It was no wonder that Zoe Baxter had run off. Human children were menaces. The entire lot of them.
Even the quiet ones.
In fact, they were the worst of all.
The others tended to be more honest with their disinterest. They would twiddle with their phones, or their thumbs, or simply ignore her while talking–loudly, more often than not–with their friends.
The quiet ones sat, taking notes in their notebooks. They waited for dismissal before gathering their supplies and they always turned on their homework on time.
Fools, Catherine thought, as if I would waste my valuable time actually grading their work.
Catherine had found a novel method of paper grading. Rolling a six-sided dice. The students tended to complain if their grades were lower than a seven or so, so Catherine subtracted the dice roll from ten. It kept them happy and far less likely to bother her outside of the classroom hours that she was required to be there for.
Even on occasions where they scored lower than a seven… well, at least they couldn’t get lower than a four.
In that, the students who did not turn in homework to the lowly substitute were actually ahead of the game.
It hadn’t always been like that. She used to have the students wrapped around her little finger. All of them hung off her every word at one point.
All until Mr. Anderson heard about the exciting contents of her lesson.
Catherine shot him a glare.
He just sat there at the back of the room. It was nice that he had the good sense to not pay close attention. Whatever was in that folder and notebook of his was far more interesting than what she had to say.
Which wasn’t hard to accomplish. The principles of esoteric weakening? Boring. It wasn’t even something that applied to everyday magic. If a single one of these children actually thought about esoteric weakening even once in their short lives, it would be a miracle of the universe.
It took Catherine, a magical being several millennia old, the entire first lesson just to remember what it was. That it didn’t apply to demons in the strictest sense and that Catherine knew it by a different name didn’t help.
Simply put, it was the idea that magic of the past was stronger than the magic of the present. The theories on why varied. From more mages meant less magic to go around, less ambient magic in the air over time, the fact that many powerful mages failed to share their secrets, all the way to the laughable idea that electronic technology was ‘stealing’ magic.
Sighing, Catherine flipped through the binder of lesson plans and notes left behind by Zoe Baxter. It wasn’t like she needed to watch the class while they were taking an exam. Catherine found it exceedingly difficult to muster up the energy to watch for cheaters.
Esoteric weakening wasn’t the first thing that left her wondering just what it was. A number of the items listed in the notebook had been lost to her memories.
Some of them, Catherine had never before considered. A theory to create a magical computer? The idea was only briefly outlined in her notes as an example for some older students about how innovation and invention were still perfectly viable career paths. She likely had proper diagrams elsewhere.
It used large blocks of enchanted quartz–the material held the magic intensive enchantments long enough to be useful for a short while. While it wasn’t intended to do anything but add a few numbers and report the outcome, it was only the start. Electronic computers had started somewhere similar and look what they had become.
According to those notes, Baxter had thus far been unable to actually get just her basic adding working, but the idea was novel. What was more, Catherine could see a way to get it working. Well, a possible way to get it working. She would have to test it first.
Being employed by Martina gave Catherine a unique perspective that she doubted many other demons possessed. As such, she could see the potential in a magical computer. Electronic computers could be hooked up to massive machines of destruction. And machines of massive destruction. If a magical computer could be hooked up to large enough reserves and be given the agency to cast spells similar to tome-type foci…
Well, that was a far cry away from what Baxter had outlined in her notes.
Catherine placed the binder back down on her desk. The clock ticked by slower and slower with every second. Even an eternal being could feel the effects of time.
These days, Catherine found herself with plenty of time to think. As busy as the mortal realm was compared to the usual empty state of her domain, almost everything here gave her something to think about. Her domain gave her endless time with peace and quiet, but nothing worth considering.
This, Catherine decided as she rested a hand on the binder, was what Eva was talking about.
She couldn’t see much reason to want the computer, at least not as it was, but there had to be something. With the professor gone, it was the perfect time to snoop around her apartment and go through her belongings. There had to be something worthy of learning in there.
If the professor could come up with something as unique as a magical computer, she would have come up with plenty other fascinating ideas.
The bell ringing startled Catherine out of her thoughts. She didn’t allow it to show on her face, of course.
Slowly, Catherine rose to her feet. She placed one hand on her desk, leaning over slightly. The class had lost interest in her lessons since Mr. Anderson showed up, but ever so slightly leaning brought plenty of attention her way.
It helped that her shirt didn’t cover much even while seated normally.
