Juliana stopped outside the front door of a smaller home on the outskirts of the city.
The very outskirts. It was difficult to get farther away without technically being outside the city limits.
Houses out here were few and far between. Brakket City wasn’t much of a city to begin with, but out here, it was basically farmland. Abandoned farmland. Real rural area.
With the abysmally low price of houses and her family’s own wealth, it hadn’t been much of an issue to purchase one. Juliana’s father had insisted on buying a house as far away as possible. An idea that Juliana heavily endorsed. It gave her a convenient excuse to live in the dormitory building.
She was not walking across the city and back out every single day. Besides, it was probably more dangerous to do so. She would be open and vulnerable while walking.
It wasn’t a great house. One of the windows had been broken. The siding was in disarray even now. Ivy, vines, and all manner of foliage had taken over one side of the house, growing up the walls and even onto the roof. The lawn had been overgrown. Juliana had fixed that up herself with some carefully applied earth magic to churn the dirt, burying most of the weeds and grass.
Tiptoeing up to the front door, Juliana paused.
Her excursion out into the city was supposed to have been for only a few hours. Just enough to unpack in the dorm. Instead, she had spent the full day plus a good portion of the night out and around Brakket. And even a short amount of time out at Eva’s prison. A place where she was supposedly banned from going.
Well, it wasn’t much that she was ‘supposedly’ banned. She was banned.
Her father would definitely know how late she had been out. Hopefully he didn’t know about her little side trip.
Taking hold of the doorknob, Juliana twisted the handle as quietly as possible.
On the off-chance that everyone was asleep, she could claim to have returned an hour or two earlier.
That plan quickly fell by the wayside. Her father, her brother, and her mother were all sitting out in the living room.
She had expected at least one of them to be—the light was on, after all—but she had been hoping that they would have fallen asleep.
Her father got to his feet. “Juliana Laura Rivas. Where have you been?” He took three steps forward before Juliana’s mother cleared her throat.
“Carlos, you promised to remain calm.”
Juliana watched as her father clenched his hands into fists, took a deep breath, let it out, and released his grip. He took a few steps back and sat back down.
“Now then,” Genoa said with a cold smile, “why don’t you tell us all about whatever happened tonight.”
Closing the door behind her, Juliana stepped into the room. She didn’t take a seat.
The faces of all three people were riddled with concern, worry, and maybe a hint of disappointment. Carlos had his lips pressed together as he often did while angry. Meanwhile, Erich sat in a small recliner. Unlike Juliana’s parents, his eyes were glued to the front window. He didn’t look at Juliana more than a brief glance as he fidgeted to one side.
“First,” Juliana said, “I’d just like to say that I was perfectly safe the entire time.”
Genoa cleared her throat again before Carlos could speak. He turned to her with slightly narrowed eyes—though his coke bottle glasses magnified it enough that the glare was almost comical rather than menacing.
“That’s reassuring,” he eventually finished, voice flat.
“I was at Zoe’s apartment. With Zoe.” And Ylva, she didn’t bother adding. Mentioning that wouldn’t grant her any favors with her family. “Everything happened at Brakket Academy.”
“And just what was it that happened?”
“Well,” Juliana rubbed the back of her head, “a few demon hunters tried to murder just about everyone. They only halfway succeeded.”
Before anyone could ask what that meant, Juliana powered on. “Eva is fine. So is Catherine. The dean is… unconscious still. Last I heard anyway. They did get the entire security team.”
Lucy was still alive and in the mortal realm, but she wasn’t in a state to act as a security guard.
Juliana didn’t bother to mention Zagan. If her father found out that he was gone, he might send her off to another school. Zagan would be back. Of that, Juliana held no doubts. She did not particularly wish for him to return only to find her not at Brakket Academy.
“A few buildings got damaged, but no students or professors were harmed.”
“I suppose that is better than I had feared,” Genoa allowed with a tilt of her head. “And these demon hunters?”
“You don’t sound very sure.”
“Well, Eva thinks that one of them is dead. The other got away for sure. But that isn’t the important thing.” Juliana held out an arm. All of the metal she had collected from the battlefield started to coalesce in the palm of her hand. It formed into a sphere.
A sphere of shiny silver metal.
