Catherine glanced back and forth between the two arguing people. She never would have expected Baxter to take her side. The professor had not left her with the impression that she was well liked when she kicked Catherine out of her classroom the last time she got injured.
Few humans would side with a demon in the first place, though the point may have been moot. The sides were between Catherine and Ylva.
“We cannot allow her to leave. She will betray Us the moment she perceives a lack of danger.”
Catherine shook her head side to side hard enough that her currently orange hair flayed wide around her. It wasn’t exactly untrue, but at this point, Catherine didn’t care what she said so long as she got to leave in one piece. It was, however, somewhat offensive that she was viewed as being so weak.
They weren’t the ones who had Zagan breathing hot air on their necks at random points throughout the day.
“If she stays, Zagan might notice her absence. If he comes looking for her…”
That was almost certainly untrue. She was fairly certain that Zagan didn’t care about her in the slightest. The only reason he bothered to drag her around was out of some sadistic desire to toy with her.
The whole situation was his fault. If he hadn’t dragged her off to the nun rally, she wouldn’t have Ylva’s icy breath on her neck.
Eva was right. Being stuck as the bottom feeder even among the few demons in the area was a nightmare. Even the two security guards were uppity towards her.
Well, the morail was. Lucy, Catherine decided, had a tenuous grasp of reality at best. She wasn’t deliberately annoying so much as she was unaware of what she was doing. Besides, Catherine was certain that Lucy would be extremely susceptible to her succubus wiles and charms.
The worst part was Eva herself. Whatever was being done to her was obviously unnatural. When Catherine had first arrived at Brakket, she wasn’t sure what to make of the girl. Catherine could feel her, much like she could feel Zagan or Arachne. But it was faint. Barely there. Weaker than even the weakest of imps.
That weakness had been steadily turning to strength. By the end of summer, weaker imps might have fled from her presence if she had ever decided to project some anger. By the time all the golems attacked Brakket…
Well, the potential was there, but Eva had a long way to go before she wound up giving Catherine real shivers.
When she had finished growing, the little girl–the little human girl was going to walk into a world so much larger than herself. So much larger than this mortal plane.
And she was going to be strong.
Stronger than Catherine at the very least.
Sighing, Catherine leaned back in her chair while the two argued. Not that it was much of an argument. Baxter was more making polite suggestions than outright objecting to anything Ylva said. Still, it didn’t seem like they were going to kill her–permanently or otherwise–so Catherine was losing interest.
Who knew? It might be fun to stick around in Ylva’s domain. Her cellphone had no signal. It was sure to put a stick up Martina’s ass if she couldn’t get a hold of her.
Though she was missing out on virtually murdering slews of foolish humans. She probably needed a break from that anyway.
Just as things were getting a little heated between Ylva and Baxter, a new head popped into the room. Not someone Catherine recognized, though most humans looked the same as one another.
“Nel says that she thinks she found Shalise, Lady Ylva.”
“Thinks? Clarify her words.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said with a small shudder. “You will have to ask her.”
“Very well. We shall.”
Baxter was, surprisingly enough, the first one out of the room. Ylva left next with the other girl staying just long enough to shoot Catherine a glare before turning to follow.
And then the room was empty.
Except for Catherine.
No guards. They hadn’t tied her down. They had even been so kind as to leave Baxter’s bedroom door open.
Catherine tapped her foot against the floor three times before coming to a decision. After all, if they wanted her to stay then they would have at least said something.
Getting to her feet, Catherine walked out the door. She stopped in her tracks one step out of the room. After glancing left and then right, Catherine sighed. “Damn.”
Of course she would end up in the domain. It would be too easy if the door opened up back to the apartment building. To make matters worse, Catherine was willing to bet that she could check every archway and not find the exit until Ylva was ready to let her go.
Even if the exit was somewhere around, searching every archway sounded exactly the kind of tedious work that Catherine would rather avoid. Ylva and her little entourage disappeared through an archway three arches down. If they hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been any different from the rest of the place.
Martina had been asking about Baxter as of late–not directly asking Catherine, more of mumbling about it when she remembered that her secretary was off teaching a class. It was intensely irritating. Getting away from Martina was one of the few positives of teaching the human brats.
Maybe telling her about something Baxter had been up to would keep her complaints down, especially because it appeared that Baxter was doing the job Martina should have been doing–cleaning up after Zagan’s mess. She would have to carefully word her revelation to Martina so as to not ruin her carefully cultivated image of being unreliable and unproactive.
