Chapter 29

Author’s note: I screwed up the scheduling on this one and somehow accidentally scheduled it for a month later than it was supposed to go up. Whoops. So here it is now, only 12 hours late.


 

Jorath tossed the book onto the pile and grabbed a new one, thoroughly disgusted. Every line in his notes was contradicted at least once, and he was only a third of the way through what he’d gathered. The demon hunters who’d crafted the seals around Ilrot’s heartstone had deliberately hidden information about it, and then they’d sewn false information in what records they had kept.

Considering that each clan had a single seal, barring the Montrose who’d been banished prior to the whole thing, there could only be five locations. His list included twenty six places to check out, and there’d be another nine if he hadn’t been able to cross the Relivar Reliquary off the list.

A tear opened in the air near him, just large enough to see Annidra’s face on the other side. “Jorath,” she said through the warped space.

“I’m busy,” he said without looking up from the book in front of him.

“We’ve got a problem.”

“If I have to handle your problems myself, why do I need you?”

“Jorath! Your sister found us.”

The book hit the table hard enough to tip the candle in the corner over. Jorath ignored it and turned his attention to Annidra. “Sybill caught you?”

“No, we got away, for now. But you know she’s not going to give up. Somehow, Ilrot found out what you’re up to.”

“Impossible. If he knew, he’d have killed me, or worse, when I went to check on the seal.”

“You think this is a coincidence?” Shy said. “That’s a long stretch.”

He considered that. “No, you’re right. They must have found something after I left.”

Jorath went over every conversation he’d held with his master, with his sister, with anyone else he’d talked to. Nothing should have incriminated him, and if it had, he wouldn’t have ever made it out of his clan’s ancestral home.

“There’s something else,” Shy said. “Mira told me that Shodo thought the Reliquary in Karados was the Toshi Clan’s. I searched that spot in the flats, at least as much as I could before your sister showed up, and I didn’t find anything. But, if it really was the Toshi Reliquary, I could have missed it. Now I’m not even sure if I was looking for the right things.”

Jorath looked down at the sheet of parchment covered in his cramped, angular hand. “Of course. Those brilliant bastards. It’s another layer of obfuscation. Even if we find a Reliquary site, there’s no reason for it to be the one we think it is, and every reason for the demon hunters from hundreds of years ago to lie about it.”

“What do you want me to do?” Shy asked.

“Keep heading for Aesir’s Throne. I’ve already confirmed that there’s a seal there. It may or may not be the Ashryke Clan’s, but we have to break them all either way. I’ll meet you there.”

“Are you sure Mira’s ready for this? The west side of the Venn Mountains is… not safe like it is here.”

“We don’t have much choice, Annidra,” Jorath said. “Keep her alive at any cost.”

“Alright.” Annidra didn’t sound happy. “We’ll be there in a few weeks as long as nothing goes wrong.”

The tear twisted in on itself and disappeared. Jorath reached over and straightened the candle, which had blackened a spot on the desk and dribbled liquid wax everywhere. He pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and, with a heavy sigh, reached into the first book of his already-finished pile to record all the references to the Relivar Reliquary he’d skipped the first time around.

* * *

“I hate when he calls me that,” Shy said. “Which he knows, which is why he does it. Dark Father curse him.”

There was a tattoo on the palm of her hand, one of a gargoyle made of red stone, the contours of its body highlighted with lines of silver. The gargoyle normally held a golden hoop the length of its body with all four of its limbs and with its teeth clamped down on the top. Now, the tattoo was raised half out of her hand into the air, hoop raised up over its head.

The interior of the hoop flickered and went dim, the image of Jorath disappearing from it and the featureless landscape of the flats coming into view. Shy willed the tattoo back into her skin, where it traveled up her arm and disappeared under her clothes.

“He was about as helpful as I’d expect him to be,” Shy told Mira, “which is to say not at all. We’re still going to the same place, with no help from him, but now we get to hurry.”

“What did you mean about it being not safe where we’re going?” Mira asked. “This whole world has felt pretty not safe since day one.”

Shy let out a short, ugly, bitter laugh. “Where you’ve been at, this corner of the world, it’s a reservation. Human civilization, such as it is, stands here and nowhere else. The Demon King kept them around for some reason he’s never felt the need to share. Food, maybe? Some demons do eat people. Entertainment, more likely.”

“So we’re just an ant farm for him to play with?” Mira asked.

Shy had no idea what an ant farm was, so she just glossed over it. “The point is that if you go a hundred or so miles north past where you went, or west through the passes in the Venn Mountains, you go off the reserve. And it’s all fair game out there. Lord Ilrot punishes demons who poach his reserve.”

“What? I’ve seen dozens of demons here,” Mira said.

Shy shrugged. “Sure. Some are small enough to be beneath notice. Some have permission. Some are just clever or quick. But it’s a whole different world on the other side of those mountains. The one thing you definitely won’t see is another person. Anybody out there who looks like a human is actually a demon like me.”

Mira just stared at her for a second. “Well that sounds wonderful. What are we doing standing around here then?”

“That’s a good point,” Shy said. “We shouldn’t be waiting for Sybill to walk up to us. Come on, let’s go.”

* * *

Every time Mira thought she had a handle on something, someone threw another curve ball at her. She’d lost track of the number of time she’d almost died, and that was in the supposedly safe part of the world. It hadn’t even been an hour ago she’d thought she was going to drown in a hole in the ground.

She’d thought she’d been on the path to acquire enough personal power to protect herself with the heartstone, but now she was starting to think there was no such thing as enough. And this new demon, Sybill, scared the hell out of her, if only because she scared the hell out of Shy. Mira had only seen her shaken a few times, and none as bad as their encounter with that group of people in the tunnels.

So they walked through the day and into the night. They walked so far that Mira thought her feet would fall off. And then they walked some more. With nothing but starlight and a sliver of the moon to guide them, they trudged across the flats toward distant shadows that Mira knew were mountains even though she could no longer discern individual shapes.

They stopped for a few minutes every now and then, but there was no sleeping that night. A few hours after dawn, the ground started sloping up. It became rockier, and if there still wasn’t any plant life to be found, any change in scenery was welcome.

They slept on grass that night, albeit sparse, prickly stuff. Their progress slowed considerably once they actually got into the mountains, which suited Mira fine. Shy sent out her scrying hoops to look ahead frequently, and if she hadn’t determined the correct path by the time they came to the next intersection, Mira got to rest.

That made it all the more confusing when they rounded a bend and came up against open sky. There was no path forward, or down, or anywhere. It was the first time that had happened, and Mira gave Shy a surprised glance.

“I had an idea,” Shy said. “We’re off the main path now.”

“Ok. Why are we here then?”

Shy pointed to a shadow cut into the cliff face opposite of them. “You see that? That’s a vilraf nest. They’re demons that can fly. If we can get a heartstone for you, then this becomes a journey of days instead of weeks. We’re going to capture one.”

Mira studied the shadowy spot on the cliff. “That’s got to be forty feet through open air on the other side of this ravine. How exactly are we going to get over there?”

“We’re not. We’re going to bait them over here.”

“Oh,” Mira said. “That makes sense. What are we using as bait?”

Shy grinned at her, and Mira’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Remember when I said that some demons like to eat people?”

“I hate you, Shy.”

* * *

“I don’t want to do this.”

“Shut up. Just remember the plan and don’t forget to jump.”

Mira rubbed a hand across the braided rope of spider silk wrapped around her waist and hidden under her shirt. The other end was anchored just over the edge of the cliff, where it would hopefully not break and drop her a hundred feet to her death splattered across the ravine.

“What if this line snaps and I fall?”

“Then I’ll have some explaining to do to Jorath. Now shut up.”

