Chapter 7

“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.”

Chapter 6

“You know,” Mira said as she held up a navy blue shirt, “I was expecting something, I don’t know, evil and demonic.”

Shy had done a good job guessing Mira’s sizes. Both the shirt and the pants included in the pack fit, though the pair of soft leather boots were a size too big. It meant not stepping on any more rocks or branches though, so Mira wasn’t complaining. A loose strip of cloth about ten feet long and four inches wide was rolled up and stuffed inside one boot. Mira wasn’t sure what that was meant to be.

At the very bottom was a meal made of unidentified meat, dark greyish-brown bread, and some type of hide canteen filled with a sweet, syrupy liquid. None of it was the bacon cheeseburger she craved, but it was satisfying and filling, and that was something she hadn’t felt in the last week.

She spent the rest of the day foraging for food and mulling over what Shy had told her. Her own experience with the fairies supported the idea that they had indeed fed on her emotions, but only the negative ones. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to take the rest too.

The problem was Mira didn’t really know what that meant for her. If she lost the ability to generate those emotions, she might spend the rest of her life doing her best Spock impression. Or it might be a temporary thing, and not really that big a deal, especially if it meant getting back home.

In the end, it came down to who she trusted. Shy had helped her, but she’d flat out admitted she was doing it because a demon had ordered her too. That whole knife-turned-snake thing hadn’t exactly flagged her as on the side of the angels either. The way she talked, Mira thought Shy might be a demon herself.

The fairies, on the other hand, were obviously not human, but they hadn’t hurt her in any way, or frightened her. They’d promised to help with the one thing that really mattered. That was more than she’d gotten from anyone else.

Shortly after Mira had finished stuffing the pack with some sort of wild crab apple she’d found growing in an overrun grove, she spotted a curl of smoke in the open sky. She didn’t think much of it at first, but within an hour, smoke had started to go up in great billows.

From the crown of a maple that poked over the tops of the forest’s many pines, Mira watched a great creature force its way through the trees. Smoke trailed behind it, not that Mira needed it to mark its passage. The swaying boughs of trees being forced aside as the creature pushed its bulk between them was enough to keep track of its location.

Whatever it was, Mira never got a good look. The size and the fire had her picturing a dragon working its way through the forest, but she had no idea if the giant winged lizard of her imagination would be anything like the real thing, or even if dragons were a real thing in this world.

As dusk fell, she made her way back to the fairy glade. Soon enough, the fairy lights were all around here again, even thicker than last night. “You came back!” Pip shouted at he landed on her outstretched finger. Twenty or thirty other fairies landed next to him, so many that it was hard to keep track of his individual light.

“Well, yes. Your Queen told me to,” Mira said. “She’s supposed to help me find a way back home.”

“That must be why she wants to see you. We’re supposed to take you to her right away.”

Hope fluttered in Mira’s chest. It the Queen wanted to talk to her right away, that probably meant she’d found something. There was no reason to expect it to be good news though. For all Mira knew, the Queen’s answer might be that there was no solution.

The fairy lights around her faded a bit. Mira blinked at them, trying to determine if they were darker, or if they’d brightened and then dimmed back to their normal color. Shy’s warning came to her mind. She had to wonder if that surge of hope had really been tempered by cautiousness, or if the fairies had eaten that just like they’d taken her misery away the night before.

Fear twisted inside her gut, but only for a moment. That disappeared too, maybe eaten by the fairies, maybe not. Mira didn’t care either way. She straightened up and nodded to herself. “Ok, let’s go then.”

As before, Mira lost herself in a wall of fairy lights. When her head finally cleared, the glade had been replaced again by that world of soft glowing grass and leaves. The smell of lingering smoke in the air vanished. Mira took a deep breath, reminded herself what was at stake, and strode off to find the fairy Queen’s tree.

The Queen was waiting for her. She flew up in a graceful arc that ended with her hovering at face level. “You have returned,” she said, her voice melodic. “This is good. I have many things to share with you.”

Mira’s breath caught. “You found out how I can get home?”

“I did,” the Queen said. Before Mira could speak, she held up one of her small, delicate hands. “It is both good news and bad, and more bad than good, I’m afraid.”

“Why?” Mira asked.

“Simply put, your world is beyond my powers to reach. I can not help you travel there. The only one I know of who can is the one who brought you here. He is a powerful shadow demon named Jorath who works directly under the Demon King.”

Mira knew that already, more or less. She slumped down, dejected. The Queen reached out to caress her cheek and whispered, “I do have something that will help you escape the world you’ve found yourself stranded on though.”

“You do? But you just said…”

“No, it won’t get you back to your home, I’m afraid,” the Queen told her. “Come, follow me.”

She led Mira to a field of wild flowers. Even in the weird, glowing twilight of the fairy glade, Mira could see every color she had a name for and a hundred more she didn’t among those flowers. Some were long, slender stalks that came to her waist. Others were in clumps that barely touched her ankles.

Mira hesitated at the edge of the field, but the Queen beckoned her on. She did her best not to crush any of them as she walked to the center of the flowers. Once she was there, she gave the queen a questioning glance.

“Just lay down here. This won’t take long,” the fairy said.

“Um… ok. What are you doing, exactly?”

The Queen landed on Mira’s stomach. “We’re going to help you. You’ve had a traumatic week, and from the feel of it, not much has gone right in your life before these last few days either. Just relax. We’ll ease your suffering.”

“What does that mean?” Mira asked. Her eyelids were getting heavy all the sudden. It was hard to focus, hard to even stay awake. “Who is we, anyway?”

“The fairies, child. All of us.”

Through blurred vision, Mira saw lights descend down from the trees. They matched the hundreds of colors of flowers all around her, too many for her to even guess at. The fairies landed on her by the thousands. Their weight, slight that it was, pushed her down flat against the cool earth.

“What are you doing to me?” Mira asked. The onset of panic lent her awareness, but the Queen’s hypnotic spell threatened to put her back down.

“Taking it all away. All of your suffering and your pain will disappear.”

“What about my happiness? What about love and empathy and joy?”

“All of it,” the Queen said.

Mira fought to sit up, but the fairies had her pinned. It wasn’t their weight, though that was unbelievable considering how they were little more than puffs of light and glitter. It was their magic, their feeding, that held her immobile. The desire to fight back was literally being drained out of her.

“You’ll lay here for a time,” the Queen said. “Humans always do. No joy, but no sorrow either. Apathy will be your existence until you wither away and your body feeds our garden. I’m sorry, child, but this is the way it has to be. You have my thanks, and the thanks of all my many, many children, for returning to us tonight. It’s rare my entire family gets to feed at the same time.”

Mira knew she should fight back. She wanted to fight back. But she didn’t. Instead, she laid there and stared up at the unfamiliar sky full of stars that made constellations she didn’t recognize. In a way, the fairy Queen was right. There wasn’t really any point to anything. It wasn’t like she was going to somehow survive demons and whatever else lived on this strange new world.

Then the sky rippled. Flowers quivered and fairies were tossed into the air by the thousands. The Queen herself fluttered straight up and looked around. Anger surged into Mira. With a snarl, she stretched her hands out and started tearing flowers out of the ground. Great handfuls came free of the dirt, either broken at the stem or ripped out by the roots, and were flung into the air.

A chorus of fairies cried out and lights fell from the air to snuff out amidst the grass. Mira heaved herself into a sitting position and swatted the Queen out of the air. She didn’t stop after that to look back. With no idea where she was going or how she was going to escape, the only thing Mira had in mind was getting out of that field of flowers.

Fairies clung to her as she ran, but another ripple went through the world. Whatever that meant, Mira was grateful for them. Each time it happened, the fairies cried out in pain, and that was sweet music to her. Leaves shook and fell from the trees, and the glowing faded out a little bit.

Mira reached the Queen’s hollow and was just about past it when she caught something green out of the corner of her eye. The Queen hit the side of her face full on and sent Mira stumbling down to a knee.

“You!” the Queen screeched. “What have you done? Stop this before everything falls apart!”

Mira couldn’t help herself. The sight of a seven inch tall woman, face contorted in rage and naked but for the puffs of sparking light wrapped around her, was too much. She started laughing. “What makes you think I know anything about this? Obviously I don’t know anything or I would never have trusted you to begin with.”

“If not you, then what?”

Mira shrugged. “Beats me.”

