Chapter 38

Jorath and the other demon, Maluk, Shy thought he was called, stared each other down, waiting for the other to make the first move. When it came, it was Jorath’s classic opener. Maluk’s shadow twined up around his legs, but somehow the demon leaped straight up and slithered through an arc that spilled him back to the ground outside the constricting black coils.

If Shy hadn’t seen it happen, she wouldn’t have believed it. There was no way anything with a skeleton could bend like that, especially not that fast. Jorath faded back into a void portal he ripped open behind him as Maluk rolled across the ground toward him.

Immediately, the demon snapped out of his roll to his feet and bent backward at the waist. Jorath came out of a portal behind him, right into Maluk’s waiting hands. Maluk’s armed circled around Jorath and he snapped back upright, dragging Jorath out of the void and slamming him head first into the stone.

Nor did Maluk let him go. Despite his own shadow trying to snare flailing limbs, he landed several kicks to Jorath’s face. It was only after the third one that he was forced to abandon his attack and slither out of the tangling shadows that were looping around his legs.

Jorath climbed back to his feet, inky black blood dribbling from his nose, mouth, and scalp. His eyes were narrowed in pain, his teeth clenched in a grimace. It wasn’t enough to slow him down though. His own shadow, and Shy’s and Maluk’s, detached themselves from their owners and rose up, now shaped in exact outlines of Jorath.

Four on one, Jorath and the shadows attacked Maluk. Even as nimble and swift as he was, there was no way for Maluk to avoid being buried in the rush. He dodged what he could, which was surprisingly more than Shy would have given anyone credit for, even having witnessed his incredible agility. All of his return blows were directed at Jorath, and it didn’t take long for the two demons to break apart again.

Both were breathing heavy now. Shy thought Jorath had the edge, but only by dint of superior numbers. She didn’t think it would be enough to stop Maluk from getting away if he chose to run. Perhaps most importantly, she didn’t think it would be enough to stop him from taking a shot at her if he decided to take her out.

And she’d seen him glance at her once or twice. He might not know exactly who she was, but he could see she was exhausted, completely incapable of defending herself. Jorath wasn’t exactly a noble protector either. If he had to sacrifice Shy to get Mira back, he’d do it without hesitation. She just had to hope he didn’t think that was necessary.

Then an upswell of wind drowned out her hearing, and the four arm demon appeared on spread wings over the cliff edge. He landed heavily and hunched down, a square bulk shadow of indefinable features. Two blazing red pinpricks of eyes glared out at them.

Jorath called the shadows back to flank him, and added the new demon’s to the ranks. But it was a losing proposition. It was debatable whether he’d been winning four-on-one. Shy didn’t think he’d do better five-on-two, and it didn’t look like Jorath thought he would either.

The youthful demon climbed over the lip of the cliff and came to stand next to the other two. “Jorath,” he said, his mouth twisted in disgust. “I’d be lying if I said I ever wanted to see you again.”

“Feeling’s mutual. Just give me back the girl and we’ll go our separate ways.”

“No, I don’t think so. She’s just as important to me as she is to you, probably more so.”

Jorath didn’t bother to respond, other than to snarl and burst into motion. He spun in place and shoved Shy hard. She tumbled backward into a void portal he opened, and the last thing she saw before the void blinded her was him darting away as a wall of stone shot up to cut off his own entrance into the void.

She tumbled around in the void, helpless, for long seconds before a new portal opened and his hand snaked in to grab her. She was fished out and dumped onto cold, wet grass.

“Get up,” Jorath said, walking away. “We’ve got work to do and not long to do it.”

* * *

Mira stood at the base of the cliff, looking up at the series of handholds Alyr had molded into the stone. She was trying to convince herself that it would be just like climbing a ladder, but even if she’d believed that, the thought of going a hundred feet up a ladder was still unnerving.

It was rendered moot thirty seconds later when Maluk came over the edge and descended the make-shift ladder in a matter of seconds. Alyr followed him down slower, and Kalkus just jumped over the edge and dropped like a stone. He slowed his descent with a sudden surge of air and outstretched wings a few feet off the ground.

“Was it them?” Mira asked.

Alyr glanced over at Maluk, who shrugged and said, “If by them, you mean Jorath and your former traveling companion, then yes.”

“They’re not likely to give up, but I don’t think they have the resources to pose a serious threat.” Alyr paused, then added, “Still, it would be best to hurry and not give them any more opportunities than we have to. We’ll walk through the night.”

That didn’t appeal to Mira in the slightest, but since she hadn’t actually worked out what she wanted to do, she let it pass without comment. Instead, they returned to their campsite. It was now liberally splattered with ink which had begun to dry and crumble away into fine powder.

Mira supposed a lot would depend on her meeting with the Order’s Council and what exactly they agreed to do in exchange for her help. Alyr was only a single voice, and he’d made it clear more than once during their talks that he didn’t control anyone else, while simultaneously assuring her that she could get the help she needed from them.

If she could, then that was great. Jorath had basically blackmailed her, offering to bail her out of a situation he’d directly created only if she helped him. Besides that, he was a cold-blooded psychopathic killer, as far as she could tell. Shy wasn’t much better. Of course, that didn’t mean these new demons weren’t going to turn into more of the same, but Alyr at least had already been far more helpful than Shy or Jorath had ever been.

It all came down to who she trusted, and the fact of the matter was that the answer was no one. She hadn’t met a demon yet without an agenda, at least not one that was willing to talk. Only the feral, savage, animal-like ones had seemed straightforward. They’d mostly just wanted to kill her, possibly for food. Come to think of it, Sybill had been plenty honest about her intentions, too.

It was worse than all that though. Even if she could trust Alyr, and she wasn’t convinced that she could, there were other factions in the Order that didn’t share his opinion, that were willing to murder her in her sleep. She hadn’t gotten many details out of him, but Alyr had known her would-be assassin. She’d seen an instant’s pain in his face when he’d realized the betrayal of it. That more than anything else had convinced her that he wasn’t behind it.

So they were going to a stronghold with even more of the Order, probably full of political undercurrents she was completely ignorant of. Some rival faction had already taken a shot at her once, and even now might be preparing to try again. The more she thought about it, the stupider it seemed to willingly walk into a place like that.

She wasn’t sure she had a choice. Alyr had said she wasn’t a prisoner. Maybe he was telling the truth. It didn’t matter though. She needed to find out whether the Order could get her home.

* * *

The higher up they went, the colder it got. Mira found herself getting dizzy and breathless frequently, and, much to the others’ annoyance, needed more breaks. Alyr was understanding at first, but when she didn’t magically get over it a few hours later, he told Kalkus to carry her if she couldn’t keep up. Kalkus looked far from impressed with the order.

Mira had done her best to stay on her feet, but about the time they reached the snowline, she’d about had it. “Hey!” she called up to Alyr, who was breaking a trail ahead of her. “Are we just about there? I don’t know if you remember this about humans, but this kind of weather will actually kill us.”

Kalkus snorted and stomped past her, which at least had the benefit of widening the path Alyr had started breaking. The wind was biting though, and Mira was already shivering. It would annoy the hell out of Kalkus to use her heartstone to stop it, which was just a bonus as far as she was concerned.

He glowered at her when she cut the wind and curved it away from the group, but otherwise said nothing. He just hunched his shoulders under his wings and trudged on while Maluk brought up the rear.

“Hey!” she yelled again. Alyr spun around and pointed to Maluk before turning his back to Mira and pushing forward. She titled her head and watched him march away, obviously angry about something.

“Making too much noise here would not be a good idea,” Maluk advised softly, his voice only distinguishable because she’d deflected the wind away from her. “If you bring the snows down on us, it is unlikely that you would survive.”

Mira swallowed and turned an eye up to the snow above them. “Sorry. I didn’t realize that was a danger here.”

She supposed it made sense. There was snow. Avalanches were caused by loud noises, and probably other things she didn’t know about. She wasn’t going to pretend to be a mountain climbing expert. Of more immediate concern was how little feeling she had left in her hands and feet. She’d have given a lot to have that inferolisk heartstone back, even as broken as it had been toward the end.

“Seriously though, how far away are we?” she said. “Maybe you guys can take this kind of cold, but I can’t. I’m not going to be much use to anyone if I’m frozen on the side of a mountain.”

“Not much longer now, I think. An hour or so at this pace.” Maluk paused and looked behind him. Mira followed his gaze up to a black spot against the snow above them. “I would appreciate if you could use that wind you’re holding to fill in the snow behind us.”

