Text version

the comic's manuscript, without pictures

16. Through the door

As they practiced alchemy in the north tower, days passed by - and, before they knew it, it was already the end of February. That day, Adrien had made the Tincture of Teetering - a potion used to control motion sickness. After an early dinner, they stayed in the main room for a while - following Val's suggestion, Adrien had been reading about alchemical ingredients and their properties. At about nine in the evening, Val had retreated to his room; but, as Adrien had gotten quite engrossed in his reading, he stayed in the main room for a few more minutes, wanting to finish the chapter before going upstairs to his bedroom. The book was just that interesting, and he'd been taking many mental notes about questions he'd have to ask Val on their next conversation - so many, he struggled to commit them all to memory. It followed that he should bring the book to his room and write down his notes, but then he had an even better idea: he could go up to Val's room and talk to him right there and then. It had only been a few minutes since they'd said goodnight, and he doubted Val was already sound asleep. He'd try not to keep him up for too long, anyway.

Adrien opened the door to the stairwell of the east tower. The way up looked just the same as the other towers, with a spiral staircase that led to the door of the room upstairs. In the day, it would have been illuminated by the sunlight filtering through the large, arched windows; as it was evening, the stairwell was dimly lit by a few torches that spotted the outer wall. Adrien stepped upstairs lightly. The door to Val's room came in his sight: it was closed, and he couldn't hear any noise coming from inside, but he could see that the light was on - a sliver of light escaped through a crack down by the door's hinge. A thrilled grin appeared on Adrien's face. This was the perfect setup for him to play a little prank: all he had to do was kneel down by the hole and make a spooky noise, then hide in the corner and wait for Val to come open the door - Adrien had to restrain a giggle as he anticipated what silly face Val would do in surprise.

But as he crouched, Adrien happened to glance through the gap by the hinge. It hadn't been his intention to peek; nevertheless, what he saw made him pause.

Through the crack, Adrien saw Val sitting in the center of a massive magic circle, one with a design that he could not recognize. It was delightfully intricate and complex, with the symbols for all the elements gathered around a hexagon formed by the sides of their triangles; a ribbon of writing was wrapped around its circumference - Adrien couldn't read it from where he was, but he could see how elegant it looked. Ignited in blue glow, a fine smoke of magic swirled around Val as he kneeled in its middle, meditating with his eyes closed. Val took in a deep breath, almost a sigh; his brow furrowed, and he lowered his head. Then, he opened his eyes.

The blast of magic that followed was unlike any that Adrien had ever experienced before. It threw him off balance and pressed him against the wall, and it was only because he clung to it that he wasn't flung backwards and down the stairs. It came with a feeling of immense weight, of being tugged downwards, of sinking - like the floor underneath him was melting, and if he didn't hold on with all of his desperation, he too would melt and fall into unfathomable depths. It came with light - blue light that engulfed everything, that tinged Adrien's sight even with his eyes closed; its pulse ran through his hair and up his neck like wind before the storm.

In the middle of the glowing circle, Val now sat completely naked. Inscribed all over his skin was a labyrinth of blue symbols, stirring and flowing with his pulse, wrapping him with patterns of power and magic. Adrien watched, breathless - in search of meaning, yet finding nothing but blank wonder. Val set both his hands on the floor and arched his back; when he stretched, the patterns on his body shimmered with a faster pulse - his chest expanded and contracted with his labored breathing. Adrien inhaled sharply as he noticed that Val's body was reacting to arousal. He saw him throw his head forwards to face the floor; even through the curtain of his black hair, Adrien could see the fire in his eyes. Val opened his mouth and breathed loudly - almost growled - as the circle below him and the symbols around him resonated with the same pulse. As the blue light washed him over, many long, black, tentacle-like appendages pushed out of Val's lower abdomen; they twisted like infernal tongues as they wrapped his arms and legs - like a crown of black insect legs with countless joints, moving in concert, skittering - or like the long shadows of the dusk, smooth and shiny like slugs. Dread muffled Adrien's senses as he watched a grin spread on Val's lips, a grin unlike anything he had ever seen on his face - the grin of a ravenous monster fantasizing the flavor of its victim's flesh; the grin of something that was far from human.