Shy was hidden around the corner, partially disguised behind a tan cloak. It wasn’t a very good disguise, but they were relying on the vilraf to approach from the proper direction. As long as it cooperated, the rock shelf would hide her from sight. Mira had expressed doubts about the probability of that happening, but Shy had assured her that its hunting grounds would be in that direction, and it was only logical that its return flight would take it up the ravine.

Tension and fear could only last so long though. Five minutes of anxiously scanning the skies turned into an hour of boredom. By the time the demon actually showed up, exactly along the route Shy had predicted, Mira had long since stopped looking for it.

That might have been why she completely missed her chance to jump out of its way when it plummeted down to scoop her up. It was shaped generally like a person, if any human was nine feet tall and had wings for arms. Its head resembled a bird of prey, with a cruelly hooked beak and fierce jet black eyes.

It was the clawed feet that had Mira’s attention though. The vilraf had glided in without a whisper of sound and only seeing the shadow it cast over her at the last moment gave her the slightest hint that it was there. Mira spun in place with a yelp and dove to the stone.

The maneuver saved her from being scooped into the air, but not from the vilraf’s claws raking across her back. Pain, red and hot, flared up where the claws ripped open her skin. Mira scrambled away from the demon, which beat its wings to gain more altitude for another dive.

“Stick with the plan, you idiot,” Shy hissed. “You have to be out of the way for this to work.”

“That would be a lot easier if the plan wasn’t for me to jump off a cliff!”

“Stop whining and do it.”

The vilraf dropped back down, fortunately coming in from a direction that not only left Mira a clear path to the edge of the cliff, but prevented it from getting a visual on Shy, who still waited around the corner.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Mira whispered. “God, if you’re up there, I know we don’t talk much, but please don’t let me die.”

Then she spun on her heel and took a running jump out into open space.

* * *

As soon as Mira was out of the way, Shy gave the command to her familiars. The grithulik spiders hurtled forward and landed on the vilraf. They trailed web lines behind them, the other sides already tangled around her ulusoc’s limbs. At her command, it surged away from the vilraf.

The spider lines, which her pets had looped several times around their victim, held against the pull, and the vilraf was jerked forward into the stone wall. It screeched and thrashed, but the grithuliks were quick about their work, and when the ulusoc lumbered over and body slammed it, the vilraf had very little fight left in it.

“Hmmm… even easier than I expected it to be,” Shy said as she studied the demon. It was bleeding all over, still conscious and obviously in pain. It was silent though as it stared at her.

“Not stupid, are you? Can you talk?”

If it could, it didn’t have anything to say. Shy shrugged and walked over to the edge. She poked her head over and looked down at Mira, who was clinging for dear life to the spider line as it spun her around in circles. Mira looked back up at her and said, “Get me off this thing before it snaps and I fall.”

“I told you it would hold,” Shy said. She lay down on her stomach and reached down for the line, which was anchored a few inches from the top of the cliff. With one hand, she hauled the line up far enough to give herself some play. Then she climbed back to her knees and, hand over hand, pulled Mira back up.

“So, you ready to learn how to fly?”

Mira glanced over at the vilraf, still pinned to the side of the mountain. “That actually does sound kind of cool,” she said. “Where is its heartstone at?”

“I don’t know. You’re the demon hunter. You find it.”

Shy stood there, arms crossed, and watched Mira pat the demon down. After a few minutes, her hand slipped through its lower back, just to the right of its spine. The demon screeched and bucked against the restraints, but it couldn’t break them.

Mira’s arm went in past the elbow and angled up. When she pulled it out, she held a lump of rock, light green with a groove of darker, glowing green spiraling around it. It was barely the size of Shy’s fist, and despite being made of stone, looked so light that a stiff breeze would send it flying away.

The vilraf slumped down, all of its weight being supported by the tethers holding it upright. It didn’t even make a pretense of fighting. Mira gave it a troubled frown, and Shy felt a flash of irritation. Somehow, the human girl still hadn’t learned not to feel sorry for her victims. She really was a terrible demon hunter.

“So how do I use this thing?” Mira asked.

Chapter 28

Kull’s master bled him to the point where he couldn’t even stand. It, or she, Kull still wasn’t sure, caught every drop in a wide, shallow bowl. “Normally I have to kill someone to get this much blood,” his master said. “You do have your uses, don’t you?”

Kull didn’t answer. He wasn’t supposed to. His master dismissed him then. He didn’t leave, of course. Such effort was beyond him. He merely shuffled a few steps over and fell down where he wouldn’t be in the way.

The bowl was directly in front of him on the ground, barely three feet away. His master hunched over it, hands moving like a puppeteer. The blood jumped in time with the movements, tugged by invisible strands of magic. Human shaped figures made entirely of Kull’s blood rose up from the middle to stand on the surface. Two more came up out of the blood on the far side of the bowl, but his master’s hands didn’t hover over them.

Instead, it manipulated the clump of people in the center. They marched forward in unison as new shapes emerged from the blood. Then the fight was on, with Kull’s master skillfully directing the blood people. Some of them dissolved and splashed back into the surface of the bowl, but the rest just closed ranks where they could and kept fighting.

Everything in the bowl paused at the same time, and blood bubbled up around the puppets’ feet. “What is this?” Kull’s master said, a hint of confusion in its voice.

“Ah, I see,” it said a moment later. “No help for it then. Can’t kill them.”

The blood puppets turned and ran. They stayed centered in the bowl, but the two figures they’d been trying to reach disappeared off the edge as they moved. With a click of its tongue, Kull’s master pulled its hands away from the bowl and let the blood splash back down to form a flat surface.

“Next time.”

* * *

“Where the hell are they going?” Mira asked.

“I don’t care right now. This whole place is going to be underwater in 5 minutes. Move.”

“We need more light, anything that glows. There isn’t enough time to check each wall for marks anymore.”

Shy stripped her top off and hunched over. Before Mira could ask what she was doing, the tattoos across Shy’s back had pushed themselves up onto her shoulders and arms to make room for a bear-shaped thing with obsidian plates and glowing joints. It clawed its way up off Shy’s flesh until it had grown to full size and straddled her.

It ambled forward and Shy climbed to her feet. Her breaths came in ragged gasps, but she didn’t stop to even put her shirt back on. The bear sped up, running the left side of the tunnel, while the salamander scurried to keep up opposite of it.

“Should be… two… no three more intersections to the next mark,” Mira said, trotting after Shy through water that was up past her ankles.

“I’ll watch this wall for the mark, you take the one that’s better lit,” Shy told her.

They almost missed it. The bear was already past it when Mira spotted the mark and called Shy back. The tunnel, fortunately, sloped upward, and all the water in it ran down in ever-thickening rivulets to join the tunnel they’d just come from.

“Any sign of those people who attacked us?” Mira asked as they rounded another corner.

“No.”

“How are they keeping ahead of us?” Mira wondered. “They didn’t even have a light to see by.”

“They’re probably not. Their owner abandoned them down here to drown.”

Part of Mira was horrified, but only a small part. The rest was too busy trying to navigate the way out and keep a lid on the rising panic she felt. Everything else would have to wait.

The tunnels gave way to an open cavern, but not the one that led back to the surface. Mira skidded to a stop on the slick, water-covered stone and looked around. “Shit,” she said. “I don’t remember which way, and I don’t think we have time to look.”

“Here,” Shy called out, not stopping. She darted across the cavern and disappeared into a tunnel, leaving Mira to scramble after her.

“I don’t see the marking,” Mira yelled from the mouth. “Are you sure-”

“Yes! Come on.”

The salamander was following Shy, which left Mira with no choice but to tag along, unless she wanted to be left with only the dim glow of the inferolisk heartstone for light. Swearing, she ran into the tunnel.

