Blood Bond

The black S shaped mark on her arm gleamed like obsidian as she ran water over her hands. Mienka put the last dish away and sighed, drying her hands as she turned away from the sink. Vailan watched her from the table, his chubby baby face breaking into a smile as she walked over and picked him up. She smiled back as she smoothed a hand over his brown hair and held her baby close, her heart light and full as she looked at him.

*          *          *

Each charm was different. To anyone else, they would have looked like pieces of junk, most of them. A broken piece of stained glass, a tiny wreath-shaped coil of wire, a shell, a few pieces of different colored rocks, some beads, even a couple chips of bone. They all hung, clustered closely together, from a loop of braided fabric around her wrist. Despite their oddness, to Mienka they meant far more than any bought jewel could.

She added a charm to her bracelet for every life she took. Her fellow officers thought her obsession with keeping a memorial to each life she ended strange, considering her specific line of work. She had already been working in the police force for many years, but about seven years ago she had taken a sudden interest in magickers, and had become the town’s leading specialist on their habits and control.

*          *          *

Vailan was five when he got his mark. Mienka hadn’t known the children would be taken in to have their marks so soon, so when she got off work at the station she was shocked to see the state Vailan was in. The marks were how one became pair bonded, and were applied with the help of a future-seeing sorcerer who would determine what mark to give each child. As well as bonding, the marks were how magickers released their powers. Of all the children who had gotten marked that day, Vailan’s mark was the only spiral one. All the others had curved backward S marks.

*          *          *

There were four types of magickers, each of which posed a different level of threat to regular humans. Apothecaries were considered the most benign type of magicker: although they could just as easily mix poisons instead of medicines, it behooved them to help humans. They used plants, chemical extracts, and various other things to make potions which they imbued with their own power, making their medicines far stronger and more effective than those a normal human could make.

Sorcerers were deemed more dangerous than apothecaries. They did not need herbs and potions to channel their powers: with the flick of a wrist they could flood crop lands with water from a nearby stream, or set a wildfire loose in a forest. They too tended to work with humans rather than against them, but they were considered more dangerous simply due to their immense power, which inspired a mix of awe and fear in humans.

*          *          *

“Momma, my mouth hurts,” Vailan said. Mienka turned as he came up to her, his big copper eyes watching her worriedly as she crouched in front of him.

“Did you get hurt?” Mienka asked, reaching to touch his face. He was six now, and ever since he had gotten the black spiral mark on his right palm the other children had avoided him, but never showed hostility. Vailan’s skin was warm, his cheeks still pudgy like they had been as a baby, but Mienka saw no injury. Vailan shook his head at her question, then dropped two small objects into her hand. She looked down at a pair of baby canine teeth.

*          *          *

The last two types of magickers also possessed a small amount of sorcerer-like powers, but they were not in fact classified as sorcerers. They were considered to be by far the most dangerous of magickers, as both tended to have predatory natures which could inspire mass hysteria among humans. The wolf-magickers could shape shift into large wolves, and tended to group together in packs. Although Mienka’s extensive research on magickers had showed that the wolf-magickers rarely attacked humans as food, many still shrank in fear at mention of them.

Despite not viewing humans as food, young wolf-magickers were known for stealing away humans as bondees. All magickers, no matter their classification, preferred bonding to humans rather than other magickers, although there were a few cases where magickers would pair bond. In her research, Mienka had never come across a definite explanation as to why this was, though the most common hypothesis was that the inherent powers magickers possessed would conflict with one another if two magickers bonded together.

Whatever the reason, magickers were known for taking humans as bondees and not always with the human’s consent. This, as well as their superhuman powers, was what made so many people terrified of magickers as a whole. Generation after generation told horror stories of all the things magickers had (supposedly) done, and warned their children to avoid them at all costs.

*          *          *

Mienka dropped into her desk chair and put her head in her hands. She could hear her bondee banging dishes angrily in the kitchen, followed by the occasional curse. She’d tried to be careful, to only read while he was away, but he had come home early today and caught her. His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he’d asked why she had a book on magickers. She’d said they didn’t have anything to worry about, right?

She could have lied and said the book was for work. The current magicker specialist was ill, and the regular cops were on double duty to clean up magicker issues as well as human. But she didn’t.