All of a sudden, Adrien knew.

Val was a demon.

There was another blast of magic; when Adrien regained his senses, Val was no longer there, nor was there any trace of the magic circle. Adrien swallowed as he realized that what he had just witnessed was a demon summoning - but it was Val, it was Val who had been summoned to a human sacrifice to feast on their flesh and soul. With his heart in his throat, Adrien ran downstairs, then to his own private quarters. He locked the door to his room and sat on the side of his bed, breathing heavy, shuddering. This was the great darkness that Val had been hiding from him. Every night, when he left the room and bid him goodnight with a smile - every night, he disappeared to feed upon a new prey. Adrien's eyes widened: had this been why he'd been accepted as his apprentice? Was he going to become a sacrifice, as well - or maybe something even worse? Had this been the motive of Val's kindness? What plans did he have for him?

Adrien bit his fingers. Within this chaos, one thing was clear in his mind: he needed to escape. He looked towards the window: the almost full moon was high in the sky. Adrien swallowed. If he were to flee in the middle of the night, at least he wouldn't have to do so in pitch darkness, he thought. The door to the north tower wasn't locked, as far as he knew - with some luck, he could even take the staff with himself for protection as he ran down the snowy path. In either case, he'd surely arrive to the village before morning. If he kept running, he'd arrive to the next town by nightfall... How fast could a demon run?

He crushed his head between his hands. What would he have given to return to the world in which he lived only a few minutes before - the world in which Val was his kind mentor, his dear friend, his partner in crime. Each moment, he wanted to deny what he had just seen as misunderstanding, hallucination, or just plain imagination - and each moment after, he was grappled by the unshakeable knowledge that his nightmare was fully awake.

Adrien threw himself on his bed. Regardless of truth and deception, what stayed with him was the image burnt behind his eyelids of Val's naked body bending and stretching, the sound of his breathing as tendrils uncoiled themselves from his groin and wrapped his arms, the glow of the symbols on his skin, the blackness of his burning eyes. What is that a demon does, anyway? Does it not feed by sucking humans dry? By fucking them to death? He imagined Val coming to talk with him, wearing his usual kind smile and speaking soft words; then his naked body over him, his arms holding him down, tendrils driven under his shirt, cold and wet against his lips, and yet the paths on Val's skin burning against him, their arcane meanings taking away his mind, choking him as he drowned in his beauty, writhing, his pleasure exposed under his dark eyes. Adrien undid his belt and pulled down his pants. Reaching for release, he imagined Val's hand wrapping him, pulling him, his breath heavy and his smile feverish as he brought him towards his end.

He gasped; he choked; he heard himself moan and scream as everything collapsed and forced itself out of him, and then it was over.

Adrien lay still, his heart beating in his drenched hands. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. A wave of disgust took him over, and tears started streaming down his face.

*****

Adrien woke up with a start. It was already morning. His belt clinked against the wall as he sat up. He looked down, saw his pants halfway down his legs, and his stomach sunk.

Adrien ran to the bathroom. His throat clenched as he remembered the events of the previous evening. Each moment reappeared in his mind in the shrill colors of reality unwanted. He choked on his tears and felt like throwing up. Now, he thought, he saw no other option: he would have to face Val. The thought of seeing him again made him shudder, but he had to - he'd have to stall and pretend that nothing happened, and then -- then, when night would fall, he'd run. He'd only have to make it through the day, and then it all would be over. He bent onto the sink and coughed, then spat into the drain. He swallowed; he could not stop himself from crying. The porcelain of the sink felt colder than ever under the clasp of his fingers.

