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Valence

by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by calintz

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/41353.html)

illustrated by calintz

“The fourth one in a week!”

“What d’you suppose’ll happen if this one turns it down too?”

“Who knows – nothing, I expect. But I do wish someone would take it. It unnerves me so, the way it just lays there and stares and stares and stares.”

The two servants bustle about the cellar, lighting up the lamps in preparation for their master and his guest, looking furtively over their shoulders at the young adolescent boy in the corner. Enshrined in a large cage, he lies naked on the cold stone floor, curled listlessly on his side. His eyes, however, yellow-green and cat-like, follow the two women as they move about the room as a beast might watch its prey. Bands of watery lamplight fall across his too-skinny body, glinting off his golden collar and illuminating an unkempt mop of scarlet hair, and the slender, tapered points of his ears. Strange black and green markings cover his flesh. Swirling like elegant scrollwork, they seem almost to writhe over his skin in the dim glow.

The women shudder, clutching their shawls tightly about their shoulders. When finally the door at the top of the stair opens, and their master and his guest make their way down, they bow their heads properly and await instruction; when they are dismissed, they are so relieved that they flee the room as fast as propriety will allow.

The boy’s elderly owner and the guest stand before the boy’s cage and haggle over pricing. His master wants to be rid of him, but he has not found any buyers after searching for months.

“His uses as a familiar are somewhat limited, I grant you,” says his master. “He can’t be trusted to perform any but the simplest of tasks on his own; he is as a wild animal, and his understanding is – ” The old man makes a vague gesture with one gnarled, arthritic hand. “But his power is unparalleled, and his use as a catalyst and a vessel are both excellent.”

“Hnn.”

The boy hopes that he isn’t to be the guest’s entertainment for the night. Though this guest is at least young and handsome, unlike most of the men who come here, he is very large and imposing, standing a full head higher than his master, and his face is a cold, closed mask.

The boy studies the man closely; his features are large but well formed, with a certain aristocratic delicacy, his hair a mass of dark-blond curls that fall just below the nape of his neck. His chin is adorned with a short, neatly trimmed goatee. His clothes, though elegant and well-made, are less flamboyant than most of his master’s guests – not the embroidered robes of the alchemist’s guild, but the trousers, shirt and waistcoat of the ordinary nobility or merchant classes.

Different than the usual sort, and the boy has never seen him before – he wonders if perhaps this one will buy him. He does not know whether to hope for or against it; he can find nothing in the man’s face.

“His hair is torn,” says the man, his voice deep and slightly raspy, pleasant to the ear, but lacking any inflection or emotion. “And he’s too skinny. Your pardon, Lord Dietel, but you don’t seem to have taken very good care of him, and you’re asking quite a lot.”

The boy is surprised by the man’s manner of speech. Few have ever spoken to his master so boldly. The old man is the head of the city’s alchemist’s guild, and few wish to anger him.

His master coughs delicately, stroking his long white beard. “He is still somewhat feral, as I said before. He requires a strong hand, and is difficult to control. Grooming him has not been my highest concern. But you will not be disappointed in the level of his powers, nor, I daresay, his… other abilities.”

“You say you’ve kept his voice sealed for the last several years,” the guest says. “If it’s been that long, he might never recover the ability to speak.”

“And what, pray tell,” his master laughs, “does the boy need to speak for? The alchemist gives orders; the familiar obeys. It’s that simple, isn’t it?” The old man laughs again, a peculiar sound like fluttering paper, but his guest stands silent and utterly motionless.

Clearing his throat, he continues: “I have sealed his mind-touch as well, and it has been my experience that he’s much the better for it. He has a very strong mind, like any wild animal, and, at one time, he had a very loud voice. But if, for some unfathomable reason, you wish to remove the seal, he may not recover his voice, but mind-touch shouldn’t be a problem, not for him. But he’ll strike out with it when given half a chance. You can’t claim I haven’t warned you.”

The young man rubs at his bearded chin. “Twenty-thousand is too much. I’ll give you sixteen.”

“Sixteen! My good man, I can’t possibly sell a familiar of this caliber for so little.”

“Then I believe our business here is done.”

The boy can just see his master’s hand curl into a fist inside the sleeve of his robes. The young man taps one fingertip idly on the handle of his cane as he awaits a response.

“Seventeen,” says his master, voice a little strained. “And not a crown less.”

The guest arches one eyebrow, and makes his mouth into a smile. It does not reach his eyes. “We have a deal,” he says, stretching out his hand.

The old man takes it with a mirroring smile of his own. “Excellent,” he says, eyes hard and glittering. “He is yours, Karl Janke.”

illustrated by calintz

The boy thinks: I should have run when I had the chance.

A numbness had overcome him when he heard the words, as his fate exchanged hands, and kept him stunned motionless as his master – former master, now – entered his cage and touched his collar, shattering it with a single word of power. He had known his master was trying to sell him, but after so many potential buyers had refused, the possibility had lost all sense of immediacy, hadn’t seemed as though it could ever come to pass. And yet it had.

The young alchemist who had purchased him insisted on a spare cloak to cover the spirit’s bare body. (“I’m an alchemist, not a flesh peddler.”) Then his wrists had been bound in iron cuffs to restrict both his movement and his magic, and he had been lead outside and to the man’s carriage.

Outside! It hadn’t even seemed real. The fresh air tasted strange and foreign. The afternoon light pierced his eyes like needles, throbbing through his skull. The feel of the breeze in his hair awakened something within him, instincts that he’d almost forgotten. Run, they said. Run.

But he wasn’t stupid. He had known it was impossible. His legs muscles were weak from lack of use, and even if they hadn’t been, they would have caught up to him before long. It was impossible to do much of anything with those cuffs on his wrists.

So now he clings to the seat of the carriage, uneasy with the sensation of movement beneath him, possessed of the notion that he might fall through the floor and be overrun by the wheels. He watches the man across from him warily – the scowl on his face! His brow is knotted into a mask of fury, dark and terrible and quite possibly murderous. The man is not looking at the boy, but staring fixedly out of the small window, breathing hard through his nose. His hand clenches into a fist in his lap, trembling slightly. The boy watches, and thinks:

I should have run.