“I wouldn’t be so casual about it, were I you,” the Queen spat out. “If our world dies, you’ll die here with it.”

“You were going to kill me anyway. At least this way, you’ll go with me.”

Hot pain blossomed across Mira’s face like she’d been slapped. Her head snapped to the side, first in one direction, then the other. “Wake up!” a voice called out to her from nowhere. “Damn you, stupid girl, wake up!”

Mira’s eyes snapped open to see Shy straddling her, one hand raised and ready to strike her again. When she saw Mira looking up at her, she lowered it and released her grip on the collar of Mira’s shirt.

“Thank the Dark Father. You idiot. I warned you about the fairies.”

“What did you do?” Mira asked, still dazed.

“I didn’t do anything except take advantage on Elerak’s passing. He must have stomped through a fairy grove and burned it down.”

“Who-”

“No time now, you stupid, stupid girl. The fairies are coming for you.”

Shy seized Mira’s arm and jerked her to her feet. The two of them fled the glade into the darkness, Mira stumbling over roots and slapped by branches. If Shy ever misstepped, Mira didn’t see it. She didn’t know how long they ran, only that not once did Shy ever relax her grip.

When they did finally stop, Mira’s breathing was ragged and it felt like someone had stabbed a knife into her side. She was sure she’d find new bruises from running without a sports bra, even though she only had a modest chest. Shy, on the other hand, wasn’t even breathing hard, and Mira noted with some spite that her breasts probably weren’t large enough to be a problem anyway.

“Do you think you can stay out of trouble for a single day without me holding your hand?” Shy snapped.

Mira wanted to snap back at Shy, but the simple truth was that she’d fucked up. She’d been warned about the fairies, and she’d went with them willingly, lured by their promises. In a way, the fairy Queen had even delivered, though the answer hadn’t been helpful. Certainly it wasn’t worth what she’d almost had to pay for it.

“I’m tired of wandering around in the dark,” Mira said quietly. “I didn’t ask for any of this. But I’m here. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know who to trust. I know that I don’t trust you. Why should I? You show up out of nowhere with these freaky magic powers, offer up cryptic remarks and warn me off of everyone, but who the hell are you? Why are you here? It’s not that I’m not grateful for the save, twice, but what’s in it for you?”

“It’s not a mystery,” Shy said. “I owed Jorath a favor. He’s collecting. He wants you alive and unharmed, for now. I don’t know what his future plans for you are, and I don’t care. I’m not your friend. I’m your babysitter. I do not care about you at all beyond you being alive and in one piece when he comes to get you.”

“So that’s it then? No ulterior motives?”

“Is there anything I could say or do to convince you? Believe me, if I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. You’re too ignorant of your own abilities to make even a token attempt at stopping me. I’m not here to hurt you though, unless Jorath decides to dispose of you. For now, I’m just stopping you from killing yourself with stupid decisions.”

“And when that changes?”

Shy shrugged. “Then you won’t be my problem. I’ll have paid back Jorath, and I’ll move on with my life. How many different ways do I have to say that you’re nothing but an obligation to me?”

“I just wanted to make sure I understood.” Mira’s voice was cold. “Now we’re clear. So, what do I do?”

Chapter 5

The sound of her own stomach growling woke Mira up sometime after dawn. That, more than anything else, served to show her how helpless she was. She had no food, was barefoot, lost, and probably surrounded by unseen demons. But she had a plan.

Roads didn’t just go into nowhere. If Vinmarch was at one end, there had to be somewhere else at the other. All she had to do was follow it until she found a place that didn’t want to jail her on sight. Maybe then she could finally get some answers.

Finding the road proved to be more difficult than she’d expected, but she did reach it eventually. It took her a few minutes to work out which direction she wanted to go in, but she was confident that she’d gotten it right. That was less of a comfort after the first four hours of walking.

Mira passed the rest of the day hungry, thirsty, and increasingly sore. There wasn’t another soul in sight for the entire journey, and night caught up with her before she found another town. Rather than stumble around in the dark, she used the last bit of twilight to scrounge up some unidentifiable berries and locate a small stream to drink from.

The berries were sour, but the water was clear and cold. They did a little to ease her hunger, but not much. What she really wanted was a bacon cheeseburger, but that didn’t seem likely to happen. Instead, she found a small glade and settled in for another cold night. For as much trouble as that cloak had caused her, she’d take it back in a heartbeat now.

She’d just started to doze off when a soft giggle came to her hears. Instantly, she was wide awake, pumped full of adrenaline. “Who’s there?” she demanded, coming to her feet.

More giggles filled the air, and dozens of soft pinpricks of blue, green, and yellow lights drifted up into the air. One of them flew at her face and landed on her nose. “You smell bad, human,” a small, piping voice informed her.

“What the…”

More lights landed in her hair and on her shoulders. “Someone needs a bath. You reek of demons.”

“That’s… not, I mean…” Mira took a deep breath. “I’m not a demon.”

The light that had landed on her nose bobbed up. “Well, yes, obviously you’re not a demon. But you smell bad enough to be one. Are you one of the humans from behind the big stone wall, the one that makes humans feel safe even though it doesn’t actually protect them?”

“No, I’m from somewhere else… somewhere I’d like to get home to.” Mira raised a hand and the light flitted over to perch on her finger. “My name is Mira. What’s yours?”

“Pipalistraleshar,” the light told her. “Humans just call me Pip though.”

“I can see why. That’s quite a name you’ve got there.”

Once Mira looked past Pip, she could see not just dozens, but hundreds or even thousands of little lights filling the glade. They flitted about, weaving around each other in dizzying patterns, breaking apart and reforming so fast that she couldn’t keep track of any individual one.

“What are they doing?” Mira wondered aloud.

“Playing, of course,” Pip said. “What else would we be doing?”

Mira laughed for what seemed like the first time in weeks. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. Am I keeping you from playing too?”

The light bobbed before settling back onto her hand. “Plenty of time to play. I like talking to humans, and we don’t get very many here.”

“Um, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m not from here,” Mira said. “What… what are you?”

“We’re fairies of course. What else could we be?”

Mira looked out again at the hundreds or thousands of lights. “Wow,” she said. “Fairies are real. And demons are real. Where the hell am I?”

“Oooh. Are you from another world?” Pip squeaked out. “Which one? Which one? I bet I’ve heard of it!”

“My world is called Earth,” Mira told him.

“Really? That’s dumb. Who names a world after dirt?” Pip stopped for a second. “Sorry, that was rude. Earth is a… um… fine name… I guess.”

“So this really isn’t home then,” Mira said to herself. It wasn’t exactly a huge surprise after everything that had happened. But it did open up a whole new set of problems, namely that no matter how far she walked, she wasn’t going to find something familiar. She wasn’t going to hitchhike a ride back home. Her cat was going to starve to death before anyone ever thought to check her apartment.

Mira frowned. Her cat… there was something there, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been important. What mattered to her was figuring out how to get back to her own world. She’d deal with getting home once she made it that far.

“How do I get back to Earth?” Mira asked.

“Who knows? How did you get here to begin with?”

“I don’t know. I woke up in the woods one morning. I can’t remember much about the night before.”

Pip fluttered up into the air and floated over to Mira’s eye level. Up close, she could see a human-shaped figure in the light, maybe the height of her thumbnail. He, at least Mira thought Pip was a he, looked like he was covered in fine, glowing glitter that poofed into the air with every movement.

“Lots of things steal memories away,” Pip said. “Even fairies, sometimes, when we don’t want our guests to know how to get to our homes after they’ve left.”

“So maybe the reason I can’t remember is because some…thing? I guess? Something took my memories of being taken here?”

“Sure,” Pip agreed. “Don’t know why, but it’s possible.”

Mira’s head whirled. She flopped down into a sitting position, making Pip squeak angrily and flutter up into the air. Dozens of other fairies that had been flying around her shot off in every direction with a chorus of scolding chitters. Mira put her head in her hands and felt hot tears on her fingers.

“Why is this happening to me?” she asked. “What did I do to deserve this?”

Sudden warmth blanked her, and she looked up to see hundreds of fairies landing all over her. Their lights flared up until she couldn’t make out individual fairies anymore. The anxiety and fear drained away, leaving Mira relaxed and calm. For the first time since she’d woken up naked in the woods, she felt clear-headed. She knew what the problem was now. It was time to find a solution.

“I need to find some way to get back to my own world. I don’t know how to do that. Any ideas, Pip?”

