Irene stared at her phone. She had been all worried for Eva and yet Eva just hung up like it was nothing. With a joke about succubi, no less.
“Last time I worry about her.”
“See,” Saija said with a wide grin, “I told you it was nothing.”
“Well, not nothing. She said it was some doll that she knew. Doll,” Irene scoffed. “And she has the gall to tease me about…” she trailed off with a slight cough. There was no need to mention what Eva had been teasing her about in front of Saija. Who knew how the succubus might react. It would be just her luck for Saija to take the teasing as a challenge.
She might be alright to talk to while Drew and her other followers were gone, but she did not need anything more than talking.
Especially with the way Saija had followed her up to her room when she ran to collect her cellphone. Shelby wasn’t in at the moment, leaving the two of them all alone.
Though, now that she was glancing up at Saija, she realized that the succubus had gone very still.
She jumped, causing a few creaks in the third and normally unoccupied bed. “Sorry,” she said. “A doll, was it?”
“Eva mumbled something about a doll. Maybe I misheard. Droll? How droll? Does that make sense? It was very quiet.”
“Doll makes more sense,” she said, standing. “I should go and make sure the others know a doll is out of Hell.”
Irene blinked, watching in confusion as Saija walked to the door and left the dorm room. She considered letting the demon go. Something was obviously up. Likely nothing she wanted anything to do with.
She stood anyway and chased after Saija.
“Wait. Hold on. I thought it was nothing!”
Saija didn’t stop. If anything, she sped up. Though she did glance over her shoulder to give Irene a wan smile. “Still probably nothing,” she said. “I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong. But there are eleven other demons around here. Odds aren’t with them.”
Apparently seeing Irene’s confusion, she explained a little farther. “Think of dolls like police officers. They come after people who break their contracts.” She paused, narrowing her eyes at nothing in particular. “Have any of us made proper contracts yet?”
It wasn’t a question Irene could answer. Luckily, Saija didn’t seem to expect one of her. She shook her head and continued onwards, down the staircase.
Following along, Irene moved up right next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just tell it to me straight, should I be panicking right now or not?”
Saija chuckled. Not a very mirthful chuckle. Almost a sad laugh. “You haven’t made any contracts have you? Then no,” she said as Irene shook her head. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I think I’ve heard that before,” Irene said, voice flat.
Despite her misgivings, she followed along behind Saija as the demon ran around knocking on the doors on the first floor of the dormitory building.
Irene stayed behind Saija and tried hard to be as uninteresting as possible. She had enough demons—and people—interested in her as it was.
But she did watch their interactions.
Saija knocked on the first door. It took a moment, but a demon answered with relative promptness. Some demon stood in the doorway with glassy eyes. One Irene hadn’t spoken to before.
Irene hadn’t spoken to most of the demons, now that she considered the thought.
“Something you need?”
“Just thought you ought to know that a doll is running around the mortal realm for some reason. That’s all. Ta~ta!”
With a half-skip and a wave, Saija left the room and moved on to the next one.
The glassy-eyed demon froze much as Saija had when Irene first mentioned the doll, but didn’t ask for any clarification. He eyed Irene for one moment before slamming the door shut.
And then Saija repeated herself at the next room. She never stayed for long to speak with the other demons. Only long enough to tell them that a doll was in the area. She spoke lightly yet dispassionately, using the exact same tones and inflections as she had for the first demon. And, as with the first, none of the demons asked questions.
Almost as if she didn’t actually care whether or not the demons knew. It was like she was telling them out of mere obligation.
Knowing a thing or two about demons from the diablery class, Irene found it odd enough that she wondered just what was the wording of these demons’ contracts. Perhaps something like they couldn’t sabotage one another. Not telling them might count as some sort of betrayal.
As for the other demons, they all reacted in varying ways. Some didn’t seem to care. One or two started shaking with genuine fear on their faces.
But the last one…
Saija knocked as she had with the others. No one answered immediately. That wasn’t so strange. Not everyone answered as quickly as the first. A few of the other rooms had even been missing their occupants. Irene and Saija had just assumed that they were out mingling with the humans and had slipped a note into the little message box at the side of the doors.
