by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
illustrated by 2013
“Bathal vel Vathat super Abrac ruens,” Ben finished, louder, with all the command he could muster. Nervous sweat prickled down his brow, getting into his eyes. “Absor veniens super Aberer.“
Then it was done. And after that…
He wouldn’t say appeared, exactly. The chair he’d put in the triangle across from his own circle just seemed to be even more shadowed for a moment, more even than the low light of all the candles could explain. And then the figure sitting in the chair was just there, no matter that it hadn’t been before: inarguable and immutably solid, just defiantly existing. It was less like it had come into being there and more like the sun porch had somehow moved through space and time, in some elemental way, and come to it.
“I heard you the first time, sweetheart,” the demon said, smiling, and tilted their head. “Well? I’m here. Now what?’
Ben swallowed as he caught himself, and faced them down. They sat regal and upright in the plastic garden chair, with long gorgeous legs crossed at the knee and a foot tapping in its spike-heeled knee-high boot. Their black bustier and short skirt were fitted and revealing enough to make abundantly clear the unspecific flatness at their chest and hips. Long white-blond hair, spider-silk fine, hung straight down their back, framing the pale and stark angles of their face. Deep red lipstick was the only color in it, slashed across its middle like an arterial spray of blood.
“Welcome, Spirit — Spirit Seir, O most noble pr–” Ben managed to stutter through, but that was as far as he got before they sighed loudly and cut him off.
“No, no, boring.” They stood, moving fluid and graceful up to their feet. As much as Ben must have been a head taller, they had a way of towering. “You’re in charge here, just tell me what you want. Or what you think you want, anyway.”
Thrown off without his script, Ben could only blink at them. The white robe was long and heavy, made him feel like he’d get tangled if he tried to move. “What’s… that supposed to mean?” it took him a few moments to be able to say.
Seir’s smile widened, fractionally. “Humans keep secrets even from themselves,” they purred, coming a few steps forward — each deliberate step taking their boots right up to the edge of the triangle. Ben watched closely with more sweat beading on his skin, and a swallow stuck in his throat. “I know you probably have some grandiose plans for calling me here, up at the top of your mind, anyway. But what is it you really want, conjurer? As long as I’m here, why not let me tease it out of you?”
“That’s–” He managed to swallow, and took a small, reflexive step back within his magic circle, scuffing its chalk a little. “Stay back. I-I have called thee… through Him wh-who has created Heaven, and Earth, and–“
The demon laughed, bright and sweet and malicious. It squashed his voice inside it like they would a bug inside their small, delicately-boned hand. “Good try, but not quite there,” they said, looking downward with a critical eye — and then stretched out one foot in front of them, hands held out to either side for balance, and smudged the chalk lines ahead of them all out of shape with one deliberate swipe of their boot. Ben watched frozen, heart thundering in his head, as they stepped one foot in front of the other right out of the triangle, and right up in front of him with a smug little smile uptilted. “You really should have gotten a little more practice before trying to punch at my level, you know. Or was your need just that desperate?”
“I,” Ben tried to say, in a small voice, and then could only close his eyes and swallow harder as they reached up and pressed a smooth, cool hand against his cheek. It stroked feather-light over his skin for a moment, waking up all the skin prickling under the touch… and then grabbed a sudden clench of his beard, yanking it hard enough to make his eyes water and bring his head forcibly down to Seir’s level.
“Not to worry,” Seir said, cooing it smooth and just as cool in their sweet, clear contralto. “You don’t have what it takes to command me, you know that. But I’m very merciful. It’ll be my pleasure to decide for you what you need, little conjurer.” They tilted their head, appearing to appraise him, and then jerked his head a little bit the opposite direction, making him wince. “So why don’t you get on your knees and thank me?”
Breath thundered quick and tight and whistling through Ben’s chest. He tried to pull back, to obey, but at first their grip just held him fast, making him grunt a little in pain. Then they released him, with a coy little smile, and he tried to suck in a full breath of relief, even as he went with slow resignation to first one knee, and then the other.
“Wait.” Their voice arrested him halfway down, with his eyes hot and fixed straight ahead on nothing. At the same time, they stretched out their boot again — and planted it this time delicately right on the hem of his robe where it had started to puddle in front of him, almost in the middle of the protective symbols drawn there. “This seems like it’s getting in your way. Let’s have it off first, hmm?”
Ben’s eyes fluttered shut for a second, another breath catching in his chest; he couldn’t help himself. Then, without looking up or responding, moving dreamy-slow, he reached down and gathered up all the weight of the coarse white linen, bunching it into his hands and arms and then up over his head. It rucked up the curls of his hair as it came off, leaving him feeling disheveled and off-balance and vulnerable. He was naked underneath it, which he also shouldn’t have been, and even the slight stifling warmth of the dim room felt suddenly cool against all his skin. Seir gave a little nod of approval, and he tossed it aside without even looking to see where it fell before sinking all the way onto his knees.
“Good,” Seir said, soft and purring again, and took another step forward. It took them easily inside the protective circle around him, as though it were only a doodle on the floor, completely meaningless. He’d done nothing right, none of it, he was soft and inexperienced and now he was going to get what was coming to him. They stood over him, the leather of the front of their skirt so close he could just feel his breath bouncing back off it.
Another hand shot out, and took hold of a fistful of his hair, yanking his head back to look up at them. Water prickled at his eyes again, and he let his head go back gasping, limp and boneless in their grip. And in an altogether different tone of voice all of a sudden, Seir said–
“What’s your color, baby?”
Ben blinked a second, from his prickling scalp and the tonal whiplash, and then made an indistinct little groaning sound. “Really?” he asked — in a pretty different tone of voice himself, come to that, although it was still definitely out-of-breath and hoarse. “You’re telepathic. You can’t just, like, look for yourself?”
Seir made a little tutting noise, their grip on his hair easing off at the same time. Insult to injury. “It doesn’t work that way. Consent is an active process. I’ve been doing some reading online–“
“I’ve asked you so many times not to do reading online.” Ben shut his eyes a second, and took another unobtrusive swallow. Then he sighed and opened them again to look up at Seir, smiling a little bit in spite of himself. “I’m very, very green, weirdo. Keep going.”
“Okay, just checking.” They ruffled his hair a little bit, like he was a goddamn puppy or something. Then he heard them clear their throat above him, and he had just enough time to try to drag his headspace back into order before his hair was tangled back in their fist. “There,” Seir said, and just like that they were fully back in purring, melodramatic character again. “Isn’t it so much better when you do what I say?” When Ben didn’t answer for a second — he was actually kind of trying not to laugh now, he’d gotten thrown off and that was just so on-the-nose — Seir yanked on his hair good and hard, and yeah, okay, that helped. They were absolutely far stronger than their bony little human form might suggest, and that genuinely hurt, making him hiss and squint his eyes shut and also start twitching fully hard again. “Answer me, little bitch. Isn’t it?”
Ben gulped breath, and tried to nod, but there was no way to do that without making everything both worse and better. “Yes,” he managed to croak instead, but Seir barely seemed to be listening anymore. They just laughed a little to themselves, and then used their grip on his hair for balance while they lifted the toe of one boot to trace a line up from his balls to the base of his cock.
“I can see it is,” they said, just the right tone of sweetly derisive, and Ben’s pulse throbbed in his dick as Seir flexed their foot to lightly grind into it with their boot-sole. “Look how hard and desperate you are for me.” They put their foot back down just as Ben was starting to thrust his hips helplessly back into it, though, and yanked his head back again to turn up his humiliation-hot face even further. “Should I let you thank me now for taking charge? Or are you going to come before you can even be useful?”
“Please,” Ben heaved, gasping, out of what felt like completely flat lungs in his chest. Seir laughed, just holding him like that, and he swallowed to try to muster himself up to a bigger breath and a stronger voice: “Please.“
“Well, all right,” Seir said, with mock reluctance, after seconds of pause that felt torturously long. “Since you’re being just so good for me.”
They let his hair go, finally (his scalp hurt like a motherfucker by now but he still missed it), and stood a little wider, dropping their hands to their thighs to tug up the bottom hem of their skirt. Stiff though it was, they still got it pretty well bunched around their waist, revealing themselves beneath. They were also naked underneath it, and though he’d left this part up to them in the plan, he wasn’t exactly surprised to find a cunt nestled at the heart of the largely masculine bone and muscle lines of Seir’s pubis. They always tended to prefer having one for anything where the focus was going to be getting them off: “there’s more stuff to do,” was the most they’d ever bothered to explain it, which (though entirely debatable) had made Ben spit his drink laughing at the time. Only when Seir angled their hips forward and splayed their fingers down through the fine pale skim of hair to spread themselves, invitingly, could Ben see their cock between the folds: small enough to be a clitoris, quiescent.
“Lick,” they said. Commanded. “But keep your hands to yourself. Lock them behind you. A human piece of filth like you doesn’t deserve to touch me yet.”
Ben swallowed a groan behind his lips and grabbed his wrists behind his back like he was told. Then he leaned forward — with Seir’s hand at his head again to guide him, so he didn’t just topple and fall smack into their cunt. He nuzzled into the soft hair, the warm and growing slick of their folds, their fingers still up against his lips and their own. He dipped his tongue, tasting the start of wetness, delving into impossibly soft smoothness to get more.
Above him, Seir made a warm, humming sound, and their fingers stroked over his hair. Tenderly, this time: forgetting themselves a little, Ben thought with an inward flicker of fond amusement. It was a little tempting to be shitty at this on purpose just to get them playing mean again, but it’d be pushy, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop once he’d started tongue-fucking them anyway. His nose and mouth were both pressed up tight against them and it was hard to breathe, but he couldn’t think of anything that mattered to him less right now than breathing. His tongue was gliding into Seir and out, making them rock on their feet, then drawing back to lap and flicker in quick meaningless patterns over their cock. Treating it just as sweetly and worshipfully when it was little like this as he would when it could fill his mouth.
“Not bad,” Seir murmured, a little breathy, still carding their fingers through his hair. “I can see that you’re grateful for being put in your place.” That seemed to remind them what they were doing, then, and they clenched their fingers instead suddenly, pulling his hair again in a different spot this time. They used it as a handhold to drag his head in harder against them, muffling his breathing even further and driving him into them. They pushed up a little on their toes, grinding their hips into his face, using his nose to rub their cock against while his tongue was thrusting into them. Ben’s own cock practically jumped even as he was struggling to get a breath, and he groaned hard and muffled and dizzy into the soft flesh of Seir’s lips. It was a war with himself not to release his hands and reach around to furiously jerk himself off; his dick throbbed for attention, making it hard to even focus on what he was doing.
