Chapter 31

Kull rushed straight in. Shy stood her ground, one hand behind her back, where Mira could see metal plates growing across her skin. As Kull closed and brought the axe down, her hand swept up to catch the blade. She  jerked it to one side, trying to pry it out of Kull’s grip.

Instead, he willingly followed the pull and turned the momentum against her. As he stumbled past, he set his shoulder and checked her backwards. Then, with a full body twist, he wrenched the axe free and pulled into a spin that arced around to come at her from the other side.

Shy dropped to the ground as the axe whistled over her head. It wasn’t a graceful drop, just her legs collapsing underneath her and her ass hitting the dirt. That didn’t stop her from kicking a foot out to crunch against Kull’s knee, then cocking her leg back and kicking him again, this time a foot higher.

He didn’t stumble, didn’t wince. He took the punishment to his groin without so much as a grunt as he brought the axe around to cut into Shy’s skull. She rolled to the side and kicked again, this time snapping his wrist and forcing him to wield the heavy weapon one handed.

“He’s a blood slave,” Shy told Mira, who was hovering nearby, trying to find some way to help. “He’s not going to stop until we’re dead. No reasoning with him. Put him down.”

Mira reached for the inferolisk stone, but before she could grab it, something pierced her hand. She cried out and tried to jerk away, only to discover that a long, slick spike had shot through her hand and into the ground. As soon as she realized what was happening, the pain hit her in a wave and she fell to her knees.

“Let’s not have any of that now,” a woman said from behind her. “I rather like this one, and I’m not sure how well he’d heal from burns.”

Then something clouted her in the back of the head. The world flashed white and Mira slumped forward. The motion pulled her hand against the spike, which cranked up the pain from that so high that she almost blacked out. With tears streaming down her face, she reached over to pull the spike free.

It was a uniform thickness down to the dirt and for a foot past the back of her hand. Every jerking motion Mira made to slide her hand up caused fresh waves of pain to radiate through her. With a cry, she pulled her hand up the last half a foot in one motion and away from the spike.

She spun in place to see a thin, gaunt woman smirking at her. “Did it hurt?” the woman asked, laughing. She held up Mira’s pouch. “I borrowed these. Hope you don’t mind.”

Mira didn’t get a chance to reply. Something streaked past her, dark blue and full of sharp angles and jagged tips. It rushed the woman, followed by half a dozen other monstrous shapes. Mira shot a look over her shoulder to see Shy flinging ink away from her with every motion as she battled Kull. Not a single one of the newly formed monsters stayed to help her.

The fight shouldn’t have been a contest. Mira had watched Shy disembowel the man in a single, smooth motion. She herself had crushed his skull, or at least hit him hard enough to render him unconscious. But no matter what Shy hit Kull with, he kept coming. He was bleeding freely from too many shallow cuts to count, not even looking at his crushed knee and wrist.

That didn’t stop him from fighting without a limp or holding his weapon with both hands. The man simply wasn’t showing the kind of fatigue and exhaustion his injuries should have inflicted on him. Shy was more than holding her own, but her magic was being spent to defend Mira from their other attacker.

The other woman, Sybill, Mira assumed, was fending off everything Shy threw at her with ease. In the brief seconds Mira had taken to look back, the ground had already been covered in splattered ink. Even as Mira turned back to Sybill, the demon crushed another of Shy’s tattoos into nothing but a green dripping smear.

“Get away from her!” Shy screamed to Mira. “Run, you stupid girl!”

Mira stumbled and turned to run, but before she’d even taken her first step, Sybill grabbed hold of her hair and jerked her back so hard Mira felt the hair being pulled from her scalp. Sybill simply had too good a hold for her to escape.

The worst part was that she wasn’t even trying. She held Mira’s hair in her fist while battling six different creatures with her free hand. Even as Mira reached up to grab Sybill’s wrist and twist to break her grip, the demon spun in place. Mira was dragged along, thankfully with her hands still on Sybill’s wrist to relieve some of the pressure on her scalp.

