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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5. Banished

The two boys tore off together as one, stumbling down the tunnel in a drunken stupor. It proved extremely difficult to navigate even this wide, straight shot through the wall, and both of them fell several times, tripping over their own feet. Lin’s head spun with the impact, but still he forced himself off the ground and pushed himself on, running blindly. He became aware that the difficulty he experienced in seeing wasn’t just his intoxication; the air was thick with dust, and sand was pouring down in streams from the tunnel ceiling. The pale one shouted something, but the strain to hear him over the roar inside Lin’s ears and that toward which they were running was too much, so his friend ignored him. It seemed like an eternity that they were diving through a translucent wall of sand, but at last they could make out the faint sound of Shem’s screams. “Lin!” the toddler was screaming. “Lin help me! Lin!” The boy’s heart leapt into his throat.

“I’m coming!” he tried to shout in answer, but he was still too drunk and all that came out was an unintelligible slur. In fact, the harder he ran, the more the world spun.

An idea struck him; Lin began to ram his fists into his belly. He thought he saw himself vomit; he wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, or if it really happened, because the physical sensation was entirely absent from the picture he got. The whisky may or may not have erupted volcanically from his body, to cascade down his shirt. “What are you doing?” the pale one’s shout reached him, but Lin ignored him again and kept retching. Finally, a pounding ache like nails being drilled into his skull began behind his eyes. His vision solidified, steadied. Dry heaves racked him for a few more seconds, until he was certain that the last of the alcohol was gone from his stomach. Now he could really hear Shem’s high pitched squeal. They were only a stone’s throw away from him, now. Lin was alone in realizing this, however; the demon was clearly as inexperienced at drinking as his human friend, because he was running in slow motion, tripping over himself lamely in his haste to scramble in circles. 

Lin found the toddler more than half buried in the sand. An entire foot of the tunnel had collapsed, burying him to his chest. His face was purple and he was clawing at the dirt that pressed down on his ribcage, preventing him from taking a full breath. To further complicate the matter, dust was swirling so thickly around him that the air he did get made him gag and choke. Fits of coughing racked him, and left him weeping in pain, calling out Lin’s name piteously. 

The older boy threw himself to the ground and began digging with everything he had. A few moments later, the pale one joined him; the green hue of his face and signs of strain behind his eyes told Lin that his friend had also purged himself of the whisky. Their first few attempts to pull Shem free left him shrieking. “My legs,” he wept, struggling out of their grasp. 

“It’s alright,” Lin sobbed out. “I’m here; it’s alright.” His stomach lurched, but he resisted the urge to waste time retching. Shem was all that mattered right now. He found himself whispering prayers to gods whose names he’d never been taught, pleading, swearing he’d never touch liquor again, if only the little boy with the big round eyes would be ok.

“Again,” shouted the pale one, as he and Lin both grabbed Shem under the arms. All at once, the toddler pulled free. A fresh torrent of sand came raining down on them, but Lin didn’t dare let go of Shem. He clutched the little boy to his heart, concentrating on the feeling of Shem’s arms locked around his neck and the rise and fall of the toddler’s diaphragm. The demon boy supported him under his arms, helping him rise to his feet while still holding the baby. “We have to get out of here!” They set off in the opposite direction, fleeing the tunnel as they’d entered it, together. With a final loud belch, the tunnel folded in on itself in their wake.

All three boys collapsed into an exhausted heap atop one of the mounds of sand they’d previously hauled. “We’re alive,” Lin repeated himself again and again hysterically. At that moment, he didn’t know how he’d ever be angry at fate again; he felt he could accept anything, as long as he was allowed to have these two familiar forms pressing against him, to know that he could be for Shem what no one had been for him as a small child.

“I knew it.” The voice echoed shrilly from the doorway, cutting into his revelry.

Nefertiti stood before them, her dark body absolutely rigid, piercing gaze directed straight at Shem, whose arms were still entwined around Lin’s neck. All eyes snapped to attention on her, waiting in terrified suspense. “Well,” she said. “Well!” She threw her head back and cackled richly. Lin’s mouth dropped open before he could stop himself. “I am not unmerciful,” she intoned sweetly. “So let’s make a deal, shall we?” She pointed at her fellow demon, dark eyes zeroing in on him. “Choose,” she cried regally. “One human to go free today, and the other to remain here. But choose carefully,” she cautioned, “because if you choose Shem to leave, I will be back for him in ten years, regardless, when this little rat is dead.” She indicated Lin in her usual way, by spitting in his direction. “And if you choose my toy here, he goes free and lives the rest of his life without the slightest interference from me, but Shem must serve me for the next twenty years. Choose, or I’ll kill them both right now and make you choose one to save from an irreversible death.”