Not that it seemed to matter much, since Seir had it so well in hand. They rocked against his face rather than wait for him to find the right spots, dragging his head by their handful of his hair to position it right where they could use him best. Ben just tried to keep breathing and keep his tongue moving and hold on, and not come all over himself without even being touched in the process. Being forced, used, like a stupid handheld sex toy that only had any point between Seir’s thighs, it was, God, fuck —
Mercifully, before he could lose coherence completely, Seir’s breathing quickened above him and started to be punched through with little airy ah sounds, and fresh slickness drenched their folds and his mouth as their hips pumped faster. Finally they froze taut right where they were, and Ben’s tongue kept lashing frantically in the exact place it had been pushed to, and Seir shuddered all over on their feet and let out a little whimpering cry. Wetness rewarded him, and Ben lapped at it, while he pushed Seir through every quiver. Would have happily drowned in it.
Finally, though, Seir’s grip on his hair slackened — which came as a relief even though he’d completely forgotten one was needed — and relaxed back unsteadily on their heels, their breath sighing out slower again. They stroked Ben’s hair once, soothingly, and then bent down over him, smiling, while he turned his mess of a face up squinting-eyed and panting and tried to look back at them with the right expression of fear.
“Not bad, conjurer,” they said, and rubbed the ball of one thumb lazily along and under Ben’s slack mouth, as though to clean it up. Considering the situation in his beard alone, though, it couldn’t have done a whole lot. “You might even be worth keeping as a pet.” Ben swallowed, his eyes fluttering, and they straightened up some again, moving around him. “If nothing else, you deserve a reward. You did go through the trouble to summon me, after all.”
After standing behind him a moment, nerve-tinglingly out of sight when he had to stay where they’d put him, they seemed to make a decision and move. They stepped forward to grab the chair out of the triangle ahead of them both, and dragged it back toward Ben in the circle instead (further mussing the useless lines of both), so that its seat rose in front of him. At the same time, they grabbed him around behind his arms, still linked behind him, and pushed him forward, so that he fell face-forward with nothing to stop him. Nothing except the chair now, at least — which he landed over with his chest bent over the seat, his forehead leaned against its back. It took a little of the pressure off his knees, at least.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked, in a choked, shaky way that wasn’t that hard to summon. Being shoved into the chair helped.
“Whatever I want,” Seir said, a smile shaping it. And they said nothing else, not even about the way that made him shiver.
They walked around him in a leisurely way, after a moment — definitely drawing it out — and then paused facing the far wall, the interior one that faced the inside of the apartment instead of out toward the garden. Ben knew exactly what was there, of course, but he didn’t know if it’d come to mind right away in-scene, so he kept his mouth shut for now and just leaned on the chair. Seir walked forward past him, bringing the backs of their gorgeous legs into his view.
“Oh, how pious,” they said, almost a coo, and Ben had to bite the inside of his cheek a second to stay serious. “Are you religious, little conjurer? Does your priest know you’re consorting with demons in your spare time?”
Ben stayed quiet, which he hoped could be taken for conveying shame and unease, when really it was that cracking up was still a risk. He really did keep a crucifix in the bracket by the doorway most of the time, and what was there now was mostly the same shape — just made of red marbled silicone instead of wood, and with a distinctively and sacrilegously phallic shaping to the bottom of the central bar. It had been a compromise: Seir had been enamored with the idea of using the crucifix in the scene, and Ben hadn’t wanted to say no, but in the end he’d just felt too bad (especially if he thought about his dad — little though he wanted to in this context). So they’d gone with something that was already scandalous on purpose, not to mention with the added benefit of actually being designed for the job, which was probably a better idea for all kinds of practical reasons. It just had the unfortunate side effect that hanging it on his wall and pretending it was an actual religious object was very, very funny.
Seir didn’t make him wait long, at least — just walked over and reached up to take the thing down off the wall, which they had to stretch up on their toes a little to do. They turned and walked back around him and the chair afterward, holding the toy up in their hand as though appraising it like an objet d’art, and if Seir was having any of the same problems holding character, it at least didn’t show. They stood regal and commanding and serious, and when at last it broke for them to shoot him a little sidelong smile, only their eyes and mouth moving… well, it was the kind of smile that made it easy not to laugh.
“You belong to me, now,” Seir said — offhandedly, as though it were only obvious. “I think it’s time to give you a sacrament of my own.”
They moved again then, briskly, around behind him. It had the anticipation-building benefit of putting them out of sight again, but beyond the borders of the scene that was also where the table with lube and other supplies had been pushed, and that was undoubtedly what they were going for. Ben only stayed where he was, though, even while he could hear Seir’s footsteps and then the pop of a cap, and slick sounds. The most he moved was to unlock his hands from behind him and brace his arms on the seat of the chair, stretching his hands with a wince. Seir didn’t say anything about it, so he guessed they saw the necessity as much as he did.
“Okay, but seriously,” he managed eventually in a breathy, slightly strangled huff — unable to help himself any longer. “One line from The Exorcist and I’m safewording out. I mean it.”
“I never saw it,” Seir said, in a slightly absent tone that was much more their own ordinary voice, apparently still preoccupied with what they were doing. “Seemed defamatory.”
That caught Ben off-guard enough that this time he couldn’t hold back the laugh: It burst out of him full and hard, rattling his chest against the seat of the chair. “Oh, that’s a shame. Positive representation is so important.”
“Mm,” was all Seir said: the little noise they made when they felt he was just being obnoxious on purpose and they were going to wait until he was done. “Color? Do you want to stop?”
“No, I’m green,” Ben said, letting his eyes mostly shut as he smiled with his face half-mushed into the back of the chair. “I’ll be good, I promise.”
“I doubt it,” Seir informed him, but a smile shaped their voice. They sounded closer now, though, which went a good ways toward wiping the smile off his own face again, and making his mouth start to go soft and shaky instead.
Sure enough, Ben could more feel than hear Seir kneel behind him — raised high up on their knees instead of bent forward like he was. That at least had the small benefit of making Seir a little taller on him; the height difference was usually even more dramatic if they were sitting, what with how leggy Seir was. A small but unbelievably strong hand braced on his upper back a moment later, between his shoulderblades, and pushed him hard even further forward over the seat of the chair, making him have to come up some more on his knees and lift his hips away from the ground. Another hand shoved rudely under him, pushing under his ass and getting in a squeeze at his balls from the back that made him choke a little on his breath.
“Spread your legs for me,” Seir said, lips close to his ear. He couldn’t see but could picture their vivid redness. “Show off that greedy hole this is going in.”
Ben swallowed breath and spit, and sprawled out his thighs as wide as they would go, enough to ache a little. He tried to cant his hips up and back a little in the process, an obscene little backbend that felt just plain dirty to do.
First slick fingers with impeccable little short nails tested at the edges of his asshole, prodding and teasing and stretching, making him jump and twitch. They sank down into him, slicking him up a little deeper though still not deep enough, moving easily with the lube and how wide he was spread. Then they slid back out, slow enough that he whined in his throat. Seir laughed softly over his shoulder, and then something much bigger pressed against him, girthy enough to feel a little absurd against his hole when it first touched. Then he relaxed into it, and all at once it wasn’t absurd at all.
“See?” Seir murmured, while he shook with it, feeling the anticipation all along the lines of his thighs and up his spine. “This is what you were made for.” They planted a kiss at the base of his nape, no doubt leaving a red lip-print. “Still green?”
“Still green,” Ben wheezed, with so little breath he could barely make it into an actual sound. And then the resting pressure of the toy turned to a push, and his body was furrowed apart around it, to take it in.
Ben made a high creaking noise with no dignity nor humor left in it at all, a shudder rippling through him and his hands scrabbling uselessly on the seat of the chair. His cock gave a galvanic twitch at the first spreading bloom of sensation, so hard for a second he was dizzily sure he was just going to come like that, right away. But it ebbed after he breathed through it for a few seconds, and when he could relax a bit again he found that he was still hot and achy-hard, and not… well, not leaking any wetter than he’d been before, so he guessed he was still in the game. Hard to honestly say for sure, for a second there. Seir kept pushing, the size and solidity inside him kept getting bigger and more solid, and then it hit the point where he jerked and gasped and writhed up against the chair-back, his muscles restlessly twitching. His mouth was wide open and panting already and he bit his teeth vaguely at nothing, eyes squeezed shut.
Seir was braced up against him and pressed next to him, and all around him, it felt like: even with his eyes shut, there was an enveloping scent of ozone and expensive cologne. They just rolled the thing slightly inside him for a second rather than trying to thrust yet, making him sob, and then they laughed at him again and began to drag it back out, leaving fluttering muscles all along its wake. Almost all the way to the tip, almost all the way out, so that his nerves were all confused with relief and emptiness and wailing want, and then — back in, a little faster, a little harder, until the point where it lit him up. Then again, shallower, faster. And then again. And again.
He lost track of himself. All that remained was everything he could feel, and what it felt like, in him and on him and against him. His dick was pure desperation where it was going neglected but it was honestly okay, or at least necessary, if Seir touched it he’d come and then this would end and he didn’t want that, he couldn’t stand that yet. So he just rode it out, unmoored and taking every wave of sensation that took him apart, not even really aware of how he was moving or how much noise he was making or whether he was drooling on the chair. Seir just made things happen to him and he let them. It really was the best way it could be.
Eventually, though, Seir moved around fully behind him instead of sort of draped to the side, kneeling behind him and taking hold of his hips for leverage, and he was dimly aware of that. Something hot and hard and fleshy was rubbing lightly against the upper crack of his ass when he moved against Seir’s body, and after way too long his muddy brain realized that Seir had their cock out again, hard and rubbing against him. It just made his own dick throb all the more pitifully when he realized.
“You look so good like this, baby, coming all apart for me,” Seir murmured behind his back, maybe falling out of character a little again or maybe not, he didn’t know and honestly didn’t care anymore. “You know how hard it’s making me. What do you think, how much do you think you can fit?” They pressed another kiss into his spine, even as he was gasping and shivering jerkily into their thrust. “Should I try to get me in there too, beside it? Stretch you the fullest you’ve ever been ’til it’s all you can take?”