Pip bobbed in the air again. “You could ask the Queen. She knows lots more than us regular fairies.”

Mira’s eyebrows shot up and she stifled a laugh. “There’s actually a queen of fairies here?”

“Well, sure. There are lots of fairy queens. Some of them aren’t very nice, but ours is.”

“Ok, that’s a start then,” Mira said. “Can you take me to her? Do I need to do something special?”

More chittering came from the fairies all around her. Then they started circling her, more and more of them until she could see nothing but a blurred wall of colors rushing around her. Laughter filled her ears and she had to squeeze her eyes shut just to fight down sudden nausea.

Just as quickly as it had started, it was over. The wall of fairy light broke apart into a thousand little blobs of color and rushed away to reveal a world where literally every single leaf and blade of grass she could see glowed in the star light. The fairies rushed away from her, deeper into the forest.

Pip flew up near her face and said, “Come on, it’s this way. The others will let her know you’re coming, so you shouldn’t keep the Queen waiting.”

“Oh…ok. Just… give me a second,” Mira said, holding her stomach. “I’m trying not to throw up in your front yard.”

“Hurry! Hurry!”

“Ok, jeez. Let’s go.”

She walked for a few minutes amidst a swarm of fairy lights. At first, she worried about stepping on them, but she quickly realized that they would keep themselves out of her way. Hundreds of them landed on her, only to fly away again a few seconds later and have new ones take their places. They were warm, though not so much as they’d been when she’d cried.

She came to a tree with a hollow in it. Mira wasn’t sure what kind it was, but either way, it was enormous. Its bough was a hundred feet overhead, and she could see thousands upon thousands of lights winking through it. The fairies who’d accompanied her to the tree all took off to join them, one mass exodus of color and light and sound.

“Wait,” Mira said. “What do I do now?”

“Hold out your hand,” a new voice told her.

A figure had appeared in the hollow, one that was seven or eight inches tall. She would have been a giant compared to the other fairies, but to Mira that just meant it was large enough to make out some details. She was all graceful curves and elegance, with tiny tapered feet that trailed behind her as she glided through the air to land on Mira’s outstretched palm.

Her hair floated out behind her, forming a sparkling halo as it wafted back and forth. It was the Queen’s eyes, though, that were her most striking feature. They were otherworldly, misty and hypnotic. Meeting the Queen’s gaze was enough to make Mira’s mind go blank. Tension she hadn’t even realized she had drained out of her muscles.

“You are our visitor from another world?” the Queen asked.

Mira was so lost in the fairy’s eyes that she forgot to answer for a second. The question barely registered in her mind until the Queen blinked and broke the spell. “Oh, sorry. Yes, I guess I am,” Mira said.

The Queen said something else, but Mira was lost in her eyes again. “What was that?” she muttered absently. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear you.”

The Queen flew up into the air. “I will search for an answer for you,” she said. “My people will guide you back to where they found you, and bring you back to me tomorrow.”

Then the Queen kissed Mira’s forehead and flew back into the hollow of the tree. The trip back was a blur. By the time she came back to herself, she was already sitting in the glade, surrounded by tiny fairy lights. With a contented smile, Mira curled up in the grass and fell asleep.

* * *

She woke up just before first light, feeling warm and inexplicably happy. That feeling lasted until she rolled over and saw a pair of black leather boots three inches from her nose. With a yelp, Mira jerked backward and scrambled to her feet.

“Sleep well?” Shy asked.

Mira took a deliberate step backward. “What do you want?”

“I have a present for you.” Shy held out a pack. When Mira made no move to grab it, she gave it a jiggle and tossed it. “Here, take it.”

The pack thumped against Mira’s chest and fell to the ground, where she kicked it back at Shy. “I don’t want anything from you.”

“Oh, I’m hurt. And after my last present was so useful.”

Mira shuddered. “I don’t know what you are, but you’re bad news.”

Shy’s lips curled up into an evil grin. “Damn right I am, but right now, I’m on your side. You’re not going to get better help from anyone else.”

“And why would you want to help me? What’s in it for you?”

Shy laughed. “Now you’re worried about what someone else might want from you? It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? You’re lucky to have come back at all from your night with the fairies.”

“What? Why?”

“Oh you sad, foolish little girl. You’re so ignorant of the dangers of this world, yet so eager to rush headlong into them. Do you know what fairies eat, girl?”

Mira’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know. Fruit, berries? Maybe leaves or grass?”

Shy lifted a finger and pointed it at Mira. “You, girl. Fairies eat emotions, the stronger, the better. And you’ll thank them for doing it, right up until you forget how to talk. It’s a wonderful thing to forget all your troubles, to leave behind all the pain and sadness. No more heartache. No more stress. No more happiness. No more anything.”

That cast her encounter with the fairy Queen in a different light. Mira couldn’t even remember much of it, other than being contented and docile. “No,” she said, “I’ve still got plenty of emotions. For example, I’m both afraid of you and disgusted by you.”

“Both healthy, sensible reactions,” Shy said. “But the only reason you’re feeling good right now is because you have so much negative emotion that they had their fill. Do you think there’s enough left to survive a second night as their dinner?”

“I… I don’t believe you. They helped me. They said they’d find out how to get me home.”

Shy smirked. “They’re in over their heads. You’re not going home any time soon, probably not ever, but definitely not before Jorath’s done with you.”

“Who’s Jorath?”

“You might call him the source of all the misery in the last six months of your life. His method of traveling worlds is… taxing… on humans. You had to be prepared for it.” Shy smirked again and tapped a finger against the metal piercing through her lower lip. “I don’t know exactly what he did, but you can thank him for that cut on your wrist. Just imagine, one single person to blame all your problems on. How many humans are lucky enough to have that?”

Mira looked down at the thin line on her wrist, parallel to the veins. She didn’t think she’d tried to kill herself, but she couldn’t remember. It was possible that she had during that missing night. Or maybe she hadn’t just tried. For all she knew, she’d succeeded and was dead. If so, the afterlife certainly wasn’t anything like she’d pictured.

“I’ve got to be off now,” Shy said. She nudged the pack back toward Mira. “Enjoy my gifts. Have fun with the fairies, dear. Try not to lose your head.”

Chapter 4

Mira’s hand tightened on the handle of the knife behind her back. “Stay away from me,” she said. “I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t even be in here. Just stay back.”

The man held the lantern up between them so that its light was right in her eyes. She didn’t even see the first swing, just felt it smack into her hip and send her sprawling to the floor. The man raised the club up to hammer another blow on her, but she kicked out and connected with his knee.

“Damn it,” he snarled as he staggered. The lantern swung around wildly, throwing light and shadows around the room and disorienting Mira. She scrambled away from the man, the knife still clutched in her hand. He lunged forward and caught the back of her leg, then let go with a shout of pain when she twisted around and slashed his hand open.

“You little bitch! Where have you been hiding that, huh?” The club came down with each word, smacking her legs, back, and arms. Mira screamed and curled up with her arms covering her head, but the man didn’t seem to care what he hit, just so long as she was hurting.

He left her sobbing on the floor and set the lantern down. “Nice knife,” he said. “Want to tell me about it?”

“Go away,” Mira whimpered. “Leave me alone.”

“I don’t think so. I’ve got dead friends because of your kind. I figure a nice long slice off your skin for each one should be a good start to making me feel better. But maybe I’ll start with something else first.”

Mira heard cloth rustling and, when she looked up, the man was unlacing his trousers. She stared at him in shock, just long enough to register what he had in mind. It wasn’t enough for her to be locked in a cell when she’d done nothing wrong. It wasn’t enough to blame her for something she had no control over, something she didn’t even really know anything about. It wasn’t enough for this man to take out his frustrations by beating her. No, he wanted more.

With a primal scream, Mira leapt to her feet. Her hand closed around the lip of the piss bucket as she rose, and before the man could do more than look up, she swung it in a full arc to crash into his face. He spun in place and collapsed to the floor in a heap, covered in excrement and blood. Before he could react, Mira seized the knife and stabbed it down into the meat of his leg.

He roared and surged back up. Big hands clamped down on hers and they struggled for the knife. She kicked at his legs, and he hooked a foot behind hers to trip her. Instead of going down, she slammed into him and dragged the knife out of his grip. He caught her hair and spun her around to face him.

“You’re going to hurt,” he panted. “Going to bleed.”

