It was a tradition in the Kogane family for infants to be taken to have their fate read within the first month of their tiny lives. “Need to know about you before the moon does,” Grandma Kogane had once explained. It made no sense to Keith--only shifters needed to care what the moon thought of them--but Grandma was all kinds of superstitious, so he knew better than to argue. Besides, in his case they had learned something very important: on the night of his 20th birthday, a demon would try to take his life.
Keith had been scared by his fate as a child. A demon trying to kill him? What could be more terrifying? His grandmother, though, had pointed out that he came from a family of witches, and it was practically expected he would have a tussle or two with a demon sometime in his life, and here he had a chance to get the drop on them.
“You know the day already,” she said, pounding down bread dough with flour-coated hands. “That’s the hard part. You know when to be ready by, so find their name and then you’re set. Wish I’d been half so lucky with my reading--all it told me was I’d get married. Who cares about that? Any fool can get married and no one needs to be warned ahead of time. I just about lost my hands when your great uncle Delbert’s summoning spell backfired and set loose every familiar in the block. That would have been nice to have some warning over. Pass the cinnamon.”
So Keith had decided he was lucky after all. He knew for sure he’d survive to 20, and that gave him years to prepare. He studied hard and practiced magic daily and passed his exams, earning a Summoner’s License at age 15. From there it was easy to get into a witch’s training school and he studied revealing spells and potions, and now at the age of 19, he had the skills and the knowledge to take the final step and learn the name of the demon who would try to kill him. All he needed now was a familiar.
Despite the thousands of years humans and elves and the other inhabitants of the Middle Realm had been summoning demons, very few people knew what a summoning looked like from the other side. They did not happen randomly, pulling unsuspecting demons through a vortex of blinding light--not unless it was a very strong summoner or one with a specific name to target. No, for most summons, it worked rather like a ringing phone in the middle of nowhere, and if someone was passing by and interested, they might pick up. If no one was interested, the summon failed, and the confused witch, wizard, or sorcerer was left scratching their heads or kicking their tomes, wondering what went wrong. Or at least, that was how it used to work.
In recent times, demons had begun to track down places where a “phone” was likely to ring, and anyone looking for a chance to pop over into the Middle Realm would wait nearby, ready to grab a summons that suited them. Larger demons had first pick, naturally, but most preferred not to bother with weak summoners. It was insulting to make a pact with a cupboard witch, and so the majority of summons were answered by low demons.
Takashiael Shiroganeth was not a low demon.
However, the demon realm had neither moon nor sun and it was a bit hard to track the passing of time, and Shiroganeth had just realized he was very, very late.
A circle grew and brightened on the ground. A cluster of the lowest rabble took interest, fighting among themselves to determine who would go through the portal.
“Move, filth,” Shiroganeth hissed, barrelling past them. He stepped into the light without so much as scenting who might be on the other side and was gone.
Keith was a practiced summoner and came from a good pedigree of witches. He could have summoned a class 3 or even a class 4 demon if he really wanted to, but Coran’s Academy of Practical Witchery only allowed a class 1 summons for someone’s first bound familiar, and so that’s what Keith had prepared for.
The hulking beast that appeared in the center of his circle was not a 1st class demon. It towered over him--easily three feet taller than the human--with curving horns that nearly scraped the ceiling. Keith gaped up at it and said nothing. The demon frowned.
“You have summoned and I have answered, little master,” the demon said. “Were you only playing with circles or did you have need of my services?”
“Oh! I, um, I do need something, yes,” Keith stammered. “I’m not playing.”
The demon looked unimpressed.
Keith gathered his scattered wits as best he could and bowed. “I seek entry to a demon market,” he said. “What are your terms?”
It was among the most common requests a summoner might make. Inhabitants of the Middle Realm could enter a demon market without a demon, of course, but there were simply too many dangers--or imitation products--that they might not recognize without a demon guide present to warn them, so it was in the Middler’s best interest to have a familiar present.
The demon raised its eyebrows. Keith wondered faintly if the demon would hit him for his insolence--summoning a creature of its massive power just to go on a glorified shopping trip--but the demon simply nodded its acknowledgement of the request.
“I need to know the date,” it said.
Once again, Keith stared. What self-respecting demon would answer a summons just to find out the date ? The demon apparently realized the meaning behind Keith’s stare and it flicked its ear in annoyance as it scowled.
“I need to know the date,” it said slowly, like it was explain a simple concept to an exceptionally stupid person, “in order to make my request properly.”
Keith blushed a little and reached into his robe’s pocket, fished out his phone, and pulled up the calendar app. He would have just told the demon the day, but frankly a demon might be more interested in the star charts or moon cycles or pretty much anything other than the sun date, so he figured the complex app he used should show him sufficient data. He showed the demon the screen.
The demon leaned down and squinted at the screen, mumbling dates and years under its breath, calculating. After a minute, it stood back up.
“I need,” it announced, “to stay in the Middle Realm for the next forty or so years.”
Keith was flabbergasted. “ Forty years?”
“Give or take,” the demon shrugged.
Keith shook his head. This was not a deal he could make. He was not about to be bound to a single demon--let alone one of this calibre!--for the next forty years .
