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.”
“-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.”
“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.