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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4. The Tunnel

To the demon’s annoyance, when the food did come and Lin was awake again, he insisted on sharing it with Shem, despite protests that even the pale one was at a loss to explain. All he knew was that he felt fiercely jealous for his friend, even though logically Shem was only a baby and could hardly be at fault for Lin’s most recent death. Hiding the toddler proved to be easier than first expected; he’d most likely been kidnapped so young that he remembered nothing other than life as chattel, so he rarely spoke except when addressed. Their first real difficulty came from a shortage of food. Since Lin’s act of defiance, Nefertiti had begun to avoid him, leaving him be until her urge for blood was so intense that it drove her half mad. Her visits began to fall into a pattern, spaced out by six full days. Though Lin and Shem were both accustomed to going hungry, the food she left once a week could not sustain both of them. They were wasting away from starvation, a problem not so much in that death was impotent with the pale one on hand, but Lin dreaded the day Nefertiti would look too closely at him and begin to wonder. 

At first, the ghostly boy spent the nights in Lin’s cell, guarding Shem from view with his body just in case his fellow demon showed up unexpectedly. After two weeks like this, however, he stumbled upon a better idea. He was watching Shem chase a rat around the cell, delirious with hunger, knowing he would never catch it and that even if by some miracle he did Lin would never let him kill it, when all of a sudden it seemed to vanish into thin air. The pale one sat bolt upright and scrambled over to where the creature had disappeared. A tiny grey head peeked out of the mortar between the stones, sniffed the air, then retreated; he guessed that it had hollowed out a whole system of tunnels between the fortress walls. “That’s it!” he cried, and with no further adieu he set to work, scraping loose a large patch of stones from the wall. When he glanced up, he saw that Shem was squatting nearby, studying him with open curiosity, while Lin looked on from his seat against the far wall.

A few hours later, when the demon had a pile of stones stacked up next to him and a large area of the layer of crushed rock and sand between the outer and inner walls was revealed, he began to scoop this away, creating a hollow tall and wide enough for Shem to stand in. “Come here,” he commanded. Obedient as a well trained dog, the toddler climbed into the hole. Then, rapidly, he arranged the stones one on top of the other in front of Shem. “Look,” he told Lin, privately pleased with himself, “it hides him completely. You’d never know anything was here unless you came within a few inches, especially in the dark.”

The human boy rose and inspected his friend’s work from the doorway then from the center of the room. “It’s brilliant,” he said. “Thank you.” He sounded a little gruff, uncomfortable with the emotion in the statement. “I know this is hard for you.”

The pale one just nodded, avoiding Lin’s eyes. He experienced a fresh wave of resentment toward Shem, disgust at his own futility - and shame. A part of him that he now felt guilty acknowledging wished he’d never rescued the little boy from the slave driver.

“I’ve always hated myself,” he confessed suddenly. The words flowed out of him unbidden. “I’ve never blamed Nefertiti for being what she is, but I’ve always felt like I should be able to do - something -”

“What?”

He shook his head, eyes still downcast, embarrassed by his own candor. “I don’t know: more, I suppose.” Changing the subject, he gestured to the mound of sand and rock on the ground. “I’d better dispose of this; I’ll toss it into the wind at the top of the fortress. You help Shem out.”

“You’ll come back when it’s getter dark, so I’ll know when to wall him back up?”

The demon nodded distractedly and melted through the door.

The sand ran through his fingers like shimmering droplets of water scattering upon the wind. He wondered idly if some of it would end up blowing in the faces of the caravan crossing the desert far below. Maybe they’d think it was the beginnings of a sandstorm. Centuries ago people would have attributed it to the anger of the gods; once upon a time they’d worshipped him as a god. They’d seen him with dyed black hair and blazing red eyes, seen the gruesome art Nefertiti had made of their corpses, and assuming he was the artist had left him offerings to appease his wrath - wrath he’d have never allowed himself to acknowledge, anyway. Now he was actually feeling his anger, and it was too late: it was all just weather to them. They were so busy buying, selling, trading, torturing their own children that they no longer noticed or cared what Nefertiti did. “There are no true gods out there,” the pale one grimaced. “If there were, they wouldn’t have made a creature like me. They’d let me be - more.” He caressed the word reverently. 