“Yeah,” Mira said, her eyes not leaving the black spot. “No problem.”

By the time they reached their destination, which from the outside looked like nothing more than a cave, Mira had stopped shivering. It wasn’t that she wasn’t cold, but she was past feeling it. Some part of her brain screamed at her that that was a bad thing.

Maluk guided her, hands on her shoulders, deeper into the cave. She was too far gone to see what was happening, but she found herself suddenly surrounded by demons. Some of them were human-like, but most weren’t. She might have recoiled if she’d had anything left in her. Instead, she just slumped forward, held upright only by Maluk.

“Get her to the infirmary,” someone said. She should have recognized the voice. “We underestimated how much the cold would do to her. I need a healer here now or we could lose her.”

* * *

Jorath watched the four figures troop up an ice-crusted mountain, fists clenched at his side. The wind whipped his hair around and layer of frost had formed across his skin. It wasn’t until they’d disappeared from view that he considered moving.

Shy had been too weak to be of use. Rationally, he knew he’d pushed her too hard, that she’s burned herself up fighting his sister. He needed to give her time to recover, and her particular powers worked best when she had a lot of downtime to build them up. It would probably be the work of years before she was as strong as she’d been when he’d recruited her.

Jorath hadn’t come up with a plan to recover Mira before she’d moved outside his reach. He would just have to watch, and wait, and hope that whatever purpose the Order of the Sealed Stone was putting her toward, she survived it and broke free quickly. Without her, all his own plans would come crashing down.

He needed Mira back if he was going to kill the immortal King of Demons. No one else would suffice.

Chapter 37

Author’s note: This wasn’t supposed to go up until tomorrow. Apparently I screwed up the scheduling again. So, uh… enjoy Monday’s update a day early, I guess. Next update as normally scheduled for Thursday at noon.

——

Kalkus didn’t say much for the first few days, but Mira noticed him scowling at her more and more often as time went by. She ignored it at first, but he stopped even trying to hide it and after a day of feeling his eyes on her all the time, she finally snapped.

“What the hell is your problem? You’ve been staring at me since we left,” she said to him.

He glowered back and flexed his wings open and closed. “You’re messing with the air currents. Everything is wrong because you won’t stop playing with a toy you don’t understand.”

“Kalkus-” Alyr began, but Mira cut him off.

“No, let him talk. He’s obviously got something to say. Let’s hear it.”

“You’re annoying, and I don’t care what Alyr says, there’s no way someone as weak as you could possibly unbind the Order. This is a waste of everybody’s time.”

“That’s it? I annoy you? That’s why you’ve been staring daggers at me all day? You’re acting like a child,” Mira said.

“And you are a child, one pretending to be an adult, sticking your nose in business you can’t even comprehend. It’s aggravating. I can’t wait for this job to be over so I never have to see your face again.”

“Tough luck for you then,” Mira said. “We’re stuck with each other for awhile. So why don’t you do your job and watch for threats instead of staring at the back of my head all day long.”

Kalkus grumbled something incomprehensible and started forward, but Alyr was between them instantly and placed a restraining hand on the four-armed demon’s upper shoulder. “You agreed to integrate yourself into our hierarchy,” he said softly. “I vouched for you. Do not make me regret that.”

The grumbling subsided and Kalkus sank back onto his haunches, one set of arms crossed over his chest and the other draped over his knees. His wings flexed out again and settled around him like a cloak. “You’re wrong about her, Alyr. She’s useless, and worse, she attracts trouble.”

“You can think whatever you like,” Alyr told Kalkus, “just as long as you do what I tell you to.”

There was a palpable tension in the air after that, and when they stopped for the night, Kalkus retreated into the shadows. He became nothing more than a blocky shadow himself, form hidden behind his wings and eyes nothing more than two pinpricks of red light that tracked Mira’s movements.

“Perhaps I made a mistake in bringing him,” Alyr said. “I hadn’t realized your heartstone would grate on him like it does.”

“Why does he even care?” Mira asked, staring back into the darkness at Kalkus.

“Wind magic is also his strength. There probably aren’t more than two or three demons in the entire Order who outclass him at it, and one of those sits on the Council. He sees your attempts as troublesome and annoying, which is a pity because he would have made a much better teacher than me if only he had the patience for it.”

“I guess I’ll just have to keep practicing until I’m as good as he is.”

A rumbling sound came from Kalkus. There were no words, just a general tone of disapproval. Mira pulled the vilraf heartstone out of the pouch, and the red pinpricks of Kalkus’s  eyes narrowed to slits. He didn’t move though.

She sent little gusts of wind through the campsite, stirring up dead leaves and making the fire dance around. As an exercise in control, she split the winds into three streams filled with leaves and wove them around each other in a complicated knot. It wasn’t perfect, but she held the flows reasonably steady.

Alyr watched, his face an expressionless mask, as Mira added a fourth stream to the pattern of fluttering leaves. That was even harder, and it took all her concentration to keep two streams from crashing into each other and breaking the whole thing. Once she had it stable, she bit her lip and broke a fifth stream off the currents.

Abruptly, all her magic disappeared, broken, and the leaves rained down across the campsite. Kalkus rumbled and shifted in place, but didn’t stand. He just stared at her, his eyes narrowed.

“You do that?” she asked. “Nice trick, breaking up my magic. I guess since you’re so great, you can do five separate slip streams no problem.”

“Mira,” Alyr admonished. “Stop trying to bait him.”

“I just want to see what he’s capable of, since I’m such an annoyance that he can’t even stand to have me practice near him.”

“I said, enough.”

“He must have something he wants to prove.”

Kalkus’s wings flared open and he rose to his full height. All four of his arms were spread in different directions, and violent wind ripped through the campsite. The wood in the fire shot straight up into the air, becoming a whirling conflagration overhead. Leaves, broken branches, and other bits of plant matter were all sucked up over their heads.

The pattern was so complex that Mira couldn’t even count all the individual streams of air flowing through and around each other. Equally impressive was that each individual log from the fire was still burning, illuminating the pattern from within.

There were at least ten separate streams of air, probably more. Kalkus kept them all rotating for twenty seconds, then the wind cut out as abruptly as it had began and pieces of wood, suddenly lacking the air needed to feed it, poured down on them in a cloud of glowing cinders.

The campsite was left in darkness as Kalkus settled back into place. Only the soft green glow of Mira’s heartstone and the red pinpricks of Kalkus’s eyes were visible in the night. Alyr blew out a frustrated breath and said, “Are you both happy now? You’ve behaved like children.”

Mira slipped the heartstone into its pouch. “I’ll be happy when this is over and I can go home. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings any if I never saw any of you again.”

* * *

A soft glow lit the sky, waking Mira. At firs, she thought it was dawn already, but then she realized the colors were a scintillating pattern of blues, greens, and yellows set against velvet blackness. She jumped to her feet and joined Alyr and Maluk, who were also staring at the colors.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Trouble,” Maluk answered. “It looks like a shimmerwing, an old one to be that size.”

“Looks like?” Alyr echoed. “Are you suggesting it’s not?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“We’ll find out soon enough. Wake Krakus. This is going to fall primarily on him.”

“I’m already awake,” Krakus said.

The big demon hadn’t moved from his spot. His eyes weren’t even open. But Mira could see the air flowing around him, bent to his will and sent questing upwards toward the shimmerwing. She didn’t have the range to follow it all the way up, to see whatever those tendrils of air revealed to Krakus.

“Is it a shimmerwing?” Alyr asked.

“Shaped like one. Texture’s off. Might be a construct.”

“It’s coming straight at us,” Maluk pointed out. “This is an attack.”

Alyr took a deep breath, and the earth around him rippled. “Protect Mira. Try to figure out where this thing came from. We’ll take care of pulling it apart.”

Maluk drew Mira back into the shadows. They pressed up against the stone wall and watched the shimmerwing fly by overhead. As it got closer, Mira could see a segmented insect body inside the light. It almost reminded her of a giant luminescent moth, perhaps thirty feet long.

Its wings shifted colors with every flap, and it trailed sparking dust behind it as it circled over this campsite. It went around once, then again, then dropped into an abrupt dive. Alyr thrust his hands straight up, and spurs of stone shot into the air at it, fifteen feet tall and jagged at the end.