“Our terms are not equal,” he said. “The deal is not met.”
Hopefully, the demon would be willing to be bargain. Keith was already nineteen--he would like to get the name he needed as soon as possible, and even waiting a single week to make another summon was longer than he’d prefer.
“Very well. I wish to stay in the Middle Realm for twenty years.”
Keith winced. “I’m sorry, no.”
Holy shit those years were dropping fast. “What exactly is it you need?” Keith asked. A demon this powerful could stay without a host for several years if not longer. It did not need someone’s energy to feed on, so why make a deal at all if it only needed to be in the Middle Realm for ten years? Hells, a demon like this might have been able to bridge the realms all on its own.
The demon sighed. “I broke my hostbond the last time I was in the Middle Realm. I need to rectify it with the reincarnation of my host.”
And that made sense. A demon could break their terms with a host if they wished, but few chose to do so. The break would linger, pestering them, and eventually move from annoying to painful. Given enough time, even a powerful demon would wish to make amends.
“And you do not know exactly when they will be reborn,” Keith concluded.
The demon nodded again.
“How about this: I’ll be your host until you determine the reincarnation date of your original host, and after that you’re on your own,” Keith offered, “but, you do have to actively be trying to divine the date. No lingering for convenience.”
“The terms are acceptable,” the demon said with something close to a smile. “The deal is met.”
“The deal is met,” Keith agreed. He absolved the circle and the demon breathed deep, now fully in the Middle Realm. Its nose twitched.
“The air smells...odd,” it noted. It looked around the room. “No salt?”
Keith grimaced a little, embarrassed. “I was not expecting to need salt,” he admitted. A class 1 demon would have been a piece of cake for him, but yes, he’d been dumb enough to not take precautions.
The demon shrugged. “Wouldn’t have worked on me anyway.” It bowed its head in a tiny gesture of deference. “What may I call my host?”
“Keith,” the human responded. “And what may I call my familiar?”
“Keith,” the demon said, trying out the name. “Call me Shiro.”
The human--Keith--smelled nice. The drop of blood he used to make Shiro’s familiar collar smelled nice, too, and Shiro decided he was looking forward to feeding off him (not that he would need to, but it was within his right to ask, and yes, he would be asking).
Their ritual complete, Shiro followed Keith out of the summoning room and into the open great hall of the academy, where people promptly began yelling.
“What the fuck is that?!” a boy with tan skin and brown hair screamed, pointing at Shiro.
“Keith,” a large, darker skinned boy said cautiously, “are you in danger?”
“Holy shit it’s a class 9!” a small girl cried excited, holding some kind of glowing stone(?) tablet.
“Keith Kogane!” an elf with fiery hair and stylish moustache yelled. “What is the first rule of summoning familiars in this school?!”
“It was an accident,” Keith said sheepishly, “and I’m fine, Hunk. Thanks for asking.”
The only person who hadn’t spoken yet--a beautiful young elf woman with silver hair--placed her hand on the fiery man’s arm.
“It’s wearing a collar, Uncle Coran. They met terms,” she pointed out.
“Its name is Shiro,” Keith said. He gestured to the group. “Shiro, this is Lance, Hunk, Pidge, Professor Coran, and Allura. Guys, this is Shiro. He’s going to be my familiar for a month or so.”
“What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck,” Lance chanted under his breath.
“What kind of demon are you?” Pidge asked, adjusting the glass circles that adorned her face. “My readings aren’t coming through properly.”
“Pidge, don’t antagonize it,” Hunk hissed.
“They’re usually better behaved than this,” Keith apologized.
Shiro doubted it.
Keith had expected and prepared for a rabbit-sized demon. Looking at the massive creature before him, surveying his shocked classmates and twitching its tail, Keith had to admit to himself he had a problem. Coran’s Academy was well-respected but small. It only accepted a handful of students at a time, and the accommodations for them were quite reasonable. Keith had a tiny bathroom and bedroom to himself, and then a lounge and kitchen he shared with the other students, and there was no way this demon could fit on the little mat he’d set up for it. Hells, it might not fit in his bedroom, period. He doubted the other students would be okay with it sleeping on one of the lounge couches, either. Maybe he should sleep on the couch and let the demon make the most of his room. Damn. This was going to suck.
“I need to take Shiro shopping,” he announced. “You can interrogate him later.”
The demon’s eyebrows sprung up.
“Not the market--just thought you’d like some clothes,” Keith said. He wasn't mentally prepared to go to the demon market just yet, not when he was still overwhelmed by the fact that he’d apparently summoned a class 9 demon .
The demon glanced down at itself. There was only a loincloth covering whatever sort of genitals it had, and that was hardly up to modern modesty standards. Plus, it was intimidating enough with its heavily muscled chest and thighs bared to the world. Gods. Couple that with the claws, horns, and fangs and people would definitely be crossing to the far side of the street to avoid them. The least Keith could do was make sure his familiar was clothed .
“I am covered,” the demon said, pointing to its loincloth, “and I do not require armor.”
“Your nipples could poke my eye out,” Lance blurted before slapping his hands over his mouth.
