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.”