No updates this week. Enjoy your holidays. The story will resume Jan 2.
Waking from Shodo’s magic was exhausting in a way Mira hadn’t realized was possible. Every inch of her felt drained, like she’d been wrung out and discarded. Even opening her eyes was a struggle. There were voices in the room with her, but trying to understand what they were saying was more effort than it was worth.
It came to her eventually that they were arguing, though she wasn’t sure what about. With a conscious effort to sort out the sounds, she tried to piece together what was going on.
“-can’t keep this from him,” Shodo said.
“I can, and I will. We will.” That was Jorath.
“He’ll find out. This is too important to him.”
“If he does, it won’t be because anyone here said anything.”
“No, Jorath. This is foolishness. You’re going to get yourself killed, but you won’t take me with you.”
“You’ll do as you’re told,” Jorath said. “And you, do you have anything to add?”
“It doesn’t matter one way or another to me,” Shy said. “I’m just waiting for Huervas to disappear so I can leave.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Shodo warned. “When the master finds out you’ve played a hand in this, he’ll come after you.”
Mira sat up slowly and looked around. Shy was leaning with her back against the door, looking bored. Jorath was in the middle of the room, his face tight with anger. Across from him stood Shodo, who had his back to the far wall, which was now covered in cracks. Shards of stone littered the floor all around them.
“What happened?” Mira asked. “I had… a dream, I think.”
“Not a dream,” Jorath said, not taking his eyes off Shodo. “We forced you to do what we needed to you in a vision. Your actions shattered this seal. And none of us, including Shodo, are going to report this information to Lord Ilrot.”
“Why are you so set on keeping this from him?” Shodo asked.
“Because I don’t want him to know how I did it.”
“Why would that…” Shodo’s eyes widened and darted over to look at Mira. “You’re not breaking the seals to give him back his heartstone, are you?”
Jorath looked Shodo dead in the eye. “No,” he said. “This is about getting rid of him.”
“That’s insane, Jorath! Even if you somehow pulled it off, there’s no way this girl would be able to- hrrk!”
Shodo’s shadow rose up behind him and wrapped black fingers around his throat. It lifted him from the floor and, his legs kicking, swallowed him in blackness. Muffled screaming came from the shadows, but they died away quickly enough. The darkness liquefied and spilled back across the floor to resume its normal shape, leaving Shodo behind.
His eyes were open and staring, but unseeing. Flecks of black dotted his teeth and lips, looking for all the world like he’d taken a bite out of his own shadow as it suffocated him. Bands of red circled his throat, which had been crushed.
Jorath gave the corpse a dispassionate once-over before turning to look at Shy. “Do you have any objections to my plan?”
“Objections?” Shy laughed. “If you’d told me you were planning on killing the King of Demons, and I’d known the plan had any chance of succeeding, I’d have been your first volunteer. Do you really think this will work though?”
“It will all depend on the human. She needs to be trained as a demon hunter, and quickly. Shodo was right in that the master will find out eventually. We simply need to keep ahead of him until we’re ready.”
Mira pulled herself up from the floor and dusted her pants off. She deliberately avoiding looking at the dead body a few feet away from her. “Um, excuse me. Has anyone asked me how I feel about this? Because I feel like I would remember if someone had asked me that question, and I’m pretty sure no one did.”
“You’ll do it if you ever want to go home.” Shy didn’t take her eyes off Jorath as she spoke. “By the Dark Father, you’ll agree if you want to make it out of this room. We’re not really being given a choice. He’ll murder us both if that’s what it takes to save his own skin.”
Jorath didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at Mira. His shadow twitched though, a sight made all the creepier by the fact that he wasn’t moving with it. Mira and Shy both watched it silently. Next to her, Shodo’s corpse’s shadow flickered back and forth in time with Jorath’s.
“What exactly is it you want from me?” Mira asked.
“Learn to control your power. Break the other four seals. Claim Ilrot’s heartstone and use his own magic to destroy him. Humanity gets a chance to come back from losing their war with the demons. You go back to your own world and pretend none of this ever happened.”
“And what do you get out of it?”
“Once, hundreds of years ago, I was human.” Jorath looked down at Shodo’s body. “Much like him. My sister, Sybill, betrayed the Valdrite clan and let the demons into our home. The master killed most of us. As a reward for her treachery, he used his magic to turn Sybill into a demon.
“His power is the magic of corruption. He takes something and infuses it with demonic energy, makes it into something darker than it was. The demon hunters that remained were offered a choice: serve, or die. That was a lie, of course. Those of us who groveled before him were made demons, and those who didn’t were also made into demons.
“Lord Ilrot sent them to the Cloister, where their own demonic nature keeps them in a tortured state for all of eternity. They hang there in the darkness, silent only because they passed the point of screaming hundreds of years ago. Every single second is agony for them the likes of which you can’t comprehend.”
Jorath finally looked at Mira. “What do I get out of it, human? The monster who destroyed my world dies, and my family can finally be freed of their torture and put to an end. There’s nothing else left for us.”
* * *
“You’ll need to keep a closer eye on her now,” Jorath said to Shy as they emerged into the daylight. “There’s no telling how suspicious the master will become in the next few weeks.”
Shy shook her head and gestured toward herself. “I need to recover my strength. Look how many of my tattoos are damaged. Look how many are missing altogether.”
It was true. Some of the bare skin that Shy had shown when they’d first entered the sealed chamber was covered again, but the sleeves were riddled with holes. The tattoos that were still there seemed subdued. Despite the extra room, they didn’t writhe about as they once had.
“A few weeks to fix the damaged ones. Months to replace the one that were destroyed.”
“The girl can’t be left unattended that long. Even if she’s not actively targeted by Lord Ilrot, she could fall prey to any number of other dangers.”
“What do you want me to do, Jorath? I can’t protect her from anything truly dangerous like this.”
They turned in unison to look at Mira, who was just entering the sunlight and blinking rapidly while shading her eyes with one hand. “Perhaps… a familiar binding,” Jorath said.
“She does still have my frost basilisk,” Shy said. “Her control over it is instinctual at best though.”
“I was thinking something more substantial, something more in line with my own talents.”
“Ah.” Shy’s expression brightened. “That would certainly be useful. Will your master recognize that you’ve lost a portion of your power though?”
Jorath shook his head. “Not if I’m careful. I don’t plan on being there long anyway. I’ll have to inform him that the girl lived through the first ritual and try to examine the seal in the Valdrite Crypts to make sure it’s unchanged.”
Jorath sent tendrils of his power through his shadow, which came free of his feet and slid across the ground. It slipped behind Mira and merged with her own shadow. Jorath’s magic built the delicate connections between the two shadows, a time consuming process that took several minutes.
Shy and the girl were speaking in the background, but it was a distant buzz that he ignored. The linking magic had to be precise and subtle. If she realized something was happening, she could upset the constellation of magic he was working into her shadow.
The girl turned and said something to Jorath. He ignored it while he tied the last threads of their shadows together. Then, work completed, he allowed his attention to snap back to the women.
“Well?” the human girl demanded.
Jorath turned to Shy and said, “It’s done. Keep her safe for the last night of Huervas, then leave her in a human town for a week. I think Rohaim is near here. That should do.”
“I told you that a week is the minimum I’ll need. To fully repair all the damaged tattoos will take longer.”
“I understand. Gather your supplies and work while you travel. The closest site from here is the Aesir’s Throne. Keep her moving in that general direction and I’ll rejoin you when I can.”
“Hey,” the girl said. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Jorath ripped a hole into the nether and stepped through.
* * *
“Prick,” Mira muttered.
“Come on,” Shy said. “We need to be well away from this city come nightfall. There’s still one more night of Huervas, and you’re much more likely to live through it if we’re in a human settlement.”
“I’ve been wondering about that. These things tear people apart, and this red moon thing happens semi-regularly, right? So, it seems like they should have overrun everything by now.”
“The yith are attracted to places of strong magic. A bare handful might terrorize a village, but this city is oozes magic. Have you noticed how nothing is overgrown here? There are no climbing vines. Grass hasn’t broken through the cobblestones. That is the magic of the city, holding it in stasis.”
Mira looked around. Once Shy pointed it out, she could see that nothing had fallen into disrepair. The houses were in good shape. The streets were solid and level. Even the grass, in the few places it existed, was neat and trimmed.
“Why would anyone do this?” Mira asked.
“If we were to travel to the east side of the city, it would look much different. It was destroyed when the demons attacked. The demon hunter clan that lived here specialized in time altering magic. They split the entire city off the timeline in an attempt to defend it.”
