Chapter 23

Mira’s jaw hurt from where the man holding her mouth closed was digging his fingers in. It was obvious they hadn’t thought to bring a second gag, that Mira was a bystander sucked into trouble by virtue of arriving in town with Amura. Whatever this man’s vendetta against the minstrel was, Mira had nothing to do with it.

That being said, she didn’t think they were planning on letting her live. Or maybe they were. They hadn’t killed her yet, unless it was just to save themselves some effort by forcing her to walk to the site of her own execution.

Mira thought she could work a hand down to the heart stone. It was what she was going to do after that worried her. She could set them all on fire, easily. They’d likely all die, including Amura, but she’d survive. There were a lot of wooden crates in the cave though, crates that would go up relatively easily and, with her help, spread quickly. The distraction might be enough to escape.

That would have to do, because Amura was out of time. Mira had stopped paying attention to the man with the knife as he droned on, but he was finally getting down to the ugly business he’d shown up for. The knife hovered mere inches above Amura’s hand, point down as it wavered over one finger, then the next.

“Which one first?” the man asked. “Do you have a preference? This one? Or this one? Should I start at the end?”

Mira shifted in place to mask the movement of her arm, but the thugs holding her didn’t react besides making sure her mouth was still held closed. She wiggled her fingers into the drawstring of the pouch and forced it open, just enough to slide one finger inside. She could practically feel the heart stone sitting in the bottom of the pouch, but it shifted with her touch.

Mira forced the drawstrings farther apart and got a second finger in there. The thug on her right noticed the motion and grabbed her wrist. “What do you think you’re doing?” he snarled. He pulled her hand up and out of the bag.

She’d gotten two fingers on it, managed to slip them around enough of the heart stone’s curve to tip it back upright, but she lost even that tenuous connection when the thug jerked her hand up.

“Quiet, please. You’re ruining my moment,” the boss said.

“Sorry, boss. This one’s trying something funny.”

“Then take care of it,” he said through gritted teeth, “Quietly.”

The thug pulled open the pouch and reached his hand in. Immediately, he started swearing and jerked it back out. “Boss, she’s got something magic in here. It’s burning hot.”

“Oh for the love of…”

The boss stalked over, ripped the pouch off Mira’s belt, and upended it onto the cave floor. The heart stone tumbled out, white and smooth and warm. “It’s just some sort of heating stone,” the boss said. “Maybe for cooking or keeping your sleeping bag warm when you’re traveling. Now shut up and stay out of the way.”

The thug peered down at the stone suspiciously, but otherwise left it alone. Mira bit her lip and glanced down. It wasn’t that far from her, close enough to step on. She caught the heel of her right foot against her left and slipped out of the boot slowly. Nobody reacted.

She slipped her sock down and edged her foot out until her toe touched the heart stone. Heat shot through her foot and up to her leg. It tingled as it washed across her pelvis and up into her stomach. In moments, she could feel it in her scalp.

Everyone was too busy watching the boss drag his torture out to pay any attention to Mira. He was making a show of cutting into a finger, changing his mind, and starting on a new one. Mira waited for him to lift the knife up, just so he didn’t cut through a finger in surprise, and made her move.

A crate on the far side of the cave erupted in flames. Everyone jerked in surprise, but Mira had expected it and curled her toes around the heart stone so that it got dragged with her. She pulled another wave of power from it to lit up another crate. The magic splashed over and caught the entire wall instead.

“The merchandise!” Noli screamed. He rushed forward and attempted to drag some of the crates that hadn’t caught yet away from the ones that were already aflame.

One of the men released Mira to go help pull the crates apart, but the other kept his head. He shifted in place to wrap one arm around her chest and hold her tight against him while his other hand stayed over her mouth. Fortunately, there was too much chaos going on for him to look down.

As a distraction that allowed Amura to keep all of her fingers, Mira’s plan had been successful. Neither of them were free though, and that needed to change. She didn’t think she had the control to set just one person on fire. Her attempts with the crates had proven that.

Unfortunately for the man holding her, she’d discovered early on that while using the heart stone, fire didn’t burn her. It might singe her clothes, but she would be unharmed. So she had her first victim. With a focused push, the thug underwent spontaneous combustion.

His screams echoed through the cave, loud enough that everyone else froze and locked eyes on the spectacle of him flailing about as fire seared his skin red. The back of Mira’s shirt caught from proximity, but as soon as the thug let go, she used her hip to shove him away.

Finally free, Mira took a half step forward so that her foot was directly on top of the heart stone. She imagined that she was an imposing sight with a man literally burning to death behind her. Then again, if none of them had figured out that she was the cause of the fire, maybe it just looked more like a person trying to avoid being incinerated.

The next step was going to be tricky. Mira tried to brush away the distractions, to block out the screaming behind her, and focus. The thugs holding Amura hadn’t let her go, and that needed to change. It was going to be a delicate job, but she thought she could do it.

She focused on their backs, hoping that the thugs’ bodies would shield Amura from the flames. It worked, more or less. They started screaming as fire licked across their skin, and Amura jerked away. Her hair was smoldering and one side of her face was bright red from being burned, but she was free.

“No, you’re not getting away!” the boss said, spinning to face Amura. He lunged with the knife, but the table was between them and he couldn’t get around it fast enough. Amura shoved it into him and looped around it to the left side of the cave. She scooped something up and dashed over to Mira.

It was a lyre, one that was considerably fancier than Amura’s old one. She started plucking the strings, her hand a blur. As the first notes rang out, the boss dropped to one knee. His chest heaving and his eyes staring daggers, he crawled closer. Amura started singing and his shoulders slumped down.

Mira reached down to scoop up the heart stone and her sock. She slid her foot back into her boot and together with Amura, they started backing away. Three of the thugs were down, and the two that Mira hadn’t lit up had abandoned trying to help Noli save the crates. They had advanced to flank their boss and were looking around warily.

“No, don’t let her escape,” the boss said, struggling to his feet. “Go after her. Kill them if you have to.”

“They’ve got magic, boss. We’re not going to surprise her again.”

Mira didn’t get to see the visual since they were already in the tunnel, but she clearly heard the boss scream, “Just do it, you idiot!”

Rapid footsteps came after them, and by unspoken agreement, Mira and Amura turned and fled. They made a blind run through the dark tunnel, but it was straight and the floor at least was smooth. The thugs footsteps faded behind them, probably because they weren’t eager to catch up to the women.

“There’s two more guarding the cafe,” Mira gasped out as they reached the cellar. “Can you get us past them?”

“I don’t know.” Amura glanced down at the lyre tucked under her arm. “This one is new… not really what I’m used to. I haven’t bonded with it yet. I barely managed to hold one person back for a minute with it.”

“This is on you, Amura. If I have to use this heart stone, I’m likely to burn the cafe to the ground with us still in it.”

“We might be able to get out through the door in the kitchen,” Amura said. “Maybe they left it unguarded.”

“Whatever we do, it needs to be quick. Those guys aren’t that far behind us.”

Amura took a deep breath, gripped the lyre, and started up the stairs.

* * *

Shy sat in the kitchen on a prep table. The two guards left behind were dead, their bodies shoved under the table. In the far corner, the cook cowered while a grithulik spider almost a foot wide hung over his head. A second one hunched down on the floor, facing toward the door leading out into the lounge area.

The minstrel came through the cellar door, followed closely by Mira. Both froze at the sight of her. The minstrel looked frightened and appalled. Mira was surprised by Shy’s presence, but she took in the dead bodies with calm acceptance. If Shy had guessed right, they’d left some bodies behind them too.

“I told you to get rid of your traveling companion. She’s going to get you killed,” Shy said.

“And then you walked out the door. I thought I had more than a few minutes before trouble came knocking.”

“From the smell of it, I’d say you took care of them.”

Mira glanced back through the open door behind her. “Some of them. There are more coming.”

“Then it’s time to leave this woman to deal with the consequences of her actions before you get pulled any deeper into her problems.”

“She needs our help. Those men are going to torture her and kill her if they catch her!”

“It’s ok,” the minstrel said quietly. “I can clean up my own messes.”

Mira spun around on her. “Are you kidding me? You just said you could barely handle one of them right now.”

“Perhaps we can work something out,” Shy said, studying the minstrel. “Are you familiar with the old lore, or do you just sing whatever’s popular this week?”