Thank the gods, the demon only chuckled at that.
“I don’t know the last time you were summoned, but demons customarily wear clothes these days,” Allura said kindly.
“We do keep a few things on hand, but they’re all for things class 5 or smaller,” Professor Coran apologized. “I’m afraid you’ll have to venture forth in what you have on.”
“I don’t think anyone will stop them,” Hunk muttered.
The demon chuckled again and stretched. “Ready when you are, little master,” it said, smirking down at Keith, its voice suddenly smooth and dangerous. Its fangs were exposed, and Keith had the distinct impression the demon was showing them on purpose.
Keith looked up at it and tried not to let it show that he was rattled. He nodded briskly. “Follow me.”
The human stopped by his room to drop off his summoning robes. Under them he was wearing tight pants made of a rough material and a soft, short tunic. Shiro looked around the room curiously as the human folded the robes and grabbed a leather jacket. Shiro had to stoop to get into the room--not a surprise; humans were tiny--and decided it was pleasant but dull. The human had books on his shelves, a protective charm over the bed, and everything was tidy, but there were none of little items most humans used to decorate their homes, the baubles and keepsakes that somehow held value. Well, it was no matter to him how the human live.
(He did smirk at the pallet the human had placed by his bed, clearly intended for a much smaller demon.)
“Alright,” Keith said, slinging on his jacket. “Let’s find you something to wear.”
Shiro nodded and half-listened as the human gave a brief tour of the academy on their way outside.
“What’s with all the lightning magic?” Shiro interrupted. He could hear it humming in the walls. “Some kind of protective barrier?”
The human blinked stupidly, confused. “What lightning magic?”
“It’s all over the place,” Shiro said, gesturing vaguely. “In the walls and ceiling, mostly.”
“Oh, that’s just regular electricity,” Keith shrugged, continuing on. “Middlers can create it now. We guide it through wires and it powers buildings and lights and stuff.”
Now that was an advancement since Shiro’s last visit to the Middle Realm. Interesting. Keith, picking up on his curiosity, began trying to explain the various ways energy was generated and Shiro quickly lost interest. People didn’t use light charms indoors anymore. Got it.
The tour ended quickly and they stepped outside. Shiro swallowed back a gasp. Just how long had he been gone from the Middle Realm?! He struggled to calculate the years as he stared at the world around him, overwhelmed by the size of the buildings that towered in all directions. He’d never seen a human city this large before, not by a long shot. The roads were paved and broad and teeming with Middlers. Humans, elves, dwarves, and a myriad of magical beasts crowded past while hulking steel boxes roared through the center. Shiro’s ears went flat and he took a step back.
“What the hells,” he hissed.
“What? What’s wrong?” Keith asked. He looked around, searching for danger.
(As if there could possibly be anything more dangerous in the street than Shiro…!)
“Just not sure what those boxes are,” Shiro frowned. On second thought, with how fast they were going, they might be dangerous.
(But not more dangerous than Shiro.)
“Oh! Those are cars,” Keith said. He started walking and explained that these were some kind of animal-less cart that people used to transport things in. Shiro also learned about trains and subways as the human guided him down a large hole that was apparently the entryway to the subways. He was not a fan.
“Who designed these things?” Shiro grumbled as he stepped into the subway tram after Keith. It was cramped and the air somehow smelled both artificial and full of a thousand creatures. It was disorienting and Shiro had half a mind to claw his way out of the metal tube, reveal his wings, and fly to the nearest mountain just so he could fucking breath. The demon realm smelled better than this.
“Dwarves did, I think,” Keith said, not recognizing a rhetorical question. It was underground travel that used metal. Of course dwarves invented it.
Shiro snorted and tried to arrange his limps as tightly as possible. It wasn't a matter of him being polite and making room. Everyone in their particular compartment was giving them as wide a berth as they could, but in so small an area he preferred to stay crouched. It was hard to be battle-ready when he was stooped over.
Keith seemed to notice his quandary, but he said nothing. The closest he came to acknowledging Shiro’s discomfort was to remark “It’s nice having you here. Means other people give up their seats.”
“Pleasure to serve you,” Shiro sneered, showing his fangs. The human glanced away. Good. Shiro was not here to make friends.
His tail twitched irritably. There was something about the little human he didn’t like. He hadn’t been scared enough, for one, when faced with Shiro instead of whatever scrawny creature he’d been expecting. It was downright rude--in Shiro’s opinion--that he hadn’t so much as pissed himself. He wasn't cocky about it, either. He wasn't ignoring Shiro’s power or pretending like he could somehow control him. It was like he just didn’t care who or what Shiro was. Irritating. At least the other creatures were showing him proper respect.
The humans, elves, dwarves and other members of the upright races gave him careful glances from time to time, eyes lingering on his collar as if wanting to reassure themselves that he was still properly bound. The handful of demon familiars, on the other hand, absolutely refused to look in his direction. Wise. There was a class 4 that was probably used to being the top of the demonical food chain, and it snorted and flicked its ears occasionally which made Shiro smile. Small demons tended to do well in the Middle Realm and this one was suitably frustrated to be reminded that, back in their home realm, it was still worth nothing.
