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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2. Not A Game

Lin had no way of knowing when he awoke if it was night, morning, or afternoon. His cell was bathed in its usual murky, grey twilight. He was roused suddenly by a cold hand on his shoulder. He started, jerking out of sleep, and leapt to his feet, springing away and anchoring himself against the stone wall in anticipation of an attack. The hairs on the back of his neck laid down slowly as he regarded the pale one looking back at him. His blue eyes were still and languid as ever, and Lin decided there was something regal, almost arrogant about the way he waited for Lin to speak. He’d obviously just come straight through the wood of the door.

“Hi,” he said simply, wondering what he was supposed to say.

“You asked me who I am yesterday,” the pale one replied solemnly. “Do you still want to know?”

Lin nodded, swallowing, his throat once again unbearably dry.

“My name is Mephistopheles. I am a demon, willed into existence by a human’s curse. Nefertiti is the same; she was created by a wish from a woman who’s young daughter had been raped and butchered. She destroyed the men responsible, but her bloodlust is endless, and once made she cannot be unmade except by another wish stemming from more courage than I have ever witnessed in this world. The mother was distraught, and her rage understandable, but Nefertiti was created out of revenge. Revenge can bring only pain, never healing; Nefertiti is the proof of this, insatiably cruel and destructive.

“I was born from a different response to a similar tragedy. A woman’s husband of thirteen years suddenly took ill and died. The physicians were baffled, as he’d been strong and healthy as an ox. He was her reason for living and she did not know how to go on without him, nor did she have the will to try. So she created me, to undue the moment of death. Her joy at his genesis did not last, however; she discovered later that he had tired of her. Desiring to wed a girl, he prepared a strong poison that could be inhaled, and mixed it into the last of her perfume. She was heading off to visit her sister in the next town in the morning, and since the roads were dangerous, he knew her death while traveling them would not be questioned. Unfortunately for him, thinking to surprise him with an act of sweetness, the woman sprayed the perfume upon his pillow so that he might be reminded of her while he slept, and so he died. The woman was devastated to find him cold and unfeeling when I brought him back to her, and committed suicide a month later. He married his young woman, and their marriage was as barren and empty as I am.” The pale one fell silent for a moment, staring blankly off into nothing. His eyes were far away from the cell and the stage that had become Lin’s entire world. “You should be afraid of me. Maybe even hate me for being like her.” He studied Lin for a long moment. “But you’re not. I can tell by the way you look at me, like you still believe I’m actually here and can be reached by your human emotions...things like calling me ‘Brother.’” Lin wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw the ghost of a smile play across that untouchable face. Then in the blink of an eye he was all seriousness again. “Do you still want to live, after everything that’s been done to you?”

A spark of hope ignited in Lin’s chest, threatening to burst out of him. He crushed it down as best he could, hoping the other could not see the pain in his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered.

“You have to understand,” he said, in what must have been his version of earnestness, “There there is nothing I can offer you, no hope or aid. Not even Nefertiti herself could choose not to exist any longer; I have absolutely no power to do anything for you other than to  supply her with a new victim or refuse to bring you back to life. If ever a way to stop Nefertiti existed, it lies within you alone. Demons are born of something dark: anger, revenge, jealousy, lack of self respect. In order to unmake one, you have to prove that there is more to human beings, something better, that you don’t need us. Beyond that, I know as little as you: not if it’s been done before, or how. I don’t want you to think I’ve ever had any hope or that this can be anything other than a game for me.”

Lin nodded, trying and failing to swallow the lump in his throat. “I understand,” he said, offering the pale one his hand. “Brothers? - until I die.”

The demon clasped his hand firmly. “Even after,” he answered.