“How the hell does that even work?”
“Hell if I know,” Shy said. “I think it had something to do with dividing the demons still outside the city walls from the ones inside. It doesn’t matter. That clan was completely wiped out in the assault, and it took hundreds of them working together to manage the effect. No one will ever fully understand, duplicate, or undo what happened here.”
Mira looked at the city with a newfound sense of unease. It had been creepy enough the night before, but knowing what had happened, that she was inside the radius of some magical effect that distorted time, was too much to process. She didn’t want to think about it. She just wanted to be away from it.
“So, since Jorath didn’t answer me, what do we do with Shodo’s body?”
“Leave it.” Shy gave a dismissive wave of her hand back at the castle. “Jorath will clean it up, or not. Either way, it’s not our problem.”
“Shouldn’t we… I don’t know, say something over his body? Some kind of last rites or something?”
Shy snorted. “You want to give a eulogy to a demon who invaded your mind and tricked you into breaking a powerful and unique magical seal, then was planning on reporting your existence to his master, who would almost certainly have attempted to murder you and, who, by the way, is probably planning on raping and impregnating you right now, but only because he doesn’t realize you’re a demon hunter descendent?”
“Whoah! Hold up,” Mira said. “What was that last part again?”
“Yeah, that’s Jorath’s job. The King of Demons wants offspring. He’s been attempting it for over a century. No one really knows what he’s looking for, but nothing he’s produced so far has met his standards. He kills them when they don’t measure up, or has Jorath do it for him. The mothers don’t survive delivery. Most of them don’t even make it to term. That’s what the whole ritual thing is for. Jorath is supposed to be testing your durability and preparing you as a demon incubator.”
“What. The. Fuck. Are you fucking kidding me? What is wrong with you fucking people? You talk about rape and torture and violating basically everyone you meet like it’s fun. Jorath killed a man and then sat in a room with his victim’s corpse for hours, and he paid about as much attention to it as he would a piece of furniture. You people are all fucked in the head.”
“We’re demons,” Shy said, as if that justified everything.
“Jesus fucking Christ. I just want to go home.”
“So do what Jorath wants. He doesn’t care about you one way or another, but as long as you don’t give him a reason not to honor his word, he won’t betray you. By the Dark Father, if everything goes according to plan, he won’t have much of a choice.”
“What? Why not?” Mira asked. She hurried to add, “Not that I want him to fuck me over.”
“If we pull this off, you’ll kill a demon that’s an order of magnitude stronger than Jorath. You’ll be practiced in your ability to steal heartstones. Jorath will have no choice but to cooperate, or you can just take his heartstone and use its power to get home without him, just like you’d originally planned.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s something. It’s nice to have a backup plan.”
“Sure,” Shy agreed. “You’ve just got to live to the end of this whole mess. How hard can that be, right? It’s not like the demon we’re after was responsible for the death of literally every demon hunter that was still alive at the end of the war.”
Mira’s nails dug into Jorath’s chest. Blood welled up around them, or something approximating blood at least. It was black and thick, and drizzled out around her fingers like leaking syrup. She bit her lip and looked up at his face.
“Would you like to keep trying?” he asked.
Tears came to Mira’s eyes and she pounded her other hand against Jorath’s chest. “God damn you. Just let me go home.”
“No. I still need you. When it’s over, if we both survive, I’ll send you back.”
Mira willed her fingers to pass through Jorath’s chest, but they remained stubbornly pressed up against his skin. With a snarl, she spun away from him and dashed the tears off her cheeks. Her half-formed hopes of finally leaving this nightmare behind were shattered. “I hate you,” she said.
“I know. I can live with that.”
Mira took a few seconds to compose herself before turning to face the demons. “Fine. What do you want from me?”
“How much have you learned about your lineage?” Jorath asked.
“My lineage? You mean that my ancestors came from your world and were demon hunters?”
“Yes, do you know why they were banished?”
Mira looked over at Shy. “Because they took some super badass demon’s heartstone and refused to give it up.”
“Essentially correct,” Jorath said. “After your ancestors were exiled, the remaining five clans built seals around the heartstone to keep its owner from ever reclaiming it. Even together, they couldn’t destroy it, so the next best solution was to lock it away behind a door that only a demon hunter could open.”
He stopped and smiled. “Of course, the demon didn’t know that. When he came back looking for it, he killed all the demon hunters. He was very thorough. Only a few, like myself and Shodo, were spared, and only so that we could become his new servants instead. It amused him, I think, to turn his hated enemies into the very thing we’d spent our lives fighting against.
“When he discovered what the clans had done, that he’d killed or corrupted every last person who could serve as the key to reclaiming his heartstone, his rage was so great that it leveled much of the Valdrite ancestral home. The King of Demons spent many years scouring our world in a futile search for the five seals and some means to break them.”
“Hold up,” Mira said. “You know about the sixth clan. He had to. They were the ones that defeated him. Why didn’t he just go that route immediately?”
“The master fears your family,” Shodo said. “Your ancestors defeated him at the height of his power. Even now, he’s barely an echo of his former strength. Jorath will be punished, severely, when Lord Ilrot discovers that he brought you here.”
“If he discovers,” Jorath corrected. “I have no intention of telling him until all five seals are broken. Then Mira can return to her own world. Everybody is happy.”
“What about the humans in this world?” Mira pointed out.
Jorath shrugged. “The war between demons and humans is already over. Lord Ilrot won. Getting back his heartstone will make him happy, but it won’t change much as far as the rest of this world’s destiny.”
“So that means we just help this asshole secure his position?” Mira said. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Because you want to go home,” Jorath said softly. “Because this is the only way you’ll get to.”
“Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people? You think I’d do that?”
“You considered it,” Shy spoke up. “I saw it in your eyes. Just for a moment, you weighed whether your happiness was worth whatever future suffering your actions tonight might cause. I’m not convinced you’re as sure of your decision as you’re acting.”
Mira faltered. “I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I hate this place. I hate what it’s made me do just to survive. You people are savages, and you’ve dragged me down into the mud with you. Well, no more. No, I’m not doing this. I’m done playing this your way.”
Shodo chuckled. “You thought she’d say this, Jorath? I assume that’s why you asked for my help.”
“I considered it as a possibility. I would have rather wasted the favor and not needed you than trip over this girl’s conscience and have to improvise.”
Mira looked back and forth between the two men. “What are you talking about?”
“Should I start now?” Shodo asked, rising from his seated position.
Jorath studied Mira, saw the defiance in her eyes. There was fear there, too, but not enough to bully her into cooperating.
“Yes,” he decided. “It’s the only way.”
* * *
Shy leaned against the door and watched Shodo work his magic. Even looking for it and seeing it from an outside perspective, she could only barely tell that he was doing anything at all. Figuring out what exactly was happening was impossible, at least from observation. It wasn’t hard to guess, though.
Mira was going to break the seal, whether she wanted to or not. Shodo’s mental manipulations would trick her into doing it. What’s more, he’d enjoy making it happen. Some former demon hunters were reluctant converts. Shodo wasn’t among them. He liked using his power.
Shy wasn’t thrilled with the idea of unlocking Ilrot’s heartstone. She had no doubt that if he regained his full powers, she would suffer for it. If nothing else, he wouldn’t tolerate a demon that wasn’t under his dominion, especially one like her. On the other hand, she didn’t expect Jorath to actually pull his scheme off, and if he or Mira died half way through, it wouldn’t matter.
That, she decided, was the best thing that could happen. If Mira died before breaking all the seals, then the Demon King would never get his heartstone back. Shy would still have repaid her debt to Jorath, and life could go on as usual. Of course, Jorath would likely be killed or banished to the Cloister, but that wasn’t really Shy’s problem.
In her opinion, that was the most likely outcome regardless of what she decided to do. Shy had been forced to intervene multiple times just to keep Mira alive to reach the first seal. Even when she’d thought the human would be safe in a city full of other humans, she’d still almost managed to get herself killed. Sooner or later, people would realize what Jorath was up to. There was no way he’d be able to keep it secret.
And all it took to stop him was killing one defenseless human. There was no way that girl was ever going home, not the way things stood. She’d be the most hunted person in the world before too long. Jorath had to know that, but he didn’t seem concerned. Shy wondered what he was planning.
Her train of thought was broken by a soft whimper from across the room. Mira had sunk down to her knees, and Shodo had his fingers nestled in her hair, no doubt pushed down into her scalp. Though Mira’s eyes were open, it was obvious she wasn’t seeing anything.
“How long will this take?” Shy asked.