The man’s fist convulses, once, twice. Then he opens his hand, lifts it, rubs his face. After a moment he sighs heavily, and the hand drops; the face it reveals seems to belong to another man entirely.

The boy’s new master looks at him and smiles. A smile nothing like the one he had seen in the cellar – a smile that fills his blue eyes with a warmth the spirit can’t recall ever having seen before in all his short life. “My name is Karl,” he says, with an amber voice, sweet and dark like honey. “I guess we’ll need to find you a proper name too, won’t we?”

~*~
Karl carried away from his meeting with Lord Dietel the distinctive impression that the old goat had thought he was deceiving the younger alchemist, had thought he was ridding himself of a troublesome artifact by tricking a newcomer to the guild, someone unaccustomed to navigating its shady, illicit underbelly, into purchasing it.

Such a horrible old man. Karl would have cheerfully smashed his hairy, gnarled face into the bars of his familiar’s cage, if he could have afforded such indiscretion. And he wasn’t a very perceptive man either, if he thought Karl didn’t know what was going on. Could he possibly believe Karl didn’t realize what he was being sold? That Karl didn’t realize the boy was an illegal hybrid?

Karl could, at this very moment, take the boy to the proper authorities and have Dietel arrested. He wouldn’t, of course, since they’d exterminate the kid, and that would defeat his entire purpose in obtaining the spirit-child – and most likely the old man would weasel out of the charges somehow, anyway. No matter how imperceptive he had seemed, one didn’t obtain a seat at the head of an alchemist’s guild in a major city such as this one without intelligence and talent, both in matters of alchemy and in social maneuvering. Perhaps Dietel’s eagerness had made him temporarily short-sighted. It was all very suspect. Karl would remain wary of him.

But now he had the spirit itself to attend to – no small matter.

He was beautiful; that was nothing unexpected, of course, spirits tended to be beautiful creatures. Even the most grotesquely inhuman among them tended to have a peculiar brand of aesthetic appeal. But this child’s features possessed a certain compelling and alien drama that even most spirits lacked. The wild state of his almost blood-colored hair, the sharp edge that hunger had given his appearance – these things only served to accentuate his feral grace.

But the most astounding thing, he thought, was the way the boy had eaten. Karl had been torn between trying to suppress his own laughter and worrying that the poor thing would choke or make himself sick. It was like watching a starved animal. Perhaps that wasn’t so far from the truth – the kid had looked starved enough when the alchemist had seen his body, the lines of his ribs standing out in sharp relief on his skinny chest.

In the carriage earlier, the boy had first shown unmasked surprise at Karl’s smile and gentle words, which had quickly deteriorated into blatant distrust. Unsurprising, but it would have to be remedied as quickly as possible.

As soon as they’d arrived at his small estate, Karl had dismissed his cook and his coachman for the evening (who both cast furtive, doubtful glances over their shoulders as they left, not accustomed to seeing their employer come home with strange young boys), and only then would he set about removing the spirit’s restraints. Loathsome things, but Karl was wary – the tension in the boy’s body, the faint tremor in the muscles, they were all that of a wild animal’s when choosing whether to attack or to flee.

He had said to the boy: “If I were you, I wouldn’t believe a thing a man said to me, if he kept me chained up while saying it. So I’m going to take these off. But I would ask that you kindly not do anything rash until you’ve listened to what I have to say – all right?”

The child had just blinked, a long, slow sweep of lashes, and stared at him with lamp-like eyes empty and blank. But he barely twitched when Karl removed the cuffs, just clutched his borrowed cloak a little tighter around his body.

The alchemist was struck by how small he seemed; the top of the child’s head didn’t quite reach to Karl’s shoulders. It was difficult to remember the boy was probably an equal to himself in power. He would have to be careful. It wouldn’t do to forget such things.

He was trying to remember that right now, looking at the spirit from across the table – but it was awfully hard when the boy’s mouth was covered in bread crumbs and his little pink tongue was licking jam off his fingers with the delicacy of a kitten. Karl rubbed his face, still trying not to laugh, and passed the kid his handkerchief.

“Here, use this.”

The kid gave it a blank look for a moment, like he didn’t know what it was, but then he took it and wiped his face and hands clean. Karl felt his fingers twitching with the compulsion to do it for him, and he lit up a cigarette to keep himself occupied.

“So,” he said, smoke curling out from his lips. “Want to make a contract with me?”

The boy’s face remained empty; he didn’t respond in any way, nor did he seem to acknowledge that the alchemist had even spoken.

Wild animal, huh? Karl mused. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he really didn’t understand anything but the simplest of questions and commands. The alchemist stared into those chatoyant eyes, searching: in them he found a peculiar nothing, a nothing that threatened to engulf everything it touched upon.

No. No, I don’t think so.

Karl chewed on his cigarette and tapped his fingers on the table. “You don’t have to,” he continued, “if you don’t want to. I won’t throw you out if you don’t, either. You can stay here. I won’t keep you in a cage or make you do anything you don’t want to.”

The spirit gave him that long, slow blink again, and his features tightened, just a little.

“But… You know spirits aren’t permitted to even exist in this country unless they’re under contract with an alchemist, don’t you?” He tapped ash into the tray beside him. “You had to know, or you would have tried to kill that old lecher. Anyone would have.

“So I’ll let you stay here unbonded if you want, but I’m warning you now – they’ll find out. Probably sooner rather than later. That would be pretty bad for both of us, wouldn’t it? But the one who’d really suffer is you, not me. Me, I’d be fined, lose what reputation I’ve gained since I’ve been here, maybe I’d even be jailed. But you’d be sealed away indefinitely.”

A bird-like tilt of the head and narrowed eyes, like the kid didn’t know what to make of him.

“I don’t blame you if you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t either, in your position. You don’t have to decide right away.”

The alchemist stubbed out his cigarette. “For now… Do you want me to remove those seals? On your voice, and your mind.”

