Marble makes nice flooring, Juliana decided. It wasn’t as warm feeling or looking as hard wood, but it looked nice. Especially when the floor was as well polished as the flooring in Ylva’s throne room.
Zoe looked distinctly uncomfortable as she knelt before the throne. It was an odd sight to see the stern and relatively powerful teacher kneel down. She probably took it as a blow to her pride. Kneeling in the presence of her students couldn’t help; one of whom knew Zoe from before school started while the other didn’t even bother kneeling.
A small part of Juliana wondered if kneeling was even necessary. The way Eva stood in the back with a small smile on her face and Arachne draped over her shoulder made it seem less important. Zoe likely knelt on reflex simply because Ylva had forced them to kneel when they disrespected her.
The experience seemed to rattle the professor.
Still, Zoe fell to her knees almost as soon as the door shut. Juliana followed suit. At least Juliana could use the liquid metal flowing over her knees as a sort of padding. Zoe had to rest her knees directly on the floor.
Zoe took in a sharp breath of air. It didn’t take long for Juliana to figure out why.
The skeleton atop the throne stood and strode forwards with confidence. Ylva’s posed look only increased as she stepped out of the ring of light that was ever-present over her throne. Her platinum hair glinted on her way down.
A single step behind Ylva was her attendant. Her presence only emphasized Ylva’s unnatural height. When alone and at a distance, it was difficult to tell how tall the demon was. The very human looking attendant–though Juliana wasn’t about to make assumptions about her species–stood just above half Ylva’s height.
The attendant wore a red and white dress, very similar to Ylva’s without the cut from her chest to her navel. A black, hooded robe covered the sides of the dress while leaving the front open. The hood was lowered just enough to shadow her eyes.
In her hands was a pillow. A large pillow that looked like it belonged on Ylva’s gigantic throne. The attendant carried the red velvet pillow with both hands, keeping the top flat.
“Rise,” Ylva’s voice lacked the overwhelming boom that dominated most of her speech the last time Juliana was in her presence. “This is a time for rewarding tasks, not subjugation.”
Juliana all but jumped to her feet as the demon and her attendant crossed the empty space between her platform and the edge of the building. Her mind raced over the possibilities of what reward they’d be given. It was hard to keep the eagerness out of her appearance; Zoe would surely disapprove.
Her nerves were also running high.
Ylva was supposedly a demon who served Death. Far scarier than the little intelligence she had summoned on her own. But Eva stood just to one side and Juliana doubted Eva would throw her in harm’s way. As such, it probably wasn’t some ‘eternal reward’ followed by mad cackling and a swift end.
Immunity from death would be interesting, if Ylva could grant such a thing. Their task was a minor one that was also completely unnecessary given that Eva already accomplished her task by the time Juliana actually saw her. Still, it was a possibility. Who knew how demons ascribed value to things.
Power of any kind was what Juliana was really hoping for. What power a demon of death could grant, she didn’t know. Something like Eva’s blood magic, hopefully.
“You performed a service to Us.” Ylva stopped just in front of the two. “Just as We do not allow slights against Ours and Ourself to go unpunished, We do not allow favors to Ours and Ourself to go unrewarded.”
Juliana blinked at the odd wording. She shook her head to focus on the happenings.
Ylva gestured towards her attendant. The robed girl stepped forwards, her flat-heeled, brown boots clomping against the marble as she did so. With practiced flourish, she held out the pillow towards Juliana and Zoe.
Sitting on top were two black rings. Each had a caricature of a skull embossed on the side facing Juliana. On the inside edge were their names. Their full names. Juliana Laura Rivas and Zoebell Baxter.
She never used her full name. It wasn’t that she disliked her middle name–her grandmother’s name–she simply didn’t use it. It was doubtful that Eva knew it. Zoe might, but she wouldn’t have told anyone.
And Zoebell. Juliana had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She never knew there was more to the professor’s name than just Zoe Baxter.
Her mother would love to know. Fuel to tease Zoe with.
The ring felt heavy as Juliana picked up the one with her name. It was an odd sort of heavy. The ring took no effort to lift, but it felt like dropping it might break her toes.
Zoe shot Juliana a disapproving glare as she slipped the ring on her middle finger. Juliana didn’t care. She didn’t want to wait. In fact, it was dangerous to wait. Accidentally dropping the ring and having it roll off down the giant pit in the center of the room seemed like it might insult Ylva. Juliana didn’t want to risk any ‘slights’ against her.
The metal tightened around her finger, though not enough to cut off circulation. Juliana could feel a pulse in the metal every time her heart beat. An odd sort of feeling, but it went away after ten or so pulses. If she concentrated, she could feel it, but only just.
Despite her glare, Zoe plucked her ring off of the pillow.