Jorath looked at Shodo, who shook his head. “There’s no telling. The dreamscape is a delicate structure. It has to be layered properly so that the girl doesn’t tear through it. It will lead her to the door, and when she opens it, she will unwittingly break the seal here as well. How long that takes is completely up to her.”
“Are we safe in this room?”
Jorath answered her. “From the yith, yes. They’ll serve as guardians against any other threat in the city that has followed us. Once Huervas disappears…”
“I see. I’ll stay long enough to finish breaking this seal, just in case. Then we’re done.”
Shy didn’t like the smile on his face. She had to wonder what he knew that she didn’t.
* * *
It rained the day Mira’s father drove upstate for her graduation. Originally, it was just going to be him, but her sister had managed to swap shifts with someone at the last minute so she could come up too.
Mira spent the afternoon nervous, even though she knew there was no reason to be. After the years spent, and the money, it just seemed surreal that she was finally done. She kept expecting someone to come in and tell her that it was all a mistake, that she’d failed a class, that she wasn’t going to be graduating after all.
None of her friends seemed to have that problem. Half of them, in fact, were busy getting completely shit faced. That might actually be why, now that Mira thought of it. A cold beer could be just the thing.
Just as Mira was getting up, someone knocked on the door. The sound froze her in place. She knew who was on the other side. She knew what he was going to say. Her body moved on its own, leaving her a helpless passenger. There was nothing to do but witness the police officer giving her the news.
Inclement weather. Hydroplaned. Alcohol was a factor. Killed on impact. The words all jumbled together, not that any of them mattered. Her roommates had stopped talking behind her. Everything was silence, echoing the words back to her.
She watched the scene play out as an outside observer. There was time to study the stunned expressions on her roommates’ faces, even though she hadn’t been facing them, or even looked over her shoulder, at the time. The officer standing in the doorway was cast in shadow, obscuring detail that she should remember.
The shadow detached itself from him and strode toward her, the real her. It ghosted through the memory and crossed the room, transforming as it did to sprout long, ropy fingers and jagged spurs. With each step, it hunched over and spines grew from its back.
Before it could reach her, Mira turned and fled toward the stairs. Despite its size, it moved silently, and she found herself checking over her shoulder as she ran. It was following, but far enough away to give her hope of escape.
She sprinted into her room and slammed the door behind her, only to have it explode inward a moment later and send her sprawling to the carpet. Without missing a beat, she scrambled to her feet and dove out the open window.
There was half a second of feeling weightless before gravity took hold. Suddenly, it wasn’t the flat she’d shared in college she was tumbling past, but her childhood house. When she’d been six, she’d fallen out of a window on the second floor and broken her arm. It was just like that, right down to the crushed flower bed she’d cried in while her mother raced downstairs screaming her name.
The scene blurred to the hospital emergency room. The doctors had been seconds away from starting the xray when Mira’s mother had passed out. What had followed had been a month of torture with a terminal cancer diagnosis looming over the family’s head. Mira watched herself standing next to the bed, one hand in her father’s while her little sister’s fingers gripped her other arm above the cast.
The doctor walked in, and fell forward into the floor. In his place was the shadow monster. It leapt forward and Mira’s father was engulfed in darkness. Mira screamed and scooped up her sister before dashing past the shadows out into the hospital hallway.
As she ran, she was herself, twenty two again, still carrying her sister as a toddler. The shadow monster spilled out into the hallway and surged after her while nurses and doctors went about their business, unnoticing or uncaring of Mira’s cries for help.
She shoulder checked a door and pushed through to find herself in a bathroom. Instead of long rows of sinks and stalls, it was the cramped thing she’d had in her apartment. If she’d been a little bit taller, she could have touched opposite walls at the same time. There certainly wasn’t enough room for her and the shadow creature in there at the same time.
That didn’t stop it though. It seeped under the door, a pool of liquid black ooze that backed Mira into a corner, where glass crunched under her shoe. She looked down to see a broken wine glass, the largest shard’s edge covered in blood. Sudden stinging pain flared on her wrist, and she noted with horror the blood running down her arm.
Then the creature caught her in its great ropy hands and everything went black. Smothering pressure pushed her down, drove her into a bed of cold, wet straw that stank of mildew and sweat. When she could see again, she was in her jail cell from Vinmarch, and the mercenary who’d planned on raping her was looming over the bed.
“Gonna make you pay,” he leered at her. “Gonna make it hurt.”
“No,” she screamed and kicked out. He caught her foot and dragged her out of the bed. Nothing Mira did freed her from his grasp. She scratched and bit, kicked and drove her elbow into him. Blood streamed from the gashes she inflicted on his face, from his broken nose, and out the corner of his mouth, but he ignored it all and laughed.
Then he was gone, a corpse lying on the floor with a dagger sticking out of it. Shy stood over her and laughed. “Stupid, pathetic girl. Too weak to even save yourself. How could you have ever saved anyone else?”
“No, you’re wrong.”
“Am I?” Shy pressed. “You couldn’t save your mother, couldn’t save your sister. Your whole family is dead. I saved you over and over again, from Kull, from the fairies, from the yith. When have you ever done anything for yourself?”
“I beat Kull at the Weeping Man,” Mira said.
Shy laughed. “Using my power, you mean? Without the serpent on your arm, he’d have killed you. Face it, you’re worthless.”
Jorath walked through the door. “You have worth to me, for what you are, if nothing else. Isn’t that enough?”
“Fuck you,” Mira said. “I don’t care what either of you think about me.”
“No? Is that why you have no friends, why you work for minimum wage at as a nametag and a hat? Because the employers are just lining up to bid for your skills?”
“Face it,” Jorath said. “You’re trapped. Nowhere to go, nobody to miss you. You might as well do what I want. I’m the only one who wants anything from you. The rest of the world won’t even care that you disappeared.”
But really, when she thought about, Mira wasn’t sure they were wrong. The only people missing her were the bill collectors. Even to them, she’d just be a write off at the end of the quarter when the police determined she was missing, probably dead. Her landlord would give away her stuff, her cat would go to the shelter, if it wasn’t already dead. For some reason, she was sure it was.
“Just give in,” the faceless shadows whispered as they curled around her.
“No.” Mira stood tall. She still had friends. Even if her family was gone, that didn’t mean they were forgotten. Just because her life wasn’t perfect didn’t mean it didn’t have value. She still had dreams, hopes, and ambitions.
“I’m not worthless.” She took a step forward, and the shadow retreated.
“You’re nothing. Nothing but lies and fears and petty little black doubts crawling through my dreams. You don’t know me. You don’t define who I am.”
The shadow split down the middle. Mira walked through it to the door, into the light.
* * *
The symbols painted onto the stone glowed brightly, each one distinct and separate from its neighbor. They swam across the wall into a giant circle, then started spinning. Faster and faster they went around until Mira cried out and slumped forward. Only Shodo’s fingers in her hair kept her from hitting the floor.
Jorath wasn’t watching her though. He was staring at the symbols, which had frozen in place. Cracks appeared in the stone. Their jagged edges cut through the symbols, and where they split, the lights went out. Slowly at first, then faster as the network of cracks spread, the light faded away until the room was left in darkness.
Jorath took his eyes from the wall then, to look at Mira. Slowly, a smile crept across his lips.
“Hey, make some noise or something!” Mira hissed into the dark.
“Sorry,” Shodo said. “Over here. Put your hand on my shoulder.”
Mira grabbed a fistful of shirt and allowed Shodo to lead her down a lightless hallway. She shuffled along, doing her best not to trip in the dark and only partially succeeding. Shodo never gave more than a brief grunt when she put weight on him, which happened frequently. She imagined it probably hurt him a great deal, what with the leg that was still leaving fresh, wet, slippery blood on the floor.
“Almost there now,” he said.
“That’s great. When can we get some light?”
“Once we’re safely behind the barrier that protects the Reliquary,” Shodo said. “Though it should-”
He cut off and stopped so abruptly that Mira ran into him, sending them both staggering. “Hey, what are-”
“Hush,” he whispered. “Look.”
Two pinpricks of red light, close together, gleamed in the darkness. A chittering call came from them, and within moments, a dozen more had joined them. Mira swallowed and took a step back.
“Can we run?” she whispered.
“They’re blocking our way forward. We could go around, but it’s take three times as long and there’s no guarantee there won’t be more of them. That’s assuming we can get away from this pack.”
“So what do we do?”
“Fight,” Shodo said, shaking Mira’s hand free and stepping forward.
“Are you kidding me? I can’t even see my hand in front of my face!”
“You misunderstand,” he said. “I fight. You stay here, invisible and quiet.”
