“There’s too much going on around here,” Shy said. “You should just leave before you get caught up in anything else.”
After being jailed and almost eaten by fairies, not to mention the numerous demon encounters, Mira was more than good with that idea. “Where do I go though?” she asked.
“Elerak is heading south, so the opposite direction seems like a good start.”
“What’s an Elerak?”
“Fire demon,” Shy said. “Big one. Very old. Your best bet is to stay out of his way. It’s rare for him to venture into places like this though. He likes wide open spaces.”
The sound of cracking trees being forced apart and echoing stomps still filtered through the forest. Mira still didn’t know how big the demon was, and she didn’t want to find out.
“So north then?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes.” Shy stared off into the forest. “Sorry. I was lost in thought. Your best chance to stay out of trouble is to go to Palveral. It’s a trading city on the river, big crowd for you to hide in. It shouldn’t be hard to find work there.”
“Uh, I don’t know if you know this, but my skill set isn’t exactly applicable on this world.”
“I’m fairly certain you can take orders, lift things, and clean.”
Mira wanted to argue, but when she opened her mouth, Shy just glared at her. “Good,” Shy said. “Now, as annoying as it’s going to be, I think I’d better walk with you at least part of the ways. You’re probably the most unlucky person I’ve ever met, and I’m sure if I’m not there to keep an eye on you, you’ll fall into a hole and break your neck.”
“Hell, at this point I’m just happy to have shoes again.” Mira arced her back and winced in pain. She rubbed a hand across her chest and added, “A bra would be nice too. Something with a lot of elasticity.”
Shy blinked at her. “Didn’t you see the wrap I left in the pack for you?”
“The wrap in the… oh! Is that what that’s for? Oh my God, I’m dumb.”
Shy turned away and shook her head. “No argument there.”
After Mira had bound her chest into something resembling support and pulled her shirt back down, the two of them walked on. For Mira, it was a miserable experience. She was tired and the adrenaline had long since worn off, not to mention it was dark. Attempting to follow Shy was an exercise in futility. The other woman was so slender that she slid through places Mira had to push and fight to break through.
“Ok, I need another break,” she said, panting, an hour later.
Shy didn’t look back. “We’re not safe here.” She stopped and thought about that, then added, “Well, you’re not safe here. I’m fine.”
Mira muttered a few choice words under her breath that if Shy heard, she pretended not to. Then she hitched the pack farther up on her back and trudged on. It was getting closer to dawn anyway, close enough that the shadows around her were starting to separate into individual trees.
When Shy finally let her stop, Mira flopped down on the ground, punched the pack into something resembling a pillow, and passed out without even bothering to kick off her boots.
* * *
“I should have known the two of you would be together. Was that how it was then? One working the demons on the outside, the other taking down the town from behind the walls?”
“You’re as slow as you’ve always been, Kull. I’m sure you’ll get your answers eventually, long after knowing could make any difference.”
Mira came awake slowly. The voices at first sounded like part of a dream, but as her eyes opened, she saw men standing all around her. The only one she recognized was the mercenary from Vinmarch, Kull. The rest were dressed in more or less the same uniforms, so she assumed they worked for him.
Shy stood between Mira and the men. Kull towered over her, easily a foot taller and more than a hundred pounds heavier. If Shy was afraid of him though, she didn’t show it. Somehow, Mira doubted it was an act.
“You have no idea how many years I’ve been waiting to catch up to you,” he said. “Waiting for you to slip up. Waiting for you to be just a little bit too slow getting out. And now you have. And here I am.”
“You caught me,” Shy said dryly. “Congratulations. What are you going to do when you find out you don’t have the muscle to keep me?”
Kull laughed and hefted a mace in his hands. The handle was easily long enough to swing with both hands, and the head was the size of a bowling ball, complete with metal ridges circling it from various angles. It was the kind of weapon that would turn a rib cage into powder.
“You two, keep an eye on the new demon. The rest of you, with me on this one. Time to teach her a lesson she’ll remember for the rest of her very short life.”