The shimmerwing glided past them, too high for them to reach its body, and coated the ground in dust. Alyr scurried out of the way, but Kalkus stood his ground. Winds whipped up around him, scattering the dust down the trail. Maluk and Mira pressed back against the wall as it went by.

“Hold your breath” Maluk said.

More and more dust streamed by, and Mira’s chest started feeling tight. She exhaled a bit through her nose, stopped herself, and let out a bit more. Maluk caught her eye and shook his head, but she knew she had only seconds of air left before she involuntarily inhaled the dust.

Fumbling with her belt pouch, she pulled her heartstone out and created a blast of wind that cleared the air around them of dust. Moments later, new clouds were rushing past them, but it gave her enough time to catch another lungful of clean air.

She heard Kalkus’s irrirated snort farther up the trail, but she ignored him and stared at the shimmerwing. It was pursuing Alyr, though Kalkus was doing his best to slow it down. Alyr was shooting stones up at it, each one creating a little puff of glittery dust when it struck the creature.

Mira cleared the air around herself again, sucked in a breath, and asked, “What does this dust do if you breathe it in?”

“Blindness, nausea, paralysis, unconsciousness. It depends on how much and which kind you get.”

If not for Kalkus, the shimmerwing would have descended on Alyr and coated him in its magical dust. But the demons worked in concert, their abilities complimenting each other. Kalkus corralled it while Alyr pummeled it, and the fight seemed all but over once Kalkus managed to shove it into the side of the mountain.

A hand grew out of the stone and closed around the shimmerwing, crushing it and releasing a huge cloud of roiling dust. Most of it went straight upward, probably thanks to Kalkus, and what little billowed toward Mira, she pushed away.

“What… what is that?” Mira asked, peering up at the hand. Streaks of blue, green, yellow, black, and even gold liquid ran through the fingers and gushed to the ground, where it splattered across the stone. It looked familiar.

“Oh hell,” she breathed out. “That’s ink. Maluk, I think… Maluk?”

Mira looked around, but the demon was gone. Muttering to herself, she started back up the trail toward Alyr. Both he and Kalkus were standing at the edge of a spreading pool of mixed-color ink.

“Construct,” Alyr said without looking up at Mira. “Someone sent this. The only question is whether it came looking for us or if we wandered too close to someone’s territory and encountered a guardian.”

“I think that the people I-”

“Where’s Maluk?” Alyr cut in, looking up and frowning. “I told him to keep you safe.”

“I don’t know, he disappeared sometime near the end of the fight. But listen-”

“Found him,” Krakus interrupted. “Up on the cliff southeast of us. There are other people there, two, I think.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you! I think the people I was traveling with attacked us because they think you kidnapped me.”

* * *

Shy bit her cheek to keep from crying out. The shimmerwing, the product of three days of frantic work and a massive expenditure of energy, had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. Jorath’s intelligence gathering had failed to realize that one of the other demons had specialized in air magic.

She was wiped out. What she’d made was a hackjob. She’d taken every shortcut she knew, made something that would hold up once, maybe twice, before falling apart. It was the exact opposite of how she liked to work, but it was the best she could do that quickly.

Sweat coated her body, both from the massively inefficient summoning and from the magical output she’d used to augment it, a futile effort. She sat there, chest heaving, and looked over at Jorath. He stood at the edge of the cliff, hands clasped behind his back, staring down at the scene below.

“What do we do now?” Shy asked.

“Come up with a new plan, one that we can execute in the next few days before they reach their destination.”

“I wonder just how much you know about that,” a new voice cut in from the side.

Shy froze in place and turned her head slowly. As exhausted as she was, the only way she was going to survive was if Jorath protected her. She wanted to believe she was still valuable enough that he wouldn’t abandon her, but she didn’t have any illusions that he’d sacrifice her if he thought he needed to.

One of the demons from the group they’d attacked stood on the cliff across from them. He was almost human-like, but too thin, with arms too long. Jorath turned to face him, an undisguised look of disgust on his face.

“Maluk,” he said. “Give me back the girl and this will go easier for everybody.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You know what I can do. There’s no need for you all to die.”

Maluk gave a dry laugh. “You have no idea how eager I am to see you try.”

Shy forced herself to her feet and tottered out of the way as the other two demons squared off. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but she was pretty sure she didn’t want to be in the middle of it.

Chapter 36

Mira paced back and forth, restless and anxious in the cell, while Maluk leaned against the wall next to the door and watched her. As soon as Alyr had realized that the would-be assassin had come from inside, he’d had Mira placed in a secure cell with a personal bodyguard. Her protests had been ignored as she was hustled down the hall.

Mira had been shaken up by the whole thing. She’d thought she was safe, but now that she knew she wasn’t, all the nervous tension that had been slowly draining away over the last week was back with a vengeance. Hours of waiting, of not knowing what was going to happen, had frayed her temper.

“How much longer am I going to be in here?” she asked.

“Until the Councilman decides what to do with you,” Maluk said.

“Well thanks, that’s helpful.”

Maluk’s head swung around to look at the door, and a moment later Mira heard the handle turning on the outside. Of course, it being a cell, there wasn’t a matching one on the interior. It swung open to reveal Alyr, his face troubled.

“We’ve decided to move you. This outpost has been compromised,” he said without preamble. “I’m sorry about the wait. I had to attend to a few things before leaving, and you couldn’t be left unguarded.”

“What if I don’t want to go with you?” Mira asked.

Alyr blinked at her. “Do… do you want to leave alone?”

Mira crossed her arms and looked around. “See, I’m not really sure if I’m a guest or a prisoner. If I decide not to cooperate willingly, what then? Do you kick me out the door, or do I stay locked in this room?”

“I want you to understand this, Mira. You are the only hope for accomplishing the Order’s one true goal. We want to be human again. We’ve all been stuck in these bodies for centuries. There’s not a one of us whose great grandchildren shouldn’t have been dust a hundred years ago. I’m asking you, please, help us.”

“I get that. What I’m asking you is this: what are you going to do if I say no?”

Alyr stared at her. She met his eyes and waited. Finally, he said, “If that’s your decision, you will hooded and escorted away from the outpost, for our own safety. Once you are away from us, you will be released.”

“We need each other too much right now. But this,” she said, gesturing to the cell, “This never happens again. If I’m not your prisoner, then I don’t want to be made to feel like one.”

“It was for your own protection!” Alyr protested.

“I don’t care. You don’t get to make those decisions for me. You ever try something like this again, I’ll never help you. Fact is, Alyr, your group needs me more than I need you. I’d like this arrangement to be agreeable to both of us, but I’m not your subordinate. I don’t take orders from you. I don’t care if you could crush me without even trying. I’ll take my chances.”

“I understand. In that case, I would like to move from this outpost to the Order’s fortress in the mountains. It will involve several days of travel in the open, but I can’t be sure how deep the infiltration has gone in our ranks here, and there aren’t enough people I’m confident of to guarantee your safety. Additionally, you need to meet with the rest of the Council to formalize your arrangement with the Order.”

She held his eyes for another long moment. Mira didn’t believe him, not for a second. What Alyr wanted from her, what the whole Order wanted, it was too important to him. She was too important to their goals to be let go, now that they had her. The only part she didn’t understand was why they’d waited so long to take her. There had been other opportunities, maybe not as good as the one that they’d used, but good enough.

It could have just been the first time they’d thought they could take her without Shy or Jorath noticing. That wasn’t true, but that didn’t necessarily mean Maluk had known that.

“Alright,” she said. “When do we leave?”

“Immediately, if you’re ready.”

“As soon as I can go to my room and get dressed.”

Alyr inclined his head. “Very well. Maluk will escort you there and take you to the entrance when you’re ready. I’ll meet you there. Vuh kora.”

Then he turned away and disappeared back out the door.

* * *

“You never did tell me what that means,” Mira said, pulling her hair through the shirt she’d just put on.

“What what means?” Maluk asked.

“Vuh kora, and that other thing.”

“You’ll understand when you’re ready to.”

Mira scowled at him. “That’s what you always say.”

Maluk didn’t answer. Mira finished getting ready in silence, and when she was done, he walked her through a section of the compound she’d never been in. Alyr was waiting for her in front of a door with four travel packs sitting on the floor. Next to him was a demon with four arms and a set of bat-like wings folded up behind his back. Heavy brows shadowed his eyes, and a mouth with triangular teeth poking out of it split the entire length of his face.