Ylva’s attendant tucked the pillow in the crook of her arm and stepped backwards behind Ylva.
Juliana watched her professor’s face turn to one of surprise as she held the ring. Zoe tossed the ring in the air, catching it a few times. “Fascinating,” she said. “What is–” Zoe cut herself off as her eyes turned back to Ylva. She quickly cleared her throat and said, “sorry.”
“It is void metal,” Ylva said. “A type of metal only denizens of the void can fabricate.” Her eyes flicked over Juliana’s shoulder for a brief second. “Some denizens of the Void.”
“Hey,” Arachne called out, “I could–”
“Arachne,” said Eva in a quiet voice. “Not now.”
“The rings offer a modicum of protection,” Ylva said, pointedly ignoring Eva and Arachne. “A great number of beings will recognize the emblem and leave the bearers alone where they otherwise would not.”
Juliana let out the barest hint of a sigh. It wasn’t quite what she was hoping for.
Ylva apparently noticed. “Does Our gift displease you?”
“No, no. I was trying to guess what it might be. I didn’t even think of protection.” Juliana bowed to the towering woman. “I extend my thanks.” That sounded suitable for Ylva.
Zoe actually followed Juliana’s lead. She bowed and thanked the demon as well. The thanks that she gave came out more as a mumble than any kind of sincere thanks.
Ylva didn’t seem to mind. Her head slightly inclined in a sort of nod. “Until I require your assistance once more.” She turned on her bare heel and started walking back to her throne.
“Come along, Juliana,” Zoe said in a whisper. She started walking back to the door, examining her ring without even watching her surroundings.
After taking a step or two to follow after her, Juliana stopped. She turned back to the demon. “Mrs. um, Ylva.”
Everyone froze. Zoe spun back around as she hissed something under her breath that Juliana did not catch. Ylva and her attendant both stopped and looked back. Only two among them looked more or less calm. Eva and Arachne, though the latter sported a maniacal grin.
Ylva did not question Juliana. She merely stared. Her cold eyes seemed to pierce Juliana’s very being.
Licking her suddenly dry lips, Juliana said, “I was wondering if I might ask a question or two.”
“Juliana,” Zoe hissed, “we should be going now. I don’t think we should,” Zoe paused for a second as she glanced at Ylva, “take up any more of her time. I am sure it is very valuable.”
“We do not mind.”
A deep, almost disappointed sigh came from Zoe.
Juliana ignored it. “Alone,” Juliana said. She quickly added, “if possible.”
The sigh from Zoe turned into a sharp breath of air. Before she could protest, Eva said, “Juliana is a friend of mine. I’d ask that you do not make any sort of arrangements similar to what you made with Nel, Ylva.”
Ylva didn’t mull over the request for even a second. She turned to Eva and immediately said, “We possessed no such intentions. However, We request an unrelated, minor favor to be served at a later date.”
“A minor issue regarding Nel’s needs. We do not believe you will find it problematic.”
“So long as I can veto this favor if I deem it unreasonable or beyond minor, I accept.”
“Zoe Baxter and I will wait back at my place. Come find us when you’re done.”
Eva had to drag Zoe out of the room. To be fair, Zoe wasn’t fighting too hard. Juliana got the feeling she was still scared of Ylva. The two were whispering to each other just quiet enough that Juliana couldn’t make out a word they were saying.
A resounding clang of metal echoed through the massive chamber as the door shut.
The attendant got on her tippy-toes yet only reached Ylva’s shoulder. She was only a head taller than Juliana, yet Ylva towered over the both of them. It took a lot of her willpower to keep from looking too cowed.
Ylva bent over slightly as the attendant began whispering.
“Acceptable,” Ylva said as she rose to her full height. “Nel will lead you to a side room where we may converse at length. Unless you had a scant few questions that are possible to discuss in a very short length of time.”
“I don’t know how long it is going to take nor how long you’re willing to entertain me.”
“You find Us entertaining?”
Juliana hoped that wasn’t offense leaking into her voice. “I’m sorry. It is a figure of speech.”
After a tense moment, Ylva nodded. “We understand. We will be with you shortly.”
With that, the demon turned and began walking back towards her throne.
The attendant, Nel, took Juliana by the hand and led her off through one of the archways around the ring.
“Come on,” she said, “it’s just over here. We have snacks and drinks if you’re interested.”
The tone of her voice made Juliana think the attendant was slightly too excited. While her eyes were still shadowed by her cowl, she sported a large smile.
“We don’t get many visitors apart from Eva and she never spends all that much time here. Technically I’m free to leave and wander–”
She continued talking, but she also pushed open a set of doors. Juliana lost all track of Nel’s voice as she stared, open-mouthed, straight up.