“Place your essays in a neat and orderly pile on my desk. If you failed to finish, I am required to babysit you for up to one hour on Saturday. That group can pile their essays on the lectern.”
Four blushing boys dropped off their papers on the lectern.
Fools. The test was easy enough that anyone who did not finish absolutely had to have intentionally failed. They knew that she was required to babysit them. Probably hoping for more personal interactions. As if she would lower herself to their levels for anything other than utter domination.
Then again, they looked the masochistic type. They would probably enjoy her presence even if she ignored them entirely.
Catherine’s lips curled as a thought occurred to her. Hiring out a goblin to stand in as her substitute might be good. An especially ugly goblin.
Everyone else dropped off their papers at her desk. They filed out the door, some giving brief farewells while others walked out talking with their peers. All except for one student and one adult.
Catherine glared at both.
Who to address first?
One was a student and, by definition, had nothing important to say. The other was Mr. Anderson. Catherine doubted he would have anything important to say either. Probably more complaints. Likely about how she was dressed.
It wasn’t like she could help it. Succubi didn’t normally wear clothing. Even wearing the thin scraps of cloth she had on felt chafing.
And he knew it too. He insisted on bothering her about her nature.
He didn’t give Lucy half the crap he gave Catherine. Lucy couldn’t pass for human if Void depended on it. There were already plenty of rumors around about how she was some monster hired on because of budgetary reasons.
The stupid students were closer to the truth on that than they could hope to imagine.
Compared to Lucy, Catherine was Jane Normal the perfect–if immodestly dressed–human.
And yet Anderson had the gall to attack her on a daily basis about every little thing.
“Well?” Catherine growled out far harsher than she had intended.
Now she had gone and made herself angry. She quickly shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Her eyes were the hardest part to keep human in appearance. Catherine was fairly certain that she hadn’t ever slipped in front of the students–there were no rumors about her after all–and she had no intention of slipping up in front of a student while Anderson was in the room.
Catherine waited for just a few calming moments before speaking again. “What do you two want?”
Let them figure out who would talk first.
The two glanced at one another. Anderson put on a sickeningly suave smile–one that a few incubi that Catherine knew might be jealous of–and gestured with his hand for her to speak.
She didn’t speak right away, instead fumbling with a sheet of paper in her hands. The back had a distinctive diagram.
“Um, I just wanted,” she said. After a few unintelligible words, she started trailing off. With a glance up at Anderson, she shook her short brown hair side to side. “Nevermind.”
She ran up to the front of the room, dropped the exam on the lectern, and sprinted out the door.
As soon as the door swung shut, Anderson gave a look.
“You’re too intimidating,” he said with a shake of his head.
Catherine grit her teeth together. “She left because of you. Obviously,” Catherine injected some sultry vibes into her voice, “she wanted me alone.”
The polite smile on Anderson’s face vanished in the blink of an eye. “I hope you are joking. In case you are not, I will say this once and only once. Insinuate such things about the students again and you will be forcibly removed from this plane of existence.”
Putting on an amorous smile, Catherine slid around her desk and walked up to him with a sway in her hips. She placed a single finger on his shoulder and ran it down his chest. Leaning in close, Catherine whispered in his ear.
“Adults are still on the menu, aren’t they?”
Leaving one light breath on the edge of his ear, she turned with a roll of her eyes and walked away. For a moment there, she had been considering licking his cheek. In the end, the breath of air had probably been the wiser choice. His face had reddened before she turned.
It had the added benefit of not having his disgusting taste on her tongue for the next who-knew-how-long.
He didn’t move a single muscle until after Catherine reached her desk, half-sat half-leaned against it, and blew him a kiss. And then, the only movement he made was to lean his head to one side and back again. As if dodging the imaginary projectile.
Once he had thoroughly cleared his throat, Anderson said, “I’ll have you know that I am very happily married.”
“Ah,” Catherine said with a false wistful sigh, “a shame. I’m certain that I could have shown you things your wife could never have imagined in a hundred millennia.”
That was true enough, though Catherine didn’t have to imagine much. Such things were mere propensity for succubi. There wasn’t a single doubt in her mind that seducing a married man could prove to be even the slightest challenge. It couldn’t be that difficult with how he was acting.
Catherine suppressed a shudder. Disgusting thing. Just brushing up against him gave her an irrational desire to stick her hand in a boiling pot of water. As it was, she had to settle for a little jar of hand sanitizer on Baxter’s desk.
