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.