Karl led the spirit-child down into his cellar, where, ostensibly, his laboratory was located. (In reality, if truth were told, in the few months that he had been in this country the laboratory had already crept stealthily out into the rest of the building; the cellar still held the main of it, though.) It wasn’t necessary to bring the kid here to break what was, most likely, a couple of simple seals, but this was a hurdle he wanted cleared as soon as possible.

As expected, the boy was wary at being taken below ground, and froze near the top of the stair and refused to go further. “Kid,” Karl said, “I’m a practical man. If I was going to stuff you back in a cage, I would have never taken those cuffs off your wrists, and if I was going to force you into a contract, I wouldn’t bother with pretending to care how you felt about it. There aren’t any cages down here, and I’m not going to force you into anything.”

The spirit reluctantly continued downward, still hanging far behind the alchemist on the stair; that was okay though, as long as he followed.

The alchemist led him to the armchairs in the corner and coaxed him to sit. As he knelt down before him, the spirit, fairly vibrating with nervous energy, drew his knees up protectively against himself.

“Hey,” Karl laughed. “Don’t do that. It’s harder to see.” He fitted a monocle to his eye, an ingenious little artifact he’d brought with him from his home country: it transformed the emanations of energies of which his naked eye could only perceive the barest of suggestions and faint flickers of color into a clearly visible, brilliant areole around the subject.

Karl had been surprised at the color of this one when he had first seen it in Dietel’s laboratory, and it was still somewhat startling now – an almost pure golden light, interrupted only by an occasional stray flare of red or orange. An unusual color, and of an unusual consistency. The rhythmic pulsing of the waves and the strange, chaotic distortions within them, though, those were just as he’d expect from a Nephilim, like an exact replica of any textbook diagram.

The seals on the boy’s voice and mind were not hidden or complex in any way, immediately perceptible as a slight dimming in the light and depression in the shape of the waves about his throat and forehead. Childishly simple restraints. Karl felt his jaw clenching.

“You could have broken these yourself, you know.”

The boy showed no reaction. The alchemist could only suppose that meant that this was not news to him. Curbing his irritation, Karl ran a hand through his hair, already craving another cigarette.

“Yeah, I get it,” he said. “There are other ways of making a person bend to your will. But I’ll break them now.”

Before he proceeded the alchemist looked for evidence of a third seal. It had to be on or within the spirit somewhere. The kid was a dangerously unstable creature. A hybrid’s full power had to be restrained.

Ah, there it was – much more artfully done than the other two. He could see it only as a peculiar, reflexive refraction of the light in the center of the boy’s chest, as if the waves were endlessly bouncing back and forth within a circle of mirrors. It would require some time to untangle. Karl suspected he would need the strength of a bond between himself and the spirit, as well.

The other seals, however, would only need a word of power. “All right,” Karl said, pocketing the monocle. “May I touch your face?”

The alchemist waited for the boy’s tentative nod, and then laid the tips of his index and middle fingers on the center of the boy’s brow. “Solue!” he murmured, under his breath.

A little jolt ran through the spirit’s body, and he gasped aloud. Karl managed a smile. “You felt it?” he said. “If you form a contract with me now, you’ll be able to communicate with me freely. Might take some time to relearn how to project coherent thoughts, though. May I touch your throat, now?”

The boy nodded again and lifted his chin. As Karl touched his flesh he felt the child flinch, felt the movement under his fingers move as the boy swallowed. It was hard for the spirit not to cringe away.

Karl repeated the word of power. This time the spirit jerked back hard against the chair, letting loose a harsh, broken sound, like his throat was full of broken glass scraping on glass, a sound that hurt to hear. He then promptly choked and doubled over, coughing uncontrollably. The alchemist grabbed his shoulder, steadying him.

“Whoa, kid,” he said, “Easy. Don’t try to use it right away like that, it’ll hurt. You okay?”

Slowly the spasms wracking the spirit’s body eased, and his breathing slowed; then abruptly the boy turned on him with a look of such abject astonishment that Karl was startled into laughing. “Well, what did you expect?” he asked, trying to stifle it and failing. “But it’s a good sign you can make any sound at all. Here, I’ll make some tea, it’ll soothe your throat.”

The kid had seemed dubious at first of tea made on laboratory equipment – reminding the alchemist of his cook, who was convinced he was going to inflict some kind of horrifying transfiguration upon himself, eventually. But once Karl had him convinced that the beverage wouldn’t kill him (nor burn him, so long as he sipped it slowly,) he drank it down with relish, trying to lick the remaining drops from the bottom of the cup.

Karl chuckled, and then immediately was beset by an intruding squirm of guilt over what he had to do. Manipulating this child felt monstrous; but he had to convince the kid to bond with him, or at the very least he’d be doomed to a life of slavery. At the worst…

He suckled at his half-spent cigarette, watching the boy. “All right, kid,” he said. “I told you I wouldn’t force you into a contract, and I won’t. But want to make sure you understand the danger you’re in.

“You know what you are. I know what you are too.” He let the full meaning of the words show through. A curious stillness came over the spirit, like that of an animal trying to go unnoticed by a predator.

“You know what would happen if you were caught. You know what would happen to me if you were caught here; but what would happen to me is the least of your worries. In fact,” Karl said, hating that he was doing this, “I’d bet getting discovered as an unbonded spirit isn’t really your biggest concern, either. Am I right?”

His feline eyes looked too wide, hunted, the pupils contracting to slits.

“You’re a Nephilim, aren’t you kid?” Karl crushed the flame from the remains of his cigarette. “You’re half human. Half-breeds aren’t sealed away when they’re discovered. They’re exterminated.”

Only a split-second passed after his last utterance – only a split second, and then the boy was hurtling into him.

Karl, astonished, had only time enough to bring his arms up protectively before the weight impacted and toppled the chair, sending them both flying backward. There was a vicious flurry of claws, and the alchemist felt them tear into the back of one hand; and then he crashed into the bookcase behind him, his head smashing into one of the shelves with a sickening crack. He slumped down in a tumble of falling books, and the boy sprung off of him.