He wasn’t the ugliest demon Mira had seen in her week with the Order, but his proportions were so far off that even hidden under a cloak in the dark, she doubted anyone would mistake him for human. He was barely five feet tall, but close to three feet wide across the shoulders with a skull that was normal sized, but seemed small in comparison to the breadth of his chest and shoulders.

“This is Kalkus,” Alyr said. “He will be our guard for this trip.”

Kalkus inclined his head and folded one set of arms across his chest. The other came out of his sides, just below his ribs. The muscle structure was bizarre, but Mira assumed it had to work because the arms looks fully functional. Wide bracers studded with steel rivets adorned his forearms, complete with a solid piece of steel that rose up to his elbows.

“Ready to go?” he asked, his voice a low rumble.

“Yeah,” Mira said, eyeing up the packs. “Who’s the fourth? Maluk?”

“Yes,” Alyr said. “He has a very valuable skill set, and I trust him implicitly.”

Mira picked up a pack and put a hand over the belt pouch holding her heartstone. “Shall we then?”

Opening the door took longer than Mira felt it should have. Alyr had to do something that Mira didn’t fully understand that involved shifting the stone that the door was set into around, and he didn’t look happy about it. Once they were outside, she saw that the compound had actually been dug into the side of the mountain. The door’s exterior was camouflaged and near invisible once it had been closed.

“This place won’t be safe until I can return here,” Alyr said. He shot a glance at Mira and added, “Maybe not even then.”

With a heavy sigh, he turned away from the door. “Come on, we’ve got a ways to go before we can rest.”

He started down the slope, and the other fell in behind him. With a final look back, Alir said, “Vuh kora.”

“Vuh kora,” the other two demons echoed.

“Uh… vuh kora,” Mira added a beat later. Alyr laughed and shook his head. Maluk and Kalkus were unreadable.

* * *

“I want another heartstone,” Mira told Alyr several hours later. They were discussing the assassination attempt and what she’d done to fight her attacker until help had arrived. Mira’s main issue was that everything she’d done had been a stall. If she’d been on her own, she would have died.

“You still have a lot to learn about this one,” Alyr said. “And it will be much more effective out here than it was in a tiny room.”

“Something with some offensive capabilities,” she said, ignoring Alyr.

“You have offensive capabilities.”

“Maybe against an ordinary person,” Mira said. “But not against a demon, or at least not a strong one. And that’s what I’m up against, so I need something better than this thing.”

“This heartstone has more power than you’ve tapped into. You need to reach its maximum potential before you can start bonding another heartstone. Otherwise you’ll have the same kind of problems you had when you were using the inferolisk stone.”

“I don’t understand,” Mira said.

“I explained how the heartstones create a resonance with your own heartbeat, and that the more you’re able to control that, the more in sync you’ll be with it and the more of its power you can draw out. You can do this with two or even three heartstones at once, but you have to be perfect with the first one before you can attempt to add another. Otherwise you end up failing or releasing everything in an explosive burst and passing out, never to awaken without someone else’s intervention.”

That was a memory Mira wasn’t eager to relive. She wasn’t giving up though. “So I can just break the bond to this one and start over with a new heartstone then.”

“Certainly. You know how to stop your heart now. I would recommend you find a new heartstone before destroying your current one, otherwise you risk leaving yourself defenseless.”

Either way, that meant working on the vilraf heartstone until something new presented itself. Alyr wasn’t quite the slave driver Shy had been about the pace, but he wasn’t interested in making any detours, so unless they were attacked by a demon, the chances of her claiming a new heartstone were slim.

She kept at it, day after day, though her practice time was limited by their traveling. Alyr helped as he could, but because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, she was limited to small displays of power when she attempted anything. Most of the training consisted of just feeling out the heartstone and trying to match its echoes to her own heart beat.

As it turned out, that was trickier than she’d initially thought. It didn’t have to be perfect, but the closer she got it, the easier it was to pull more power from it. The problem was that her heartbeat wasn’t always steady. If they were running or climbing, or even after just long grueling hours of walking, it beat faster, and the heartstone had to be adjusted manually.

Alyr insisted that it was easier to control her own heart beat through the heartstone than it was to try to match the stone to whatever pace her heart was beating. Mira did not find that to be true, but if she was being honest, she hadn’t tried too hard to do it. There was a reason the heart beat faster when she was exerting herself, and slowing it down when it should have been pounding out of her chest seemed like a bad idea.

* * *

Shy jabbed the needle into her leg and pulled it back out. She adjusted the position a fraction and repeated it before dipping the tip back into the bowl of ink. It was painfully slow, but she was almost done now.

Jorath stepped out of a void rift behind her and walked over to the map he’d pinned up to the wall. They were in some trapper’s hut that had probably been abandoned years ago, based on the depilated state it was in. Then again, Shy had been unconscious when Jorath had brought her there, and he might just as easily have killed the original owners. She hadn’t cared enough to ask.

“Here,” he said, marking the map. “She’s here. I’ve been watching most of the day. She’s traveling north with three demons.”

Shy paused and looked at the mark Jorath had made. “Prisoner? Is she caged? Bound?”

“No. I think she’s cooperating of her own will.” He paused, then added, “I couldn’t get close enough to tell if any of them were using some sort of control abilities.”

“Why are you so sure then?”

“I recognized one of them. He’s a high ranking member of the Order of the Sealed Stone. It stands to reason that the other two are members. They wouldn’t risk hurting Mira.”

Shy went back to work on her tattoo. “Never heard of them.”

“They’re former demon hunters turned into demons, trying to get back to humans.”

Shy snorted and dipped the needle into the ink again. She started working on another leg for her new grithulik. “Stupid of them then. Humans are weak. Why do they think that Mira can undo my father’s corruption?”

“Lord Ilrot didn’t make them. They’re former Montrose demon hunters from before the clan was banished who became too dependent on their stolen heartstones.”

The needle froze in the air, an inch away from Shy’s skin. If Jorath respected their strength enough to spy on them instead of just overpowering them, then retrieving Mira was probably going to be a nasty fight. Shy would need all the strength she could get, and she was nowhere near full power.

She stabbed the needle in again. “Tell me everything you know about them. I’ll see if I can come up with a custom tattoo to help us take them on. I’ll probably need you to go on another material run.”

“I’ve got a shadow watching them right now, but from my own observations, there’s a four-armed gargoyle type demon. I suspect we’d need more physical strength than is practical to hurt him. Misdirection and speed will be our best weapons against him. Their leader is named Alyr. He’s a literal rock with a lot of long range attacks. His powers all run through the ground though, so anything airborne has a much better chance of working.”

“And the last one?”

“I don’t know yet. Human shaped, so probably not anything special in terms of strength or durability.”

Shy thought about that for a few minutes while she finished tattooing the spider leg on. The easiest way to beat an earth demon was to separate it from the earth. She could manage that with the right tools.

“Here’s what I’ll need…”

Chapter 35

Mira lashed out with a stream of wind moving so fast that it shot the stone backwards. Alyr stretched his hand over his head and caught it as it flew by. “Good,” he said. “Now, two at once.”

He threw two at her, this time at different speeds. She only had a moment to calculate which would hit her first, to prioritize blocking that. Alyr had already shown her how to create a miniature tornado around her, but it was exhausting to do. The whole point of the exercise was to gain precision and control so that she could pick off incoming attacks without having to wrap herself in a cocoon of air moving fast enough to rip small trees out of the ground.

Her intuition told her that the one on her left was moving faster, but she had an idea. She’d gotten good enough to reliably stop one stone, but generating two blasts of wind in quick succession was still difficult to do. Making two at once might be easier.

Mira held up both hands and willed the vilraf heartstone to chain the air molecules in front of her to her will. Slipstreams of air jetted out of both hands and knocked one stone out of the air. The other sailed in unopposed, her blocking wind having completely missed it.

She tried to correct the slipstream, but that was essentially the same process as making a new one, and she was even slower from having successfully made two at once. The stone smacked into her arm and spun her a quarter turn. “God damn it,” she spat out. “That’s going to leave a bruise the size of a watermelon.”

With a scowl, she kicked the offending stone back toward Alyr. It wasn’t a strong enough kick to send it more than a few feet, but it rolled end over end across the room until it came to a rest at his feet. He held a hand out, and the stone shot upward into his waiting palm.

“Clever, trying to deflect both at the same time. It’s difficult to aim in two different directions at once though. Let’s take a few minutes to rest, then we’ll try again.”

Mira stomped over to the bench pushed up against the wall and flopped down. “Why the hell are we using rocks for this anyway?” she asked. “Something a bit softer would be better.”