Mira tried to count the sets of eyes advancing toward them. Some belonged to yith clinging to the walls, and there were even two sets far enough up that Mira suspected they hung upside down from the ceiling. “This is insane,” she told Shodo. “We ran from four of them. There’s way more now.”
“Yes.” Shodo sounded troubled. “But there are more behind, and safety is ahead. I don’t see any other choice.”
There was a soft rustle as he moved away, and Mira was alone in the dark. Moments later, the yiths’ chittering became shrieks and the sound of flesh smacking against flesh echoed down the corridor. The red gleaming eyes all converged on one point, and Mira got a vague sense of motion from watching them.
Shodo’s tactic seemed to involve knocking the yith away so that they couldn’t bury him under the weight of numbers, but it was doing nothing more than delaying the inevitable. None of them stayed down for more than a few seconds, or at least if they did, Mira couldn’t tell.
A minute went by with her doing nothing but standing frozen in the darkness while the sounds of fighting filled the hall. Something flitted past her head and she gave a startled gasp. Whatever it was though, it was gone before she could react to it.
“Good,” Shodo said with a grunt. The sound of a yith smacking into the stone wall came from near his voice. “Sooner would be better.”
Thirty seconds later, the hallway lit up behind her. A bear made seemingly of reflective obsidian plates, its joints and eyes glowing red, trundled toward her. Walking behind it was Shy. She took in the situation at a glance and the bear lumbered forward to join Shodo.
In the molten red glow of the bear, Mira could see the old man as a bloody mess. His shoulders slumped in exhaustion, but he still managed to snap a spinning kick into the face of the next yith that leaped at him. As he did, a second latched onto his back, and he pivoted to slam it into the wall.
Shy stopped next to Mira and held a hand up. One of her rings drifted out of the shadows of the battle to join with one that floated behind her and become an interlocking pair. Both of them sunk down onto Shy’s wrist, which was curiously bare of any other designs.
Shy caught Mira’s look and shook her head. “They’re out there, working,” she said, waving a hand vaguely behind her. “Some of them, at least. Some are dead.”
“How can a tattoo die?” Mira asked.
“Did you think they weren’t alive?” Shy shot a pointed look at the serpent looped around Mira’s own arm. It had been quiet and still for days, so much so that Mira had forgotten about it.
“Why didn’t you call the basilisk to help Shodo?” Shy asked.
“I don’t know how,” Mira said. “And I never thought to anyway.”
“Stupid girl. You have a weapon on your arm that most humans would kill for, and it never occurred to you to use it to save your own life?”
“I’m kind of new to this,” Mira snapped. “Up until a month ago, I didn’t have a lot of life-or-death situations to deal with.”
“I suggest you learn quickly, then.”
A year ago, Mira’s biggest concerns had involved passing her finals and dealing with her roommate, who was permanently drunk. Graduation had been a bittersweet moment tainted with her family’s death, and then it had been name tag jobs and trying to bank some money before her student loans started coming due. The application process for any sort of real job had been frustrating and futile.
She’d take it all back in a second if it meant not being in that dark hallway watching a bear made out of obsidian glass and molten lava battle a swarm of flesh-eating raccoon monsters while a demon who looked like an old Chinese kung fu master bled out from being bitten and clawed at. Hell, she’d even take the telemarketers and that annoyingly flirty coworker who was always trying to get in her pants.
That wasn’t going to happen though. Instead, she focused on the snake, the basilisk, as Shy had called it, on her arm. She willed it to come to life, and it responded by slithering down her hand to drip off her fingers into a puddle of blue that surged upward into three dimensional life.
Mira fought through the river of needle pinpricks it left in its wake, though by all rights she felt like her arm should be a raw, bloody mess. She winced and shook it a few times, which did nothing to ease the pain. Shy saw the motion and smirked at her.
“When does it stop hurting?” Mira asked.
Unbidden, the image of tattoos writhing up and down Shy’s arm came to Mira’s mind. “So, when they move around on your arms…”
“Like they’re being tattooed fresh with each and every little squirm.”
Mira stared at Shy in horror. “That’s torture. Why would you put yourself through that?”
Shy shrugged. “My power is in binding my blood with ink. This is how I express that power. Doing anything else would be denying what I am, and leave me defenseless besides.”
The serpent- no, basilisk- slithered forward to join Shodo and the obsidian bear. It was by no means a clean or quick fight, but their combined effort was enough to kill the yith. Not a single one fled, not even the very last. It died in the bear’s jaws, caught out of the air as it lunged at Shodo.
He drew himself up despite the obviously excruciating pain he was in and beckoned the two ladies toward him. “We must reach the Reliquary quickly, before we are attacked again.”
“What about Jorath?” Mira asked.
“He will meet us there.” Shodo paused. “Or he won’t. Either way, if we do not hurry, we won’t make it ourselves.”
* * *
Mira couldn’t have said exactly what it was that changed when they entered the Reliquary. It was something in the air, maybe, some unseen sensation that tingled against her skin. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it wasn’t so uncomfortable that it was irritating. It was simply there, to be acknowledged and ignored.
Based on the scowl on Shy’s face, Mira guessed that she felt otherwise. Though the demon did her best to hide it, she was nervous about something. The few remaining tattoos visible on her arms writhed about in agitation too, reminding Mira of their brief conversation about the pain they caused with each twitch.
Shodo did something at the door. Mira couldn’t see what it was, not in the dim bear-light, but whatever it was, it gave her goosebumps and set the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing straight up. When he finished, he relaxed with an audible sigh and sunk down to sit with his back against the door.
Dim light appeared in the form of windows built into the walls, though it was dark out. Mira walked over to look out one, only to discover that there was no view past the window. Blinking, she shot a questioning look at Shodo, who smiled back.
“An illusion, nothing more. The builders felt, for some reason, that windows were the appropriate framing for the magical light. They could have just as easily crafted it in the form of a torch or chandelier, but they didn’t.”
Shy licked her lips and let her eyes roam around the room. “Where is it?” she asked. “I don’t see it.”
“You wouldn’t,” Shodo replied. “It is shrouded against demons. Even I couldn’t tell you its exact location, and I am very good at seeing through illusions.”
“Excuse me, what are you talking about?” Mira asked.
“The seal. That’s the whole reason the Reliquary exists. It protects the seal from demons,” Shy said.
“Ok.” Mira drew the word out. “This leads me to several new questions. First, what the hell is this seal? Second, if the Reliquary, which I think is this room, protects the seal from demons, how are you in here?”
“The seal is complicated. Jorath can explain it to you better than I can,” Shodo said. “For the rest though, the Reliquary pushes demons away. For weak demons, it shuts them out completely. That’s why we’re safe from the yith in here, though they aren’t truly demons. Their threat is in their numbers, not their individual strength. For stronger demons, it takes some effort to force our way in, saps us of our strength the longer we remain, but entry is a hindrance, not an impossibility.”
“Jorath.” Mira said flatly. “Are you sure he’s going to make it?”
Shy and Shodo shared a look. “He will, or he won’t. I doubt the yith can kill him. The problem tonight was transporting you safely. Now that we’ve done that, he’ll be able to slip away from them easily,” the old man said. “For now, we wait, and recover.”
Mira thought she was too full of energy to rest, but she found that after the terror of their run through an abandoned city had drained away, sitting down sounded like the perfect idea. She found herself in a position similar to Shodo’s, with her back against a wall and studying the pattern of symbols scrawled across the back wall.
“What do these all mean?” she asked.
But Shodo didn’t answer. When Mira looked over, she saw his eyes closed and his chin resting on his chest. Next to him, Shy stood with her arms crossed staring at her boots. Sighing, Mira went back to her examination in silence.
* * *
Jorath appeared from a black rent in the air. He dropped out with a meaty thump to land in a pile of limbs and shredded clothing. With obvious difficulty, he sorted himself out and regained his feet.
The rent disappeared with a wave of his hand. “Tell me,” he said to Shodo, “Is everything ready?”
The old man climbed to his feet. “All but the explaining. I thought it would be best if I left that for you, so you could tell the girl exactly what you want her to know.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Jorath said. “Explanations are in order, then.”
Mira was on her feet, standing squarely in front of Jorath. “I’m not interested in your little plan. From what I understand, you’re the reason I’m stuck on this world. You’re my ticket home. So do it. Send me back.”
Jorath shook his head. “I’ve invested too much in the success of this project. Without you, it all falls apart.”
“That’s not really my problem,” Mira shot back. “Maybe you should have asked if I was willing to help instead of kidnapping me.”
“There is no one else. You’re the last of your line. You are quite literally the only person in all of existence that can make this happen.”
