Irene sat in her seat, shifting back and forth.
Her first day back in diablery class had her feeling intensely nervous. She had been the one to cause the brief intermission in their lessons.
Surprisingly enough, the rest of the class wasn’t staring at her in one way or another. She had expected a glare or two at least. She did almost cause them injury–from their perspective. Or worse.
Perhaps those that were the type to glare had already been kicked out of class.
Those that were left tended to all sit on their own. Few spoke with one-another. In fact, only two were whispering amongst themselves. Susie Bobo and Rachael Davis. Everyone else was either writing in notebooks, reading, or staring towards the front of the classroom.
It wasn’t hard to guess what they were staring at. Catherine was back to her demonic form–sans clothes and all.
Irene was trying to ignore her as much as possible. Catherine, Irene had decided, was pure trouble.
At least Eva was present this time. She was far more sensible than Catherine.
“Mind if I sit here?”
Irene glanced up. She only managed to suppress a groan through biting her tongue.
She wasn’t sure how to feel about the white-haired boy. On one hand, he was obviously an idiot. What with wanting to ‘spruce up’ a summoning circle. On the other hand, he had saved her from Drew.
Anyone who didn’t like Drew had to be a good person, right?
The question was a matter of whether or not he could overcome his idiocy and learn from his mistakes.
“Sure,” Irene said. Might as well give him a chance.
At the first sign of him causing unnecessary danger with his antics, Irene would be speaking with Eva.
“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?”
Randal took his seat and pulled out a book. “Still have a good three minutes,” he said, flashing a smile. “Plenty of time to get some emergency studying in before tomorrow’s test.”
Irene shook her head. How irresponsible. Leaning forward, she tried to catch a glimpse of what subject he had a test in by the cover of the book. None of her professors had mentioned any tests, but Randal was a full two years ahead of her. What subjects would an older diablery student be taking?
Printed in a floral manuscript on the cover of the tome were the words Enchanting and Warding, the Entwined Arts.
“You’re taking enchanting and warding?”
“Just warding, though I took enchanting intro last year. Interested?”
Irene shifted. “I was interested in them. Now I’m reconsidering just how respectable they are if someone like you is taking them.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“You strike me as the sort of person who is lazy to the extreme and who insists on doing things their own way. Someone who would succeed in more free-form artistic subjects.”
Harrumphing, he said, “I’ll have you know, warding requires plenty of artistry and imagination. If you just follow the book, any two-bit ward breaker can unravel your wards in seconds. Out in the real world, nothing is more respectable than a good warder. Except, perhaps, a ward breaker.”
“Ward breakers are respected?” That didn’t sound right. Criminals breaking into places they shouldn’t had to be on the opposite end of the respect spectrum. But then, anyone in diablery class had to have their perspectives skewed.
Irene had a brief thought about whether or not that applied to herself as well.
“Of course,” Randal said, oblivious to her thoughts. “Someone dies and their family can’t get into their home, or room, or safe. Who gets called? Ward breakers. Can’t sell a house with half the property warded off, can you? Or think about the villainous hideouts, ancient crypts, and other such areas that regular mage-knights can’t break into easily. They’ll hire on a breaker to get them in.
“But don’t take my word for it. Sign up for warding next year. It’s a blast. And the professor is completely insane.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good quality for a professor to have,” Irene said with a frown.
Randal shrugged. “Oh, she’s good at her job. Don’t doubt that. Just don’t be surprised when you walk into class and find her standing on the ceiling. Or wind up going through class backwards.”
Irene blinked. “How does–”
“Alright,” Eva said, interrupting their conversation. “I heard you all had an interesting class last time.”
You could say that again.
“Unfortunately, I was off being attacked by an insane nun of the Elysium Order. But don’t worry, I, and a few experts, had a chance to examine the thing. I thought I’d give you a little update on the creature that we’re calling an enigma.”
Irene blinked. Again. Elysium Order? What?
