Mira spent the rest of the day trying to get the new heartstone to work. Shy was of course no help at all, and by the time they stopped for the night, she couldn’t get so much as a light breeze out of the damn thing, let alone flight. The first two heartstones had been almost instinctual, so easy to use that she hadn’t even realized what she was doing the first time.
Nothing worked with the vilraf heartstone. It was infuriating, in a way. For every disaster, trauma, and emotional scar this world had dumped on her, she’d at least had one thing going. Now she was trying to expand that, and she had no idea how. She didn’t even know who to talk to about it.
Maluk could probably tell her what she was doing wrong. He seemed to know a lot about her flavor of demon hunters. He might even be old enough to have fought her ancestors prior to the banishment. It didn’t matter though. He showed up when he wanted to and she had no way to contact him.
Shy had just told her to figure it out. She hadn’t been interested in discussing it or offering any suggestions, helpful or otherwise. Mira felt silent, judgmental eyes on her though, as if it were some how her fault she wasn’t a pro at bending a demon’s magic to her will.
Mira kept working on it. When they stopped to set up camp, she mentally prodded the heartstone. She tried holding in one hand, then the other, then both. She tried thinking airy thoughts, feathers and summer breezes, then hurricanes and tornadoes. The heartstone sat there, its spiral etching glowing but otherwise an ordinary rock.
The inferolisk heartstone still worked. Mira was, if anything, even more in control of it than she’d been the last time she’d been forced to use it. But she just didn’t feel the same connection to the vilraf one.
Mira laid down and tried to sleep, but the frustration over being unable to use the vilraf heartstone kept her awake. It was lodged in her brain, a stubborn, nagging thought that refused to be silenced. After an hour of laying on the ground, Mira gave up on sleep and went back to work.
The sun came up, and still she couldn’t tap into the heartstone’s power. Far from speeding up their journey, the lack of sleep just made Mira that much slower. Shy pushed her harder, but there really was only so much Mira could do. She didn’t even make it to midday before she collapsed in the middle of the path.
Shy grumbled about it, cussed and swore and threatened, but in the end, there was no choice but to let Mira rest.
* * *
“Tell me about Sybill,” Mira said heavily, her eyes closed as she lay on her back on the sparse mountain grass. The trail was relatively flat and sheltered from the wind, with just enough sun light peeking through the mountain walls around them to keep it from being too cold.
“What’s to tell? If she catches us, you’d best hope she kills you quick. I doubt that’s what’s going to happen though.”
“Yeah, you already said that. So she’s dangerous, and… what… I don’t know? Torture-happy?”
Shy stood up and unlaced her breeches. She started pulling them down to expose her legs, ignoring Mira’s startled, “What are you doing?”
With her leg turned out, she pointed to a set of scars going up and down her thigh. Each one was a line about eight inches long, parallel to the others. “This is from Sybill,” Shy said. “She’s a blood demon. She can do all sorts of nasty things, even by demon standards. Those people that attacked us were blood slaves. Every single one of them had these marks.”
“What do they mean?” Mira asked.
“It’s where she splits your skin open to insert her magic inside you. There’s an artery here, a large one, that pumps blood, carries her power throughout your entire body. It sits, attached to the bone in your leg, a reservoir of energy that’s constantly cycling through you. And when it’s running out, she’ll open you up again to add more. That’s only if you live through it the first time, of course.”
“She did that to you?”
Shy pulled her pants back up and relaced them. “Once, on my father’s orders. He was testing me, trying to determine if I was strong enough to suit his purposes. He suspected I was holding back, which I was, so he had Sybill infect me with her blood reservoir to push me to maximum performance. It still wasn’t enough, of course. Nobody’s ever been strong enough for what he wants done.”
Mira frowned for a second. “Your father? But I thought Sybill worked directly for the Demon King.”
“That’s right. She does.”
“Then that means he’s your father?” Mira’s eyes were wide. “And he let his own daughter go through that?”
Shy let out a short, bitter laugh. “That was just a competency test. What he let Sybill do as punishment once he was sure I hadn’t been trying my hardest was much worse. Those scars are small enough that they can be hidden by the ink. That was when Jorath helped me escape. It’s why I was looking after you, as repayment.”
“Jesus. And that’s who’s after us, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s who’s after us. So maybe you should start walking and keep working on that heartstone so she doesn’t catch up. Probably the only thing slowing her down is stopping to get new blood slaves. They’ll walk without stopping, without food or water or rest, right up until they fall over dead. And the scary thing is she doesn’t need them. She could kill us both with her bare hands. She just likes her little torture games too much to not make them.”
Mira climbed to her feet. “I’m feeling new motivation to keep walking, as it turns out.”
* * *
Kull marched through the night, unfeeling of the cold, unafraid of the narrow, winding trails that hugged the sides of the mountains. His master drifted along behind him, occasionally nearby, occasionally so far away that Kull couldn’t see her anymore. Now that they’d left the dark cave he’d been held captive in, he could see that his master was definitely a woman.
She was tall, skinny in an unattractive way, almost gaunt, all jutting cheek bones and sharp angles. Her hair was pulled back into a braid with a string of needles worked into it. More than once, she’d lashed him with that braid, scoring his skin with a dozen shallow cuts in the process. She seemed to think it was funny.