She bristled at the comment. That was good, it meant she had a spine to her. Shy had no use for someone who couldn’t even attempt to defend herself. The question was whether or not Shy could trust her.

“What do you want?” the minstrel spat out.

“A job offer. I want some things looked into by someone smart, someone discreet. Most importantly, someone who can keep her mouth shut. So, tell me, do you have a problem working with demons?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

Shy leaned forward. “Is it a problem that can be remedied by money and power?”

The minstrel was stone-faced as she clutched the lyre and stared back at Shy. “No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think I want a damn thing to do with something like you.”

Shy willed the tattoo behind her shoulder to slide down into her palm and forced the ink out of her skin. It manifested as a dagger, its hilt a serpent. For the moment, it was all metal, but it wouldn’t take more than a thought for the hilt to grow into an actual snake, fanged and venomous.

“How do you do with violence?”

“Shy, don’t,” Mira said.

“Be quiet. If you’d done what you were told, none of us would be here. For once in your life, stay out of the way and out of trouble.”

Mira held up a heart stone, one that glowed white, and took a step closer to the minstrel. “I won’t let you hurt her.”

Shy narrowed her eyes and studied the heart stone. It was in good condition, probably better than it should have been for having been outside such a weak demon for as long as it had been. She doubted that Mira had the control needed to do more than splash fire all over the place and hope it went where she wanted.

Even though she was still far from full strength, a fact that chafed her every time she thought about it, she had no doubt she could put down both women easily and swiftly. Jorath wouldn’t be happy about Mira. She was the most important thing in the world to him, or at least her bloodline was.

Shy stood up and threw the dagger in one smooth motion. It flew straight and true between the two women and sunk into the chest of a thick-necked man who had appeared in the door behind him. He fell back, clutching at the dagger until the handle transformed into a snake that latched onto his neck. The man hit the floor with a meaty thump and the serpent slithered back to Shy.

“You,” she said, pointing to Mira, “it’s time to go. Say goodbye to your playmate. If she knows what’s good for her, I’ll never see her again.”

Mira exchanged an uneasy glance with the minstrel. “Will you be ok?” she asked.

“I’ll get out of town before they can catch up with me again. I’m more worried about you.” The minstrel pointedly didn’t look at Shy as she spoke.

“She won’t hurt me. I’m too valuable to her.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

“Well, she will hurt you if you press it. For your own sake, just go. Get far away from here and away from me,” Mira said.

“But-”

Mira cut her off with an upraised hand. “Thanks for your help, but I have to do this.”

She crossed the room to stand next to Shy, who gave the dagger a quick flourish before it dissolved back into ink and slid under her skin.

Chapter 22

Paldu was larger than Mira expected, but not as big as Palveral was. It also lacked the spiked wall or the bay full of ships that looked like they’d sailed straight out of the Victorian age. They approached it from the west, and Mira’s first glimpse came when they broke through a tree line. It was laid out below them, a square miles of civilization with two wide roads bisecting it from end to end, meeting in the middle, and five streets large enough to be seen from a distance radiating out at various angles from the center.

A trail led downhill half a mile to where it connected with the north-bound road leading into Paldu. There were no guards anywhere, just people going about their business. Mira wasn’t even sure when they entered the city, just that at some point the buildings were close enough together and the side streets narrow enough that it felt like a city.

“I know we’ve been walking all day, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to go straight to the trade district and start shopping. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to,” Amura said.

Mira looked around her. “I don’t know where anything is. We’ve been here five minutes and I’m already lost.”

“Oh, it’s not so hard to find your way around, but come on. We’ll get a nice meal and a drink when I’m done. Probably for free.” Amura tossed out a lavish wink.

Mira laughed and trailed after Amura as they marched deeper into Paldu.

* * *

As it turned out, Amura was not in any hurry to buy a new lyre. She certainly looked at a lot of them, probably twenty or thirty across four different shops, by Mira’s estimation. Some of them she merely glanced at before passing over. Others she actually played briefly before handing them back. Once, she played one for a solid minute before sighing and shaking her head.

“I was afraid of this,” she told Mira once they were back in the street. “Paldu has a great selection, but for a good lyre, one that I have the money on me for, there’s only one place to go. And it’s not… strictly legal.”

“I don’t understand,” Mira said. “There’s a black market music trade in this city?”

“Every city has its criminals,” Amura said. “There just happens to be a craftsman here who doesn’t like paying his taxes. Nor is he picky about where his materials come from. And he has a lot of like-minded friends.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Who knows. I haven’t been here in a few years. He might not even still be in business. He might not even still be in the city, for all I know. Or he might be, but in jail.”

They only had to walk a few blocks before Amura stopped at a cafe advertising coffee as a specialty. “This is the place,” she said. “Hopefully the right people are still here.”

Mira was mildly surprised to find a place that sold coffee, and instantly wanted a cup. Even if it was black, she hadn’t had coffee in months. She didn’t care what the price was. She tried to tell herself not to get hopeful, that it might be nothing like the coffee she was used to, but it was no use. She needed coffee.

The inside was bright and open. Windows lined two walls, and tables were scattered across the floor. Even if every one of them had been full, it still wouldn’t have felt crowded. But they weren’t. There were only three people there, and only two of them sat at tables. One had a full meal, but the other had a single cup with steam curling up from it sitting on front of him.

The third was a man who was maybe fifty, wiry framed with a kind face. His hair was completely grey, but still thick. When Amura walked in, Mira following behind her, he looked up and a smile creased his face.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said. “What can I get for you today?”

“Hello Nali,” Amura said. “Do you have a menu prepared?”

“I haven’t used them in years. Would you like to hear the whole list or just the specials today?”

“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got prepared and I’ll make a choice from there.”

The old man’s eyes twinkled. “Very well, Miss Amura. If you’ll follow me…”

He led her to the kitchen, then paused and looked at Mira. “Will your companion be joining us?”

Mira tore her gaze from the cup of coffee sitting on the table in front of one of the shop’s patrons and said, “I really just want coffee. Add some milk and sugar if you can and I’ll be happy.”

Nali smiled again and said, “I’ll inform the kitchen. Just have a seat and someone will be out in a minute with it.”

Mira took an empty table and waited. She tried not to stare at the cup on the table across the room, but she was pretty sure she’d never wanted anything as bad as she wanted that coffee. When a different man came out of the kitchen with it, she had to make a conscious effort not to start drooling.

It didn’t taste like what she was used to, but it was so good she didn’t care. The server laughed at the moan she gave with her first sip and told her to poke her head into the kitchen if she needed anything else. She thanked him and settled back to sip at her cup of liquid heaven.

The man with only a cup finished his drink and left. Mira smiled and closed her eyes as she took another sip. Footsteps approached her table and the chair opposite of her was pulled out. Thinking it was Amura come back already, Mira opened her eyes only to see Shy sitting across from her.

“The musician you’re traveling with,” Shy said. “You need to get rid of her today.”

“Shy!” Mira yelped. She shot a quick look at the only other person in the coffee house, but he was too busy eating to pay any attention. Lowering her voice, she asked, “Where the hell have you been? You said a few weeks, not a month.”

“And you were supposed to stay in Rohaim. I saw what’s left of the place. You can tell me what happened when you meet me outside the city. Take the west road.” Shy’s eyes turned icy. “And you can tell me what happened to my basilisk.”

“I-”

Shy held up a hand. “Not now. Finish your business. Lose the other woman. Take the west road. I’ll be looking for you at sun down. Just keep walking west until I find you.”

She stood back up and walked out without another word. Mira sighed and took another sip of coffee. For everything that had gone wrong over the last month, every opportunity for Shy to show up and help, of course the demon had to pick when she was in a peaceful city enjoying her first cup of coffee in months.

It just didn’t taste as good as it had a minute earlier.

* * *

Eight men filed into the cafe about ten minutes later. They fanned out, two of them flanking the door while the other six approached the kitchen. Half way there, one of them stopped and pointed at Mira.

“That the girl who came in with her?”

“Yeah, boss.” The speaker was the man who’d finished his cup of coffee and walked out just before Shy had appeared.

“Grab her too then. Make sure to gag her.”

Before Mira could even stand up, the last two men had lunged across the room to grab her. One clamped his hand over Mira’s mouth and the other reached for her arms. Mira hurled her coffee in his face and he staggered back with a shout. He ripped his shirt off in an effort to pull the hot coffee away from his skin, revealing slabs of scarred muscle and curly black chest hair that glistened with coffee.