“Something funny?” his human asked, looking at him curiously.
Shiro stared at him blankly. Had he been laughing?
“You smiled,” Keith shrugged, looking away again.
Shiro considered not saying anything, but this was an opportunity to remind his little master who was the superior creature. “They’re afraid of me,” Shiro said.
His master snorted. “They should be,” he said. “You’re dangerous.”
“And I’m not dangerous to you?” Shiro said, raising an eyebrow meaningfully.
Keith shrugged again. “You’re not going to kill me.” He paused and frowned. “You could still maim me, though.”
Shiro was incised. Of course he could break his bond and kill the human! Their terms were weak and the witch’s powers were nowhere near his own!
“I could snap you like a twig with tip of my finger,” he growled.
“Could, but you won’t,” Keith said, unconcerned.
“I do not need your bond to stay here, little human,” Shiro snarled, temper nearly severed. “You would do well to remember that.”
“Look, I’m not trying to insult you. I know you’re way more powerful than I could ever hope to be; I just happen to know a snippet of my future, so I know you don’t kill me,” Keith said. He sounded annoyed, and Shiro was petty enough to be delighted that he’d gotten a reaction out of him.
“Oh?” Shiro asked. “And what do you know that guarantees it?”
“I know you don’t kill me, because I know who does,” the human said, and he stood up. “Come on. This is our stop.”
Keith hadn’t exactly lied. He didn’t know if the demon who would attack him on his next birthday was going to succeed in killing him and, come to think of it, he was not 100% that Shiro was not the very demon in question, but it was close enough to the truth and it made the demon stop growling, so he called it a win. He didn’t want them thrown out of a shop because his familiar was sulking and decided to cause a scene.
Gods. Somehow Keith wasn't surprised at all it had broken a bond before. Temperamental brat.
The demon’s mood improved once they left the subway. It stretched and looked up at the sky and nearly smiled, and Keith figured that was about as good as it would get. He wondered if the demon had felt claustrophobic underground. It had to bend pretty far over down there and, come to think of it, that was tantamount to bowing. For a demon that powerful, it was probably infuriating to spend so much time in a subservient position. Keith almost felt bad for it.
Shiro continued to stare suspiciously around it as they walked from the subway to the specialty clothing store. Keith gave up on explanations--the demon ignored him almost instantly. If it had could questions, it could bring them up itself. And, just before they made it to their destination, it did.
“Why aren’t there more wards? Most of these shops are unprotected.”
Not the question he would have expected.
“Waste of magic. Physical barriers keep most things out, and pretty much no one knows how to spot a fake ward. See that one over there?” Keith said, pointing to a small sigil painted above a doorway. “Fake. The one across the street is cool, though. That little side triangle makes it deactivate in sunlight, so the ward automatically works, but only at night. Pretty neat, huh?”
The demon looked between the two sigils. “Huh,” was all it said.
Keith tried not to sigh and started to walk again. The demon did not follow, so he stopped to turn around stare at it. It looked confused.
“What do you mean ‘waste of magic’?” Shiro asked. For some reason, he looked lost, like Keith had just told him breathing was a waste of air.
“Well, magic isn’t exactly infinite, and even after you cast a charm or ward it’s going to run out eventually. It’s just not practical to use magic all the time for everything. Plus, plenty of people can’t use magic,” Keith said. “Why pay someone else to make a ward for you when you can just put bars on your windows?” This was basic stuff. Well, it was for Middlers. Demons probably didn’t have to worry about running out of magical energy. Or shops in general.
“So...people who can’t recast wards themselves...just don’t use them?” the demon said slowly.
“Yup. And like I said--most people can’t spot fake wards from real ones, so a painted sigil is just as effective.” Keith cocked his head. “Not many species of Middlers can sense magic as easily as demons can, you know. Also, there’s residual magic all over the city just from people casting everyday spells. Sorting it out into particulars is hard, even for me, so it would be difficult to know if you’re sensing a ward or something else.”
Apparently content with that answer, the demon nodded and trotted dutifully to Keith’s side. Whatever.
They entered the specialty shop and were immediately greeted by a smartly dressed elf.
“Good afternoon sirs,” he said, bowing politely. He studied Shiro carefully. “Let me venture a little guess: yokai demon, class 8, no--class 9. We do have a few things in its size on site, and we can also custom order any style from our catalog to fit.”
Keith was vaguely annoyed the shopkeeper spoke to him, not Shiro. It’s not like Keith would be the one wearing the clothes (although, he would be the one paying for them, and perhaps that was the point).
“Before we begin, I will need to check your license, sir,” the elf continued. Keith bristled but dug for his wallet.
“You think I can’t have a class 9 in public?” he said stiffly as he pulled out his license and handed it over. Keith might be young, but he passed his licensing exam fair and square.
“Not at all, sir, but it is company policy that all familiars greater than class 4 be accompanied by their master. I simply need to check the license against its collar,” the elf said crisply.
Keith was thoroughly embarrassed and meekly gestured Shiro over so it could bend down and let the elf check the collar. Satisfied, the elf handed back the license and bowed again.
“Our larger stock is this way. Please follow me,” he said.
