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.

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