“Dark Father take you!” he snarled as he mopped the hot coffee off his face and threw the shirt aside. He reached out for her again, this time helped by the other thug who was holding her mouth closed and had an arm across her chest.

Mira’s hand snaked down to her heart stone pouch, but she hesitated. If she used it, regardless of whether Maluk was right about the long-term consequences, she didn’t think any of her attackers would survive. Even just lighting camp fires had taken an enormous about of effort to control how little fire she wanted. If she’d let it, the heart stone would have burned down the forest.

In the middle of a fight, already held by one man and with another one about to grab her, there was no way Mira was going to have that kind of focus. Using the inferolisk heart stone would probably kill everyone in the room and burn the entire shop to the ground.

The decision was taken from her either way. The man grabbed her arms and, between the two of them, muscled her around so that each had one arm. The hand remained over her mouth, holding her jaw clamped shut, and the thugs steered her by pushing on her back.

“No one comes in until we’re done here,” the boss told the two guarding the door. They nodded back and one of them fingered the hilt of a dagger in a sheathe on his belt.

“And you,” the boss said, turning to point at the customer who’d been in the middle of eating his lunch when they’d entered. The man sat there, a spoon half way to his mouth and the soup that had been in it spilled across the table as he watched.

“You didn’t see anything. We were never here. No one was here. Not us, not the girl. You understand.”

The customer nodded and set his spoon back into the bowl. “No one was here. I had my lunch and went back to work.”

“Good man,” the boss said. He turned back to the door men and added, “He tries anything, beat the hell out of him and drag him into the kitchen.”

“Amura went through here, boss,” the man from earlier said.

“Great. Can’t wait to see that whore again,” the boss said. “Alright, let’s go see what she’s been up since she ran out on me with my money.”

* * *

The kitchen worker didn’t look surprised to see the group of thugs troop by with Mira in tow. If anything, he had a resigned expression. Without prompting, he pointed toward one of three doors that led out the back side of the kitchen. The thugs pulled Mira into it, revealing a stair case that led down to a cellar. Casks the size of Mira’s head lined shelf after shelf all the way around it, and four crates were piled up in the back corner.

The thugs hauled the crates out of the way. One of them got down on his knees and examined the floor, then looked up to the other, who grunted and said “Back right corner.”

Nodding, the thug tapped the floor with a closed fist a few times. Once he’d found the right spot, he stood up and kicked his heel down hard. An entire section bucked and popped loose, revealing a hidden flight of stairs. “Think they heard that?” the thug asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” the boss said. “Get in there. Make sure you keep her mouth closed the whole time. I don’t want Amura so much as sticking her tongue out at me.”

The stairs led through a rough worked tunnel, definitely not natural and definitely with no more work done to it than was necessary. It was maybe half a mile long , supported by ribs of rough-hewn wooden braces and lit only by what came down the stairs after them and the small square of daylight coming in through the far end.

By the time the thugs had force-marched Mira to the end, the boss and his cronies had already secured the room. Mira reached a wide, shallow cave, its entrance partially covered in foliage and its walled lined with crates and boxes. Amura was face down on the ground, three men on top of her and one shoving some sort of gag into her mouth.

The kindly looking shop keeper who’d led Amura away stood passively off to the side, offering no resistance and being ignored. When he noticed Mira looking at him, he gave a sad smile but said nothing.

“So, Amura, how many years has it been?” the boss said, gloating. “Stand her up. I want to look in her eyes.”

The thugs hauled her to her feet. She took in the whole scene at once and locked eyes with Mira. Her brow furrowed and she glanced down at the pouch that still hung at Mira’s waist. She couldn’t have asked any questions even if she’d dared voice them in front of their captors though.

“Now, I believe you cut off three of my wife’s fingers,” the boss said. He brandished a knife and gestured toward Amura’s right hand. One of the thugs grabbed her wrist and forced her hand flat against a table.

“I thought we’d start with that. Then we can move on to paying you back for my son. After that, I thought I might cut out your tongue for what you did to me personally. I haven’t decided yet.”

He cocked his head to the side and looked at Amura. “No quips? Nothing to say? That’s not like you, Amura.”

She said something, though it was impossible to understand through the gag. The boss laughed and brought the knife down. “Good enough for me. Let’s get started.”

Chapter 21

“How lovely,” Amura said as they stood at the edge of a field of wildflowers.

Mira edged away from it. “Best keep walking. I don’t want to be here come sundown.”

“Why’s that? I was thinking this might be a fine place to spend the night.”

“Because of the fairies. I… had a bad experience once.”

Amura laughed. “The fairies? Ok, sure… wait, are you serious? Fairies aren’t real.”

Mira turned to face the other woman fully. “A horde of flesh eating monsters appears every time there’s a red moon. Demons are all over the place. I literally have one’s heart in a bag. You helped me stop it by using music to mess with its head. And you don’t believe in fairies?”

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Demons are real, of course. Magic is real. Fairies aren’t.”

“Trust me, they are. They really are.”

“You’d be the only person I’ve ever seen or even heard of who’s met them then. Another mystery to add to your list.”

Mira sighed and turned away. “Just… let’s find somewhere else, ok?”

“What does this field have to do with fairies, anyway?”

“I found them, or they found me, I guess, in a field just like this one. They tried to eat all of my emotions. I only got away because a fire broke out and started burning the forest.”

“You’re serious?”

Mira sighed again and walked off. A few seconds later, Amura started after her. The minstrel had caught up with her early the morning after she’d left Rohaim, and Mira hadn’t been able to get rid of her since.

It put her in an awkward position. Sooner or later, Shy or Jorath would catch up with her. It wouldn’t be good for Amura’s health if she was still around. Shy didn’t go out of her way to be cruel, but she also wouldn’t hesitate if she decided that eliminating Amura was necessary. Jorath would probably kill her without a second thought, just on the off chance that she might some day threaten his goals.

And Amura had been nothing but helpful. The first day, they’d passed through a village that just happened to have a caravan parked there. Amura had put together a travel pack of out of her own money and given it to Mira. She’d claimed it was by way of apology for the problems she’d caused Mira at Vinmarch. Since then, she’d secured rooms to sleep in more often than not, usually for no more than an hour or two’s singing.

The problem was that she was so damn nosy. Amura knew there was something off about Mira, and after a few days of constantly being peppered with personal questions, Mira was more than ready to go off her own way.

“Have you decided where we’re going yet?” Amura asked.

That would be hard for Mira to do, considering she didn’t know where anything was. “No,” she said. “Just going wherever the road takes me for now.”

“Paldu is only a week from here. I need a new lyre anyway. If you’re not going anywhere in particular, we could head that way.”

There was no good excuse not to agree, so Mira nodded. If she was lucky, they would part ways there and she could get back to doing what Jorath wanted so that she could finally go home.

They set up camp a mile down the road from the wildflower field. After a few nights of doing it, they had developed an efficient system of dividing the chores up and had it ready in no time.

“Can you start the fire?” Amura asked after Mira came back from doing her business on the other side of a tree.

Mira pulled the inferolisk heart stone out of its pouch and focused on it. Heat spread through her body, which she channeled into the pile of branches Amura had broken down to be used. within a few seconds, flames licked at the thick ones on the bottom, and after a bit of work, they had a small cooking fire going.

“Thanks,” Amura said. She shot a look at the heart stone and added, “How long do you think it’ll last?”

“I don’t know. The only other one I had crumbled as soon as I let it go. This one though… I can feel it even when I’m not holding onto it.”

They cooked and ate in silence, then cleaned up their dishes at a nearby stream. When they were done, Mira wrapped herself in a blanket and bunched her cloak up to use as a pillow. She laid there, trying to fall asleep, while Amura hummed to herself. It was only as Mira started to drift off that she realized it was some sort of lullaby, and that maybe she was falling asleep faster than normal.

* * *

It was still dark when Mira felt someone leaning over her. She jerked awake and started to shout, but a gloved hand clamped over her mouth. “Ssshh,” a voice whispered. “We need to talk.”

Mira’s eyes widened. It was the demon who’d warned her about the inferolisk back in Rohaim. He moved his hand away and gestured for Mira to follow him away from Amura. Quietly, she climbed to her feet and wrapped her cloak around her shoulders.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

“I have a warning for you,” the demon said. “The heart stone you took, you must not rely on it so heavily. The more you use it, the stronger your bond to it will become.”

