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Polyantha 9th, 179
Jennifer sat on the end of Julia’s bed. Her legs dangled off the edge, her feet coming nowhere near the thin carpet on the floor.
She had always been short, and had given up waiting for the growth spurt that was clearly never going to come. A semester’s worth of exercise had firmed up the muscles under her soft layer of baby fat, but done little to dispel it. Her face had never made it past junior high. Even the sword she wore with increasing confidence on her hip carried an impression of being a toy, with its odd metal and diamond cutouts.
Jennifer, the youngest of five children, had been stamped by nature. She would have stood out as the younger sister figure in any group that did not include actual children.
Certainly the bond of affection growing between her and Julia could be called sisterly, by those who didn’t want to call it anything else. Julia was less than two years older than she was, but considerably taller and more noticeably muscled. She carried herself with an easier grace, in both the literal physical sense and in terms of negotiating the world around her
Julia’s fingers, as clever as they were strong, were just finishing plaiting Jennifer’s hair.
“See? I told you that you wouldn’t have to cut it,” Julia said. “This is a warrior’s braid… women and men both have gone into battle with their hair plaited like this for centuries. It’s practical and attractive.”
“Maybe I want to cut my hair, though,” Jennifer said.
“If you really wanted to, I think there would be less angsting over it,” Julia said. “You love your long hair and you know it.”
“I like it, alright, but that doesn’t mean I like everything about it,” Jennifer said. “I mean, it was good enough when I was a little girl…”
“Ah, so that’s the problem. Getting your hair chopped won’t make you look older,” Julia said. “You’ll just be taken for a little boy instead of a little girl.”
“At least boys are taken more seriously than girls,” Jennifer said.
“Not by everyone. Not by anyone worth being taken seriously by,” Julia said. “Anyway, I think you’re underestimating the effect a hairstyle can have. Your mother might not have had much time or energy for doing your hair after three other daughters, but I’m not putting you in pigtails here.”
“I think your hair looks lovely,” Melanie said.
“Thanks, that’s exactly what I was hoping for,” Jennifer said.
“No need to be snotty about it,” Melanie said.
“Seriously,” Julia said, giving a gentle tug on Jennifer’s hair. “You shouldn’t have to choose between being lovely and being taken seriously. A woman doesn’t have to ape a man to do the things a man does. Like I said, your hair is attractive and practical like this.”
“How practical is a hairstyle I can’t maintain myself?”
“Well, I can teach you how to do it,” Julia said. “And until you’ve got it down yourself, I don’t mind doing it for you… oh, did I pull too hard?”
“No… Samuel’s coming,” Jennifer said. She’d suddenly sat up and gone stiff.
“How can you tell?” Julia asked.
“The hall got quieter,” Jennifer said. “It was quiet, but his sneaky spell makes it quieter.”
“How do you know that?” Melanie asked.
“Oh, he drops by my room when he wants someone to talk to,” Jennifer said. “Since I never make him promise not to. And I think he thinks it’s somehow less improper, because, you know.”
The door opened without a sound… with the complete absence of sound, even… although its usual creak sprung into existence halfway through. Samuel slipped into the room and shut the door behind him.
“Good evening, ladies,” he said. “I hope I didn’t startle anyone.”
“Not a chance,” Julia said. She patted Jennifer on the head. “This one didn’t hear you coming a mile off.”
“Yeah, your silence spell is a bit overkill, if you ask me,” Jennifer said.
“It seems I should do just that,” Samuel said. “I haven’t been caught yet, but there’s always room for improvement.”
“That door was locked, Samuel,” Melanie said.
“Yes,” Samuel said.
“Why don’t you just silence yourself?” Jennifer asked. “I mean, why the whole space around you?”
“The spell I use has a globular area of effect,” Samuel said. “It has to be about six feet around to encompass my whole body, and outside sounds end when they hit it… ideally I’ll be able to refine it to only obliterate sounds that originate from within, though.”
“Can you make it smaller?” Jennifer asked.