“Because stone is my domain,” Alyr said, sitting down next to her. “I can control how fast they’re going. Anything else would just be me throwing things at you.”

“And I’m ok with that.”

“I’m not. You need to grow, and the best way to do that is to stretch the limits of your abilities. Pain is a good motivator keep you trying, even when you’re tired.”

Mira massaged the bruised muscle in her arm. The stones were about the size of baseballs, and she had no idea how fast Alyr was shooting them at her. She just knew it hurt like hell whenever she failed to block one. He wasn’t shy about targeting the same spot multiple times, for extra motivation, he’d said.

“We need to talk about your plans once you leave here,” Alyr said.

Mira looked over to see him staring at her. “Are you kicking me out?” she asked.

“Not yet. But you can’t stay here forever. You need to make some decisions, and soon.”

“My goal has always been to get back home. Jorath promised to send me back if I helped him.”

Alyr leaned forward, elbows on his legs, and laughed. “Jorath, huh? He’s a snake. We’ve done our best to document the abilities of every known powerful demon, including him. His powers let him pierce holes in reality and travel through the void between worlds. It’s fatal to humans, even human demon hunters.”

“You must be wrong,” Mira said. “He brought me here from Earth.”

“Maybe,” Alyr replied. “But I don’t think so. From what Maluk’s told me, you’ve been traveling by foot with that other demon, the one who calls herself Shy. If Jorath could move you quickly, I think he would have.”

Once he said it, Mira thought that Alyr was probably right. When they’d been in that city during the red moon, Jorath had said he needed Shodo to protect Mira. If he had been able to move her quickly, it would have made everything a lot easier.

“Maybe it takes something special to let him take a human through the void,” Mira said. “Something he couldn’t burn through whenever it was convenient.”

Alyr acknowledged the idea with a nod. “That’s certainly possible. If there was ever anyone who was hiding his capabilities, it’s Jorath. The man was bred for deceit and treachery. Still though, if ever there was a time for him to pull out the stops, it was when his sister attacked you.”

“So you think he’s been lying to me all along? That he never had any intention of sending me back?”

“If it suited his purpose,” Alyr said.

“Then I guess it’s back to my original plan. Find him, take his heartstone, and use it to find my own way home.”

“That’s one option. I told you that the Order is looking to reverse our condition, to have our bodies returned to human form. It’s a complicated process, and one we believe only you possess the ability to do. It would be an investment of time to teach you how to do this, but we’re willing to turn all our assets to help you with whatever you decide you want to do in return. If hunting down Jorath is that goal, we can help.”

“Do you know any other way for me to get back to Earth? I mean, there’s got to be a way, right? My ancestors were from this world, and they were banished to mine as humans.”

“Now that’s an idea,” Alyr mused. “I don’t personally know how it was done. I hadn’t been part of the family for a hundred years when that happened, but I’m sure it’s something we can look into.”

Mira had trouble reading Alyr. There was a sort of rigid inflexibility to his facial expressions that made it hard to get a glimpse into what he was thinking, and his voice was always level, calm. It had been reassuring at first, but as she’d regained her strength, she’d realized she had nothing to go on. The man was as hard to read as a rock, which probably wasn’t a coincidence.

Added to that his appearance as a teenager, and it was easy to find herself offbalance. He looked so close to a normal person that it was hard to think of him as a demon, but acted with so much maturity that at times he reminded her of her father. The disconnect between appearance and attitude threw her for a loop.

The consequence of all that was that she wanted to believe everything he said, and at the same time she was afraid to. He’d been upfront about his reasons for helping her, but those might not be his only motivations, if they were truthful at all. He was certainly the first and only demon she’d met who wasn’t happy with his current station in life. If Maluk or any of the other demons in the compound felt the same way as him, they hadn’t bothered to mention it.

“Well,” Alyr said, standing up. He held a hand out to Mira to help her to her feet. “Whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to be stronger. Let’s see how you do creating a wall of air quickly enough to block five stones at once.”

* * *

The infirmary wing of the compound, which was completely underground as far as Mira could tell, wasn’t a place of noise or high traffic. Because there were no doors though, there was always a quiet murmur of sound in the background. After awhile, she’d just tuned it out.

It took her a moment upon waking to realize why the quiet seemed wrong. She couldn’t hear anything at all, and after she figured that out, she realized the light was distorted too. It was like someone had put her inside a giant glass bubble and then dragged the glowing crystals that lit her room across its surface to smear them into long, diffused streaks.

“What the hell?” she mouthed, starting to sit up.

Something hit her across the chest and pressed her back down. A person came into view, cloaked and shrouded, his face masked and hands gloved. One arm was pressed against her chest, holding her down. The other hand lunged down to grab her by the throat and squeeze.

Mira felt strong fingers digging in around her windpipe and reached up with both hands to break her attacker’s grip. He didn’t loosen his grasp at all, no matter how hard she wrenched on his wrist. She opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out was a gasp of air.

The attacker stared down at her, silent and remorseless. The mask had no eye sockets, not even a slit for a nose. It was made out of some sort of hard material that had been smoothed into a blank slate that curved around the face behind it, hiding any and all details from view. If not for the angle of his head, Mira wouldn’t even have known where he was looking.

She couldn’t overpower him physically. He had a demon’s strength and no amount of struggling was going to outmuscle him. That left her with two options. She could either try to take his heartstone or she could use the one she already had. It was nearby, mere feet from her, and Alyr had told her that physical contact wasn’t needed.

It was harder without it, but Mira didn’t trust that she could find the attacker’s heartstone in time. She reached out to hers, felt its own pulse sync to her heartbeat, and funneled a gale force blast of wind directly into his chest. He was ripped away from her to slam into the far wall, where he landed on his feet and immediately sprang back toward her.

She took her first deep breath and lashed out again. Silent wind roared through the room, hurling small objects around and pinning her attacker against the wall. He struggled, even managed to resist the small tornado that was buffeting the room enough to pull his torso away from the stone, but in the end, the wind was too powerful.

It was unbelievably difficult to maintain. Mira had done it before, held the wind for about thirty seconds with the heartstone in her hand. Without it, she thought she might have a few seconds at most left. She used that time to scoop the heartstone up from the cupboards where it sat and, with a stronger tactile connection, renewed her winds.

It was a losing game though. She wasn’t hurting her attacker, just delaying him. She needed to get away, to get help. There still wasn’t any noise in the room, and it should have been deafening just from the wind alone, never mind all the little things flying around smashing into the walls and each other.

Mira slipped past the man, who made a clumsy grab for her. She wasn’t affected by her own winds like he was though, and it was easy to dodge it. As soon as she was in the hall, sound returned, and she immediately started screaming for help.

The attacker was on her within moments of her strength giving out, and the world went silent again as a new bubble unfolded around them. Mira blew him backwards with another stream of wind, but it was weak. He just stood up and stalked forward. A blade appeared in either hand, the metal painted matte black.

Mira shot more blasts of air at him and turned to run. Whether because she had weakened herself or through plain old poor aim, she didn’t make it ten feet before the attacker caught up to her. One hand closed on her hair and jerked her head back. She saw a knife come up out of her peripheral vision and gasped.

Then Maluk was there, hurtling past her like a cannon. By the time Mira turned around, he’d already carried the attacker out the other side of the distortion bubble. The fight was brief, with Maluk the clear winner. He was simply too fast, too agile, for his opponent to land a hit, and he matched the other demon’s strength easily.

Maluk had him pinned on the ground when Alyr arrived. Leaning down, the youthful-faced demon pulled the mask off and frowned. “Lortas?” he asked, clearly surprised. “What are you doing?”

Mira recognized him. It was one of the demons she’d seen in the compound, a member of the Order. Someone within their organization had just tried to kill her.

Chapter 34

Alyr walked over to a cupboard set against the wall and opened it, revealing a faded, washed out green light. “Here,” he said, gesturing to Mira to join him. “These are yours.”

The two heartstones sat on an otherwise empty shelf. The vilraf one looked normal enough, but the inferolisk heartstone was flickering weakly. Cracks had formed throughout its surface, which was an ashy gray instead of brilliant, burning hot white.

“What happened to it?” she asked, making no move to touch it.

“Heartstones decay naturally when removed from their hosts. The weaker the stone, the faster is breaks down. You can prevent that decay by bonding it, which is what you were in the process of doing. Of course, the stronger your bond, the larger the risk of ending up the newest member of the Order.”