Adrien went downstairs to his room again and managed to dress himself. He sat on the side of his bed for a while, his eyes closed, focusing on nothing but his breathing, preparing the face he would wear. When he reached a point of desperate tranquillity, he stood up, headed downstairs, and opened the door to the main hall.

Like every morning, Val was sitting on his armchair, calmly reading a book.

"Good morning, Adrien. Have you slept well?".

Adrien's brow twitched at Val's greeting. A thread of doubt made its way in his mind - for an instant, he thought it impossible that Val could be anything but the kindest person he'd ever met. His smile was the same as always - gentle, so beautiful; and Adrien wondered if he really had imagined everything before - and he knew he hadn't; but he wanted to believe - he wasn't a murderer, he wasn't a monster, nobody could possibly kill with his caring words, nobody but a being of pure evil, nobody but a --

"Is everything alright?".

Adrien gasped. From the other side of the room, Val was looking at him with an expression of such genuine concern, the one that so many times before had brought him relief - how much he wanted to see that face in the same way as he used to. Through the sudden mist of his eyes, Adrien saw Val stand up and stare at him. Before he could stop himself, tears started streaming down his cheeks once again.

"What happened?".

Adrien ran back to his room and locked the door. He had already failed; now, he had no escape. He sat on his bed and tried to breathe, but air came in his lungs in large gulps that made him feel as if he was choking.

"Adrien...".

He gasped; Val's voice had come from behind his door. He leaped up and stumbled backwards. "No!", Adrien cried out, "Don't --!".

"I won't open the door", Val's voice replied - quiet and gentle, but there was an audible pang of pain through it that gave Adrien pause. "I will not do anything that could harm you".

Adrien stopped sobbing. In spite of everything that was going on within himself, he could not believe these words to be a lie.

"Would you like to talk?", Val said.

Adrien moved towards the door, but did not open it. "Yes", he answered. He sat down in front of the door with his back against it, his knees bent in front of himself.

"Adrien... What happened?", said Val's voice from behind his head.

Adrien's eyes widened. He swallowed. He did not yet know who the Val he'd seen the previous evening was, but the Val who was speaking to him right then was the one whom he wanted to believe.

"Who are you, really?".

There was a long silence after Adrien's question. "This morning, I found the door to the main hall open", Val quietly said.

Adrien gasped; yes, in his rush to flee the scene, he had forgotten to close it.

"So it was you", Val's voice calmly stated. "Then you must have figured it out".

A surge of fear ran through Adrien's head and took away his words.

"It's alright", Val said, his voice calm. "Your curiosity is who you are. I am not upset. I -- I was expecting this to happen, one day or another". A long silence divided them. "I am so sorry that you had to learn this way. It is my fault. I have been wanting to tell you, but I have been afraid of being honest. I'm so sorry. I know I have failed you".

Adrien lowered his head. Val had not spoken as he'd imagined a murderer would - he'd spoken as someone who had been hiding a secret against himself. Adrien took in a deep breath and gathered all his strength to ask the question - the question that he could not avoid, the question that he needed an answer to:

"Val... Are you a demon?".

"Yes", Val answered. "I'm so sorry that I could not tell you myself".

Adrien closed his eyes and gnashed his teeth. So it was true. He set his forehead against his knees, resigned to the worst. "What will you do with me now?".

"What will -- no... no, no, no, no...". Val's voice melted into a faint whimper. "No... Not from you... no...". A trembling sob, then a deep breath. "...Please tell me honestly, clearly, and completely. What... what are you afraid I will do?".

Adrien snapped upright. He didn't want to say these things out loud, but Val had asked, and he wouldn't leave him without an answer. "Do you... do demons not... do demons not kill...?".

"No", Val replied. "No, no, never -- that's a lie, that's -- that's not true", he gasped, pained urgency in his voice.

"But -- but I saw you being summoned...".

"That's not what happens in a summoning", was Val's reply. "Humans summon us for pleasure, or for whatever else is established in a contract... We ignite human pleasure into our lifeforce. Once the contract is fulfilled, a demon and a summoner simply part ways... We don't kill -- that is a lie...".