Mira planted her feet in front of him and drove a knee up into his crotch with as much force as she could muster. The man let out a high-pitched moan of pain and his grip on her hair loosened. “Fuck you,” she said, slamming her knee into him again.

He hunched over, clearly in pain, but not so much that he couldn’t deliver a solid punch that knocked her off her feet. He advanced slowly, but nothing Mira had done, not even stabbing him, had done more than hurt and anger him. She wasn’t sure how else to stop him short of killing him, not that she honestly believed she could even if she wanted to.

Then the knife grew warm in her hand, the exact same warmth she’d felt when she’d taken that stone from the hunter demon’s chest. As it spread up her arm, she looked up at the man. The heat reached her chest, and her arm snapped forward to throw the knife. Instead of a gleaming arc of steel in the wavering light of the lantern, a black splotch of wet ink flew through the air.

Then a snake, lurid green and hooded, latched onto the man’s face and he screamed. His hands worked frantically to pull the snake free, but it sunk its fangs deeper into his cheek. Mira didn’t wait to find out what the man would do. She turned and ran for the door, out into the cold night air and freedom.

The blisters on her feet had healed, more or less. It stung to run barefoot, but not nearly enough to slow her down. She slipped into the night, dodging around houses and avoiding people, until she reached Vinmarch’s wall. Even that was unmanned. Whatever crisis had hit the town had apparently drained their manpower. The gate was closed, but it wasn’t hard to open it enough to slip out into the forest.

Running through the town at night had been terrifying, but it was a different type of fear than being in the forest. Her concern had been that she’d be captured again, forced back into her cell, and maybe punished in some way for fighting back against the man who’d tried to have his way with her.

Out in the trees, in the night, with everything that had already happened, Mira learned a different kind of fear. It was the paralyzing fear of the unknown, a fear of the dark and of the creatures that lurked in it. Things were out there, things like that wolf-gorilla monster. There were literal demons, if the people she’d met were to be believed. And Mira had no reason anymore to doubt that truth.

She picked up a dead branch off the ground, thick around as her wrist and sturdy enough that she figured the person she had to hit with it would break before the branch did. It was reassuring, but only a little bit. Mira was surprised to find herself thinking wistfully about that sensation of smelling everything, of knowing where things were around her without even opening her eyes.

“Yeah, that’d be handy about now,” she said aloud. But that stone, the demon heart or whatever the minstrel had called it, had crumbled to ash. There was some moonlight though, and Mira wasn’t sticking near town to wait for morning. She’d take her chances finding some place to hole up for the night.

She’d been walking for twenty minutes with no particular direction in mind beyond away from Vinmarch when she heard the voices. One was guttural and harsh, like rocks grating against each other. The other was softer, muffled even. Mira froze in place and peered into the shadows for anything moving.

Two creatures appeared through the trees. One, the thing with the guttural voice, was human-shaped but easily nine feet tall. Its skin was vaguely reflective, like a rock polished to a shine. Bands of color were streaked across its shoulders and stomach, something darker than its normal coloration.

Its companion was human, as far as Mira could tell. At least, it wasn’t any taller than her and it wore clothes. The more she looked at it though, the more she thought its arms were too long and its torso too narrow to be a person. Its face was hidden under a hood, which accounted for the muffled sound of its voice.

The creatures moved forward and past the trees separating them from Mira. She clutched the branch tighter and brought it up to swing at the first one to take a step toward her, but when they saw her, they just stopped.

“Ko ruh tuva sira?” the human-shaped one said.

“What?” Mira asked. “Listen, I don’t want any trouble. You just leave me alone and we’ll go our separate ways.”

The two creatures talked back and forth, then shrugged. “Vuh kora,” it told Mira, and they walked away.

Mira stood, rooted in the spot, and stared at their backs. Only after they’d disappeared from sight did she dare to relax her grip on the branch. Exhaustion swept through her, and she flopped to the ground. Considering that nothing had actually happened, she felt like she was breathing far too heavily.

“Just what the hell is going on here?” she whispered.

Like everything else that had happened to her in the past few days, Mira had no answers.

* * *

Shy leaned over the dead man and pulled her knife out of his face. It liquefied and ran down her arm to reform into a tattoo of a knife with a serpent growing out of the handle and wrapped around the blade somewhere around her shoulder blade.

“I told you it was a present,” she said to the empty air. “One less human to trouble us, one that deserved what he got at that.”

There was a tattoo on her wrist, normally of two interlocked rings. Only one was present though, and at Shy’s command, in drifted off her skin and expanded until it was a foot wide. Its mate was on the other side of town, hidden in the darkness near Vinmarch’s Council of Elders.

“Show me, pet.”

The interior of the ring shifted from a view of the wall of the cell to a group of frightened men huddling together and shooting nervous glances in the dark. Their voices drifted to her through her magic.

“-not good. Kull’s mercenaries were practically wiped out.”

“How many are left?”

“I don’t know, maybe ten? Kull won’t talk about it. He just keeps saying that he’ll handle it.”

One of the men snorted. “He’s doing a fantastic job so far. Are we ready in case he fails?”

“Of course. Everything is set up for the contingency plan, and we’re ready for the demon hordes if they try to breach the wall.”

“They won’t,” a new voice said. The mercenary leader Kull walked into view, giving the huddled councilmen a start. “They’re not even interested in this town other than as something in their way. Whatever the demons want, it’s not here. And it’s important enough that they’re checking their natural impulse to kill. I suspect there’s a powerful demon commanding them. We kill it, and the whole horde falls apart.”

“That’s all fine and good to say, Kull. But can you do it? Do you even know where or what this demon is.”

“Oh, I think I have an idea.” Kull stared into the darkness, directly into Shy’s ring. There was no way a normal human could have seen through the portal, but then, Kull had never been normal. That was what made him so fun. Shy gave him a smirk and wiggled her fingers in greeting.

The rings folded up on themselves, both of them, and reappeared in their customary spot on her wrist. “My business is done here,” she said into the empty air. “Your project is running free again, and Vinmarch won’t be interfering with the ritual. You could spare me a bit of walking for my troubles, don’t you think?”

A rift opened in the shadows next to her. Shy stepped over the guard’s corpse and disappeared into it, only to materialize atop a hill a mile out of town. A man stood next to her, tall with hawkish features and an unpleasant scowl marring an otherwise handsome face. His arms were bare to the night’s chill, but if he noticed he gave no sign.

“You haven’t recovered your cloak yet?” Shy asked. “It caused a bit of trouble for your project girl, you know.”

“If she can’t overcome something as simple as this, she’s worthless to me.”

Shy shrugged. “If you say so. She’s a scrapper though. As soon as she realized what that mercenary of Kull’s was planning on doing, she fought him tooth and nail.”

The corners of Jorath’s lips tugged up.  “Good. She’ll need it if she wants to survive.”

“Do you think she has a chance? What makes her different than the other hundred girls you tried to groom for your master?”

Jorath ignored the question. “You’ll keep an eye on her for me? I don’t want her dying before she finds her feet.”

“Why not do it yourself?”

“I have to report back to Lord Ilrot. He is… keen… to learn of my progress. Six months wasted in that girl’s world before I could bring her over has tested the master’s patience.”

“Yes, I’ll safeguard your project until your return. But we’re even after this, Jorath. You understand that?”

“All debts balanced,” he agreed. “I’m trusting you until then, Annidra, with her life and mine.”

Shy grimaced. “I hate that name, you know.”

“I know. That’s why I use it.”

Chapter 3

Mira wasn’t sure how she’d gotten there, but she stood on a dirt path with two narrow ruts dug into it. She had pine needles and leaves in her hair, and even a broken off twig. Fresh scratches covered her bare arms and face, and her feet were blistered from heel to toe.

“Oi! Lass! What’re you doing?”

“Wha…” Mira turned to see an old man walking toward her. He had a thick oak staff in one hand and a burlap sack held slung onto his back with the other. Behind him, a donkey weighed down with four more sacks plodded along.

“It’s not safe to stand around day dreaming out in the woods like this,” he said. “And where are your boots? Girl your age ought to know better. Come on, let’s get you to town.”

“Oh. Um, thanks. I’m Mira, by the way.”

“Gestar. Nice to meet you.”

He walked past and beckoned for her to follow. Not having a better idea herself, she did. They walked along, her doing her best to stay off the blisters on her feet and him silent and plodding, just like the donkey he was leading. As she walked, pieces of her forest run started to come back to her. There was the thing, the demon that had attacked her, and the stone she’d taken from inside its body.