Worst was her face. Her eyes were solid orbs the color of freshly spilled blood that glowed when she got excited. Usually that meant she was about to hurt him. Her teeth were too sharp to be human, though small enough that they stayed tucked behind black lips until she decided to reveal them.
He stopped when a sound reached his ears and scanned the night sky. Six shapes cut across his vision, visible more for the stars they blocked out than because he could see their silhouettes. They descended toward him, the smallest still more than a foot taller than he was. Each one had a wing span of at least fifteen feet, with the largest closer to twenty.
Kull pulled his battle axe free and set his feet. The first one to dive at him met the blade with a taloned foot, gave a harsh cry as it split flesh, and flapped rapidly to gain altitude. The impact almost tore the weapon from Kull’s hands, but he ignored the pain and got ready for the next demon’s attack.
His master dropped down from her perch clinging to the side of the mountain above him. She landed on the first one and drove it to the ground, her feet on its back and a wing held in either hand. As it fell, she twisted with her whole body and the demon’s wing bones snapped. It howled in agony and plummeted, its wings now entwined behind its back.
Laughing, she leaped free and grabbed the leg of the nearest one. The added weight wasn’t enough to drag it out of the sky, but two foot long needles of blood shot out of her arm and pierced the demon’s leg with so much force that they came back out the other side and several went into the other leg as well.
She swung up and grabbed a fist full of flesh near the demon’s groin. Using that for leverage, Kull’s master scaled the demon’s body while it was still in the air, all in less than a second as it began to fall, and leaped into open space toward the next one. It saw her coming and folded its wings to get under her leap.
There was no changing trajectory, but it didn’t matter. Bloody ropes erupted from her hands, each one barbed down the entire length and cruelly hooked at the end. They snared the demon and she used its weight to swing herself around and collide with it.
Kull watched, axe still in hand, as the remaining three turned and ran. Without hesitating, without even looking, his master flung more blood spikes into the air toward them. All three of them were hit, and they fell out of sight into the darkness below them.
The demon she’d attached herself to crashed into the ground near him, his master still atop it. “That was fun,” she said as she stood, her eyes glowing. “Too bad we don’t have more time to play with them.”
She reached down and stabbed her fingers into the demon’s throat, silencing it. Then, licking the blood off each finger individually, she climbed to her feet. “Come on then. There’s more fun to be had tomorrow.”
Kull didn’t say anything. She didn’t expect him to. He just started walking again.
* * *
“I don’t suppose you have any food?” Mira asked.
“Are you sure?”
Shy gave her a flat glare. “Yes.”
“Well, can we go find some then? I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Where do you think we’re going to get any food here?” Shy waved a hand at the mountains around them. “Do you see anything edible?”
“Maybe if we had a better, higher, vantage point, we could see some.”
“I don’t know how to make the damn rock work, alright? I’ve been trying. It doesn’t work.”
“Then I guess we went through all that trouble for nothing. Might as well chuck the heartstone into the nearest ravine.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Mira snapped.
Mira poked at it while they walked, but it refused to do anything. They left the mountains and descended into a barren landscape decorated by withered and twisted trees, unadorned by leaves and gray-colored bark. There were no birds, no animals, no other plant life, just those lonely broken down trees dotting the landscape.
When they stopped for the night, Mira sat on her blanket with the heartstone on her lap. She focused on it while Shy stared out into the darkness. After a few minutes, a gust of air stirred her hair. Mira’s head snapped up and she looked around. There was nothing to be seen, nothing except the green heartstone. She stared at it, willed it to move the air around her again.
A gout of flame shot up into the air, startling Mira and sending the vilraf heartstone rolling away. The fire died of as quickly as it had formed, leaving her in the darkness once more. Shaking, Mira retrieved the heartstone.
“What the hell are you doing?” Shy demanded, stalking over to Mira. “Are you trying to make it as easy as possible for Sybill to find us?”
“I don’t know what happened,” Mira said. “I wasn’t even touching the inferolisk heartstone. It’s still in my pouch.”
Shy held a hand up to silence Mira. Her eyes darted around, peering into the darkness. “Nothing,” she said quietly. “Gather your bag. We need to leave before something comes to investigate.”
The scrying hoops drifted into the air off Shy’s wrist. One disappeared into the darkness while the other hovered near her face. Shy alternated between staring into it and looking around her while Mira scooped up her meager possessions and pulled her boots back on. When she was done, they started off without a word.
They walked for half an hour before Shy urged Mira into a jog. When Mira started to lag behind, Shy grabbed her arm and pulled her along after her. They ran through the night, or at least Shy ran. Mira limped along as best she could, but it didn’t take long for her to reach the point where she was vomiting into the dirt and forcing herself to keep stumbling forward. Not even Shy could get her back up to a run at that point.
“Too slow,” Shy said. “We’re not putting enough distance behind us.”
“I’m… sorry,” Mira wheezed out.
“Take a few minutes,” Shy told her. “Something has caught up with us anyway. I’ll kill it and then we need to get moving again.”
A human figure strode out of the darkness. It was tall and broad-shouldered, holding a long-handled axe in both hands. It approached them at a steady pace, and the closer it got, the less the darkness obscured Mira’s vision.
“Kull,” Shy said. “What a surprise. You don’t look well.”
Kull didn’t respond, other than to raise his axe and charge forward.