"...into lifeforce", Adrien quietly repeated to himself, processing what Val had just told him. "Taking lifeforce -- I... I thought that would result in death...".

"We don't take lifeforce", Val replied. "We don't take away anything at all. We collect energy that is radiated by humans, like one takes in sunlight... We do not harm humans. It's a lie... please, please, believe me...".

Val had almost been crying as he spoke - Adrien knew that it must be the truth. He breathed out. At long last, words came to him easily: "It's alright", he said. "I believe you".

"Thank you", Val's voice said. "I'm sorry I did not tell you sooner, but -- this is why I was afraid...".

Adrien's throat clenched, and he needed a long time before he was able to reply. In spite of knowing Val, in spite of their friendship, in spite of having spent the last six months as a guest in his tower - the moment that he had recognized Val as a demon, all he knew about him had been instantly pushed away; he'd become a beast who would fuck him to death, something from which to flee - and something to fantasize about, he recalled with a shudder. He felt dirty and cruel - disgusted by himself, by what he found himself capable of being. If Val was afraid he couldn't trust him, he had already been proven right. Adrien did not know what to do with this knowledge. "I'm sorry", he whispered - both to Val, and to himself.

The room was silent for a while. "I need to ask you something important", Val then said. "Please... do not tell anyone that I am a demon. You know, now... but no other human can know. It could cost my life".

Adrien was pulled out of his thoughts with a start. "Your life?", he gasped.

"We are immortal, but we can still be killed", Val whispered. "Adrien, this is another secret that I don't want known: as pleasure feeds us, hatred diminishes us. This is why we have to hide... Whether by ignorance or malice, humans see us as monsters... monsters to be reviled. Negative energy directed towards our essence is poison to us - it erodes our being - it's the only thing that can kill us. This is why we have to hide... Do you understand?".

Adrien swallowed. "Yes. Yes, I understand".

"So, please, please -- do not tell anyone. Not even by accident -- be careful if you speak about me. Please...".

"I understand", Adrien said. "I won't tell anyone". He swallowed again, then lifted his head. "I promise".

"Thank you", Val's voice replied. "Thank you, Adrien... Thank you so much".

Adrien lowered his head; Val's sincere gratefulness shone a light on his sense of guilt. He had failed him so much - and he could not tell him how and why; and maybe he could not tell himself, either. Only one thing was clear to him in that moment: he wanted to be at Val's side. He couldn't even imagine how hard it must have been for him: forced to conceal himself in his own house, afraid that his secret would be known, guilty of no crime. He knew that what Val needed was his understanding; and he would do all he could to offer that safety to him.

"Isn't it about time that I open the door?", Adrien said with a smile.

"It is for me, if you are ready", Val's voice replied.

Adrien stood up and unlocked the door. Val's face came into sight before the darkness - he could tell there had been tears on his face, as well. He opened his arms, and Adrien hugged him - the grip of Val's hands on his sides was warm where he had previously felt so cold. Val pressed his face against Adrien's shoulder, his back shaking as he sobbed; the fabric of Adrien's sweater stuck slightly to his skin where it had been wetted by Val's tears - and he couldn't help but hold him a little tighter when he realized that.

"Thank you", he heard Val's muffled voice say.

"It's alright", Adrien replied, shaking his head. "It's alright. I'm so sorry".

Val lifted his head and returned his arms down his sides. He closed his eyes and took in a few deep breaths - one of them choked midway by a shudder; then he was calm again. Adrien placed a weak smile on his face - for Val, more than for himself. His eyes fixated on the fire of a torch; outside, it was so cloudy that the light of the day was not enough to brighten the room. He opened the curtains and gazed idly out the window.

"Why did you come to my room, anyway?", Val asked.

Adrien's mouth twisted into a strained smile. "Well, at first I wanted to talk to you about what I was reading, and then -- then I wanted to play a prank on you... Well, anyway, I -- sorry, but -- I ended up accidentally seeing you through the crack in the door".

