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.”