Having low expectations for her meant that Martina never bothered her with much of import. And that was exactly how Catherine liked it.
But she was willing to admit to a certain level of curiosity about the whole thing aside from Martina’s interests.
Following Ylva through the archway led her to a very familiar area. The waters of Hell.
And it was full of humans.
Wayne Lurcher, looking much better than when Catherine had last seen him, was standing near another human female. One who was half-standing in the waters. In the actual waters.
On a closer look, she might not have been human after all. Catherine hadn’t seen many humans naked, but she had seen plenty of bare arms and most arms didn’t have eyes all over them.
Still, standing in the water wasn’t safe. If the woman slipped and fell in, even for just a second, she could find herself whisked off to who knew where.
The woman had huge dark circles beneath her eyes. Her face was somewhat gaunt and she looked ready to tip over if a stiff breeze came her way. That only further compounded Catherine’s feeling that she really shouldn’t be in the water.
An innate, succubi sense picked up on something about the woman. She was bothered by something. And not in the simple sense of being disturbed–though she certainly was that as well.
In the end, Catherine simply shrugged it off. What did she care about, well, anyone anyway?
Everyone else walked right up to the edge of the water in front of the woman. Catherine caught up and stopped a few paces behind. She wasn’t trying to hide herself–there was nowhere to hide on the featureless beach–but at the same time, she wasn’t interested in being seen as part of the group.
“You found Shalise?” Baxter asked. “Is she alright?”
“I don’t know. I mean, her hair is the same, but…” The woman in the water brought up a hand to rub just above her eye–her regular, in the right place for humans, eye. “Did Shalise take up weight lifting? And, um, exhibitionism?”
Catherine blinked. Unless she was very much mistaken, they were talking about one of the mortals Zagan had dropped off in Hell. That meant the person was a student and Catherine was quite certain that there were no exhibitionists running around at the school.
She, of all people, would have noticed.
“Exhi–what? What are they doing to her?”
Catherine took a step forward, not wanting to miss out on hearing that explanation.
“Nothing. I mean, no one is around. I searched everywhere I could think of. It is just Shalise. She doesn’t… I mean, she’s just…”
The woman in the water cupped some in her hands and brought it up to slap against her cheeks. Some futile attempt at cooling her body temperature. After a deep breath, she started to explain.
— — —
Prax, Shalise thought to her ‘partner’ in her body. Prax, it isn’t working.
“Silence servant. I am trying to concentrate.”
Shalise couldn’t see anything but the insides of her own eyelids as Prax continued to fail at attempt number thirty-seven.
It was depressing. Sort of. Unless Prax was feeling the same emotion that she felt, she didn’t really feel anything but her thoughts. Upon reflection, that was probably the biggest reason behind her general blasé attitude and lack of constant panic. She knew, in her head, that she should be running around like a chicken with its head cut off about the fact that she was still stuck in her body with Prax in charge.
But it was difficult to care without the proper chemicals fueling her panic.
That said, if there was one thing she wished Prax would do, and that was opening their eyes. While it was an emotion that Prax was not feeling at the moment, boredom was driving her insane. Combined with the sheer irritation and anger projected by Prax, it was a very unpleasant situation.
“Stop thinking!” Prax shouted at her–there was no one else around. “Do you want me stuck inside you for the rest of this pitiful body’s existence? I could end it now and take my chances in the Void.”
I don’t believe you would do it, Shalise thought. You jumped into my body while neither of us had a soul and now it is all messed up. You’re worried about what will happen if I–if we die.
Prax’s silence was telling.
Not that she needed his silence to know she was right. Over the past however long it had been, Shalise was getting much better on picking up Prax’s thoughts. Nothing as clear as speaking, but general nudges in the right direction.
Prax hopped off the over large throne and started marching down through the castle’s corridors. He was in something of a rage. The scorch marks left beneath her feet gave Shalise an odd tingling sensation, but nothing more.
It wasn’t anything new and something Shalise had grown used to. Prax had been temperamental, to say the least, since they arrived in his domain.
So, Shalise thought, decided to change tactics?
“I think,” he said slowly, “that I will be taking a brief intermission from my attempts at escaping your worthless sack of flesh.”
“Something cathartic sounds excellent. I have just the place.”
He turned down a staircase that descended for a short eternity. When the end finally came, Shalise found herself in the dungeonyest dungeon that she could imagine.
The upstairs castle proper had smooth bricks laid in neat, straight lines. All the bricks in the walls and floor were flush with one another. The ceiling had a smooth arch carved into it for some added height.