His later, saner, sober self could find that idea alarming if it wanted; right now it was the hottest fucking thing he’d ever imagined. Two of the stretch inside him moving independently of each other, like some terrible wonderful piston, rolling and splitting him —
“Please please please please, Seir–” tore out of him in a jagged, breaking whimper, run into almost all one word. “I gotta come, please, please let me come–“
The heat that was Seir’s cock on his ass thrust and rubbed up against it luxuriously, even while the rhythm they were keeping inside him never wavered for a second. “Shh, I’ve got you,” they whispered against his back, and the hand left his hip. Somehow, physics were completely beyond him at the moment, it fell right into the rhythm of everything else happening when they gripped his cock, the brisk pulls they started up worked against the thrusts in his ass in just the right way, and them rubbing against his back, and — Christ. He screamed, fully at the top of his lungs, giving even a single shit about the neighbors was for later. His body burst with heat like fever, stopped making any sense at all.
Ben came so hard it almost scared him, it was almost too much to stand. It felt like it pushed his whole body to the limit of what it could do, like sprinting so fast your lungs felt like they were going to burst. He sobbed and panted his way through it, bucking and shuddering, none of the ways he was moving really happening on purpose. It went on and on until it had wrung him all the way out, and he was just slumped boneless and heavy over the chair, soaked in sweat and come, trembling and wheezing. A generous amount of something wet that was rapidly cooling was also trickling down his lower back and dripping into his ass-crack, too, and Seir panting muffled into his back as they clung to him, so he guessed that had taken care of itself somewhere in there, too.
He shut his eyes, and breathed gasps that got a bit closer to normal breaths each time, and hummed all over his skin with aftershocks of furious pleasure. Little by little he started to be able to notice things that hurt again, too, like his knees and elbows, and the fact that even Seir’s slight weight was heavy and too hot draped over his back, but that was okay. No big deal. He wouldn’t change literally one bit of it for the world.
He was so slow and stupid getting up afterward that Seir practically had to carry him back inside the apartment, and over and up onto the higher split level of its floor plan where the bed and bathroom were. The place was technically a studio, with just the step up and a couple of pillars separating the living and dining areas from the bedroom area. It was on the ground level, though, and had its own little sun porch out onto the complex’s garden, and it was a pretty good size and just blisteringly cool new construction, all exposed brick and funky molding and gleaming sleek fixtures. He didn’t need a lot of space and Seir didn’t add much need for more, so he’d opted to do what splurging he could on style instead of size.
Seir maneuvered him into the big walk-in shower and under the water, and got in with him a second later. They were just naked by the time he managed to notice, so he guessed they had just let their play outfit melt off them rather than bother taking it off physically, and why would you if you didn’t have to, honestly. Now, in the aftermath, their skinny chest was just big sweetly pink nipples on a flatness that could have meant anything or nothing, and between their legs was just a lightly-haired blank space, ready to start over with whatever the hell Seir felt like the next time it was needed. Ben barely noticed any of it at the time, except that their body was warm and comforting and familiar against his. It could easily hold him upright, even as their hands gently washed sweat and lube and come away from all of him.
They got him dried off and to the bed afterwards, too. He collapsed heavily on his back on the mattress and lay there in a sort of twilight state, eyes shut and breathing through his parted mouth. Seir tucked the covers around him before he could start shivering, and coaxed him back to alertness enough to drink some of the bottled water and eat the granola bar they’d left on the nightstand. He chewed with his eyes sleepily half-lidded and his head on Seir’s shoulder, their fingers combing slow and luxurious through his hair.
After that was done, Ben just slumped there for a few minutes more, not really doing or thinking much of anything. Eventually, though, he found he’d pulled back together enough fragments of himself to feel something like a human person again. With a big yawn, a heartfelt groan, and a kiss on the corner of Seir’s mouth, he managed to haul himself back up off the bed, and stagger to the bathroom to take a much-needed piss.
When he came back, Seir was curled up in the bed poking at something on Ben’s phone, though they rolled back over to welcome him back in with a smile when he got near. By now their face was un-made-up for the night, looking very pale and soft without it, and they were wearing one of his university sweatshirts. It was so big on them it was unbearably fucking cute, hanging off their shoulder and swallowing their hands in the sleeves, and Ben was grinning as he got back in and kissed them again.
“So that was good?” Seir asked, when they pulled back, their eyes bright and amused. Ben laughed, helplessly, and settled back on the pillows with them resting on his chest.
“Jesus. Do you have to ask? That was fucking incredible.” He kissed the top of their hair, and they hummed pleasantly. “What about you? Good?”
Seir nodded, trailing fingers over the dark curls of hair on his chest. “It was fun,” they said, and it didn’t sound like they didn’t mean it or anything. But there was… a tone, Ben became gradually aware, that made him start to frown and crane his head down to look toward their face even though he couldn’t see it at this angle. They were a little quiet.
“Hey.” He stroked at the edge of their sharp cheekbone through the fall of hair until they looked at him, and tilted his head in as best he could for a better view. “Are you sure? Are you okay?”
Seir hesitated — a little startled to be caught, maybe — and then smiled at him, which at least looked real enough too to let him relax a little. “I’m sure, and I’m fine. Really. Don’t worry so much.” They craned up to kiss him on the tip of his considerable nose, then settled with their chin on their crossed arms on his chest. “I guess I’m just thinking… mm. I don’t know.” They looked like they were thinking it over again for a few seconds, and then looked in his eyes again, their own just seeming impossibly big. “Is that really — what you wanted to happen, the first time you summoned me? For me to treat you like that?”
Ben stared at them a second, and then couldn’t help snorting laughter, even if it didn’t seem like completely the best response. “No. God. Are you kidding me? No, absolutely not.” They were still looking at him, though. He rolled his head against the wall behind the bed, half-grinning. “I was, what, like five years old–“
“You were twenty-three,” Seir corrected him quietly, smiling a little, but he didn’t pay it any more attention than they probably expected him to.
“–and I was absolutely scared out of my mind in the first place that this was even a real thing and I was doing it. If that had been how you’d come out of the gate? That would not have been fun at all, I would’ve been really upset. And, I mean, I probably would have literally shat myself, which would have made some of the next steps more challenging logistically.”
Seir wrinkled their nose. “Gross,” they said, and he was glad to hear it was in a significantly less subdued tone now. “What is it with humans and eliminating all the time?”
“Believe me, as soon as I figure out how to stop needing to, I will be on it.” Ben paused a second, picking up his thread. “But… really. If that’s something you’re worried about, trust me, don’t. As a fantasy? Yeah, of course, it’s really, extremely fucking hot. But that’s… what makes it a scene, you know? Not actually what you’d want outside of a safe environment.”
After a moment of appearing to consider that, Seir nodded, slowly. Their eyes were turned down, though, when they spoke again. “I guess I just never really thought that hard before about how I must have seemed to you. How I seem to people like you.” Their voice was just a little too quiet. “You never seemed scared of me.”
“I’m not scared of you,” Ben informed them, as decisively as possible, and turned his chin down to try to meet their eyes when they still wouldn’t look up. “The first time we met, maybe, but sorry, we’re way past you being even a little intimidating, babe. You’re wearing my sweatshirt that’s way too big for you. You love the same telenovelas as my mom, you can’t whistle, and you eat all my pickles.”
“Pickles are good,” Seir said, in almost as subdued a murmur into their arm. Ben nodded, his eyes staying on them.
“Pickles are good. That’s why I buy them. For me to eat some of.” Seif made a small harrumphing sound into their arm, but at least to do it they had to lift their mouth up a bit, and it was enough for him to see the edges of a little smile on it. Ben leaned in to kiss their forehead. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I wouldn’t have asked for this if I knew it was gonna make you feel bad.”
Seir picked up their head, setting their elbows on the bed instead and sighing. “No, it didn’t make me feel bad — it was fun, I liked it. I like that you like it so much.” They blew out a little breath to get wispy strands of pale hair away from their face, which if anything just turned the dial even further down on the Intimidating Meter. “I just got started thinking afterward. I don’t even know why.”
Ben hmmed, tucking back their hair for them and then playing with it a little. “You know dom drop is a thing, right?”
Seir rolled their eyes, though a smile was trying to show up across their mouth. “Yes. Do you know how I know? From reading things online.”
Ben’s groan just made them laugh. “Fine, all right, fine. Just practice your lateral reading and make sure it’s a reliable source, okay? You’re worse than my students sometimes.” He kissed Seir’s head again at their (also unintimidating) glower, and then their mouth when they turned their chin up insistently. “All right, I gotta sleep. I need to do some grading tomorrow. Love you.”
“I love you too,” Seir said; and even when he’d settled down in the bed they just curled up around him again, a barrier between him and the rest of the mundane world.
He had an eight a.m. class on Monday, and after Saturday night and then spending most of Sunday cleaning up the porch, he practically had to drag himself away from the blissful little lump of Seir under the covers. Trying to coax a conversation about Hinduism out of twenty-five bleary-eyed undergraduates at that hour didn’t exactly perk up his spirits, either, but at least with a giant mug of coffee he was basically sentient by the time he made it to his office after. While he wrangled with the stubborn lock on the door, he scanned the couple of post-its from the department secretary, stuck right under the nameplate reading DR. BENIGNO AGUSTÍN. Nothing important, just copier funds and some ILLs the kid from the library had left in his mailbox.
The communiqués that were more likely to be important, if any of them were, were the ones he checked for when he got inside. Not blinking on his university-networked phone (God, no; everybody who knew him knew better than to call him), but on the large sheet of paper left with the tip of a sharpie just brushing its surface, which was in turn taped to a crystal pendulum dangling from a wooden arm. Both of the latter two items were inscribed with a multitude of symbols that any normal person would take for decoration, and that would make any kind of occultist go wide-eyed and start backing away slowly. As far as Ben could tell, his colleagues and the kids who came to his office hours just thought it was some kind of goofy paperweight, especially because the page was usually blank.
It wasn’t today, though. He saw it right away, and came further into the room frowning, setting his satchel down on the chair beside the door so absently he almost wasn’t aware of it. There was a large black shape scrawled on the paper, something that he didn’t recognize. Something that, as he got closer and could take a better look at it, started to hurt his eyes the more he tried to make sense of it. And then, when he got even closer still and took the paper out from under the marker, it started to hurt his mind, too — crawling back inside it behind his eyes, like a vile slimy little animal had gotten in there and started to dig.
“Whoo,” Ben said out loud under his breath, and closed his eyes a second when he could tear them away, while he folded the paper shut in on itself to safely hide the symbol. “So I’m gonna say that seems… bad.”
He set the folded paper down on his desk, carefully avoiding looking at even the blank side just to be safe, and glanced at the clock. An hour still until today’s office hours started, not that he could even be sure any students would show up, and the chances of him working on his book today were shot now anyway. Seir probably still wouldn’t be awake, but he could at least trace the signal.