“Gee, that sure doesn’t sound like my problem.”
Jorath shrugged. “When it’s over, I’ll have no more use for you. I will open a rift through the void that leads back to your home world for you then.”
“You know,” Mira said, stepping closer. “All this business about being the last of my line, I hear I’m a member of some exiled demon hunter clan. I can pull out demons’ hearts and take their powers for my own.”
She rested a hand on Jorath’s chest. “What’s stopping me from just doing it to you and using your power to go home right now?”
If he was afraid, he didn’t show it. Instead, he reached up a hand to rip off the tattered remnant of his shirt. Bare flesh, crossed with old scars and fresh wounds, met Mira’s fingers. He was cold, much colder than she’d expected him to be, like pressing her hand up against a freezer door.
“We might as well get this over with,” Jorath said. “You are young, untrained. There is potential there, I think, but you don’t even have conscious control over your abilities. Try. Take my heartstone, if you can.”
“You think I won’t?” Mira practically screamed it. “You think this is some kind of a game? Some stupid test? You made my life a living hell. You deserve to die for that.”
“Maybe. I don’t really care one way or another. I’m betting you, here and now, with my heartstone as the stake, that you can’t take it from me.”
Mira’s hand spasmed once, and she dug her nails into Jorath’s skin. She pushed forward, seeking that chunk of rock hidden inside his chest where a human’s heart would be.
A jagged black tear split the air open near the door and a man stepped out of it. His clothes were torn and it looked like he’d been drenched by a bucket of black paint. Cuts covered his face, the same black seeping out of them as what covered his clothes.
He surveyed the room with eyes that looked like pools of his strange black blood, eyes that were almost hypnotic to look into. Mira took an unconscious step backward and jerked her gaze away. The movement drew his attention in the form of a stone-faced stare.
“We have to retreat deeper into the ruins. The yith are starting to overrun the outer terrace,” he said.
“That could be a problem. Mira can’t pass through the nether with us,” Shy said with a frown. “We’d have to abandon her.”
“Hey!” Mira said.
“No. Leaving her to die would have unacceptable consequences. We’ll have to fight off the yith or sneak past them.”
“A tall order,” Shodo said. “I could probably hide myself from them, perhaps the girl as well. That’s assuming there aren’t too many?”
“I killed thirty, at least. That wasn’t even half of them.” Jorath frowned and looked over his shoulder at the door. “They’re closing in on us. If we don’t move soon, we’ll be trapped.”
“Leave Shodo to hide Mira with his magic. The two of us will travel through the nether to a safe location,” Shy suggested.
Jorath gave her a withering glare. “She’s more important to me than you are, Annidra.”
“Hate that name,” Shy muttered. “Fine, then what? We fight off a couple hundred yith? You look like you’re ready to fall over already.”
Jorath eyed the tattoos on Shy’s arms. “We don’t have to fight them. We just need to distract them. If we create a diversion and draw their attention away from this area of the city, Shodo can move Mira to a safer location. There’s a chamber under the castle that we can seal up from the inside.”
“Oh no, you don’t mean…” Shy trailed off. Jorath stared at her, unblinking, until she continued. “Is that why we’re here? You know your master will kill you if he finds out you’ve been in there.”
“A risk I’m willing to take.”
“Excuse me,” Mira said. “Could someone tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“You explain it,” Jorath told Shodo. “We’ve got work to do. See you there.”
Shy stepped past Jorath and into the rift. He followed behind her and it closed, leaving Mira alone with Shodo, who shook his head and sighed. “Damned unlucky timing,” he muttered. “ Huervas’s schedule has never been predictable. It would have been better to find a safe place to wait out the red moon before he attempted this.”
Shodo ignored her and scratched as his chin while he stared at the door. With another sigh, he said, “We might as well get this over with then.”
“Get what over with?” Mira demanded, exasperated.
“The Toshi clan’s dominion was the mind. We made clever use of illusions, telepathy, even implanted memories, to outwit our prey. I’m going to make the two of us invisible to the yith while we walk to the Toshi Reliquary.”
Mira wasn’t sure about all of that. She vaguely remembered something in science class years ago about light reflecting off the pupil, and that if a person could actually become invisible, they’d also be blind since light would go right through them. If they were going that route, it seemed like it’d be a better idea to just sit tight.
“How far is this place… the Reliquary? And what is it, for that matter?”
“Not too far. Half an hour’s walk if we’re not interrupted,” Shodo said. “You’ll see when we get there. But it’s time to get started now. We need to take advantage of the distraction our companions have created for us.”
Mira waited for something to happen, split between curiosity and dread. Shodo started out the door, then stopped and gestured for Mira to follow. “Aren’t you going to-” she started, but Shodo cut her off with an upraised hand.
“Make as little noise as possible. The invisibility doesn’t extend to noise or smell, just sight. The yith have keen noses, so we’re relying on the confusion caused by them not being able to see us.”
“But I can see you!” Mira said.
“Yes, we can see each other. But no one else can see either of us. At least, not with their eyes.”
Mira didn’t feel any different. She looked down at her arm, which was as solid as ever. She even waved a hand in front of her face, but nothing looked strange to her. With no choice but to take Shodo’s word for it, she followed him up the stairs and out into the night.
The city was just as abandoned as it had been when Shy had led her through ten minutes earlier. They walked down empty streets as quickly and quietly as they could, though her hard-soled boots and an entirely open city made for some strange acoustics. More than once, Mira thought she heard something nearby, but whatever Jorath and Shy were doing was working.
Shodo led her in anything but a straight line. More than once, they stopped and waited for no reason that she could see, and a few times they threw caution to the winds and sprinted several blocks before slowing back down again. Throughout all of it, Mira never once caught sight of the mysterious yith.
She wondered what the creatures looked like. They were small, supposedly, but ferocious. In her mind, they became something that looked like the giant spider tattoo of Shy’s, and Mira found herself watching the walls and second story windows more than the street.
Shodo grabbed her arm and pulled her into an empty house. She opened her mouth to say something, but his hand clamped over it with surprising strength. He looked her straight in the eye and slowly shook his head before releasing his grip.
The two of them stood at a window, the glass of which was so covered in dust it was difficult to see through. Something a little bit bigger than Mira’s cat and low to the ground scuttled down the street. She couldn’t make out more than its shape through the window, but it was easy enough to see when a second one joined it.
Mira tugged on Shodo’s sleeve to get his atention and mouthed, “Yith?” He nodded and went back to looking out the window. As they watched, a third, then a fourth joined it. They raised their heads in unison and sniffed at the air. Shodo’s mouth hardened into a line and he pulled Mira farther back into the house.
“Stay,” he whispered into her ear. He padded back to the door and waited, still as a statue, for something to cross the threshold.
When it finally did, Mira had to stifle a confused laugh. The creature, the yith, if that’s what it was, had four short stubby legs and a striped tail. Black patches circled its eyes. “A raccoon?” she said out loud.
Instantly, the raccon’s head snapped up to stare in her direction. All the sudden, it didn’t look so innocent. Red light reflected off its eyes as it studied the interior of the house. Slowly, its nose in the air, it advanced into the room.
Shodo drove his foot down toward the raccoon’s skull. Instead of dashing it across the floor, the raccoon slipped aside and latched onto his leg. Blood blossomed from a dozen small cuts as its hands and feet shredded Shodo’s skin. Without hesitation, he spun around and kicked out to slam the raccoon into the wall. It let go of his leg and fell, dazed, to the floor.
This time, Shodo’s stomp found its skull. A sharp crack rang out through the house, then nothing. He picked the raccoon up by its scruff and limped away from the door while glaring at Mira. The body was thrown into a back room and the old man resumed his post.
It didn’t take long for the other three to show up. The fresh blood and the sound of violence drew them in quickly. This time, Mira kept her mouth shut. The raccoons followed their noses into the room that contained the body of their companion. Mira could hear them tearing strips of flesh off it all the way from the other side of the house.
Shodo caught her eye and gestured for her to follow him. Together, they crept out of the house and down the street. He had both hands clamped on his bleeding leg, but even so, a slow dribble of blood stained the streets behind him. Its fresh crimson made a stark contrast to the rust colored stones.
“The yith will follow the blood scent,” he whispered to her. “We have to be quick now. There’s no outrunning them. If they catch up to us, it’ll be all over.”
“I don’t understand,” Mira said. “Those are just raccoons.”
“Young lady, trust me when I say that those are not like any animal on your world. They’re smart, good trackers, pack hunters. And they’ll eat absolutely anything with meat on it. Now come on. We’ve got to reach the castle before they find us.”