Ever since their initial trek through the castle, warm torches popped up periodically along hallways to lend their light. It was much better than the drab and uniform lighting arrangement that had seemingly permeated the entire place upon their arrival.
The elegant murals, paintings, and statues just added to the regal atmosphere of the castle.
Though she could definitely get by just fine without seeing the ones of her.
At first, Prax flew into a rage every time he saw one–given that they were everywhere, that ended up being more often than not. He went around smashing a few hundred of the golden statues and tearing down even more paintings. They always returned undamaged the moment he took his eyes off of them.
Eventually, Prax had decided to give up on that fruitless endeavor. He still glared at them–especially the ones of himself–every time he walked past one. Most of his time ended up with his eyes closed, concentrating in an attempt to escape Shalise’s body.
But the dungeon he had taken them to was anything but regal or elegant. The walls were less smooth bricks and more cobblestone and mortar slapped together. Particularly jagged cobblestone at that. Prax actually let out a cough as he walked through strands of white nitre hanging off the ceiling.
And the lighting. It was a good thing Prax knew where he was headed because there was the single torch at the base of the stairs and nothing else. It was probably meant to be carried along to the destination, but Prax had ignored it.
Before long, Shalise couldn’t see anything but vague silhouettes of the walls and floor. And the almost glowing nitre spider-webbing across the ceiling.
Prax’s footfalls steadily tapped against the floor alongside a faint dripping noise at the edges of her sense of hearing. He went left at the first corner, then took a right before stopping in front of a wood door.
The rotten wood of the door leaked light through small holes. Not much light. Barely enough to see that the door was made of wood.
When Prax pushed open the door, she saw the reason for the dim light. The large room was lit by a mere two torches. Both torches looked like they were on their last legs. The flames were small and dim, flickering in the room.
Shalise gave a short mental sigh. It set the perfect atmosphere for what the room was.
“At least this hasn’t changed much.”
I expected it, but of course you would have a torture chamber in your dungeons.
Prax strode through the room, gently caressing various tools and implements that Shalise was trying hard to ignore. It was a bit difficult when he started holding some of the rusted iron in front of his face.
If you don’t mind my asking–
What here is going to help us with our problem?
“Not a damn thing,” he said as he set down one object and picked up another.
Oh. Um. What are we–
“You are noisy for a servant. Cheeky too. I am hoping that something, or somethings, here will curtail that negative trait of your despicable personality.”
With every word he spoke, Shalise felt a sinking feeling in her metaphysical stomach.
Combined with the emotional bleed-over from Prax, Shalise had the odd sensation of being eager and happy about what could only be her own impending torture while still forcing herself to be disgusted, angry, and afraid.
You can’t torture me! Shalise thought as hard as she could. I can barely feel pain from you!
“I know,” he said. “That just means I will have to be creative.”
You’re just going to be torturing yourself!
He pulled out a thick rod from a long box and looked it over once or twice. “Should be fun. Besides, any proper servant knows how to torture their master’s enemies. I have always been a believer in teaching by experience.”
Shalise’s mind went into absolute nope mode. She did not want that rod anywhere near her body. The entire end of it, some sort of magic circle much like the one she had drawn on her chest, was glowing white-hot. Hot enough that she could feel the heat even through her diluted senses.
Something snapped in her mind. Only a vague awareness of her surroundings bled through. There was a crash followed by a shout from Prax.
The shouting turned into a constant stream of anger-speak. Nothing intelligible.
As Shalise’s mind sharpened, it didn’t take long to figure out what he was complaining about this time.
First and foremost, they were wet. A few stones in the far end of the room had come loose. Water filled the room up to their waist and–thankfully–extinguished the iron rod.
The second thing Shalise noticed was the two statues, one of Prax and one of Shalise, standing in front of her. Both of them had two hands on Prax’s arms. Even with all of his muscles, he couldn’t trash out of their grip.
“Stop changing things! This is my domain.”
Get out of my body!
— — —
“From there, she just started thrashing about in the grip of her statue and the other one.”
Catherine blinked. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “You said she has a familiar brand on her chest?”
Everyone stopped looking at the woman whose name was apparently ‘Nel’ and turned to Catherine.
Big mistake, Catherine thought as she took a step back, half expecting them to attack.
“Who invited the harlot?”
Catherine looked to Wayne Lurcher with a sneer. “Aww, still upset about being rejected by a succubus?”
Her sneer quickly turned into a smirk. He got all flustered and everyone turned to look at him. Double win. It didn’t matter that it was a lie; the seeds were planted. Baxter was already giving him a look with one eyebrow raised.