It sloped downward far enough that there was a foot of water in it, and it was still rising. The water had a current to it, one that Mira had to actively fight against. The walls were no help either. They were so slick that it was almost worse putting a hand against one than trying to keep her balance.

She was confident that she could have navigated through the tunnel except for one thing. The salamander lighting her way slipped off the ceiling and fell into the water, its light all but extinguished. Frantically, Mira groped in the dark for the little creature, but the current swept it away before she could catch it.

* * *

“What are they doing, the idiots?” Kull’s master said. It studied the bowl intently, watched the back one flail about. Only one of its slaves was nearby. Kull wondered if that limited the connection somehow, not having a dozen minions to send feedback to the bowl.

His master seemed agitated, worried even. Admittedly, Kull had only been bonded for a few days, but it was the first time he’d ever seen the shadowy figure that controlled his life not in complete control. It worked up some spark of… something… in him, defiance maybe. It was too feeble and small to examine. But it was something that hadn’t been there before.

* * *

Shy’s hand snapped out and caught the salamander as it swept past her. She lifted it up to cling to the back of her hair and kept walking. Mira closed the distance between them and said, “Damn. Nice catch.”

“Not now,” Shy said. “Something is following us.”

“How the hell can you tell? I can barely hear your voice over the water.”

It was true. There was so much noise from the water running past them, dripping down, and generally echoing through the tunnels that it was disorienting. Mira was doing her best to block it out, since it did nothing but feed the panic she was keeping pushed down in her chest.

Then she emerged into a wide open cavern with light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling. “Oh thank God,” Mira said. The water was already up to her waist and, if anything, was rising faster. The web line they’d come in was gone, but Shy threw two streaks of ink into the air that resolved into spider shapes and scaled the hole to the top.

They dropped web lines down to Shy, who didn’t even wait for them to be anchored before she started climbing. It was a matter of seconds before she reached the top. Mira waded over, using the obsidian-plated bear as a water break to keep the current from taking her off her feet.

In the time it took Shy’s pets to make the line and for her to scale it, the water had risen from Mira’s waist up to her armpits. By the time she had the line firmly in her hands, it was up to her shoulders. The current was so great that her feet no longer touched the stone.

Then the bear disappeared, willed by Shy back up into her skin.

The current hit Mira full force, swept her straight out and ripped the line out of her hands. She couldn’t quell the rising panic after that. The logical part of her mind that told her to swim, to fight, was overwhelmed as she thrashed in the water.

She bumped into something solid, still too close from the center of the room for it to be the wall. Hands grabbed her and shoved her forward. The line slapped against her face, and she scrambled to snag it out of water that was past her chin. As soon as she had it, Shy pulled. Mira rose half a foot out of the water, still clinging to the line.

She had enough presence of mind to loop it around her arms several times as Shy gave another tug. A third one pulled her completely free of the water and set her to spinning in place. Mira looked down to see a man, one of the ones who’d been in the group that had attacked them, staring up at her. He was tall, much taller than her. But the water level was going up inches every second, and between the third pull and the fourth, it rose over his head.

Once she was clear of the water, every heave of the line shot Mira up several feet. She had just enough time to see the man, completely underwater but still staring up at her, swept from his feet and carried into the darkness. Then Shy pulled her out of the hole and away from it. Ten seconds later, the water level shot up enough to be funneled into a geyser and burst into open air.

“Thought I was going to lose you for a second there,” Shy said. “Jorath would have killed me.”

“There was a man down there, one of the ones from the tunnels. He caught me and pushed me back to the rope, I mean to the… I mean… He got carried away in the water. If he’s not dead already he will be in the next minute. Why did he save me?”

Shy’s lips thinned into a line. “We’re in trouble. Jorath must not have been as clever as he thought. I know he’s still alive and free right now, but he’s slipped up somehow.”

“How do you know that?”

“His sister just saved your life, and I promise you that you’d rather be dead than let her catch you.”

* * *

Sybill kicked the bowl over, spilling blood across the cave. It splashed off her newest slave, the one with the strange regenerative abilities. The whole job had been a complete disaster. Failing to capture the Montrose girl or Lord Ilrot’s daughter was bad enough, but then to have to intervene to save the human brat’s life was just galling. It was no wonder Annidra had been another reject, if she couldn’t do a better job keeping the human alive.

Sybill had always thought Jorath had had a hand in her escape. More than that, she suspected he’d shielded the fledgling demon from being captured. No amount of pleading had moved her master on the subject though, and with no concrete evidence, Jorath continued to serve and Annidra was left to the world.

Sybill’s lip curled into a sneer. That was all over now though. She fully planned on torturing her brother to within an inch of his life before she delivered him to Lord Ilrot. Even if she hadn’t wanted to, and she really, really did, it would have been necessary to prevent him from escaping. His blood wasn’t suitable for her powers to affect, and his own magic made him almost impossible to contain.

The trick was catching up to him, but she was sure she could find the right bait to lure him in. Annidra wouldn’t be able to protect the girl, and as soon as Jorath realized that Sybill was on his trail, he’d have to show up personally to save the human. It would be so simple after that.

“Get up,” she told the blood slave. “We’re leaving. There’s still so much to do, and so little time to do it.”

Chapter 27

There was nothing to be foraged, and Shy warned Mira against drinking the water that they frequently across.  Their meals were lighter than Mira wanted, but Shy had come prepared, and they were in no danger of starving. After two full days of walking, they reached a simple hole in the ground, different from all the others they’d seen only in that it wasn’t filled with water.

Its edges were puckered and curled up, as if some great force had blasted out of the hole. The hole was maybe four feet across, and its interior was slick and smooth. Shy stood at the edge, hands on her hips, and looked down into it.

“What is it?” Mira asked.

“The entrance to the Toshi Reliquary,” Shy said.

“Shodo said the Toshi Reliquary was the one we were at back in that city.”

Shy glanced over at Mira. “Did he? Maybe we’ll never know for sure. Information about the Reliquaries is hard to find, probably deliberately. Every scrap we find conflicts with something else. Jorath has probably spent more time puzzling over which pieces to believe than everything else combined since he came up with this whole plan.”

“Then how do you know this really leads to another Reliquary?” Mira asked.

Shy shrugged. “We don’t. But Jorath said it would, and that this one is conveniently on the way to where we were supposed to be going, so we’re going to investigate it while we’re here.”

They stared down into the blackness at their feet together, silently. “I really don’t want to go down there,” Mira said after a minute.

“I would have thought you’d be used to doing things you don’t want to by now.”

“That doesn’t make it better. What are we waiting for?”

Shy glanced up at the sun. “For however long it takes to fill up with water and drain away again. It’s supposed to cycle every few hours, and since we have no idea how long it’s been since the last fill, I’d rather not get five minutes in and drown.”

“Jesus. Ok, anything else I should know?”

“How well do you see in the dark?” Shy asked.

“Uh…”

She smirked and sat down a few feet away from the hole. “Then I guess there’s not much you can do but hang onto me and do what I tell you.”

Mira muttered a few choice words under her breath and settled down across the opposite side of the hole to wait.

* * *

“Do you feel that?” Mira asked an hour later.

Shy didn’t look over from the hoop she’d been peering through since they’d arrived. “The rumbling? Yes.”

“Should we be worried?”

“No, this is what we’ve been waiting for. If you look into the hole, it should be filling.”

Mira leaned forward and peered into the darkness. “I don’t see any- whoah! Holy shit!”

She threw herself backward just as a geyser of water blasted past her. It arced forty feet straight up before splashing hot water down on them. Or rather, on her, since Shy has wisely moved far enough back when the rumbling started that she remained dry. Mira glared at her and muttered, “Bitch.”

“I heard that,” Shy said.