And there was the woman who had helped her until she’d seen the cloak Mira wore. Mira remembered that detail with a flush of panic. She pulled the cloak off and balled it up so that the stitching was hidden from view. When Gestar turned to give her a questioning look, she just shrugged and said, “I was getting too warm.”

“If you say so, lass.”

Mira wished she’d taken the pack that her clothes had been in with her, but she hadn’t wanted to take anything more than she had to from whoever had left them for her. Now, with nothing to carry the cloak in, she had to tuck the balled up wad of cloth under one arm.

It was only a twenty minute walk to the edge of a town unlike any place Mira had ever seen. For one thing, there was an actual wall circling it. It was almost twice as tall as she was and looked like it had been made out of rocks instead of bricks or cinderblocks. Men stood on either side of an opening in the wall holding honest-to-God spears in their hands.

That was when Mira gave up. No matter how she tried to reconcile what she was seeing with what she knew, it didn’t add up. There was a big black hole in her memory, and something had obviously happened there, something that she had no explanation for. She remembered leaving work, walking home, and then… nothing solid until she woke up naked in the woods.

They passed under the archway into the town. Mira followed Gestar until he stopped and shot her a look. “First time in Vinmarch? I expect you’ll be wanting a good pair of shoes. Well, you just let me deliver this and I’ll show you to the cobbler’s place.”

Mutely, she nodded. It took her a few seconds to remember what a cobbler even was. Somehow, she doubted it would look anything like the shoe section in a department store. By the time she realized she had no money anyway, Gestar had already disappeared inside, leaving her with his donkey.

The only polite thing to do after that was wait for him to come out, thank him for his help, and figure out how she was going to get home. But when the door opened again, it wasn’t Gestar but a tall, lean man with an overabundance of toned muscle and a face on the border between handsome and pretty. Studded leather straps wrapped his biceps and forearms, and a long-handled ax was slung across his back, held in place by a strap.

“You’re Mira then?” the man asked.

“That’s me. Who are you?”

“Not important. Come with me, please.”

“What if I don’t please?”

The man smirked at her. “I was just being nice.”

“Fine,” she said, eyeing up the man’s arms. Then, muttering, she added, “Prick.”

The inside of the house was more authentically old-timey than any historical recreation could have hoped for. Unfortunately, that included a stink that curled her nose. Mira tried to hold her breath, but the smell seemed to follow her from room to room.

The man led her out a back door to a garden, where four other men stood in a loose circle. Off to the side, Gestar was leading his donkey in through a wooden gate. He gave her a sad smile and ducked his head as he steered the animal over to where he’d already deposited one of his sacks.

“Well then,” one of the men said. He stood head and shoulders over everyone else, and looked to be easily over two hundred pounds of solid muscle. He was wearing a vest over a white shirt, and leather pants tucked into calf-high boots. “This is the demon girl we’ve been hearing about? She certainly doesn’t look like much.”

Everyone else shifted and cast dark glances at her, but none were willing to meet her eyes. If Mira hadn’t known any better, she’d have thought they were afraid of her. She was so distracted by their reactions that it took her a second to realize what the man had called her.

“Hey! What’s this demon shit? And what is it with you people? Everyone is all ‘demon this’ and ‘demon that.’ I’m not a demon. I’m just a girl who’s a long way from home and I’d like to get back there.”

“We were… forewarned… of your arrival,” the man said. “A traveling minstrel came through and told stories of the strange woman she met in the forest who held a demon’s heartstone in her bare hands and wore a cloak bearing the insignia of the demon king.”

He lunged forward and snatched the bundled up cloak from under Mira’s arm. With a shake, he rolled it open to reveal the stitching pattern. “And here it is! No, girl, you might not be a demon, but whatever you are, you’re dangerous. And that’s not something we can deal with right now, not with all the other problems.”

“What should we do with her, Kull?” one of the other men asked.

Kull scowled at him. “I have a few ideas, Velun.” The emphasis on the man’s name was unmistakable. “But for now, I think she should be jailed until we sort out the problems you hired me to deal with.”

Velun wilted under Kull’s glare and ducked his head with a mumbled apology. One of the other men opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Mira said, “Now hold on just a minute here. I haven’t done a thing to anyone. I definitely haven’t done anything to deserve being thrown in jail. If you don’t want me in Camelot-lite here, fine, I’ll clear out of town. Wasn’t even my idea to come here to begin with. Like I said, all I want is to go home.”

“And where’s that?” Kull asked.

“Home? Uh, I live in apartment in Elkton.”

“That so? Never heard of it. Look, if you’re really not a demon, then it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re a day or two behind schedule. Judging by the state you’re in, you need a break from the road anyway. I’ll have this local trouble cleaned up in a few days, and you’ll be free to go.”

“What? No! Screw that. I don’t owe you guys anything,” Mira said. “And I’m definitely not going to sit in a jail cell for a few days because you guys are scared of a skinny white girl from Oregon.”

“Oregon, huh?” Kull echoed. “I thought you said you lived in Elkton.”

“Elkton is a town in Oregon, jackass.”

“We’re not really giving you a choice here. For Vinmarch’s safety, you’re going to be confined until the current crisis is resolved and the council has time to deal with you. If that’s not acceptable, we can just kill you now and be done with it.”

Mira sputtered and glared at Kull, but he just gave a faintly amused smile back to her. The man with the armbands and the ax who’d escorted her to the garden moved up to grab her arm. She tried to jerk away, but he just clamped down tighter and gave it a twist.

“Come on, then,” he said. “The more you fight, the rougher this’ll be for you. Behave yourself, and it won’t be a bad few days.”

“Fuck you guys. This isn’t right, and you know it.”

Some of the men did look troubled, but none spoke up to defend her. In the end, Mira had no choice but to let herself be led away.

* * *

The jail smelled, if anything, worse than the rest of the town. It had straw bedding in one corner that looked like it had been there for years, and an actual bucket for her to go to the bathroom in sitting against the opposite wall. They hadn’t provided her with any sort of toilet paper to wipe with either.

One good thing to come out of it was food. It wasn’t particularly appetizing, but Mira literally couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten, and when the cop or guard or whatever he was called passed her a wooden bowl full of some slop through the bars, she’d devoured it. It was disgusting, but she’d have eaten a second bowl if they’d given it to her.

The first day was mercifully swift. As it turned out, Mira needed the rest. She spent most of it asleep despite the scratchy straw at her back and the questionable smell. Exhaustion outweighed discomfort, and it wasn’t until her bladder demanded attention that she woke up sometime in the night.

The second day, however, was one filled with boredom. It was nice to stay off her feet, but there was nothing to do but wonder and worry. She spent her time testing out one theory after another, but nothing fit. She didn’t know what was hidden in her missing memories, and ideas like “thrown backward in time” were too unbelievable to be real.

It made for a fruitless and frustrating day. She was fed once and otherwise left alone and ignored. Mira couldn’t ever remember feeling quite so powerless as that second day in jail. She could hear the world passing her by through the cell’s window, but it was set too high for even to see out it. It was maddening.

Kull came to visit her on the third day. He had dried blood on one side of his face and a fresh chunk of his nose missing. He walked with a pronounced limp, but none of that stopped him from scowling as he stomped up to her cell. “Just thought you’d want to know that things aren’t going well. You’re going to be in here a while longer than I expected.” He turned to walk away, then stopped and looked back at her. “Sorry.”

“Hey, wait! Come back here,” Mira called out. “You can’t just leave me in here. I didn’t do anything.”

Kull didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down. He just limped back out of sight and, thirty seconds later, Mira heard the jailhouse door close. “Fuck,” she muttered.

* * *

“Why are you still here?” a voice asked.

Mira jerked awake and looked to the cell door, only to find it empty. “Who’s there?” she asked into the dark.

“Stupid girl. If you’re as powerful as you’re supposed to be, why are you letting this village of fools and puppets control your life? You’ve had enough time to rest. Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Now that Mira was awake, she realized the voice came from inside her cell. Standing in the corner was a slender woman with one hand on her hip. She wore form-fitting clothes that left her stomach and arms bare, though it was hard to tell in the dark. Everywhere below her neck where skin showed was covered in markings. Only after a moment of study did Mira realize they were tattoos.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”

“Fine,” Mira snapped. “I’m here because I can’t bend iron bars, because the men who put me here were bigger and stronger than me and I was outnumbered.”