Ben shut and locked his office door, pulled the blinds over his nonfunctional little window, and then unlocked his bottom desk drawer and got out the tightly-rolled sheet of stained plastic, plus the handful of candles Facilities definitely did not want him to have in here. He rooted in the mini-fridge behind his desk, too, and pulled out the opaque bike water bottle he kept in the back. With enough pressure, the cap would squirt even something as thick as cold lamb’s blood pretty well, which made drawing the right symbols on the plastic a lot easier. Provided, of course, his hand didn’t slip so he managed to get cold gross blood all over his other shirt-sleeve, instead, like on certain past occasions he could name. He always kept an extra change of clothes in his office now, just in case.
Candles lit and placed just right, arcane geometries squirted more or less tidily around him, forehead anointed with a few extra thumb-dabs of blood, he sat cross-legged at the center and breathed deep, clearing his head. And then he got out his phone and opened up Google Maps. Any decent conjurer could tell you — and all role-play aside, by now he was a decent conjurer — that the spirit world would use whatever tools you had on hand just fine, if you could get it to use any at all.
“Could you do me a favor, sweetheart?” Ben asked when he got home that afternoon, once he’d set down his bag and kissed Seir hello. They had their hair pixie-cut short today and wore a tight t-shirt and pedal-pushers that somehow made them look smaller than ever, and the alert way they turned their face up to his at the request just made him have to kiss them again briefly. “Could you check out” –he rummaged into his pocket and got out his phone, clicking it on and pulling up the map app, while Seir craned around to be able to see the screen– “whatever this is. Just see what the place is? It’s supposed to just be a private residence, but I traced back some seriously wild energies there this morning. I don’t think it could be just one person.”
Seir hrmmed, then nodded. “Sure,” they said, and then smiling a little: “What do you want? Just a handful of air?”
Ben started to agree, and then hesitated. “Something that might be a clue to what’s going on there, if there is anything,” he said, amending. You had to be as specific as you could be. “If there isn’t anything, then air, please.”
“‘Kay.” Then Seir had headed for the front door, and even while he was starting to unbutton his work shirt, Ben tried to peer past them as they opened it at what it opened on. He couldn’t see much of note on the other side, where he should have seen only the sunny fall day outside and the greenery-lined front path up to their apartment door: instead, the doorframe showed only what looked like a basement with dusty concrete walls and some stacked boxes, a safe out-of-the way place for Seir to enter from without being seen. Then Seir had shut the door behind them, and he couldn’t see anything at all. Nothing for it but to change into a t-shirt and jeans, and wait.
It was longer than he’d expected before they came back, maybe twenty minutes or so. Long enough for him to start getting honestly antsy, no matter how certainly he knew that Seir could handle anything that happened. When the front door opened to let Seir into the kitchen again, Ben practically jumped to his feet, putting aside the computer he’d been trying to make himself concentrate on. “Hey. Everything go okay?”
They nodded, though, which brought on a wave of relief that was more intense than it maybe strictly should have been. Especially given how preoccupied their expression still was, when he got a better look. “Yeah, it was fine,” Seir said. “It was weird, but nobody saw me, or anything like that. Sorry it took so long — that was the weird part. For the longest time I couldn’t find anything.”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, anything. Or at least not anything interesting. As far as I could see, it’s really just a house.” They came over and plopped on one of the barstools at the kitchen area island, curling their still-bare toes over the bottom rung that was as far as their feet would reach, and Ben made his way over to lean on it across from them. “A very big house. It’s in that really tony neighborhood up to the north of campus, where all the rich administrators live? I could see the chapel from the upstairs window.”
“…Huh.” He pulled his phone back out and looked at the map again, actually switching over to satellite mode this time. “Yeah, I guess it would be. I honestly didn’t even notice that.” He cocked his head. “You got upstairs?”
Seir nodded, leaning their elbows on the counter. “Nobody was home. I went through the whole place. The residence of Douglas and Jennifer Pritchard and their however many kids, apparently. The very whitest and dullest rich people you can imagine.” That made Ben laugh in spite of himself, though Seir just gave him a mild look and kept going. “I honestly thought you might have gotten a false positive for a while. No symbols, no paraphernalia, no secret rooms, no traces of any kind of magic I know. Just a house.”
“For a while?” Ben prompted. And finally Seir cracked and smiled a little, sweet and mischievous.
“Then I found Douglas’s study,” they said, and lifted up and put on the counter an entire-ass laptop computer. Ben was pretty confident that it had not been visible in their hands before, although that seldom meant much of anything with Seir. Getting and bringing things in unconventional ways was kind of their whole deal. He stared at it for a long moment.
“So I’m… guessing he’s going to be missing that,” he said finally, in a slightly dry voice.
Seir nodded, cheerfully. “Clock’s ticking starting now,” they agreed, apparently without a care in the world, for fuck’s sake. Demons. “But it felt much more like what you would want than air. And I did take a look.” They pushed the lid open and tapped the power button, and after entering a password that he didn’t have to ask how they knew, they turned the screen to show him the spreadsheet that they’d left up on the screen. Names down the leftmost column, student ID numbers down the next one, contact info down others. Ben frowned at it, and Seir shrugged. “It was hidden, and I know it’s important, but I don’t know why. Can you figure it out?”
“Maybe? Ugh, fuck. I hate Excel.” He leaned over the counter and poked and scrolled for a few minutes, then finally had to straighten up and go get his own laptop. He came back over to the island and set them up side-by-side, getting started exploring on the one and searching on the other, then cross-referencing.
He got deep enough into it eventually that he started to go blind to the passage of time, barely even noticing when Seir got up and got on his phone, and ordered Thai. They knew what he liked anyway, and Ben wasn’t going to be up for cooking with this shit in their laps. By the time Seir had settled back down next to him with a couple glasses of wine to wait (he made a vague grunt of thanks and sipped at his without really noticing), Ben had actually covered a reasonable amount of ground.
“Okay,” he said, finally, only after the food had come and Seir had put it down in front of him very pointedly. He sat up straight again, rolling his neck and then stretching his shoulders, wincing at all the cracks. “I’m basically sure that the whole sheet is of Pell grant recipients. These names, marked with the red” –he ran his finger down along the screen, pointing out a couple of highlighted cells– “don’t have any contact info listed for parents, and the others do. My guess is these are the ones who filed independent on their FAFSA. And these” –he switched over to his own laptop, and the parallel, much shorter document he’d opened– “are the names in red who’ve been reported missing to Public Safety or local law enforcement, as far as I can tell.”
Seir scanned the list briefly, while opening a heavenly-smelling paper bag, and then glanced at him. “That’s more than there should be.”
Ben nodded. He’d tracked down almost twenty names, and he was sure there were more than he’d been able to find reference to online. “That’s way more than there should be.”
“What’s a Pell Grant?” Seir asked next, though, rather than pursue that, and sat next to him again while setting out food. It took Ben a second to make the mental gear shift, but he got there.
“Oh, it’s, uh–” He grabbed a pair of chopsticks while he put the words together. “Government funding to help students with the most financial need pay for college. I don’t know as much about the financial aid side of things as I should, honestly, but that’s the gist of it.”
“Hm.” Seir paused to peer at the spreadsheet again over his arm. “So what we’re looking at is a list of students with the least money and resources available to them, where our friend Douglas Pritchard has marked off those who also likely have fewer people who’d come looking for them than others? And some of those are missing?” Ben looked at them and nodded,.and the expression Seir turned back up to him wasn’t without sympathy. “That sounds like an update on the oldest story of sacrifice victims I know.”
“Yeah. It really is. Fuck.” Ben rubbed at his eyes, still holding the chopsticks in his other hand, although he felt like he was getting less hungry every second. After a second he set them down to switch back to his own computer, tapping through a few websites for a second before nodding. “Yeah, there he is. He’s a VP, for student services. That’s how he’s getting his names, then. Motherfucker.” He blew out a breath. “Hey, I’ve got a cool idea. How about you kill the shit out of this dude?”
Seir smiled at him, warmly, and squeezed his hand for a second. Just to make it clear they didn’t disapprove, he guessed. “We don’t know who else is in on it,” they pointed out, all the same. “I doubt it’s just him, not on something this size. And we don’t know who, or what, the sacrifices are for. It can’t be one of my kind; I’d be able to sense that.” They frowned a moment, staring at the list again, their graceful fingers fidgeting absently with the lid of one of the food boxes. “Although… I’d think I’d be able to sense that much blood spilled to anything, really. But I haven’t felt anything like that.”
“Maybe they’re still alive, then,” Ben said, with all the hope he could muster. Seir nodded quickly enough to try not to disabuse him of it, too, which he appreciated.
“Or maybe it’s something I’ve never encountered before,” they added. “Or both.” After a moment’s hesitation, though, they just primly pushed a tinfoil box of noodles and tofu and sauce toward him, in no uncertain terms. “Eat your dinner. Humans need food. After that, we can figure out how we’ll pin him down.”
“Oh, humans need food?” Ben said, swiveling toward them and reeling his head back in the most taken-aback way he could muster. “Shit. Nobody ever tells me anything.”
Seir just kicked him in the ankle and handed him back his chopsticks, which he supposed he deserved. Still, he had to turn that list of names up on the screen fully away from himself, before he could get anything to go down his throat without sticking there.
Ben hadn’t been eligible for a Pell Grant himself, but sure, things had been tricky sometimes, with his mom making a high school teacher’s salary and his dad picking up construction jobs where he could find them. And Ben had done his FAFSA faithfully for college: in paper back in those days, sitting at the kitchen table with his mom helping just like she’d do for Julia a few years later. It had been Dad, though, who’d looked like he could just bust open from pride at Ben’s graduation, and Dad who had actually cried a little for maybe the third time Ben could count in his whole life, when they’d been having some beers back home afterward and Ben had told him he’d been accepted to a Catholic seminary in the northeast. Dad who’d always kept a framed picture of Leonidas Proaño on the bookshelf, and had told a much smaller Ben more than once, with the plainest of glowing warm respect, about the various doings of “el obispo de los indios.” Dad might not ever talk, even to Mom, about the exact circumstances that had led to his family and friends and allies and church scrambling to put together the money and influence to get him on a plane from Quito to southern California, when he’d been in his twenties, but in his free time he still read stacks of books with dense puzzling titles and went to meetings in the community center with young white guys with obnoxious sideburns, and he admired most who he admired most.