“I don’t understand what that means.”

The demon gestured to himself. “You will become like us if you allow yourself to use the heart stone like you have been. It’s dangerous for you to even carry it for so long, let alone to use it for such mundane tasks as lighting camp fires.”

“So you’re saying I should chuck it in a lake and not look back?”

“No. This world is dangerous. You need a way to defend yourself, and the inferolisk heart stone will work for that. I’m saying that you should only use it in emergencies, and you should find a different heart stone to replace it as quickly as you can.”

Mira gave the demon a suspicious look. “You sure seem to know a lot about how this all works.”

“You are the last of your clan, Mira Tanner, not the first. We’ve known how the Montrose demon hunters have operated for centuries. The dangers of their powers are well documented.”

“Ok, fine, I can buy that. Let’s say that I believe you. What do you get out of this?”

“Ko ruh tuva sira?” the demon asked.

Mira glared at him. The demon smirked back and shrugged. “Keep hold of that heart stone and you’ll understand soon enough.”

“Or you could just tell me, asshole.”

“No, you wouldn’t understand, not yet. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.”

Mira gripped the pouch containing the heart stone in one hand and held it up. “Maybe I should just torch you right now. You’ve been a pain in the ass since you first showed up. I’m sick of your little guessing games.”

The demon’s eyes went flat as he regarded the pouch. “That would be a mistake on your part. My orders are to keep you alive, for now. It would be a shame to have to hurt you, but make no mistake. I am not an inferolisk. I am not anything so weak as that.”

“Right, because I didn’t already beat you once.”

“You did no such thing,” the demon said. “Jorath’s shadow magic fought for you, and even that wasn’t enough to hold me for long.”

“Are you saying you want to test it again?” Mira asked. She pulled the heart stone from the pouch. “Just say the word and we’ll go.”

The demon shook his head. “You are young and foolish. Do not take my warnings lightly, unless you like the idea of becoming a demon.”

“What do you even care for?” Mira asked.

“I told you already. Ko ruh tuva sira?”

Mira grit her teeth and stuffed the heart stone back in the pouch. “Just get out of here, whoever you are.”

“My name is Maluk.”

“Ok, Maluk. Who do you work for? Why are they interested in me? Why should I cooperate with you?”

“It’s not my place to speculate on the council’s desires. But consider this: do you really believe Jorath will honor his word to you? If treachery had an avatar, it would be him. He’s betrayed everyone and everything he’s ever come in contact with. You would do better with us than with him, when you’re ready. Vuh kora.”

Then Maluk was gone. Mira peered into the darkness after him, but the demon had disappeared so completely she wondered if he’d ever really been there at all. She walked back to her blanket and settled down under it, but there was too much on her mind for her to easily fall back asleep.

* * *

“You’re quiet today,” Amura remarked as they walked.

“Just thinking,” Mira said.

“Anything important?”

“Just, you know, this thing.” Mira gestured towards the pouch holding the heart stone. “How dangerous it is, and whether I should keep it or get rid of it.”

“Well, it’s certainly handy to have around,” Amura said.

Mira laughed bitterly. “Sure, but look what it came out of. It might be time to get rid of it.”

“What brought all this on?” Amura asked. “You’ve been carrying it around for over a week.”

Mira thought about telling her about Maluk. She’d thought about it for most of the morning, but in the end, she wasn’t going to for the same reason she wasn’t telling Amura anything else about herself. She didn’t trust the minstrel, and the whole reason she’d been taken from her world was to oppose the most powerful demon ever. No doubt the only thing keeping her alive was that he didn’t know who she was. The less people who knew about her, the safer she was.

There was too much going on that was out of her control. Shy and Jorath were God-knows-where doing God-knows-what. This new demon, Maluk, represented some group that had an interest in her and knew way too much about where she was from and who she was. And she knew next to nothing about them.

She needed to get a handle on things before something killed her. The problem was that no one was trustworthy. They all had their own agendas, and she didn’t doubt for a second that any of them would hesitate to throw her under the bus the moment she stopped being useful.

The problem was that Jorath had something she wanted. Without him, she had no way of getting home. The only solutions she saw was to either accept that and start a new life in demon-world, or find some other way that didn’t involve him. She didn’t think she’d be able to hide from him though, so if she was going to break off from him, that meant she needed a way to defend herself.

A rock that let her start fires with her mind seemed like a good way to start, except that if Maluk was to be believed, using it too much would turn her into a demon. She’d been going over her thoughts, emotions, and actions over the past week, trying to find something that was out of character, something that might suggest that the demon was telling the truth about the heart stone. Nothing had leaped out at her.

“Mira?” Amura said. “You’ve gone quiet on me again.”

“Sorry. Just… a lot of my mind. I don’t want to talk about it until I sort it all out.”

“Sometimes talking about it helps, even if you don’t have the answers.”

“No, thanks.”

Because Amura never could seem to stay quiet while they traveled, she often hummed or sang when they weren’t talking. Sometimes Mira understood the songs, but Amura didn’t limit herself to singing in just English. She often lamented, loudly, about the loss of her lyre, but she seemed to know plenty of music that didn’t require an instrument.

“Hey,” Mira said suddenly, “did you… sing me a lullaby last night to put me to sleep?”

Amura’s cheeks flushed and she looked away. “You’ve been having problems sleeping lately. I thought a full night would be good for you. It might even make you less cranky.”

“Well, don’t do it again please. That’s kind of a violation of trust thing to have you just use your magical voice on me without my permission.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“What’s not to follow?” Mira said. “You did something to me without my permission or knowledge. I’m asking you not to do it again so it doesn’t become an issue.”

“I was just trying to help though.”

“I know, but I don’t want you to do it again. Please respect my wishes.”

Amura just stared at her blankly. It was obvious she didn’t understand Mira’s point of view. Mira wondered how much of her life Amura spent manipulating the emotions of actions of people around her, whether for their own good or for hers. The more she thought about it, the less comfortable Mira was with the woman.

“I think you’re making too big a deal out of this. It really wasn’t anything,” Amura said.

“Oh my God, how are you not getting this? I asked you not to do it. Don’t do it. It’s really that simple.”

There was no singing or humming after that. The silence was uncomfortable, but Mira thought that might be a good thing. Maybe it would convince Amura to split off soon, before Shy or Jorath found her.

Interlude

Shodo bowed and scraped before his master. Lord Ilrot was not pleased, and as likely to take it out on Shodo as not. Still, there was nothing to be done but wait and hope that his master vented his temper on one truly deserving of it.

“You are sure that you know Jorath’s true plans?” Lord Ilrot demanded.

“He thought me dead, my master,” Shodo said, raising his head and gesturing toward the bruised flesh circling his neck from where his own shadow had strangled him. “It was very little effort to craft the illusion, considering how close he actually came.”

“Sybill,” the master growled, his voice echoing weirdly. “Come to me.”

They waited in silence as seconds stretched into a minute, then two. Shodo began to worry that his master would grow impatient, but Lord Ilrot sat, still as a mountain, on his throne. When the door opened and Sybill slipped inside, he didn’t look up.

She prostrated herself next to Shodo and said, “I come, my master. How may I serve you?”

“Your brother has decided he’d like to join the rest of your family. Someone needs to be sent to retrieve him.”

Sybill’s eyes glowed red with excitement. “What has he done?” she asked. There was no desire to defend her brother there. She merely wanted to know what misstep he’d made to rouse their master’s anger.

“He thinks to tamper with the seals that your ancestors placed around my heart stone. He thinks to steal it and use it as a weapon against me.”

Sybill laughed. “The idiot. There’s no way he could break those seals.”

Lord Ilrot gave her a flat stare, and her laughter died off. “Whether he could or not isn’t the issue. He moves against me, and that is enough. Find him, bring him here. Alive. He may have several companions with him, including my daughter. They are to be taken alive as well. Jorath need not be in good health, but the rest had better be.”

“Where shall I search?” Sybill asked.

“Shodo will assist you.” Lord Ilrot waved his hand in dismissal. “Now go. I’ll expect swift results.

* * *

There had been few pleasures as exquisite and turning demon hunters into demons. For all his long life, over two thousand years, that had been one of the highest moments. Ilrot still savored the expression on Sybill’s father’s face when he’d seen his daughter’s new form and she’d told her father that it had been her who’d betrayed their clan.