“Bitch,” Mira said again, louder. Shy just laughed.

The geyser died away after a few seconds, leaving a pool of water level with the puckered edge of the hole. Even as they watched, it dropped an inch or two. Within a minute, a few feet of the hole’s interior was visible. Shy gave it five minutes before she was satisfied.

A pair of spiders, the same ones she’d had with her in the cafe, crawled down her arms, becoming bigger with each step. By the time they dropped to the ground, they were up to Mira’s calf. Ignoring her, they spun threads anchored to the edge of the hole and descended into the darkness. They wove around each other as they went, creating one thick, flexible line.

“After you,” Shy said.

Mira crouched at the side of the hole and swung her legs over. She grabbed the spider thread rope,  and tested her weight on it. It was slightly sticky, like old linoleum with dried soda pop on it, but it held. Slowly, using her legs as much as her arms, Mira lowered herself down twenty or so feet. Then the wall disappeared and she was hanging freely in the air.

What little light the hole let in only served to show Mira a small circle of wet stone. She slid down the rest of the rope, or at least skidded down it as the tacky surface caught her hands. Once she’d reached the bottom, it was only a few seconds’ wait before Shy came down after her.

The demon went hand over hand, apparently strong enough that holding her own weight with a single hand presented no difficulty at all. When she reached the ground, the spiders crawled out of the darkness and up her legs. They settled onto her shoulders and flattened out into a patch of brown and black, the details too indistinct to make out in the poor light.

“Which way?” Mira asked.

“I can tell you where it isn’t,” Shy said. “But this place is enormous, and even after the water drains away, some of it is left behind. I don’t know what might be hidden under those pools.”

“Then why are we down here?” Mira asked. “If you don’t know where it is, we could have stayed up top while your… whatever you call it… the thing, looked around.”

“I’m still looking. We’re going to be looking at the same time. I’m depending on you to keep your head and lead while I look around magically. Try not to get us lost.”

“Oh. Well that’s fantastic. Which directions have you already checked then? I can’t even see how far this place goes.”

A glowing tattoo crawled up onto Shy’s hip and pulled itself free of her skin. The same baby salamander that had lit their way back at the first seal plopped down onto the floor and made its way to Mira. “Go on, you can pick it up,” Shy said.

Mira bent down and the salamander crawled into her hand. With a bit of prompting from Shy, they started off toward the edge of the cavern. A passage shot away from the cavern, its walls smoothed from the constant bursts of water that passed through it. It didn’t run precisely straight, but the curves were gradual enough that they’d probably changed direction three or four times before Mira realized.

She did her best to keep track of the intersections they passed by as they walked. Mira had a very real and very legitimate fear of getting lost and drowning the next time the tunnels flooded. Shy produced a dagger for her to mark the walls with, but even that only went so far toward making her feel better. She’d feel safe when she was back above ground.

They explored for half an hour without finding anything. The tunnels were all smooth, damp things, some bigger and some smaller. Occasionally, Shy would steer her in a certain direction if they started to drift into some place she’d already investigated.

“How long are we going to stay down here?” Mira asked. “We don’t really know how long we have. If we showed up just after it flooded, we could have used half our time already.”

“I think we’ve got some leeway still,” Shy said. “I didn’t see any geysers while we were approaching.”

“But do we know whether that happens every time?”

“Hmm… true. Alright, let’s head back for now until we can get more information. I’d rather have to listen to Jorath complain about us being late than him find us drowned in these tunnels.”

It was easier to say than to do. They made slow progress backward following Mira’s mark, and she was confident that, given enough time, they would eventually make it back aboveground. That was the catch though. It was taking longer to get back than it had taken to go down, and Shy wasn’t any sort of helpful.

Visions of a wall of water slamming into her and flushing her deeper into the honeycombed caverns danced in Mira’s head as she walked. She wanted to hurry, but the salamander’s light didn’t always extend from wall to wall, and if she missed a single marker, she might not ever find her way out. She forced herself to be patient, despite the nagging fears in the back of her mind.

“Stop,” Shy hissed. She held up a hand to silence Mira before she could even say anything. “There’s something else down here.”

The salamander jumped out of Mira’s hand and scurried ahead of them. It hadn’t gone more than fifty feet before it lit up a group of people standing across the tunnel. It was hard to tell in the light, but they looked wrong, somehow. It might have been the unnaturally pale skin, or the expressionless mask of their faces. Or it might have just been the light playing tricks on her. She couldn’t be sure.

They advanced as a single unit, their steps in time. “Well that’s creepy as hell,” Mira said. “What’s the plan?”

“Do you think you could find a way around them?” Shy said.

Mira hesitated. “Honestly? I’d be afraid to try. This place scares the crap out of me, and the thought of being lost down here until water rushes in and pins me against a wall while I drown  is making me kind of sick.”

“I guess we’re going through them then. Fight to kill, and hope this group is the only thing down here.”

Mira pulled the heartstone out of its pouch and shot a look at Shy. “Are they human?”

“Does it matter? Do you think they have good intentions?”

“It matters to me,” Mira said.

“That makes you stupid then,” Shy told her. “I don’t plan on dying here, and I don’t plan on letting these things capture me. That means I’m fighting to win.”

The light from the heartstone wasn’t bright enough, and the salamander was still too far down the tunnel, but Mira could see things crawling off Shy in the dark. She couldn’t make out the details, but one after another, shapes bulged up off Shy’s body and skittered off into the darkness.

Then the fight was on. As the first creature reached the people, they reacts with savagery. The weapons held in their hands went up, then came down in unison. The people barely even broke ranks except to surround the creature so that they could better pummel it from all sides.

A second, and then a third, of Shy’s minions attacked. There were no screams from the men and women when blood was drawn. Mira watched as something resembling a six foot long centipede slashed off a woman’s arm with its pincers, only to die when she brought a mace down on its head a second later without even pausing to look at the severed limb.

“Don’t just stand there and stare,” Shy said through gritted teeth. “Help me.”

“I can’t hit them without hitting yours too!”

“So start in the back then.”

Mira chewed on her lip and peered into the darkness. The salamander’s light wasn’t helping that much, especially not with the fighting. The other group’s ordered ranks hadn’t exactly broken down, but they were no longer marching in step as they advanced, and there were more than a few holes from where Shy’s pets had killed someone.

The inferolisk stone was hot in Mira’s hands. The heat radiated up her arms and into her chest, and Mira forced herself to relax. As she did, she realized that she could see better without the light than she could with it. Details were fuzzy, but the heat of their bodies was plainly there. Somehow, she’d never noticed before that she could sense body heat just like she could actual fire.

Mira shifted her focus to the ones bringing up the rear of the group. With an effort of will, she ignited the air around them. Not a one even so much as flinched. They marched forward, hair burning, skin red and blistering. Worse, the ones in front split to the side, giving the ones on fire a clear path at Shy and Mira.

Still aflame, they charged down the tunnel. “Holy hell!” Mira yelped, fumbling the heartstone and almost dropping it.

“Put them down!” Shy yelled. A squat, human-shaped thing that looked like it was made of blobs of clay attached to a wire skeleton hurled itself at the leading runner’s legs. Mira wasn’t sure if she expected the runner to trip or the clay-and-wire amalgamation to go flying when it got kicked.

It did neither. The clay blobs stuck to the runner’s leg and it stretched out go grab the other leg. The runner went down, and the creature’s limbs shot out to triple their original length to anchor the wall on either side. For a few brief moments, it held the entire line.

Then the runners spilled over it, some of them literally flipping upside down and tumbling over the side. The ones behind them didn’t stop or try to help them up. They just resumed their rush toward Shy and Mira.