Honestly, Ben had never even been all that religious, but he’d liked the idea of fighting for justice and doing right by the least, in between praying with them. Not to mention that in a perverse way, his still-lingering teen goth phase of being super into occult bullshit seemed to lend itself pretty well to getting interested in religious training. And he’d known what it would mean to his dad. Which meant, though, that he also knew why it’d had to be Julia who’d called him collect from a payphone, one stultifyingly boring year into seminary, to tell him that Mom’s insurance wouldn’t pay for Dad’s insulin anymore, and of course they couldn’t afford it out of pocket.
“I’m not supposed to tell you,” she’d even said outright, her voice tinny and distant from across the country and through the receiver. “He just says he doesn’t want to worry you, you’re supposed to be studying.”
Of course. And studying was exactly what Ben had done. First long nights in his room of the dorm suite, squinting at law and policies on the young internet, trying and trying to find an escape hatch that should have existed, but didn’t. And then finally, longer nights with a mix of dubious tile-backgrounded websites and musty, smelly, falling-apart old books he’d had to clandestinely send away for, sweating over strange text and stranger directions. Where ultimately he’d stumbled across the many possible spellings of the name of a prince of Hell, who if properly conjured and bound could get you anything you needed, in any quantity, from anywhere in the world.
A few weeks later, Ben’s family home had mysteriously acquired an extra fridge full of insulin in the garage, Ben had basically tried to pledge himself for life and beyond in servitude to a literal demon from Hell and been turned down because “you’re too sweet,” and he’d been called into a room full of what he’d thought were extremely boring Jesuit faculty, now looking deeply grim and severe, and been very surprised to learn that he’d tripped every spiritual alarm bell they’d set for someone doing exactly what he’d been doing.
And Ben and his dad had barely had a single full conversation in the more than fifteen years since his expulsion. Dad had shown up to Ben’s eventual Ph.D graduation (from a very different institution, with no transcript from seminary on file), but he’d been distant and silent, and that light of pride had never really come back on in his eyes. But as Ben’d had more than enough time to learn in the interim, even if a demon wouldn’t take what you were willing to offer, somehow you’d still always, always end up paying a price.
Whatever it ended up costing Douglas Pritchard and whoever he was working with, Ben hoped it stung even worse.
Figuring that was all the laptop was likely to yield, they both did their best to set it back in order as much as they could, and then Seir took it back after dinner in the hopes no one would be the wiser after all. After, of course, a quick rousing and very ridiculous debate about whether it could be framed that Seir was bringing Ben back the absence of a laptop, and they finally just settled on the customary “handful of air” workaround for when he didn’t actually need anything brought back. Then there was just the small matter of figuring out the where, when, and how of the sacrifice, so hopefully they could stop it.
“The fact that the energy traced back to his house is still significant,” Ben said, back at the counter together, gnawing at the edge of his thumb. “Like, I don’t think my diviner would have gone off for a suspicious spreadsheet. There’s got to be another piece going on in that building specifically.”
Seir shrugged, perching restlessly at the edge of the barstool. “All I know is that nothing was there when I was. And if something had already happened, there would be remnants.”
Ben made a hmm of acknowledgement to that, and let it stand. Seir admitted pretty readily they hadn’t even encountered everything under the sun, let alone everything the sun had never touched, but they were also a few thousand years older than him and he’d trust their judgment better than his. “What if it’s not… something that happened, then?” he said after a moment’s pause, slowly. Feeling around for an idea. “Or something that’s in the house now. So maybe… something that was there when I got the message, but isn’t now. The tracing spell I used only identifies where the message came from, it doesn’t, like, put a tracker on it if it’s on the move.”
“Huh. Something that was there but isn’t anymore?” Ben nodded, while Seir considered. “What if it was someone?”
That startled Ben into looking up at them, frowning. “What makes you say that?”
There was an intent, interested light in the look Seir gave him back — like they were catching the scent. He tried not to get too excited, but having any kind of hope right now felt good, and he was willing to indulge it for the moment. “I think I mentioned their ‘however many kids’,” they said, holding Ben’s gaze. “I wasn’t being funny; I leave that to you. There were quite a few pictures of the family around the house — really kind of garish things. Photography studio blowups. The husband, the wife, and two kids. They’re even a boy and a girl, by the look of it, one young teen and one older child. Disgustingly scrubbed and wholesome.” Ben smiled at that briefly, but Seir just went on. “The same two kids in all the pictures. Except in the study. In there, there was a photo on Douglas’s desk, with another kid in it along with the other two. Older by a few years. A girl.” They caught Ben’s gaze again, a little frown-line creased in their pretty brow. “I didn’t really assume anything from it — maybe a cousin or something? But they’re definitely all related, and they were close in the picture, no real difference in the staging that I could see. And the study was so closed up, and so many other things in there felt like secrets… it’s hard to say, but I think that photo did too.”
“An extra kid, huh?” Ben considered that, kicking back a bit in his seat. “Honestly, I can’t think how that could figure in, but it is weird. Maybe we ought to see what we can find out about that.” He tipped just his eyes toward Seir there, with the edge of a smirk on his mouth too. “Babe, it’s the darnedest thing, but you know what? What I want right now more than anything is a couple of birth certificates.”
Seir’s instincts were as good as they ever were. After opening the door out to the porch, this time, onto instead the darkened storage room of some unknown Connecticut town Vital Records Office, they came back with not three birth certificates for this generation of that particular clan of Pritchards, but only two. Addison and Jayden, because of course they were, but no third mystery girl. By Seir’s report, which Ben also trusted absolutely, there was no record of another child born prior to 2007. And not that it nailed anything down per se, but Douglas was an only child, and Jennifer’s sister had never had kids.
“So who is she?” Ben mused out loud, even as pointless as it was. They were just sitting together again, after Seir had gone to put the certificates back, and also retrieved and then returned the photo itself (no dice; it was just a printed-out digital photo, totally mundane to all appearances, and even inside the frame there was nothing written on it or anything). He thought about the whole conundrum for a couple seconds, and then cocked his head Seir’s way, curious. “Can you find a person? If I asked you to? I can’t believe this has never come up before.”
Seir hesitated noticeably before answering. “I’ve been asked to before,” they said, slowly — carefully. “Never for what I’d call a good reason.” …Oh. Well, file that away as another thing to never ask about. At least he was pretty sure he could trust that if it had been really awful, Seir would have found a way to refuse. Even the musty old books of esoteric literature had made bemused note that they were a pretty soft touch, for a demon; it was one of the reasons he’d chosen them. “It’s possible, yes, but it’s tricky — mostly the ‘retrieval’ part of things.”
Ben considered that, along with its implications in this situation. Finally, he sat forward a little, looking intently at Seir again.
“Then take me along,” he said. “Will that work? If the idea is that you’re going to get this kid for me, but then I just tag along through your door.”
Seir’s mouth was already thinning while he spoke, but not in a way that he thought meant it wasn’t possible. “That’s dangerous,” they said sharply when he was done, sure enough. “We’d be walking blind into whatever this is, and I might not be able to protect you.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ben sighed — that list of names on the spreadsheet scrolling by behind his eyes. “But I’m willing to risk it. I just don’t think we have time on this one to do all the homework.”
“And you say I’m worse than your students,” Seir grumbled. But they didn’t argue any further, either, and Ben was fairly sure they were thinking of the same thing he was.
In spite of all that, though, when Seir opened the door again, what was behind it didn’t seem like an immediate threat. It was just the top of a dim-lit, institutional sort of staircase: the kind that Ben would expect to take between floors at the back of the library, maybe, or in one of the campus classroom buildings from the fifties or so. On the other hand, it did lead downward out of sight into increasing shadow, which honestly was pretty disconcerting to see on the other side of the door out to his very ground-level sun porch.
They stepped through and Seir shut the door behind them, and then they were just there: the door that had closed was the actual door of the stairwell, and they were standing inside the building it was in, wherever that was. In spite of how on edge both he and Seir were, Ben got out his phone by habit, and frowned at the map. He got signal, GPS, and even wireless just fine, he noticed first, they weren’t anywhere off the grid — and it was the university wireless, in fact, he saw at a glance at the notification. Sure enough, when he zoomed out the map a little, they were on campus. They were actually —
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” he muttered. Seir glanced at him, frowning, from where they’d been about to start down the stairs.
“What? We need to hurry.”
“Yeah, but– Oh, fuck me.” Seir frowned at him more, and he gestured around them. “This is the main building for that — fucking student secret society, whatever it is. I’ve never been on the inside but I can see where it is on the map. They even took me past it on my tour when I first started here, like ha ha, isn’t it silly that people think a bunch of rich fuckers might be up to something. Son of a bitch.”
“Well, that gives us a little bit more idea ‘who,'” Seir said, soft and musing. “Douglas Pritchard certainly seems like the type. I did see he was an alum, I don’t know if I mentioned that.” Ben just grunted, and Seir waved him on. “Come on, someone could come along any minute. We came in above her — she’s down there, whoever she is.”
They moved down the stairs as quietly as they could, Seir leading, Ben following close enough to almost be in their footsteps. It was hard to keep silent; the steps and walls were concrete, and everything wanted to echo. They went down a floor, and then down another, and then more, much more than Ben would have thought possible for the average height of a campus building or even how much one was likely to have in the way of a basement. The air seemed to get mustier every second; he was sure they’d gone deep underground.
Eventually, after way too long and way too far, the quality of the shadows below them started to change, and then take shape into something that was very different from how the stairs had been until now. They came to the bottom of the concrete staircase at a packed dirt floor — but cut into it and continuing downward was another set of stairs, stone and rough-hewn this time. The fluorescent emergency lighting died out with the upper staircase, and below it was what looked like torchlight, dancing with a bit of a sickly green cast to it. There was a growing smell of water in the air, too, brackish and salty and unpleasantly fishy.
“Hm,” Ben said, to all of this. Seir nodded. They kept descending.
Once they’d started down the stone stairs, they began to hear voices almost right away, floating up from below: a deep drone of chanting, and a stronger voice declaiming something over top of that, though it was still too far away and echoey to make out words. Seir grabbed for Ben behind them and made sure he was keeping close again, and Ben kept close agreeably. The stairs’ stone walls were thick with water, both beaded condensation from the moisture in the air and also actual little runnels from between the joins, and the weird greenish torches hissed and sputtered with it but never went out. The fishy smell got stronger. Did this connect to an underground branch of one of the tributaries down here, or even the harbor itself?