Of course, finding out that his heart stone was locked away behind seals that only demon hunters could break after he’d gone through the effort of exterminating or corrupting every single last one of them had more than counteracted that. He hadn’t felt such rage even when he’d lost his heart stone to begin with, not since his twin sister, Kalistra, had betrayed him in their youth and sided with their older half-siblings.

They were all dead now, by his hand, a fact that soothed him. And if he was very careful, he might just regain what the demon hunters had taken from him. Jorath had stumbled across something Ilrot had never considered, and if he could bend the girl to his will, he could regain his full powers. He wouldn’t need a brood mare anymore, not that any of them had ever produced acceptable results.

Ilrot entered the heart chamber, as he so often did. He stared at his heart stone. It just sat there, a red and black cluster of crystals that glowed softly in the dark. The seals that surrounded it were invisible, but impenetrable. Nothing he’d ever tried had allowed him to place so much as a finger tip on his heart stone.

This time, he was looking for a change. If Shodo was correct, Jorath had undone one of the seals. Surely he would be able to sense that. Perhaps even a seal undone would weaken the rest enough for him to break through. Ilrot stood there for hours, but in the end, he was forced to admit defeat, as he always did.

He needed the girl, his great-great-great-a-hundred-times-over grand-niece. For all that Kalistra’s line had ruined him, her final descendant could still put it all right again.

Chapter 20

It was too late to get out of the way. Mira flinched, fully expecting a wash of heat to char her skin. When it didn’t come, she cracked open one eye and peeked at the demon. It stood, wobbling in place, the flames dribbling from its mouth and splattering across the dirt.

It was the minstrel who saved her. A single, piercing note came from the woman’s throat, accompanied by a discordant melody strummed on the instrument she carried. Her face was strained, and by the time Mira scrambled to her feet, the note had cracked. The demon’s mouth snapped closed and its eyes refocused on the two of them.

“Can you do it again?” Mira asked, backing away from the demon.

“I… maybe. I don’t know.”

“I’m out of ideas,” Mira told the minstrel, gesturing to the blue and white puddle that used to be a frost basilisk. “Unless we can restrain it or knock it out, I don’t think there’s anything else I can do.”

Her first stint as a demon hunter wasn’t going well, but then, she really didn’t have a clue what she was doing. Taking the heart stone from the demon in the forest had been an accident, plain and simple, and Mira didn’t know how to do it again. Her attempts to figure it out on the fly had failed.

If they could incapacitate the demon though, that might give her the time she needed to figure it out. She wondered if the maljubo stalks she’d used on Drey would work on this creature too. It didn’t matter though. Even if she got away, by the time she ran to the arbor and back, it would be too late to save the town.

The minstrel was singing again, something different this time. As Mira focused on the music, a sense of calm washed over her. The demon, on the other hand, only looked more angry. It roared, and the fires burning through the town shot up with the reverberations. The effigy fire towered so high that Mira was sure everyone within five miles could see it.

It came forward in a terrifying rush of white scales and muscles. The demon was so fast that it caught up Mira before she even realized what had happened. It lifted her off the ground with one hand and made it look easy. Her stomach dropped, the same sickening sensation roller coasters had always given her, as the demon hauled her back and then threw her.

An instant later, pain blossomed in her arm and chest. She cried out, her voice mingled with the minstrel’s as they both went down. Mira landed on top with something hard digging into her. She managed to get one hand against the ground and push herself off the minstrel to roll over onto her back.

“I’d say we’re dead,” the minstrel wheezed out. “Thanks a lot. That’s what I get for trying to save you.”

“I never asked for your help,” Mira wheezed back. “I’ll distract it. You run.”

“The hell I will.”

The minstrel propped herself up and tossed aside the broken pieces of her instrument. It was nothing more than three sections of wood held together by a knot of strings, far beyond the point of repair. She climbed to her feet and faced down the demon.

“My name’s Amura, by the way.”

Mira winced in pain as she pulled herself back to her feet and stood next to the minstrel. “Mira. So, got any ideas?”

“Nope. You?”

“No.”

“Think we could outrun it?”

Mira snorted. “Doubt it.”

The demon stalked over to them while they talked. Their conversation broke off when it planted itself directly in front of the pair and drew itself up to its full height.

“I guess we’re fucked then,” Mira said. “Only one thing left to do.”

And she leaped at the demon.

* * *

Drey dragged himself toward the square, one limping step at a time. Each breath was a fight to draw, and he couldn’t feel his left side at all. His thoughts were black with a cold rage. The things he wanted to do to that girl were evil enough that they shocked him. He hadn’t thought himself that bad of a person.

All that washed away when a gout of flame lit the night sky. “What in the world…” he muttered as he stared up at it. Sudden tension gripped his chest, and even with the maljubo’s paralytic effect, he could feel his heart hammering inside his ribs.

More than once, he saw people running away from the town square, and each time, Mira’s warning echoed in his mind. Almost sick with dread, he hurried as fast as his numbed leg would let him. His imagination painted scenes of death and horror with every step.

The reality fell far short of his expectations, though he’d built the scene up so bad in his mind that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the entire town’s population turned into dead bodies and stacked like cord wood around the effigy’s base while a whole ring of demons danced around it. In actuality, there were a handful of bodies and the sharp smell of blood in the air, mixed with the charred stink of burning homes.

There were only two people in the square with the inferolisk. One was Mira, and the other Drey assumed was the traveling minstrel the town had hired. The demon stalked toward the women as they exchanged words too low for Drey to hear. When it reached them, it stood towering over them, drinking in their obvious fear and glorying in it.

Drey’s jaw nearly hit the ground when Mira charged. It was the bravest, stupidest, most reckless thing he’d ever seen. The girl had no lack of courage, at least. The demon was surprised by the sudden suicidal charge as well. That didn’t stop it from swatting Mira down with contemptuous ease.

The minstrel’s magic was the only thing that kept Mira from dying right then and there. Drey had only a vague understanding of how such things worked, despite her magic and his own being closely linked. The sound made its way into the victim’s mind and influenced its actions by inciting a barrage of emotional reactions that overwhelmed the victim’s rational thinking.

Drey’s own magic was more closely linked to smell. At least, that was what his experimentations had shown him. Everyone thought he hated winter because all the plants withered and died, but really he just got annoyed with people who had stuffy noses. They were so much harder to deal with.

The minstrel blasted emotions through the demon’s head, probably emotions that it had never felt in its life and had no idea how to process. The problem was that rage was a fantastic fall-back when things got confusing. The inferolisk had no problem deciding life was too complicated, and that the best solution was to break things until it felt better.

It was enough to distract the demon from killing Mira. It stomped right over her and charged at the minstrel, who yelped in fear and scrambled away. There was no escape though. It was too fast and too strong. They’d managed to hold it off for all of thirty seconds.

That gave Drey the time he needed. As the demon closed in on the minstrel, it got too close to one of the many buildings covered in seltharis blossoms. It obviously wasn’t slowed down by the smell of the flowers, but the beautiful thing about them was that they were climbing plants.

With Drey’s magic coaxing them, they lashed out from the wall and tangled themselves around the demon. At first too surprised to fight back, and probably still off-balance from the minstrel’s magic, the demon let the flowers wrap around the arm and leg closest to the wall. By the time it thought to start tearing at them, it was far too late.

Hopelessly snared and increasingly covered in seltharis flowers, the demon couldn’t even let out another roar. It tried, but the moment it opened its jaws, the creeping vines had invaded its mouth and choked it. More of them tightened around its throat. The demon gnashed its fangs and spit out chunks of plant matter, but not fast enough.

“Get over here,” Drey yelled to the two women. Their head snapped around in unison to stare at him. The minstrel hurried toward him, but Mira gave him a wary look and didn’t move.

“Come on, Mira. That’s not going to hold that thing forever. We need to get out of here while we still can.”

“How long?” she called back, staring at the demon.

“A minute or two at most. Now come on.”

* * *

A minute or two might be long enough. It was probably enough to escape, if she was willing to let the town burn. Mira saw the way that Drey was limping though. He was still feeling the paralytic she’d hit him with. She could escape. He might not.

If he’d listened to her from the start, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Some people might say it was poetic justice that he had to pay the price to let them escape. Mira would be lying if she said she didn’t just consider running. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. Maybe she was just too stubborn. Maybe she was just too stupid.