“Shit!” Karl hurriedly swept the books away, reeling, struggling to see through the blinding light searing through his skull. “Shit!” he exclaimed again, finding that the boy had already reached the base of the staircase. There was no helping it.

“Necte Corpore!”

As the words flung from Karl’s mouth, the boy’s body abruptly went rigid, his arms twisting behind his back and his feet crossing over one another. Swaying dangerously, he began to fall backward. Karl caught him with the air, allowed him to float harmlessly to the floor.

“Shit,” Karl said a third time, making his way painfully up out of the pile of books. “You didn’t have to do that, kid. Damn. My hand is bleeding.” Two angry red gashes tore their way from his wrist all the way down the side of his hand.

He went to the boy, grimacing through the pain screeching through his skull. “Are you all right?” he asked the boy, rubbing his own aching head.

Trembling violently against the binding spell, the boy glared up at him with alarming savagery, lips pulled back to bare his sharp little fangs. Karl sighed and knelt down next to him. His cloak had fallen open. Pulling it carefully around his small body, he lifted him from the floor – awkward work, with his injured hand.

The spirit spasmed in his arms, struggling. He’d break through the bonds, eventually, the alchemist realized with a start. The threads of the spell were unraveling like a frayed hem.

Karl took him back to the armchair and plopped the spirit back in it, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Careful not to bleed on anything, he righted the other chair and sat back down in front of the boy, leaning forward and resting his forehead on his palm tiredly.

“Really, kid,” he said, “did you think I wouldn’t figure it out? Your aura has all the earmarks. I could see a little of it without even using the eyeglass. Even if it wasn’t for that, I’d have found the seal on your true form, and it would have only been a matter of time before I figured out what it was.

“I’m not threatening you, here, don’t you get it? There’s nothing that would make me expose you for what you are. You’re safe here. So would you please calm down?”

The spirit didn’t look as though he would be calming any time soon. In fact, he was making a sound disturbingly like a strangled hiss, his face reddening with the effort he was making to break the bonds.

Karl rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “All right, I’ll prove it to you. I can show you. You’d find out if we made a contract, anyway.”

It was enough to make the boy pause, a wary curiosity filling his eyes. “If you still want to leave afterward,” the alchemist added, “I’ll let you go, I swear it. But I think it’ll change your mind.”

The boy’s panting slowed, his straining muscles relaxed a little. Karl stood up. “I want to release you from that binding spell. Will you sit there long enough to see?”

Still quivering, the boy hesitated before giving an infinitesimal nod of his head. The alchemist rescinded the spell, holding his breath; the spirit nearly toppled over as the tension he was struggling against suddenly dissipated; but then he righted himself, and fixed the man with a dubious stare.

Exhaling in relief, Karl said: “This is something you can’t mention to anyone, all right? Even if you leave, even if you learn to speak again.” The boy didn’t move, his expression unchanging. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to trust you,” he said, hoping it would mean something.

Karl pushed his hair back, tapped the small silver earring in his ear. “See this?” he asked. “It’s a seal.”

The boy’s forehead creased in confusion.

“All right, I’ll make it clearer.” Standing, the alchemist unbuttoned his waistcoat carefully with his uninjured hand, careful not to get blood on the embroidered white fabric as he shrugged out of it. His shirt, though, was ruined anyway; the sleeve was torn.

The spirit eyed what he was doing with deep distrust, lips pursing. “I’m only taking off my shirt,” Karl laughed. “Just wait a moment.” He turned around, watching the spirit’s face over his shoulder, and let his shirt slide down his shoulders to expose his back.

A soft intake of breath – yes, the kid understood now. His eyes gradually grew round, tracing over the deep blue calligraphic lines swirling over Karl’s shoulder blades like stylized scrollwork wings. The design seemed almost intentional, like a tattoo; a beautiful work. Karl could almost feel proud of it.

They branded him half-spirit, Nephilim, just like that boy.

The boy had gone lax, his mouth hanging open just a little. Karl grinned, feeling inordinately pleased with himself. “You see,” he said. “This isn’t a tattoo. And this –”

Lifting one hand, the alchemist contorted the air pressure in the room so that a small gust lifted up the spirit’s scarlet hair. Karl’s grin widened at the boy’s little jolt of surprise.

“- isn’t human magic,” Karl finished. “That’s what I was trying to tell you. I’m just like you.”

Karl pulled his shirt back on and sat back down. “Now,” he said. “Want to make a contract with me?”

A pause, in which the spirit sat there looking somewhat dazzled and vacant, as if he’d hit his head; and then he stood up and made his way over to the alchemist. Karl watched him, wondering. Reaching out with slender, clawed fingers, the boy took Karl’s bloodied hand in his own – and then, in one smooth movement, he dipped his head and lapped at the wound.

Karl’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he found his voice. “H-hey,” he said hoarsely, pulling back. But the boy held on to him, tongue curiously cool and rough, stinging a little as it dragged over the injured flesh. “What… are you…”

And then he noticed that that coolness seemed to be seeping down into the wound, soothing the burning ache of it; the broken skin began knitting up before his eyes. “You…” he started, unable to finish, watching in mute astonishment as the boy healed him, leaving nothing but a tender pink scar where the wound had been.

Karl laughed weakly. Since when did a fire spirit have the ability to heal? Absurdity.

The boy was still holding on to his hand, those haunting eyes staring up at him through the mess of his bangs. The alchemist rubbed the back of his neck, feeling slightly awkward. “Um,” he said with a crooked smile. “Thanks, kid. Was that maybe a yes?”

~*~
The spirit watches the man called Karl as he scratches out the circle on the floor. His dark golden hair has been tied back, but stray curls fall across his face and over his eyes. The alchemist talks as he works, voice punctuated by the scrape of chalk, and the boy wonders how he can concentrate on both things at once.

He tells him of another life, a country called Nippon, and a master who saved him from slavery. His memory of life before that is blurred, out of focus, speckled with rare, unpleasant spots of clarity. “They thought my blond hair and white skin were exotic, something special,” he said. “They didn’t think of me as a person.”