Walls of books stretched so high into the sky that they faded off into the clouds. There were no ladders and no staircases, just endless walls of books. The room itself wasn’t that large, perhaps half the size of the school’s cafeteria.
The sheer height made Juliana dizzy. She had to force herself to look back down.
Dark wood made up most of the floor. A dark red rug had been laid out in the center. Three human sized chairs and one Ylva sized chair were arranged around a small coffee table.
“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” Nel also stared up at the sky. Her hood had fallen off of her head to reveal short black hair. “There are tons of places like this here. Some rooms are more plain, but then you come across things like this and it is just like, ‘wow.'”
Juliana approached the nearest section of the bookshelves. Her hand ran over the spines of the books. Not a single one had a readable title. She walked around the entire room to find none of the ones she could reach had English titles.
Turning back to the center of the room, Juliana found Nel seated in one of the chairs. Once again, her hood was pulled down to cast most of her face into shadow.
“Tea?” Nel asked with a tilt of her head. She was already pouring a glass from a very ornate, silver teapot that Juliana must have missed when she first walked in. A small plate of cookies sat out as well.
“Sure.” Juliana walked over and took the seat nearest to the attendant. “You weren’t here back in November.”
“Nope. I have only been here two… three… has it been a month already? What day is it?”
“Last weekend of March. Saturday the twenty-sixth.”
“Almost a month then. It’s hard to tell without any clocks or sun. I sleep when I’m tired which I think is different from my usual sleep schedule. Whatever that means. I can’t say I had any kind of regular sleep schedule since before November. It is much nicer this way, I’d say.”
Juliana took a sip of her tea as the girl continued to talk. It had a slight tangy taste to it, not one she could place. Not surprising; Juliana didn’t consider herself any kind of tea sommelier.
The girl herself twittered on about her living conditions at such a rapid pace, Juliana could barely understand half of it.
“So,” Juliana said as Nel’s ramblings died down, “am I to ask you questions?”
“No. I mean, not unless you want to. Like I said, I’m new to all this stuff. I’m sure Lady Ylva will answer any questions about herself far better than I could.”
“Ah,” Juliana said as she took another sip, “I’d have expected someone who constantly lives here to know about the owner.”
“I inadvertently bound myself to her service for an indefinite period of time. It isn’t bad,” she said quickly. “I have yet to catch her trying to murder me.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“You could say that I’m well versed in knowing when the person I currently serve is trying to get rid of me.”
Juliana didn’t know what to make of that. She took another sip of her tea instead of commenting.
Without a conversation going, Juliana sank into the surprisingly comfortable armchair. She leaned back and stared at the sky. It wasn’t blue, but white. It looked a lot like a wide version of the column of light over Ylva’s throne.
“Um, you’re Eva’s friend, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“I don’t–I mean, she doesn’t seem to like me very much.”
Juliana took a long drink of her tea while she waited for the attendant to continue.
It took a lot longer than Juliana expected. The girl fidgeted and sighed several times before she finally continued.
“I’d have asked your professor since she seems closer to my age, but I don’t think she likes me much either. She definitely doesn’t like Lady Ylva.”
“So I noticed.”
“Lady Ylva is very kind to me, far kinder than I expected in any case, but she isn’t much for talking. It’s been a long time since I’ve had regular conversation, you know?”
Juliana didn’t, but she nodded along anyway.
“Even before I got here, I was practically isolated from everyone. I was just wondering if maybe you would stop by once in a while.”
“I don’t have a way of getting here on my own. I can’t teleport or anything.”
“Oh,” Nel’s shoulders slumped down and her face hid further beneath her hood, “I understand if you don’t want to.”
After a long, mostly mental sigh at the depressed girl, Juliana said, “maybe I could ask Eva or Zoe to bring me here once in a while. It would be less ask and more convince in Zoe’s case, I think.”
“Oh,” Nel repeated though with a very different tone in her voice. She stuck out a gloved hand. “I’m Nel, though I hope you don’t tell anyone. There are people trying to kill me.”
“Juliana,” she said as she shook the attendant’s hand. “I won’t tell anyone other than Eva and Zoe. I assume they already know?”
Nel nodded and opened her mouth to say something.
The door to the library boomed open before she could speak.
Ylva stood in the doorway, wearing her deep-cut, white dress. She stared at the two, calmly observing them. All her flesh vanished the moment she stepped into the light of the room. She slouched down in the large chair and rested her skull on her bony knuckles.
“You have questions.”
Juliana swallowed to try to wet her dry throat. With the barest hint of a nod in the affirmative, Juliana began her questions.
Floaty feelings tickled the back of Juliana’s neck as Agiel wolfed down an apple. Either she had gained some resistance to the feeling or the little demon was getting tired of eating apples. Either way didn’t matter much to Juliana.
It would be the last time she summoned him.