With Eva’s help, she had confirmed that it retained its demon injuring property even after being melded and reshaped.
There hadn’t been enough lying around to completely cover her. And yet, she had shed most of the metal she had been wearing. The new metal was heavy.
Heavy enough that even the small sphere she was forming needed both hands to hold it steadily in front of her. Distributing it around her body—her shoulders, hips, and back especially—helped to lighten the apparent load while wandering around. However, after finding a safe place to store the metal, she would only carry a small amount with her. The rest would be the lighter copper, brass, and iron that made up her normal suit.
Until then, she would carry it with her everywhere.
That Eva trusted her enough to keep all of the metal even despite her track record of failure spoke wonders of the other girl’s opinion of Juliana. It was metal that could possibly kill Eva if she came into contact with it for too long. Juliana would not allow herself to let down Eva by mishandling it.
“I was wondering if you knew what this was. It hurts demons and looks silvery, but Ara–” Juliana let out a slight cough, clearing an imaginary blockage in her throat.
Unlike Zagan, she would have to bring up Arachne at some point in time. The spider wanted to meet with her mother after all. However, that could wait for a time. Maybe when Erich and her father weren’t around.
“Eva told me that normal silver doesn’t hurt her in the slightest.”
Tilting her head to one side, Genoa took her hands off her lap. Gripping the handles of her wheelchair, she rolled herself forward.
“It’s heavy,” Juliana said as her mother held out a hand.
“Please. I may have a hole in my chest and can barely walk, but I’ve been keeping up with my weights.”
So she said, and yet she held out her other hand to help hold the sphere.
With a sigh, Juliana leaned forward, keeping a careful grip on the metal until she was absolutely certain that her mother truly had control. Only then did she release it and step away.
“Incidentally, Juliana…” Genoa trailed off as she turned the orb over in her hands. Activating her own ferrokinesis, she molded it away into a sort of glove. “Incidentally, you shouldn’t be picking up strange bits of metal after a battle. Or strange bits of anything. You never know when something is cursed. This seems alright, so I will let it slide this one time.”
“As long as it isn’t toxic or anything,” Erich muttered from his seat across the room.
Genoa started to turn to him, opening her mouth as if to speak, but she paused.
The metal glove on her hand turned from a shiny silver to a dark black. So dark that the area around it almost felt darker in comparison.
“That’s odd. I was only trying to stretch it out a bit.” She turned the now black glove over, holding it up to the light.
Which did nothing to alleviate the darkness.
“This… seems familiar somehow, but I can’t quite place it.”
Juliana just stared with wide eyes. It looked familiar to her too. Eva’s dagger was made of a very similar material.
Some demon metal, Eva had called it.
But why did demon hunters have demon metal?
— — —
“Welcome to Brakket Academy. I am Alexander Anderson, the dean of this fair school.”
The new dean turned, waving a hand over the area. “As you can see, we’re undergoing a bit of a renovation.”
That’s an understatement, Catherine thought as she glanced back over her shoulder.
Construction crews were milling about. They were a fair distance away. The bus that had dropped off the new students did so with plenty of walking time to spare. Given that the driver came from a different city—Brakket City was far too small to have a landing strip for any sized aircraft—the mortal had probably taken one look at the sky and had decided to get out before anything happened.
The construction crews had taken a great deal of convincing. Getting them to stick around and actually do their jobs had been Catherine’s job, so she knew very well just how skittish mortals were about anything odd or unnatural. Money had won out in the end, as it usually did.
Eventually, they had gotten to work.
Some workers replaced the bricks of the plaza with fresh, unbroken bricks. Others were patching up the Gillet. No load bearing walls had been hit, most of the damage was to the windows and the immediate area around the windows.
It was supposed to have been completed before the new students arrived at the academy. Having to convince them to work in the first place combined with a sudden bout of torrential rain had delayed the repairs just long enough.
Catherine turned back to face the thirteen students. All the new students who were entering the academy this year. She didn’t particularly care about the academy, its wellbeing, or how many students it had, but she did find it surprising that so many mortals were willing to send their kin here. With all the bad publicity, including the fight and murders last week, Catherine had assumed that the school would be shut down.
Weren’t mortals supposed to care about each other? Catherine chuckled to herself.