However, someone was obviously home here. The noises coming from the other side of the door were evidence to that. Just a few moments of hearing them had Irene pulling away from the room.
The squelching and thumping. It was like someone was using eight meat tenderizers at once while singing with all the ability of a deaf walrus.
She had never actually heard a walrus sing, but that was beside the point.
Saija didn’t seem disturbed in the slightest. Angry, perhaps. Her arms were crossed over her chest. One of her fingers thumped against her arm in tempo with the thuds coming from within the room. After a moment, she hammered her fist against the door and didn’t stop until the door swung open.
The thumping within the room ceased at the exact moment that the door cracked open.
Irene looked away, almost afraid of what she might find in there.
Curiosity got the better of her.
She peeked an eye open.
Then both eyes.
A young man stood in the doorway wearing a polo shirt and slacks. His hair was neatly combed and his nails were clean, shiny, and cut short. Irene only noticed his fingers because his hand was up by his mouth as he let out a long yawn.
“You caught me while I was napping,” he said in a completely casual tone of voice.
Were it not for the noise that had been coming from his room, she might have thought that they had accidentally knocked on the door of a regular student. In fact, maybe that had been music of some sort. She had thought that something in that noise sounded like singing.
Saija kept her eyes narrowed as she pushed past the student into the room. “What were you up to?”
“Napping. I just said as much.”
“Liar. I’ve not slept once since coming to the mortal realm.”
“Don’t assume that everyone is the same as you.”
“Hmm.” Saija continued looking around the room.
From her position at the doorway, Irene couldn’t see anything odd about the room. Just a normal dormitory room. Three beds with desks at their feet, a mini-kitchen, and a door leading to a bathroom on one side of the room.
Actually, once she started really looking at it, the room was almost too clean. All three beds had their covers smoothed out without a single wrinkle. No bits of old clothing lying anywhere on the floor. The kitchen looked unused.
But there was a strong scent of lemon cleaner around the place.
“Whatever,” Saija said. “Only came by because it is demanded of me to tell you that one of the Keeper’s dolls might be somewhere around the mortal realm.”
This demon was the first to do anything more than slam the door in their faces. Something he might find difficult with Saija already inside the room. Even still, his reaction was different.
A lock of his perfectly combed hair slid out of place.
“Excuse me? I’m not sure I heard you properly.”
Saija’s face split into a grin as her gaze turned towards the demon for the first time. “Oh, I don’t believe that for a minute. Worry? Concern? I can smell it on you. Someone has been naughty. What’d you do?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I honestly didn’t hear you.”
“Like you honestly were napping.”
The demon opened his mouth, but Saija waved her hand.
“Protest all you want, I don’t care. It will be interesting to see if you’re still around in a few days. But I’ve done my part. Good luck,” she said, starting to leave the room. “Or not,” she added before slipping out.
Saija didn’t hesitate in beating a retreat. She gripped Irene’s arm on the way—quite a bit rougher than Irene would have liked—and dragged her down the hall.
Irene cut herself off as Saija squeezed her arm. Slamming a finger over her lips, she jerked her head back towards the room they had just left.
The demon was leaning around the corner, watching them leave with a perfectly normal expression on his face.
“He isn’t what he seems. Best to get away sooner rather than later.”
The way the demon was staring at Irene in particular removed all arguments and complaints from her mind. She nodded and just about ran forward, almost dragging Saija along with her. They only slowed once they made it back to the stairwell.
“What was up with that?” Irene said after taking a moment to catch her breath. She wasn’t sure why she was so out of breath, the hallway wasn’t that long.
“He’s an odd one. Don’t worry about him too much. Though he was acting a little suspicious,” Saija said, tapping her chin. “Have any of the students gone missing recently?”
“I don’t think so… Is that a thing? Should I be worried that he’s been eating people?”
“Oh no. He would just pretend to grant people’s wishes while trapping them in a sort of alternate reality where everything is perfect, feeding off their emotions in the meantime.”
