Slaying Monsters for the Feeble – Annette Marie

I was in heaven. The musty scent of paper and old leather filled my nose, and my fingers tingled with the urge to touch the embossed spines surrounding me. I ambled between the tall bookshelves, my gaze caressing the tomes. Giving in, I slid my fingertips across a set of encyclopedias. Not just any encyclopedias. The complete Encyclopaedia Alchemia—sixteen thick leather spines detailing every alchemic ingredient known to mythics. Elation bubbled through me and I allowed myself one happy bounce before focusing. As much as I wanted to peek inside One Hundred Transmutations for Everyday Life or slip Defensive Alchemy: An Apprentice’s Compendium off its shelf, I wasn’t here to sate my endless curiosity. I was on a mission. Leaving the alchemy section, I checked the signs hanging above the entrance to each aisle. I walked past Arcana – Language Studies, Arcana – Spells & Incantations, Arcana – Artifacts & Artifact Engineering, and Arcana – History. That last section occupied three aisles on its own. Elementaria came next. I skipped over Psychica, then turned down a Spiritalis aisle. I couldn’t help but pause to read a few titles, including A Young Witch’s Guide to Familiars, Power Corrupts: A Case Study of Darkfae Subversion, and Is Druidry an Aberration? A Dissertation by the North American Partnership of Covens.

I shook my head at the third one. The fervent loathing between witches and druids was legendary among mythics. I emerged into another corridor, the butt ends of the shelving units marching on either side like wooden soldiers. Deeper into the library, I found the sign I was looking for: Demonica. Was it my imagination, or did a cool shadow fall across me when I stepped into the aisle? I squinted back the way I’d come. Ah, a privacy wall around a study area blocked the windows at the library’s front end. I had walked into shadow. Had the librarians deliberately picked this dim corner for the section on hellish fiends and soul-binding contracts? Nudging my glasses up my nose, I skimmed titles. The first shelf held a row of identical, and familiar, copies of Legal Demonica: The Summoner’s Handbook. Useful, but not what I needed.

I continued scanning. Contractor Control – Advanced Demon Wielding, The Ultimate Weapon: Demonica Guilds in Modern Society, A History of Summoning, The Casual Contractor’s Guide to Self-Defense. A book for casual contractors? What person would casually give up their soul to a demon? I slid it off the shelf and examined the glossy, modern cover with bold red typography and a cartoon demon on the front. Eyebrows climbing higher, I flipped the cover open and read the introduction. As promised, it was a how-to book for contractors who wanted to learn the bare basics and nothing more. I turned the page. Chapter One, “Getting Started.” Large, jaunty text with colorful headings in a sans serif font filled the page beside another cartoon demon, this one making a ghoulish “boo” face. Congratulations! You’re a contractor! You now belong to the small community of mythics who command demons. Never fear for your safety again.

Never take second place to a flashy mage or cocky combat sorcerer. You’re a member of the most powerful class now! But first, you need to learn the basics of controlling your demon. Wondering where to start? Let’s begin with calling out your demon. All contractors have an “infernus”—the artifact that holds your demon’s power. Don’t lose it! Without it, you can’t control your demon. Wear it around your neck on a chain, keep it in your pocket or purse, or leave it in an easy-to-access spot at home. The farther the infernus is from you, the weaker the connection to your demon. The way this book was written, you’d think literally anyone could pick up an infernus at the local Demon Mart. I didn’t know how much demon contracts cost, but I was pretty sure they started at six figures. Most people didn’t drop that kind of cash, then learn control techniques from a gimmicky book.

Now let’s practice the first step in wielding your demon. There are two magical command words tied to your infernus, and you’ll need to memorize both. RISE calls your demon out of the infernus Command: Δαῖμον, ἀναστῆθι Daimon, anastethi! (DHEH-mon, ah-nah-STEE-thee) REST returns your demon to the infernus Command: Δαῖμον, ἡσύχαζε Daimon, hesychaze! (DHEH-mon, ee-SEE-cha-zeh) Practice saying both commands. When you’re ready, hold your infernus and concentrate on where you want your demon to manifest—not too close to you! Now speak the Rise command. Did your demon appear? Perfect! Remember, focus is important. Repeat the Rise and Rest commands as needed. Once you’re comfortable with the process, you can transition to thinking the commands silently. (Commands not working? Turn to pg. 12 for troubleshooting help.) I snorted at the thought of a “troubleshooting” page, imagining their suggestions.

Demon won’t boot properly? Try turning your infernus off and on again. Under normal circumstances, a contractor controlled their demon like a puppet, manipulating its every movement through a telepathic connection. I didn’t have to worry about that. In fact, I had zero control over my demon. Which, all in all, was a terrifying problem to have. I tapped the page. “‘There are two magical command words tied to your infernus.’ Hmm.” Command words tied to the infernus. That could mean they were built into the contract or built into the magic of the infernus.