As they neared the bottom, there was more light from below, even more unhealthily green. The last flight of stairs ended up in a broad antechamber, where the stones tiling the floor, when seen from the stairs overhead, seemed to fit together in dizzying, uncomfortable patterns that wouldn’t quite sit right in Ben’s eyes when he looked down, that seemed like they couldn’t really work in space and time and pulled tauntingly at his mind. And those paved the way to an enormous, towering stone gate that the walls opened out at last to reveal: a rippling arch cut up full stories through the earth, organically ragged around the edges with a staggering array of carved appendages. It bristled all the way around, a profusion of stone suggestions of suckers and tentacles, fins and psuedopods, beaks and gills and flat milky eyes.
The stone doors of the gate stood wide open, and the voices were coming from in there. All Ben could see inside, though, was darkness.
Seir firmly took Ben’s hand as they stepped down onto the stone floor, and he didn’t try to argue about that either. They led him, as silently as possible, over to press against one side of the massive gate, the two of them mostly hidden to anyone inside by the edge of the wall and the enormous propped bulk of the open stone door. Ben let Seir hold onto his shoulder, like he was a horse that might forget himself and bolt, and peered through.
Beyond the gateway, lit far more dimly than even this staircase was by the sputtering torches, were figures standing in ragged, curving ranks around a central point. There were enough of them that the front rows were nearly too far away to see in the dark, but the back ones were close enough Ben could have taken two steps and almost touched one. They all had their backs turned toward the doorway where he and Seir were hidden, and they were all dressed in hooded dark robes that made them completely identical from this angle. Their heads looked to be bowed down, and it seemed like they were the source of the chanting. Somewhere up ahead of them, too, another dim figure in a robe and hood was pacing around, almost impossible to see from here, and Ben thought that was who was calling out stuff about the prophesied hour and the most Ancient and Unknowable Ones and the one who will lead us all to glory. All pretty boilerplate, once you’d heard enough of it. It didn’t really clear anything up by itself.
What was a little more illuminating, though, was what was at that central point they were all crowded around.
You could almost think that it had something in common with a human being, or maybe that it had once, before what it was now. Its upper body had a head and torso and arms in pretty much the right configuration, at least, and although its flesh looked pale and clammy, it was also about the right tone for a white person’s skin. There were what looked like wet, thinning draggles of blonde hair plastered against the misshapen bulk of its head, and even in the dim light the glitter of its eyes was the most visible thing about it, expressive and intelligent and human. That was where the resemblance ended, though. The rest of anything that might have been a human face dissolved below those eyes into a chaotic profusion of aimlessly twisting tentacles, and slit apertures like gills heaved where they wrapped around the sides of the thing’s thick, lumpy neck. Not to mention that it was huge: the listless, blobby bulk of the whole thing sprawled out to maybe around the size of an elephant, in the middle of where the — worshippers? — ringed around it. Or maybe it would make more sense to say it was around the size of a giant squid, considering how much of the mass that the rest of its body sat on top of and divided into was just more thick, sliding, undulating tentacles. They sprawled over the stone floor beyond the gate, in all directions, the ring of hooded figures around the creature sometimes having to go ragged to accommodate them. It lay there like a beached thing, and the whole mass of it heaved, expanding and contracting, with what was probably just the motion of its breathing.
“That’s her,” Seir whispered into Ben’s ear, almost up against it. Even in the extremely adverse circumstances, he could manage to find it a little shivery-pleasant. “That’s the third daughter.” When Ben swiveled his head to look at them with a very you’re-shitting-me sort of frown, Seir just looked back at him matter-of-factly. “She looked different in the picture. But it’s her. She’s what I came here to find for you.” They paused, looking out over the group again, and nodded up ahead. “And that’s Douglas. The loud one. I just recognize him from the photos.”
Well, that figured, Ben thought — managing to finally tear his eyes away from the tentacle-thing that had apparently been a very fresh-faced and boringly ordinary teenaged girl at one point, and back to the figure in the much fancier robe that was still walking around, waving a smoky censer and shouting out typical culty nonsense. He still couldn’t really see a face himself, but Seir’s vision was much better, and it could’ve been a doughy middle-aged white guy under there, sure. Easy. And if nothing else, it looked like he’d brought the main attraction, so it checked out that he’d get pride of place.
There was something else in there, though, the more time Ben’s eyes had to adjust to the darkness. There were other people in that vast space beyond the gate — easy to miss, all of them huddled up along the wall inside so that the gate almost blocked them from view from outside, just as Ben and Seir were hidden for the time being from most of the inside. They weren’t robed, or chanting, or doing much of anything, it looked like, except sitting and standing together with chains looped around all their arms and legs and binding them together. And they looked young: teens, twenty-somethings. Jeans here and punky haircuts there and some tattoos and piercings, a broad mix of skin colors.
“They’ve got the sacrifices in there,” Ben whispered back to Seir, with increasing urgency, indicating with his own head this time. “Looks like they haven’t done anything to them yet.”
Seir nodded. “They’re still just pre-gaming. I imagine they expect to have a long time to party before things start in earnest.”
“Oh, I’m looking forward to disappointing them so much.” Ben rolled his head a little, as though to crack his neck even though it didn’t quite go. “Okay, new plan. I think now my job is to be as distracting as possible.”
“Wait, what do you–” he thought Seir started to whisper back. But he barely heard it, because before his nerve could falter, Ben was already striding right ahead straight into the middle of the rows of hooded figures, his footsteps ringing very loudly off the stone.
Even if all this went south, he had time to think, the silence that followed around him would be worth it. First it spread forward in waves, from one to the next rank of robed figures, as he walked in front of them and they saw him and their chanting faltered away. Then outward, as the whole rest of the giant room slowly caught on that something was happening, and turned, and then shut up too. Now that he was inside, he was aware that the space they were all in was even bigger than he’d thought from outside: the long curves of its walls and its ceiling and whatever was on the far side were all lost to darkness, beyond the reach of the smoke and torchlight, long before any of them appeared to actually end. Somewhere up ahead there was the lap of water, too; he thought that not too far beyond that gigantic tentacled thing, there was the edge of some subterranean shore.
“Hi,” Ben said, when the fancy-robed shouting figure with the censer also stopped too, and was clearly looking at him. His voice was satisfyingly loud in the silence, resounding off the stone floor like his footsteps did. He stopped and stood where he was, hands casually in the pockets of his jeans, gamely putting on his most guileless and shit-eating grin. “God, it’s weird how siloed we all get, it’s like we never even get to talk to anybody outside the building. Doug Pritchard from Student Services, right? I’m Ben Agustín, I teach in Religious Studies.” He made a polite sort of gesture out in front of him with his open palm — past the robed figure, toward the creature behind him. “It’s nice to get to meet your daughter, too. I’m surprised she’s not enrolled, legacy being what it is. Seems like she’s got some special circumstances, but I’m sure we could’ve worked out accommodations.”
“Restrain him,” the figure in the robe said, after a beat of pause. The same voice that had been rattling off all the destiny shit a minute ago, but in a pretty different tone: mostly a weary and exasperated sort of a one, to be honest. “Do I have to spell everything out for you? Jesus.”
There was a startled little scuffle, and then robed figures on either side of Ben seemed to break their paralysis, stumbling forward and grabbing hold of his shoulders and arms. He stayed loose and let them do it pretty amiably, smiling at a couple of them and mouthing Hi. Douglas Pritchard reached up with his free hand, meanwhile, and pulled the hood back from his brow; the head that was revealed was pretty anticlimactic and about what Ben had expected. Middle-aged white guy who might’ve been around fifty, on the thin side, salt-and-pepper hair, a bit stronger and handsomer around the angles than anticipated, maybe. Really good teeth in that definite but undefinably rich-guy way.
“So,” he said, starting to make his way at a leisurely pace toward where Ben was content to let himself be held. The censer had fallen to dangle at his side, and Ben didn’t quite know how he managed to hold it like it was a briefcase, but he did. “You think you’re pretty smart, apparently. And I have to say, I’m honestly a little impressed. This clearly isn’t your first time, but I can’t even imagine how you could’ve found out about us.”
Ben shrugged, as much as the mothball-smelling robe-wearers surrounding him would let him, anyway. “Oh, kind of by accident, not gonna lie. I think I’ve still only got, like, seventy-five percent of the picture.” He nodded toward the tentacled creature again, raising his eyebrows toward Pritchard. “I’m assuming the sacrifices are for her?”
Pritchard stared at him a minute, like a bug under glass, the contemptuous little edges of something like a smile around the corners of his mouth. “Yes,” he allowed, finally, and half-turned to take things in. “Their blood, once devoured, will complete Mackenzie’s–“
“Of course she fucking is,” Ben said sotto voce; Pritchard talked on over him with no mind paid at all, as he might have expected.
“–awakening, and let her forge the path of we the righteous to our rightful place as the lords of what remains of this corrupted earth. As our prophecies tell us, one of the mingled blood of mortal man with the Ancients of the Deep will bridge us to their forbidden realm, and remake the unsuspecting world of light in its sunless image. And mankind’s watery grave of eternal torment will be ours alone to rule.”
Okay, he was good at this, Ben had to give him that. The speech he’d overheard earlier had seemed pretty scripted, but he was pretty sure all that had just been off the cuff. Not everybody in this business could do improv.
“Yeah, that sounds, uh, super worth it,” Ben said after a moment’s pause to take that in, conversationally. He tried to adjust one arm that was getting kind of sore, but no good. “So your whole country-club secret-society thing, you guys are Shadow Over Innsmouth-ing it down here? That’s hilarious. I love that for you. Kind of dying to know what the first date with the kid’s mom was like, but also afraid to ask.” Pritchard was drawing a breath to say something, looking successfully annoyed in spite of himself, but Ben just kept going for all he was worth. “I guess it mostly just blows my mind that a bunch of people like you looked at the condition of, like, absolutely everything and came to the conclusion, hey, you know what the problem is with the world today? Not enough power and resources for me, not nearly enough suffering for everybody else.”
“Oh, you’re in the humanities, of course you’re going to try to make this into some kind of ‘woke’ thing,” Pritchard said, falling out of character enough to roll his eyes. Ben stared at him, then coughed a big laugh.
“You’re literally about to feed a bunch of kids on financial assistance to your rich white privileged daughter. As metaphors go, that is pretty embarrassingly on the nose.”
Pritchard made a scoffing sound of his own, but didn’t seem to care to pursue that line of conversation. Not that Ben found that much of a surprise either. “Well, since you’ve volunteered, you’re welcome to join them,” he said, in a dismissing sort of tone, even as he was starting to turn to take his place back up in front of tentacle-Mackenzie again. “I can’t say I understand what your plan was supposed to be, coming down here empty-handed and alone, but–“
“Oh, shit, sorry,” Ben interrupted, loud enough and with full smug grin restored enough to make Pritchard stop and turn back to frown at him. “Did I give you the impression I was alone?”