“Thats–” Irene started. She had been about to say that it wasn’t so bad, but changed her mind after thinking about it for another second or two longer. “That might be worse.”
“Yeah. I mean, technically it isn’t hurting the humans, but probably still violates the spirit of his contract. Fascinating. Let’s watch and see if the doll shows up.”
“What? Why? I thought you didn’t care about him.”
“I was just saying that. If a doll is really here to take him out, I want to watch it happen. I’ve heard about them and yet have never actually seen one.”
After being kind enough to let Irene finish filling her lungs with fresh air, Saija dragged her straight up to the second floor.
At the junction between the rest of the stairs and the second floor landing, Irene had tried to slip away. She really didn’t want to watch some demon, especially one as creepy as that perfect guy. Homework had been light so far into the year, but Irene still had an essay to write.
The second she had tried to break away from Saija, the succubus had her hand on Irene’s shoulder once again.
She could have protested, but she didn’t. Irene just sighed and resigned herself to her fate. Eva, Catherine, and now Saija, all of them traveled at their own paces and expected the same of everyone around them. Seemingly especially of Irene.
Though maybe she was the only one who needed to be dragged into things.
Juliana followed along on her own as did Shalise. Obviously Arachne wouldn’t need to be dragged into things. She was a demon and part of the things that needed dragging into. Shelby and Jordan…
Wait, Irene thought, pausing her light pacing in front of the second floor stairwell windows, Shelby and Jordan are never a part of anything. How do they manage it?
She didn’t get a chance to consider the answer.
Saija pressed her nose against the glass. “I can feel him pacing back and forth. He keeps moving up next to the window. What are you going to do?” she said, more to herself than to Irene. “Stick around? Maybe flee and try to put some physical distance between yourself and the doll?”
“If he sticks around for more than a minute or two, I’m leaving,” Irene said.
Waving a hand in Irene’s direction, Saija kept looking out the window. Irene wasn’t even sure if the succubus had heard what she had said beyond some noises coming out of her mouth.
Looking out the window herself, Irene spotted the few demons who were out of their rooms, mingling with normal students. Since they had only been left a message, they were completely unaware of the possible danger presented by this ‘doll’ thing.
“Wait,” Irene said, “what’s that up there?”
The roof of the other dormitory building wasn’t that far away. The roof of it was clear to see. Squinting her eyes, Irene could see someone standing right on the edge of the roof. Almost leaning over the edge.
Her heart clenched, thinking someone was about to jump. But the person had one boot up on the ledge as she peered over the edge. Irene had never seen someone about to commit suicide, but she doubted that they would appear so aggressive in their stance. Squinting her eyes, she was almost certain that there was a long glint of metal around her waist.
“It’s the doll!” Saija said, sounding far more enthusiastic than Irene would have expected. “I bet it is watching our dear friend on the first floor. He’s pacing still and hasn’t become more agitated. I doubt he’s noticed.”
“Shouldn’t you tell him?”
“And ruin my fun?”
“Well, you had to tell him in the first place. I figured that telling him again would be part of your contract.”
Saija waved a hand. “No no, I told him that there was a doll in the area.” She pointed out the window. “That’s a doll. It’s in the area. Anything more would just be going above and beyond the stipulations of my contract. I–”
She stopped suddenly.
Irene glanced up at the roof, but the doll hadn’t moved. Turning towards Saija, she actually took a step backwards. The succubus had her eyes narrowed in Irene’s direction. She let out a noise from the back of her throat before speaking.
“How did you know the details of my contract?”
“Well don’t,” she said, turning back to the window. “I like my private affairs to remain private.”
Irene watched Saija for a few moments, making sure that the girl wasn’t about to bite her head off for suddenly speaking again. “Sorry. I didn’t know it would be such a secret thing.”
“The problem is that I think demons can get trapped. I tell you something that I can’t do then you put me into a position where I can’t not do said thing. That’s how I wind up getting that thing after me,” she said, pointing across the way to the other dormitory building.