“Yes, but it has to be large enough to encompass my feet or there’s not much point,” Samuel said. “I’m not too worried that someone will hear me breathing or hear my heartbeat. It’s the hard tile floors in the halls that give me fits.”
“I know what she’s going to say,” Julia said, grinning.
“And what’s that?” Samuel asked.
“Put it on your feet,” Jennifer said.
“…now there is a thought,” Samuel said.
“If you didn’t sneak around the girls’ dorms, you wouldn’t have to worry about silence spells,” Melanie said.
“I hardly need to, anyway,” he said. “It’s just a convenient excuse to hone my skills. Anyway, it’s a bit late in the bout for you to pretend to be scandalized by my visits… I know you enjoy them.”
“If enjoying something meant it wasn’t scandalous, there wouldn’t be any scandals,” Melanie said. “You could at least observe the propriety of knocking before you enter.”
“Oh, I did,” Samuel said. “Didn’t you hear me?”
The expression on his face, though technically a polite smile, managed to convey the impression of an impish tongue sticking out.
“Oh, Samuel,” Melanie said. “You are impossible. And I know you don’t come here if it’s not important, even if we don’t always agree on the meaning of the word. It’s about him, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been talking to that Harlowe kid, the one who wrote the article,” Samuel said.
“Kid? He can’t be much younger than you are,” Jennifer said.
“No, but he could do with some tempering,” Samuel said. “Still, he did manage to learn a few things that the real reporters didn’t, and as I suspected, he knows… or has guessed… more than made it into the school paper. Much of it is speculation, of course, and much of that is useless.”
“I’m surprised that it took you this long to approach him,” Julia said.
“Oh, I first veered my path towards his shortly after the semester started,” Samuel said. “It has just taken me this long to steer the subject towards demons.”
“You had to gain his trust?” Julia guessed.
“No, actually, he had to gain mine,” Samuel said. “I do not casually reveal my nature to anyone, and to even hint at an interest in things infernal to a would-be investigative reporter and conspiracy theorist would be unwise. But his family has something of a reputation, and I was able to ascertain that our Mr. Harlowe shares their progressive viewpoint. After a few conversations on the subject of when personal privacy trumps the public’s privilege to know, I decided to confide in him.”
“You what?” Melanie said.
“I believe you heard me,” he replied.
“Yes, but… you didn’t have to outright tell him,” Melanie said.
“Well, I couldn’t swear him to secrecy without telling him,” Samuel said. “And if I’d tiptoed around the subject, then like our clever little Jennifer, he would have heard the silence of what I wasn’t saying and worried at it until he found out what it was. After that, his reaction would be impossible to predict or control. This way, it’s a matter of honor. I’ve dealt honestly with him, he will deal fairly with me.”
“That’s still an awful risk to take for ‘speculation, much of it useless’,” Melanie said.
“I said much of it was speculation, not all,” Samuel said. “There were some useful nuggets in there, as well.”
“Like what?” Melanie asked.
“Well, it seems that D’arby’s accidental victim is believed to have been traveling up from the south, from the great Blackwater, the heart of the region that the demon haunts. It also seems that Blackwater has been a hotbed of demon activity for centuries, with a pattern of demon-human breeding at a greater rate than anywhere that doesn’t sport a demon cult.”
“I’ve never heard about that,” Julia said. “I mean, yeah, there are a lot of manifestations and possessions, the kinds of things you can get anywhere backwoods and wild enough. But I don’t think a demon can breed a half-demon if it’s not fully summoned into the world, physically.”
“Not a lot of people know that,” Samuel said.
“We’ve… been doing research,” Jennifer admitted.
“Well, I guess I should be clear that it doesn’t actually approach demon cult-rates,” Samuel said. “It’s just… steady, that’s all. People like me are normally an anomaly. But in the triangle of Blackwater, Prax, and Treholme, half-demons and other part demons have been turning up once or twice a generation, sometimes more, for as long as it’s been settled. Mr. Harlowe is of the opinion that there’s a secret nest of demons that are responsible for this, but that was based on incomplete information. He was missing a key fact..”