A slight cough from Anderson froze her chuckle in her throat. He glared as she looked up to him. Shadows around the ground flickered ever so slightly in an unnatural manner.
Catherine shuddered as she burrowed her nose in her phone.
Anderson was almost as scary as Zagan on occasion. He knew how to use his shadow manipulation to alter his features just enough to make himself intimidating. The lines on his face would become more pronounced while his gaunt cheekbones appeared to recede even further. Of course, given that he had a haunter as a bound familiar, maybe it wasn’t so much that Anderson was scary.
It was getting to the point where Catherine was wishing that Martina would just wake up. Unfortunately, that seemed less and less likely with every passing day. Her body was still alive. Mostly unharmed, even. But after diagnosing exactly what she had done, the doctors keeping an eye on her believed that too much lightning had run through her brain. It had disrupted her neural blah-blah—Catherine hadn’t paid all that much attention.
The only reason she had been sticking around Brakket Academy was because Martina’s contract was still in force and holding her here, even if her mind was broken. If she didn’t wake up soon, Catherine might consider using her favor with Eva up on getting the girl to permanently solve her problem.
On a brighter note, a comatose Martina gave her freedom. She could do anything she wanted to without the lingering threat of punishment or banishment hanging over her head. Zagan wasn’t even around to keep her in line.
Most of her days had been spent with the diabolist. They were almost ready to run a new version of their ritual. Unfortunately, there weren’t all that many demons left around Brakket. Something that Zagan being gone actually hurt.
“You’re arriving at Brakket Academy at an interesting time,” Anderson said. “By a show of hands, how many of you have family members who are mages?”
Only two of the thirteen raised their hands.
“In that case, I’ll explain a few things. Our school isn’t in a good state. We’re in danger of shutting down before your school tenure ends. This year, we aim to change that. You are first year students, but you can still help.
“Thaumaturgy is not easy to learn. It is a long process. You have six years at this school and yet you will still be considered an amateur until you have completed several years of extracurricular study. Brakket will give you your foundations. It is up to you to build the house—so to speak.
“However, this year we are introducing a new program.” He waved a hand to his side.
Blinking, Catherine looked up from her phone with narrowed eyes.
“Catherine is the secretary of the school. She has been for two years. She is also a demon.”
The two who had raised their hands didn’t react all that much. A slight widening of the eyes was all their reactions amounted to. They had probably been chosen because they wouldn’t have much reaction.
The others weren’t quite the same. Despite not being mages, even mundane mortals had heard of demons. They obviously hadn’t heard the best of opinions—probably for the best. More than one backed away, looking at her with wide eyes and smelling of fear.
Catherine rolled her eyes. Whatever game he was playing at was going to come back to bite him later on. Publicly announcing demons was just asking to get more demon hunters stopping by.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Catherine won’t hurt you. She does represent a certain shortcut. Thaumaturgy takes years to learn. Binding a demon to you, depending on the type and individual, can offer a wide variety of magic. You could leave a demon unbound, making it into a regular familiar or a mere contracted demon. We will be inviting guests who are interested in all three aspects.
“There is nothing to fear. You’ll go through a long lecture and learning portion. Taking on a bound demon will not be mandatory if, after going through the class, you decide that you don’t want to participate. Either way, you’ll still be expected to learn and practice proper thaumaturgy.”
One of the students asked a question.
Catherine didn’t bother paying attention. She cared little for the mortals or their somewhat justified fears about demons.
More concerning was Anderson’s claim of using bound demons. Particularly in relation to her. He had used her as an example.
Some demons liked to be physically bound within a mortal. It was typically the best way to avoid hunters as there would be little evidence of any demons. With no presence in the mortal realm, there wasn’t even any evidence to find.
But being bound was addictive. Or so Catherine had heard. Prax had appeared fine, but he had only been inside a mortal for a short time. Normal bound familiars tended to serve their masters for the duration of the mortal’s lifetime.
If Anderson forced her into a situation where she had to become a bound familiar, Catherine would tear out her own heart. She liked the current era of mortals. The distractions they had created to pass the time in their short lives worked just as well for demons. However, she wasn’t so enamored with it that she would be willing to give up her eternal freedom.