“So let’s find a house that still has a door and lock ourselves in. For that matter, why didn’t we just stay together before?”
“They’ll tear through a wooden door in minutes, at most. If they can find a window or chimney to come through, they’ll do that. When the yith want inside something, it’s very difficult to keep them out.”
“I don’t get it,” Mira said. “How have these things not killed everybody if they’re that bad?”
“No time now,” Shodo said. “We’ll talk later.”
They ran then. At first, Mira was worried about Shodo’s ability to keep up with an injured leg, but he soon proved to be the faster of the two. It was all she could do to maintain the pace, and after a few blocks, she started to fall behind. Shodo slowed his pace just enough to accommodate her.
“There,” he huffed as they ran. “Through that gate and into the castle proper.”
They veered off the street and into an open run leading up to a castle, only to come to an abrupt halt when a dozen of the raccoon-looking yith appeared around them. They spread out into a loose circle around the two people and advanced slowly. Their positions made it clear that they didn’t know exactly where Mira and Shodo were, but they had a close enough guess that they were going to find their soon-to-be meal anyway.
Mira tried to keep her breathing as shallow as possible, but sprinting half a mile and with terror filling her gut, each breath came out as a ragged gasp. The yiths could hear it too. Though Shodo was the one bleeding, it was her they were closing in on.
She looked around for another house to duck into, something with a door she could lock and close. Unfortunately, the street leading up to the castle didn’t have anything like that. It was all open field for at least a hundred feet from the walls. Going back wasn’t an option either. Enough of the yith had come from behind them that they’d blocked off the street.
A black rent split the air and Jorath stepped through. He lifted his hands, and the yith’s shadows came to life. They sprang off the ground to leap upon their owners. Blood splattered across the stone as shadowy claws ripped through flesh. The pack of yith was caught offguard for only a second before they launched themselves at Jorath.
His shadow surged forward and up into a solid physical shape that blocked the first few yith from passing, but there were too many and he knew it. Jorath took off running into the open field, dozens of yith streaming after him and ignoring the shadows tearing into them. They ran far faster than any raccoon Mira had ever seen, and were on him in seconds.
Not all of them went, though. The ones whose shadows hadn’t animated were still focused on Mira and Shodo, who was standing with one foot in a small pool of his own blood. The two of them edged toward a gap in the new circle, newly formed when the majority of the yith had ran off.
An explosion lit the sky back in the city, followed by a roar so loud that it rocked Mira back on her heels. The yith all turned their attention from stalking Mira and Shodo to the noise. Chittering clicks passed back and forth between them, and the group split in two.
The time hadn’t been wasted. Mira was now almost through the castle gate, with Shodo walking backwards and keeping an eye on the remaining yith. With only four of them left instead of the original thirty or forty, she felt like they had a fighting chance.
The reached some sort of courtyard. Mira looked to Shodo for guidance, who nodded toward a shadowy patch on the far wall that she took for some sort of door. Upon reaching it, however, she discovered that it was actually the opening into some sort of hallway. Without a door, they couldn’t close it against the yith who were still following them.
Worse, she thought she could hear scrambling inside. It was too dark to make out any movement, and the thought of walking into pitch blackness that might hold flesh-eating raccoons wasn’t a pleasant one. Shodo didn’t hesitate though. He limped past Mira, looking far greyer than when they’d first met and moving much slower than he’d been a few minutes ago.
Without much of a choice, especially if she wanted her shot at Jorath, she followed him into the darkness.
Mira shivered and pulled her new cloak tighter around her. Autumn was coming in now, and the wind had a chill bite to it. Just watching Shy walk with her arms exposed gave Mira goosebumps. The demon didn’t feel the cold, however. It was only after Mira flatly refused to leave the last village without purchasing something to keep her warm that she’d even noticed it.
They’d been traveling for two weeks. Shy wouldn’t tell Mira their destination, only that they were getting closer. As enticement, she’d let slip one night that Jorath was supposed to meet them there.
The journey had been peaceful, if tiring, except for one chance encounter with a demon covered in spikes and spurs, so many that its body was barely visible. Its face had two ivory tusks jutting up out of its mouth, both so long that they curled up past its forehead. It had taken a single look at Shy, then disappeared back into the hole it had crawled out of.
They’d left the forested lands behind and traveled east. It had all gotten to be routine, so Mira was surprised when they settled down to sleep that night and Shy released a pair of ring tattoos from her wrist. Each expanded until it was about a foot in diameter. One floated away, while the other hovered at eye level.
“What are you doing?” Mira asked.
“Huervas is up tonight. The yith will be out hunting.”
“Ok, you’re going to have to explain that better.”
Shy didn’t look away from the ring in front of her. “Huervas, the red moon. It shows up for three nights every few months. Something about it affects the yith. Normally, they live in a slightly out-of-phase version of reality, but when Huervas is in the sky, they cross over.”
Mira looked up to see a small red orb in the sky, about a quarter the size of the normal moon she’d been seeing every night. “Huh. I wonder where it is the rest of the time,” she said aloud.
“Who cares?” Shy said. “The important thing is the moon is a warning. Yith are always hungry. You can’t reason with them or intimidate them. They don’t run away. It’s kill or be killed, and there’s no such thing as a single yith. If you see one, rest assured a hundred more are nearby.”
“Are they strong? Can we fight them?”
“Five or ten? Sure. It won’t be five or ten though. Best thing for us to do is not run into them. If I find any, we’ll be walking through the night. If they find us, we’ll be running instead of walking.”
With that comforting thought, Mira settled down to sleep. It wouldn’t come though. Every little noise jumped out at her, kept her heart rate up. A kind of nervous tension came over her, so much so that she almost wished this monster would just get it over with and jump out of the bushes.
It didn’t happen like that. Mira didn’t even realize she’d dozed off until Shy shook her awake. “Come on,” she whispered. “There’s a pack a few miles away from us heading in this direction. We need to go farther south.”
Wearily, Mira climbed to her feet and followed the demon into the dark. She never saw or heard anything, but more than once Shy abruptly changed direction. The ring floated along next to her, off to one side, and Shy spent as much time looking through it as she did watching where she was going.
They didn’t stop until daybreak. As the sun crested the horizon, Shy let out a relieved sigh. The second ring reappeared, interlocked with the first, and both shrunk down to a bare inch in diameter each as they were absorbed into her wrist. “Get some rest. We’re close enough to the meeting spot to make it before dusk tonight if we push.”
Mira was too keyed up to go back to sleep, but just sitting down for an hour was a huge improvement. They ate the last of their leftovers from the last village they’d passed through while they rested. While they were eating, Mira asked, “What is this place we’re going to?”
“An old city called Kaldaros,” Shy said. “It was broken by the demons during the First Breach hundreds of years ago. They say it’s cursed now, that anyone who enters will be driven insane.”
“Oh… Why are we going there again?”
Shy shrugged. “I didn’t ask. I don’t really care. All I have to do is get you there. Then my part is done. You and Jorath can do whatever you want to each other. Kill him, for all I care. Or get killed by him, more likely.”
“Cheery,” Mira muttered. The thought of finally facing the man who’d taken her from her life and abandoned her in some medieval fantasy world full of demons and fairies and who knew what else was more than enough motivation to get her moving. When they started up again, Mira had no problems keeping up.
They walked down a deserted road all that day, one that was barely more than a straight line of dirt patches and two parallel wheel ruts long overgrown with grass. It bisected the grasslands as far as she could see, deviating only to circle around the broad hills that dotted the landscape.
Late in the afternoon, the walls of the city came into view. They were grey and broken things. The first one had looped around a hill, and it was only standing in patches. The interior walls, higher up the slope of the hill, were in better shape, but still showed great charred patches and jagged rents.
“This place is huge,” Mira remarked. “Did Jorath tell you where exactly he’d be in it?”
“He’ll know when we get there,” Shy said, “and send out a guide to lead us to him.”
That was all the information Shy was willing to volunteer, no matter how many more questions Mira asked. Eventually, the demon grew sick of it and curtly told Mira to stop talking. The last few hours of the trip was made in silence tinged with open hostility. Mira decided she wouldn’t mind being rid of Shy either.
Shy led her to a gaping chasm in the walls a hundred feet wide. “Once, the gates of Kaldaros stood here,” she said. “ Humanity made its stand in the square just beyond it and was broken by the king of demons. The history books tell us that what followed was a generation of nightmares for your kind until one of your ancestors took the king’s heartstone from him and drove the demons back with its power.”
