Demon Hunter: Birthright, Chap. 1

The first book in the Demon Hunter series drops May 1. You can pre-order it now.


1.

“Okay, folks, remember your hydrocarbon flow models are due on Tuesday, and next week is the midterm. Don’t plan on partying too hard this weekend.”

I closed my laptop and shoved it into my backpack as Dr. Vicenza continued with his exhortations.

“I know we’ve got a lot going on, but welcome to grad school. You think this is tough, wait until you get out there in the real world.”

The twelve of us groaned and nodded.

Dr. Vicenza flagged me down as I started to leave. “Jimmy?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think you’ll have the Chem 240 exams graded tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “I’ll get them done.” I still had about forty to go, but I didn’t want to tell him that.

“Great, thanks.”

I walked wearily out of the classroom and headed toward the stairs. I desperately wanted to head to the student union for a beer but I reminded myself, for what seemed like the hundredth time that fall, that I was no longer an undergraduate. I had forty exams to grade, plus that flow model to finish, as well as two chapters to read for my Energy and Process Efficiency class.

I walked across campus until I hit McKinley Boulevard and then went two more blocks up to my apartment. The sun was going down, and I wanted to get home before it got dark. Huntington College itself was nice and relatively safe – the school spent plenty of money to keep it that way – but the neighborhood around it was less so. I had so far managed to avoid getting robbed, but I knew people who hadn’t been so lucky. For the most part, it was a matter of not doing anything stupid, but since doing stupid things was part of the college experience, the local criminal contingent was happy to take advantage of that.

I lived alone in a little one-bedroom, which was fine because all I did now was study. I’d been in this building since my junior year, and most of my neighbors were undergraduates. That meant a fair number of loud parties and chaos, especially on the weekends. For whatever reason, the chaos had gotten worse over the past year or so, bad enough that there had actually been some deaths due to drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning. I learned to just stick my earbuds in and deal with it.

It was a Thursday, so I knew things would likely be loud tonight. Not as bad as Fridays, but the tradition at Huntington was to get the weekend started early. So I grabbed some leftover pizza out of my fridge and got started on the exams.

I took Chem 240 – Inorganic Chemistry I – with Dr. Vicenza when I was a sophomore, and between that and having majored in the subject, I was able to just go on autopilot with the exam key and power through them. By the time I finished the last one, it was about nine, and I had to take a break. I still had a lot of reading to do, but I had only one class and a lab section on Fridays, so I figured I could get caught up tomorrow.

There was a party going on across the hall. I knew Nathan and Kelly, the two guys who lived over there, so I decided to stick my head out and see what was going on. I grabbed a couple of beers, and when I opened my door, I saw three or four kids in the hallway and more of them inside the apartment.

I leaned in through the doorway. I didn’t see Nathan, but Kelly was in there with five or six other kids. He was a surfer with a big mop of curly blonde hair.

He saw me and waved me in. “Jimmy, dude, where you been?”

“Too much studying. Exams to grade.”

“Jimmy’s a TA,” he said to the Asian girl sitting next to him. “He gets to give out As for blowjobs.”

The rest of them laughed, but the girl looked over at me. “Is that true?”

I laughed. “Why?”

“What are you a TA for?”

“Chemistry.”

Her face fell. “Oh. I’m majoring in Economics. I need help.”

The rest of them laughed again. I set the beers down, and Kelly waved me over toward a bottle of Swedish vodka. I made myself a weak drink and sat down.

Nathan came out of the bedroom with a girl I’d seen around the building the past few months. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she had to be a cam girl or porn actress on the side, because she just radiated sex appeal in every direction.

She was about 5’6”, long blonde hair, firm tits like ripe grapefruits, and a taut waist leading down to a tight, athletic butt. She dressed to play up every bit of it, wearing short tops, booty shorts or tights or cut-offs that were short enough to expose her ass cheeks. I’d never talked to her, but she was way out of my league anyway.

I greeted Nathan, but he hardly seemed to notice me. The girl was hanging on him, whispering something. He laughed.