“Excuses. I know what you are,” the woman said. “Even if you don’t. You’re here because you’re afraid. You’re lost, and you’re confused, and you just want to go back to your pathetic little life on your pathetic little world.”

It must have been Mira’s imagination, but she could have sworn the tattoos on the woman’s arms moved around as she spoke. She tried not to look at it, instead focusing her attention on the glint of metal pierced through the woman’s bottom lip. “You still didn’t tell me who you are,” Mira said.

The woman stepped closer. “You may call me Shy. I’m here to give you a present.”

Mira recoiled. “I don’t think I want anything from you.”

“Oh no, you do. You really, truly, absolutely do. Here, take it.”

One of the tattoos snaked down Shy’s arm into the palm of her hand. She flicked her wrist and it blossomed upward like ink flying off a fountain pen to form into the shape of a knife. Shy caught the tip between her fingers and offered it to Mira.

“Those men in Kull’s mercenary band are in a foul mood. There’s been talk that you’re to blame, that the demons know things they shouldn’t and you told them.”

“That’s stupid. How am I supposed to have done that from inside here?”

“Frightened men are rarely rational. They’ve been beaten badly by the demons and are looking for an excuse to take it out on someone who can’t fight back.”

Mira looked from the knife to Shy. “Why should I trust you?”

Shy shrugged. “Why shouldn’t you?”

“You say you want to help me. Fine, get me out of here. That’d be helpful. You got in somehow. You must be able to get back out. Take me with you.”

Shy laughed. “Your fragile little human mind couldn’t handle the strain of it. It took months of work to prepare you for the first trip, and even then, you suffered permanent damage. No, it’s better for you to find your own way out. In fact, I think I hear opportunity knocking right now.”

She pressed the knife into Mira’s hand and stepped back into the shadowy corner of the cell. “Good luck, little girl. Prove that your worth the name of your ancestors.”

Then she was gone, and Mira was alone. The jailhouse door opened, and the sound of footsteps gave Mira a few second’s warning to hide the knife behind her back before a guard with an oil lantern came into view.

“Don’t know how you did it,” he grunted as he fumbled with a key ring before fitting one into the cell door. “But you’re sure as hell going to regret it by the time I’m done with you.”

The door swung open and the guard stepped in, his lantern held high in one hand and a thick wooden club clutched in the other.

Chapter 2

Mira woke up cold and shivering. Her back was a knot of pain, and it was a toss up whether it beat out her hangover. It wasn’t until she kicked the blanket off and went to get out of bed that she realized she’d been lying on the ground naked.

She gathered the blanket back up to cover herself even though there was no one there to see her. Muted green light and droplets of water filtered through a heavy bough of pine needles overhead, showing her a cold, wet world of trees and underbrush, one that she didn’t recognize and certainly wasn’t her apartment.

A leather bag hung by its straps from a tree branch at eye level. Mira hesitated for a second, but seeing no one else around and acutely aware of her lack of clothing or shoes, she opened it. Inside was a pair of plain homespun cotton trousers and a shirt straight out of a renaissance faire. Neither fit her, but they were better than being naked.

Once she’d taken the blanket off, she realized it was actually some sort of hooded cloak. Unlike the shirt and pants, it was silky smooth and somehow water sealed. Intricate stitching of blue and red popped out against the black material to form some sort of symbol like nothing Mira had ever seen. Either way, she was cold enough to put it back on and wrap it around herself.

As she pulled it over her head, she saw a cut on her wrist, three inches long and only a fraction of an inch from the vein. Something had happened, something about a broken glass. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember the details. Thankfully, whatever the accident was, it had resulted in a minor cut and not her bleeding out. Compared to the muscle ache from sleeping naked under some trees, it didn’t even hurt.

Dressed and relatively warm, Mira finally looked around. She had somehow wandered out of her apartment, right out of town apparently, and passed out in the woods, naked. It must have happened late enough that no one had seen a nude drunk woman walking down the streets. That did nothing to explain the clothes or the cloak she’d used as a blanket though.

The only thing she could think of was that someone had come across her and been unable to move her. That person had presumably left her the pack and cloak, and Mira felt she should probably wait for whoever it was to come check on her. Then she could find out where she was and figure out how to get home.

After the uncomfortable experience of peeing in the woods and then waiting for an hour to see who showed up, Mira decided to take a more proactive approach. Walking across the bed of pine needles without shoes was a slow, painful process, but she figured she could flag down some help once she found a road. Whoever had left her the clothes would hopefully not mind never getting them back.

She walked for an hour in more or less a straight line. Working with her limited knowledge of local geography, she figured her best bet was to head south until she got out of the woodlands. It didn’t take long for her to accumulate a dozen scrapes and bruises on her bare feet, and by the time she sat down for a break, she had to wonder how she’d walked all the way into the woods naked to begin with.

Soon after, Mira found a stream that she thought might lead to a spot where it had been bridged a few miles west of town. The more she tried to piece together where she was and how she got there, the more bewildered she got. Nothing seemed to fit together how it should, but lacking a better option, and finding it much easier to follow the water than trudge through the trees, she changed direction.

She wanted to drink the water, but she’d heard too many horror stories of people getting sick from bacteria and pollutants in streams and rivers to risk it. Instead, she gazed longingly at it and tried to ignore how dry her throat suddenly felt. At least the water felt good over her bruised and battered feet.

As she trudged along, she lost herself in day dreams of warm, soft beds and foot massages and a tall glass of iced tea. A low growl from behind her snapped her back to the present, and she froze in place. Slowly, expecting to find a bear ready to rip her to pieces, she looked over her shoulder.

What the thing was, she couldn’t say. It looked something like the unholy offspring of a wolf and a gorilla. Grey furred, it walked on four legs, but the front two were twice as thick as the back two, and its shoulders were nearly three feet wide. A smooth domed skull had a pair of beady black pinpricks for eyes in it under heavy brows, and an elongated, almost cartoonish muzzle jutted out its front end. Yellowed, jagged teeth poked out on either side.

The creature was standing, or maybe squatting, on a rock shelf that overlooked the stream. With an ungainly shuffling hop, it jumped down to land in the water and stalked around Mira in a slow circle. She turned with it, half watching it and half listening to see if there were any more. When it had reached the middle of the stream, which was only a foot deep, she turned and bolted for the trees.

The creature let out a bellow and splashed after her. Mira didn’t stop to look back though. As soon as she hit the tree line, she scrambled through the branches of the first decent sized tree she could find and climbed. She wasn’t more than five or six feet off the ground when the creature slammed into the truck, causing the whole tree to shake.

Mira screamed, but clung to the branches. She climbed higher, with visions of the creature’s teeth sinking into her leg to prod her on. Only when she was ten feet up did she risk looking back down at it. It had wedged itself between branches and was glaring up at her, hatred and hunger in its eyes. With a deliberate motion, it brought its front two paws up and pressed down on a branch until it gave way.

Mira saw with a shock that the paws had thumbs on them, that the creature was actually grabbing the branches and breaking them to give itself more room. Suddenly, her clever plan of waiting it out up a tree didn’t seem so smart. As the creature gave itself more and more space, it climbed up a few feet off the ground. Mira wiggled through the branches and climbed higher to stay out of its reach, but it was only a matter of time until she ran out of tree.

She worked a branch back and forth until it snapped; the gorilla-wolf creature had made them seem much easier to break. Then she leaned down and stabbed at the creature. It snarled and snapped back at her. With one of its strange paw-hands, it grabbed the branch and jerked it down. Mira let go, but it was too late. She tumbled off her perch and smacked into the creature, sending them both to the ground.

She landed on top, but it grabbed her before she could scramble away. With frightening ease, it hauled her around into a roll so that she was pinned under its bulk. Its muzzle dipped toward her face and she slapped at it. Undeterred, the creature’s jaw spread impossibly wide, as if it was going to engulf her head in a single bite. Mira kicked at it and tried to shove its mouth aside. The creature didn’t even seem to notice her struggling.

Then her hand slipped down its neck to its chest. Heat blossomed across her fingers and the creature flinched. It tried to jerk away, but somehow its flailing had transformed from animal strength to feeble thrashing. The heat pulsed up Mira’s hand to her elbow, and she felt something rough textured and solid under her fingertips.