“Now,” Catherine said in her regular tone of voice, “if that was all you wanted, get out. I have to grade these foolish children’s exams.”
Rather than walk out the door, he approached her desk. Bringing himself to his full height, he towered over her slight lean against the desk. “Nice try,” he said as shadows darkened in the background. “I’ll not be so easily distracted.”
He wanted to be intimidating? Fine. Two could play that game.
Catherine’s eyes flared bright red and she didn’t care in the slightest. In fact, she allowed herself to go a step further. Her eyes lost the circular human-like pupil as they stretched into the full demonic slit. Two slightly curved horns sprouted from the edge of her hairline. Her wings and tail–
She had to suppress a wince. Stupid human clothing. Horns and eyes would have to suffice. And skin. Catherine smiled with sharp teeth as her skin turned to her beautiful pale violet. It was nice to feel like herself again.
No upstart human with a bound haunter was going to treat her like a fledgling.
“Zagan was here.”
“He was,” Catherine confirmed. “What’s it to you?”
“This school is missing students as you well know.” The lights flickered as he spoke.
Catherine didn’t even blink.
“We have managed to keep it quiet for the most part, but Christmas is fast approaching. Some students will be returning home for a few weeks and they will talk. I have an interest in seeing the missing students return alive and well before the flights leave.”
“So that the children will tell their mommies and daddies that everything is just dandy?” Catherine rolled her eyes. “Please. The brats don’t care. That class that just left? It was the class those missing students were from. Did they look worried or sad or whatever emotions humans are supposed to feel in situations like this?”
Anderson pursed his lips but remained silent.
“No they didn’t. Martina personally came in and told the class that they were simply ‘taking a brief respite after the hectic incident in November’ and something about how they would be back soon. I,” Catherine paused. For dramatic effect, she curled her fingers in front of her face as if she was inspecting her nails.
Actually, Catherine thought, they could use a sharpening. And a painting. A nice midnight black this time I think.
“I,” Catherine repeated, “may have been sowing some of my irresistible charms–”
Asshole. “–to help keep the more troublesome students from caring.”
“Will they?” he asked after a moment of silence.
“Will they what?”
“Be back soon.”
Catherine shrugged. “Zagan said something about an experiment. Martina yelled at him a lot, but the only real responses he gave was that they were alive and that he didn’t intend to interfere with their current situation. She yelled harder after that.”
Mostly at Catherine. Zagan–that bastard–didn’t have the decency to stick around long enough for Martina to get her anger out of her system.
“What is their current situation?”
Again, Catherine shrugged. “How the hell should I know? If you are so interested, go summon him up yourself.”
Anderson stared at her for just a moment. Turning, he started towards the door. “Maybe I will,” he said before disappearing out into the hallway.
Catherine blinked, not quite sure she had heard him correctly. In the end, she shook her head. It didn’t matter to her one way or the other. Maybe if she was lucky, the idiot would actually summon Zagan. If she was really lucky, Zagan would be in a murderous mood for being disturbed.
Without Anderson hanging over her shoulder, she would be free to return to properly educating the ignorant mortals.
Sighing, Catherine turned to the short stack of papers on her desk.
“Now,” she mumbled to herself, “where did I put those dice?”
If there was one word to describe Zoe Baxter’s apartment, Sterile would be it.
The apartment building itself was of the seedier type. Probably the best one in Brakket despite that. There really were no good apartment buildings in Brakket. Most were half-abandoned at best.
But the difference between one step inside Baxter’s room and one step out in the hallway might as well be the difference between a desert and a jungle.
Someone had done a real number on the place. Catherine’s nose couldn’t detect the faintest trace of any sort of remains she had expected to find–from past tenants if not Baxter herself.
Catherine pressed the door shut behind her, cushioning the noise with a small bit of air magic. As much as the apartment was supposed to be empty, Catherine didn’t feel like taking too many chances. At the same time, she wasn’t exactly trying to hide her presence. She could have made a stealthier approach than walking in through the front door.
Still, since Martina had delegated the acquisition of the room to Catherine, getting a second key had been child’s play–human children at that.
Why the school had to buy her an apartment, Catherine never bothered to ask. She had learned enough about the mortal realm to understand that normal employees whose houses had burned down were essentially left to fend for themselves. There might be a community pot to chip in, but rarely more.