“Most magickers bond to the same gender, but that’s still not conclusive evidence to base assumptions on. A few magickers have flipped S marks just like us humans,” she reminded him. The spiraling lines on Vailan’s hand meant nothing, nothing. She promised. Besides, most magickers took human bondees, so of course there was still a 50 – 50 chance.

“And what about the fact he still hasn’t grown in normal canines?” Herald spat. “That doesn’t sound very 50 – 50 to me.” Mienka had ground her teeth, but couldn’t deny his words.

*          *          *

This fear especially held true for the last type of magicker. Blood-magickers could not shape shift the way wolf-magickers did, but they did have physical differences from humans. Along with their weak sorcerer powers, they had a pair of snake-like fangs instead of normal top canine teeth, venom sacs in their upper jaw, and their eyes became slit pupiled when provoked. Blood-magickers also had a reputation for enjoying human blood, and were considered by the majority of humans to be vermin that ought to be eradicated from the earth.

In all her research, Mienka had rarely found an instance where blood-magickers were not described as monsters that should be killed on sight. She supposed there was a good reason for the hysteria surrounding them, but nonetheless she had always held to the hope that someday she might find an account of blood-magickers where they were not shown to be ruthless killers.

*          *          *

Mienka hadn’t thought breaking a pair bond would cause this much physical pain. But the throbbing in her arm was nothing compared to the other, emotional pain. If she’d realized Vailan was listening to the magicker argument, she would have done something, told him it was all conjecture, said that everything would be fine and there wasn’t anything he should worry about. But she hadn’t noticed. That morning she’d found his room empty, the window open. The only thing left was a note on his bed. I’m sorry. He was only ten.

When she told Harold, he’d looked shocked for a moment. Then he said maybe it was for the best, especially with her work, which was all centered on protecting humans. How would it look if her own child turned into a rampaging monster one day? Now they could quit wondering and get on with their lives. That’s when she’d really lost it.

*          *          *

Moonlight gleamed dully off the stone walls on either side of the alley. Mienka walked as quietly as she could, scanning her surroundings for any sign of movement or danger. As the leading specialist on magickers, she’d gotten sent out to do a reconnaissance on an area where disappearances and deaths were occurring. Her colleagues thought it must be a blood-magicker terrorizing the area, but Mienka was more skeptical. Blood-magickers were always first on the list of possible suspects, even though half the time it was wolf-magickers or sorcerers or (how shocking) other humans.

In this case, Mienka was betting on the human possibility, probably a gang of them with a vendetta against someone in the village. It was amazing, the number of humans she’d apprehended who used magickers as scapegoats. But with her years of knowledge accumulated from books and word of mouth stories, she could usually outsmart the gangs’ clumsy attempts at making their actions look like those of a magicker.

Mienka turned a corner and started down another alley, one hand resting against the weapons in her belt. So far she had seen nothing of note, but it always paid to be wary, especially since it was dusk now and she was out alone. Everyone she had called for backup was out on their own rounds, so Mienka had decided to take on this case by herself. Risky, yes, but she had handled more than her fair share of rampaging lunatics over the years.

Plus, she had wanted some time alone to think. There had been a lot of upheaval lately within magicker ranks, with fighting among different groups, but as a human Mienka wasn’t sure what was going on exactly. She had no magicker contacts, except for a few who had more or less been excluded from magicker society and instead lived and worked among humans. She always tried to talk to the benign magickers she came across, but usually she learned nothing of great import, either about the current upheaval or the other things she asked.

The sudden sound of a rock rattling against stone came from behind her, followed by a quick, angry hiss. Mienka whipped around, pulling a pistol from her belt. A broad-shouldered boy around seventeen stood a few paces behind her, glaring down at the ground. He looked up and snarled, exposing fully extended fangs nearly as long as her index finger.

Mienka hesitated, the gun pointed at his chest. She had been drilled never to hesitate, never to falter when faced with a hostile magicker, and yet for a moment her training faltered and she paused. The blood-magicker saw his opportunity and lunged forward in a blur of motion. Mienka fired, but she knew the shot wouldn’t hit home and she didn’t have time to fire a second time. Stupid, she thought, I was so stupid!

A second snarl came from somewhere above her, maybe from the roof of one of the buildings. Then the blood-magicker before her was hurled into the wall on Mienka’s right, with a second figure on top of him. More snarling and hissing erupted as the two figures fought, clawing and snapping at each other.