Mira picked up the vilraf stone and examined it. “This one still looks the same.”

“Yes, you’ve only had it for a few days, I think. The inferolisk heartstone has been out of its host for over a month, and without your magic to protect it, it’s power has faded. You’ll find it much less useful now.”

Mira had a mental image of fire whirling all around her, and she shuddered. That wasn’t a power she was eager to hold. It was only her own focus that protected her from the heat of the flames she’d made. If she’d slipped, even for a moment, she’d have burned alive.

“What should I do with it then?” she asked.

“You can use it if you want, but I think you’d be better served by learning how to break a bond before you assimilate too much of the heartstone into your body. Since this one is worn out and practically worthless, it will make good practice for you.”

The thought of using either heartstone again made Mira queasy. It must have shown on her face, because Alyr laughed and said, “It doesn’t have to be today, but there is a lot to learn and I’m sure there are people looking for you, so sooner is better.”

“Speaking of that,” Mira said, glancing back at Maluk, “Do you know… um… what was happening, who that woman was that attacked me?”

“Sybill Valdrite,” Maluk said. “Ilrot’s chief torturer and favored servant. Her abilities specialize in blood manipulation, both her own and others. Manipulating someone else’s blood requires her to mix her own with that person.”

“Oh.” Mira blinked. “So you know her then. Is it, you know, safe, to be around me? I’m putting you guys in danger just by being here.”

Alyr shook his head. “If Sybill attacks us here, it’ll be the last thing she ever does. There are no less than three demons within five hundred feet who are just as strong as her, and at any given time, ten to twenty more who could overwhelm her with sheer numbers.”

“Oh,” Mira said again.

“So don’t worry. You’re safe right now. Maluk is going to take your back to your bed to rest. Tomorrow, we’ll start working with you to break the bond to this damaged heartstone and learn how to use your abilities.”

Mira put the vilraf heartstone back in the cupboard. “Thanks,” she said. It might have been Alyr’s calm confidence in saying it, but she found she believed him. “I think I’d like to go lay down now.”

* * *

Maluk showed up again the next morning to fetch Mira. When she protested that she was still tired and weak, he just stared at her until she sighed and hauled herself out of bed. Then he led her in a different direction than her last meeting, this time to a relatively open and empty room.

Alyr was standing there waiting, the inferolisk heartstone held in one hand. It had always been almost burning hot to the touch, yet he held if as if it were nothing more than an ordinary rock. Mira didn’t know if that was because the heat didn’t bother him or if it had just lost that much of its power. It looked even worse than it had the day before.

“Good morning,” he said. “Our first lesson is breaking the bond you’ve been forming with this heartstone. Now, there are a few ways to accomplish this, but we’re going to focus on the most time-efficient method.”

“Well gee, let’s jump right in,” Mira said. “Can I sit down for this at least?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. Alyr watched with amusement as she plopped down on the stone floor, waited for a second to let her get comfortable, and tossed her the heartstone. As soon as it touched her skin, Mira had her answer. It was barely even warm now, let alone burning hot.

“Letting a heartstone decay after you’ve bonded it can be damaging to you. It can make it harder to bond new heartstones in the future, since the more bonds you have going at once, the more difficult it becomes to access any single heartstone. It’s much better to sever the bond yourself.”

“Is that why I’ve had so much trouble getting the vilraf heartstone to work for me?” Mira asked, intrigued. She’d developed a few theories about her failure to pull any sort of magic from the heartstone, but hadn’t considered that the inferolisk heartstone had been blocking her.

“Yes and no. If you were stronger, you could have accessed both at once. Since you weren’t, you didn’t have the ability to draw on a second heartstone while still bonded to the first one.”

That didn’t track though. Mira had accessed the vilraf heartstone. She’d combined the two of them into a deadly firestorm that scorched everything around her for a few brief seconds before she’d collapsed. If Alyr was right about all the mechanics of this ability she had, that meant she was strong enough to use two at once.

When she explained what had happened to Alyr though, he just nodded and said, “It was a desperate situation. Your heart was pumping. You were terrified. That lends you a strength you do not normally possess. With practice and hard work, you’ll grow to be able to do that all the time. Right now though, I do not expect you to duplicate that event.”

Alyr walked Mira through the process of breaking the bond he claimed existed between her and the heartstone. It was a series of revelations to her, from learning that she could sense where the heartstone was somehow, to using that new found sense to determine what condition the heartstone was in, to finally feeling out the invisible strings that tied it to her own heart.

Every beat of her heart made the heartstone pulse. It wasn’t something she could see with her eyes, but the echo between the stone and her own chest was tangible once she knew how to look for it. It took hours of patient coaching from Alyr, but she was finally able to feel it.

“Perfect,” Alyr said, studying her. Somehow, he was able to see when she finally figured each step out. Mira didn’t know how, but she didn’t spare the brain power to worry about it. Just keeping the focus required to find the reverberations between her heart and the inferolisk heartstone was more demanding than she would have believed possible.

“Now comes the tricky part. This is dangerous, but I’m here to guide you, and I’ll pull you out if I feel like you’re too far gone into it. You need to stop your own heart until the echoes fade away.”

“I need to what!” Mira yelped, her eyes flying open.

The echoes cut off, silenced when she lost her concentration. With an effort of will, she stretched out sore muscles and climbed to her feet. Hours and hours of sitting still, focusing on that dull glowing rock cradled in her lap had left her aching for her bed.

“You will slow your own heart until it stops, and once it no longer beats, it won’t feed new echoes to the heartstone. This is dangerous, for obvious reasons, but I am here to make sure you do this safely and successfully.”

“Ok, two things. First, how the hell am I supposed to stop my own heart? Second, and more importantly, if I actually do manage to pull that off, how do I start it back up again?”

“Your heart wants to beat,” Alyr said, a bitter note in his voice that Mira hadn’t noticed before. “Stopping it runs counter to its natural state. All you have to do is let it, and it will beat again on its own.”

“And that’s a relief, but I still don’t know how you expect me to stop it in the first place.”

“You’ve heard the echoes of your heart and the heartstone bouncing back and forth. They’re tied together. If you silence one, you silence both. Use your power to silence the heartstone, and your heart will reflect that back. Without that resonance, the heartstone’s bond will break. Then you simply let go, and your own heart starts again.”

When he put it that way, it sounded easy. Mira didn’t believe it was though. Alyr had stressed that he was there to oversee the process, to make sure she did it safely. That meant there was a way to do it not-safely, and the potential consequences of not-safely stopping her heart sounded bad.

“I don’t think I want to do this. Why can’t I just let this thing finish breaking down on its own?”

“If you don’t control the decay, it will affect your heart. You probably won’t even notice it the first time, or the second. It catches up eventually though. Your heart weakens with each break, and it never heals perfectly.

“That’s a long-term problem. Here, today, a more immediate one is Elerak. He’s roaming somewhere above ground, looking for something. We think it’s this heartstone. All fire demons are his children, and he has always been vengeful in seeking out the demon hunters who stole their heartstones. This bond needs to be broken and this stone taken away from here as soon as possible.”

“I thought you said I was safe here,” Mira said.

“From Sybill, yes. Elerak is a force of nature. I do not think even the King of Demons would dare to confront him in his current state.”

“Ok, ok.” Mira took a deep breath and sat back down. “Help me do this then.”

Alyr coached her back into the semi-lucid state of feeling the echoes of her own heartbeat reverberate through the heartstone. Mira was vaguely pleased that she managed it much quicker the second time, but that thought floated across the surface of her mind, a distraction to be brushed aside.

Once she’d achieved the state of mental equilibrium required to sense out the resonance, Mira reached out and to still the heartstone. It slowed down, at first just slightly out of sync. Then, as she bore down on it, it stopped completely. Pain flooded her chest and shocked her out of her trance.

Her heart thudding against her ribs, she shot a glance up at Alyr. “Try again,” he said. “Accept the pain. Own it. You can do this.”

The third time was harder than the second. Knowing what was waiting for her was a distraction she just couldn’t shake, but she refused to stop trying. When she did finally get back there, the echoes were distorted, uneven. They faded in and out, confusing her. At first she thought it was because of her failed attempt, but then she realized her own fear had her wavering in and out of the necessary state of mind to focus.

