This is the first chapter, in which we meet Erlik, a Mongolian-tradition shaman, college student and gay leather top, and get to see him pursue his social life.
The boots, as he pulled them on, were new to his feet, although not new themselves. They were military tanker’s boots, black leather with buckles. He had scammed them off of Chaz, who had money and was continually buying fancy pieces of black leather and then getting bored with them. The pants, too, were black leather, found in the local Salvation Army a year ago. The belt had been his older brother’s until he had stolen it, just before leaving his parents’ house forever.
Aside from that, the rest of his clothing didn’t resemble anything that someone might wear to a fetish bar. Over a simple sleeveless black T-shirt he shrugged on and tied his black silk del, the traditional Mongolian coat with fur trim. He had stitched it himself, scavenging the fur from an abandoned coat in the trash, learning to embroider the traditional patterns onto it. Unlike his ceremonial del, which was a feast of bright colors, the black del was more demure with embroidery only in indigo and white. The running horse tracked across his sleeves, his spirit animal in silver-gray. The broad silk sash of cobalt blue went around his waist and tied, then he buckled the leather belt around it. He picked up his sheath knife and hesitated for a moment, then tucked it into his boot. Wearing it at the waist was more traditional, but discreet was better; he didn’t want it confiscated by a bouncer. He picked up his handmade horsehair whip and fastened that to his belt instead. Read that message, boys.
There was no mirror and it was getting dark in his tent, but he quickly brushed out his straight jet-black hair, which now reached well past his shoulders. His mother had never allowed long hair in her house; as soon as he had walked out of there, he had sworn that the next time scissors touched his hair would be a trim when it reached his waist. Brushing the front part back severely from his face, he tied it into a long-stemmed horsetail on the top of his head with a red leather thong wrapped around several times, then added an ornament of dangling bones. Let them wonder. He knew what they would see in this new leather bar—a not-very-tall young Asian-American man with long hair, and not in any kind of a stereotypical leather costume, at least not from the waist up. They would probably decide that he was a submissive, based solely on his height, build, and race; far too many drunken queens assumed that any Asian man in a bar under the age of forty was a desperate Southeast Asian hustler out to suck cock for a few dollars. He would probably have to fight to prove otherwise. He’d had to do that, in the gay leather bar that closed down in his parents’ town. Of course, then he’d been underage and using a fake ID, stealing out at night on a quest for the sexual fantasies that spun through his head. He hadn’t found them, but he’d learned a lot.
Taking a deep breath, he looked around the darkness of his tent one more time. Reaching in the dark for his lighter and the bowl with the stick of dried juniper, he lit the stick for a moment and swung it around himself three times, softly chanting “Hurai, hurai, hurai. Golden-edged Golomto, daughter of heaven, I ask your blessing. Hurai, hurai, hurai.” He waved the stick nine times in the direction of his altar and then blew it out. Then he put the sacred incense reverently down in front of the altar, invisible in the darkness, and stepped out of his tent.
The glow of the streetlights greeted him from beyond the three-story apartment building. His ger—the traditional Mongolian tent—was kept in a storage area in back of the building, surrounded by a chainlink fence. He couldn’t afford even the small apartment that he’d rented on the third floor; it was more cost-effective to sublet it to his friends Mike and Jerry, with a deal to be allowed to use the bathroom whenever he wanted to, and pitch his homemade ger in the back storage area that he’d talked the landlord into adding to the lease for an extra twenty dollars. I keep camping equipment in there. Yeah, and a barbecue. I like to have that little square of asphalt to smoke my steaks. No one had to know that he was living there. The padlock clicked in place with a prayer to the spirits to keep his living space safe, and then he got onto his bicycle and flew.
In his mind, he thought of the bike as his horse, although the experience was entirely different from actual horseback riding. He supposed that a motorcycle would be more horselike in some ways, but at the moment he couldn’t afford one of those either. Being a college student on financial aid, living on a tiny stipend each month so that he wouldn’t have to ask a cent of his parents, one had to put up with a certain amount of austerities. His food was taken care of on campus, and he could have lived there for free except that he couldn’t imagine how it would work. Living with his altar and all his spirits, doing chanting ritual almost daily, going into trance where interruptions could be dangerous—this did not square well with being crowded into a tiny dorm room with an incredulous roommate. At least the ger was roomy and private, even if it was going to be chilly when winter came.Some of your ancestors were probably reindeer people from Siberia, you idiot. You think they’ll be sympathetic to you whining that your tent is cold?