“Lies,” Lurcher said with a grunt.
“Perhaps not in so many words,” Catherine said. She shook her hips and ran a hand down one side of her body. “Succubi are the premier shape shifters in Hell. All the better to handle what our targets want. And I,” Catherine ever so subtly flicked her eyes to the other professor–who was still giving Lurcher a look, “know exactly what you want.”
Catherine blinked in confusion. Mentioning something like that often set minds on the subject. However, she was failing to pick up anything resembling lust from the older professor.
Her confusion vanished as he took a threatening step forwards. The tome chained to his waist swung into his hand.
Catherine hopped backwards a few steps, her smile vanishing from her face. That may have been pushing it too far. She had had a brief lapse in judgment regarding the fact that she was essentially surrounded by people–none of whom would be willing to take her side and one of whom was a demon that owned the domain surrounding her.
Lucky for her, Ylva decided to step in.
Lurcher gave her one death glare before snapping his book shut.
“The succubus was correct.” Ylva turned slightly to give her attentions to Nel. “The designs you described are akin to a bonding brand.”
“You mentioned that a few times,” Baxter said. “What is it?”
“One of the three ways of dealing with demons. Well, four ways, but letting the demon go free doesn’t usually end well for anyone.”
Catherine ticked off one finger of three. “Arachne and, presumably, Ylva are contracted demons. You might liken them to human mercenaries. They retain full free-will, though violating the terms of the contract leads to heavy consequences. For either party.”
After ticking off a second finger, Catherine went on. “I am a familiar. We are bound to our master’s orders. If Martina wished, she could order me never to think the word ‘the’ and I would be entirely unable to until our contract is broken–typically by Martina’s death. There are a handful of topics that can’t be ordered around, such as the ability to willingly break the familiar contract.
“For upsides, I get a long-term vacation in the mortal realm and cannot be banished no matter how many silly words are thrown my way.”
“Not much for upsides,” Lurcher muttered.
“You would be surprised,” Catherine said as she ticked off her last finger. “The bound or bonded familiar is essentially two minds in one body, leaving the human in charge. The demon gets a massive–and I have heard addictive–sense of euphoria from having its powers used, but obviously they have no real body until the human dies.”
“The bond can be broken without the death of the mortal,” Ylva said. “It is not easy.”
“But it leaves the human in charge?” Baxter shook her head. “I can’t see Shalise acting like that. She can be–”
“She doesn’t act like that normally?” Catherine cut in. She paused as something occurred to her. “Here I was considering that I might have to start talking to the human brats if that was common behavior.”
Catherine had to fight to keep the smile off of her face. If she could guilt Baxter back into her class, then Catherine could go back to… being Martina’s lapdog. Well, she thought with a mental sigh, at least I can sit around on the computer at the secretary desk all day.
“Are you still standing in for me?”
“I am.” Catherine made a show of pulling out her cellphone. No signal, but the clock still worked. “Speaking of, I’m supposed to be babysitting a handful of the brats while they take a test in a half-hour or so. Not that it matters of course. Just like real life, I am deciding their success by the grace of Chance.”
Baxter’s lips pressed into a thin line. Catherine had the distinct impression that the students would be seeing their old teacher in class come Monday morning.
“So,” Lurcher said, doing his best to avoid glancing at either Catherine or Baxter, “what do we do about Ward?”
“We wait. She doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger, with no one else around. If Nel would be willing to keep an eye on her and warn us if anything happens?”
The poor woman looked about ready to fall over. Her head bobbed in a resigned nod.
“Then, before doing anything reckless, I would like to talk with Ylva and,” she paused, glancing around the room. “Where is Devon anyway?”
“Resting,” Ylva said.
“What about me?” Catherine tapped a foot on the sand. “Am I allowed to leave?”
Baxter and Ylva shared a look for just a moment with Baxter giving a small shrug.
Catherine’s shoulders drooped ever so slightly. That’s not good. Ylva had been the one who had wanted her to stick around.
“Zagan’s experiment will end,” Ylva said. “Should he speak of these Void troubles, you will report to Us.”
Blinking, Catherine first frowned then nodded. Zagan had initially thought that Ylva might have something to do with all the trouble, though it seemed as if he had dismissed that thought after the whole nun rally. Thinking about it logically, Ylva was a demon in the same boat as the rest of them. She wouldn’t want her power disappearing any more than Catherine.
“Sure,” Catherine said. “I can do that.”