Mienka was too stunned to move, staring at the struggling combatants as her brain caught up and realized she wasn’t dead. Someone had stopped the magicker before he could attack her, and was now somehow holding their own in the ensuing brawl.

A piercing howl rent the air and a furry gray-black form leapt past Mienka and dove into the fight. The snarling intensified as Mienka took a step back, not sure what she should do now. Then one of the fighters was thrown toward the opposite wall, landing spread-eagled on the alley floor. The first blood-magicker staggered upright and hissed at the figure collapsed on the ground. Behind him the wolf crouched, teeth bared and haunches tensed to spring.

Mienka aimed her pistol and fired. The shot slammed into the blood-magicker’s chest, making him reel sideways. His body crumpled to the ground as the wolf pounced, pinning him down. The boy on the ground struggled to his feet with a hiss, then turned to stare at Mienka, his lips curled back from curved fangs, his bright copper eyes slit pupiled.

She knew she should fire again. The first blood-magicker had ingrained that point tonight, but her hand was shaking so violently she couldn’t aim properly. She couldn’t stop staring at his eyes; bright copper, just like she remembered.

“Vailan?” Mienka’s voice came out in a choked whisper. The blood-magicker stared at her, then his fangs snapped back into the roof of his mouth. His eyes widened, his pupils dilating into spheres. In a few seconds, he had gone from looking like the snarling monsters drawn in her textbooks to a seemingly human boy.

The blood-magicker took a cautious step forward, nostrils flaring to catch her scent. “Mom?” The whisper was barely audible, but Mienka caught the word. A flurry of emotions crossed the boy’s face, too quickly for her to process them. Her hands still trembling, Mienka lowered the gun. She knew the magicker could kill her in a second if he wanted, but she also knew she couldn’t pull the trigger. Not this time. Not when she knew, without any doubt, that the blood-magicker boy was her Vailan.

The ten-year-old boy she had last seen was long gone now. He had grown into a tall, leanly muscular boy who moved with a fluid grace as he walked a few more paces toward her.  He would turn seventeen in a few weeks, she realized with a start. His face still had a slightly chubby appearance, but she knew now that was due to the extra room taken up by the venom sacs just below his cheekbones. There also had to be extra space in the roof of his mouth, anterior to the venom sacs, so his fangs could retract until only the pointed ends remained outside the gum line.

Mienka finally found her breath again. “What—what are you doing here?” Of all the things she wanted to say, that was the only thing that came out.

“I—” Vailan still looked thrown. “We were—” He halted again, gesturing vaguely at the crumpled heap on the ground. “Just, getting rid of him I guess. When we came into the village yesterday, there were rumors of disappearances and such. So we decided to hang around tonight and teach whoever it was a lesson.”

Mienka blinked. Seven years’ worth of research on magickers quivered, and threatened to collapse. “You don’t—” She hesitated, but curiosity forced her to finish the question. “You don’t have a claim here? Territorially?”

Out of the corner of her eye Mienka saw the wolf shiver, the gray-black fur blurring. A second later a girl with silver-black hair stood watching Mienka, but she stayed focused on Vailan. He snorted at her question. “Territories are for lazy cretins who like to kill off half the inhabitants, then whine about how they have an angry mob chasing them around.”

Mienka felt the beginnings of a smile curve up her lips, but before she could speak the sound of running footsteps came from behind her. Mienka and the two magickers whipped to look in the direction of the sound. Two figures, one male and one female, careened around the corner and skidded to a halt.

“Viper, you bastard, why didn’t you—” The boy stopped talking as he caught sight of Mienka. She saw his muscles tense up, and he took a step forward, one hand outstretched and holding a lethal looking dagger.

The wolf-girl waved a hand at him. “Chase, Camber, it’s all right. Just your usual family reunion.”

The boy gave her a blank look, then stared questioningly at Vailan, who gave a helpless sort of shrug. “Um…this is my mother.” He gestured vaguely at Mienka. “These are my friends,” he added, addressing her, “Amira, Camber, and, uh, Chase.” He gestured to each in turn; the wolf-magicker, the other girl, and the dagger wielding boy. Mienka looked around at all of them, watching their reactions to Vailan’s words. Amira seemed unruffled, while Camber’s expression was somewhere between surprise and bewilderment. Chase also looked shocked, but his posture stayed tense and threatening.