The city lights whizzed by as he ducked in and out of traffic. Bicycling to and from school—and everywhere else—had given his body more whiplike muscles, but he knew he’d never be particularly large. It doesn’t matter. Dominance is in the eye and the mind, not the frame. And I am a descendant of Chingghis Khan. At least he figured that it was a good bet, being that the Human Genome Project had clocked eight percent of Asia as being descended from Genghis, as Europeans called him, and his various sons. Anyway, he’d dreamed of being a buu, a Mongol shaman, since he was fourteen, so he figured that it was probably the old blood surfacing somewhere.
The new Black Hawk boasted a line of shiny motorcycles chained to the railing outside, like quiescent metal chargers waiting for their black knights. He pulled up and got off his secondhand bike, sighing, and stared at them enviously. You are a buu, he reminded himself. You have more windhorse than any of those fuckers. Don’t chicken out now. Meet them on your own terms, or not at all. Gritting his teeth, he padlocked his bicycle next to the motorbikes—he thought of it briefly as a little Mongolian pony next to the big European chargers, and the thought ran through his head: We conquered half the world on those little ponies, and your big old ancestors ran before us like sheep. Lifting his head high, he walked quickly for the door, the skirts of his del swirling around his calves.
There was a line, with five or six moustached men in leather waiting to get past the ticket-taker. They looked at him curiously as he came up behind them, but he avoided their gazes and kept his face rigid. Inscrutable Asian, right? The ticket man passed them in and he flipped his ID into the drawer along with the bar entry fee.
The man behind the glass blinked at him, then stared at his ID, then stared back at him. “Er-lik So-long-o,” he sounded out. “This your real name?”
It is now. Sure, it used to be Eric James Chang, but the name change was legal before I transferred colleges. “Yes,” he said, unblinking.
The ticket man stared at him some more, making him wonder briefly if the guy was drunk on duty. “What kind of a name is that?” he finally asked.
“Buryat.” He knew that wouldn’t make sense to the man, but felt perverse enough to say it anyway. Then he added, “Mongolian.”
“Oh. Like Genghis Khan, right?”
He bared his teeth in something that wasn’t a smile. “Yes. Like Chinggis.”
“Oh, right. I like your costume.”
“It isn’t a costume.” He held out his hand. “Are you going to give me a ticket, or what?”
The man seemed to suddenly remember what his job was. “Oh, right. Here.” He pushed Erlik’s ID back through the glass with a ticket. Erlik gave a formal nod of his head—he’d learned that even a small bow was seen as subservient in these places—and strode on into the bar.
It was a fundraiser night—thus the door fee—and the place was crawling with leather clones. He looked for a barstool, but they were all taken, so he found a piece of wall and leaned against it, arms crossed. For now, he would survey the territory, and see if there was anything worth hunting.
“Nice costume,” said a voice next to him, over the loud music. He turned his head sharply, in a single jerked movement like an owl—he’d learned that this, combined with a deadpan stare, kept people off balance. The leather-clad man next to him stepped back just a little as he turned his gaze on him. Good. Distance is respect.
“Not a costume,” Erlik said. “This is what I wear every day. Or something like it.” He jerked up the hem of his del to reveal the leather pants and boots beneath it. “That part is the costume.”
“Wow,” the guy said, completely missing the reference to his own leather pants. “So where are you from?”
Meaning, what country, and how did you get such a good American accent? “Fresno,” he said, with just a hint of sarcasm.
There was a guffaw from his other side, which stopped as his head jerked around in that direction. A tall broad man was drinking from a stein of beer and grinning at him. “They dress like that in Fresno?” he asked.
“No. Not unless there are others there like me and I don’t know about them. Which I doubt.” He kept his voice even, his face impassive.
“People like you?” the first guy asked, curious.
Erlik gave a small shrug. “I’m a buu. That’s the Mongolian word for a shaman. Like a medicine man, only from Asia,” he added in case these guys were the sort who didn’t even know that anyone other than Native Americans had spirit-workers.
“…And you’re in a gay bar?” the man with the beer asked, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
He shrugged again. “There’s no law saying that shamans have to be straight. In fact, that’s where a lot of queerfolk ended up in the old days.”
“What’s that?” The first man flinched when Erlik’s head snapped back toward him. He had been pointing at the horsehair whip. With one hand, Erlik unfastened it from his belt and whipped it downward across his leather boot. It made a satisfying crack against the leather, and several people looked around to find the source of the sound.