Sticking around for her work with the diabolist was far a more enticing argument. However, she wouldn’t be able to work on any of it if she were stuck in the head of some mortal brat.
Clapping his hands together, Anderson tore Catherine out of her own little world.
“Now,” he said to the gathered children. He let the silence hang for a moment, looking over them.
Catherine didn’t know what he was looking for. None of the children looked all that impressive. There were no ‘Evas’ in this year’s batch of students. Not even anyone remotely interesting.
But Anderson had a wide grin on his face. Not a malicious grin, but more of the kind mortals got when their moods were just so good that they couldn’t contain it.
“As I said, if you do choose to participate in the program, there will be ways you can help. Namely, a certain contest. It happens every year, but Brakket Academy hasn’t participated in the past decade because of low student population—normally only those in their fifth and sixth years of schooling participate—and…” He trailed off to give a pathetic shrug. “We are a little behind in our curriculum.
“With the support of our new allies,” he said with a gesture towards Catherine, “I think that population and ability will matter far less. People will see what Brakket Academy has to offer. The real trick will be convincing them of the truth that we’re all still human and still in control.
“But enough of that. I’m sure you’re all very eager to see where you’ll be staying. Follow me please.”
He turned and led the group back towards the Rickenbacker.
Catherine didn’t follow. She watched as the little mortals eyed her, giving her a wide berth as they walked around.
It was a strange sensation. Thirteen-year-olds were typically just entering puberty. Humans at such an age were often trying to get closer to her. Not farther away. The idea that merely being outed as a demon could ruin mortals’ impulses towards her was somewhat insulting.
She really needed to finish the ritual with the diabolist.
As soon as the gaggle of children had disappeared into the doorway of the Rickenbacker to finish their orientation, Catherine turned on her sharp heels and stalked off into the town.
She had been planning on putting this off for a time. With what she had just heard from Anderson, Catherine had no intentions of being tied down. She needed to act now.
The clicking of her heels only stopped once she reached a deserted alleyway.
A minute buildup of magic had her pulled straight into the gate room of the women’s ward.
Eva was sitting in her common room with Arachne. Just sitting, not talking. Perhaps she had been talking and stopped once she noticed Catherine’s arrival. Doubtful, but possible.
Arachne sat upright in her most human form with her back to the couch. Eva rested her head on the spider-demon’s lap, keeping her eyes half-lidded as Arachne stroked her fingers through Eva’s hair.
Both of them had faint smiles on their faces.
Catherine rolled her eyes.
Neither of them bothered to acknowledge her.
“Eva,” Catherine said after a light clearing of her throat, “I need to use my last favor.”
“Are you sure?” The girl didn’t even look up. Her eyes stayed half closed as she nuzzled further into Arachne’s lap.
Not a very comfortable looking lap. Arachne was as far from comfortable as a demon could get without being covered in spines and thorns.
“It could be the last favor that I owe you for a long time yet.”
“Maybe,” Catherine said with a toothy smile. “Maybe not.”
Finally, Eva opened her eyes. She tilted her head up, moving just enough off Arachne’s lap to get the other demon scowling at Catherine.
Catherine didn’t bother getting intimidated. There was a time where she might have worried. Not any longer. She knew Eva well enough. So long as Arachne’s detention in Hell hadn’t altered her too much, she knew that Arachne would heel to Eva.
“What do you mean?”
“Your next treatment. You’ll need more demons, no?” Catherine forced a yawn, glancing at her fingernails before rubbing them off on her shirt. It was an action she had seen a number of times while consuming human media. A sign of derision and contempt.
Where the gesture came from, or what its origins were, Catherine had no idea. For all she knew, it wasn’t even a real gesture. She had never actually seen a person do so outside of mortal entertainment media.
But Eva apparently got it anyway. The girl narrowed her eyes, raising one eyebrow as she did so.
“I don’t know that I can offer my services for free. Another few favors might give me a little more motivation to join in.”
Eva rolled her eyes. Pressing her head back into Arachne’s lap, she twisted around so that she was looking upwards instead of outwards. “Well, your favors have been innocuous enough. I’m sure I won’t mind.”
“I’m glad you see it that way,” Catherine said with a low chuckle. “I need you to kill Martina.”