For its part, the demon looked merely amused (and perhaps a touch disinterested) as Keith was quickly overwhelmed with styles and fabrics. Most of the larger styles were for demons, and these were all heavily adorned with chains and buckles and leather. The few items designed for angels were practically dripping with lace and gauze, and the things for fae were garishly colored and coated with beads. Talk about following stereotypes.
“Do you have anything, uh, a little more simple?” Keith asked. He shot a glance to Shiro who had yet to show an inclination toward anything the shopkeeper presented (but then, perhaps the demon did not expect his opinion to matter).
“Ah, an eye for the trends?” the elf smiled. “It’s becoming popular to dress familiars in Middler clothing.” He bustled off to fetch things “from the back”.
“Anything catch your eye?” Keith asked Shiro, now that they were alone.
Surprised to be addressed, the demon rescanned the items. He picked up a flimsy, peacock patterned bikini top and held it up.
“Do you think this will protect your yelling friend from my nipples?” he asked.
Keith had to shove his hand over his mouth to stifle back laughter--especially since the elf returned just in time to overhear the question. He looked between them, professional smile slightly strained.
“Did you make a selection?” he asked.
“We would like to see the other items before deciding,” Keith said as neutrally as possible.
In the end, they selected a week’s worth of underwear, two pairs of jeans, and a handful of shirts. They did not have shoes that would fit the demon’s catlike feet, and it said it didn’t need them anyway. The total rang up to over $400, and Keith gamely handed over his card.
“Master? May I have a word?” Shiro said, interrupting the transaction.
Keith raised his eyebrows in surprise but agreed and they stepped away from the register.
“You are being vilely swindled by this creature,” the demon hissed in a low whisper. “Permission to remove his head.”
“What?! No, no you may not! Do not harm him at all ,” Keith hissed back. “Why do you think he’s cheating me?”
“The cloth is of high quality but there is no magic in it. There is nothing to justify the exorbitant fee,” the demon insisted. “Even exceptional armor should not cost a tenth the price.”
Ah. Someone didn’t know about inflation.
“It is expensive,” Keith said, “but I can afford it. Things cost a lot more than you’re used to, I bet, but people also make more money. A loaf of bread is like five dollars, but that’s less than what people make in an hour.”
The demon’s eyebrows shot up so high they nearly left his head, but he nodded his understanding and gestured for Keith to continue the transaction. The shopkeeper loaded the purchases into bags and Keith passed them to Shiro who took them without complaint. He did not, however, wear them yet. They had been stiffly informed that “fresh” familiars (those who had not yet been washed after leaving their realms) were not allowed to try on clothes. Keith hoped they fit. He’d certainly paid enough for them.
Once outside, Keith considered how they should head back to the academy. He appreciated the demon looking out for him in regards to the price of the clothes (although it was probably just insulted that someone would try to swindle his master while he was present), and he felt sorry for it. It would no doubt hate riding the subway while weighed down by the bags. It would also probably hate being crammed into a car. Well, there was enough time in his day that he didn’t mind taking the long way back.
“Want to go for a walk?” he asked.
Shiro considered flying back to the academy, but based on the matter of the licensing, he suspected he was not allowed to be without his master and he had no desire to scoop up the kid and the bags, so he agreed to walking. Gods. The Middlers sure knew how to make shit complicated. He mentioned it to Keith, who snorted.
“You’re telling me. If someone is capable of summoning a high class demon, they sure as hell don’t need an exam and piece of plastic to prove it first. I had to pay for that license, too, and I’ll have to pay again when I get it renewed. I think it’s so they can track summoners and keep tabs on them. It’s all bullshit.”
“Pay who?” Shiro frowned. Were Middler kings taxing summons?
“The government,” Keith shrugged. “Something about keeping the population of familiars to ‘manageable levels’. There’s a lot more Middle Realm people than there used to be, and I guess they don’t want to double the population with tons of summonings. It kinda makes sense, but it’s also stupid.”
Well, that was one way to phrase it.
They walked in silence and Shiro turned his attention once again to the changed world around him, searching for similarities between the Middle Realm in his memories and the one he saw in the present. Mostly what he noticed was the way people walked--everyone was more arrogant. They had a healthy respect for him, of course, but there wasn't the beaten down look he used to see. The people around him all had an air of self-assured importance, like no one would challenge their right to walk through town without a fight and with their possessions in tact. No one kept their eyes entirely on the ground; no one tried to hunch in on themselves in an effort to be as invisible as possible. Well, no one but the familiars.
He only saw two angelic familiars and a small handful of fae and, as he would have expected, these were treated with modest deference. The demon familiars, on the other hand…. These were snapped at or whistled for like they were undesired pets, and he saw a small imp get kicked for not moving fast enough. He frowned. Shiro had kicked at his share of imps, but he never would have hit something he was in a bond with. There was an agreed upon exchange, and for the duration of the bond, they were more or less equals. Plus, most of these imps could do significant physical harm to their masters if they were free. He growled quietly. Cowards.