Lin spent the next twenty-four hours alone, passing the time by doing backflips off the rear wall of his cell. After a few turns, he started feeling nauseous and ended up vomiting all the water he’d drunk that day in order to keep the hunger pangs at bay. After that, he was too weak and sick to stand and spent the rest of the day flat on his back, dropping off and then jerking awake from fitful sleep. As the early hours of the morning dawned, he began to feel sicker, and groaning in frustration pushed himself to a seated position against the wall; in the process, his fingers brushed against something flat and smooth. They closed around it almost instinctively, and Lin found himself turning it over in his palm in fascination. It was a perfect shard of glass, thick and diagonally broken. He didn’t know how it had gotten there - possibly Nefertiti had left it for this very reason - and he didn’t know why he felt such an irresistible pull, but Lin found himself drawing the edge across his wrist, carving a perfect row of shallow, horizontal slashes. He began to hyperventilate as he did so, watching each cut turn from white to red as little droplets of blood budded up through his broken skin. Some feeling he couldn’t name welled up inside of him; finally he had to stop and cradle his head in his hands to numb the mixture of panic and relief released by those little red lines.

“What are you doing?” an expressionless voice asked quietly from over his shoulder.

“I - don’t know.” Lin gazed at the shard of glass in wonderment.

“Can I have it?” He glanced from the shard to the spidery hand extended questioningly before him and back again almost uncomprehendingly. At last, reluctantly, he surrendered it, letting it drop lightly into the other boy’s palm. Without warning, the pale one slammed his other fist into the stone wall with a force that shocked Lin; he cowered instinctively for a moment, then just gaped at his friend, repressing laughter that inexplicably bubbled up inside him.

“You’re angry,” the demon explained. “And you should be. You need to let it out somehow; this is a much more productive way. Hit me, if you need to.”

Lin took a step backward, caught off guard. “No.”

For the first time, he heard the other boy laugh, an eerie, unnatural sound. “Like someone laughing through a mask,” he murmured. That colorless head cocked to the side, but Lin made no attempt to explain. “I can’t,” he said.

“You’re thirteen. I’m not even human; I can’t feel pain any more than this wall can. Brothers fight, right? Go ahead: hit me, or I’ll hit you first.” Lin couldn’t be sure if he was serious or not.

“I - can’t - I - don’t want to - hurt anyone.” 

The pale one nodded, thoughtfully, and just like that melted through the door like smoke. Before Lin had time to wonder if he’d offended his friend, the other was back, carrying two long, thin wooden poles. “Here,” he said, and tossed one in Lin’s direction; he caught it deftly and then waited. “Come on,” the pale one prompted, taking up a defensive stance with the stick across his body that looked practiced. Hesitantly, Lin tapped his pole against his friend’s. The other gave another disconcerting laugh. “No,” he said; “like this.” He delivered a blow to Lin’s stick that sent it hurtling against the far wall of the cell. “It’s weird, I get that, but you can do this, I know you can.” Lin’s first few attacks were lukewarm in strength, still tentative. He gained confidence as his friend blocked each easily, nearly disarming him at one point. “Come on,” he repeated. “Harder.” Slowly his attacks built up, until he was going at it with wild abandon, all brute strength and no form, not caring what he must look like but enjoying the feeling of the soreness in his arms. Something heavy was leaving his body; after a few moments he started to laugh. For the first time in a long while, he was breathing freely. “Enough,” the pale one announced finally, when Lin was panting heavily, thoroughly drenched in sweat. Oddly, the other boy wasn’t even winded; not a hair on his head appeared disturbed by their activity. Come to think of it, Lin wasn’t sure if he’d ever noticed that his friend either blinked or breathed at all. “I surrender,” he told him, throwing an arm around Lin’s shoulders; for once, appreciating the chill of the demon’s skin against his flushed body, Lin didn’t paused to think about how unnaturally cold his friend was. In fact, he wasn’t thinking of anything particularly; he simply basked in the good, wholesome feeling of physical exertion.

“Brother?” Lin didn’t know where the question came from; it just spilled out of the place inside him where his walls had been broken down from the mock sparring. “Is there any way - do you think there’s a chance -” The pale one was giving him his full attention. Lin took a deep breath and blurted it out: “I want to go outside. Just once, to really see what it’s like when I’m not - I wouldn’t try to run. I just want to see it, to remember what it’s like.” A deep ache filled him; he had to swallow the lump in his throat suffocating him.