“You can’t just say that and expect us to ignore it,” someone said, echoing Irene’s thoughts.
Eva had the audacity to look confused. Clarity lit up in her eyes after a moment of thought. “Oh, sorry. It was a tautology, I know. What member of the Elysium Order isn’t insane?
“Anyway, that creature is something that has been infesting Hell as of late. They are not demons and, in fact, share more in common with zombies than actual living creature. They don’t have a virus that will infect you upon contact with their blood, but they’re almost impossible to kill permanently. Their organs will keep working even after their apparent death and they’ll slowly regenerate. Freezing it solid was probably the best choice, so good job to whoever thought of that.”
Irene had to agree there. While she was sure that Catherine could have done something more than get held up by its tentacles, locking it in a block of ice tidied everything up without much mess.
A dislocated shoulder was comparatively easy to explain away to the nurse and anyone she could have passed by in the halls. Being covered in blood was not.
Catherine set her phone down for the first time since she walked into the room. Looking out over the classroom, her eyes narrowed.
Until her gaze crossed Irene. Then, she smiled.
“From now on,” the succubus said, “anytime we do any summoning in class, you must use what your books call tier three shackles. Those should hold the ‘enigmas’ without issue. At least long enough for us to deal with it.”
Eva clapped her hands together. “Now, since your summoning was interrupted last time, I’d feel bad if the rest of you didn’t get to at least make an attempt.”
Irene groaned. Eva was supposed to be the sensible one. The one who says that they still need more studying before any more attempts.
The class really needed proper supervision.
— — —
Martina Turner sat at her desk. The reports coming in were all positive. Not a one had her feeling down.
Average student attendance was up. Either the professors were being more interesting than normal or there was less reason to skip class.
Some of it might be related to the fact that zero teachers were on leave for any reason. No illnesses or worse. Less substitutes meant the students were less likely to skip. The regular teachers held more authority in that they could easily see who was absent and give them penalties.
No one wanted to flunk out of what was commonly seen as one of the worst magic academies on the continent. If they couldn’t succeed here, they couldn’t succeed anywhere.
The only substitute who managed to retain her students was Catherine. That was something of an interesting data point, though not wholly unexpected. Succubi simply had that certain allure that drew people to them.
Perhaps it would be a wise idea to order Catherine to sit in on classes randomly. Students would attend more in hopes of being in her presence.
Had to keep the numbers up, after all.
Especially with all the troubles plaguing the academy in the last two years.
There hadn’t been an incident in almost four months.
A record, Martina thought with a sarcastic tone.
Despite that long stretch of relative peace, word had definitely spread. Especially regarding the zombie incident under Dean Halsey’s tenure and the more recent demon-hybrid attack.
Established families, even those that couldn’t afford it, were looking at other academies to send their children to. Safer academies.
The magical side of the world was a dangerous side of the world. Maybe that wasn’t true, and it was just that mages were more aware of the dangers that existed, but there was no reason to coddle children. Best expose them to it while in a relatively safe environment. Smash any preconceived notions about their safety as a mage early on.
Based on her security team’s handling of the hybrid incident, Martina felt confident in saying that Brakket Magical Academy was safe.
There were a handful of families that were not afraid. At least, not more afraid than they were interested. Her strategically leaked information about the diablery class was drawing in a few new student applications for next year, even a few prospective transfers for the later years.
Martina set her reports down on her desk and leaned back in her chair. She took out a bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk. Pouring herself a small glass of Hellfire, she pondered just what to do about school attendance.
They didn’t need money. The school governors had ensured that much. As such, families with a good amount of disposable money were not required.
But they did need fresh young bodies.
The parties interested because of the diablery were not enough to outweigh those leaving. Just enough to mitigate the damage, somewhat.
They still needed more.
Those extra bodies would have to come from first generation mages inducted as freshmen.
Martina scrawled a note down to ensure that the professors were well aware of their targets before the next round of student-hunting.