Before Irene could respond, Saija pointed downwards. “Wait,” she said. She hummed for a moment with a disturbing grin on her face. “He’s moving.”
Sure enough, a perfect bundle of clothing walked out onto the courtyard. Bundle might be the wrong word, but he did look dressed up for a cold day. A fluffy blue scarf was wrapped around his neck and he wore a slim coat. He took hold of the scarf and hiked it up over his nose after taking a quick look at the demons and humans still around the courtyard.
He never once looked up as he made his way out towards the city.
The doll atop the other building walked right along the edge, following along with him.
“Come on,” Saija said, turning back towards the stairs. She started upwards before realizing that Irene hadn’t followed her.
“Do I really need to go with you? That ‘doll’ thing is just going to kill him right? I don’t need to see that.”
“You don’t think it will be exciting?”
Not the word I would use for it, Irene thought as she shook her head. Morbid, more like.
If she had a book on these dolls and a nice safe place to read, she might find the topic far more interesting. She had been around far too many fights involving demons as it was. Especially if the demon found himself cornered. He might try to take hostages.
Saija had said that humans wouldn’t have much to fear from the doll things, but Irene had her doubts. If the doll really was after this demon for breaking a contract, who is to say that either would care if they had to skewer a human to get at the other.
“What would you find interesting–” Saija cut herself off as her eyes drifted over Irene’s shoulder. “Wait, where did the doll go?”
She ran over to the window once again.
Sure enough, the roof of the Gillet was void of any life. The demon was still walking down towards the city, growing smaller to Irene as he moved.
He had no haste in his gait. He didn’t betray any panic by looking around. His arms swung casually at his sides as he moved down the street. The drawn up scarf around his neck was the only real oddity and that was just because it wasn’t that cold out. And that could just be personal preference.
The demon who Saija claimed was worried out of his mind looked no different from a student heading into town to pick up some new school supplies.
At least, that’s what Irene thought up until the moment he looked up towards the sky.
His skin bubbled and boiled. Black tar escaped from his eyes.
Anything else was cut short by a sword plunging through his open mouth, skewering him and pinning him to the ground.
The leather-clad doll came down from the sky next, planting both of her boots right on the demon’s chest. His body, which had been arched and mostly upright, hit the ground hard. The sword passed right through his mouth and chest as his body moved.
Halfway split apart, the demon still tried to attack back. His arms grew longer, reaching out towards the doll with obsidian claws in place of hands.
Though there was some distance between them, Irene couldn’t detect a hint of concern on the doll’s face. She said a few words before pulling her sword from the demon’s chest.
A portal opened beneath the demon, drawing him while leaving the doll standing alone.
She brought her sword straight up in front of her before flicking it down to her side at an angle. Black tar flung off the blade, leaving its shine pristine. In the same smooth motion, she spun it around and sheathed it on the other side of her hip.
“Now you’ve got to admit, that was pretty neat.”
Irene shook her head. Her stomach was churning. It had been a relatively clean kill, all things considered. Nothing was even left of the demon. And she knew that demons didn’t die when they… died. But seeing him split open even for a moment brought up ill memories of the monstrosities that had attacked her and Eva the previous year.
The other people, both humans and demons, were panicking in various ways. Most of the humans were fleeing towards the dormitory buildings. The two demons were staring, clearly preparing to fight. One had lightning crackling between his fingertips while the other had fully reverted away from his human form, becoming a sort of music box with legs and a head. One arm poked out the side, winding a crank.
But the doll made no motion to attack. She merely glanced around the area, stopping briefly on each demon.
When she stopped on Saija, the succubus took a full step backwards. Irene could almost feel the air shaking around the demon.
As with the others, the doll eventually passed over Saija. She stared for a few seconds before turning away, facing out towards the city.
“Neat and a little scary,” Saija said, voice much quieter.
“I think I should call Eva again.”
Author’s Note: There is a new chapter over on the preview site. Not Analyst or Demi-God, something new tentatively titled Specter. Longer notes at the bottom of that chapter.