Heat washed down the tunnel as Mira incinerated the leading wave. Their skin blackened and sloughed off their faces while their limbs churned. Slowly, one staggering step at a time, they collapsed until they were nothing but black smears on the flash-dried stone.

The entire tunnel froze to stare at the spectacle. Then Mira leaned over and puked her guts out, breaking the spell. She heaved again as the battle started back up, and it might have been those few seconds she took for herself that let her notice what nobody else apparently had.

“Shy!” she called out. “Look there! There’s water coming up through the floor.”

Shy followed Mira’s finger to see water coming up through fine cracks in the stone. Individually, there was barely enough to leave a few damp footprints if they walked through it. But there were dozens of cracks just next to them, and thousands more in the one tunnel alone.

Worse, the water was starting to bubble up faster. In some spots, it shot a few inches into the air before falling back to the ground.

“We need to get out of here,” Shy said. “Right now.”

Chapter 26

Though Shy tried to hide it, she was nervous. They’d been traveling for a week, and every day the expected ambush didn’t come, Shy’s behavior got a little bit more erratic. She wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around normally, and as she got meaner and snippier, Mira found herself fondly daydreaming of smothering the demon in her sleep.

“He has to do it today,” Shy muttered to herself as they packed up one morning. “There’s no choice left.”

“Why’s that?” Mira asked.

Shy glared at Mira, but when she returned it with a flat stare of her own, the demon deflated and sighed. “Because in a few hours we’ll be out of the woods, so to speak. This whole region is heavily forested, and we’re going into flatlands. Nobody will be able to get within a mile of us without being visible. If the mercenary is going to take his shot at us, he has to do it before we get that far.”

But it didn’t happen. By noon, they had left the woodlansd behind. It was like the world had forgotten the color green. The ground was the color of dried mud, without even a speck of grass in sight. There were no trees, no houses or fields, no animals, just a flat expanse of brownish-grey. Even the road itself washed out into the featureless landscape.

“What happened here?” Mira asked. “This can’t be natural.”

Shy shrugged. “This was all under water, once upon a time. Maybe when the sea receded, it dragged everything off with it.”

“That’s… uh… not really…” Mira trailed off. She wanted to say that it was impossible, but for all she knew, that could have been exactly what happened. It wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing she’d seen in the last few months.

“How long ago did the sea recede?” she asked.

“Supposedly, it was a result of the war between the Five Sons and the demons, so I’d guess a few thousand years.”

“Well that doesn’t make any sense. If there’s been thousands of years for plants to grow here and animals to migrate, why hasn’t it happened?”

“It probably has. But every now and then, the whole area floods again and drags everything away when it drains.”

Mira stared out at the flat mud-colored earth stretching out around them. “This doesn’t happen instantly, does it? I mean, people know? There are signs? I’m not going to have to worry about waking up in the middle of the night to a wall of water smacking into me and drowning me, right?”

“How should I know?” Shy snapped. “Just keep walking. The faster you move, the less you’ll have to worry.”

* * *

Kull hung upside in a cave somewhere. His chest was covered in fine cuts, and blood dribbled down to drip off his shoulders and into his hair. The rhythmic splatters had kept him up through the first night, but by the time his tormenter had returned, fatigue and loss of blood had let sleep claim him. By all rights, he should never have woken up.

But he did, if only to be cut a hundred more times. He never saw the person working on him through more than a blood covered haze. It was human-shaped, for what that was worth, and that was all he knew. It didn’t ask any questions or make any demands. It simply appeared, cut him over and over again, and then left when it was apparently satisfied.

He didn’t know how big the blood pool had gotten underneath him, but the splatters no longer sounded against stone when they struck. Morbidly curious, he gave a feeble stretch of one arm, trying to reach the ground with an outstretched finger. The tip swished through the blood puddle, which was too deep to dry out, and too deep for him to feel the stone under the surface.

“Yes, you should be dead,” a voice said, the first he’d heard since being ambushed. Whatever it was had taken him out before he’d even known it was there, and he hadn’t woken up again until after it had strung him up and started flaying his skin off.

“Should be, but you’re not,” the voice continued. “Lucky for me, not so much for you. It’s rare I get to have fun without breaking my toy.”

Kull opened his mouth to talk, coughed instead. It felt like he’d swallowed a mouth full of sand, but he pushed through it and said, “You always talk this much?”

The voice laughed. Definitely female, he decided, not that that information did him any good. Something pierced his cheek and started slicing up to his jaw. It followed the contours to his neck and paused at his jugular. Kull barely felt the pain or the hot splash of fresh blood running down his face.

“Are you immortal though? If I bleed you fast enough, will you die? It would be a shame to kill you so soon when you can still be so useful to me.”

“One way to find out,” he said.

“Maybe you’re hoping I’ll kill you. Let me lay your concern to rest. You will not die accidentally under my care.”

“Barbroc’s balls, that’s touching. Can’t tell you how much better I feel knowing there won’t be any accidents.”

The voice laughed again. Kull almost thought he could see the creature it belonged to, but his eyes were still so caked over in blood that he could barely open them, let alone see through the constant film that no amount of blinking seemed to be able to clear up.

The cutting began again, this time on his legs and working toward his groin. Kull gave his torturer a fierce, teeth-clamped grin.

* * *

“How long will it take to get through this?” Mira asked.

“We not going through it. We’re going to the middle of it.”

“Oh… well how long will it take to get there? And how long are we staying?”

“A few more days, and with any luck, not long. That depends on you though. We’ll be there however long it takes for you to break the Toshi clan seal.”

“I thought we already did the Tosh-”

“Quiet!” Shy held up a hand. “Something’s coming.”

“I don’t see anything,” Mira whispered.

“I can feel the vibrations through the ground.”

Once Shy said it, Mira could feel them too. It was slight, not something she’d have noticed on her own, but unmistakable. They looked around, but there was nothing to see.

“It’s got to be big to shake the ground,” Mira said. Shy didn’t respond. “But we can see for miles. There’s nothing.”

“It’s underground,” Shy said. “Burrowing. Stay still, make no noise. Maybe it’ll pass us by.”

“Oh great, I landed in the middle of a fucking Tremors movie,” Mira muttered. Shy shot her a warning glare, and she shut her mouth.

The vibration didn’t disappear though. If anything, it got stronger as the minutes stretched on. Pictures of a giant sandy-brown worm big enough to swallow her whole popping out of the ground beneath her feet ran through Mira’s head. She shuffled uneasily in place once, which got her another glare from Shy.

“Hey, is the ground cracking over there?” Mira whispered.

Shy’s face went white as she looked over. A spiderweb of hair thin cracks a hundred feet wide was forming close enough that as they spread, they passed under Mira’s feet. Shy looked around frantically for a way out, but apparently wasn’t happy with what she saw.

“No other choice,” she muttered. She cocked her arm back and whipped it forward like she was hurling a baseball. Instead of a round white ball though, an oblong blob of color arced through the air. It formed into something red and brown and blocky that crashed to the earth fifty feet away. Where it landed, shards of mud-colored earth broke apart and flew into the air.

Mira didn’t get to see what happened next. Shy grabbed her arm and sprinted in the opposite direction. Mira stumbled the first few steps, but she could feel the ground shifting underneath her, and that was all the motivation she needed to speed up. Even as they ran, it started to drop out from under her.

It was almost a thirty degree slope of loose earth by the time they reached the edge of the cracks, and a few seconds after that, the ground had collapsed completely. They stood at the edge of what looked like a sand pit, if there’d been a giant blender in the middle stirring it up while water that came from nowhere slowly turned it into a frothing bowl of mud.

“Come on,” Shy said. “We don’t want to stick around here.”

“What is that?” Mira asked, but Shy ignored the question. The two of them turned and ran around the outskirts of the pit and deeper into the flatlands.