Just from the set of Shy’s shoulders and the tilt of her head, Mira could picture her rolling her eyes. Then she held her hands out at her sides, and the tattoos covering her body ran down her skin like water. Creatures fell from her fingertips to grow to life sized before they hit the dirt.
A great, armor plated serpent reared up and lunged at one of Kull’s men. It was followed by something smaller with wiry black fur and long hooked claws. Another monster, this one sporting eight limbs on a slender body, skittered around to the side. Dozens of horrifying creatures appeared in the span of a second, and without warning, all of them attacked.
Shy herself looked oddly naked without the sleeves of tattoos covering her arms. Even as Mira thought that, a gauntlet of overlapping black metal plates, each one ridged and barbed, grew up her hand. Her fingers became metal claws, segmented at the joints. She held her hand up to the air and flexed it a few times before looking at Kull.
“Do you know what’s so fun about overkill?” Shy asked. She made a show of looking around at all the tattoos come to life before returning her gaze to Kull. “It’s the mess you get to make.”
Kull’s knuckles were white on the handle of his mace, but his eyes were cold, measured. Mira could practically hear him figuring out the odds, weighing them against his desire to kill Shy. Already his men were losing against her creations.
Decision made, he leaped forward, mace held overhead to bring down on Shy’s skull. With only her gauntleted hand, she grabbed the descending ball and jerked the weapon aside. Kull went with it, though he only staggered a single step before regaining his balance. Immediately, he came back in from the side, swinging the mace much like Mira would have swung a baseball bat.
Shy slapped that down too, again without any apparent effort. She stepped into the swing and brought her hand up into Kull’s stomach, where it made a wet schlupping sound. Kull grunted and a spurt of blood shot out between the two of them. Shy pushed him away with her free hand, and he dropped to his knees.
With both hands holding his gut and his weapon discarded to the side, Kull looked up at Shy. Hatred burned in his eyes, but his face was a mask of pain. He’d lost, and he knew it. More than that, every single one of his men was down and Shy’s monsters roamed the outside edge of the battle.
Mira took one look around and locked her eyes on her feet. That didn’t do anything to stop the smell of blood, or the pain-filled groans of the men who weren’t quite dead yet, but at least she didn’t have to see it.
Shy said something, but it was just noise to Mira. She wasn’t even sure if Shy was talking to her or to Kull. It didn’t matter. She needed to get away. Slowly, her eyes scrunched closed, Mira climbed to her feet and backed around the tree. She didn’t open them until she was on the other side.
She had barely taken her first step when the armor plated serpent slithered into view. It reared up in front of her, easily meeting her eye level. Mira tried to side step it, but it moved with her. Any attempt she made to circle around it was met with the serpent blocking her way.
Mira didn’t realize what it was doing until it was too late and coils of its body tightened around her legs. She went down in a heap and the serpent wrapped itself around her. Every movement bound it tighter to her, and she shivered as a chill from its body worked its way through her clothes.
The serpent’s face was inches from hers. Unlike a real snake, its mouth never opened to flick out a forked tongue, nor were its eyes smooth black orbs. Instead, they were narrow slits of yellow bisected vertically by jagged, black lines. Those eyes studied her with a malevolent intelligence. It wanted to hurt her. It just hadn’t decided how yet.
Mira slipped one hand free of its coils and lunged up at its head, just underneath the serpent’s jaw. It was thick around as her thigh, and there was no way she could hold it, but she might be able to stop it from coming down on her. Just before she made contact though, its whole body convulsed and jerked away.
The coils around her loosened, but not enough for Mira to slip free. Still, it was something to work with. For some reason, Shy’s monster didn’t want her touching it. With that in mind, she got her other hand up and tried to grab it. The serpent’s tail, armored and heavy, whipped around to crack against her shoulder, but Mira wasn’t giving up.
She took the battering and closed her hands on the serpent. Its body was so cold to the touch that pain radiated up through her fingers, but she didn’t let go. Instead she bore down it so that it was her weight holding the serpent pinned to the forest floor. It flailed about, more than once throwing her into the air, but Mira refused to let go.