The creature let out a pain-filled howl as her hand closed around the object. She looked down to see her arm inside the creature’s chest, but not through any sort of hole or tear. It had simply passed through the fur and skin like a ghost in a movie. When she pulled her hand back, a stone as long as her forearm and wide as her wrist came out of the creature’s chest. It was the same silver-grey as the creature’s fur, covered in pulsing red veins of light.

The creature convulsed and fell over, only to climb back to its feet and wander away. It took no notice of Mira or anything else. She watched as it shuffled into a tree, only to careen off to the side when it bounced off the trunk and disappear into the woods.

“What. The. Fuck.”

The stone didn’t exactly burn her hand, but heat continued to shoot up in time with the pulsing red veins. A distant part of Mira’s brain told her to drop the thing, but it was a tiny voice buried beneath confusion and shock and trauma. Instead of listening, she just stared down at the stone until the heat reached her chest.

The whole world contracted into a single painfully bright point of light, just for an instant. When Mira came back to herself, it was like coming out of a fog. Everything was bright and clear. She could pick out minute details in the forest a hundred feet away. She could hear the stream, a bird flying overhead, some animal behind her rooting around, and the scrape of the creature’s feet over stone, all at the same time, all in perfect clarity.

That was the least of it. Mira could handle that. It was something she could process, something that made sense to her. What overwhelmed her were the smells. A hundred scents hit her all at once, each one more intense than anything she’d ever experienced. She couldn’t recognize more than a handful of them, couldn’t process any of it.

There were more of those creatures, she realized. None were near her, not even the one she’d fought anymore, but they were out there. At least a dozen of them were converging on another scent, something unnatural to the forest in a different way. It smelled of leather and soap and paper and wax and a dozen other things Mira couldn’t identify. But her mind put the pieces together and came up with the conclusion that there was another person.

Before she’d even realized what she was doing, Mira was following that scent. She never could have kept up with it, but the person wasn’t moving in a straight line. Instead, it wove between the scents of the creatures, and somehow it did it well enough that none came near it. It didn’t take Mira long to reach the person-scent.

She hobbled through the trees, acutely aware of each leaf under her feet. The rocks were knife-edge sharp, a pinecone the sort of torture device devised by Lego. Soon, the sound of humming came to her ears, accompanied by the notes of some stringed instrument.

Mira found the person skirting a patch of underbrush that had grown tangled between a stand of trees. She was tall, close to six feet, with a thick mane of dark blond hair that fell half way down her back. She held something U-shaped in her hand, with a bar across the mouth that had strings running from it to the bottom of the U. She plucked at the strings while she hummed, her face set in concentration.

“Um, hello,” Mira said. The woman’s head snapped up to stare at her in horror, and the notes of music faded away. Immediately, the creature-scents around them started moving closer.

“By Zade, what are you doing out here?” the woman asked.

“By what?” Mira said. “Nevermind. Listen, there are things out there around us. I think they’re dangerous.”

“Well of course they’re dangerous! Here, get closer. I’ve got to get this Obscurement back up before they find us. Going to be hell to do two people, but it beats letting you die.”

The woman grabbed Mira’s arm and dragged her closer. “Ok, just be quiet and stay close. Don’t bump my arm. There, that’s good.” Then she started to play again, this time faster. An electric tingle sent a shiver through Mira and up her spine.

The creature-scents hesitated. Where they’d been coming straight in before, they wandered listlessly. The closer they were, the less they seemed to move. As Mira trailed after the woman, whose face was covered in sweat as she played at a frantic pace, she saw one of the creatures staring slack-jawed through the trees.

They walked for maybe ten minutes before the music faltered again and the woman collapsed. She pulled herself to a sitting position and leaned back against a tree trunk, where she sat with her chest heaving. “That’s all I’ve got. Hopefully the demons are too far away to find us now.”

“Demons?” Mira asked. “Those things with the grey fur?”

“Yes, hunter demons. There’s not usually any this close to Vinmarch, and I’ve never heard of them moving in such large groups.”

Mira looked out into the trees. “They’re still out there. I can smell them.”

“You can what?” The woman looked up.

“One of them attacked me,” Mira said. “I took this thing from it and it ran off. It was nauseating at first, but I can see and hear farther, and smell everything now. It’s kind of cool, actually.”

The woman raised fearful eyes from the stone to Mira’s face. “That,” she said, pointing a finger, “is a demon’s heart. What the hell are you?”

“Why do you keep saying ‘demon?’ Are you some fire-and-brimstone end-of-the-world religious type?” Mira asked.

“What? I’m not the one holding a heartstone in my hand!”

“This thing?” Mira looked down at it. She shrugged and tossed it to the ground. “There. Happy now?”

Whatever the other woman was going to say, Mira didn’t hear it. A wave of vertigo crashed over her. The next thing she knew, she was on the ground facing the stone, which had started crumbling. Pieces of it flecked off and broke down until there was nothing but a pile of dust there.

Mira tried to sit back up, but managed nothing more than rolling over and throwing up into the pine needles and dead leaves. Then a pair of hands grabbed her under her armpits and lifted her to a standing position.

“Come on. We can’t stay here,” the woman said. “Hey! Move, I said. Here, just lean on- wait. What’s this symbol on your cloak?”

The woman recoiled and hissed. “Stay away from me,” she said, her eyes wide. Mira looked up blearily as the woman backed away and raised the instrument up between them. “I mean it.”

The last thing Mira saw was the woman playing again. Then a fog washed over her mind, and everything was blank.

Chapter 1

Jorath flinched under the crack of his master’s whip. A hot flash of pain sliced across his back, followed by the tingling numbness of demonic corruption seeping into the wound. The blood that dribbled across his skin to splatter on the floor resembled nothing so much as drops of black ink.

“I am not pleased with you, Jorath.”

“My apologies, Master.”

A booted foot settled onto his shoulder and shoved him backward to sprawl across the marble tiled floor. “I don’t want your apologies, you idiot. I want my bride.”

“My Lord, I’ve scoured the world. None have survived the rituals. I’m afraid that such a girl doesn’t exist.”

“Then look in a different world.”

Jorath’s breath came out in a hiss. There was something he’d never considered, and he chided himself for his lack of sense. A fragment of an old story came to him about an exiled branch of the family tree, severed generations ago. His pulse quickened in excitement. Their descendents might still succeed where his own family had failed.

Slowly, Jorath climbed back to his knees. He kept his head down and his eyes firmly fixed on the boots in front of him. “Shall I begin immediately, Master?” he asked.

“Yes. You’ve wasted enough of my time already.”

Jorath scrambled backwards, not rising until he was near the door leading out of his family’s tomb. His master remained behind, not looking at him until Jorath had passed the threshold.

“Jorath,” his master said, his voice clipped. “Look at me.”

Jorath’s eyes, twin pools of rippling black liquid, locked on the feral yellow of his master’s. “This is your last chance,” his master told him. “Fail me again, and you’ll join what remains of your family in the Cloister.”

Jorath bowed low and backed out of the crypt. Outside, his sister waited for him. She leaned casually against the stone, her arms crossed and a smirk on her face. “Failed again?” she asked with a sneer.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Be sure to pass along my greetings to our father after Lord Ilrot gets sick of your incompetence.”

“You’re the only person our father would like to talk to less than me.”

“Maybe I’ll come by and find out after you’re sent there. It might be the only time I ever set foot in the Cloister. Our master actually likes me, you see.”

Jorath gave her a sour frown, and she laughed before swinging past him to enter the crypt. He snarled at her retreating form, but he didn’t dare follow her back into the darkness where their master dwelled. It didn’t matter. If he was right, he’d finally be able to set his own plans into motion. He would secure his freedom, and more importantly, his revenge on the tyrant who’d taken everything from him.

* * *

Mira let out an irritated sigh and dropped her purse on the kitchen table.  She idly flipped through the bills from her mailbox and rolled her eyes at the preapproved credit card offers. Discover and Mastercard obviously didn’t realize where she worked, or that her student loans had first dibs on her very small paychecks.

“Tabbie,” she called out as the junk mail went into the trashcan. When her cat didn’t come running, she grabbed the treat bag and gave it a good shake.

“Tabbie?” she said again. The treat bag never failed to bring her cat running. “Probably got locked in the bedroom again.”