* * *

Miles later, they finally slowed down. Mira was breathing heavily, but not for the first time she was a little bit impressed with herself. Six months ago, she never could have ran for miles straight, especially not with a backpack full of camping supplies strapped to her.

Shy, of course, didn’t look the least bit tired. She’d been sporting a tight-lipped grimace the entire run and more than once had had to slow down when she’d started to leave Mira behind. She hadn’t bothered chiding Mira for being slow though. Maybe she just thought the giant sink hole forming under their feet was enough motivation by itself.

“Ok. We’re stopped,” Mira huffed as she leaned forward, hands on her knees. “Are we safe?”

“For now,” Shy said, not looking at her. Her eyes were trained on the flats behind them, even though there was nothing there to see.

“Great. So what the hell was that?”

“Something that lives under the surface of the flats. There are veins of water crossing this entire region. It swims them, hunting for food. No one who lived through an attack has ever seen what it looks like.”

“You didn’t think to tell me this before we set foot in here?” Mira demanded.

“What difference would it have made? It doesn’t change where we’re going. If we’d gotten lucky, you’d never even have known about it.”

“You know, this is what pisses me off. You never volunteer information. I have to drag everything out of you, and I don’t usually know to ask until after the fact. Why didn’t you think telling me about this ahead of time was a good idea? Instead, I’m getting snap instruction with no reasoning or explanations because there’s no time. And I get that, but if you’d just told me before we got here, we wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with!”

“You stupid, ignorant little child,” Shy said. “You want me to warn you of every single danger you face in this world? You think I have time to tell you the hundred different ways we might die this week? It would take a lifetime to educate you.

“There’s every chance a blue taloned condor might be ranging off the coastal bluffs looking for food and spot us. The pygmy warb tribes who live north of the flats constantly exile the losers of their endless war games out here. We might run across a tribe of them starving to death who think we look tasty. The shoal scuttlers who live on the coast sometimes get stranded by tidal surges and buried in the silt. You might step on one and have it cut your foot in half.”

Shy stopped for a breath and stared at Mira with undisguised disgust. “I will keep you alive,” she said. “If I have to drag you out of danger by your hair, kicking and screaming, then that’s what I will do. You will reach our meeting with Jorath. That’s all you really need to know.”

Mira started to say something, but Shy turned away and walked off. “Move,” she said without looking back. “Unless you want me to haul you there by your hair after all.”

* * *

His torturer was doing something different this time, but Kull had been in perpetual pain too long to care anymore. He didn’t even know how long he’d been strung up upside over an ever-expanding puddle of his own blood. It had been long enough that he’d moved past hunger and thirst.

She, if it was a she, pulled back a flap of his skin. It wasn’t a small flap either, but one two inches wide and almost a foot long. The incision started at his knee and went all the way up to his hip. Each fraction of an inch of flesh that she peeled away from the muscle underneath was agony.

Finally, the flap hung loose and Kull felt something hard press against the muscle. It tore through it, probed until it hit bone. Something curled around it, fingers, he thought. The pain overwhelmed him and he passed out.

When he came too, he was no longer hanging upside down. A water skin sat next to him, in plain sight and easy reach. A distant, foggy part of his brain recognized it as part of his travel supplies, but that thought was buried under a primal need for nourishment.

Kull reached for the skin, even managed to hook his fingers around the strap. But he didn’t have the strength to move it. A hand came into view and picked the skin up.

“Yes,” a voice said. “You’re mine now. Don’t worry though, I always take care of what’s mine.”

Chapter 25

When she thought about it, it was scary what a person could become indifferent too. A man was coming to kill them, or at least coming after Shy. She had gone off to meet him, fully planning to ambush and kill him first in the dark. Six months ago, Mira would have freaked out at the thought of people acting like that. She definitely would not have been sleeping that night.

But she did sleep, if not well. The physical exhaustion of the road combined with the built up mental fatigue of her new life was good for that, if nothing else. When she woke, it wasn’t because of bad dreams or fear or anxiety.

It was the rain that did it. It came on suddenly, one second nothing and the next a downpour. Mira came awake with a gasp as cold water swept over her and scrambled to extend the meager cover the rock overhang offered by holding her cloak up against the driving rain. She hung it from a stone spur and grabbed a thick branch that had been destined for the fire to prop up and help keep the cloak spread open.

The cloak was soaked through in less than a minute, though it still served to block some of the water. The fire was out, of course, and Mira was huddled with her back to a stone wall, shivering and wet and cold. It didn’t take long to occur to her that the heart stone could warm her up.

She cupped it in her hands and focused on the warmth coming from it. It was a different process trying to generate only heat and not set something aflame, sort of the mental equivalent of pressing down on a spring just enough to hold it half way, not enough to coil it completely. In its own way, it was harder to hold it with just the right amount of pressure instead of pushing as hard as she could.

The shivering stopped though, and if Mira wasn’t dry, she was comfortable enough. The cloak and the rock formation kept off the worst of the weather, and soon Mira’s biggest annoyance was that she’d only gotten a few hours of sleep.

The rain passed by as swiftly as it came, but by the time it was gone, Mira was dozing upright, the inferolisk heart stone still held in her hands. It glowed softly, casting her skin and clothes in pale white with thin black lines crisscrossing them where water droplets cast shadows.

Mira dreamed that she was in a great crater, one that was covered in ash except where the ground had been rent. Along those rifts, gouts of steam burst out randomly, stirring the ash into little grey snow flurries briefly before it settled back to the ground. She trudged through the crater, aware of how hot the air around her was, but not bothered by it.

The more she walked, the more she became convinced that she had to leave. The crater was empty but for the ash, and if there were miles more of them around her, a fact she knew despite not being able to see over the top lip, each of them was just as empty as the one she was in.

She traveled, but in the way of dreams, it was a blur of knowledge that she had traveled rather than the experience of actually doing it. She was in a forest then, and if it was colder than she liked, and wetter, there was at least food. The trees were fuel to be burned, to give her the nourishing flames she needed to grow strong.

It was far from a paradise though. Only in the heart of the forest were there no people, and since she wanted nothing to do with them, that was where she stayed. Eventually though, they came even there. And with them came a strange, intoxicating stink. Mira couldn’t decide if it was alluring or putrid, but it was definitely overpowering.

Then the first human saw her. Her instincts took over. She had to protect her home, her sanctuary. It was all she had left. The kill was indescribable. Humans had their own special kind of heat, so different than what she was used to. It made her hungry for more, but that hunger was tempered by caution. The humans started trespassing in her territory in groups, and it didn’t take her long to realize they were looking for her.

So while they hunted her, she stalked them. After she took the second one, they became suspicious. The third human was an opportunistic piece of luck. From then on out, they remained clumped together, too tightly for her to pick them off.

There was only one thing to do. Her power streamed out of her, caught the woods around the humans on fire. Their makeshift camp burned, and while they were panicking, she struck. The battle was intense, chaos in flesh, it was-

A hand slapped the heart stone out of Mira’s hand and she snapped awake. Maluk stood over her, his gaze impassive. “To walk a heart stone’s memories in your dreams is a dangerous and foolish thing to do. You have much to learn before you can call yourself a demon hunter.”

“Still following me, huh?”

“I have my orders. They have not changed. Vuh kora.”

He disappeared into the pre-dawn darkness, one more shadow across the landscape.

Mira reached over and picked the heart stone up out of the mud. The heat emanating from it baked the mud instantly, leaving it covered in a dried coating that cracked and brushed away with a touch. The dream had been vivid, not like a normal dream at all. She didn’t doubt for a second that she’d experienced some of the memories of the inferolisk she’d taken it from.