Horrified by her ultimatum, Lin could keep silent no longer. “Stop it!” he yelled. “No!”

She hissed softly, shooting a warning glance in the human boy’s direction. “I think we both know what you want.” Her smirk sent a surge of terror through his heart.

“No!” screamed Lin. “No! No! No!” He clawed at the sides of his face with his hands, as if he could physically tear the things he was hearing out of his brain. The pounding behind his eyes had intensified.

“Think about it,” Nefertiti crooned seductively. She leaned in so close to the pale one’s ear that her tongue traced its spirals as she spoke. “You’ll be saving a life that you never had a chance of saving, snatching your little ‘friend,’” she spat the word like a bad taste, “right out of the grave. The baby is going to be mine, anyway, in ten years. But if you gave him to me for the next twenty years, that’s one less life wasted. One less casualty to damn the soul you don’t have.” The demon boy bristled.

“Don’t listen to her!” his human friend cried out, attempting to drown out her words by the sheer force of will conveyed in his tone. “No! This is wrong and you know it!”

“How do you want to think of your friend?” she purred into the pale one’s colorless ears. “He could be alive and free by this time tomorrow, getting fat and rich, with a home and a family. Or he could be here, and maybe next time I’ll peel off his layers of skin, one by one, I’ll burn him alive or drown him, or attach him to an intestinal crank. Maybe I’ll make you watch as I eat him, every bit of him, even that piece he’s carrying around that’s yours. What do you think will happen to you then? Maybe you’ll feel it; maybe it’ll tear you apart and you’ll finally know what it is that you did to all those people,” she snarled, a vicious light of cruelty glinting in her eyes. “My way I only killed them; I gave them pain for a brief moment before eternal peace, but you,” she accused, grabbing him by the chin and wrenching his face upward toward her, forcing him to meet her glare for glare, “you took everything from them. Do you think it was me they cursed in their sleep, or you?” Her volume climbed as she drove each blow home. “You saved them, teased them with a hope of something they could never have, and then ripped it away over and over again until their spirits were so crushed most of them stopped even moving when they weren’t with me. I didn’t bother to feed them because they wouldn’t look at food; did you think that was part of my game? I had one who stood in his own shit for the entirety of his last three years because he didn’t care anymore. Because he knew that you’d just make him wakeup and live the nightmare over and over again.” She tossed the pale one’s face aside, disgusted, as if she couldn’t bear to touch him.

With every word, Lin saw his friend twisting in on himself inside, hardening himself for another blow. “No,” he spoke out, weakly, knowing he was loosing this battle. “She’s wrong. You were there for me, don’t you understand that? You’re my brother: my best friend.” He stammered out the final part: “I - I love you, brother.”

Nefertiti screamed with wicked laughter. “Do you hear that?” she spat. “Your friend - loves you. You fallen thing the gods wouldn’t even look upon, banned from heaven, sent here to torment humankind. You like that, don’t you? The perfect host, who takes what you do to him and loves you for it.” She made it sound like a dirty thing, shameful.

“No!” Lin screamed again, hysterical. “Choose me!” He fell to his knees, begging, ludicrously. “Choose me to stay! I promised Shem I’d take care of him. Please, choose me! I want to stay.”

“Pathetic,” observed Nefertiti. She glowed with her certainty of victory.

Lin searched for something to say, frantically. He couldn’t loose his fellow human after having just saved him from the cave in. “You told me you’re a demon,” he cried. “But a demon’s just another word for an angel. Think about how you’ve saved him twice already! You’re my guardian angel, brother! Help me save Shem, one more time. He’s just a baby! I know you believe that we can stop her.” He thought he caught sight of a glint of recognition in his friend’s eyes. The demon boy’s hands were spread at his sides, palms down, stiff and straining in his effort to grapple with the impossible choice he faced. “Please,” the other boy begged again, a heartrending earnestness raw in his voice.