Not a hard task. Many first generation mages slipped through the cracks every year, condemned to go through their lives ignorant of the fact that they could be one of those rumored magic users.
Of course, having first generation mages wasn’t a bad thing. They would come into the magical world with open minds.
And would be far less prejudiced than their more magical-lineage-inclined counterparts.
No parents to tell them what magics were good and what were bad. No stories passed down to ‘warn’ them of certain types of magical creatures.
In other words, first generation mages would be far easier to induct into diabolical methods of magic.
Of course, it was dangerous. Not so much because of the demons, but because of fellow humans. Too noisy, and they would attract the attentions of demon hunters.
Eventually, such a thing wouldn’t be a concern. They would become powerful enough to defend themselves. A handful of students, all able to order multiple demons into battle, would wipe the floor with most assailing forces.
Unfortunately, that would be far off, relatively speaking. There were–Martina glanced down at one of the reports–a mere eight students remaining in the current class. None of them had formed any kind of proper contract yet.
For the time being, Martina would have to rely on herself, Catherine, the security force, and Zagan. And Zagan was far from reliable.
After his antics involving the missing students, Martina was almost doubling the priority of finding a way to dismiss him without winding up killed herself.
Aside from them, Eva had a small contingent of demons following her. A force that she might be inclined to use to help out the academy in the face of danger. But, like Zagan, Martina did not find the young diabolist reliable in the slightest.
Martina started as her door opened with a click.
Catherine hadn’t said a word.
Martina shook her head, shaking off both the unexpected arrival and the missing Catherine.
Obviously she was off tending to her class, thereby allowing Anderson to walk in unannounced.
There goes my good mood for the day.
Anderson never brought good news.
“Something I can do for you, Mr. Anderson?”
He took a moment to dally about the entrance of her room. Removing his coat and hat, placing them on the rack, and then straightening out his suit gave him plenty of time to change up what he wanted to say based on who was in the room. He had a markedly different personality whenever Zagan was present.
It also meant that he was planning on staying for some time.
With a barely concealed groan, Martina reached down into her desk and withdrew a second glass. She tipped it in his direction, a silent question.
He, thankfully, shook his head. “No thank you, Martina. I’m here on business. Afterwards, I must depart for a meeting with the other governors.”
“Suit yourself,” she said as she replaced the glass. The less Hellfire liquor she had to waste on others, the better. “This business?”
He didn’t appear outwardly angry with her. That was good at least. Ever since he had shown up talking about two missing students, they hadn’t been on the best of terms.
Or rather, Martina was fairly certain that she only managed to keep her job through being the one holding Zagan’s contract.
“Unpleasant,” he said.
Of course it is, Martina thought.
“The Elysium Order has suspended operations in North America.”
Martina winced. “The entire continent? I was unaware that we had such a large impact on them.”
“One of our other ‘test runs’ down south may have had a brief run in with them as well. But this has two direct implications, neither pleasant and both affecting Brakket.
“First and most obvious, the pressure on everything they hunt will be off.”
“And that includes necromancers. Including the one that attacked the academy twice.” Martina reached out to her glass and took a long drink. “Why did they have to announce it? This is only going to make their job harder when they restart their crusade. Vampires will be out of control. Liches too. Even ones that aren’t here already will be looking to move to where the Elysium Order is not.”
“As of this time, the Elysium Order has submitted several bounties to the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. Time will tell how effective the guild is in keeping undead under control.
“More importantly, they explicitly cited demonic interference as their reason for suspending operations.”
Martina froze mid drink.
That was… bad.
Downing the rest of her Hellfire in a single gulp, Martina slammed the glass on the desk, shattering it. She swept the shards off of her desk, ignoring the small cuts she got on her hand.
“Any two-bit hunter will easily be able to glance at recent Elysium deployments and make guesses at what they are talking about.”
“Indeed,” he said. “Keep your head down. Act like everything is normal. Gather students as usual and continue with the program. The others have agreed, given Zagan’s revelation, the program must continue. A handful of hunters aren’t going to save us from an apocalypse.”