“That’s… uh… nice, I guess,” Mira said, trying not to roll her eyes. “How come it isn’t all overgrown like everything else?”
“Nothing grows here,” Shy said. “Not since the day the city fell.”
It was an eerie thing, walking through an empty city. Row after row of empty houses lined the streets, doors hanging open or gone altogether. All of it was perfectly preserved, including the damage from the invasion. Here and there, entire squares had been smashed into piles of debris. Streets terminated in huge pits with cracks a foot wide radiating out from them.
“I thought you said Jorath was going to know when we got here,” Mira said. “It’s been an hour of wandering around.”
“Yes.” Shy looked troubled. “Maybe we beat him here. We are ahead of schedule, thanks to the yith.”
Dusk fell as they walked, and the red moon rose up overhead. It cast the abandoned city in an odd, rust-colored light, almost like old blood stains. The only thing keeping Mira there was the chance of getting a shot at Jorath, not that it would matter if he never showed his face.
After another hour of exploring, Shy stopped and pointed. “There, that’s the sign.”
“I don’t see anything,” Mira said.
“On the wall. That shadow.”
Once Shy had pointed it out, Mira could see a man shaped silhouette against the stone, though there was nothing there to cast the shadow. It turned and walked away from them, stopping only to jump off the wall and splash against the next house in the line.
It reformed and took off, almost too fast for Mira to keep up with. Soon, both of the women were sprinting down the street chasing after it. Mira ducked her head and focused on her breathing, but Shy let loose a steady stream of swearing that increased in volume every time the shadow jumped buildings.
They turned a corner to see the shadow disappear into an open door three houses down. By the time they reached the door, it was nowhere to be seen. Mira hesitated, but Shy started in. When Mira didn’t follow, Shy turned around and grabbed her arm.
“What if it’s a trap?” Mira asked, still huffing from the run.
“Why would it be a trap?”
“I don’t know! But look, this doorway leads to stairs that go underground. It’s too dark to see down there, and who knows what’s waiting for us?”
Shy rolled her eyes and walked into the dark. “Do what you want,” she called back up. “I doubt Jorath is going to let you walk away, not when you’re this close.”
A light flared up on the stairs, just before they turned a corner. Hesitantly, Mira started down. The light never got closer, but it wasn’t so far away that she couldn’t make out the crumbling steps beneath her feet. They turned a few more times before ending outside a closed door. Shy stood next to it, a flickering orange light clinging to her hair.
Mira peered at it curiously. Whatever it was, it was alive. It crawled down Shy’s hair to perch on her shoulder, its skin glowing. Once Mira got close enough, she could see that it looked like some sort of lizard, maybe six inches long. Shy smirked at her and held a hand up for the lizard to hop into.
“A baby salamander,” she explained. “They’re not hot enough to burn when they’re this young. Of course, the real ones don’t stay small long enough to be useful, but this version is forever.”
She pulled open the door to reveal a long room that ran straight into the darkness. “There’s someone here,” Shy said, peering into the room.
“Well, yeah, there’s supposed to be.”
“Not Jorath.” Shy walked through the door and let the salamander down to scuttle across the floor. “Who’s there?”
“An associate of his,” a man’s voice called back from the shadows at the far end of the room. “He asked for my assistance, but was forced to leave to deal with the problems caused by Huervas.”
A tattoo writhed down Shy’s arm to drop from her hand to the floor, growing as it fell. When it landed, the spider from the Weeping Man was crouched on the floor next to her. Now that it wasn’t flying through the air, Mira got a good look at it, and it was terrifying. Its back was about 8 inches off the ground, and its legs could probably wrap completely around her head. Short, bristly black fur covered its body except for a dark green line running down its thorax.
Shy sent the spider and the baby salamander forward with a gesture. “Don’t take this personally, but until I’ve verified that, don’t make any sudden moves.”
“My dear, what makes you think your pet threatens me in the slightest?” the voice asked, amusement in his tone.
The salamander reached the voice then. Its light revealed an old man sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cane balanced across his knees. His hair, what remained of it, was pulled back into a long tail, and his face was a mass of wrinkles bisected by scar tissue. He wore a loose shirt with wide sleeves and pants that puddled around him on the floor.
“Toshi clansman!” Shy yelped. “How? Your kind should be dead.”
“All the ones who didn’t submit to the master are, of course,” the man said. “My name is Shodo. And you are the ink demon who calls herself Shy. That must make this other young woman the reason we’re all here.”
“Dark Father preserve me,” Shy uttered. For the first time since Mira had met her, she actually looked afraid. “I’m not going back. I’ll die first.”
“You’ll do as you’re told, because you don’t have a choice. But do not worry, I’m not here to return you home. My presence is purely as a favor for Jorath.”
“Um, not to be rude,” Mira put in, “but what the hell is going on and why do you look like a walking Chinese kung fu master stereotype?”
“That is a rather long story, but suffice to say that you do not represent the first interaction between this world and yours. My own family, several thousand years ago, colonized a part of your world. I suspect it would be more accurate to say that our styles and mannerisms were adopted by the humans of Earth rather than the other way around.”
“Demons live on Earth?” Mira asked, shooting a questioning glance at Shy.
“No, this was well before the Toshi clan became demons. Back then, we were the demon hunters, and a branch of the family grew tired of the life. They wished for a world without demons, and relocated to yours. In doing so, of course, they became residents of a world without magic.”
“It was the Toshi clan that recommended your own ancestors be banished to Earth,” Shy added. “I suspect the experience of their own family migrating there inspired the idea.”
“Too true,” Shodo said. “But I’m afraid we don’t have any more time for history lessons. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Jorath is returning to us.”
“Where’s the other demon at?” Kull demanded, one hand locked on Mira’s shoulder. She tried to jerk away, and he backhanded her to floor. “I’m not asking again.”
“I don’t know where she is,” Mira said. “She disappeared one night weeks ago. I haven’t seen her since then. And I’m not a demon! How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“Right. That’s why you’ve got demon marks on your arm.”
Kull pulled a dagger from his belt and flipped it to hold it reversed. “This is going into your chest in about ten seconds if you can’t tell me the truth.”
“What the fuck!” Wren yelled. Mira couldn’t help but smile a bit to herself, despite the danger of the situation. Wren had picked up every swear word Mira knew with admirable efficiency.
“This is none of your business,” Kull said. “Just be thankful I was here to catch this demon before she burned the place down.”
One of the glass baubles went flying at Kull’s face. He swatted it aside, but Wren wasn’t finished. A second, then third, tumbled through the air. They shattered against the arm he held up to protect himself, but Kull caught the fourth. He hurled it back at Wren and it exploded in a shower of glittering slivers where it struck her skull. Wren dropped like a rock and thumped when she hit the floor.
“Hmph,” Kull said. “You weren’t even that good a lay.”
“You son of a bitch. I didn’t do a damn thing to you! Not one damn thing!” Mira climbed to her feet. “You locked me up, sent one of your men to rape me, tried to kill me in the forest. And now here you are again, somehow. No more. I’ve had it.”
“Then stop talking and show me what kind of demon you really are.”
“I’m. Not. A. Demon. You stupid fuck. But you know what?” Mira held up the arm with the serpent tattoo. “I took this from Shy. I’m not really sure I can control it. It could kill all of us.”
Kull eyed the snake up, which, perhaps sensing Mira’s agitation, had began to writhe across her arm. He squeezed the hilt of his dagger and pointed it at Mira. “Summon it then. I’ll cut it to pieces, then you.”
Mira wasn’t sure how exactly she did it other than that she wanted it to happen. It hurt like hell, maybe even just a little bit more than it had when the snake had first appeared on her arm. It slowly rose off her skin, became three dimensional, then slithered off her arm. It grew as it fell until it was fully formed, ten feet long and radiating cold.
The serpent curled its length around Mira and rose up between her and Kull. As it had with her, it didn’t hiss or flick its tongue. Instead, it just stared at him while it weaved back and forth. The point of Kull’s dagger followed it, but the more it weaved, the sloppier Kull got.
The serpent kept at it until the dagger slipped down to the floor. Then it struck, not with its mouth, but by curling itself around Kull. By the time the man realized what danger he was in, it had already looped coils of its body around his legs and Kull’s struggling only succeeded in tipping himself over.
Mira could actually see the frost forming on the hairs of Kull’s arms, despite the relative warmth of the evening. He struggled and thrashed until he managed to free an arm, then promptly stabbed the serpent. The blade glanced off its armored hide, leaving a long score that leaked a thick, blue liquid.
