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.