And though he couldn’t turn around to look, right on cue, another set of footsteps came approaching over the stone floor. Ones that echoed quite a bit more than his had, even, given the heels.
“Did you get them out okay, babe?” Ben raised his voice to call over his shoulder. From the glimpse he caught of Seir’s face from between the robes — fully made up now, framed in the longest possible flowing hair, above a fetish-club sort of bodysuit made up of thick swoops of black fabric cross-cutting a background of black mesh — they weren’t a hundred percent thrilled with him at the moment, but he figured he could make it up to them later. Maybe even get punished for it, if he was really lucky.
“They’re safe,” Seir said, even as they were still striding closer. And that finally made Pritchard seem to remember to look away from Ben (and now Seir) and more fully around… and see that where the group of kids had been being held for sacrifice, there were now just empty shadows and stone.
His face twisted, furiously, and he turned back on Ben. “What in the hell–” he started to demand, but that only made Ben laugh, and that just seemed to piss Pritchard off more. He came storming forward, on a trajectory to meet Seir with Ben in the middle, his voice raised and delivery not nearly so poised as before. “Shut the fuck up. Shut him up! Get him on his knees!”
The robed figures shoved Ben down to the stone floor hard enough to force a little grunt out of him, and hands yanked at his head to jerk it back to look up at Pritchard. Fortunately, though, the context was really too gross for it to be an accidental turn-on. He squinted up, staying as calm as he could be, even as the adrenaline surged up in his blood. Okay, maybe Seir was right, he was playing this one closer than he should have. He couldn’t have helped it, though. Those kids — that just got under his skin.
“You are not going to want to harm that human,” Seir’s voice said behind him, too — strong and cold and a comfort. Pritchard was doing his best to sneer at them over Ben’s head, but Ben thought he was looking a little cautious, too. Sizing up the unknown quantity.
“And who are you supposed to be?” Pritchard demanded. Ben couldn’t help it, he just laughed again.
“Oh, buddy,” he said, forcing a grin over his grimace even though he couldn’t really shake his head. “Oh, my man, you fucked this one up.”
“He belongs to me,” Seir just said, just as sternly. From the sound of it, they had arrived right behind the mass of robed people holding Ben still, standing at their full unimposing height staring Pritchard down. Ben couldn’t turn to see, but he sure could picture it.
“And you are?” Pritchard repeated more stridently, more aggravated than ever.
Ben had a feeling they could go back and forth like this for a while, and took it on himself to intervene. “Oh, them? They’re just Prince Seir of twenty-six legions of Hell, named of Solomon’s Key, a greater demon of sorcery and conjuring. Only around since the sun coalesced out of gas and rival to the entire host of Heaven. Nobody you need to worry about. I mean, you, you do… what? Scare a racist from Rhode Island? Like any kid with a squeegee at a stoplight couldn’t pull that one off.”
There was a slight pause, and then Seir spoke up in a more conciliatory tone, over Ben’s head to Pritchard: “I’m sorry about him,” they said. “No offense. He gets like this under stress.”
“Hey,” Ben said. In indignance he tried to twist against the hands grabbing his head, but mostly just made his eyes water. “Full offense, actually.”
He thought Seir sighed, but by that point Pritchard had apparently had enough of them. “Shut up, both of you. And all of you, stop just staring like idiots!” He glared around at the increasingly uncertain and nervous robed figures, who seemed like they were losing some of their appetite for this now that it wasn’t going like how they’d been promised at their MLM parties or whatever. “Kill them. Both of them. And find the sacrifices. Don’t make me have to–“
“Yeah, that sounds great, but just one thing first,” Ben managed to say loud enough to interrupt him again, and he seized the opportunity before he could lose it. “Seir, honey, these guys seem super into the ocean. Have you noticed that?”
“It had crossed my mind, yes,” Seir said, dryly, from wherever behind him. And before Pritchard could splutter a word in edgewise again, Ben looked straight at him and grinned wider than ever — wide enough to bare all his teeth.
“So since they like it so much, could you be a doll and go bring them back some, please?” he said, every word shaped by the stretch of his mouth. “You can just leave it right in their lungs.”
A second later some of the robed people holding Ben seemed to try to move or turn, and a couple of them shouted out something — there was a rush of displaced air, the way there always was when there wasn’t an existing door handy, and Seir had to draw their own on thin air —
And then, well… everything got kind of messy for a while.
“Okay, so,” Ben said, a little out of breath, some time later — after together they’d managed, as delicately as possible, to maneuver really a lot of drowned corpses off into that dark water out in the shadows. “Now we just have to figure out how to handle… that whole situation.”
The situation he nodded to was, of course, tentacle-Mackenzie: still cowering by the edge of the water, as much as something that big could cower, weirdly human eyes darting fearfully from one of them to the other and tentacles quivering. Seir looked up in the same direction, and started to take a couple of steps forward — and then stopped, just like Ben did, when a slightly echoey and distorted but pretty much normal human teenaged girl’s voice spoke straight into both of their heads.
Please don’t hurt me, it said, and sounded honestly weepy and scared enough to bring Ben up short a little bit. Even enough to get an actual little twinge of pity out of him, to his vague surprise. Please, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry. I knew it was wrong, I knew I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone… please…
For a second or two after the voice trailed off, all Ben could do was stand there, wide-eyed and gobsmacked. He looked over at Seir, who honestly looked just about equally surprised, and then nodded confirmation that they’d heard it too. They didn’t seem to know how to respond any better than Ben did, though, so he did his best to pull himself together.
“M…ackenzie?” he tried, once he could, looking up at the tentacle-thing. It was definitely looking back, its eyes fixed on his, and while he watched it blinked and dipped the mass of its head down in something like a nod.
Yeah. It’s me. I’m… I’m sorry, I know it’s probably rude to talk in somebody’s head, but —
“No, that’s… fine. I mean, whatever works.” Ben cleared his throat a second, shook his head a little, and then drew himself up, crossing his arms over his chest. “So… okay, slow down a minute. I mean, you realize you’re, you know… the thing that was supposed to eat a bunch of people and destroy the whole world, right? You see how that doesn’t look great for you here?”
I know, the voice said, so miserably he couldn’t help but feel it was sincere. And I… I really am sorry. It’s just… it’s all such a mess. I just didn’t know what to do. Ben just waited, eyebrows raised, and the echoey telepathic voice took a minute to speak again. When it did, though, it seemed to have a little more confidence gathered under itself. I never knew about any of this until this year. My dad always just said my mom was gone, and it was just us who were a family, but… from when I was pretty little, I only saw him a couple times a year. As soon as I could go to school, he sent me off to boarding school, and most of the time I couldn’t even come home at holidays. My… my stepmother didn’t want to see me. That’s what Dad said. Honestly, by this year, I barely even knew him.
The voice gave a sigh, as audible as everything it was saying. Then a few weeks ago, I was getting ready to go off to college, and Dad came to get me. Just out of the blue. And he told me all this stuff about my real mom, and how I was born, and my destiny, and everything, and… I don’t know. It was so crazy, I didn’t even know whether to believe him or not, until I started… you know. Changing. And I didn’t want any of it to happen, I swear I never wanted to hurt anybody, I was so scared, but he was bringing me all these places and saying all this stuff, and– A pause, and something that felt more than sounded like a swallow. …It was just the first time he’d ever wanted to spend so much time with me. And he just seemed, you know…
He was just so proud of me.
Ben just stood still after she’d finished talking, for a long enough moment to become awkward. Then, finally, he brought up his hands to scrub them slowly down his face until his arms fell back to his sides again, with a big sigh of his own.
“Oh, honey,” he said, his voice coming out more tired and sorry than anything else. “No, trust me… I get it. I really do. Dads are… yeah. Dads are tough.” He blew out another breath, rolled his head back on his neck while he thought, and adamantly ignored Seir looking at him. “Okay… look. It’s not great that you were gonna agree to eat a bunch of people and end the world. Like, regardless of the circumstances, that’s not ideal. But… Christ, I dunno. Do you promise you’re not going to try to do any of that stuff on your own? Like, promise?”
Seir might have given him a different sort of look at that point, but he was still trying not to notice. The voice faltered at first, surprised, and then came back in his head with such audible hope that he knew to his chagrin that he wasn’t going to change his mind, one way or the other. Of course I do! I won’t, I absolutely promise. I don’t want to do any of that, I really don’t, I swear. It was just what Dad wanted.
“Well… all right. I guess that’s got to be good enough for me. Just… consider yourself on probation, okay?” The Mackenzie-creature just wobbled some kind of wordless affirmative, apparently too overcome to speak. “Do you have somewhere to go? That’s… safe for someone like you, I guess, and isn’t, uh, right here specifically?”
Mackenzie appeared to need to give that some thought. There’s… the city at the bottom of the ocean, where the Ancients of the Deep live, she finally ventured, tentatively. That’s where my real mom lives. Dad said. I could go there, and I think I could stay there with them. Another pause, and then a cautious warmth crept into the voice, like the shape of a little shaky smile. I think it’d be nice to get to meet her.
“All right. That works.” Ben spread his arms, at this point so tired he was mostly just relieved to have some kind of answer and get this over with. “Well… go for it, then. Just be good, all right?” The creature gave another affirming little wobble. She was still just blinking at him, though, in apparent overwhelm that he was saying all of this, that she was getting a reprieve at all. Ben looked back at her a second, then made a helpless little shooing gesture with his arms. “Go on. Free Willy, or whatever. …Ah, fuck, you’re too young to even get that. Just go get in the ocean, kid. Before I change my mind.”
And that finally seemed to snap her out of it. She didn’t hesitate or argue again — just started the kind of arduous process of moving all of herself, and then once she’d gotten in motion, undulated and crawled her way over the stone floor, deeper into the shadows and moving out of view. Then there was a loud, sonorous splash, and the sound of ripples of rebounding water for a while, echoing off the walls. And then quiet, and then silence, at last.
“That was generous,” Seir said, softly, after a moment. There was a tender, knowing sort of warmth in their voice, and when he glanced over at their expression, he just confirmed there was nothing there he felt comfortable looking at right now at all. “…Possibly too generous. But we’ll just have to wait and see about that.”
“Yeah, I guess we will,” Ben said, and cleared his throat. “Ah, you know I’m always a pushover with the kids. C’mon, let’s go check on the ones we came here for, speaking of which.”