The pale one’s arm stiffened around his shoulders, but after a moment he realized it was meant to be reassuring, not angry. 

“Tomorrow night,” he promised. Lin’s breath caught. All of a sudden he felt light headed; he groped for the wall with his hands and sank down against it.

“Are you sure?” he whispered, sick with the hope and despair battling within him.

A second strange tear streamed down the demon’s pale, triangular face. “You’re a fool, to trust that I would do this and not just trap you in some way, trick you into following me out and then set Nefertiti on you or do worse myself.” There was almost grief in his voice. “I was made to save people, not to watch them be destroyed. No; that’s not really true. I was made to teach people a lesson, about what happens when you try to change fate. To give life so that humans could learn to regret asking for it. Hasn’t it struck you as odd that Nefertiti tolerates my interaction with you, even though you belong to her? Because she can harm the body, but I play with people’s souls; I’m a monster even she fears. If I were human, and had a heart, I think it would have broken seeing what I’ve seen - what I’ve done. Most people who have been through what you have would be living it every waking moment and even in their dreams; they wouldn’t be able to speak to me or want anything anymore. I’d have killed their humanity, their hope. I don’t know why or how you’ve adapted; you don’t let yourself become a victim. I see your hope, still alive. If there is anything I can do to keep it that way, I’ll do it. Just remember, please,” he entreated, “I have no power to save you.”

The pale one came for him at what turned out to be midnight. Lin discovered this the moment the miracle happened: he actually stepped outside of the cell without a blindfold. In order to make the miracle happen, however, he had to take a leap of faith. When his friend told him how they’d be going, he started to laugh. “Are you serious?” In response, the demon took his hand, and they walked straight through the door. The particles of the wood seemed to expand and separate, spreading out around them so that they could pass fluidly between. Once they were through, Lin looked back, and saw   the molecules vibrate violently, then rush back together and fuse before his eyes. Everything was as it had been before, except that the two boys stood on the outside of the door, with a full white moon gazing down at them from a rectangular window cut high up in the stones of the wall. “It’s beautiful,” Lin stated simply, staring up at the moon. A pale white luminance bathed the room and the boys.

“Come on,” the demon prompted. “We don’t want to be caught.”

Fueled by adrenaline born of excitement and fear, Lin took the stairs up to the top of the fortress two at a time. His friend followed easily, never breaking a sweat, flowing up after him with the bored grace of a feline. There was no way to leave, other than the small helicopter, whose blades were so rusted that they didn’t dare risk starting it for fear of attracting Nefertiti’s attention. The helicopter was perched at the opposite end of the fortress to the stage, so the two boys built a fire a few feet away from it and sat beneath the stars. “They look different this way,” the human boy remarked, extending his hands to take in the warmth of the fire. “I’m not sure if I feel like tonight is the dream, or everything else has been.”

The flames reflected enigmatically off of the pale boy’s luminous, ice blue eyes. “Did you ever have a real brother, or a sister, before? You had to come from somewhere.”

Lin shrugged contentedly. “I don’t know. I probably have loads of siblings, somewhere, but I’ve never met them. My mother sold me,” he confessed. “I think I was four years old, and I vaguely remember it happening. I didn’t really know why at the time my life changed. She was a prostitute in a country where tens of thousands of people are enslaved by human trafficking. She was desperately poor and I was the only real asset she had. Some good it did the men that bought me; I escaped at seven years old and I’ve been running ever since - until I wound up here. Demons and rebirth aside, this really isn’t that different from the future I anticipated.” Lin studied his friend for a moment, suddenly curious. “What about you? Haven’t you ever had anyone? I know not parents or anything like that, but I had friends here and there in the places I traveled. Nobody that stuck around but it was something. Hasn’t there been anybody at all you cared about?”