“Horsehair,” he said, clipping it back to his belt. “Made from the tails of seven stallions.” That much was absolutely true. The one good thing that his parents had done for him was to pay for all those horseback riding lessons in his teens, so that he could walk into the campus stables with experience and get a part-time job shoveling manure and occasionally teaching a beginner to ride. It was easy to gather shed tail hairs from the few uncastrated male horses and braid them into a multi-tailed whip in his spare time.
“Wow,” said the first guy again. “Can I see it?”
Erlik looked at him levelly. “No.”
“So you’re a top,” the beer guy said.
He let a slow smile creep across his face, the first expression it had worn since he’d walked in. “In Mongolian, the word dom means a magic spell,” he said, one hand still on his whip.
Both were silent for a moment, and then the beer guy held out a hand. “Curt,” he said. “Switch. Usually.”
“Erlik.” He shook the burly man’s hand.
“Air-leek?” asked the denim guy, looking bemused. He didn’t introduce himself, just bounced on his toes a little and asked, “Will you top me? I was supposed to meet this guy Rand, but he’s not coming and I’d hate to have to go home without any action.”
Erlik looked at him, calculating the trouble of beating someone so clueless against the disappointment of turning down what might possibly be the only offer he’d be given—and then recalculating that equation with the added variable of looking too desperate. After several seconds of silence, the denim guy was starting to look antsy, but then Curt drew his attention by clearing his throat. “Actually, I was hoping that I could—um—talk to you about some of your, you know, Mongolian stuff.” The subtle emphasis was clearly a message, and while Erlik wasn’t entirely sure what the message was, he was willing to trust it.
“Maybe later,” he said, cracking his mask and favoring the denim guy with a one-sided smile.
The nameless guy shrugged. “Okay. See ya round.” He wandered off, and Erlik turned back to Curt, who shrugged, with a bit of a sheepish smile.
“Jeffy’s a doofus,” Curt said. “Not a bad guy, but he’s not serious about anything, you know? And you look like a serious guy. I figured I’d spare you.”
Erlik gave him a nod of thanks. “Was that all, or did you actually have something you wanted to ask me?”
Curt hesitated, and Erlik braced himself for the rejection, but then the bigger man said, “You said that you were like a medicine man, right? Or some kind of psychic?”
“Something like that. You could call me a shaman, but the actual word is buu.”
The bigger man hesitated again, and then said, “I’m really worried about my ex. He’s dropped out of sight and I’m worried that he’s using again. I don’t know whether to go looking for him or leave it alone. Whether he’s in trouble or not.”
Erlik’s breath whooshed out of him. Work. Work has come to find me, when I just wanted a night out. Spirits, sometimes you are bitches. He closed his eyes, and then opened them again, focusing on the fluorescent lights. “I can try to help you, yes. But not here, in the bar. You’d need to come to me for that.”
Curt tilted up the last swig of his beer. “Can we go to your place now? This place is a graveyard tonight, and the more I think about Jason, the less I want to be here. I’ll pay your entry fee,” he said.
“You’d need to pay me more than that,” Erlik said. “I am a professional. I do charge for these things. It’s negotiable—even barter would do—but you’d have to pay me what you thought it was worth.”
Curt looked at him, looked down, flushed, and then asked, “Would you be interested in taking it out in trade? I’m told I’m a decent bottom.”
Perhaps the spirits aren’t such bitches after all. “We can do that,” he said. “That would work out very well, in fact.”
* * * *
It took an hour to get the right combination of buses back to Erlik’s place—Curt had come on public transport, which meant Erlik had to stow his bike on the bus and ride back with him. The bigger man did look rather uneasy when Erlik led him around to the chainlink fence and clicked open the padlock. Perhaps he thinks that I’m an Asian gang member, and ninjas are going to come pouring out and abduct him. “Wait here for a minute,” he said. “I’m going to go in and get a fire lit, get us some light.” Just to make sure that the man didn’t chicken out and run away, he relocked the padlock behind them, and then ducked into the black ger. A match lit the fire in his hibachi, and then he lit the lantern hanging from the ceiling and the candles on his altar. “Come on in,” he said, opening the doorflap.
Curt came in warily, glancing around as if for the nonexistent ninjas, and then his eyes widened when he took in the tent. Under the plastic tarp and the coarse black fabric of the homemade ger, the circular tent was decorated with painted hangings of spirits and symbols. A wooden cot with a narrow futon took up one corner, and the altar took up the other side. A cooler and a few boxes, and another embroidered del hanging over the bed, were the only other items to be seen. The asphalt under their feet had been spray-painted with a circular pattern of stick-figure horses and men, copied from the top of an ancient spirit drum. “Wow,” he said, staring at the altar with its figurines and candles and bowls and ribbons. “This is… quite a setup. You’re really a….”