Mira wasn’t sure who was going to win. At first, she’d have thought the serpent was going to overwhelm Kull, but he’d tapped some inner reserve of strength and was fighting back. Fortunately for Mira, she didn’t have to just stand there and wait. She leaped across the room and pulled a drawer free from the dresser. Clothes went flying everywhere as she raised it up over her head.
Both arms came down to slam the drawer on Kull’s head. It came back up bloody, only to be brought down again. It wasn’t some flimsy press board piece of junk from Ikea either. That drawer had weight, enough that it was a struggle for Mira to lift it over her head. By the third hit, Kull wasn’t struggling anymore. He wasn’t doing much of anything.
The serpent uncoiled itself from Kull’s body and slithered across the room to circle around Mira’s feet. Its watchful gaze was centered on Wren, who was still unconscious and bleeding freely. Mira ignored both it and her to stare down in horror at Kull.
“Oh my God. Why did I do that? Once would have been enough.” Mira threw the drawer away from her and stared down at the blood splattered ruins of Kull’s face. He was motionless, unbreathing. His hair was matted down with blood. More of it had pooled in his eye sockets. His nose had been crushed and was flattened to the side, a mess of broken cartilage and more blood.
It was possible that he was still alive, but it didn’t matter. Even if she hadn’t outright killed him, Mira knew Kull wasn’t going to last much longer. As far as she could tell, there were no hospitals in this world, just healers and bone setters working with herb lore and bandages.
Mira shook her head and turned away from Kull. She didn’t owe him anything. He’d attacked her, twice. All she’d wanted was him to leave her alone. Wren, on the other hand, was a friend. Or, at least she was something kind of like a friend. More importantly, she’d gotten hurt defending Mira.
The serpent’s head brushed against Mira’s hand, causing her to jump in fright. It pressed more firmly against her and, with a wet hiss, its body started to dissolve into a sinuous inky cloud that wrapped itself around her arm.
Mira gritted her teeth against the pain as the tattoo reformed itself. When it had finished, she cradled her arm against her stomach and walked over to where Wren had fallen. She kicked aside shards of broken glass next to the girl and kneeled down to check on her.
The door burst open to reveal the lanky form of Fowler. Mira looked up and met his eyes for an instant before he crossed the room. “What happened to her?” he asked.
“Her playmate attacked her,” Mira told him, thinking quick. It was technically true, if a bit misleading. “I guess he wasn’t happy about something, maybe being interrupted. We fought. He hit her in the head with one of those glass trinkets she collects. I hit him with a dresser drawer.”
Fowler grunted and slid his arms under Wren. With a heave, he lifted her off the floor and strode out of the room. “Go tell Til,” he ordered without looking back. “Close up the Weeping Man. Do what she tells you until I get back.”
* * *
Shy poured the powdered bone into the mixture and stirred it together. With a fine pointed knife, she pricked a spot of bare skin on her arm and dribbled blood into the bowl. It simmered with heat and glowed a sullen red.
She looked up at the board mounted on the wall and selected a large needle from it. With delicate care, she dipped the tip into the bowl and brought the needle to her stomach, made bare as the other tattoos bunched together to give her room.
“Where is she?” Jorath asked from the door.
Shy paused, the needle a fingernail’s width from her skin. “I’m busy,” she said without looking up. “This has to be done while the ink is still hot.”
“You were supposed to be keeping her safe.”
“She is safe. I left her just outside Palveral. She’s got my frost basilisk with her for protection. Now, if you don’t mind…”
“I do mind,” Jorath said, crossing the room to loom over her. “I asked you for a favor, one that would erase your considerable debt to me. You are not doing as your promised.”
“Jorath, you have no idea how hard it was to procure these ingredients. I’ve had this ink mixing for two months. If I don’t do this now, it’ll all be wasted. The girl is perfectly fine. Now leave me alone.”
“If she dies, Lord Ilrot will kill me, or worse. I wouldn’t have left her side myself if he hadn’t demanded I return to him.”
For the first time, Shy looked up. Jorath was pale, wasted away. Lacerations covered his face and arms. His shoulders were slumped, and his eyes, normally liquid black pools, were flat and still. His whole body trembled with weakness.
“Sybill was allowed to express Lord Ilrot’s displeasure with the length of time I was away,” he said. “She was… enthusiastic about it.”
Shy suppressed a shudder. Jorath’s sister was renowned for having a sadistic streak, even among demons. Shy herself had been subjected to Sybill’s attention once. It had been both painful and prolonged, and it had taken her years to fully repair the tattoos Sybill had destroyed.
“I’ll be back there before the night’s over. I’ve recovered a firebat’s skeleton, powdered and mixed with the oil of a salamander’s heat gland. As soon as I’ve finished this, I’ll have reliable air travel.”
“I can send you there in an instant,” Jorath said.
“Unless you’re ready to take over this chore yourself, that’s a very short term point of view.”
“You don’t need air travel to stay with her.”
“No, but-” Shy cut herself off and looked up in the direction of Palveral. It was hundreds of miles away, but she knew without a doubt that it was a straight line from her eyes to the frost basilisk on Mira’s arm.
“What is it?” Jorath asked.
“The girl activated the basilisk. She’s in trouble.”
Jorath gestured, and a jagged rift of shadows split the air. Shy sighed and put the needle on the desk. She gave a sorrowful glance to the bowl of still-simmering ink. “What a waste,” she muttered.
* * *
The last of the patrons had been cleared out of the inn, and the ones who’d booked rooms had either retreated to them or made themselves scarce. Til had put Mira to work cleaning, whether to calm her nerves or simply because the older woman didn’t want to do it herself.
Fowler hadn’t returned yet with Wren. Several men and women dressed in matching uniforms that included belts with swords and triangular black caps had shown up though. One of them, a bear of a woman with a weathered face and hair just starting to grey, sat at a table with Mira.
“So you walked into the room. What happened then?” she asked.
They hadn’t said they were arresting Mira, but she noticed that there was always at least one of them near the Weeping Man’s front door. Nobody was leaving without their permission.
“He saw me. I don’t know what was happening before I opened the door, but as soon as he did, he jumped at me with a dagger and threw me into the middle of the room. He slammed the door closed and made sure to keep himself between us and it.”
That was all technically true. Mira just left out the part where they’d recognized each other, and that Kull hadn’t been acting hostile toward Wren until Mira had walked in. The only people who could contradict the story would be Wren and Kull, and she was betting Kull wasn’t getting up to tell his side of it.
The cop, or whatever they were called, got the rest of the story minus the details Mira didn’t want to share. She had no intention of being thrown back in a prison again, but she honestly wasn’t sure if they’d let her go. She’d killed a person, even if it was in self-defense.
One of the other cop-types leaned over and said, “Cap, you should come see this guy.”
“Oh yeah?” the woman said. She rose from the table and said to Mira, “I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”
They disappeared into the back of the Weeping Man, leaving Mira alone with two younger men who loitered at the bar near the front door. They talked in a low murmur while they watched her, making no secret of why they were there.
The door opened, and they both turned to it automatically. “Place is closed,” one of them said. “Murder investigation.”
“I’m just here for the girl,” Shy said. She flicked a hand out and two creatures leaped into existence off her skin. One of them was black with too many legs, and the other shimmered green in the lamp light. Both latched themselves on the men’s face and rode them down to the ground.
They hit with matching thumps and the creatures bounced up into the air. Shy swept her hand through them and they shimmered back into non-existence. She stepped over the bodies and gestured to Mira to stand.
“Are those two ok?” Mira asked. One of them had a series of bite marks going down one side of his face, the skin around which was tinged green and had bulging veins radiating out. The other looked unharmed, but he was motionless on his back with a wide-eyed, unblinking stare.
“They may survive. The one bitten by the grithulik spider is more likely to make it if he’s found in time. I heard someone died in here. Did you do it or did you let my basilisk do the work for you?”
“It was Kull,” Mira said. “I crushed his skull with a wooden drawer while the snake was wrapped around him.
“Kull?” Shy’s eyebrows shot up. “I thought I killed him.”
“It didn’t stick, apparently.”
“Interesting. Best be on our way then.”
Mira shrunk back from Shy and gave the two men on the floor a significant look. “Why should I go with you?”
“Did you want to stay here to be hanged at the gallows?” Shy asked. “I’ll assume you aren’t leaving anything important behind if we just walk out.”
“I- No, I guess not.”
“Good. As I was saying, we should leave now before I have to kill more of the city watch.”
Shy turned and walked into the night. Mira hesitated at the Weeping Man’s threshold. The two weeks she’d spent there had been the best days she’d had since being taken from her apartment. That was done and past now. She followed Shy out into the darkness.