His own master cocked his head at the growl and looked at him out of the corner of his eye but said nothing. Shiro was glad. He didn’t know how to explain his frustration. It wasn't like he cared about his fellow demons. They’d be receiving the same or worse treatment in their home realm and it’s not like a class 3 had earned a right to respect. But, there used to be a hierarchy among the natives of the Middle Realm. It had never been as distinct as the one in the demon realm, of course, but a poor man would never presume to step in front of a wealthy one. A lady would be acknowledged by a gentleman. It was almost as if everyone was equal. Shiro had no idea how to operate in a realm of equals.
“What’s wrong?” Keith asked.
(Of course he ended up asking him anyway.)
Shiro settled on a less nuanced approach to his confusion. “Are there not any peasants here?” Shiro asked. “No one is bowing to anyone.”
“You must not have been here for a long time,” Keith said, but there was no judgment in it. “People don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”
“So...how are classes distinguished?” Shiro asked. Surely Middlers still had some class hierarchy.
“There aren’t classes, or there aren’t lords and dukes and all that. Well, I mean there are in some countries,” Keith said, frowning slightly. “But people are treated equally there, regardless. Everyone is equal now.” He smiled a little at him, like he’d shared something he was proud of.
Shiro was flabbergasted.
“How in the hells do you function?” he said. “Who is in charge?”
“We elect our representatives for our government,” Keith explained.
That sounded horrible, choosing your masters like that. If everyone voted for someone awful, you’d be stuck. Absolutely terrible. Demons could overthrow anyone if they were strong enough and no one questioned it.
“Sounds horrible,” Shiro said, wrinkling his nose and folding his ears back.
“But this way we don’t get stuck with a tyrant,” Keith pointed out. “It protects people from being ruled by someone who is strong but cruel.”
“Hmm,” Shiro grumbled. He watched as a tiny dragon scurried past and was shouted at by a dwarf who had nearly tripped over it. In his opinion, the dragon should have bit the dwarf, but instead the scaley beast squirmed down a drain and was gone.
“Everyone is equal,” Keith repeated, smiling encouragingly.
“Equally disrespected,” Shiro muttered.
The human snickered in amusement and gave him a friendly look, like Shiro had told a joke, and the demon decided to drop the conversation. If he couldn’t understand Middlers, then Middlers probably couldn’t understand him.
Keith was once again faced with the issue of the demon’s size. They had made it back to the academy, and he would have preferred to let the demon change right away, but how in the hells could it fit in a shower?
“I guess you could...hose off in the backyard?” Keith offered with a grimace. It was that or a sponge bath in the main kitchen.
Shiro shrugged. Damn, that demon was indifferent to pretty much everything, but at least it wasn't offended.
Keith lead it back to his room where they dropped off the majority of the clothes and Keith loaded up with soap, shampoo, and towels. From there he took the two of them to the back courtyard of the academy and out to a little shed next to the greenhouse.
“There’s probably more hoses around somewhere but I knew there was one here, so…,” Keith trailed off. The demon had already dropped his new clothes on the grass and was in the process of pulling off its loincloth.
Holy shit. That was the biggest dick he’d ever seen, and holy fucking fuckity fuck, turns out his demon wasn't smooth under there after all. It was the norm for demons not to have genitals unless they were planning on using them in the near future, and Keith suddenly realized Shiro might be expecting those types of feedings.
If Shiro noticed him staring, he didn’t comment, for which Keith was immensely grateful. He swallowed twice before turning on his heel.
“I’ll be inside when you’re done,” he squeaked, and beat a hasty retreat to the academy. All but slamming the door shut, Keith sagged against it and let a long, slow breath.
“So what’s the verdict?” Lance asked, making Keith jump. The entirety of the small school clustered around him--minus Pidge, who was peeking through the blinds for a glimpse of the demon. Keith sprang up and yanked the blinds closed.
“You are not ready to see what he’s got down there,” Keith hissed.
“Oh geez, so it’s definitely a dude?” Hunk asked.
“Rude,” Lance said, smacking the back of Hunk’s head (like he wouldn’t have asked the same question if someone else hadn’t).
“Yeah, it’s a guy, or uh, whatever it wants to be called,” Keith said, rubbed at his forehead. He was going to get a headache; he just knew it.
“The important thing is not his or its gender,” Professor Coran said primly, “but if it intends to kill us all.”
(If he intends to kill us all , Keith thought wearily.)
“We came to terms,” Keith said. “He’s friendly enough and hasn’t been aggressive once.”
(Except in the subway when he thought I didn’t respect him and then again when he wanted to kill the shopkeeper for disrespecting me.)
“No offense, but that’s not really reassuring, dude,” Hunk said. “He’s only been here a few hours.”
“If you pay him proper respect, everything will be fine,” Keith insisted.
“Because you have soooo much experience hanging out with class 9 demons,” Lance said, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes. He turned to Professor Coran. “Are you kicking Keith out?”
Oh shit. Keith hadn’t even considered that.
“Well no, not yet anyway,” Professor Coran said, stroking his mustache contemplatively. “Summoning a class 9 demon is a huge violation of school policy, but considering that’s far beyond Keith’s capabilities, I think it’s fair to say there’s something bigger at play. What were his terms?”