“When will you ever learn to stop fighting fate?” Panic surging through him, he whirled around to face his fellow demon, using his body as a shield to hide the remains of the sand from her. She gave no indication of having seen it. “You cannot protect anyone. You are a creature of pain, Mephistopheles,” she emphasized his name; “The sooner you accept your nature, that you are a devil, the sooner we’ll be done with all of this,” she gestured into the wind, “foolishness.”

As she spoke he used his feet to subtly spread the sand thinner over the dusty plaster roof. “What do you want?” he demanded, with more annoyance than he’d intended to let show. Lately he couldn’t keep his emotions at all in check.

“Shem has gone missing,” she came right out with it. “I’ve been keeping tabs on him since he was born, and then this week he’s just gone. Vanished, into thin air.” Nefertiti began to circle the pale one, a feral animal on the prowl. “If I find you’ve taken him -” She clicked her tongue over those teeth that stalked the nightmares of men. “Just remember, there are consequences to everything.”

“What would I want with him?” the demon boy asked languidly. It was surprisingly difficult to affect the same mask of boredom he’d once perpetually worn without effort. 

At midnight that night Nefertiti threw open the door of the cell. Lin sat cross legged in the center of the room, alone, waiting. It was all he could do to keep still, not from fear, but from hunger. He was weak from starvation, practically fainting. Black spots swam before his eyes and he had to fight the impulse to anchor himself with his hands. When she spoke, her words drifted away from him where he hovered, half alive, trapped in a fog. “What’s this?” He had to turn his ear toward her and strain to concentrate in order to hear her, but try as he might he couldn’t summon the energy to respond. Walling up Shem had sapped the last of his strength; now he wanted nothing more than for tonight’s ritual to be over so he could sleep. He thought he caught the words “failure,” and “disappointment.” The one thing that did manage to concern him slightly was when she began to circle him. Every time he heard her footsteps behind him he felt a small, far away pang of fear that she might spot Shem’s hiding place.

Two things happened at once: first, Lin’s head dropped onto his chest as he blacked out for a moment. Second, the faux section of the wall hiding Shem collapsed as the little boy fainted into it.

Blinking the world back into focus, the first thing he saw was her face, inches away from his. “So,” she said. Nefertiti stood and regarded the shambles of the wall. Experiencing a moment of terror, the boy tried to haul himself to his feet, but ended up nearly fainting again; his vision edged and dotted with black, he couldn’t make out Shem amidst the rubble. Turning back to Lin, the dark eyed demon continued, “This is what you’ve been doing, to tire yourself out so.” He tried to produce a protest, but all that came out was a strangled groan. “Did you really think you could get away with it? Building an escape tunnel?”

The accusation caught him completely off guard. “Escape...” he repeated, fumbling over the word. “Escape tunnel,” he pronounced flatly, tasting the syllables as if he’d never hear them before. And then it hit him: she didn’t know. She had no idea. He’d never been so overjoyed to have her spit on him.

Had he not already experienced a vastly overwhelming relief, the next few words she spoke would have been the greatest surprise he’d ever received. “Starting tonight I will send in food three times a week. You will eat if I have to shove it down your throat, and next time I come, my toy, you had better be ready to play.” Before she left she issued her warning, “Don’t think your little project will get you anywhere. There is nowhere you can go that I cannot find you; body and soul you belong to me.”

Lin might not have reacted as positively as he had if he’d known where the demon went after leaving him. Nefertiti had been stalking the bar for weeks. By now, she knew the faces of the regulars by heart, as well as having memorized a basic sketch of their private lives. She had followed a select few to their homes late at night; the easiest to target were those who came the earliest and stayed the latest, so heavy with drink by the time they did roll off of their barstools that she could have snapped her fingers in front of their eyes without attracting attention. But these tended to be loners, and singling these out would inevitably prove too much temptation. With no one to miss them reducing her chances of being caught, she’d end up indulging. She did try to stick to the letter of Mephistopheles’ law, if not the spirit. Breaking spirits was a cherished pastime of hers.