“So,” Juliana said after she waited for the last splatters of apple pulp to stop flying around, “I had a long talk with a… a friend of mine. I’d just like to confirm a few things.”
The little demon waved a tiny, clawed hand from one side to the other.
“If you did make a contract with me, would you destroy my mind and puppet my body?”
A faint, almost hesitant tickle of joy tingled at the base of Juliana’s skull.
As expected. Juliana merely gave a light nod. Ylva mentioned that this particular demon could not lie when asked one of its three questions. The hel did not give the answer to the question Juliana asked, but Ylva even giving the question was basically an answer in her mind.
“Two more questions.” Juliana leaned back against the wall of the small bedroom and shut her eyes. All her drive to ask more questions went down the drain with that one question. Power was worthless if she wasn’t around to use it.
“How about this,” she said without opening her eyes, “is it possible to grant me power while leaving me intact?”
Again came the light floating feeling.
“Would you grant me power without destroying my mind or body?”
Needles pierced the back of her neck as the demon shook its head.
“So I expected.” Juliana opened her eyes. She blinked a few times at the sight before her.
Agiel stood near the edge of the shackles, one hand offered out before the creature.
Was it seriously asking what she thought he was asking.
“Nope.” Juliana ticked a finger back and forth. “Should have offered weeks ago and I would have been none the wiser.”
Agiel merely shrugged and withdrew his hand.
Before he could vanish in the summoning circle, Juliana tossed him the last apple from her bag. He deftly caught the giant apple, sinking his claws into it. Confusion spread across his face as he crooked his head at Juliana. At least, it seemed like confusion; hard to tell when he has no face.
“For the road,” she said, “or whatever passes for a road beneath that circle.”
He gave another shrug before tipping straight backwards and falling through the floor, apple and all.
Juliana did not move until the last ripples in the floor ceased. With a long sigh, she moved into the circle and started erasing. Everything had to go. Almost everything–the shackles on the outside could stay so long as Juliana took care not to smudge or otherwise bump any part of it.
Disturbing the shackles would be incredibly easy. Too easy. Juliana erased it as well. New shackles would not be a problem to redraw.
Talking with Ylva had turned into something of a wakeup call. If he had offered, Juliana would have jumped to accept Agiel’s contract. A knot had grown in Juliana’s stomach all through their discussion.
It didn’t, however, deter her in the slightest.
Eva could wipe out entire hordes of skeletons in seconds. Eva had Arachne–powerful in her own right–hanging off of every word she spoke. Eva walked around without eyes like it didn’t even matter.
Comparing herself to Eva so much couldn’t be healthy. Not comparing herself to Eva was near impossible. They were roommates after all. Every time she disappeared to the prison or took off her gloves was a reminder of all the abnormalities surrounding the girl.
That wasn’t to say that Juliana wanted more stares and glares. She had enough as it was–most of which occurred in Professor Kines’ extracurricular combat class. And most of those happened every time she dueled an older student.
She wasn’t stupid; Juliana knew she was considered something special to her peers.
In a few years time, that wouldn’t matter. The students would catch up to her level while Juliana floundered about. Not for the first time did Juliana wish she had accepted her mother’s advice to skip a few grades.
She didn’t skip grades for almost exactly the reason she received glares in Professor Kines’ class. A younger student in a higher age bracket would just be ostracized at best, relentlessly bullied at worst.
At least now she had her roommates and Jordan’s crew as friends. Juliana was blatantly more powerful than any of them, yet she managed to avoid alienation.
With the floor scrubbed clean enough to eat off of, Juliana wiped the sweat from her brow and leaned back against the wall. She took a long drink from a cool water bottle and let herself rest.
Not for too long. She had work to do.
Flipping open the tome she had borrowed from Eva, Juliana found the page for Agiel and crossed out the word ‘benign.’ She took out her pen and wrote ‘will answer questions truthfully, but will destroy mind if contracted with’ in its place.
That finished, she flipped through the pages. There were a handful of others labeled as benign. Just because they were labeled benign didn’t mean Juliana would accept that label blindly. She liked to think she learned from her mistakes.
Gently rubbing the black ring on her finger with her thumb, Juliana browsed the few entries she had marked out earlier. One, Arioch, looked interesting, but Juliana didn’t have anyone she needed ‘vengeance visited upon’ at the moment. The fertility demon, Ishtar, definitely held no use for Juliana anytime in the near future.
She thumbed through until she found one that looked useful. Her hand froze before she could turn the next page. With a slight licking of her lips, Juliana stopped and read through the page.
“This might do,” she said as a smile worked its way onto her lips.
Juliana set down the open book and pulled out her chalk. She started the arduous task of copying down the circle. Carefully, of course. Summoning something wrong and having it escape would never be forgiven.
If she even survived such an event.