“Yes.” Erlik pulled three sheepskins off of the pile at the foot of his cot and laid them end-to-end on the ground. Then he picked up the bag with his shagai, his four yak anklebones, and sat down cross-legged on one sheepskin. “Take off your shoes and sit down,” he said. “Ask your question.”
Curt awkwardly got his boots off—Erlik smiled to see that he didn’t argue about the fact that Erlik had remained booted—and sat on the third sheepskin, across from him. He took a deep breath. “I want to know if Jason is all right,” he said. “If he’s in trouble. How he’s doing.”
The bones rattled in Erlik’s hand and fell. “One camel and three goats,” he said. “Not good news. Usually illness or failure.” He held his hand over the bones and closed his eyes. Tell me, spirits. How does his friend do?
It was Uncle Gavia who answered, Uncle who’d been the first spirit to speak to him, late at night while he lay awake in his parents’ house. Uncle who’d said, I claim you. You are my descendant through many generations, and you will take up the drum that my other descendants have laid down. At first he thought that he was crazy, hearing things, but eventually Uncle proved himself to be quite real. As did the ones who followed him.
He is ill, said Uncle. Not doing the drugs, but drinking instead. And not caring for his body. He wants to die. Erlik heard the words coming out of his mouth.
Curt looked unhappy. “Should I go to him?” The bones clicked and fell again.
“Two horses, two camels,” he said. “All things successful. Go to him. He misses you. Save his life.” He looked at Curt. “Tomorrow. He will not die tonight, and now you owe me.”
Curt swallowed, his attitude entirely different from when they were standing in the bar. Now they were on Erlik’s turf, in a shaman’s ger, and the burly man seemed smaller somehow. “What now?” he asked.
“Now you take off your clothes,” Erlik said, gesturing to his cot, “fold them, and put them there. And then I give you a beating.” He stood and stepped back. Curt got up slowly, eyeing him, then began to take his jacket off.
“You’re not going to go psycho on me, are you?” he asked dubiously.
That cracked Erlik’s dispassionate mask and brought a burst of laughter from him. “You think I’d say yes if I was?” he asked.
Curt grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess not. That was kind of stupid.” He began to strip off his clothing; his bare skin gleamed in the firelight as more of it was exposed. Erlik’s breath came harder, and he grabbed and untwisted one of the lengths of black rope that he kept under the bed. Maybe this is actually going to work out. He stepped up onto the cot, where he was taller than the other man and could reach the tent beams.
Curt held out his forearms, and Erlik bound them together with the black rope, then threw the end over the beams at the top of the ger. He knew they could bear the man’s weight, because he’d done this before. Once, anyway. Tying it off to a lower beam, he asked, “Is that too tight?”
“No, that’s fine,” said Curt.
Erlik looked down at him from the height of the cot. “No, what?” he asked.
Curt ducked his head. “No, sir,” he said in a low voice.
“Better.” He jumped down off the cot and circled around behind the taller man. He was stocky and had a beer belly, but his ass was well shaped. “Can you refrain from screaming loud enough to wake my neighbors, or are you going to require a gag of some sort?” he asked courteously.
Curt blinked, and then said, “Depends on how hard you’re going to hit me. Sir,” he added.
Erlik smiled at him. “Better get a gag, then.” He reached over and grabbed Curt’s underwear off the bed and stuffed it into his mouth, then grabbed up a leather thong and tied it in place. “I find it’s always useful to have something to bite down on.” Then he picked up the horsehair whip and made it whisk through the air, letting the tails just touch Curt as they went by. As he hoped, the man flinched even though it wasn’t hard enough to hurt. Anticipation is good. Then he drew back and hit him in earnest.
The bigger man stayed stoic through the first several blows, but eventually he began to make noise, his body arching with the pain. Erlik circled him, decorating his chest and the front of his thighs, but not hitting his genitals. Yet. He circled back to his ass and shoulders, the backs of his thighs. Curt began to make serious noise at that point, moving away from the whip. Reaching around to his front, his tormentor grabbed the base of his cock and balls, holding him in one place while he laid into his ass all the harder. The man jumped and whimpered and made hooting noises behind the gag, writhing in Erlik’s grip. Eventually, when his ass was flaming red, it was abandoned and Erlik moved again to face him.