“You know I can’t tell you that,” Keith said, frowning. It wasn't fair of them to ask. It was a part of every contract that summoners and familiars kept their terms secret unless given explicit permission to the contrary.
“I think exceptions might be made when your fellow classmates’ lives are at stake,” the elf said reasonably.
“I’m not going to risk my contract less than a day after making it!” Keith cried in disbelief. Shiro would be in his rights to drop his end of the bargain if Keith divulged that information. “And I’m not going to waste a week until my next summon,” he added, defiant. Technically, Keith could attempt a summon as often as he liked, but it took a lot of energy to do it, and one of the academy’s rules was a seven day waiting period between attempts for younger students. It was a standard protective measure, and if there was one thing Coran was never willing to compromise, it was student safety.
“I know your situation is delicate,” Coran said, “but consider the consequences. Also, consider that your demon shouldn’t be here in the first place. What makes you certain you can trust him?”
Keith hesitated. To be honest, he had no fucking clue.
“Um, well, his terms were pretty reasonable, and they’re kinda time sensitive…?” Keith offered.
“My terms were for staying in the Middle Realm until I divine the date of a Middler’s reincarnation. After I learn that, our contract is ended,” Shiro said as he opened the door. “It won’t take me long.”
The Middlers all jumped in surprise, simultaneously realizing the demon had probably been eavesdropping for a longtime. Keith was shocked the demon had given up the information so readily. It was of no benefit to the demon that the academy know their terms.
“Well, ahem,” Coran said, gathering himself. “That is excellent to hear.”
Keith could tell he wasn't fully placated. After all, a class 9 demon should be able to determine a reincarnation date no matter what realm they were on. Sure, it would be easier to be in the correct realm, but still.
Shiro turned back to Keith.
“We all done here?” the demon asked, bending over slightly as he twisted his still-wet hair to wring it out, water dripping on the floor. Everyone looked at the puddle and quietly decided not to make an issue of it.
“Ah, almost,” Coran said. “There is the matter of, um, of how you got here.” The elf steepled his fingers. “Our Keith is an excellent, careful summoner--” (Shiro made a noise in the back of his throat that Keith fucking knew was amusement about his lack of salt around the circle) “--and thus it is--how to phrase it?--surprising that a circle set for a class 1 would become occupied by a class 9. Can you shed some light on the situation for us?”
The demon huffed an amused chuckled as he carded his fingers through his long, wet hair. “You seem to be under the impression that ‘your Keith’ summoned me. He didn’t. He summoned an imp and I intercepted because I wanted to.”
“But how can you be here?” Keith pressed cautiously. “I know I shouldn’t be able to summon a demon like you in the first place, and a class 9 demon shouldn’t be able to fit through the portal I made. What does it mean that you ‘intercepted’ my summons? From my perspective, it’s not just that I’m not powerful enough to summon you--there wasn't an opportunity for you to come, period.”
Summoning an imp was relatively safe for no other reason than that a tiny portal excluded the possibility of larger classes making it in. A class 9, for lack of a better explanation, would get “stuck” if it tried. Making a hole in the realms for a creature to slip through was difficult work, but at least if you only opened a pinhole, you wouldn’t allow anything dangerous to come through from the other side.
Shiro leaned forward, all grinning fangs and gleaming eyes. “You think I can’t yank a door wider when you open it a crack?”
Keith’s eyebrows sprang up and he looked to his professor. Coran showed similar surprise on his face, but then an understanding settled in place, and he began to theorize excitedly about certain passages from the diary of the sorcerer of Alzihk’lar.
“It explains the sieve metaphor!” he said, turning to Pidge. “A wider door to let in multiple imps in a single summon--”
“--while still keeping out higher classes!” Pidge cried.
Shiro looked nonplussed, possibly disappointed his intimidation tactic had been met with academic delight. Keith pressed back the impulse to grin.
“C’mon,” Keith said, gesturing for Shiro to follow, “I think we’re free to go.”
Given the strain of a summoning, the emotional stress of the subsequent arrival of a class 9 demon, and the long walk Keith had taken, he was more than a little eager to turn in early. He was, however, ridiculously hungry, so he went to the shared students’ kitchen, Shiro obediently trailing behind him.
Keith ended up microwaving leftovers--too tired to bother with making anything fresh--and while Shiro expressed interested in the microwave, he declined offers of food.
“That’s not what I eat in this realm,” Shiro said, eyebrows raised meaningfully.
“I know you don’t need it, but some demons like it,” Keith said with a shrugging, hoping he came off as casual. Truthfully, he was terrified by the thought of feeding Shiro. He was more than prepared to offer his energy, but for an imp that would just mean brief physical touch, such as stroking their back a few times while focusing. Under no circumstances had Keith considered that the demon he summoned might feed as an incubus, and so yeah--mildly terrified.
Keith snuck furtive glances at the demon as he ate. Shiro was muscled perfection and his face was stunningly handsome, but it was hard for Keith to wrap his mind around him as a viable sexual partner. Demons and angels spent so much time as sexless beings that Keith--and many Middlers--judged their attractiveness the same way someone would admire a beautiful statue: distantly and without lust. Shiro was a gorgeous (and deadly) piece of art, nothing more.