But Tabbie wasn’t in the bedroom, or the bathroom, or anywhere in the apartment. It wasn’t until Mira looked out a window that she saw what she’d missed coming home in the dark of twilight. A streak of red led down the street to a motionless lump of fur. With a gasp, she tore out of the apartment and sprinted down the sidewalk.

“Oh Tabbie. How did you even get out?” she whispered.

Her cat’s fur was stiff with dried blood where it hadn’t been torn away completely. Whatever had hit her had been something big, big enough that it had dragged her ten feet with its tires before kicking Tabbie’s body out the backside.

Tears spilled down her cheeks. She scooped Tabbie up, a task made all the more difficult because the cat’s body was stuck to the pavement. After a few moment’s struggle, she managed to peel the animal up and carried her to a corner of the apartment’s lot. Then she crossed the parking lot to knock on the building manager’s door.

“Mira?” an older man with a bristly mustache and a fringe of hair on the sides of his head said as he opened the door and saw her tear soaked face. “What happened?”

“Mr. Sanders. My cat… she got out somehow, got hit by a car.” Mira’s voice broke for a second, but she composed herself and continued.  “Can I borrow a shovel and bury her?”

“Oh you poor girl. That’s terrible. Here, let me get my keys and I’ll come help,” Mr. Sanders told her. He ducked back into his apartment for a second and led her across the property to a shed set up in the back corner.

“Why don’t you go get it,” he said as he grabbed a shovel, “and I’ll get started.”

By the time Mira came back, he’d already broken through the top layer of soil and started digging. Mira tried to take the shovel, but he shooed her away with soft words and a comforting shoulder pat. It didn’t take long for him to finish. Mira found her eyes wandering, looking at anything but that hole. They followed the edge of the parking lot and scraped by windows and doors one after another, unseeing.

A silhouette stood in her living room windows, backlit by the lights of her kitchen. Mira’s eyes had half gone past it before she registered what she was seeing. She let out a soft gasp, but before she could say anything, Mr. Sanders turned to her.

“You can put Tabbie in now,” he told Mira. “Do you want to wrap the body in anything before you do?”

She only looked away for a second, but by the time she’d looked back, the silhouette was gone. Mira cast a long, lingering gaze at the window, but there was nothing there.

“Mira?” Mr. Sanders said softly.

She tore her gaze away from the window and shook her head. “No, it’s ok. Thank you, Mr. Sanders.”

She placed Tabbie in the grave and held a hand out. “I’d like to bury her, please.”

Reluctantly, Mr. Sanders let go of the shovel. He watched in silence as Mira poured each shovel-full of dirt on the cat. When it was done, he took the shovel back and steered her toward the apartments. “Go get cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll put this away for you.”

Mira thanked him again and drifted across the lawn. She hesitated, her hand on the door knob, before shaking her head and entering her apartment. Nobody jumped out at her, and it wasn’t like there were a lot of places to hide. It was silly, but she locked the door behind her and checked her bedroom and bathroom anyway. They were as empty as she’d logically known they would be.

She’d just finished scrubbing her hands and arms when someone knocked on her door. It was Mr. Sanders, holding a full bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand. “I think perhaps you could use a drink,” he said when she opened the door.

“I… yeah, I guess I could.”

She pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and set them on the table. Without speaking, Mr. Sanders poured their first shots. When they were gone, he poured another. Mira stared into the glass for a few seconds, then tossed it back too. She held out the empty glass to him, but he shook his head.

“Give it a few minutes,” he told her. “In the meantime, I know this isn’t something you’re interested in, but I can get you the paperwork to reduce your rent by twenty dollars a month for not having a pet.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

“Unless you think you’re going to get a new cat right away?”

Mira shook her head. “No, no more. I’m sick of everyone dying. It’s like I’m cursed.”

“Well, you know,” Mr. Sanders pointed a finger toward the ceiling. “Everything happens for a reason and all that.”

“Tell that to my Dad. Or my sister. I’m sure they’d be comforted to know that there was a grand purpose behind their car accident.”

“Er… you still have your mother?”

“She died to cancer when I was little.” Mira couldn’t keep a note of bitterness out of her voice.

Mr. Sanders blew out a heavy, helpless sigh and said, “How about another drink?”

An hour and six more shots later, Mr. Sanders stood up and gave Mira a hug. “I’m sorry, Mira. Are you going to be alright tonight? Is there someone I can call for you?”

“I’m fine,” Mira said. “Just going to take a bath and go to bed.”

Mr. Sanders released her and scooped up the half empty bottle. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate. I’m just a few doors down.”

He wobbled out the door, leaving Mira alone with her thoughts. She sat at the table for half an hour, silent and unmoving. Eventually, she started her bath running and poured herself a glass of wine.

She took the glass with her as she settled into the bath. Tabbie’s death had brought back memories of her college graduation. It should have been a happy time for her, but her family had died in a car accident on their way upstate to see her get her degree. Instead of a celebration, it had been a double funeral.

The degree hadn’t even been worth anything, apparently. That was her own fault though. Everyone had told her not to get an arts degree. She just hadn’t listened. As it turned out, customers just wanted their change and their burger, not a discussion on the philosophical nature of commerce.

It might have been the wine, or the heat, or maybe both, Mira didn’t know. Whatever it was, she found herself dozing off. The sound of her wine glass shattering against the bathroom floor snapped her out of it. With a sigh, she leaned over the side of the tub and scooped up the shards into what was left of the glass.

She pulled one large, jagged piece out of the glass. Its edge glinted in the light, oddly hypnotic. Mira stared at it as she held it up. “Everyone dies. Even my cat.”

She brought the glass down and tapped it against the skin on her wrist. “It’s not fair,” she said. “What’s the point anyway?”

* * *

Jorath leaned forward and watched the girl. It was almost time. As he’s suspected, killing her cat had pushed her over the edge. It had been a tricky bit of work to bring her to the right emotional state and keep her isolated enough to steal her away, but he was mere seconds from all his hard work paying off.

He lurked in the void between worlds, drifting like a scrap of shadow as he waited. Pulling her out of her own world would require precision. If he waited too long, she’d just be dead. If he took her too early, the transition would kill her.

The first spot of red appeared on the girl’s wrist. Before she could slide the shard of glass any further, he dropped out of the void into her bathroom. She was so focused on her own pain that she didn’t even notice his presence. The lights flickered and popped, one after another, until the only illumination was the distant glow of the street lights coming through the blinds.

Time slowed down for her, like she was some machine winding down, moving slower and slower. Jorath leaned over the girl and placed his hand over hers, held the glass shard steady where it had pierced her skin.

She looked up at him for the first time, and he saw confusion cut through the heartache. “No,” he hissed. He couldn’t allow her to be distracted from her own inner turmoil. Any outside influence would ruin the magic, leave her susceptible to the pull of the void.

Dead, his voice whispered in her mind. All of them. Your fault, really. If not for you, they’d never have made that drive. If not for your carelessness, she’d be safe inside instead of buried in a hole. No one left for you. No reason to go on.

The girl’s eyes squeezed shut and she dragged the point of the glass shard. Jorath’s hand guided her, gently redirecting her own so that the shard sliced skin, but missed the vein. The illusion held, and he let his magic wrap her in shadows.

He pulled her into the void, cloaked in his power. Its emptiness, the raw, unfeeling mass of it, pressed on her, but there was nothing inside her mind for it to take except the pain. It would eat away at that too, given enough time, but for the moment, she was insulated.

It was enough. They emerged into a world of pouring rain and dark skies. Jorath released the girl, who toppled over to land facedown in a puddle in the grass and lay there. Roughly, he hooked his foot under her and flipped her over onto her back so that she didn’t drown.

A fierce grin spread across his face. He’d done it. He’d taken her! All that remained was to make sure she survived long enough to do what he required. Humans were frail though, and he knew that if he abandoned her, she’d likely die in the night to nothing more than the weather.

Jorath studied her with clinical indifference. Her skin had already started to take on a blue pallor. Blood still dripped from the cut she’d given herself, not enough to be lethal, perhaps, but still something to be addressed. With a snort of disgust, he hefted her naked body over one shoulder and carried her under the nearby trees.

The boughs were thick enough to keep off the worst of the rain, but did nothing to stop the cold. Jorath swept his own cloak off his shoulders and shook the water off its surface. He tossed it over the sleeping girl and disappeared into the darkness.

“Sleep,” his voice echoed from past the trees. “Recover your strength. I need you to be ready for the journey ahead. I need you to survive until the end.”