His master had eventually died to keep him safe, he explains. The alchemist pauses, looking thoughtful. “I could say that’s why I’m doing this – some sort of sense of responsibility. But to tell you the truth, I just don’t like to see it. It brings up things I don’t like to think about. It’s a kind of selfish motive, I guess, but…” He shrugs, and returns to his work.

The circle is soon completed. Standing, the alchemist brushes the chalk from his hands. “All right,” he says, reaching out to the boy. “Are you ready?”

The boy takes the proffered hand and allows himself to be pulled inside. One by one, the alchemist lights a candle at each cardinal point – north, east, south, west. Then he kneels down before the boy, unbuttoning his shirt.

He takes up a small knife; ceremonial, yet infinitely simple, it consists of only a slender blade about nine inches in length, and a plain wooden hilt wrapped in leather for grip, darkened from long use. Its only adornment are the strange characters inscribed on the metal, perfect angles and curves that spell out a message intelligible to no man on Earth. It is very sharp.

The alchemist places the knife in the boy’s hand. Guiding the spirit, the alchemist places the tip of the blade against his own heart. A flick of his wrist, and blood wells up from the small cut. Retrieving the knife, the alchemist takes the spirit’s small, delicate hand in his own; the child does not flinch, not even as the blade slices into his palm.

The alchemist lays down the instrument and presses the spirit’s palm to his chest, allowing their blood to commingle. Softly he recites the incantation:

“Sanguine tuo te mihi iugo
Sanguine meo iugaris
Ut ignis aere ad urundum iugat.”

The candles flare up as the initial pathways open between them, tentative and unfinished. Karl reaches out through this connection with his thoughts, lightly, cautiously brushing against the spirit’s consciousness: Do you enter into this contract of your own free will?

The boy jerks a little in surprise at this intrusion. It is an old, old question, though one he has never heard before; once a standard part of the ritual, it has now been forgotten by most modern alchemists. The spirit allows his wordless acceptance to be felt between them – the man smiles, the quiet, warm smile from the carriage that afternoon.

“Iam tu et ego sumus ut unum.”

The bond snaps tight and seals them together, mingling their essences as their blood.

At first everything progresses as it should: the candles hiss and pop; a flare like lightning, visible only from the corner of the eye, forks its way around and over them like a dome; a ring of light forms around the spirit’s neck, gradually solidifying, revealing the bond name inscribed there in the same incomprehensible letters as those on the alchemist’s knife. And then, as the connection between them cements and the pathways between master and familiar open fully, it all goes very strange.

Something breaks. Deep within the young spirit, it breaks, like a dam giving way under the sudden crashing weight of flood waters. It breaks so violently that the force of it rocks all the way through the newly formed bond and into the alchemist, slamming him to his knees in shock and confusion. A wash of electricity overwhelms his nerve endings, sending his muscles into spasms. Distantly he notes an inexplicable scent of myrrh, cinnamon, and charred roses.

His familiar’s mouth is open in a perfect “o”, body rocked back and snapped taut as a wire, eyes wide and blank. The cloak is wearing slips from his shoulders, and golden light pours out of his bare skin.

The seal, Karl thinks. Oh, God, the seal.

A tremor works its way up the spirit’s body, arches his back, forces another one of those broken, painful sounds from his throat. Then he doubles over, and suddenly a great pair of wings erupts from between his shoulder blades, stretching open so wide they threaten to break the circle, the plumage all in brilliant shades of red and gold and glossy black; more feathers crown his head, sprouting along the hairline and shooting up in a showy crest. His nails, already thick and sharp as claws, lengthen into deadly black talons.

His eyes have turned to luminous yellow fire, his expression most decidedly inhuman. Hawk-like. Predatory. As the spirit straightens and steadies himself, surveying the man kneeling before him, he is no longer looking upon quite the same world he had a few moments before; very little of anything resembling an earthly consciousness remains to him.

The alchemist has a fleeting impression of bowing in supplication before a god. Not so far off, probably. He is not afraid, though he supposes that he should be. A Nephilim is an unstable creature. Based in both the spirit realm and the physical, pulled tight and stretched thin between both; unsealed, they are subject to dangerous fluctuations in power, possessing wild strength and perceiving a dual reality, giving rise to a strange and alien consciousness.

The spirit’s thoughts could not be comprehended or predicted in any fashion, not now. At any moment he might decide to strike out with those talons and flay the alchemist’s flesh from his bones. But he is not afraid. He only stares, transfixed by the image of a beautiful boy made all out of flame.

Do you dine on crushed pearls and incense?

The thought is so very foreign as it trails languidly through his mind that the strangeness of it startles him back to awareness. He shakes his head, trying to cast off the loud buzzing in his skull.

The white bees are swarming.

The alchemist’s silver earring is thrumming dully in his flesh, an irritating sensation. His own seal, worked into the metal, is straining under the pressure. The young spirit is calling him, an insistent hum like insect wings. Faint strains of unearthly music echo in his mind.

Music of the spheres. Triangles in the ice. Fit them together.

No.

Karl touches his fingertips to the earring, willing the seal to hold, willing his mind to remain coherent and present to the mortal realm. The circle will not contain them both if it breaks. Such a thing can not be risked. He looks up at the spirit who still shines like a god before him, meeting its predatory gaze.

“Hey,” he says, his voice gruff with the effort of forming human words. “You’re calling me.”

The spirit’s wings stretch wider, their tips brushing the chalk at the edge of the circle. A slender, black-taloned hand lifts from his side, reaches out toward the alchemist. Karl grabs the boy’s wrist, clutches it hard.

“You’re calling me,” he says, “but I’ve already answered.” He lays his other hand lightly on the boy’s chest. “You can stop now. I’m here.”

The boy blinks – that long, slow sweep of lashes Karl recognizes from earlier.

“Stop now,” Karl repeats. “I’m here.”

Abruptly, the spirit’s eyes roll back into his head, and he falls forward into the alchemist’s arms.

