Chapter 9

“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.

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