Mira didn’t know, but she did know that if they were going to stop the demon, it had to be here and now. They’d never get another chance.

She turned to Amura. “Hit it again. Everything you’ve got. I want that thing to be a drooling vegetable for as long as you can make it that way.”

Amura bit her lip. She glanced back at Drey. “We should run while we still can.”

Mira shrugged and turned away. “Fine. Do what you want then.”

She walked to where the demon was still struggling to free itself from the wall. It had almost torn one arm free, and she had no doubt that as soon as that happened, it would tear the rest of the seltharis flowers off the trellises, maybe even rip the entire wall out of the house if that’s what it took.

Amura started singing again, though it wasn’t a song with any words. Without the music to accompany it, it sounded sad, lonely even. It quivered in the night air like a living thing, and when it washed over Mira, she felt the bitter ache of lost loved ones nestle into her heart.

She only caught the outer edges of it though. Amura’s song was meant for the demon, and it landed hard. The demon visibly slumped against the wall. It let out a keening howl that lasted for several seconds before the seltharis flowers choked it off.

Mira approached it and wormed her fingers through the vines covering its chest. Before, she’d been frantically patting it down, trying to find a spot to access its heart stone. Now, she was calm. Or maybe it was just that the demon’s defenses were down.

Either way, her fingertips brushed against the smooth scaly skin of its chest. She hesitated a moment, then dipped her hand in. Something hot shifted under her hand. It burned her, like grabbing onto a rock that had baked in the sun all day, but she pulled it out. The heart stone got caught on the vines, but she worked it free.

“By the Fourth Son,” Drey whispered. “What are you?”

Mira held the heart stone up. It glowed white hot as it seared her bare flesh, but she refused to release it. The heat flushed through her, and each pulsing wave of it lit tiny fires in her brain. It took precious long seconds before she made sense of it and realized she could actually feel every fire that had spread through the village.

With an effort of will, she smothered them. The sudden change in light was startling. With nothing but the bonfire, which she brought down from a towering colossus of flames to more reasonable levels, the damaged homes looked sinister. Some were bare skeletons of charred black wood. Others were intact, but with holes in their roofs and walls. In the dark, the damage gave them faces that stared at her.

The demon wasn’t dead. It stared at her with something akin to hatred, but its fear was obvious. “Give it back,” it croaked, the first words she’d heard from it.

Amura and Drey came over to flank her. “It looks pitiable,” the minstrel remarked.

“What do we do with it now?” Drey asked.

Mira stared down at the glowing white heart stone in her hand. It was an oblong lump, much smaller than the first one she’d held months ago. It was still hot, but she harnessed its power to redirect that heat through her and into the earth. It couldn’t harm her unless she let it.

Someone had told her that demons didn’t die from having their heart stones removed. She could almost hear the sneer in Shy’s voice at the remembered words. She didn’t know what happened to the heart stone if the demon died though. It might crack and turn to ash in her hands.

The fires were out. The threat was ended. And Mira was unbelievably tired, the kind of bone deep weariness that she’d discovered when her family had died. It was a lack of will to keep going, the knowledge that she could just lay down and die. The only difference was that this time it was because the work was done, rather than not being able to see a reason to keep going.

Of course, the work wasn’t done. It hadn’t even begun yet. “I’m leaving,” she announced. “Do what you want with the demon. I don’t think it has the strength to be a threat anymore, but I could be wrong.”

“But, what about-” Drey started to say.

“I won’t be welcome here come sunrise. I’ve already learned that lesson. Everything that’s happened between us, Drey, let’s just call it even. Go back to your life. The people here need you.”

He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t say anything else. Mira fetched her backpack from where it was still sitting on the barrel she’d waited on. Then she walked away. At the edge of town, she saw the demon who’d shown up in her room at the inn watching her from the shadows.

He bowed his head and tugged his hood up. Mira gave him a tight-lipped glare in return. Even if the dark, even with the cloth mask covering his face, she could see his mouth move, though he was too quiet to hear his words. She didn’t have to though. She already knew what he’d said.

“Go ‘vuh kora’ yourself,” she muttered.

Then she left the devastated village of Rohaim behind and disappeared into the night.

Chapter 19

Mira could see the bonfire as soon as she left the arbor. By the time she reached the village square, the flames were half way up the effigy. “Aw crap,” she muttered as she stared up at it.

There were perhaps forty or fifty people in the square, with an unknown number circulating through the tents and pavilions that had been set up for the festival. If the demon was right, they were all in danger. It was too bad that Mira didn’t know the first thing about what an inferolisk was. It made it hard to prepare any sort of defense.

As she walked across the square, Mira noticed that her shadow had returned to her. That was oddly comforting, but only until she realized that if it had reattached itself, that probably meant that the demon it had been holding was free. Plus, Mira didn’t know exactly how much control Jorath had over her shadow, whether he could see her through it, or how close he had to be.

It was frustrating to come up against a wall of ignorance over and over again. Mira just didn’t know enough of anything about the world she was stuck in. Its dangers, its people, and its customs were all a mystery to her, and she was too afraid to ask anyone to explain anything. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself.

She settled onto a barrel pushed up against a wall and cradled her tattooed arm in her hand. If and when the demon showed up, the frost basilisk was her best chance of driving it off, or at least restraining it so she could attempt to take its heart stone. It would mean revealing herself to whoever didn’t run away, but her time in Rohaim was at an end either way. No doubt Drey would make sure of that.

Mira tried to phase out the noise, but the minstrel that the town had hired kept catching her attention. The woman was seated on a platform and strumming an instrument that looked familiar, but Mira couldn’t place what it was. Her voice was pitched to carry as she half-sang, half-spoke while accompanying herself.

“…and the demon hordes broke onto the mainland when the Dark Father sundered the bluffs overlooking the sea. They spilled out in every direction, too many to be contained. The Five Sons met in council to determine their best course of action. After some arguing, Torim, the eldest, decided that the Venn Mountains that split the continent in half would be their standing point.

“But Piroku argued with him for the people who would be left to the demons. There was no way to evacuate everyone in time, and no way to feed them even if they could. The other sons could think of no way to save the people, but Piroku had an idea. He left the council, his children and grandchildren with him. They traveled to village after village, always ahead of the demon masses.

“Piroku wove enchantments on the villages to hide them from the demons. Thanks to his magic, tens of thousands of lives were spared. As he traveled, he left his descendents behind to maintain the spells he crafted, and though Piroku himself would not live to see the end of the demons’ invasion, the Fourth Son did more to shelter humanity than any other.”

As the minstrel spoke, flashes of light rose over the heads of the crowd. Mira was too far away to make out what the light was, but appreciative gasps and scattered applause with each new light made her suspect it was part of the show. As the minstrel finished her story, she stood up and Mira got a good look at her.

It was the woman she’d met in the forest her first day in the new world. Instinctively, Mira sunk back deeper into the shadow of the house, though there was no way the minstrel was going to see her. Even with the bonfire’s light, there were too many shadows and too many people moving about. If the minstrel hadn’t been drawing so much attention to herself, Mira doubted she ever would have noticed the other woman.

She was so focused on the minstrel that she didn’t even hear the first scream. The festival was noisy enough that no one else reacted to it either, but the screams that followed it were enough to get everyone’s attention. The minstrel’s song broke off mid-note, and the entire crowd turned in unison toward the west side of the square.

Something stood there, its skin a scaly white over a heavily muscled frame. It was eight feet or more, easily towering over the people that were running away from it. A flat, reptilian head swiveled around on a long neck and its eyes narrowed as it took in the crowd. Its nostrils flared and it flexed claws stained red with blood.

A long tail lashed around behind it, drawing Mira’s attention to a teenaged girl at the demon’s feet. The girl was covered in blood and clutching at her stomach while she tried to crawl away. She didn’t get very far before the demon’s foot came up underneath her and blasted her through the air to land with a heavy thump ten feet away. The girl didn’t get back up.

A group of village men rushed at the demon carrying spears. Even from the other side of the square, Mira could see how drunk they were. Their attempts to drive the demon back resulted in nothing more than several of them being eviscerated before the rest broke and fled.

A second group of men, these ones from the night watch, attacked the demon. Unlike the first group, they were sober and coordinated. They used their spears to prod the creature and herd it back, and they wore armor to protect them when it bulled through and slashed at them with its claws.