When the world stopped spinning, she found herself on her knees facing toward Shy and Kull’s battle and covered in black, green, and blue ink. The last of Shy’s minions was gone, and the fact that Kull was a blood-soaked mess knocking on Death’s door didn’t do anything to alleviate the danger they were in.

Mira watched Shy bat Kull’s axe away rip him open. A minutes ago, he would have avoided the attack. Now he just grunted and, finally at the end of his strength, collapsed into a puddle of his own blood. Shy spared just enough time to make sure he wasn’t going to get back up before turning her attention to Mira and Sybill.

“We’re still alive,” Shy said. “So that must mean you want something.”

“Me? I want to kill you, the same as I wanted to kill you fifty years ago. And the only thing better than killing this girl would be to make Jorath watch, to make him see his planned betrayal fail. But he’s not here, and I have my orders, so the two of you will be coming back with me to Lord Ilrot. Alive.”

“I have no doubt that you can kill me,” Shy said. “But I don’t think you’re strong enough to take me alive.”

Sybill smirked and lifted Mira by her hair, just an inch, but enough to make her cry out in pain. “But if you’re uncooperative, your friend will suffer for it.”

“So? I’d rather let you kill her than let you take me back to my father.”

Something drizzled down Mira’s hands and solidified around her wrists. She tried to tilt her head up to see what it was, but her hair didn’t have the length to let her. Sybill shoved her face down into the ground though, and when she looked up, it was to see the blood-colored cuffs around her wrists.

“I guess we’ll do it the fun way then,” Sybill said, stepping past Mira and ignoring her.

* * *

There was no way Shy was winning a fight with Sybill. The other demon had a couple hundred years of experience on her, not to mention she’d been personally crafted by the King of Demons himself in a way that enhanced her own abilities as a member of the Valdrite demon hunter clan.

Plus, she was scary psychotic. Sybill would break ever bone in Shy’s body, laugh while she did it, and drag Shy back to her master by her hair, probably going out of her way to hit every rough patch of stones and brambles along the way. She was good enough at her job that Shy had no doubt she’d live through the whole thing too.

She thought she could fight Sybill to the point where she’d make the other demon kill her. It wasn’t the end she wanted, but it was preferable to being captured. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that though. That would all depend on Jorath, but she was confident he was motivated to intervene and protect his project. Since Mira wasn’t movable through his void portals, that meant defeating Sybill.

They closed the distance in an instant. Shy was strong, but she knew Sybill was stronger. She might have the edge in terms of speed, maybe. Her hand snaked out, only to be blocked when Sybill slapped her arm aside. Shy followed up with a kick from the opposite side, but Sybill blocked that to. Every blow was deflected with apparent ease.

Shy only had one pet left to her, the ulusoc. But summoning it was time-consuming, and painful. She’d be vulnerable, and Sybill would be quick to take advantage. Worse, she didn’t think for a second that even with the ulusoc she could beat Sybill. If it could buy her the time she needed for Jorath to get there, she’d trade it away in a heartbeat, not that she had one.

Sybill pressed the advantage. Her attacks were lightning fast, slipping through Shy’s defenses as often as they were blocked. The worst part was that it was all physical. Sybill hasn’t even started to use her power yet, while Shy had all but exhausted her own.

They went back and forth for seconds that turned into minutes. Shy was forced to admit that she wouldn’t be able to stop Sybill from capturing her unless she changed the game. She needed to get the heartstones back into Mira’s hands somehow. The bag was only tucked into a pocket, sitting so loose that Shy might be able to free it in the chaos of combat and toss it to Mira.

She faked a lunge forward, but Sybill didn’t take the bait, and when Shy reversed it, her opponent wasn’t caught offguard. That was alright though. The real feint within a feint was designed to push Sybill back to one side and display the pocket holding Mira’s pouch. The trick wouldn’t even be to get the heartstone out. It would be to do it without Sybill noticing.

