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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1. Introduction to The Demon

He would never forget the first time he heard her speak. The words hadn’t been directed toward him; there had been a large audience. Every time afterward, there would be an audience surrounding them where they stood at the center of a large, circular, raised platform that stood high upon the flat top of the fortress. Or rather, she stood; he had been forced to his knees, gripping a rough wooden post to which both his hands were so closely shackled that he had no other choice. She rarely spoke to him, but never looked away. He had to crane his neck uncomfortably to be able to look up at her. That first moment, when her words resonated through him, he shut his eyes and rested his forehead against the top of the post. He couldn’t make himself believe her, not fully, even though he heard the dead seriousness of her voice.

“You.” she said coldly, aiming the command at one of her men with the same sharpness she would have used to kick him if he were within range. “Break his bones.” Lin felt himself catch his breath. “All of them. Do it slowly, one by one. Start with the fingers and toes. However long it takes, just make sure he’s conscious for each one.” Her tongue slid over her thin lips decadently. “I want him to feel everything.”

He had watched her watch him, watched her drink in his screams, screams that had torn through him so agonizingly that he was coldly surprised to hear them from where he observed, outside of himself. The process took an entire week, during which time he was sustained by a saline drip and was neither given food nor allowed to sleep; he couldn’t move other than to shiver or convulse in pain, and even when he would briefly drift into blessed moments of unconsciousness, they were never long enough. She was true to her word and would always wait, her face the first thing he saw when he came back to himself, ready to signal with a nod that it was time to continue. A cold horror settled over him when he saw that nod. He steeled himself not to break eye contact with her. He would never forget the cruelty of those chocolate brown eyes meeting his.

It was at the end of the week, when he came out of his delirium for the last time, that he received his biggest shock. First there was the realization of the pain washing over him, so all consuming that no other physical sensation existed any longer and so widespread that there was no longer any determining from where within his body it came. His body was one massive pain, and he had surrendered to its weakness. He was utterly incapable of fighting back or protecting himself in any way from the riveting bursts of pain exploding through him in succession like a continuous onslaught of bombs. He couldn’t tell any longer if he was screaming or not.  Now, he maintained eye contact with his dark eyed assailant not only for something to hold onto, but also because he knew he would pass out again if his gaze fell on any part of his broken body. There was no use prolonging this, as she would only wait for him to regain consciousness before continuing with her gruesome game.

Second, there was the one thought that came to him that managed to penetrate the bloody haze through which he was peering out at the world. He was done. He was breathing shallowly, breath rattling through shattered ribs, and that meant the game was finally over. He couldn’t be sure, but he might have heard himself produce a sick wheezing sound vaguely reminiscent of a laugh.

The thought distracted him from her for a split second, which was all the time it took for her to close the distance between them. He convulsed away from the warmth of her hands as they lightly caressed the icy blaze of his collarbone. Her chuckle was genuine, rich and gleeful, as her hands closed firmly around his neck. Lin stared back at her in disbelief, his blood frozen in his veins. He saw her lips curve upward into a ruthless, hungry smile.

And then she killed him.

This was how it would continue, for the entirety of his imprisonment. She was the only one who ever opened the door of the small cell in which he was kept. Sometimes a day would pass without his solitude being disturbed, sometimes a week. It was never long, and because he was only fed when she left him in the cell after the ritual, he was taught to both desperately fear the opening of the door, and to live for it. Sooner or later it always came, the night when the door would be thrown open to the intrusion of torch light, and he would be dragged up to that stage where she would brutally sacrifice him and then bring him back to life.

“That was only the first night. There have been so many others, too many to count.” Retelling the story later, Lin paused here. Whereas before he’d been utterly expressionless and detached as he recounted the details of his torture, here his eyes clouded with something dark and deep. “I don’t like to think about - the part when I’m dead. What she could be doing.” He traced a ridge of thick scar tissue across his chest. “This is the only place the scars don’t heal.” The unspoken question was clear in his eyes as he looked up, his gaze searching and direct, at his listener.

“She’s eaten your heart several times,” the other told him calmly, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. “I’ve had to find you replacements.” Lin nodded, equally as calm.

“Why?” asked Lin. They both knew he wasn’t talking about her cannibalism.