It was a losing battle, though. There simply weren’t enough of them, and the demon was too fast. It had taken everyone by surprise, and all the night watch was doing was giving Rohaim’s townsfolk enough time to flee the square. That might even have made it worth it, except that the bonfire had shot up to twice its previous height, and fire was raining down on the rooftops and into the streets.

Most of the townsfolk were gone, but Mira was surprised to see how many had remained behind. They’d started a bucket brigade from one of the town’s two wells and were busy trying to contain the fire even as the night watch attempted to drive the demon back not twenty feet away.

All of it left Mira at a loss. Her plan to release the frost basilisk seemed foolish with so many people around to see it. She wasn’t handy with a weapon, and while the people attempting to douse the fires were certainly brave, it was obviously a lost cause. The demon had affected the bonfire somehow, and until it was dead or driven off, there would be no saving the town.

“Come on,” a woman said, grabbing Mira’s arm. “It’s not safe here.”

Mira blinked and looked over to see the minstrel trying to pull her to her feet. “No,” she said, “I have to stay and help.”

“Don’t be stupid, girl. Just get out of the way before you cause problems.”

“You don’t understand. I can help. I just need-”

Mira cut off as the minstrel let out a string of blistering curses. She let go of Mira’s arm and started singing softly, her words just under Mira’s range of hearing. It went on for several seconds, and she felt herself growing light-headed. Something grabbed her arm again and pulled her to her feet, then pushed her away from the fight.

Mira took a few steps and stopped, confused. “What are you doing?” she asked, her speech slurred. “Stop that.”

“Stubborn, aren’t you?” a voice said from nearby. The singing started again, but this time Mira shook her head and fought her way back to lucidity.

“Don’t,” she said, casting a glare at the minstrel. The woman’s eyebrows were up in an expression of shock, but they narrowed quickly enough as she studied Mira’s face.

“Do I know you?” she asked. “You look familiar.”

“I saw you once in a different town,” Mira said. The statement was generic enough that she hoped the minstrel would take it at face value. It didn’t look like she was buying it, though.

The minstrel took a step back and pulled her cloak tighter around her. “You were that girl with the heart stone, weren’t you? I thought they killed you.”

“Still alive, no thanks to you,” Mira said. “Now stay the hell away from me. I don’t need any more of your kind of help.”

The minstrel’s eyes flickered from Mira to the demon, over to the bonfire that was still reaching a hundred feet into the night sky, and back to Mira. “You’re doing this,” she said. “You’re the one who called the demon here.”

She took in a deep breath to yell something, but before she got it out, Mira’s shadow snapped up and filled her mouth like a gag. The minstrel’s eyes widened and she flailed about for a moment before more of Mira’s shadow latched onto her limbs and brought her to the ground.

“I don’t have time for this,” Mira told her. She hadn’t commanded her shadow to do that, hadn’t even thought to remember that it could now. But she was glad it had. The minstrel was a distraction she didn’t need. “Just stay out of the way while I try to clean this up. And for what it’s worth, no, I didn’t cause this problem. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.”

The night watch was at its breaking point. Three of them were down, their leather-and-steel jackets shredded. The ones that were still up were spread out in a loose half circle, but there weren’t enough of them to keep the demon penned in. With a flick of its tail, it leaped forward and swiped two spears to the side. Before the men could respond, it was on them.

That was all it took for the rest to run. With the square finally starting to clear out, Mira felt safe to go back to her original plan. When she thought about it though, it didn’t really matter. Between Drey and the minstrel, there was no way she was still going to be in Rohaim come daybreak, even if she survived the next few minutes. Hesitating like that had done nothing but give the demon more time to kill.

The basilisk uncurled from her arm and ran down her hand like water. It dribbled off her fingers and grew to life-size as it pooled on the ground next to her. Mira didn’t have the fine control that Shy had exhibited, but she was able to communicate enough of her wishes to the basilisk that it lunged at the demon.

Roaring a challenge, it rushed to meet the basilisk. The two of them grappled, but it was immediately clear that the basilisk wasn’t a match for the demon’s sheer strength. Where their skin met, blisters formed on the demon and bursts of steam hissed into open air. The basilisk’s fangs clamped down on the demon’s shoulder, but it couldn’t get its coils around the demon to crush it.

Mira raced forward and threw herself on the demon’s back. It roared and whipped around in a tight circle, so fast that her legs actually came free and only her arms around its neck kept her from flying away. The distraction cost the demon though. The basilisk finally got a loop of its body around the demon’s legs and brought it to the ground.

Mira let out a pain-filled squeak when the demon rolled over on top of her, but she didn’t let that stop her from running her hands across its body. Somewhere inside it was a heart stone. She just had to figure out how to get at it. She assumed it was in the demon’s chest cavity, but that’s all it was: an assumption. For all she actually knew, its heart stone could be in its foot.

The demon climbed back to its feet, Mira still clinging to its back and the basilisk still looped around it. Its jaw unhinged and fire poured out of its mouth in a brilliant red and white waterfall. The basilisk’s coils immediately loosened as it thrashed about in pain. The flames licked across Mira’s hands too, but she refused to let go.

The demon slipped a foot free and stomped down on the basilisk. From there, it had all the leverage it needed to pry the serpent-like creature off of it and hurl it away. The basilisk landed in a heap and melted into a blue puddle on the dirt when the demon breathed more fire onto it.

“Ah shit,” Mira said as she watched it happen over the demon’s shoulder. Frantically, she slid one hand up and down the demon’s back, but there was no place for her probing fingers to slip through. Then the demon reached over its shoulder and grabbed the back of Mira’s shirt.

With casual ease, it flicked her forward to land flat on her back in the middle of the square. A sharp intake of breath reached her ears, and Mira looks up just in time to see hot fire pour of the demon’s mouth again.

Chapter 18

Mira threw herself backward, but not fast enough that the demon didn’t grab hold of her shirt anyway. She grabbed his wrist with both hands in an attempt to break his grip, resulting in nothing more than abrasions across her hands where they rubbed against the demon’s skin.

It really was as rough as it looked, so rough that Mira wondered what his clothes were made out of that he didn’t shred them just by walking around. Then he jerked her off her feet and tried to pull her through the doorway out into the hall. Mira grabbed the frame and fought back, but the demon’s strength was frightening.

Mira’s shadow whipped around her into ropy black tendrils that grabbed the demon. They wrapped around his arms and neck and legs while his eyes widened in surprise, then slammed him backwards into the wall opposite the door. His head lolled while her shadow held him pinned several inches off the floor.

“Oh shit,” she breathed out. “What the hell is that?”

Her own eyes wide, Mira raised a hand up and looked past it to where its shadow should have been cast against the wall. There was nothing there. She looked down at her feet, twisting as she did to see all around here. There was no shadow there either. It had somehow completely detached itself from her body and was several feet away holding a struggling demon immobile.

A vision of Jorath’s shadow leading her and Shy through that ruined city entered her mind, followed by one of Shodo’s shadow rising up and killing him. Somehow, Jorath had done something to hers. Mira wanted to be angry about it, but whatever it was had saved her from being abducted and probably worse.

Unless she could find some way to kill this demon quietly, there was no way she could stay in Rohaim. Telling people about him would draw the wrong sort of attention, and there was no way she was going back into a jail cell. There was one person who might be able to help her though.

If things didn’t work out like she hoped, she wanted to be able to move quickly, so Mira packed up her meager belongings while the demon watched her. He’d ceased struggling against her shadow, which had spread to cover his chest and hips. “You’ve changed your mind?” he asked. “You will flee this town before it is destroyed?”

“I’m fleeing you,” she said. “I’m not letting you take me anywhere, even if I believed you.”

“But you are leaving?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Not with you either way. And it’s none of your business what I do. So why don’t you just hang there for now.”

* * *

The Piroku Festival was just getting started when Mira walked outside. The effigy was little more than a towering shadow looming over the town, but there were already people scurrying around it, preparing to light it up.

Mira plucked at the sleeve of a passerby. “Have you seen Drey?” she asked.

“Beer tent,” he told her. “Always is at the start of the festival. He likes to make his money early so he can relax for the rest of the night.”

The beer tent was actually a pavilion that the town had set up using some wooden posts and a tarp strung up to them. A steady stream of townsfolk went in one side either empty handed or with empty cups, and came out the other side with freshly topped off. Just outside the pavilion, making his way down the line with a basket held in one hand, was Drey. Every few people or so, he’d stop and hand out a packet of medicine in exchange for a handful of spanners.