Alyr’s voice was smooth, hypnotic. She didn’t even know what he was saying, but the rhythm of his words somehow lined up perfectly with the echoes. He acted like a metronome, helping her keep track of the timing. Once she was sure she had it, Mira reached out again and started shutting down the heartstone.

The pain of her own heart stopping was intense, like a band of iron squeezing her chest. Her lungs were two lumps of lead in her chest, swollen to bursting. She was light-headed, losing focus. Only Alyr’s voice kept her on track. Mira fought through that pain, accepted it as she’d been told to. Finally, after a timeless moment, the echoes faded to complete silence.

She let go of the heartstone and took a deep, dizzying breath. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, rapid and strong. With a gasp, she fell over and landed flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling.

After a minute to recover, she sat up and looked at Alyr, who grinned back at her. “Look,” he said, pointing.

Mira followed his finger to see the dull lifeless stone on the floor. Even as she watched, it cracked and split in half, revealing a hallow core filled with ash. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “I actually did it.”

“You did,” Alyr agreed.

“I never want to do it again.”

He laughed and extended a hand to help her up. “It gets easier with practice. For now though, I think you’ve done enough.”

Chapter 33

Mira’s head was killing her. She’d been awake for all of five seconds, hadn’t even opened her eyes yet, and the pain was a sledgehammer driving her back to unconsciousness. She would have given in to it too, if she hadn’t heard someone moving around near her.

Instead, she forced herself to sit up. She was in a room lit by a soft green glow, laying in a bed with a threadbare and patched blanket covering her legs. Someone reacted to her movement, but that was as far as she got before her stomach revolted. She leaned over the bed, saw a convenient bucket placed there, and promptly hurled her guts out into it.

“Yes, yes. Take it easy now,” a voice said. “Don’t worry, this is a common reaction.”

“What’s a-” Mira cut off as she leaned over the bucket again.

“Here,” the voice said after she finished. “You’ve been sleeping for four days. Sip this slowly.”

A wide bowl was thrust into her face and tipped as she opened her mouth. The water was warm and tasted metallic, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. When the hand holding the bowl tried to pull it away, she grabbed its wrist and held it in place.

“Don’t be greedy. I said slowly. Give it a second.”

But she didn’t let go, and the bowl didn’t move away. Mira took another sip before releasing the arm and laying back. She looked over at the person then. He was short and spindly, with a wild fringe of green hair sticking out in every direction. He peered at her with eyes that were a mostly pupil, with only a sliver of green circling the black.

“Who are you?” Mira rasped out.

“Garnik,” he told her. “I am the chief healer for the Order of the Sealed Stone.”

There was always something new to add to the pile of things Mira didn’t understand. “Yeah, well, thanks for clearing that up.”

Garnik smirked at her. “I take it you’re feeling better.”

“She doesn’t look better,” a new voice said.

“She’s awake,” Garnik said. “That’s better.”

Maluk came into view. He studied Mira intently before shaking his head. “The Council will not be happy if she dies.”

“She’s not going to die! I told you she’s better. That means she’s better.”

Maluk ignored Garnik and said to Mira, “How do you feel?”

“Like shit. Where am I?”

“An Order safe house,” Maluk said.

“Not so safe,” Garnik cut in. “There’s something big roaming around on the surface. I think it might be Elerak.”

“He shouldn’t bother us down here.”

The two bickered back and forth while Mira rested. She should have been worrying about where she was, how she’d gotten there, and what Maluk wanted. Rationally, those were all important questions. But she was drained, physically and emotionally. Even just thinking about it left her exhausted.

“Shut up,” she snapped. “It feels like my skull is going to split open and you two aren’t helping.”

Garnik clicked his tongue. “More water, then more rest.”

“But-” Maluk started.

“Out,” Garnik interrupted. He spun Maluk and pushed him out of the room. He turned to look at Mira, said again, “Rest. I’ll check on you soon.”

Then he was gone, leaving Mira alone with her thoughts. She reached over for the bowl Garnik had left near the bed, saw a second bucket opposite the one she’d thrown up in, and laughed. He was a thorough fellow, she’d give him that.

The laughter died and she laid back, the bowl held balanced on her chest with one hand while she sipped water from it. She was in trouble. Maluk hadn’t exactly been against her, but he definitely wasn’t on her side. She didn’t know if Shy was still alive, or whether she’d escaped from Sybill if she was. She had a vague memory of Jorath showing up, but nothing after that.

Something had happened. There was no way they’d just let Maluk carry her off, but Mira couldn’t imagine him waltzing in there, scooping her up, and leaving without them noticing. If Sybill had killed them, then she would have stopped Maluk, unless he’d killed all three of them.

Mira didn’t think he was that strong. Shy probably couldn’t have stopped him, not in her condition, but she’d restrained Maluk with her shadow, which was presumably Jorath’s magic. She’d never gotten a chance to ask about that, and it hadn’t ever done anything strange again after that night. It wasn’t something she wanted to risk relying on to escape wherever she was now.

The simple truth of it was that she was fucked. Her heartstones were gone, not that she wanted to use them again. She doubted Maluk was going to let her just walk out of here, and she was sure she couldn’t hobble that far even if she was free to go.

Mira emptied the bowl and let it slide off her to the floor. What she needed, more than anything else, was to rest and recover. Whatever those heartstones had done to her had nearly killed her. She was almost asleep with a cramp hit her stomach. She rolled over on her side and reached for the bucket.

* * *

Garnik was there when she woke back up, this time with a plate of food for her. Mira’s stomach rebelled at the thought of eating, but he insisted. She managed to get down half of it, tried not to think too closely about what it was while she ate it, and pushed the leftovers away when she was done.

“We’ll try again in a bit,” he said. “Now, it’s been a few hundred years since it’s been a problem for me, but I believe humans still need to relieve themselves, yes? Would you like some help getting out of the bed or would you prefer some privacy?”

Mira blinked at him. “Are you… did you used to be a human?”

He looked surprised. “Did Maluk not tell you?”

“No,” Maluk said from the door. “It’s not our place. The Council will decide what to tell her and what to keep to themselves. So shut your mouth and come with me.”

“Will you be alright by yourself?” Garnik asked Mira, not moving.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m feeling better than yesterday.”

“Good. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Getting out of bed was more work than Mira had expected, more work than she thought it should be, but she managed to stand up, one hand on the bed to support herself. The bathroom, such as it was, was a nook in the corner that resembled a port-a-potty with a bin that could be slid out the bottom. It wasn’t a very large bin, of course, but Mira had gotten used to similar setups over the months she’d been stranded on Aligoth.

They’d dressed her in some sort of nightgown. She didn’t want to think about who’d stripped her out of her old clothes. She also didn’t want to think about how long it’d been since she’d had access to a razor blade. Her legs had long since gone past cactus and turned into some kind of fuzzy shrub.

Business finished, Mira found herself out of bed with no supervision. She hobbled toward the doorway, which didn’t include an actual door, and peaked out. Her room was part of a set in a hallway that was vaguely reminiscent of a hospital set up, except with no nurse’s station or doors. She hadn’t been able to see out from her bed, and she couldn’t see anyone else in the other rooms for presumably the same reason.

“You must be feeling better,” Maluk said, making her jump. He was standing next to the open doorway, leaning against the wall. “Garnik is a good healer, but he is too cautious. You could use another week in bed, but there is work to be done. If you’re well enough to explore, then you’re well enough to meet a Councilman.”

“Do you think you might explain any of this to me at some point?” Mira asked.

“Only what I am ordered to tell you. You can ask your questions when you meet the Councilman. He may or may not answer them as he chooses.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” she muttered. Then, louder, she said to Maluk, “Let’s go then. We might as well get this over.”

Mira hobbled down the hall, supported on one side by Maluk and the other by a hand on the wall. It was slow progress, and halfway to the end, Garnik came out of another room. He saw them, gave Maluk a silent glare, and turned away. If Maluk was perturbed at all, he didn’t show it.

They left the infirmary behind, though Mira couldn’t have said exactly where they went. She was too focused on keeping upright and putting one front in front of the other to pay attention. Eventually though, after an agonizing few minutes of shuffling along, Maluk led her to a door set into the stone wall. The lights were clean white here, spaced evenly across the ceiling. Each was a stone rod with thick vein glowing brightly in the center.

Maluk rapped on the door, opened it and stuck his head through, and said something. Mira heard a muffled response, and he opened the door the rest of the way and gestured for Mira to enter. She did, and he followed her, closing the door behind him.