What she was doing with Nathan I had no idea, but they seemed to be on the verge of a hookup. They left the apartment without a glance at anyone else.

“Damn,” I said. “How’d Nathan end up with her?”

Kelly laughed. “I don’t know, man, she just showed up tonight with that bottle of vodka.”

“Do you know her?” the girl asked me.

“Seen her a few times, that’s it,” I said.

Another girl in the group spoke up. “Her name is Sabrina. I don’t think she lives in the building, but I’ve seen her around. She’s kind of a bitch.”

The rest of us nodded. She seemed like the type.

The Asian girl who needed help with her economics scooted over next to me. “Are there really TAs who do stuff like that?” she asked.

“I doubt it,” I said. “We’re not even supposed to date students in our sections. I had to sit through an hour-long training session on sexual harassment when I started as a TA, where they went over that kind of thing. Someone who got caught doing it would probably get expelled.”

She looked disappointed. “Oh, for sure, I get the harassment stuff, but what if they both wanted to work something out? If it was all consensual, I mean. Wouldn’t that be okay?”

I looked at her. “Do you really need that much help?”

“My parents are super strict, and there’s this one class I might get a B in.”

I rubbed my forehead briefly. “I wish I could help you, but I don’t know anything about economics.”

“I’m just wondering, if one of the students in your section suggested something like that, what would you do?”

I weighed my words carefully. “I have too many student loans to risk my tuition remission for a blowjob.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Thanks.”

I went back to my apartment about an hour later to get started on my reading. I tried to focus on the textbook, but I kept envisioning Sabrina’s tits in my mind. I knew I would never get to see them, but I could imagine them – perfect, gravity-defying orbs topped with ripe pink nipples. They had that look to them, like they needed no support despite the tight top she’d had on.

Ugh. I forced the fantasy out of my mind. I hadn’t gotten laid since the past summer, and the last thing I needed to be doing was distracting myself with a girl I had no chance with.

The next morning I dropped the graded exams off with Dr. Vicenza. Since I had no classes until late, I drove over to see my grandmother.

Grandma Amy was the only family I had left, and she lived in an assisted living facility about fifteen minutes away. Though I’d gotten full scholarships to a couple of good schools, I picked Huntington because it was the closest to home and we would still be able to see each other regularly.

I’d been with Grandma Amy pretty much my entire life, ever since my parents were killed in a car accident when I was four and she’d had to raise me alone. She’d never married and no longer had any contact with my grandfather, to the point that she never even talked about him. We didn’t have much beyond each other when I was a kid, but it was enough to get by. She was frugal to a fault, and I learned to make do with as little as possible.

For the most part, Grandma Amy gave me a good childhood. But she had a few odd fixations, like insisting I study Latin in high school and college. She’d studied it herself and told me over and over how it helped with all her other subjects. She was also the one who steered me into majoring in Chemistry, spending a large portion of my youth showing me a variety of little tricks and fun things to do with household chemicals. I found that I liked it, so I didn’t argue. Our meager financial situation meant I attended college on my scholarships and student loans, but with her lessons in frugality, I managed well enough.

Grandma Amy was in her eighties now, and only her long-term care insurance kept her off the street at this point, so I tried to visit her as often as I could. The facility was a nicer neighborhood a couple of exits up the freeway, a largely nondescript building little different from the apartment complexes around it. I found a parking space around the side and checked in at the front desk. The usual receptionist, an attractive brown-haired woman in her thirties named Rachel who sometimes flirted with me, was behind the desk.

“Hi, Jimmy. I think your grandmother is in the main living room with the other ladies,” she said.

“Thanks. Anything to report?”

Rachel smiled. “She hasn’t gotten into any arguments today.”

I found Grandma Amy sitting in the common room watching TV. She didn’t really have any friends here, but the other older women at this place knew me and greeted me as I came in.

I bent down and kissed her.

“Jimmy, you should be studying.”