Shy made her move. It cost her a knee across the face when she dropped for a leg sweep, which of course the other demon hopped over. But tripping her hadn’t been the goal. Shy managed to come up inside Sybill’s guard and lift the bag with one hand and toss it toward Mira while simultaneously slapping Sybill’s arm out wide to land an uppercut.

The movement was smooth. It was done within an actual attack. The bag landed at the precise moment Shy’s fist connected with Sybill’s jaw, blocking out the soft thump of leather hitting dirt. And Shy knew from the grin on the other demon’s face that she hadn’t fooled her one single bit.

The only option left then was to press the attack, to be so ferocious that Sybill couldn’t do anything with the knowledge that the human was armed again. It was a reckless strategy, one that would leave her wide open to a devastating counterattack if she couldn’t contain Sybill’s movements.

It paid off for about eight seconds. Blow after block rocked Sybill back, and Shy thought she might actually have a chance, even without Mira. Then blood spikes erupted from Sybill’s body. They tore holes in her clothes and spanned the gap between their bodies, piercing Shy’s torso and stomach.

The spikes retracted back into Sybill. Without their support to keep Shy upright, she staggered forward, directly into the same uppercut she’d delivered to Sybill seconds earlier. Only in her case, it lifted Shy off the ground and laid her out flat on her back. Sybill didn’t even watch her land. She was already walking to Mira before Shy hit the ground.

* * *

“Stay back,” Mira said as she fumbled the inferolisk heartstone out of the pouch. She held it in front of her, hands still bound, and the stone glowing white hot between her fingers.

Sybill laughed. “Or you’ll what, give me a sunburn? Do you even know how to use that thing?”

Mira sent a gout of flame through the air directly into Sybill’s face. When the fire cleared though, the demon wasn’t there. She’d somehow used the fire as a screen and was circling to Mira’s left. In the second it’d taken for the fire to die out, she’d not only dodged it, but she’d closed half the distance.

Mira panicked. She couldn’t beat this opponent. She couldn’t even hit her. But if her fear robbed her of reason, it didn’t stop her from acting. She poured everything she had left into the heartstone, and it answered her call.

Fire bloomed around her in every direction. It swept out like a wall, rushing across the ground in one unbroken line. Without even thinking about it, she could sense Sybill’s body heat beyond the conflagration. She knew the instant Sybill leaped into the air, and the fire rose up to meet the demon at the apex of her jump. Sybill took the hit directly, but fire didn’t have kinetic energy, and however badly it might have burned the demon, it didn’t stop her from landing inside the wall of flames.

Mira sent out another pulse of fire, and another one behind that. She had some vague hope that she’d somehow catch Sybill between walls, scorch her flesh to a crisp, crunchy black, and save herself. The heartstone’s heat sensing abilities couldn’t even distinguish Sybill between the walls of fire.

But it told her the moment Sybill passed through them, now behind Mira. Mira screamed, poured everything left into it, and the heartstone gave its all in return. It was too much energy for the heartstone, and the bleedover had to go somewhere. On the ground, freed from the pouch when Mira had pulled free the inferolisk heartstone, the other one started glowing.

Sudden wind kicked up, a miniature tornado centered around Mira. It caught the flames and whipped them around into a firestorm, one that was hungry. It sought out Sybill, chased her as she danced away from the heat. Mira could feel her retreating even as the winds scoured the ground bare and the fire baked it until it cracked.

Then her energy gave out. The winds died down, and the fire went up in a flash. She slumped forward and collapsed, face down into the dirt again.

“Well that was impressive,” Sybill said. “Sloppy, brief, and ineffective, but in terms of sheer power, impressive.”

Mira turned her head to look at Sybill’s approaching feet. That was the only reason she saw a black rent split the air, and Sybill freeze in place as a second set of feet appeared behind her.

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