~*~
The boy’s talons nicked the back of the alchemist’s wrist as he fell; Karl caught him, carefully rearranging the boy’s arms to a safe position, and then stared down, bewildered, at the feathered head resting against his chest. “Kid?” he called, urgent, gently shaking his shoulder. The boy’s head rolled to one side, and his eyes, still golden but less vibrant than before, gazed up at Karl, vague and unfocused.

The alchemist wanted to ask him what was wrong, but he didn’t dare attempt a mind-touch, not when the boy was in this form. He would have to create a new seal right away.

He thought for a moment, and then plucked a small, downy feather from the spirit’s temple. The boy jerked, and his brow creased.

“Sorry,” Karl muttered. “Look, I’m going to make a new seal. I’m going to make it with this, your own power, so it’ll be yours, and I’m going to make it so you can remove it yourself if you need to. All right? Can you understand what I’m saying?”

His familiar squinted with the effort of following speech, but inclined his head complaisantly. Rather than use an incantation, Karl drew upon the other part of his being, the part not tied directly to the physical world, to alter the feather’s substance; it drew out, glowing, elongating into a single fine line, then curled around on itself, forming a perfect ring in his palm. Careful of the talons, he slipped the still glowing ring onto the boy’s finger, and said:

“Accept it. Accept it as your own.”

The boy peered at him owlishly – but then he nodded, and a strange crack sounded in their ears. His body went rigid in Karl’s arms, wings flexing outward, rustling against the man’s side. They deliquesced, becoming translucent and nebulous; then, quivering, they broke apart and disappeared all together, along with the feathers crowning his head and the talons gracing each finger. The glow within the ring snuffed out, leaving an ordinary looking white gold behind.

Convulsing in his arms, the spirit gave a quiet, pitiable little mew; and then his body went limp and he was silent.

“He-Hey,” Karl called out, alarmed. He shifted the boy in his arms to free one hand and shake his shoulder. “Hey! Are you all right?”

The spirit’s eyelids quivered with effort as they fluttered open, and eyes of the same yellow-green as earlier looked up at Karl groggily. Gently, Karl brushed against the boy’s mind, searching for the cause of this. All he found there was a vast, gaping emptiness, cold and black. He could only interpret it as sheer exhaustion – whatever else it might be he couldn’t fathom.

Maybe that was all it was. Exhaustion. Having a seal that complex so suddenly burst open, having one’s power so suddenly flush out to its full capacity, surely that was enough to explain it.

In which case he should let the boy sleep.

One by one he extinguished the candles, west, south, east, north. Then he carried the boy out of the cellar and to one of the guest rooms. When he got there, the spirit was already asleep in his arms; he laid him carefully down on the bed, trying not to wake him.

Karl eyed the cloak. He couldn’t just let him sleep in that thing. Tomorrow, Karl thought, he’d have to ask his cook if she had any old clothing she could spare; her son was around the same age, and the two were probably of a size. That would do until Karl trusted his familiar to safely endure having his measurements taken without trying to claw the tailor’s eyes out. But right now he needed something to sleep in.

Karl turned to leave the room – and found his wrist suddenly captured in a startlingly strong grip. His familiar stared up at him with an expression he did not quite recognize, his pupils dilated and dark. Unnerved, Karl gently disengaged the boy’s hand.

“I’ll be back. Wait just a moment.”

The boy let him go, seeming reluctant. By the time he’d returned the boy had drifted off again. Karl woke him, got him to sit propped against himself so that he could slip the cloak from his shoulders. He guided the boy’s arms into the shirt he’d brought, pulling it over his head – it was one of his own, much too big, of course, but perfectly suitable for sleeping.

In one sudden, smooth motion, the child clutched Karl’s arm as he was pulling the garment down, and he arched up, pressing his bare chest against the man’s hand.

Karl froze. That look in the kid’s eyes – it was like a predator’s… Or a lover’s.

The realization left him cold, turned his stomach. Deliberate and mechanical, he moved his hand away, finished pulling the shirt down to cover the boy’s body. He pressed the kid’s shoulders down firmly, pulled the blankets over him.

“Sleep,” he said gruffly, relieved his voice didn’t crack. “I’ll check on you shortly.”

He only barely resisted the urge to run from the room as he left.

Karl stood by the window in his bedchamber, staring dully out at the rising moon as he drank smoke in great, unhealthy gulps, burning down his throat and into his lungs. He focused on the burn, trying to still his mind.

Disgusting. Humans were such disgusting creatures.

He kept remembering the feel of the boy’s flesh, ribs hard and sharp under his fingers. It kept triggering another memory in his body, the sensation of going through those same motions, of trying to please masters, now distant and half-forgotten, that had seen him as a thing, only a tool to be used.

A slight tremor shook his hands. The boy had been so very warm in his arms. The smell of him was still in his nose, in his mouth. He felt sick.

Massaging his temples, Karl stubbed out his cigarette and went to his bed, falling back heavily against the pillows. He looked at the cut on the back of his wrist, where the spirit’s talons had nicked him; it was small, nothing serious, but deeper than he’d realized. It was still bleeding just a little, a small trickle of half-dried red meandering out from it. Absently he suckled at the wound.

Mixed in with the coppery-salt flavor of his own blood, he could swear he tasted cinnamon.

Karl slept.

He hadn’t meant to. Half-sitting, half-reclining on the cushions, he’d intended to just wait there until his mind had stopped racing, until his heart stopped threatening to shatter his chest, before going back to check on the kid. But the strangeness of the evening had apparently worn on him more than he realized.

He dreamt; of Nippon, of flying through opaque walls of snow, of faces underlit by flame and distorted by shadow, of chains and old suffering. Nothing clear. Just a pervading, churning uneasiness, and the repeated image of a little girl dressed all in rags, limbs skinny and fragile as match-sticks, holding a dim lantern, walking through a world made up of nothing but white.

The sensation of the bedsprings moving beneath him, of solid weight over his legs, pulled him near to waking.

Something was there. With him. On the bed.