The pale one’s eyes took on that far away look again. It was as if he could pass through Lin the same way he did the door, as if he were smoke. “No,” he replied finally. “It’s only ever been me and Nefertiti. I’d kill her just as quickly as she would me if it were possible. There are others, like us, somewhere out there, but I’ve never met them.”

“Do you want to?”

The other boy shook his head. “Nefertiti’s enough to worry about. I think if I knew more of us I’d be pulled a dozen different ways trying to be damage control.”

A fox yipped somewhere far beneath them.

After four gloriously carefree hours, they returned to the cell, still flushed with excitement and nearly doubled over with mirth. As they passed through the door, its particles brightly streaming around their bodies, each with one arm looped over the other’s shoulders, Lin felt the world begin to reel around him. A pulsing, wavelike motion began in his belly; the particles of the door stood still for a moment then spun in tight, chaotic circles, colliding with one another and springing back. “No,” said the pale one, emptily. “No. I didn’t do this. I’m sorry.” Lin felt a coldness settle into him; if not for the support of his friend, he might have collapsed. “Please believe me. I didn’t want this. I had nothing to do with it.” Instead, he found himself stumbling the last few steps of the crossing, sick with the knowledge that someone - something - was throwing open the door as they did so.

They stepped into the room, and everything snapped into place. His feet steadied on solid ground. His hands fell to his sides. His breath came, ragged and sharp. 

“Hi,” he whispered, knowing how foolish he sounded.

“You are going to pay for this.”

And she was true to her word. 

He was lead, heavily chained, out of the helicopter, underneath the boughs of a gnarled, ancient acacia tree that grew beneath the fortress. She brought him there clothed only to cut the clothes from his body with a jagged knife. It was the end of the week after his adventure with the pale one. He’d known in advance that tonight would be special; first there was the fact that she’d attempted to kiss him the night before. Secluded in his cell, she had no onlookers to force his submission. He’d made the mistake of raising his hands in self defense, backing away. He’d heard the air hiss between her teeth, and known the repercussions would be unpleasant. Second, were the preparations she’d made. She’d taken the time while he’d last been dead to remove every inch of hair from his body, save only his eyelashes. Then she’d painted him from head to toe in plated gold, and pierced his ears with small golden loops.

Beneath the acacia, shivering in cold and terror, standing naked and completely vulnerable before the usual crowd of hard eyed spectators, Lin experienced a jarring moment of hope as she removed his shackles. He allowed it to pass through him in heartrending silence, knowing full well how vain it was; sometimes the hope hurt more than anything she did to him. But that night, she’d find a way to top everything.

“She had four of them hold me on my side,” he said flatly, recounting the story to the pale one later. “Just in case I’d struggle. I wouldn’t have anyway. The kiss - it was something different - I - wasn’t prepared. I’ve been taught better than to think I can resist. They held me still while she took four thin metal rods, about two feet in length, and she drove them through my arms at intervals from palm to elbow. No matter how hard I tried - they were pinned together behind my back, useless.

“I passed out twice, just during that part. She waited for me to come to, and cauterized the wounds so I wouldn’t bleed to death. That would have been too easy.” Lin cleared his throat, looking away from his listener. His voice dropped, thick with a mixture of anger and shame. “The rest of it - it happened so slowly. It was like, like the air had thickened to water. There are these images frozen in my memory: her throwing the rope over the bough of the tree, tossing the end of it to one of her men as she placed the noose around my neck -” The boy broke off, breathing fast and ragged. His legs and arms began to tremble uncontrollably as he went on. “She hoisted me up slowly, only a few inches from the ground. If I tried hard enough, I could get a toe onto the ground, but I couldn’t keep it there. The worst part was that I - I don’t - know why - I - I was aroused. She had these little metal rakes in her hands, like the talons of some bird...She started tearing into my sides as she - she -” The tears streamed soundlessly down Lin’s face and his shoulders shook. It was several moments before he could continue.