“Our demon is territorial,” Jennifer said.
“He certainly didn’t take to the idea of an unrelated demonblood ‘tramping around his territory’, as he put it,” Samuel said.
“You don’t know whether he had a similar problem with any of the other demonbloods, though,” Julia said.
“I think we can surmise that he was not hunting the young lady who was mangled by the golem, since he appears to have avenged her death,” Samuel said. “If the crowd hadn’t already smashed it, I’m sure he would have wrecked the golem, too. I think we have to assume that he felt similarly towards the other demonbloods… after all, he would have been powerful enough to run them out of his territory if he’d wanted to. I’m just lucky enough to be born into an era where he can’t strike at me directly and openly as easily as he might have in an earlier age.”
“Do we actually know how powerful he is?” Melanie asked. “I mean, he obviously can’t actually get past the wards.”
“He got past Sir Cyrus,” Jennifer said.
“Yes. The man seems to have been a glorified healer, but he would have had several advantages fighting a demon,” Samuel said. “After all, he killed a demonblood literally without trying.”
“I’m the only local,” Julia said. “So believe me when I say that Sir Cyrus was no slouch when it came to fighting. The local ghouls are fast, sneaky, and vicious… you can’t fight them by hanging back and turning. Blunt trauma probably means this guy… this demon… was beating him to death with his bare hands. Demons are strong as hell, but it would take a lot of guys and skill to get past Sir Cyrus’s sword and deliver a blow with any force. That, or serious magic. Either way, yeah, I think Samuel’s right. We have to assume that he could take care of any lone half-demon without institutional protection.”
“My question is, if he killed the paladin in revenge for the dead demon girl, why nail his body to our front gate?” Jennifer asked. “It’s not like he had anything to do with MU, and neither did she.”
“For punctuation,” Samuel said. “It’s what he threatened to do with me, if I interfered with his plan. If he’d killed Sir Cyrus anyway, and was looking for something emphatic to do with his body, this way he could serve a double purpose.”
“What was his plan, exactly?” Jennifer asked.
“He wouldn’t tell me,” Samuel said. “Which I thought made the warning fairly superfluous. But I’m beginning to have an idea… you see, I think he’s breeding the demonbloods.”
“Well, yes,” Julia said. “I think we all arrived there when we talked about the suspected nest of demons being just him.”
“No, you’re still not seeing it,” Samuel said. “Oh, but you don’t yet know everything I do: all the part-demons that Harlowe had turned up a record of happened to be female. Yet a male part-demon arrives in the region and he risks exposure to run me off. Consider the implications of that. There’s no way he could guarantee female issue from his pairings with human women, but if he takes care of any male demonbloods in one way or another, it would explain why they turn up so less frequently. And then we only have to ask ourselves what he could be doing with female demonbloods but not with male ones.”
“But… if he’s the only demon active in the region, they would be his daughters,” Melanie said.
“And grand-daughters, possibly,” Samuel said. “And it could potentially go further than that, with each generation being closer to pure demon than the before. It’s a tricky proposition, though, because of the curse.”
“The curse?” Julia asked.
“Melanie, you know the Bane of Khersis, yes?” Samuel said. “The part that goes, ‘And your tainted generations shall consume each other in gluttonous lust’?”
“It’s what Lord Khersis said to the humans who had bred with demons, when he cast the demons into the pit,” Melanie said. “It’s why there hasn’t been a race of half-demons upon the world since before the time of Khersis’s incarnation. He couldn’t alter the fabric of life so that demons couldn’t breed with humans, but he… did something… so that part-demons couldn’t breed with each other, not successfully or very often, or something. There’s a lot of argument about what it means, or whether he even literally cursed them-cursed them or just, you know, had strong words to say to them.”
“Yes, theological vaguery aside… the simple truth of the matter is that he placed a blood curse that would afflict only human females with demon blood,” Samuel said.