Camber finally broke the silence. “Uh, hi.” She gave Mienka a shy smile. “We haven’t really seen our families in a long time, so…” She trailed off. Mienka felt her heart twist. She knew there were a lot of Heralds out there, many of whom wouldn’t bother to wait to see if their child was magicker or human before throwing them out, but Mienka didn’t know how they could do it. Not when it was only a 50% chance.

“I know,” Mienka said quietly, and smiled back at Camber.

“So why are you here?” Chase asked. He was still tense, and he kept glancing between Mienka and Vailan and Mienka’s hand. She realized she was still holding the pistol, although it was pointed harmlessly at the ground. Swallowing down all the training that had been drilled into her, Mienka carefully holster the gun while four pairs of eyes watched her attentively.

“I work in the police force as a specialist on magickers,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I came out here to track down whoever was causing trouble around here. I guess you were doing the same.”

“Oh.” Chase’s glance flickered between her and Vailan again, but he seemed less tense now that she wasn’t holding a weapon. Mienka noticed the girls had relaxed as well. Amira stood with her weight on one leg, hands in her pockets, her posture non-threatening.

Mienka heard a snapping sound and looked back at Vailan. He snapped his fingers again and motioned toward his hip with one hand. Chase glared at him, and Vailan motioned again. With a sigh Chase sheathed the dagger he was holding and crossed his arms.

“So what do we do now?” Amira asked, eyeing Vailan. He squirmed and ran a hand through his tangled hair, clearly not sure how to respond. He looked at Mienka, seven years of uncertainty, questions, and separation in his eyes. She glanced around at the rest of the group.

“How many of—” She stopped, not sure if she should ask. Not sure it would change her decision anyway.

Camber guessed what she wanted to know. “Just Viper and Amira are magickers. I’m Amira’s bondee,” she added. Mienka noticed she didn’t say why Chase was there, although she could guess. But she was distracted by something else Camber had said.

“Viper?” Mienka asked.

Vailan gave a half laugh. “It’s sort of my nickname. I didn’t like telling people my real name, so I called myself Viper instead. I guess it’s kind of stuck.” He gave her an abashed grin.

Mienka smiled. “I couldn’t imagine why.”

*          *          *

Mienka sat at her desk, picking through the small collection of objects she had spilled onto it. Her supervisors had already gone through the possessions of the blood-magicker she had shot before allowing her to have those articles that proved to be without value to them. However, Mienka’s current interest in the objects wasn’t a professional one.

In the kitchen she could hear the clatter of dishes and the smell of food cooking. When she had come home a few minutes ago she had found Amira sprawled across the couch in the living room with a book. Camber was curled up next to her, with her head on Amira’s shoulder as they read. In the other room Vailan (or, Viper) was having a hissing contest with the tea kettle until Chase threatened to pour boiling water over his head if he didn’t shut up.

Mienka looked at the towering stack of books on the end of her desk. They were all written by the most highly vaunted authors of magicker lore, and she was certain every one of them would predict violent death to any human, bondee or no, that threatened a magicker with boiling water to the head. Yet all Vailan had done was direct a last rebellious hiss at Chase, then slink over to the cupboard and start pulling down mugs.

Mienka finally selected a small key and inspected it intently. She pulled a strand of embroidery floss from a container on her desk and threaded it through the end of the key. Then she slipped off her bracelet and twined the piece of floss through the braided strands before knotting it in place. She looked down at the bracelet, turning it in her fingers as she remembered where each charm had come from.

She’d never told her coworkers why the bracelet was so precious to her when they asked. She’d never told them why her instincts forced her to pause, to never ever kill a magicker unless she absolutely had to. She’d never explained why her hands shook after every killing shot she made, or how the tremors didn’t stop until she was sure there was no gleam of copper in the fallen magicker’s irises. She didn’t talk to them about why she and Herald split up, or why her son had run away from home.

With a long sigh, she slid the bracelet back onto her wrist. She knew the next time she went out on a mission her hands wouldn’t be shaking. Next time, she’d know the only copper eyes in the dark alleyway she patrolled were her own, human ones.

Isabel Nee loves reading, writing, science, birds, and mythology. She sporadically practices archery, and is known to research bizarre genetic disorders which she then inflicts on her characters. Isabel has had prose and poetry published in elementia magazine and Showcase Selections ~ 2016. She is currently writing a YA fantasy novel, and hopes to some day become a professional novelist. Isabel lives in Kansas where she hatches chickens and (she would like to think) great ideas.

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