Martina grit her teeth.
Anderson had stood up, but she was only scarcely paying attention.
The stooges of the board of governors now thought diablery lessons were a good idea? Just a few months ago, they were considering terminating the project.
Saving the world? Is that what they expect of me? Even ten thousand diabolists wouldn’t be capable of stopping an uncountable number of demons. And she had eight? Assuming no more dropped out, that is.
Well, it will certainly get me in the history books, Martina thought. If there’s anyone left to write them, that is.
Martina shook her head. Problems for later. For now, she had more immediate problems.
As if sensing her thoughts, Anderson glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ve put in motion a handful of projects that should keep the hunters off your back for a time. Hunters will find pockets of demons suddenly popping up all around the country. But don’t count on it occupying them for long. Sooner or later, someone will look into Brakket.” He plucked his bowler from the rack and placed it on his head, adjusting it side to side, slightly. “Be prepared.”
Martina scoffed as he walked out the door. “Be prepared,” she mocked.
Easy to say.
But what to do?
Pulling her spare glass from her desk, Martina started to pour herself a new glass. Halfway through, she stopped.
She drank straight from the bottle until it was half empty.
“I think I need more security personnel.”
— — —
It was about all she had heard in the recent weeks. Enough to drive her insane.
“It’s a gift,” her father shouted. Fingers stained purple, her father held up what she would guess was a heart. She had seen plenty of hearts in her life. Most came from humans, but she had dissected animals under the strict guidance of her father numerous times before moving on to humans.
The blob of meat held in her father’s hand was far too smooth and spherical to be a proper heart. The only imperfections that she could see from the neighboring table were the arteries and veins that jutted from the orb.
“A genuine boon from a Power,” her father continued, grin stretching from ear to ear.
Des wanted to ask just what he was talking about, but her father had yet to see fit to remove the stitchings binding her mouth closed. Left only to watch and speculate, Des spent most of her time waiting for the next outburst of a discovery to help fill in what exactly he was so excited about.
She didn’t have to wait for long. If there was one thing her father loved, it was talking while working.
“Look,” he shoved the heart straight over her face.
Up close, Des could see the pulsating flesh as the heart beat in his hand. As experienced as she was, she didn’t feel the need to count the heartbeats. It should have already stilled based on how long her father had held it in his hands.
Yet it wasn’t even slowing.
“The magic does not merely animate the whole, as is the case with zombies, skeletons, and such. It animates everything. And I can not stop it.”
He spun back around to face the body lying on the other table, laughing as he turned.
“Watch the panel, honey.”
Des strained her neck. A panel of lights sat at the head of the table. Her father had designed it to connect to a subject’s brain through wires and monitor activity. In this case, however, the creature’s brain was no longer attached to the creature’s body. It sat on a small shelf, wires running into it.
The rows of blinking lights weren’t too surprising. The human body maintained some level of activity for a handful of minutes after death. There were more lights blinking than normal for a human brain five minutes postmortem, but that didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a human brain. They had no benchmark for creatures like this.
As she was watching the blinking lights, her father grabbed a scalpel, spun it between his fingers a few times, and jammed it straight into the severed heart.
Des’ eyes widened of their own accord. A spike of red lights lit up the entire panel.
“Not only is the creature still alive–even demons die upon removing their hearts and brains–but it still feels pain. It is still connected.” He waved his hands around the heart, as if double checking that there weren’t any strands of flesh connecting the organ to the brain.
Satisfied with whatever he found, he turned again to face Des.
“And then it starts healing itself. Slowly, perhaps not as fast as the healing ability most demons possess, but steadily.”
Her father’s eyes caught a glint of the operating theater’s lights, giving them a sinister look. Her father’s too-wide grin widened further as he looked down at her bare, stitch-covered chest.
Des’ heart sank as she watched him lift up his scalpel.
“Time for another installation, honey.”
She had the strangest feeling that her heart wouldn’t be hers for much longer.