“Now the even more fun part,” he said, and tied the leather thong around the base of Curt’s cock and balls, winding it around them. The man hung in the rope bondage, waiting, watching his erect cock jutting from the coils of leather. Erlik slid the tails of the horsehair whip through his hands—one of the things he loved about it was that it could strike hard or lightly with a great range of sensations—and then, without warning, flicked it at Curt’s genitals.
The man flinched and let out a cry, but as Erlik looked up at him, making eye contact, he moved his pelvis back to where it had been, offering them again. Good. Erlik brushed the ends of the tails along it, bringing out a whimper, and then struck again, this time on his balls. Lighter than he’d hit the cock, but it wouldn’t feel that way. Again the flinch and cry, again the man found his balance and brought himself back to the center to take another blow. Erlik sped up the blows, slowly, until Curt was bracing himself with bent legs and his head thrown back, tears running down his face as his genitals took the punishment.
Then Erlik decided that he’d had enough, because his own cock was so hard that it was distracting, and protruding beneath the waistband of his pants. Tossing aside the whip, he undid and stripped off his del, and then his T-shirt. He untied Curt’s hands from the beam above and helped to lower the trembling man to the sheepskins on the floor, “Steady, steady,” he whispered. “There, just stay like that.” On his knees, bent forward.
Erlik retied the rope to one of the vertical posts so that his hands were stretched out in front of him and he was on his elbows, and then rubbed the man’s flaming ass with his hand. Curt made a mewling noise, but pushed his ass into Erlik’s touch; one hand grabbed for the lube under the edge of the bed, and worked a palmful into Curt’s ass. It opened up easily—he was obviously no virgin, which was fine with Erlik. Teasing a virgin open was something he’d done once, and while it was thrilling in its own way, a quick fuck was a lot better with someone who knew how to relax and open up. He got his pants open and his cock out, got the last condom out of his pocket and onto his cock with only a little bit of fumbling—which Curt couldn’t see, thank the Gods that tops could hide that sort of thing—and then slowly slid himself into Curt’s ass.
The man let out a low moan, the first of that sort of sound he’d made all night. Rather than letting loose with an immediate pounding, Erlik restrained himself and worked his cock more slowly in and out of the man’s ass until he was squirming and making more-more-more noises. Then it was a hard, bouncing ride, and at one point Erlik reached under Curt’s beer belly and grabbed his cock, which came practically immediately in his hand. He wiped the come on Curt’s writhing, groaning ass and grabbed his hips, pumping himself quickly into the other man until he came himself.
Then there was the untying, and letting Curt move and groan and get a swig of water from Erlik’s jug, and checking out all his reddened areas to make sure that none of them were bleeding, and disposing of the condoms—”Can I have yours? As a souvenir, I keep them,” asked Curt, but Erlik turned him down; his seed could too easily be used against him and he didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands. Curt wriggled on the sheepskins and stared up at the tent roof, saying, “Wow, man, that was cool, but this place is sure weird.” He laughed. “Shaman sex!”
“That wasn’t shaman sex,” said Erlik. “That was just a beating and a fuck, for fun. If we’d had shaman sex, you’d be bound to me forever.” He grinned at the expression on the other man’s face. “Don’t worry. You’re free to go. And I thank you for giving me this small part of you.”
Curt held his eyes and nodded, slowly. “You know, I think that I believe you,” he said. He averted his eyes, uncomfortably, toward the altar where the candles were still shimmering. “All the time that you were beating me, I was feeling like someone was watching me from over there.”
“They were,” said Erlik. “But don’t worry about it. They mean you no harm, and some of the energy went to them, anyway.”
“Uh,” said Curt. “Okay. Anyway, that’s what I felt. And it made me, you know, not want to cop out when it hurt a lot.”
“The spirits have that effect on people,” said Erlik casually. And tomorrow you’ll decide that it was all crazy, and you’ll convince yourself that you were imagining things. And that won’t matter, because I got what I came for. He nodded and stood up. “Shall I find a pay phone and call you a cab?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m fine. I’ll walk to the bus stop, it’ll do me good to stretch my legs. And I should be getting home.” He looked around one more time, with a glance that Erlik translated as, I’m glad that I don’t have to spend the night in this creepy place, and got up to find his clothing.
* * * *
Later, in the night, Alma Mergen came to Erlik while he was dreaming. She was a powerful spirit, and one who rarely came unless something was important. Her long black hair swept the asphalt ground of his tent, and her sky-blue robes trailed behind her. She held a knife and a drum, warrioress and shamaness. You are a hunter, she said, but you hunt only small prey. You must hunt something greater to earn what you need. The time will come, soon, to be brave, horse-child. But in the morning he remembered her visit, but not her words.
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