"Crack? What crack?", Val gasped, wide-eyed.

"By the hinge", Adrien said.

"By the hinge...", Val repeated. His expression seemed blank for a moment; then his eyes regained their warmth. "The door I kept tightly locked had a crack after all", he mused. "Perhaps it was there exactly so you could see".

Adrien lowered his head and smiled slightly, in lack of a reply that could carry enough meaning to match with Val's thoughts.

Val walked up to the window, next to where Adrien was standing. He placed his forearms against the windowsill. Outside, a light rain reached the ground as sleet. "When I received your first letter", he began, "I didn't know what to say. Could I invite a human to my house... pretend to be human for you? Yet, I wanted to say yes... I wanted to meet you. I thought that I could do it, and that you didn't need to ever know. You would only be my apprentice, after all... But then, you arrived... not my apprentice, but you, Adrien... I couldn't bear hiding this from you. I felt so dishonest".

"Val...", Adrien whispered. "I'm so sorry...".

"Now, you know", Val said, beaming. "I am glad that now you know... I am glad that you understand".

Adrien took in a deep breath. "I hope I do", he muttered.

"Do what?".

"Understand", Adrien said in a low voice. "I mean... I knew one thing, and it was completely wrong. There may be other things that I am wrong about", Adrien said, dark.

"Most likely", Val said, cheeky. "And I will be able to tell you about them. I will be able to tell you about myself, at long last... I've held in too much".

"I just thought you were a very private person", Adrien said, smiling bitterly.

"I am", Val said. "Most who are hold too much to explain". He lowered his head and pulled down the collar of the black slip that he always wore underneath his robe: he revealed a circle of blue light written over the back of his neck. "This is what I hold", he said. He let one more beat of light shimmer over his skin before setting his robe back in place. "This is what I hide".

Adrien lowered his head. He did not presume himself capable of grasping upon the immense pain that Val had to carry through his life. "You don't need to do that anymore", he whispered instead. The full meaning of that realization washed over him as he spoke those words. "You don't need to do that anymore, if you don't want to", he smiled, his voice a little louder.

Val smiled as well. "Yes, you're right", he agreed. He reached with his left hand within his right arm's sleeve, and began pulling off his glove.

No matter what he was doing or what he was wearing, when in Adrien's presence, Val always wore a pair of long, black gloves that completely covered his hands and arms; in all these months, Adrien had never seen him take them off, not even to eat - leading him to a quiet assumption that Val felt uncomfortable without them, for reasons that were not for him to know. As Val took off the glove, he revealed a glowing blue line that ran along his arm, then tracing a ring around his wrist; the top of his hand was marked by a circle with a dot in the middle, from which five bright lines arose to highlight each finger. Adrien had no words to speak, and could only watch in awe. Never would he have imagined that Val had been suppressing this beautiful light just to continue living.

Val took off his other glove, then smiled. "At last", he commented. He set his hands down on the windowsill, looking down at them with a sense of serene pride. Adrien watched his glow rise and ebb, transfixed. When he realized what he had been doing, he snapped his head forwards and decided to focus intently on a tree past the window.

"You can look", Val smiled. "You're not being rude".

Adrien cautiously turned back to Val. He glanced again at his hands: now their pulse seemed to flow with greater weight than before. "...What... are they?".

Val rubbed the back of one hand, causing his glow to ripple. "Humans are a body which holds a spirit", he said. "Demons are a spirit which holds a body. This light is the spirit".

Then, he said no more. Adrien wasn't sure about what to say or do in reply; it was too early for him to understand, he knew. He accepted that. In spite of all that had happened, in spite of the chaos he would need to face, his brightest feeling was that of a great gladness for Val, and his brightest wish was to be at Val's side. Whatever would follow, he wanted to be there for Val - with all of his being.

"From now on, everything should be easier", Val smiled.

Adrien smiled as well. He hoped that would be true.