Dismissing the tangent, Catherine crept into the apartment proper. It was minimalistic. A table, two chairs, and a couch pressed up against the window were the only pieces of furniture in the room. The kitchen had appliances, though those had come with the apartment. No decorations, paintings, plants, or anything to suggest that the place was actually lived in.
She brushed her fingers across the top of the dining room table. Her fingers came off clean.
Ignoring the main room, Catherine moved into the bedroom–the only other real room in the place.
Much like the rest of the apartment, the bedroom was clear of most personal effects. Her bed had plain sheets–picked up in a hurry no doubt. The only thing that really stood out was the desk and the heavy-looking safe at its side.
Ignoring the safe for now, Catherine pulled out the chair, sat at the desk, and started rifling through. A good deal of the papers were actually students’ work. That would explain the small gap in the grade book between Baxter’s vacation and Catherine taking over.
Catherine tossed the papers to the side. That small gap had already been resolved through repeated application of dice rolls. Whatever was written down was, therefore, worthless.
The next notebook gave Catherine pause. The title was simply Black Metal Ring. It didn’t take much to guess what this was about. Catherine had felt the effects of the ring more than once over the last several months. Baxter didn’t have it on constantly, which defeated the purpose for the most part, but she wore it often enough. Especially after her house burned down.
Sure enough, the first entry was about her initial contact with the ring, how it felt, and other such details. It quickly delved into experiments on the ring itself as well as a few tests involving creatures from the Brakket Academy zoo–all inconclusive or complete failures with regards to fending off some of the more hostile creatures.
From there, Catherine had to widen her eyes. According to the notes, Baxter was attempting to recreate the initial effects that she had felt. The ones that, if Catherine understood correctly, not only ‘keyed’ Baxter to the ring but were the exact thing that caused intense foreboding in demons towards the bearer.
Ambitious. Catherine would give her that. Doomed to failure of course. The magic that powered the rings was Death’s magic. Not just anyone could toss that around.
Sure enough, the next page was riddled with failure notices. Zero successes unless Catherine was going to count her finding out all the ways in which applying Death magic did not work–and Catherine was not about to give her that.
Chilly air caressing her skin broke Catherine out of her thoughts. It was a very unnatural chill.
Catherine snapped the notebook shut, slid it back into the desk, and stood from her seat.
Her breath caught in her throat as she turned to face possibly the second worst demon in the area.
“Little miss Death herself,” Catherine said, quickly recovering from her shock. “Though you aren’t so little at the moment.”
Ylva frowned down at her.
“You are trespassing.”
“Yeah? What’s it to you? This place isn’t yours.”
“Is it not? We find this information… surprising.”
A sinking feeling hit Catherine’s stomach like a dump truck full of bricks. All the cleanliness and the sudden atmosphere change upon entering. It all made sense.
And sarcasm from a hel? Zagan was right, Void is ending.
Catherine took a step back, almost tripping over the chair she had just vacated. She raised her arms in a placating gesture. “Now let’s not be rash or anything. We’re on the same side right? Fighting the evil necromancers and saving Brakket and all the mortals or whatever?”
“We distinctly recall your presence during the rescue of my servant. We do not recall your assistance.”
Forcing a laugh, Catherine said, “you guys looked like you had that in the bag.”
Ylva tilted her head to one side. “In the bag?”
Catherine bit her lip. “Just slang,” she said. Her voice grew quieter as she continued. “I might have picked it up from some mortals recently.”
She made a small hum noise. “In addition, Zagan was at your side.”
Of course, Catherine thought, it all comes back to that bag of dicks.
Ylva took a step closer. “He has made poor choices in dealing with Our property. Now he hides himself from Us.”
“He had good reason to,” Catherine blurted out before Ylva could move any further. Probably not the best thing to say, in retrospect. Denying all responsibility would have been a better choice. In fact, it still was. “I had nothing to do with any of that. The kids in Hell was not my idea and I didn’t even know about it until after you did.” Probably.
“But,” Catherine said–no, pleaded. “I’ll tell you everything I know about his reasons and you let me go. Right? I wasn’t hurting anything here.”
Time dragged on in uncomfortable silence.
Catherine didn’t sweat unless she wanted to. She rarely wanted to. At the moment, she could feel a bead of liquid dripping down her forehead.
It promptly froze and fell past her eye, shattering on the floor.
“We will see,” Ylva said.