At first he couldn’t move, paralyzed by sleep, and thought that he must still be dreaming; but then that scent crept into his breath – myrrh, cinnamon, charred roses. Tinged now with musk and salty sweat.

Karl gasped, wrenching himself awake. Even before as his eyes flew open, he already knew what he would see: chatoyant eyes, cat-like and predatory, looming at the end of the bed.

He stared. The boy was poised over his legs in an animal’s tense crouch, having frozen that way as the alchemist jolted awake. There was nothing much human in that pale, pointed face, not now. The alchemist would have feared the kid was really as mad and feral as Dietel had tried to tell him, that he had come to Karl’s room in the middle of the night to maul him in his sleep and dine on his flesh; would have, but the glaze of hunger in his eyes was of an entirely different sort than that.

The boy’s elliptical pupils were dilated to deep black pools, lined with only a thin ring of color; his face was flushed, lips slightly parted, panting. His back was arched, skinny chest just visible where the loose collar of his tunic hung open, rising and falling rapidly.

Karl’s breath stuck in his throat, his mind wiped blank.

The spirit moved again, slowly stalking his way up the alchemist’s body. For a moment he could swear the markings on his face and legs were sliding in a sensual roll over his skin. He blinked and the illusion was gone.

“What,” Karl began, but his voice cracked and failed him. That boy was too young to look like that. Karl’s mind rejected it. He was what, fourteen, fifteen, maybe sixteen at best? Too young.

“What,” he tried again, but now the kid was right there in front of his face, darkened eyes looking straight up into his, breath trickling cool across his neck and chest, and Karl’s throat closed as he felt, with a sharp, piercing suddenness, heat pooling low in his body. The repugnance of it nauseated him, cleared his head a little. Briefly he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

“Kid,” he ground out, “What the hell are you doing?

The spirit didn’t seem to acknowledge he’d spoken. With a sweep of his hand he brushed Karl’s shirt open wide; he dipped his scarlet covered head down, drawing his lips in a light caress over the man’s abdomen. Karl jerked at the touch, at the soft tickle of the kid’s hair. The boy moved upward, tongue flicking out over an uncovered nipple.

The alchemist gasped, grabbed the boy by the shoulders and pushed him back, none too gently. His addled consciousness supplied him with the sensory impression of continuing the motion, of pushing the kid down to the bed and covering that small body with his own, feeling it move beneath his weight.

He yanked his hands away as if they’d been burned. His cock was hardening, uncomfortably rigid against the junction of hip and thigh.

“Look,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, “I don’t know what that old man made you think, but this isn’t something you have to – ”

The kid gave him a frustrated look, and abruptly arched downward, grinding his hips against Karl’s legs.

No. No, this wasn’t happening.

The kid rubbed against his thigh like a bitch in heat – and he was. God. Hard. The feel of it clearly delineated through the thin fabric. The heat of it burning into Karl’s flesh.

The kid was crazy. Karl resisted the impulse to push the boy off of him and flee.

Now those pale fingers were reaching for the laces of his trousers, pulling at them hurriedly. With one hand Karl captured the boy’s bony wrists and held them still, and with the other he grabbed his shoulder and shook him, trying to jar some sense back into him somehow.

“Look, this isn’t right, kid!” he shouted. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, alien and hollow. “This isn’t how things are supposed to be, don’t you get it?”

The mind touch was unexpected – and it was nothing like the few cautious, light touches Karl had extended to the boy. It plowed into Karl’s consciousness like a pickaxe, and the man gasped and swayed with the force of it; the boy wasn’t able to form coherent words, of course, not yet, but it vibrated with his intent, with pleading and desperation and… fear? Please, the boy was saying. Please.

It was the fear that made Karl let go. How was he supposed to deal with that? The kid was scared, genuinely scared. Karl couldn’t comprehend it. One hand left hovering helplessly in the air over the spirit’s shoulder, he watched, just watched, as the boy yanked open his trousers with deft little movements of his fingers. As his cock sprang free the boy’s eyes flicked up to the man’s face, something almost smug there in his features. Karl felt like a hypocrite. His face burned.

Then those cool fingertips started touching him, and he thought he was going to die.

Karl hissed through his teeth, trapped the pillow beside him in a death grip. His other hand twitched with the impulse to clutch the kid’s shoulder or thread fingers through his hair; he resisted it. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t right.

The spirit’s head dipped down, lips closing around the head of Karl’s cock. His tongue swirled, laving it, teasing at the slit. Karl choked with the effort not to cry out. Then the boy took in nearly half his length all at once, and Karl had to lift his hand, bite down on his knuckle so hard it bled.

Something was abnormal about this. It had been a long time now since he’d last lain with anyone, but that didn’t account for it. This was pleasure so sharp it hurt.

Small hands smoothed over his sides, down over his hips, the fine points of claws brushing over the sensitive, tender skin just beneath his hipbone, making the man’s breath catch erratically; the boy suckled at him hard, tongue seeking out all the sensitive spots, and it was all the man could do not to buck into that warmth as deep as he could go. Then suddenly the boy swallowed down his entire shaft, and Karl, arching, toes curling, head flinging back against the headboard, thought with brief, eerie clarity:

Too young. Too goddamn young to suck a cock like that.

And then climax washed over him in a merciless, convulsive wave, and he spilled himself down the boy’s throat with a hoarse shout.

It was the most intense and terrifying orgasm of his entire life.

He felt it then; felt it draining out of him along with his seed, the magic pulsing out of his veins and into the boy. Everything abruptly made sense. He should have realized before.

Afterward he slumped there, gasping and strangely relieved, and not nearly as horrified as he should have been at the sight of that pretty child, child, damnit, casually wiping a bit of semen from the corner of his mouth and licking it from his fingers. Just like a cat licking milk from its paws.

“All right,” he rasped, still trying to catch his breath. “I get it. I get it now. You’re a vessel, right? I already knew that much. I should have figured it out before.”

There were, among spirits capable of acting as vessels, rare specimens who could store an enormous amount of spiritual energy, and who lost and gained it as easily as water poured in or out of a jar. Because of this, they often found themselves dangerously drained; and because of the effectiveness of sex as a transference method, they often developed a natural instinct to seek out power in that fashion. In previous centuries, they had often run wild, literally loving many a human victim to death. They had been called in those times ‘incubi’ and ‘succubae’.