Once she was awake though, she regained her sense of identity, and the memories of slaughtering the human hunters who’d stumbled into the inferolisk’s territory were sickening. The heady feeling of caution giving way to confidence as she’d discovered that even in numbers, the humans were no match for her could have been empowering if it hadn’t been paired with the sensation of human blood and human meat in her mouth.

Mira turned her head to one side and spat into the dirt. It didn’t help clear the memory of that taste from her mouth.

* * *

Shy returned as the sun came up. When she saw that Mira was already awake, she just nodded and said, “Good. I couldn’t find him, and we don’t have time to keep looking. I’m sure the mercenary will catch up with us. I’ll deal with him then.”

They walked in one-sided silence for most of the morning. Mira peppered Shy with questions, and the demon refused to so much as acknowledge them. When they stopped for lunch, which consisted of nothing more than some strange flat bread and some apples that were just starting to come into season, Shy finally agreed to answer a few questions.

“No, I didn’t find him. I don’t know where he went, but he didn’t take the road after us. My suspicion is he’s gone to round up help and we’ll be seeing him in a day or two with twenty more mercenaries,” Shy said.

Something must have shown on Mira’s face, because Shy rolled her eyes and added, “It doesn’t matter how many people he brings with him.”

“Sure, you say that, but what happens when they don’t try to fight us? What if they just get ahead, set up in a stand of trees, and shoot us full of arrows before we even know they’re there?”

“That would require them to surprise us. It would mean I’d have to not notice them, which won’t happen.”

Shy certainly didn’t look worried, but that didn’t do much to ease Mira’s mind. She expected that if an ambush like she’d described happened, Shy would probably kill every single one of the mercenaries, but not until after they’d turned Mira into a pincushion. Being avenged didn’t sound like as much fun as not dying in the first place.

There weren’t any good options though, which seemed to be happening far too often for Mira’s liking. She could attack Shy, maybe overpower her with the heart stone, and run away. That plan wasn’t likely to succeed. She could skip the attack and just leave, except she didn’t think Shy would let her go.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Mira said as she reached for another apple.

“As long as it’s a conversation we can have in the next five minutes.”

“Tell me about what I asked about yesterday,” Mira said, “About the Five Sons and whatever.”

Shy made a face and stuck the rest of her lunch in her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed and said, “About twenty five hundred years ago, two Gods came to Aligoth, named Zade and Barbroc. They were, I guess, sight seeing. They didn’t want anything, they weren’t looking for worshippers. They just wanted to learn about our world.”

“That doesn’t sound very godly to me,” Mira said.

“Don’t interrupt me. As I was saying, they showed up for whatever reason. And Zade fell in love with a human woman. He married her, and they had children together, five of them. The oldest was Torim, and his descendents became the Valdrite clan of demon hunters.”

“Wait,” Mira said. “Are you saying that I’m descended from a god?”

“Of a sort. You see, about five hundred years after they arrived, after Zade has his five children, Barbroc grew jealous. He stole Zade’s wife and took her as his own, impregnating her with twins. Your ancestor was named Kalistra, the older twin. Her younger brother is Ilrot, the King of Demons.”

“Oh shit. Am I part demon then?”

Shy shrugged. “The Montrose clan was always regarded with caution by the other demon hunters. Their powers were… dangerous, addictive. I think the demon hunters were afraid that their allies would become their enemies. That’s why your ancestors were banished to Earth after they took Ilrot’s heart stone and refused to give it up.”

Mira wasn’t really sure what to say. She’d wanted to know because people seemed to give it religious significance, but she hadn’t expected it to have a personal connection to her. It was like finding out Jesus was her great great great uncle. In a way, it was overwhelming, but in a more practical way, it changed nothing.

“But wait,” Mira said. “If these guys are Gods that are actually walking around, where are they now?”

“Ilrot created demons, and they killed four of Zade’s sons. Ilrot himself killed his sister after she betrayed him, the act which allowed your ancestors to steal his heart stone. Somewhere in the middle of all this happening, Zade left. When he left, Barbroc went with him. Scholars have been speculating about that for years, but it’s a big mystery. It’s not like they’re around to ask anymore.”

“And all of this really happened? This isn’t some hokey religious story made up to explain away things people have no explanations for?”

Shy smirked and held up an arm. Tattoos crawled across her skin and under her clothes, only for new ones to emerge and take their place. She leaned forward and said, “Do you believe in demons?”

“I do now,” Mira said. “But you’re not the kind of demon I grew up with. The big religion where I’m from doesn’t have demons walking around interacting with people. They’re fallen servants of God who betrayed him and were banished from Heaven. And there’s no proof of any of it. You just have to take it on faith, which I’m not so good at.”

“I don’t see the point to any of that,” Shy said. She held up a hand to stop Mira from talking. “No. I don’t care. We’re not discussing religion. What I’m telling you is history, specifically your family’s history. It shaped our entire world. In a way, you and I are distantly related. Demons are like your cousins, a hundred times removed.”

Mira felt the heart stone’s heat through her pouch. Maluk had told her how dangerous it was, that she shouldn’t keep it much longer. It connected her to the demons. She wondered what would happen if she ignored that warning. There just wasn’t any good way to test it.

Shy stood up and shouldered her traveler’s pack. “Come on, we’ve wasted too much time here already.”

Chapter 24

Shy’s behavior wasn’t anything unexpected, but Mira still wasn’t happy about it. As much as she’d wanted to part ways with Amura, that wasn’t how she wanted to it. The minstrel was obviously in trouble, and Mira had been drawn into that. She wanted to see it through, wanted to make sure Amura was safe.

“We shouldn’t just leave Amura behind,” Mira said.

“Of course we should. She’s a grown woman who can deal with the consequences of her actions. Or maybe she can’t. Either way it’s not our problem.”

“She saved my life,” Mira pointed out.

“I’ve saved your life several times. It doesn’t mean I expect you to solve my problems for me.”

“I owe her. I could repay that debt now.”

“We’ll check on her tonight if it makes you feel any better,” Shy said. “That’s the best I can do. We don’t have time to waste here. Having to run you down has already put us a week behind schedule.”

“We’re on a schedule now?” Mira asked.

“From when Jorath is expecting to meet us, yes. As long as we get to the coast before winter sets in, we should be alright, but he won’t be happy with the delay.”

They fell silent as a wagon full of produce rolled by, heading toward the city. The two men sitting on it gave the women funny looks, but didn’t do anything more than tip their hats as they rode by. Once they were safely out of earshot, Shy pulled a map out of her bag.

“Here,” she said, stabbing a point in the middle of a land mass, “is roughly we’re we are. Down here, a hundred miles south, is where you were supposed to wait for me. Now we’ve got to cover that distance plus go west until we reach the coast, here. See these mountains in the way? We have to go around them, so there’s no way to cut a straight line.”

Mira pulled the map out of Shy’s hands and studied it. “So this is the world, huh? It looks so much different than mine. I don’t know anything about it. What’s it even called?”

“Aligoth,” Shy said.

“I’ve got about a thousand more questions I’ve been afraid to ask. I don’t want anyone wondering why I don’t already know this stuff.”

Shy scowled at her. “I’m not a tour guide.”

“I want to know about this religion people have, about Piroku and the rest of the Five Sons, and who or what the Dark Father is.”

“That’s not religion. It’s history. It was barely two thousand years ago that happened.”

Mira thought about that for a second. On Earth, two thousand years was a long time. There was plenty of recorded history, but also countless details lost to time. But here, on Aligoth, where demons had lifespans measuring centuries or longer, maybe it really was just history to them. There might even be people still walking around who were there, who remembered it.

“So all these people were real,” Mira said. “What happened then? What did they do that made them so famous people are swearing in their names thousands of years later?”

Shy blew out an annoyed sigh. “I suppose you should be told, since the Five Sons and the Dark Father’s war was directly responsible for the demon hunter blood lines.”