“Everything okay?” the demon asked, stretching. “You keep staring.”
“Oh, uh, just wondering if your clothes are comfortable,” Keith said. “They look...tight.”
Shiro looked down at himself. “Are they not supposed to be?”
To be honest, no. If Keith were to think about Shiro as a sex partner (which he was desperately trying not to), then the clothes were downright obscene. His pants were practically painted on and they did nothing to hide his generous bulge. His shirt was stretched to the point of straining over his chest, and the points of his nipples were clearly visible. Keith had the wild thought that Shiro had looked more chaste when he was in his loincloth.
“If you like them, that’s fine,” Keith said, looking away quickly. He had definitely been staring.
“Don’t really like how it feels to something around the base of my tail, but I’ll get used to it,” Shiro said, shifting in his chair. “The rest is fine.”
(Hella fine , Keith’s mind suggested.)
(Shut up , Keith suggested back.)
“That’s good then,” Keith said, shoveling food in his mouth.
Shiro studied him for a moment. “You’re nervous,” he announced, cocking his head.
“Today’s been crazy,” Keith said, stabbing at his food with perhaps too much force.
The demon chuckled. “You’re handling it well.”
Keith could not decide if that was sarcasm, but he elected against clarifying.
Shiro continued to study and then, to Keith’s surprise, he dropped one large hand onto Keith’s head for a gentle pat. “Don’t stress about feeding me, little master. I know you’re tired, and I don’t need it anyway.”
Keith’s cheeks tinged pink with embarrassment. He’d been caught. He nodded gratefully and said nothing, keeping his attention on his nearly empty plate.
“Yeah, I think I’m gonna go to bed after this,” he said. “Did you want to sleep…? You can take my room and I’ll sleep on a couch, or--”
Shiro’s chuckle interrupted him. “I haven’t slept in years. You rest up and don’t worry about me. I’ll stay on the property.”
Keith let out a sigh of relief without meaning to. He couldn’t believe how considerate a class 9 demon was being to him, especially since Shiro had spent the first part of the day fairly annoyed.
“Thank you,” Keith said sincerely. “I’m gonna go sleep now. See you tomorrow.”
“Sleep well,” Shiro said, a little smile on the demon’s lips.
Despite his size, Shiro could move silently when he wished, and he was able to avoid the other occupants of the academy as he made his way back outside. He pulled off his shirt, stretched, and let out his wings, flapping them twice before rising into the air and settling on the academy’s roof. It was shaping up to be a pleasant evening, the air cool and the breeze calm.
Shiro tilted back his head, closed his eyes, and sighed as he breathed deep. The city did not stink, exactly, but it was filled to the brim with scents and that was frustrating. He focused instead on the hum of magic, evaluating the safety of the academy. Passable.
The demon watched the city turn to night. It was darker now than during the day--a blessing for his poor eyes that had spent hundreds of years in the relative dark of the demonic realm--but the city was still peppered with artificial light. It was probably beautiful. Shiro didn’t like it.
The Middle Realm he saw before him meshed poorly with his memories. He remembered Middlers bedding down quietly for the night to the sounds of distant forest beasts and chirping crickets. Now he heard the screeching and honking of cars and some kind of false music that resembled nothing he’d encountered in any realm. It was abrasive, and he flattened his ears.
No demon could truly love the Middle Realm more than their own, not with its harsh sun and watchful moons. But, Shiro had enjoyed his last visit. He’d expected to enjoy this one. Instead, he was confused.
Shiro had once overheard a few demons talking about the advancements in magic in the Middle Realm. The comments had been derisive, suggesting that Middlers had gotten lazy and unskilled. Shiro now suspected that this was unfair--the problem felt larger than that. The magic he sensed was less skillfully woven to be sure, but there was also less of it in general. Of course, if no one ever needed to learn a light charm because their house already lit up on its own, it made sense that fewer people would bother cultivating skills. But, it felt more like there was a lack of magic to begin with. It felt like a drought.
Keith had spoken of residual magic like it was a distraction. That was made no sense. Sure, lots of people casting spells in the same area would leave a bit of an echo or ripple effect, but there should always be some residual magic, period. The earth created it. Once upon a time, the realm itself would renew a ward, but that time had clearly passed. Maybe, since Middlers no longer needed as much magic, they had let the leylines go unused, let them get clogged and polluted and dry up. It made him sad. The Middle Realm’s soft, thin layer of base magic had always felt nice. It has also been damn useful.
Shiro blew out his breath in another sigh. Well, he hadn’t come to the Middle Realm to have a vacation, and while he didn’t think he’d enjoy the realm itself, he did like his new hostbond. Keith was a curious creature. He seemed competent enough and while his sense of hierarchy was confusing, Shiro could tell he was honorable. He’d kept his silence over their terms, after all, even when all the other Middlers had pushed him. He also checked with Shiro regarding his comfort even over inconsequential matters. It was...polite. Not pandering, just polite.
(It didn’t hurt that he smelled good. Great, even.)
Yes, Keith was a nice kid--nice enough that Shiro almost felt for having lied about his former hostbond.