“Mira,” he said with a smile as she hurried over to him. “Decided to join us after all, huh?”

“What? Yeah, sure. Look, I’ve got a bit of a problem and I don’t know who else to talk to. Can I steal you for a few minutes?”

“Alright. I’ve got to get another basket from my house anyway. Walk with me?”

Mira fell into step beside Drey as he veered away from the line and crossed the square. She did her best to ignore the knowing smirks some of the townsfolk were wearing as they walked to the arbor.

“What’s going on?” Drey asked.

In a hushed voice, Mira told him about the demon showing up in her room and his warning about the seltharis flowers. As she talked, Drey slowed down and glanced back over his shoulder at the still unlit effigy.

“How did the demon know about the flowers?” he asked.

“Is it true then? Did you do something to change them recently?”

“I’m always growing new strains of plants,” Drey told her. “That’s kind of what I do.”

“So the demon might not have been lying after all,” Mira said.

Drey shook his head. “There’s no reason to believe a demon. If anything, it just proves that the new strain works and it’s trying to stop us from driving all of its friends away from our town.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we should talk to that hunter who was in with the broken leg about the demon he saw. The one that showed up at my door said there was… um.. an… inferno… something… damn it.”

“An inferolisk?” Drey asked.

“Yes. That’s it.”

Drey led her around the side of the house to a shed where he stored bundled herbs. “What I don’t get,” he said as he fished a set of keys out of his pocket and sorted through them, “is why this demon is talking to you.”

Mira had been hoping Drey would have too more concerned about the flowers to think of that. She didn’t think that admitting she was a person of interest to a demon that apparently represented some mysterious order was a good idea. “Maybe I’m just the first person he ran into,” she lied.

“Maybe. There’s something special about you though, Mira. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.”

Drey flashed her a grin and pulled the padlock off the shed door. He ducked inside for a moment and came back out with two baskets. “Here, hold these for me,” he told her before disappearing back in to grab another pair. Then he relocked the shed.

“Look, here’s the thing. The new strain of seltharis blossoms is already strung up on the effigy. They’re going to be lighting it up any minute now. I doubt we could stop it even if we wanted to, which we don’t. I suggest you relax, enjoy the festival with me, and forget about a demon that’s not going to be able to come within a thousand yards of Rohaim anyway.”

“What if the demon wasn’t lying though?” Mira asked. “What do we do then? Shouldn’t we warn the town guard at least?”

Drey sighed and set his baskets down. He placed his hands on Mira’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice almost hypnotic. “Everything is fine. You’re safe here. Come back with me. We’ll have these herbs sold out in ten minutes, then we can drink our faces off, listen to the minstrel the town hired for the festival, and stay out having fun until the sun comes up.”

A large part of Mira wanted to just forget about the demon and do what Drey said. But she recognized it as the same part of brain that always had problems thinking of anything but Drey whenever she was around him. Before, she’d been hesitant, never quite convinced that she wasn’t just fooling herself. This time, it was blatant. The more Drey spoke, the more it all felt wrong to her.

“You’re doing something to my head,” Mira said. She tried to pull away from him, but Drey kept his grip on her shoulders. “Stop it, Drey. Let me go.”

“Mira, please! Just listen to me. You’re working yourself up over nothing.”

“No, I’m not. What are you doing to me?”

Drey kept talking, but Mira stopped listening. She ignored the squirming sensation in her stomach and the heat in her flushed face. Instead, she dug her nails into her palms, into the abraded skin she’d gotten from grabbing the demon’s wrists. The pain sparked something in her mind outside Drey’s influence, a place she could anchor her thoughts to.

She swung her arms up, almost drunkenly, and smacked the two herb baskets into Drey’s face. He staggered backward with a surprised cry and released her. Her head still groggy, Mira hurled the baskets at him and spun away. She sprinted off into the dark, weaving back and forth as she ran. With every step, her head cleared up.

“Mira, wait! Come back!” Drey called out behind her. She just ducked her head and ran faster.

* * *

Drey looked down at the mess of herb packs around him and swore. He’d never had the kind of trouble with women that Mira gave him. Sure, the larger the age gap, the less he seemed able to charm them, but Mira was only a few years younger. He was her boss, besides, so an authority figure to her too. At first, it had made for an interesting challenge, a pleasant distraction from the day-to-day routine.

She’d resisted his every attempt though. She’d flirt back, sometimes, but as soon as they stopped talking, it was like her mind reset and he had to start all over again. Drey had never met anyone like her. He was starting to wonder if she actually was human, or if she had some magical blood in her a few generations back.

Then she’d found him at the festival and spun some ridiculous story about cryptic demonic warnings and was trying to undo the project he’d spent three years working on. There was no way he was going to let that happen, not when he finally had the chance to purge Rohaim of its demons once and for all. The fire would release the seltharis flowers’ aroma and send pollen up into the air, where the wind would catch it and spread it all over the forest.

He’d placed the seltharis wreathes near the top of the effigy, as high as he could get away with. Hopefully it was high enough to get the spread he wanted. All of his tests showed that it should work, but there was really only one way to find out.

Drey needed to stop Mira first, though. He strode through the herb packs, kicking them away as he hurried into the darkness after her.

* * *

Mira wasn’t sure which green house she’d ducked into in the dark. All she knew was that she could hear someone running after her, and if it was Drey, she didn’t want to come face to face with him again. If it was someone else, some demon, perhaps, then she definitely didn’t want to see it.

There was enough light coming in through the green house roof for her to make out the shadowy outlines of the plants. She retreated from the door and crouched down between two tables to hide from the silhouette that passed by outside. Even as she watched, it disappeared into a green house farther down the row. Mira silently cursed her luck and creeped toward the door. Before she could open it, the silhouette appeared again and opened the door to the green house next to hers.

There was no way she was going to sneak out without being spotted. Her only chance was to hope that whoever it was, and she almost couldn’t believe she was hoping it was just Drey, wouldn’t make a careful inspection and would miss her. She backed away from the door slowly and bumped into a storage cupboard.

Mira’s eyes lit up. She looked around and grinned at a little shadow in a potter that twitched and danced around. Working quickly and quietly, she opened the cupboard door and grabbed a pair of gloves. Then she scurried across the green house floor and waited.

* * *

Green House One had been empty, probably. Drey had given it only a quick glance, but he was confident that he would have known if something was out of place. Mira wasn’t in the orchard or the berry patches. Unless she’d run off into the forest itself, she had to be in one of the green houses.

It was possible she’d hopped the fence. If anyone could, it would be her. But if that were the case, it was already too late to stop her. It wasn’t that Drey thought anyone would believe her crazy demonic messenger story. It was that he didn’t want to have to refute any claims she made about his attempts to charm her. That was a worst-case scenario though, and he was confident that even then, he could smooth over any damage she might cause.

Green House Two was just as empty as the first one. He spent a little bit longer checking it out, partially due to the layout, and partially due to paranoia. Once he was satisfied that Mira wasn’t hiding there, he moved on to the next one.

As soon as he walked through the door, Drey knew he’d caught up to her. He’d always seen better in the dark than most people, and she’d left a dozen little clues that she’d come through the green house. The storage cupboard door hung ajar. One of the planters on the table next to it had been pushed off center. She’d stepped in some soil and left a partial footprint leading deeper into the green house.

Drey kicked the door closed behind him and looked around. Wherever Mira was hiding, she’d found a good spot. Moving slowly, he checked under tables and behind work benches. He made is way down the first aisle, one eye always on the door behind him while he looked for her.

He looped all the way around the back table and was starting back to the front when she popped up in front of him. Drey recoiled instinctively and raised a hand to block as Mira swung something at him. He had only an instant to see that it looked like some sort of bouquet of leafy stalks before it slapped into his hand.

Bulbs snapped off the maljubo stalks and sprayed across his face. Mira yelped and hopped backward as several of them rebounded at her, but Drey couldn’t take advantage of it. Numbness had spread from his blocking hand all the way up to his shoulder and his facial muscles were locked in place. He tried to cough, but all that came out was a strangled gurgle.

“Sorry,” Mira said. “I hope you’ll be alright, but you’re bad news for me. Just stay away from me, ok?”

She dropped the stalks on the floor, where more of their paralyzing bulbs scattered in every direction, and walked away from where Drey had collapsed and lay wheezing on the ground.