Tonight’s intended target may not have been drunk to the point of staggering, but from the way his steps wobbled on his way to the bar’s exit, he was close, and having to pay a great deal of attention in order to calculate footfalls. He devoted so much attention to this task that she was able to follow only a few feet behind him, his deadly shadow, as he made the short trek home. That was one of the initial draws he’d had to her; a short commute could make all the difference in being back at the fortress in time not to be missed. Sometimes location really was the most important thing. Besides, he was a family man, which meant he had what she was truly craving tonight.

Nefertiti followed the man to his room, observing from the shadows of the doorway as he plopped himself down on his bed, flat on his back. From the way his head lolled on the pillow, limbs splayed out in all directions, she could tell the alcohol was obviously going to his head hard now. The demon slunk forward, climbing up onto the bed so that she straddled him. She drew her jagged knife and placed its cerated edge to the folds of fat handing beneath his chin. The man grinned stupidly at her and mumbled something, probably seeing her as the product of one of his guilty fantasies. Nefertiti laughed, harshly, letting her knife nick his skin so that it drew a thin line of ruby across his gullet, then she dismounted, sheathing the knife, and headed to the next room, where his unsuspecting ten year old son slept.

A few hours after Nefertiti’s departure from the fortress cell, the pale one slipped through the wood of the door and was greeted enthusiastically by Lin and Shem. “We wanted to welcome the wolf back to the sheep’s pen,” the older boy explained. 

The demon snorted. “You’re no sheep; you’re a lion.” He was relieved to see them both alive and unmolested. “What’s gotten into you?” Lin filled him in on the details of their close call, then led him to a corner of the room where they’d laid out what must have looked like a feast to two starving boys. They’d been given a double portion of the usually rations, and had arranged the food reverently to display each item at its best advantage. “So she has a sense of mercy after all,” the demon boy considered thoughtfully.

His friend shook his head, taking a delicate bight of a wizened little apple. “She just wants me in better condition to be able to giver her the rise she needs in her games.” There was a note of irony in his voice; he brushed off the seriousness of his situation with a shrug. 

Shem was eyeing the food sharply, the way a scavenging animal would. He lifted a chunk of bread and examined it scrupulously from every angle, trying to determine the best place to take a first bite. Finally, he stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, grinning widely around the bulk of the food. Lin snorted in amusement and ruffled the kid’s wispy hair with his hand affectionately. He leaned in and whispered something in the toddler’s ear. Shem looked up at the pale one and offered him a tiny brown hand. “Thank you,” he said simply.

The pale one took the hand uncomfortably, averting his eyes. “You’re welcome.” His voice was low and stiff.

“So,” Lin came to the rescue before the silence could grow too awkward. “I think we really should build an escape tunnel.”

The pale one frowned incredulously. “What? What for? Didn’t Nefertiti explicitly warn you against that?”

“No,” came the reply. “What she said was don’t think it will work, not don’t build one. Weren’t you listening?” the human boy teased. “She practically dared me to do it.”

“Glad to see you find this so amusing,” the demon retorted drily. “Am I the only one who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to attach a blinking neon sign to the target that’s already painted on your back?”

“Look,” Lin told him, all seriousness again, “There’s nothing to loose. Nefertiti already knows we’re building something here. What’s the harm in letting her continue to think it’s an escape tunnel? It was only a fluke that she didn’t spot Shem when the door collapsed; he was right there, so close to us that if she’d taken even a step more toward him she’d have seen for certain. If we make it deeper, it’s actually much safer, because then Shem can hide farther back and even if the facade collapses like it did this time, he’ll be hidden completely from her sight, impossible to make out in the dark. It’s not as if I’m actually trying to escape.”

“Fine,” the demon agreed. A part of him ached with wishing that his friend really would try to make a break for it. Not that it would have done any good.

They developed a system by which the two older boys scraped away dirt from the inner portion of the wall, enlarging the back of the tunnel, the pale one with his bare hands and Lin using a thick, flat slab of rock he’d pried loose as a pick. Meanwhile, Shem hauled loads of dirt out of the tunnel on an improvised sledge he’d made from a shirt the pale demon had supplied. Since Nefertiti already knew of the tunnel’s existence, hiding the dirt from her was no longer a top priority; therefore, they simply relegated it to large piles in a ring a few feet away from the space where they set up the facade every night, and the demon dumped small amounts of it off the top of the fortress when the cell started getting too cluttered. The mounds of sand helped to further obscure the tunnel from Nefertiti’s line of sight. During her visits to Lin at night she aimed snide comments at the piles, but never expressly commanded him to cease his work. As long as she could find a way to see her horror reflected in his eyes - and she worked very hard to accomplish this end - she was content.