“Why am I not surprised?” Julia said.
“Or at least, there is something like such a blood curse that the Librum alludes to, whatever its true origin may be,” Samuel said. “The effect is to make them nearly irresistible to demons, and all races that prey on humans. If he’s seeding the region with female demonbloods, then it would really be no wonder he wouldn’t want me around.”
“Wouldn’t they be irresistible to him, too?” Jennifer said.
“Yes, and so if he can resist them, then that’s another sign of his immense power,” Samuel said. “He must have a mind like mithriled steel.”
“Then… it seems like the safest thing you can do is leave,” Melanie said. “I hate to be the one to say it, but if you can’t protect yourself from him…”
“Leave? Never,” Samuel said. “Well, not until I have my degree. I worked hard to get my scholarship, and to even be accepted for admission… believe me, there were special arrangements that needed to be made, human blood or not. I couldn’t transfer to another school as easily as you or Jennifer could, and even if I could, I wouldn’t. Anyway, other than aiming a rather excessive display of wrath in my general direction, he hasn’t been able to do anything since the new wards went up. It seems the safest thing for me to do is stay here.”
“And be a prisoner on campus?” Melanie asked.
“I’m not a prisoner if I choose to be here,” Samuel said. “Anyway, think of how many fewer distractions from my studies I’ll have than most young men my age. Though, that’s not to say I won’t have any side interests… for instance, learning more about this demon, and his possible descendants. It’s possible that the overview I got from Harlowe is incomplete… if there’s a whole clan of demonbloods, male and female, then obviously my theory is wrong.”
“But what exactly happens if you’re right?” Jennifer asked. “I mean, how does that help you?”
“It doesn’t exactly give me a practical advantage, but it proves I’m on the right track as to his methods and motivations, which may lead to something more usable as I continue down it,” Samuel said. “It will be useful if I have some help. I’ve already enlisted Harlowe… if he gets anything useful, he can publish it without exposing me. The demon’s attack on Sir Cyrus already provides a plausible thread for the beginning of his inquiries… technically, his investigation into the demon’s motives started before he met me.”
“We could help, too,” Jennifer said.
“The ladies’ library isn’t likely to have nearly as much useful information as the men’s or the coed one, though,” Julia said.
“It will have different information, though,” Samuel said. “Some of the cases Harlowe presented me with come from folklore more than history or true monster stories… the offerings in your library may tend more towards fluff than in the real library, but that doesn’t mean there might not be seeds of truth in them. And Jennifer and Julia have evidently found out some valid demon lore.”
“We… didn’t find that in the ladies’ library,” Jennifer said. “Or the co-ed one.”
“You didn’t!” Melanie said, though without much conviction.
“Hey, just because they won’t teach us doesn’t mean we can’t learn,” Julia said.
“In any event, while I could certainly penetrate the ladies’ library, I think it would be simplest if we use the privileges respectively accorded to us,” Samuel said. “There’s no need to complicate an already potentially extensive task… that is, assuming you’ll help me.”
“Of course!” Jennifer said.
“Since you honored me by trusting me, yes,” Julia said.
“I would have liked to have had some choice in bestowing that honor, but I appreciate that you consider it such,” Samuel said.
“Oh… I’ll help, too,” Melanie said. “Just because I think you’d be better off retreating to a safe distance doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon you to the wolves.”
“Excellent!” Samuel said. “I suggest we begin immediately, before the semester picks up and academic matters overtake us all.”
“We’ll need a better place to meet, though,” Julia said. “I mean, like you said about overcomplicating things… two guys and three women piling into a dorm room all the time is going to be asking for trouble.”
“I didn’t think you were a stranger to trouble,” Samuel said.
“I’m not, but I have my own trouble I plan on getting into,” Julia said. “I don’t mind risking a little more, but I have to be careful about how much.”
“It’s no problem, anyway,” Samuel said. “As it happens, I already have a solution in mind…”
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