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.”

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