Lin’s visitor regarded him solemnly with expressionless light blue eyes. He appeared to be but a boy, at most a year older than Lin, and was eerily devoid of pigment. His skin and hair were both pale as snow, and even his eyes were icy. He leaned forward, resting his chin on long, bony fingers the knuckles of which were pronounced and swollen. “If I could have,” he admitted, “I’d have put her down long ago. Her...appetites have always made it difficult for us to coexist with society; for decades we were forced to move from place to place, like gypsies, to avoid notice, because where Nefertiti went a trail of very creatively dispatched corpses were sure to follow. That’s where you come in. You see, about thirty years ago I had the foresight to step in and save one of her victims at the moment of death. In this way, I’ve been able to control the damage caused by Nefertiti’s bloodlust by limiting its span; instead of scores of casualties per year, I have contained the problem to only one every decade. You are the fourth.” Lin was awestruck to see a single tear pool in one of his visitor’s emotionless eyes and roll down his cheek. “It has been I,” he continued, quietly, “Who has been bringing you back to life to continue to act as Nefertiti’s sacrifice and plaything. I have condemned you to this horror, until she should tire of you in ten years, at most, and then she will completely consume you.” 

The silence lingered for a moment between them. Lin didn’t even try to make sense of his feelings or let the words sink in; he felt surprisingly numb. What aught he to have done? Weep? Things had gone far beyond that. If he’d thought it through, Lin would’ve have realized he’d resigned himself to the fact that he would never return to any semblance of a normal life the first time he woke up after being dead.

Lin’s visitor shifted the conversation suddenly: “How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

Those icy eyes shut for a moment. “If I gave you the choice, to continue with this, or to have someone else replace you, what would you say?” The eyes opened again, just as still as before, and Lin’s visitor arranged his hands in his lap. His fluid shift to a what appeared to be an actor’s unconvincing portrayal of a businesslike manner told Lin that he really meant it. Freedom, or at least the escape of a final death, was his for the choosing.

He didn’t really even have to think about it. “That’s not much of a choice. My freedom, bought with the understanding that another will suffer terribly and die in my place? No,” he said. “It should be me.”

Lin’s visitor responded with a simple nod. For a moment, the boy thought their conversation was over, but then his visitor leaned forward and grasped Lin’s hand firmly. His eyes locked into Lin’s, seeming to peering straight through him as if he were made of smoke. “You are brave, and you are strong. You have a good soul. I shall regret tearing it apart.” As easily as that, he melted away through the thick wooden door of the boy’s cell. He paused only for a moment, to direct a bow at Lin, and then left him wondering if he’d ever see this mysterious, pale stranger again.

That night, when Nefertiti came for him, Lin was ready with a question. He found that much of his horror and fear had vanished, and he spoke to her directly for the first time. “How did you choose me?” he asked.

Her eyes narrowed, and her hand froze on the chain that connected his manacles to the wall above him. “No one notices if a stray boy goes missing,” she said, sharply. “You don’t belong to anyone: no one to wonder where you are or come looking for you.” She continued attending to the heavy lock that secured him in place, just incase the stone walls and heavy wooden door with its reinforcement of iron bars wasn’t enough. “I have been watching you slink around the streets your entire life. Don’t think I don’t know every dirty little trick of scum like you.” She yanked unnecessarily hard on the chain, nearly knocking him off balance. “You should be honored that a little rat should be allowed the privilege of trying to please me.” 

“Of course I am,” Lin answered, so ingenuously that he actually saw her lips quirk upward in amusement.

“Of course you are,” She repeated, and aimed a savage kick at his face that he didn’t even bother to try to avoid. She spat, cursing him. “Don’t think that you can charm your way out of here,” she warned in her harsh tone. “I know who visited you today, and what was said. You are here to die, in whatever ways I see fit, and then one day when I tire of you, perhaps sooner than later, I will feast on your flesh.” Her grin was savage, horrible to behold. He could see crusted blood, dark red and brown, which could only have been his, between her teeth. At last, Lin shied away from her, and she laughed, serving him with another heavy blow.