“I was studying all night, Grandma. I wanted to see you. How are you feeling?”

“As shitty as always. I hate this fucking place, and you know it.”

The other women around us huffed and clucked at her language, but I was used to it. Grandma Amy could curse like a longshoreman when she wanted to, which was most of the time.

“Take me back to my room,” she said. “I’m sick of this fucking Fox News all the goddamned time. Only thing the dried-up biddies in this place want to watch. Bullshit, all of it!”

There was more snorting and huffing around us. I ignored it and helped her up. She took my arm and leaned on her walking stick. Unlike the other residents, she refused to use a walker or even an aluminum cane, insisting on an ancient oaken staff that was black with age and use. She’d had it as long as I could remember. There were engravings and markings all over it, but it was so old and worn now that little of it was easily legible.

It took us about five minutes of slow shuffling to get to her room on the third floor. I had asked for something lower, but the first-floor rooms were on a waiting list, and there were no other options right now.

When we got inside, I helped her over to her chair by the window, where she liked to sit and watch the neighborhood. There was an elementary school down the block, and she enjoyed watching the kids come and go.

“How is school going, Jimmy? Are you still enjoying things?”

“Well enough,” I said. “It’s a lot of work.”

“You’re still going to be a doctor?”

“That’s the plan, Grandma. A PhD. It will be four more years.”

She sighed slowly. “I hoped to see it, but I’m too fucking weak and sick.”

“You’ll make it. You have to.” I didn’t like it when she talked like this.

But she shook her head. “I know what time I have left. I’ve stretched it out as far as I can, but it’s done. The fucking bill is coming due.” She grunted and reached for her walking stick. “Help me with this.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“No-fucking-where. I need to open this.”

I handed her the stick. She reached for the top end and felt around for a moment or two.

“Twist this off,” she said. “Right here.” She extended it toward me.

I’d never noticed it, but when she pointed it out, I realized there was a faint seam in the wood. I twisted where she told me, but at first nothing happened.

“It’s stuck,” she said. “Haven’t opened it in twenty years, I think. Give it some fucking muscle, Jimmy.”

I tried again, and again nothing happened. I stood up and tried to brace myself against the floor. I squeezed as hard as I could and leaned into it. All of a sudden, with a loud squeak, the top six inches of the staff gave way and came off in my hand.

The part I twisted off was hollow, and something fell out of it, bouncing onto the carpet. I looked down and saw it was a key.

“Get that,” she said. “That’s it there.”

It was a long, oddly machined brass key. The patterns were far more complicated than any key I’d seen before. There was a number on the fob: 1406.

“That goes to a safe-deposit box. It’s time for me to pass on your inheritance.”

An unfamiliar thrill coursed through me. Had Grandma Amy been sitting on some money all this time? But she saw the look on my face and laughed.

“It’s nothing like you’re imagining. I’ve got no goddamned gold or jewelry to pass on to you. I wish. No, it’s just my legacy. I think you’re ready. You’re used to reading and studying, and you’ll need to do a lot of it with this.”

“What is it?”

“Some books,” she replied. “That’s all I’ll say. Too risky to say anything else. There are some fucking things never meant to be given voice to, Jimmy, and this is one of them. You take that key to my bank and show it to them. You’re on the account as someone who’s allowed to access it, if you’ve got the key. They’d better fucking let you in there.” She looked over at the clock on the wall. “You best go do it now, Jimmy. I don’t know how much time I have left, and if I fucking pass before you take possession, things may happen.”

“Grandma? What are you talking about?”

She waved away my question impatiently. “Go! You’ll understand when you see what’s in there.”

I knew from long experience there was no arguing with her when she got like this. So I kissed her goodbye and left.

Grandma Amy’s bank was about ten minutes away, back toward school. It was still mid-morning before the lunch rush, so there were only a few people inside. After waiting in line, one of the tellers waved me up.

“I need to access this safe-deposit box,” I said.

She took the key and looked it over. “I need your driver’s license and the account number.”