“How thick is this wall?” Lin questioned his friend one afternoon, wiping the sweat from his brow. For the first time since he’d been a prisoner at the fortress, he was getting into a rhythm by which he was actually able to estimate the hour of day. He felt giddy with excitement, realizing that at some point he would actually be able to use the tunnel to consistently see the sun. Perhaps he would even be able to feel the rain, a novelty in the desert, on his face again; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that.

“It’s about five feet,” the pale one answered. “But that’s only the filler between the inner and outer layers of stone.” He surveyed their progress thus far. “I think we’re about halfway.” He stopped digging, dusting the grit from his spidery hands, and leaned back on his heals languidly. He might have lost his frigid composure, but he’d retained his feline grace. “Speaking of which,” he said, with a twinkle of mischief in his pale eyes, “I think we should celebrate.” He headed out of the tunnel, and Lin followed a few feet behind, his curiosity sparked.

Back in the cell, the pale one brought out a small paper bag from the corner of the room, where he’d stowed it before they began work that morning. Opening it up, he fished out a small glass bottle full of malt colored liquid. Lin watched with fascination as his friend unscrewed the metal cap and took a swig of the bronze substance. “Have you ever had whiskey before?” he asked, extending the bottle toward Lin. The human boy shook his head, taking the proffered gift. He sipped from it tentatively, then choked.

“It’s vile,” he sputtered. “Are you trying to poison me?”

The other boy laughed in pure enjoyment. “You don’t drink it for the taste,” he informed him, taking back the bottle and swallowing another mouthful. “It’s for the effect. Drink a bit more and wait; it’ll hit you.” Lin shook his head ruefully and followed suit.

“What about me?” piped up a small voice. 

Before Lin could interject, the pale one shot him down. “You’re too young for this. I’m not giving a baby liquor.” He felt a small amount of guilt, watching Shem nod and slink away, but the larger part of him was gratified. Lately the toddler was trailing after Lin everywhere like a baby duckling following its mother; his jealousy was raging. Was he wrong to want this one thing to remain for him and Lin alone? He could tell Lin didn’t approve from a flicker in his eyes, but his friend allowed him to get away with this small act of possessiveness without judgement. Maybe he understood that, because Lin and Shem already shared the natural commonality of being human and chosen by Nefertiti, the pale one needed their bond reaffirmed. 

“Do you feel it yet?” the demon asked after they’d taken a few more drinks. The human boy tried to consider this. The liquor felt warm in his stomach, and his head light and fuzzy. He wasn’t really concerned about the taste any longer; he was vaguely aware of it for the moment of taking a sip, but it floated away from him as soon as he swallowed, and a new excitement built inside him every time the bottle was offered. He began to feel competitive about the size of the shots he took and his friend’s; he now swallowed twice before passing on the bottle. The pale one caught onto this with a keen eye and began to laugh; unsure why he felt compelled to do so, Lin joined him, and found that once he started laughing it was hard to stop. “I don’t think I’m drunk yet,” the human boy asserted, absurdly proud. His friend handed him the whisky once again, but instead of drinking, Lin found himself dancing with it. “I can’t stop,” he muttered, his voice scattering like ripples that flowed away from him. “I’m dancing with fire water.” He didn’t know why, but he thought he was dancing very well; he felt so loose and comfortable. The smooth, cool texture of the glass against his hand was wonderful. He tried rubbing his hands together and found his skin soft and warm. The sounds of the pale one’s laughter and his own blended together into a soothing buzz. It took him several moments to realize that the low rumble accompanying this melody so well actually meant something bad.

The pale one had let his head fall back, and was twisting it from side to side, nuzzling his cheek against the wall. “Brother,” Lin mumbled. “Brother.” His voice rose a slight degree in urgency. He tugged insistently at the demon’s sleeve. “Brother, where’s -” 

At that moment, the rumble increased to a roar behind them. They uttered the next word as a chorus: “Shem!”

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