“When she cut me down, the spikes in my arms shifted and cut me open anew. I could feel the blood, hot, pouring out there. At that point it didn’t matter. I was light headed, gasping for air. I didn’t die from any of that. She just kept ripping me open. I could hear it - me - tearing. The last thing I saw was my organs just laying there, glistening, exposed on the ground to all those watchers.”

Lin tried to steady his hands, clearing his throat. “I have died dozens of ways, before this, but its been different since...She gets more creative every time. Last night, she had me kneel in hot coals...She held my head in her lap. My hands were chained and she’d flayed the soles of my feet so I couldn’t run. Each of her men took turns raping me while she just watched. Then she cut my windpipe and let me bleed out.” The demon said nothing, only took the other boy’s hand and watched him bow his head. “I think we should name him,” Lin said, looking up suddenly. “The next one, after me.”

Somehow, his friend managed to give the impression of balking without actually shifting his position or expression. “Why?” was all he said. There was something dangerous about the way he said it.

Lin drew in a deep breath and rushed out with it. “We’ve been thinking only of me, but when I’m dead, there will be another, and another, and - it’ll just keep going. If I have at most ten years, that means my successor must already be out there being stalked by Nefertiti. He must be about three years old. He’s just a little kid. He’s real and he has a life and he matters. If we don’t do something - I think we should name him so he’ll be more real to us, and we can work on saving him.”

The pale one turned, crouching beside the far wall. His long, boney white fingers sketched something fluidly onto the stone, and where they traveled deep lines were scored into its surface. When he had finished, he faced Lin again and waited expectantly.

Lin looked from the picture he’d carved to his friend and then back again. Etched into the wall was the face of a little boy, looking serious and sad. He had the babyish round cheeks and large eyes of a toddler, with a large forehead framed by short, softly curled hair. Without being told, Lin knew the child in the image had olive skin, dark brown hair touched by red, and black eyes - because it was unmistakably him, as a small child.

The pale one’s face was completely blank, impossible to read, yet somehow Lin sensed hurt in the softness of his voice. “So you remember he’s important too.” With that, he melted away through the door.

Lin threw his hands into the air in frustration. “I’m sorry!” he cried, knowing no one was there to listen. “You want me to keep reality straight in my head but you don’t want to be reminded of it! What am I supposed to do with that?” 

If he had been on the other side of the door at the time he would have heard the pale one issue a series of inhuman shrieks; kneeling in the patch of moonlight left by the skylight he rent his fingers into the stones and screamed as no human being has ever screamed, the most chilling sound that could be born of pain. “He’s my friend,” he spoke expressionlessly. His voice carried the only indication of emotion possible to it: it was hoarse from overuse.

“I don’t care,” Nefertiti chimed from the opposite end of the corridor. “I have upheld my end of the bargain; I have a right to him by your laws. You will not take what is mine.”

“I cannot watch him hurt anymore.”

She grinned through her fearsome bloodstained teeth. “Then don’t watch.” Nefertiti swayed across the room toward him; she ran her fingers through his wispy, translucent hair and crooned, “I remember when you dyed this black. You looked like a real creature of the night then.” She leaned in close to his ear, hissing, “You think you are stronger than me, love, but no one fears you any longer. I am what fills the nightmares of men, while you play at being human with your little friend.”

The pale one removed her hand from his head. “He is going to stop you; I know he can.” His voice betrayed not a fraction of how much the words must have meant to him.

Nefertiti laughed in delight. “Since when did you start caring? Oh, you’re getting soft my darling.”

“What is the name of the child you’ve chosen? For - after.”

She squealed. “This is...delicious.” Nefertiti circled him predatorily. “The boy’s name is Shem. Shall I show him to you?” she asked, cackling. “No?”

The pale one turned from her, fleeing the hallway in measured, disinterested steps. “Careful, love,” Nefertiti’s gleeful voice echoed after him, “or mark my words, you’re the one that’s going to regret this game.”

But it wasn’t a game to him anymore.

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