as the pale demon’s inhuman shrieks; even the cry divided, torn a thousand ways as if to give voice to the hundreds of lives Nefertiti had destroyed. Then, like the particles of the door had, making room for two boys to pass through, the molecules that made up the dark ghost split apart, speeding outward violently until it was spread so thin, only the prostrate body of the demon queen remained.

“I knew you could do it.” The voice of Lin’s friend rose weakly from the demon’s body where it lay upon the stones. The demon had removed the fearsome, blood streaked mask and white robes it always wore as Nefertiti, and was looking up at his human slave out of icy blue eyes inhabited solely by Mephistopheles’ personality. Lin saw that beads of perspiration were forming on the pale one’s ghostly skin, just as they had on the dark form Nefertiti’s spirit had taken while leaving their shared body. The human boy didn’t realize tears had sprung to his eyes until his friend raised a boney hand, with an agonizing slowness, to wipe them away. “Don’t do that. You don’t need us, anymore. You’ve won freedom, for Shem, yourself, and for me.” The pale one grabbed his shoulders insistently. “Listen,” the urgency in his voice was unquestionably genuine as he tucked the baby into Lin’s arms. “In the highest room above us is a standing mirror. It’s special. All you have to do is concentrate on the name of the woman who you said can help you, close your eyes and trace her face onto its surface. Then you can step through, like the door, to get to her and away from here.” He drew ragged breathes between each phrase, more to contain his own grief than because he needed them. “You have to go now. Don’t wait. Before it looses its power. I don’t want you to be stranded here, to have to spend another night in this damnable place.” Lin’s tears had begun to fall, hot and fast, mingling with the pebbling liquid on his friend’s skin. “Go!” the pale one hissed, “before it’s too late!” He tried to push the human boy in the right direction, but his superhuman strength had already faded, and Lin fended off his attempt with no more difficulty than if Shem had pushed him.

“I didn’t mean it,” he told the demon lamely. “I know what you did just now and I didn’t even mean it when I said -” he trailed off.

“Brothers,” the pale pronounced definitively. He clasped Lin’s hand firmly with the last of his strength. The other boy nodded, not trusting himself to speak. “Now go!”

With Shem in his arms, Lin took the steps two at a time. He couldn’t help but remember running them in the same way with his friend, the night they escaped to the roof. The stairs seemed to stretch on endlessly, and his heart was hammering in his chest by the time he reached a trapdoor leading up to Mephistopheles’ attic room. With every laboring breath he took, he felt his friend urging him on. “You can do this, Lin,” he murmured to himself; “You’re a lion.” He found the mirror just as the his brother had described it, leaning against the wall, and followed his instructions to the letter at lightning speed. He had just enough time to register Ariel Hunter’s expression of shock at the two boys materializing in her hotel room before it occurred to him that the thundering of his heart had not slowed when he stopped running. Mrs. Hunter saw his knees crumble, and hastily stepped in, removing Shem from his arms. 

Lin’s hand rose, wavering, to the ridge of scar tissue over his heart as he heard it thud in his ears one last time - then, silence.

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