Since I didn’t have a real contract, I suspected the commands wouldn’t work, but only one way to know for sure. Balancing the book on one hand, I tugged my infernus from under my jacket and tilted it toward the light, the chain jingling. I examined the palm-sized silver pendant. Perfectly round, flat, and thin, with a spiky emblem etched in the center. Arcane runes marked the outer edge. Focusing on the empty aisle a yard away, I muttered dubiously, “Daimon, anastethi.” Red light flared across the infernus and I almost dropped it. Arcing out of the pendant, the bright blaze hit the dusty tiles and pooled upward, as though filling an invisible mold. At almost six feet, the light solidified into the familiar shape of my demon. My extremely displeased demon.

Crimson eyes stared down at me, their eerie glow obscuring dark pupils that had contracted to slits against the overhead fluorescent lights. Four small horns, two above each temple, hid in his tangled black hair, and a mixture of dark fabric, sturdy leather, and gleaming metal armor partially covered smooth, toffee-colored skin with a burgundy undertone. His dusky lips pulled back from his teeth, revealing pointed canines. “What did you do, payilas?” Demons inspired panic in everyone and I was no exception—but my sharp alarm was for a different reason. I frantically checked if anyone had noticed that flare of light. When no one started screaming about the demon in the library, I glanced from the book to Zylas. I had … I had called him out of the infernus? “Payilas,” he growled. “Um.” I hesitantly lifted the book. “I found the commands for the infernus?” Those lava-like eyes narrowed, then swept away from me to take in our surroundings.

His nostrils flared with a silent inhalation and his nose wrinkled in distaste. “What is this place?” he asked, an alien accent swirling through his husky voice. “It’s a library … part of the Arcana Historia guild. Which, uh, means you should go back into the infernus before someone sees you.” His long, thin tail swished, the two curved barbs on the end just missing a shelf of invaluable texts. He canted his head as though listening. “There is no one close.” He waved a hand around us. “What you need, is it here?” “I don’t know. I only just started looking.

Will you get back in the infernus now?” His upper lip curled, flashing his canines again. Nerves tightened my stomach. My demon was standing in the middle of a mythic library. If anyone saw him, at best, I would get kicked out. At worst, I would be discovered as an illegal contractor and put to death. Time to try out the “rest” command. I concentrated on my infernus. Daimon, hechaze! Nothing happened. Crap. Was I messing up the Ancient Greek? I was better at Latin.

I looked down at the open book. It vanished from my grasp. Zylas held the book up as though debating whether to burn it to ash on the spot. Turning, he stretched onto his toes, reached for the highest shelf, and shoved the book into the back. He dropped onto his heels and faced me. Barely topping five feet, I had no chance of reaching the book without a ladder. Which he knew. Jaw clenched, I turned my back on him and glowered at the nearest shelf. What was that command? Hecheze … hesachaze … hesychaza … Warm breath brushed across the top of my head, stirring my hair. I shot a glare over my shoulder at Zylas, who was standing obnoxiously close.

“Back up. I can’t concentrate.” “Concentrate on what? You are not doing anything.” I gritted my teeth. The only thing worse than a disobedient demon was a grumpy disobedient demon. “You have not done anything for weeks,” he complained. “Days and days of nothing but sleep and lounge and sleep—” “I wasn’t sleeping because I’m lazy,” I snapped. “I was sick. I had the flu.” “You promised to search for a way I can return home.

” “And I am. Right now. Or I would be if you’d stop bothering me.” I grabbed a book at random. “The more you distract me, the longer this will take.” He finally stepped back, taking the scent of hickory and leather with him, and drifted away in moody silence. I unclenched my jaw, fighting the urge to order him back into the infernus. The harder I pushed, the more he would resist. If I’d learned anything in the six weeks since we’d been bound together in a contract, it was that Zylas was infuriatingly stubborn. And deliberately contrary.

Defiant. Ornery. Contentious to the point of— “Should I describe you, payilas?” His hiss floated back to me and I flushed. Thanks to the telepathic connection that was supposed to allow me to control him, he could hear my thoughts. Not always—it depended on how forcefully I was thinking them—but often enough to be completely unfair. Pretending I hadn’t been insulting him in my head, I opened the book I held and blinked at the title page. Demon Psychology: Monsters Born or Made? Hmm. I flipped the page and scanned the introduction. The debate of nature versus nurture has dominated discussions on psychology for centuries. Are humans inherently good or is morality a learned behavior? In the coming pages, we will examine how this concept applies to the preternatural creatures known as demons.

Though psychology is, in theory and in practice, relevant only to humans, we now apply our well-practiced diagnostic methods to the demon psyche. The symptoms most often displayed by demonkind (aggression, violence, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, inability to form emotional bonds, narcissism, manipulativeness) would earn most humans a swift diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, more commonly known as psychopathy. However, the question remains: Is demonic violence a product of the demons’ mysterious home environment, or, as long believed to be the case, are they born monsters? I peeked over the top of the book. At the end of the aisle, Zylas was crouched low as he peered around the corner. His tail lashed. Aggressive, violent, manipulative—check, check, and check. Unempathetic, remorseless, selfish—three more checkmarks. My brow wrinkled as I turned the page and skimmed the table of contents to see if there was a nice, neat “Conclusions” chapter I could read. Biting my lip, I glanced up again. The aisle was empty.