Of all the things that came to mind when she thought of a demonic Councilman, a teenaged boy was not one of them. There were some abnormalities, like the stony texture of his exposed skin or the metallic sheen on his finger nails. But mostly, he just looked like a highschool kid, albeit in better shape than most of the people she’d went to school with.

“Um… hello,” Mira said.

“Mira Tanner?” the boy asked.

“That’s me. Who are you?”

“Alyr Montrose. I’m your great-great-great-great-many-times-removed-grand cousin.”

“I… er… I don’t think that’s a thing,” Mira said, “And also, what? I thought all my ancestors were dead.”

“All the human ones, yes. Probably. You never can tell. I imagine there are still some of the offshoot bloodlines out there, but of course they don’t count.”

Mira thought about that for a second and shot a glance behind her at Maluk. “So if you’re from twenty generations back, but obviously still alive, and obviously not human, then you’re a demon?”

Alyr nodded. “Correct. Everyone in the Order was, once upon a time, a Montrose demon hunter. We weren’t careful enough with the heartstones we wielded, and ended up trapped in these forms.”

“Holy shit,” Mira said. “Is this going to happen to me? Is that why I passed out, why I’m so weak now?”

“No, no. To put it bluntly, you’re so far away from the necessary level of proficiency required for this to even be a risk that it’s laughable.”

Mira decided there was no point in taking offense to that. She hadn’t exactly put up a good show in her last fight, or any of them, really. Even her win against Maluk, if she could really count it as one, had been because of her shadow, not anything she’d done.

“Ok, that clears up some of who you guys are. Why am I here?”

“It isn’t enough that we might be concerned about the fate of the only living human descendent of our clan?” Alyr asked.

“No,” Mira said. “Sorry, I’m not buying it. Everyone on this whole damn planet wants something from me. I just haven’t figured out what it is from you yet.”

“I was fifteen when I overreached my abilities and ended up turning myself into a demon,” Alyr said. “For over four hundred years, I’ve been trapped in this shape. Four hundred years since the last time my heart beat, since the last time I needed to fill my lungs with air. Do you know what I want, more than anything?”

“No.”

“I want to taste an apple again. Guess what I eat now. Rocks, preferably with mineral deposits in them. That’s what the demon whose heartstone I controlled lived on. For four hundred years, I’ve been eating rocks. I want what every single member of the Order wants. I want to be human again.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with me,” Mira said.

“It has everything to do with you,” Alyr told me. “You see, in my time, and in young Maluk’s time behind you, and in the time of every demon hunter who fell victim to his own power, we couldn’t ever figure out how to reverse the effect. We’ve had centuries to work on it, and we think we know how to now. The ironic part is that it requires a Montrose demon hunter to make it work, and they’ve all been gone for hundreds of years.”

“And here I am,” Mira said. “Lucky you.”

“Don’t misunderstand. We were demon hunters. Many of us would like to return to that life, especially considering the state the world is in now. I think I’ve pieced together enough of Jorath’s plan to guess what he has in mind, and the Order would be a powerful force to drive that plan to completion.”

A thought occurred to Mira. “And, if there were other Montrose demon hunters again, no one would need me. I could go home.”

She watched Alyr’s face when she said it. He hesitated, only for a fraction of a second, but enough to be telling. “I suppose that’s a possibility.”

“You don’t really believe that it is though, do you?”

“From what I understand of Jorath’s abilities, I’m not sure how he got you here without killing you,” Alyr said. “I don’t know any way to return you home. You would have to negotiate that with him, and he doesn’t have a reputation for doing anything out of the goodness of his heart.”

Mira’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Then I’m still trapped here.”

“Not necessarily. If you can free us from this curse, then we’d owe you a great deal. Convincing Jorath to send you home in exchange for us helping him instead might be an offer he’s open to.”

“Yeah… about that… what exactly do I need to do?”

Interlude 2

Ilrot was not happy. When he wasn’t happy, things around him started breaking. People around him started breaking. That was unfortunate, because the only people near him were Sybill and Shodo. Sybill was on her knees, her eyes blank but her face tight with pain.

Shodo stood behind her, his fingers dug deeply into her scalp. An image hung in the air before them, one of Sybill’s memories from her fight with Jorath. Ilrot watched it play out, watched Jorath trick her into the void, watched his own daughter hurl all three of them through the portal.

That marked her failure. As much as Ilrot wanted Jorath back, wanted to punish him for his audacity, for daring to believe he could triumph, it was the human girl he’d taken from Earth that Ilrot needed. Allowing herself to be pushed through Jorath’s portal was the tipping point where Syball had lost control of the situation.

Ilrot said nothing. Shodo shot him a quick, questioning glance, and he nodded for the illusion to continue. It showed the three of them pass through the living, hungering darkness of the void, a journey that appeared to have damaged Annidra, given how weak she was when they went through.

It was a brief passage though, merely a matter of moments before Jorath brought them back out into the mountain highlands that surrounded the Valdrite family’s home, now Ilrot’s, of course. It was a deliberate snub, bringing them there, mere miles from Ilrot’s seat of power. Then again, perhaps even after all the centuries that had passed, Jorath still instinctually sought out what he considered his home.

Either way, if he’d been thinking logically, he would have abandoned Sybill as far from Ilrot’s influence as possible. It had been all too easy to retrieve her, to determine exactly when and how she’d failed.

The battle picked up again in the illusion that Shodo projected into the air. But Jorath was no longer trying to fight, and Sybill wasn’t prepared to keep him pinned down. He scooped up Annidra and faded away in moments, leaving Sybill fuming amidst the towering trees that surrounded Valdrite Keep.

“So you lost the Montrose girl, failed to return my daughter, and let your traitorous brother escape, all in one spectacular round of incompetency.”

Ilrot gestured for Shodo to move aside. Without his hands there to hold Sybill upright, she prostrated herself on the floor. “My Lord, forgive me, please. Jorath was nowhere nearby. I am sure. I don’t know how he knew to interfere with my plans.”

“You didn’t think he might have contingencies in place to protect the girl?” Ilrot asked, his voice soft. It was always like that when he was truly angry. Some people let out their rage in bellows, great voices booming out. He wasn’t one of those people, and Sybill knew it. She trembled in place, no doubt expecting her punishment to be immediate and severe.

The base part of his nature wanted nothing more than to tear her to pieces and leave her as quivering lumps of meat splattered across the floor. He overruled that desire. Sybill was unwaveringly faithful, far too useful, and he had more personally invested in her than any other demon he’d ever created.

“It surprises me that you’ve failed,” Ilrot told her. “I’ve come to expect better from you.”

“Master, please-”

“I wasn’t finished,” Ilrot said, his voice clipped. Sybill fell silent, but her trembling only got worse.

“As I was saying, it surprises me, but perhaps it’s my own fault. Your brother is strong, almost as strong as you, and probably more clever by half.” He smirked as he said it. That it was the truth didn’t make it sting any less. Half of the reason Ilrot had kept Jorath around was because he enjoyed watching the siblings hate each other.

“If you can not be more clever than him though, then I will simply have to make you stronger. Stand up.”

Sybill scrambled to her feet, her eyes wild and her breathing shallow and rapid. Ilrot circled her once, then again, before placing a hand on her chest. His fingers dug into her flesh, pierced it, and sent tendrils of his magic into her. They touched the calcified, unbeating stone that had once been her heart, back when she’d been human.

She convulsed and jerked away. He’d been told the pain was unimaginable, something indescribable, so agonizing that his victims couldn’t even remember it afterwards. Ilrot didn’t blame her for flinching, but that didn’t stop him from sending another burst of magic into her heartstone.

Sybill screamed then, and Ilrot’s lips curled into a sadistic smile. The scream went on for long seconds before she passed out completely. It wasn’t as fun when she wasn’t awake to experience it, but he wasn’t torturing her for fun. There was work to be done.

He finished augmenting her heartstone while she was still unconscious and held upright only because he hadn’t let go. When he was done, he released her to collapse to the floor and beckoned Shodo over.

“Wake her up.”

“My Lord? You don’t want her to have time to recover?”

Ilrot raised an eyebrow. Shodo bowed low and, saying nothing, began the process of stimulating Sybill’s mind to wakening. It was a matter of half a minute before she was awake, and seizing from the pain her body had tried to flee by knocking her unconscious.

“You will go out after them again,” Ilrot told her, knowing she could hear him. “And Sybill, if you fail to capture your brother again, you’ll take his place in the Cloister.”