I gave her both, and after checking their records, she went to get the manager, a heavyset woman in her fifties. She led me back into the vault and found the box. It was one of the biggest in there – the door was about a foot square. She inserted her key and had me insert mine. It went in effortlessly, but the lock stuck at first. Grandma Amy hadn’t been kidding about not opening this thing in a long time.

Inside was a long steel box. The manager pulled it out and set it on a table in the center of the vault.

“Just come get me when you’re done.”

I nodded. Wondering what was going on, I opened the box. The rich, musty smell of leather and old paper rose into the air. Inside were five very old books. All of them were clearly hundreds of years old from the construction alone. I lifted them out one by one. The title of the first one caught my eye: Liber Officiorum Spirituum. Thanks to all the Latin I’d taken, I knew what that translated to “The Book of the Office of Spirits,” but I had no idea what that meant. The second one was entitled Liber Incantationum, Exorcismorum et Fascinationum Variarum. In English, that meant “The Book of Incantations, Exorcisms, and Various Enchantments.”

I suddenly wondered at the reason Grandma Amy had insisted on my learning Latin.

The third book was Clavicula Salomonis. “The Key of Solomon.” The fourth was entitled Picatrix. I couldn’t place the title, but the book was also written in Latin. The last was Liber Razielis Archangeli, or “The Book of Raziel the Angel.”

What the everliving fuck was all of this? Flipping through them, I could tell two things: All of them appeared to date to the 14th and 15th centuries, and all of them seemed to be works on magic, necromancy, and demonology.

This was my inheritance?

I wondered if the books were worth something. Maybe, but they weren’t in the greatest condition. The covers were cracked and water-damaged, and the pages were heavily dog-eared. In many places, I saw notes in the margins, which oddly enough were also in Latin.

This was just too much to absorb inside a bank vault. I gathered them all into my arms and called for the manager. She locked up the safe-deposit box, and I went back to my car.

By the time I got back to my apartment, I had to get to my Energy and Process Efficiency class. I had no time to look through the books for now, so I left them on my bed for later.

Huntington College had been around about 125 years, and the area around it used to be nicer, back when the city was younger and less urban. The campus looked more or less like it always had, about four square blocks of Ivy League dropped into a bustling California metropolis. The buildings were mostly brick, limestone, and a lot of neoclassical architecture, sitting within a greenbelt of oak trees and neatly manicured rose gardens, all of which made for a jarring contrast with the glass-box office buildings, strip malls, and warehouses that made up the surrounding neighborhood.

When I was walking back home after lunch, I saw several police cars in the parking lot of my apartment building. This was far from the first time the police had come to visit, so I didn’t think much of it until I got up to my floor. Several police officers stood outside Nathan and Kelly’s apartment.

The officer in the hall gave me a brief look but said nothing. I glanced inside, seeing a distraught Kelly talking to two other officers.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Do you know the kids who live here?”

“Yeah, for sure. Are they okay?”

“One of them was found dead down by the pool this morning. Probably a drug overdose, but we’re investigating.”

I fought some momentary vertigo. “Holy shit. Was it Nathan?”

“Yes. Did you happen to see anything?”

“I just saw him last night. They had a party. He went off with some girl.”

He nodded. “Do you know anything about her, where she lives?”

“Her name’s Sabrina, but that’s all I know. I’ve never talked to her. I don’t think she lives here, but I’ve seen her a few times before.”

“You witnessed him leaving the apartment with her?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

He nodded again. “Did he seem intoxicated to you? Did you see him taking anything, any kind of pills or other drugs?”

I knew Nathan vaped CBD – I had smelled it – but I’d never seen him using anything stronger than that.

“Not that night,” I said. “I just saw him leave. He seemed okay at the time.”

“You’ve seen him taking stuff before?”

“Just CBD. He vapes.”

There was a time I wouldn’t have repeated that to a cop, but now that things were legal here, it didn’t seem like a risk. And the cop just nodded yet again.

“Okay. If you remember anything else, please let us know.”


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