“Ali,” Ylva said, “show the succubus the way out.”
The attendant–who Catherine had honestly forgotten about–jumped slightly at being addressed. After a moment of hesitation, she bowed to Ylva and started walking towards the exit of the beach.
With a shrug at everyone else, and a flirty wave at Lurcher, Catherine followed after the woman.
From the archway leading to the beach, it wasn’t far to the exit. She used the time considering the woman in front of her.
The mixed signals coming off of this ‘Ali’ were a sight to behold. On one hand, there was a strong yearning and desire for Ylva. On the other, hatred. Like the woman couldn’t decide between punching Ylva in the stomach or kissing her on the lips.
She might be an amusing one to watch in the future, but in the end, it wasn’t any of her business.
Catherine found herself dumped unceremoniously in the hallway leading to Baxter’s apartment without a single word from the woman known as Ali.
The alarm on her phone promptly started warning her that she only had twenty minutes to get to Baxter’s classroom. For a moment, Catherine considered not showing up at all. Baxter could deal with it. In the end, she decided to go mostly because she was in a good enough mood about the high probability of not teaching again.
Besides, she had a number of games on her cellphone that she needed to check up on.
With a thought and a jaunt through the screaming inferno of Hell, Catherine teleported straight into the classroom.
And almost tripped over a little screaming girl.
Catherine blinked. All the mortal brats looked the same. It took a minute to realize who it was.
“The little mousy girl who had her name on the test and nothing else,” Catherine said as the girl got to her feet. “I have to say, you’ve got a work ethic I can admire. I mean, your score is going to be roughly the same as everyone else’s and yet you put in absolutely zero effort. Who is the real winner, hmm? Except you are here so early. You’re not having second thoug–”
“I know what you are.”
Catherine blinked again, this time allowing her eyes to return to their normal bright red, then laughed. “After that lesson on succubi, no one said anything. I was beginning to think all mortals are fools.”
Leaning in close to the girl, Catherine took a deep whiff of the air around her. No desire, at least not for Catherine. Maybe another student? It was muted and difficult to discern who without them present. She could delve into the girl’s mind a bit.
She gave a small shudder. But ugh, mortal teenager minds.
There was surprisingly little fear. Surprising less because Catherine viewed herself as an especially scary demon and more because of how much the girl stiffened up as Catherine leaned in.
“So what do you want?” Catherine said, finally pulling back from the girl. For a moment, she had considered licking the girl’s ear simply to see her reaction. Who knew where that had been. “Bigger boobs? Shapelier hips? You’re still growing kid. You’re going to be drawing plenty of eyes in a few years. Trust me, I can tell.”
The girl’s face turned scarlet from chin to forehead.
“Or maybe you’re wanting to jump some guy’s bones? Who is the lucky guy?” Catherine snapped her fingers. “There, twenty-four hours of irresistibility. Talk to someone with some confidence and they’ll be wrapped around your little finger.”
A lie of course. Watching her scarlet face twist into panic made it all worth it. Maybe she would bring the girl back to her domain–except by the time Martina kicked the bucket, the girl would probably be far too old to be fun to mess with. She would have to settle with messing with her now.
Hooray for finding more hobbies. More things to do that weren’t obeying Martina.
“No!” The girl said. “Take it off!”
“Can’t. It’ll wear off. If you really don’t want to have some fun, just don’t talk to anyone. It works on males, females, and cats, so–”
“Cats? Why cats?”
Catherine shrugged. “Why not?”
“Look,” she said, stamping her foot. “I just want to talk with someone. Eva isn’t here and I don’t know who else I can talk to.”
Catherine rolled her eyes, making it as obvious as was demoniacally possible. “First, I’m not a counselor, kid. Unless you want help pleasuring your lover–or yourself–go talk to someone else. And even then, you mortals have the concept that demons will grant wishes in exchange for souls. That’s the fae; djinn and fairies specifically.
“Any help I give will be by experience. And I can tell you don’t want that. Go find someone else.”
“I can’t.” Her voice went quiet. Enough so that Catherine had to lean in again to catch her words. “It is about demon things.”
With a sigh, Catherine pulled out her cellphone. Fifteen minutes before the testing started. The rest of the class should be showing up soon. “Talk and I might listen, but as soon as someone else shows up, we’re done. What’s your name?”
She looked mildly offended, but nodded. “Irene. It is my friend. Jordan. He…”
Blah, blah, blah. Catherine settled down on the top of her desk for what she knew would be the longest fifteen minutes of her entire existence.