“Ah,” Nefertiti mocked. “So sweet, I’m choking on my vomit. He’s right about one thing: the fallen angel, that’s what you are, love. What was it the humans used to call you, back when you were a god worshipped by men? Angel of death, vampire, sucking the warmth out of everything you touch with those empty, cold eyes of yours. It’s time to embrace your nature; no matter what you choose, you prove what you are and have always been. Even your friend wants you to deliver on your promise and waste his pathetic life; he’ll even ‘love’ you for it. Fine,” she growled deep in her throat, “spill his blood once again, if that’s what you want. Or be a coward and let me do it for you; it makes no difference.” Nefertiti made a move in Lin’s direction; he instinctively cowered, hating himself for it afterward.

“Enough!” The pale one let out a blood curling shriek; even Nefertiti winced and covered her ears with her hands. “Both of you, I know what you’re doing.” He turned toward his friend, putting his spidery hands on his shoulders. Lin felt a surge of hope. “You understand don’t you?” The demon pleaded; even his eyes appealed silently, searching deep into his friend’s soul.

“Of course,” Lin reassured him, sick with relief. He was nodding his head up and down spastically, too weak with emotion to control his movement. The human boy heard Nefertiti snicker as the pale one rested his forehead against Lin’s. Oddly, the demon boy was the one who was shaking. “It’s ok,” his friend told him. “You’re doing the right thing.”

The pale one removed himself abruptly. He was looking at Lin strangely. “I’ve made my choice,” he said in a strangled voice. “Lin goes free.”

Lin’s relief evaporated. “No!” he screamed, again and again. He felt tricked, betrayed. It couldn’t be happening, not this way. “No!” He clutched Shem tighter in his embrace.

“Shut up!” Nefertiti snarled. Her eyes crackled gleefully. She tore the toddler, squealing, away from Lin. He fought her with all his might, but her superhuman strength overcame his in a matter of seconds. Shem kicked his tiny feet against her, squirming in her grasp; she peeled back her lips in a snarl and slapped him, audibly, across his face. Lin expected him to wail, but he froze in shock instead.

“I won’t let you do this!” Lin cried desperately. “I won’t leave, no matter what you do to me.”

“Really?” she hissed, dangerously. “And what if I snap his neck, right here, right now? You will obey me, pet, I promise you that.”

For the first time since pronouncing his judgement Mephistopheles chimed in: “Please, Lin. Do as she says. You never had a say in anything of this, and I’m sorry for that, but now you have to go, quietly, or she’ll make you. I’m so sorry, brother, I -”

“Don’t call me that!” the human boy’s voice broke over the words. The pale one flinched as though struck. “Don’t you ever call me that after you betrayed everything!” He would have snatched the sentence back as soon as it left his lips if he could have, for he saw something, the light that had grown in his friend since their first conversation what seemed like an eternity ago, die in his eyes. But the foundations of his world had been shattered, and he didn’t have enough strength to lift himself out of the pit into which he’d sunk. In the blink of an eye, he’d lost everything he never thought he could build for himself.

Nefertiti shoved Shem, still strangely silent, sending him sprawling on the stone floor of the cell, then closed the distance between herself and Lin. She lifted him easily by the throat; try as he might to pry her fingers loose he was powerless against the demon queen. Her dark eyes flashed with cruelty. She advanced, still holding him by his neck, and raised her other hand before her. “You will leave,” she thundered. “By your own escape tunnel that you foolishly failed to build underneath my nose. And if I ever see you back here again, I’ll fly you so far, your children’s children will be searching for this place with you before you ever find it again.”

A wind began to build around her, blowing dirt in all directions, whipping her white robes furiously. Every grain of sand in the cell was carried into the air; suddenly, the air rippled, thrusting outward toward the tunnel. The hole the pale one had carved into the stone wall became a vortex, greedily gulping everything the wind brought to it like the mouth of a dragon. Lin felt his clothes tugged; his breath was carried away from him in the rush that had possessed the room. When the wind settled, the tunnel gaped at him, completed. What would once have been greeted with excitement now stared at him insidiously: the monster’s hollow eye socket. “Go,” Nefertiti snarled, tossing him bodily out of the fortress. He would have rushed right back into the cell, if not for her threat to take him away in the helicopter. He knew she would do it; never once in the months he’d been her slave had she failed to deliver on her promises. Now all he had left in the world was the scar of that tunnel, standing open to him within eyesight.

For once in his life utterly defeated, the human boy raised himself to his feet, walked about ten yards distance from the fortress, and collapsed onto the hot, white desert sands.

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