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.