With a horrified gasp, I shoved the book onto the nearest shelf and sprinted to the end of the aisle. It opened into a wider path with tables lined up against the wall. Halfway along, my demon, in all his horned, tailed, leather-and-armor glory, was prowling past the third table. I dashed to him so fast I smacked into his back and bounced off, almost dislodging my glasses. Grabbing his arm, I hauled him backward—or I tried. I could’ve been an ant for all the notice he took of my attempt. “What are you doing?” I whispered in a panic. “Get back in the infernus before someone sees you!” “Be quiet,” he hissed. I yanked on his elbow. “You need to—get—back—over—here.

” I gave his arm a final heave and my hands slipped. Lurching back, I bumped hard into a chair, which clattered loudly against the table, then tipped sideways. I caught it and shoved it upright. Its feet banged down on the floor. “Dahganul,” he snarled. I had a moment to be irritated by the new insult—it was most definitely an insult, even if I didn’t know what it meant—before I heard the distinct sound of high heels clacking against tiles. I lunged for Zylas as though I could forcefully mash him back into the infernus—except the bright glow of his power would be a beacon for the approaching librarian. He shot me a withering look, then dropped into a crouch and slipped between two chairs. He disappeared under the table. As the authoritative snap of heels grew louder, I lost my head entirely and dove after him.

With the chairs jutting under the table and the wall behind it, only a narrow rectangle was free, and Zylas took up most of it. Too late to go back, I squeezed in beside him. Not that hiding from the librarian was necessary. She was a librarian. I needed to work on my irrational fear of confrontation. The librarian’s steps drew closer, then hesitated a few tables away. I held my breath. Eyes gleaming in the shadows, Zylas leaned toward me and whispered, “Move.” I shied away from the closeness of his face. “Huh?” “Move, payilas.

” “Why? We need to—” “You are on my tail.” Belatedly, I realized the floor under my butt was uneven, and on my right, I spotted the rest of his tail coiled across the floor. My face heated. “There’s nowhere to move. Can you just wait?” When he glared in answer, I hissed, “This is your fault, you know. Why are you wandering around where anyone can see you?” “I would not be seen. You made noise, not me.” The librarian clacked closer and I bit back my retort. A pair of black pumps and gray dress pants appeared. The woman walked past the table, and her footsteps grew muffled as she continued to the library’s farthest corner.

“You are useless,” Zylas added pitilessly. “You walk loud and talk loud and breathe loud—” “I do not breathe loud.” I sat forward, getting off his stupid tail, and crawled for the gap between chairs. He seized the hem of my sweater and yanked. I flopped backward and landed in his lap with a muffled thump. He clamped a warm hand over my mouth. A pair of men’s leather shoes came into view, near silent on the tile floor compared to the woman’s clicking heels. The man strode past our hiding spot and disappeared into an aisle. Zylas exhaled against my cheek—then pushed his nose into the spot under my ear. I squealed into his hand and twisted away from his face.

His husky laugh was more vibration than sound. He shoved me off his lap, crawled over my legs with more grace than should’ve been possible, and slipped between the chairs. Muttering nasty things under my breath, I rushed out after him. As I wobbled to my feet, he was already ghosting down the aisle—not back into the Demonica corner, but toward the front of the library. “Zylas!” I hurried to his side, quietly this time. “Where are you going?” He paused, crimson gaze sweeping the aisles. “This way.” “Which way? What are you—” Feet silent on the floor, he entered a short hall. A door marked with a bathroom sign waited at the end, but Zylas was interested in a door with a Guild Members Only plaque on it. “We’re not allowed in there,” I told him.

He grasped the handle. White light sparked across it—some kind of Arcane spell. The pale sizzle ran over his knuckles and up his wrist. He narrowed his eyes, then rammed his shoulder into the door. The frame split and the door swung open, the sorcery imbued into the handle useless. Crap, he’d broken the door. How would I explain that? “Zylas, we can’t—” He ignored me and walked in. Why was I not surprised? The interior was dark, the air heavy with dust. I felt along the wall, found a light switch, and pressed it. Fluorescent bulbs buzzed awake.

Familiarity hit me in the gut. A long table was stacked with books in various states of disassembly. Tools I’d seen my mother use daily lay across the work surface—blades and cutting tools, glue, string, leather presses, pens and ink. A large magnifying glass on an adjustable arm was positioned above the book restorer’s current project. Zylas glided toward the table, paused to inhale, then angled toward the cabinets along the wall. He homed in on the corner one, the metal doors secured with a heavy padlock. I minced to his side. The lock had no keyhole and its face was marked with a set of runes. “What is it?” He sniffed the air. “I smell blood.

” My stomach performed an adrenaline-fueled flip. “Blood” wasn’t even on the list of answers I’d expected. “Old. Faint.” His tail snapped sideways. “The scent of demon blood and magic.” He reached for the padlock but I grabbed his wrist. I didn’t doubt he could break it with either pure strength or magic, but that was the problem. “Don’t,” I whispered urgently. His jaw tightened with stubbornness.

I knew that look—the “I’m about to do the opposite of what you want just to prove I can” look.

.

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