Then it went still. Its skin turned from metallic blue to inky black, and it started to dissolve. It didn’t just seep into the floor though. Instead, the ink curled up around Mira’s fingers and wrapped itself around her arm. A strangled sob of pain burst forth from between her lips as the design worked itself across her skin. It was like thousands of impossibly fine needles had stabbed her all at once in a sensation so intensely powerful that Mira lost track of the world around her for a moment.
Then the pain was gone and a tattoo of the same serpent she’d been grappling with was twined around her forearm. As she looked down on it, it shifted slightly and sent a new tingle of pain across her skin. Once it was settled into place, the serpent’s eyes, now the same blue as Mira’s own, closed.
“Well, that’s interesting,” Shy said from behind Mira.
Mira flinched and jerked her head around. “I… I didn’t… I don’t know…”
Shy squatted down next to her and grabbed her arm. “Looks like it’s right at home too, doesn’t it?” she said. Mira looked down at her arm to see blood on it from where Shy had grabbed her, blood that had undoubtedly come from the man she’d killed.
Shy herself was covered in tattoos again. It was impossible to tell if they’d all returned to the same place under all the blood, and many of them were still shifting on her arms. Occasionally one would force its way through the cluster, causing the rest to bunch together to give it room.
“I bet it hurt like hell to absorb him,” Shy remarked. “Well, nothing to be done for it now. You’ve earned it and paid the price.”
Shy held a hand out for Mira to take, the one that wasn’t stained with blood, and pulled her to her feet. Wordlessly, they left the scene of carnage behind.
* * *
“I suppose some explanations are in order,” Shy said from the edge of the stream. She’d stripped down to the waist, revealing even more tattoos across her entire back, stomach, breasts and shoulders. The only bare spot was an oblong patch of skin on one side. When Shy saw Mira looking at it, she smirked. “Your new friend used to live there.”
Mira flushed and stammered out an apology, but Shy waved it away. “As I was saying, an explanation. I’m going to assume you know nothing at all about this world, including its history or its inhabitants.”
“Probably a safe assumption,” Mira said. She scrubbed the blood stains off her arm from where Shy had grabbed her and avoided looking at the other woman, who had dipped her arm up to the shoulder in the water. Shy washed splatters off her face and soaked her hair in the cold water, all without seeming to notice the temperature.
“Skipping over thousands of years of irrelevant history, there were once upon a time six clans of demon hunters. Each clan specialized in certain abilities that gave them advantages over different types of demons. One clan in particular, the Montrose, had the ability to steal demon magic and turn it back on their victims. Sound familiar?”
Shy finished washing out her hair, which hung wet just past her shoulders and looked much darker than its normal shade of brown. She looked over at Mira and laughed at the expression on the other woman’s face. “Yes, those would be your ancestors,” she said to Mira’s unspoken question.
“But that doesn’t make any sense. I’m not even from this world!”
“Neither were your parents, or their parents, or their parents’ parents. Some three hundred years ago or so, the patriarch of the Montrose clan managed to defeat the Demon King Ilrot and steal his heartstone. As you may or may not have guessed, losing a heartstone doesn’t actually kill a demon, especially the powerful ones.
“The other five clans wanted the Motrose to give up the heartstone, but they refused. So they were banished from our world to, one assumes, yours. If Jorath is right, you are the last surviving descendent of the Montrose clan.”
“Is that why he took me from my home?” Mira asked quietly.
Shy shrugged. “As far as I can tell, it’s the only thing special about you. I’d say that makes it a good guess, but I don’t know what he wants you for. It’s not like he needs help killing other demons. There are only a handful that are stronger than him.”
“And, if this is true, then I can take powers from demons.” Mira looked down at the serpent tattoo coiled around her arm and back up at Shy. “So you’re a demon too then.”
“Of course I am. Isn’t that obvious by now?”
“Right.” Mira nodded to herself. “So this Jorath guy used his power to bring me here. All I have to do then is find him and take that power for myself. Then I can go home.”