It turned out Seir had ferried the would-have-been sacrifices all the way up to where Ben and Seir had come in: the ground-level door into the upper, more ordinary concrete stairway. The closest place with an easily-accessible door, Ben figured; it was always simpler for them to use one that already existed. The kids were still there when Seir and Ben (pretty out of breath and tired by that point) made their way back up the stairs to them, too, mainly because Seir hadn’t had time to deal with the chains along with everything else. Ben guessed that was probably mostly his own fault for giving them such short notice, and did feel a little bad about it.
Now that they had more time, though, it was nothing couldn’t be fixed by Seir’s popping out through the door to some darkened equipment shed with big bolt cutters in it. Between Seir and Ben both, and with help from the students as they were freed, they got everyone cut loose and put back in order pretty quickly. The kids were mostly quiet — pretty badly shaken up on several fronts, Ben assumed — but just when he was taking off the last of the chains, a cute round little bit with an awesome magenta high-top fade and a labret finally spoke up, softly and uncertainly.
“Professor Agustín?” He blinked, and the student gave him a wobbly little smile. “I thought it was you, but we were pretty far away… I, um, I was in your World Religions class last year.”
…Fuck, he taught like seven different sections of that one every single year, and they were lectures with mostly first-years who never talked. The hair was memorable enough, though, he thought he could maybe dredge up a dim memory — one of the morning slots, usually sat near the front…? Before he could just goggle back blankly for too awkwardly long, though, the student glanced at Seir and pressed on.
“Um, and is this — your partner? I know you mentioned, one time…”
Seir looked up from looping up all the scattered chain, apparently surprised to be pulled into the conversation. Then — blessedly — they fixed the student with a broad smile full of all their possible dazzling charm. “Yes, hello,” they said, and freed a hand to hold it out with gusto. They were always super proud of the little human rituals they managed to master, which Ben privately found unbearably adorable. “I’m Seir. I use they/them pronouns. A pleasure to meet you.”
The student’s smile firmed up and widened, and the two of them shook hands, apparently oblivious to the increasing bafflement of the rest who were hanging back. “Hi, I’m Lex,” the student said back, half-shyly. “Me, um, me too, actually.”
Seir looked delighted, but Ben was so relieved to have a name gifted to him that he just jumped right in, before that could go wherever it was going next. “Good to see you, Lex,” he said, maybe a little too quickly. “Are you guys all okay? They didn’t do anything to you?” There was a round of head-shakes, he was relieved to see, Lex among them.
“Is this, um — something professors — normally do?” they asked, very tentatively, after a moment’s pause. Thrown off, Ben had to take a minute on that.
“Well, you know, I’m up for tenure in a year or so, and… it beats working on my book.”
“You should really work on your book,” Seir said to him aside at once, in a lowered voice. Ben ignored them as thoroughly as possible.
Instead, he straightened himself up, into ‘authority figure’ mode as best he could muster it. “Hey, we should get out of here pretty quick, but one more thing? This goes for all of you. The people who tried to do this to you? I just want you to know you do not have to worry about them after this, okay? It’s taken care of.” He paused, while the students looked around uncertainly at him and Seir and each other, and then felt like it was too important not to add: “For real, fuck those assholes. You’re important, and people care about you, all right? Fuck anybody who says differently.”
“They’re very taken care of,” Seir added, showing teeth in what was now more of that special little feral smile of theirs. If anything, though, Ben thought most of the kids seemed to find that more reassuring than anything else. They didn’t ask questions, either. Good.
“Thank you for saving us,” one of them who hadn’t spoken up yet said, in a diffident but firm sort of tone that couldn’t help but make you want to cry a little. Especially when all the rest of them echoed the “thank you,” with varying levels of confidence. Ben tried uncomfortably to dodge that without seeming too dismissive, which was a tough line to walk.
“Yeah, uh, well… yeah.” He cleared his throat a little, and glanced around. “Okay, so, uh… let’s get out of here, and I’m… definitely going to have to figure out who I report to about secret societies pulling horrific bullshit on campus. I guess. And, um. …Can I call the shuttle for anybody? Maybe a Lyft? This building’s in the worst spot, I swear.”
It might not have been late by the students’ definition, but by the time the last of them were safely back at their dorm rooms or off-campus apartments and Ben staggered with Seir back into his own, it sure as hell was late for him. He groaned when he swung open the door, planting his hand behind the back of his neck and rolling his head back against it. This time it did crack. He was still sore from those robed fuckers yanking his head around. “Jesus. That was way more than I wanted to deal with on a Monday night. You think I can get away with cancelling classes tomorrow?”
“Yes, but I also know you won’t, because you love them too much,” Seir said, and offered the sweetest of smiles back when he glowered at them. Ben just shut and locked the door behind them both instead of responding, though, and he was already starting to pull out of his shirt before he’d taken two steps.
They both set about getting ready for bed in relative quiet: each just tired, and thinking their own thoughts. When he’d gotten his pajama pants on, though, Ben hesitated a moment and then sat down on the edge of the bed, and patted the spot next to him until Seir looked over. “Hey,” he said, and gave them a tired half a smile. “C’mere.”
Seir did, with eyebrows raised but agreeably enough. They were naked at the moment, featureless and smooth at the chest and fork of their legs in their exhaustion, but just looking so small and vulnerable, the way they always did like this. It wasn’t the truth about them, but it wasn’t a lie, either. Ben could appreciate that. Always had been able to.
“I was thinking about what you said this weekend, about how you never thought about me thinking you were scary,” he said, picking up Seir’s delicate hand and squeezing it in his much bigger one. “And how I was, you know, talking you up back there. Rattling off all your titles while I was doing my hype-man bit.” Seir smiled a little, looking down at their joined hands, but it was small and a little fragile-looking in a way that just confirmed for Ben the importance of what he wanted to say. He scooted in a little closer along the bed, in earnest. “I’ve been thinking about it. And you know what?
“Yeah, you are scary. That’s part of the nature of you. I can kid you about you being too cute to intimidate me now, and that’s not untrue, but it also doesn’t mean that I’ve somehow forgotten that you’re a literal demon from Hell. I mean, that’s why we know each other. That’s why I summoned you, why I needed you.”
He took a breath. “That’s why I know I’m safe with you. Because you’re probably — I hope — the single most powerful person I’m ever gonna meet in my life, and so when I go into shit like that tonight, sometimes I even get a little cocky and do something a little dumb, like I did tonight. Because I know you’re there. I trust you, and I trust that for whatever reason you’ve decided that I’m worth looking out for, and that lets me do things I couldn’t otherwise, no matter how many rituals I learn.” He squeezed Seir’s hand again, and smiled back at the slightly wide-eyed look they were now giving him. “It’s not that I’m scared of you, or that I’m — deluding myself that there’s nothing to be scared of, either. It’s that you, genuinely, are terrifying, and completely different from me, and even if I might never fully understand everything about you, I still know all of that perfectly well. And how I feel about it is, I’m glad. I love it about you, and I can accept it and even find it hot to play around with, because it’s just part of you. I love everything about you, even the scary or difficult or frustrating stuff, because I love you.”
Seir had dropped their eyes away from his again by now, and just sat for a moment with their long eyelashes grazing the high cheekbones below, keeping very still. Before Ben could start to worry, though, they swallowed noticeably, and then made a business of rearing their head up a little taller and prouder, even while their eyes were still lowered.
“I think you must be the softest, sappiest human on the whole planet,” they said with a show of disdain that couldn’t have been any faker. When Ben laughed, though, it seemed to let them look up and meet his eyes again, smiling a little and looking a bit steadier than they might have for a moment there. “And that’s part of why I love you, too,” they said, much more sincerely. And then, out of nowhere: “And I think you should try again to talk to your father.”
Ben blinked, caught up completely short. If anything, though, Seir just gained confidence as they looked at him, straightening up to continue in a serious tone.
“I know you let Mackenzie go partly because you sympathized with her,” they said, and then with a little smirk: “Speaking of embarrassingly on-the-nose. She had a father who expected certain things from her since before she’d really learned how to be anyone, and she tried to live up to that, but she’d become someone different from what he expected and he couldn’t appreciate it. But your father’s no Pritchard; I can tell that just from how much you care about him, and about what he thinks of you. I trust you, too, and I know you wouldn’t love someone so much who was just completely trash at being a parent.”
“He’s not,” Ben agreed, low, after a few seconds of processing enough to be able to speak. “It’s me. I’m–“
“You are the most absurdly kind-hearted, generous, courageous, and clever human I’ve ever met over an extremely long period of experience,” Seir interrupted him, simply. “A conjurer of demons who’s only ever wanted my power in order to do good in the world. You’re ridiculous and precious and more than worth to me serving and protecting you of my own free choice. And even if you aren’t what your father expected, if he is a good father, he at least deserves the chance to know the person you became instead. Because that person is simply too good not to be shared with the people he loves most.” They patted his hand, still clutching theirs, decisively with their other one. “Try again. It’s been a long time now. You might find he’s come to regret it just as much as you do.”
It was Ben’s turn to stare down at their joined hands now, until his eyes started to blur with it. His pulse felt thick in his throat, but he did think about it — he really did think about it, that was the least he owed Seir by now. There was always a price for this sort of thing; he’d seen enough by now to feel sure of that, and as hard as it had been he’d always accepted it as his due. But maybe… the price didn’t have to be forever, either. That could be true too, couldn’t it? Things changed. Priest candidates ended up professors with kinky sex lives. Demons stayed walking on the earth unbound because they fell in love. Anything could happen, and anything could end.
Maybe not forever.
“I’ll think about it,” he said, at last, and the slightly hoarse sound to his voice was easy enough to clear from his throat and swallow away after. “I mean — not right now, regardless, it’s late even in their time zone. But maybe… maybe sometime.” Seir smiled, apparently satisfied with that answer, but he still squeezed their hand back one last quietly semi-desperate time before letting it go, and letting the subject go too.
Then instead, he sat back a little on the bed, stretching his back out and groaning again. “Man, I’m exhausted, but I’m still way too wired up to go to sleep,” he said, and stretched his arms before letting them fall back in his lap and cocking his head toward Seir. “You want to, like… make a midnight snack, tie me up and humiliate me ’til I come, and then go to bed?”
The smile Seir gave him at that was truly brilliant and loaded with affection, even before they leaned in to press it up against his lips one quick time. “Whatever makes you happy, baby,” they said, with no end of fond indulgence, already moving to get up. “Ooh, did you ever get a chance to buy any more pickles?”