“Fine, so tell me.”

“Maybe later. We’ve got a lot of walking to do before we make camp for that.”

Mira grumbled, but Shy refused to be budged. After half an hour of badgering, she gave up and focused on putting one foot in front of another.

* * *

They found an empty camp ground just off the road just as dusk was starting to fall. Using what little light remained, they set up for the night. Mira chose a spot with a rock overhang, even though it was farther from the fire than she’d have liked. Dark clouds had been gathering on the horizon and she suspected there would be rain some time in the middle of the night. If that was the case, she’d rather have some protection than be near a quenched fire pit.

When they were done, Shy held a hand up and revealed a floating ring about an inch wide. As Mira watched, it expanded into a hoop big enough that she could put her head through it. Instead of seeing Shy’s face on the other side though, the interior showed a dusty building, probably an old warehouse judging by the contents.

Amura sat there, back to a crate taller than she was and gaudy, gold-trimmed lyre in hand. She played it softly into the darkness, though not with the skill Mira would have expected. Occasionally she’d pluck the wrong note and wince, but it wasn’t until she stopped and shook her hand that Mira saw the cuts on her fingers.

A pang of guilt shot through Mira’s stomach. She’d saved Amura’s fingers, but if she’d acted faster, been smarter, she might have stopped the boss of those thugs before he’d started cutting Amura. Between that and the blisters on the side of the minstrel’s face, Mira hadn’t done her a lot of favors.

“Your friend seems to be alive and still free,” Shy said. “What more could you ask for?”

“It’d be nice to be confident that she’ll be in the same state tomorrow.”

Before Shy could respond, a shadow crossed in front of the vision. Amura’s head snapped up and her eyes tracked movement, but the shadow was on her before she could react. A second one appeared around the crate. In the dark it was hard to tell, but Mira thought they might be the two thugs she hadn’t burned in the cave. Either way, the struggle was brief.

Amura’s lyre was left laying on the ground, its strings cut by a knife. Amura was bound and gagged, then carried by hands and feet. Shy’s vision hoop swung around to follow their progress as they threaded their way through crates and storage racks to an open space near a wide bay door.

“We have to do something,” Mira said.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Shy told her. “Not from here. We’re almost twenty miles away.”

“There has to be something! Send something through the hoop to help her.”

Shy shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. Sight and sound only.”

“Something! Anything!”

“-think I’d just let you go? After everything you did, not to mention that little stunt this afternoon. I’m going to cut your fingers off one knuckle at a time, but not until I’ve jammed needles under your nails and pried them off. I’ll-”

The man’s rant was cut off when the bay door behind him swung open. A man stood there, tall and with wide shoulders. “Amura?” he asked. “Do you need some help?”

“That man looks familiar,” Mira said. “Can you get closer to his face?”

Shy didn’t respond, but the vision swung around to the side and zoomed in. “Huh,” she said, “that’s surprising. That’s the mercenary who was hunting me, the one I thought I killed in the forest outside Vinmarch.”

“The one who attacked me in Palveral,” Mira added. “I thought I crushed his skull.”

“Apparently not. But what is he doing in Paldu?”

The mercenary produced an ax with a long handle and a wide blade in response to several thugs approaching him. He said something that Mira missed while her and Shy were talking, and when the men didn’t back off, he attacked. They had weapons of their own, but mostly daggers and it was obvious that the mercenary outclassed them.

Their boss took it all in and made a split-second decision. He spun in place and whipped his knife across Amura’s throat, but she jerked backwards. A thin line of blood appeared anyway, and he snarled as he took a step forward and grabbed her hair to tilt her head back.

The mercenary’s hand clamped on the boss’s wrists and squeezed. Slowly, one finger at a time, he pried the knife out of the boss’s hand and kicked it toward Amura. “Is this who I think it is?” the mercenary asked. “Little Bohok, all grown up and with the same ugly face from when he was a snot-nosed brat?”

“Get bit,” the boss said. “By a blight beast, preferably.”

“And he’s got an attitude, too. Now, it looks to me like you just tried to slit my baby sister’s throat. I’m inclined to kill you here and now, but let’s see what she has to say about the matter first, hmm?”

Amura cut herself free and pulled the gag out of his mouth. “Might as well finish the job,” she said, one hand on her throat. “He already blames me for his entire family’s death, why not make it a matched set?”

“That so?” the mercenary asked. “Did you kill them?”

Amura gave him a flat stare, and he laughed. “Let me rephrase. Was it an accident?”

Her face softened then. “Yes. Not that it makes a difference. They were innocent bystanders caught up in an internal power play. For what it’s worth, Bohok, I regret their deaths. At least, I regret them a lot more than I’m going to regret yours.”

She nodded, and the mercenary caught his axe up in one hand. He shoved Bohok and sent him into a spin, then decapitated him with one clean stroke. The body tumbled to the floor, blood spraying from it and pooling on the ground.

“Messy and dramatic,” Amura said, “but thanks for the save. What in the world are you doing here though?”

“What else? Chasing demons for fun and profit. I’m looking for one that looks like a young lady a bit shorter than you, with brown hair and a slight build. I heard she was your traveling companion since that inferolisk incident in Rohaim, so I figured I’d better catch up before she did you in.”

“Shit,” Mira said. Shy held up a finger to quiet her and peered intently through the hoop.

“A demon? I don’t think so, Kull. She helped put down the inferolisk.”

He shrugged. “Demons kill each other all the time, for all the typical reasons.”

Amura shook her head. “I don’t believe she was a demon, but the woman she left town with certainly was.”

“I need to know which way they went, Amura.”

The minstrel hesitated, but Kull swept a hand around the warehouse. “I did just save your life.”

“West.” Amura sighed. “Five Sons forgive me, they went west. It was only eight or so hours ago, on foot. You could catch them easily on a horse.”

Kull grinned. “That’s my sister. You always did know everything.”

“Just go, Kull. Don’t hurt the girl though. She’s not a demon, and I owe her my life.”

His grin faded. “I’m not promising anything. She put me down once, probably just luck, but I’m not going to underestimate her again. You should get out of Paldu, Amura. It’s not safe for you here anymore. I thought you knew that.”

“I needed a new lyre. This is the best place to get one.”

“Always with the music,” the mercenary said. “I’ve got to go. Promise me you’ll stay safe.”

“Promise me you won’t hurt Mira,” Amura shot back. “Kill the demon who took her, but don’t hurt her. She’s a victim in this, I’m sure of it.”

“Amura…”

“I always did know everything, remember? You just said it. Well, I know. Trust me in this. Mira isn’t a demon. She saved my life.”

Shy rolled her eyes. “You humans and your life debts.”

In the vision, Kull shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll do what I can, sis. You know how dangerous this kind of work is though. Sometimes you can’t afford to go easy. And this one with her, the one with the tattoos all over her, right? She’s top shelf dangerous. I don’t know if I’ve ever met one stronger.”

Amura and Kull parted ways, and though Mira was more interested in Amura’s safety, Shy opted to direct the viewing hoop toward Kull. He had a horse stabled nearby and, after waking a sleeping groomsman, was saddled up in short order. The hoop followed him as he rode out of town. Then Shy let the vision collapse.

“That’s annoying,” she said. “Something is off about this human. I’m sure I killed him already, and yet here he is. He’s riding head first toward a demon in the middle of the night by himself, and he’s not even afraid. He’s got some magic about him.”

“What do we do?” Mira asked.

“Get some sleep,” Shy said, standing up. “I’ll be back by morning.”

Shy strode off into the darkness, leaving Mira alone in the camp. She sat near the small fire and watched the clouds roll in. “So much for my history lesson,” she muttered to herself.