Lin was blindfolded during the walk from his cell to the stage, though why Nefertiti bothered with this precaution he could not guess.  Perhaps she simply enjoyed watching him stumble along after her up countless flights of stairs as she pulled insistently and ruthlessly at the chain.  When they had arrived at their destination, she removed the blindfold roughly, along with the rest of his clothes, which she kicked into a dingy pile at the edge of the platform.  Lin shivered, trying not to give away his dreadful anticipation to the expectant eyes that followed his every move.  “Well,” Nefertiti addressed the crowd with her fearsome, bloody toothed grin.  “It seems our toy has conceived an exaggerated view of his own importance.  Shall we set him straight?” The roar from the spectators could only be interpreted as unanimous agreement.  At this point, she gestured suggestively to a strange wooden contraption occupying the usual place of the post; it consisted of a rectangular frame and a number of rollers, pulleys, and ropes. “Nothing at all special about this,” she explained patronizingly, observing Lin’s blank look. A chill of fear raced down his spine, but he made no sound. “Just an ordinary, every day rack.” All at once he was swept up on a wave of enthusiastic hands, affixing his body to the torture device. Somehow, it all happened much more rapidly than usual. The uncertainty of whether or not his screams were echoing outside or inside of his own head, the gruesome, loud popping sounds of joints being dislocated and ligaments and bones snapping, the hiss of burning flesh as he was branded with irons. What felt like both an eternity and a blink of an eye later, Nefertiti was announcing: “That’s enough. We mustn’t let the boy think he’s deserving of too much of our time. Now we shall leave him to his hunger and the elements. He’s not going anywhere.” Somehow, none of it really seemed to matter. Because all he could concentrate on was the feeling of a small, boney hand, as white as the barren landscape beneath them, gripping his from somewhere, hidden amongst the crowd.

When they had all gone, Lin was faintly aware of a ghostly white figure seating itself cross legged by his head. The pale boy’s hand closed over his again.

“Brother,” he murmured, vaguely conscious that his voice sounded far away and delirious. It was hard to tell, but he thought he saw the other boy stiffen.

“No,” said the pale one softly, “Your brother must be someone good, someone human. Maybe it will cheer you to know that he is free out in the world.”

Lin thought he might have made a sound of protest; “No,” he whispered. “No. I never had anyone - out there. She was right; no one to notice I’m gone. You and me, we are brothers.”

The boy cocked his head to the side, eyes bright and round like an owl’s. They seemed to shine faintly in the darkness. “But I can’t help you.”

“You are helping me.” He could make no gesture, so Lin attempted to shift his eyes in the direction of the other boy’s hand on his.

“In that case,” said his visitor tonelessly, “You have been very unfortunate, to end up a slave with a demon for a brother.”

That was the moment the pain became too much and Lin finally blacked out.

It was not hunger that troubled Lin on the rack, but burning thirst. He began to hallucinate that flames came from his throat, licking at the dry, dusty air, as he breathed. The constant repetition of his hoarse breathing followed him into his dreams, drowning out even the pain of his parched skin, cracking and oozing blood onto the wood of the platform. For ten days, Lin was left mercifully undisturbed, save the barking of dessert foxes accompanying his teeth chattering at night and the constant reassurance of the pale boy’s spidery hand on his.

It occurred to Lin abruptly that he did not know his friend’s name. “Brother?” He murmured, closing his eyes to speak. He suddenly felt so overwhelmingly tired.

“Yes?” He imagined there might have been a note of irony in the voice had it been anyone else’s.

“What’s your name?”

The boy stood and gently extricated himself from Lin’s grasp. He had to pry his fingers away; in that moment Lin’s had become cold and stiff. They dangled lifelessly off the wooden frame. “You wouldn’t have liked it anyway.” He turned away.

Lin did not see Nefertiti again for several days. He awoke in his cell to the usual crude meal of stale, dark bread, salted meat, pickled eggs and dried fruit. More than any of these, however, he longed for water and melted inside with gratitude when he saw the tall earthen jug in its usual place beside the door. A wave of weakness overcame him when he remembered that every time he arose from normal, human sleep in the cell, it would be full. He ate the food slowly, savoring every morsel, aware that he would get no more until Nefertiti came for him again. He took huge swallows of water between each bite, regretfully setting the jug down only when he has panting with satisfaction.

Now that he was better fed and rested, Lin had time to think clearly about his pale visitor. He could not delude himself; it was clear that whatever the other boy was, he was extremely dangerous, and he would not save Lin; he had admitted as much. He had also cried - in a peculiar, empty fashion - when he spoke of Lin’s fate. What could it all mean? What was to say that this creature was not also a monster like Nefertiti, playing upon Lin’s loneliness? He had only to think of his blankness, the way he made ever gesture look as if it were rehearsed, to know that he shouldn’t trust him - but he did. He did because he had no other choice, no other warmth offered to him in the short, harsh life he knew faced him, and because the memory of the other boy’s hand in his was the only spark of comfort in the bleak nightmare he’d been living for months now. This might be a foolish mistake, but what else could he do? He was alone, and he was sentenced to die. Thus decided, Lin finished his meal and fell into a heavy sleep.

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