“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.