No wonder the child had been afraid. The formation of the bond must have triggered a release – that would explain the seal breaking, as well. And the boy’s transfiguration would have spent even more energy. He had probably been in a lot of pain.

“Sorry,” said Karl, “That I didn’t understand sooner. I was just a little… Ah. Startled.” He grinned crookedly at his own choice of words.

The boy leaned forward a little, resting his weight on one hand, his head rolling lazily to the side. His eyes were luminescing slightly and he looked somewhat drunk. Karl suspected the boy had taken enough from him that, were he human, he’d be out cold.

And suddenly, he realized – the boy was still straddling his legs, and –

Shit. The kid was still aroused.

The alchemist rubbed his forehead tiredly. There were only so many moral crises a person should have to face in the space of a day, weren’t there? Briefly he warred within himself: all the justifications he could come up with for leaving the boy like that seemed more dehumanizing than those for doing something about it.

“Ah…” he started awkwardly. “Do you… Would you like me to do something about that?”

The boy blinked at him owlishly.

“I mean. You’re.” Karl gestured helplessly in the general appropriate direction. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt particularly foolish in a bedroom, but this seemed to be doing the trick.

The boy’s mouth made a little ‘o’ of understanding, and then his eyes narrowed with suspicion. Karl held up his hands. “You don’t have to,” he said. “And I’m not going to try and draw anything back from you. I just thought you might be… Well, uncomfortable.”

His familiar pondered him briefly before giving him a little nod. Karl swallowed, having half-hoped he’d say no. But he reached out, offered the boy his hand.

“All right. Come here.”

The boy took his hand, and Karl pulled him close. Karl wondered whether he ought to treat this in a clinical way, just a discomfort he was relieving for the boy, that was all – but no, that wasn’t right either. If he was to do this at all, he had to do it properly.

Don’t think, he instructed himself. Just don’t think.

“May I kiss you?” he asked.

From the way the boy looked at Karl thought he might have grown a second head. But then, collecting himself, his familiar gave him another little nod.

A brush of lips, lingering, but almost chaste; the spirit’s mouth was soft beneath his own, and Karl could taste himself there, a salty musk. A thrill rose up in him in response, and then horror at his own reaction followed – but he ignored it, and repeated firmly to himself: Don’t think.

He let himself feel the pleasure as he moved his mouth over the boy’s, tongue tracing over the contours. Then that mouth opened in a soft gasp, and Karl dipped his tongue inside, a brief, teasing taste, and nipped at his familiar’s bottom lip before pulling away.

A pretty blush had spread across the kid’s cheeks and nose. Wonderingly, he lifted his hand and touched his lips, his eyes wide and baffled. It was though he’d never been kissed before. Karl’s chest clenched, and he swallowed.

“Okay?” he asked, and waited for the boy to give his assent before letting his hands slide down over his slender hips, slipping beneath his shirt. He lifted the spirit up to stand on his knees, letting his fingers play over his sides, along the markings that covered his body, his lips and tongue following after.

Once he was satisfied with the way the boy’s abdomen jerked with each touch, little sharp inhalations punctuating the air, Karl descended to the spirit’s cock, concentrating on the feel of him in his mouth; firm, still relatively small and undeveloped like the rest of his body, easy to swallow down deep. His hands wandered over soft, supple flesh, down the backs of his legs – the boy shuddered, his fingers twining in Karl’s hair – and back up to trace over the jut of a hipbone, and up farther to brush against pale pink nipples.

It didn’t take long. The boy was panting, trembling, his grip on Karl’s hair slowly tightening until it became painful. Karl savored the sensation, clung to it like an anchor as a dull heat settled again in his loins, refusing to be banished.

Small, broken sounds issued now and again from the boy’s throat, a desperate tenor. His hips kept making abortive little jerks; Karl took hold and guided them in a rhythm, let the boy thrust deep into his mouth. Then finally the boy shuddered, thrusting hard as he arched back and let out an almost perfect cry. His voice became, for just that moment, beautiful, ringing, and clear – golden. Karl wondered briefly as he drank the boy down:

Dietel, you old fool, how could you have ruined a sound like that?

And then the boy was slumping bonelessly into his lap. The alchemist caught him, held him steady. His shoulders were trembling violently. He hiccupped once or twice before Karl realized he was crying.

“Whoa, kid,” Karl murmured. “You okay?”

The boy blinked, lifted a hand to his face and touched his own wet cheeks as if the tears were a shock to himself. Karl hovered, not knowing what to say or do, worrying that maybe this was the wrong choice after all.

Abruptly, the boy pushed away from him and dove under the blankets, and Karl found himself staring bewilderedly at a quivering, hiccupping lump in his bed.

He stifled a chuckle. Leaning over, he laid a hand on the lump’s back.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s all right. You can come out from there. Don’t worry about it.” That had probably been one of the few times – perhaps the only time – the spirit had climaxed without being forced, Karl realized. It was no wonder, really.

The lump didn’t move, but the muffled sounds of his sniffing were already quieting. Karl was suddenly struck by an idea. “Hey. Your name,” he said. “Did you have one?”

The lump fell still for a moment, and then there was a movement Karl interpreted as a shake of the kid’s head.

“Did you have one you wanted, maybe?” Karl asked.

Another pause, and another shake.

“Well, how about ‘Kin’?”

A longer pause this time, and then his familiar rustled around and poked his head out from under the covers, roughly wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand. He peered up at the alchemist curiously.

“It’s from my old master’s language,” Karl told him. “It means ‘golden.’ Do you like it?”

Very slowly, the smallest of smiles curved the spirit’s mouth. He nodded, looking down at the mattress – an almost shy gesture, out of place with all that had just happened in this bed; but it drove the alchemist to reach over and rustle the boy’s hair, helpless to resist the urge.

“All right,” Karl laughed. “Kin it is, then.”

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