Chapter 32

Every movement shot new spikes of pain through her body, but Shy pushed through it to climb to her feet. With a mental call, she summoned the hoop-carrying gargoyle tattoo back to her from where she’d flung it during her battle with Kull. As soon as she’d realized he was a blood slave, she’d known Sybill was nearby, and that they’d need help.

Jorath stood perhaps ten feet from Sybill. They glared at each other, their faces full of undisguised hatred and, in her case, a tint of mad glee. Spikes had welled up from Sybill’s skin, covering her arms and back, her stomach and legs, even her face. Some were mere stubs, others almost a foot long.

Jorath watched them grow placidly, his shadow curled around his feet like a cat. “What gave me away?” he asked.

Sybill smirked. “You’re sloppy. You always were. The master is not pleased, Jorath. You’re going to the Cloister.”

“I can’t help but notice that you haven’t killed my associates. I’m assuming that you’re under orders to bring everyone back alive.”

“Alive, yes. But I was explicitly told that you didn’t have to be in good condition. And I’ve been wanting to do this for centuries.” Sybill licked her lips and glanced at Shy. “And your minions are on their last legs. There’s no one to help you, and you can’t hide behind Lord Ilrot anymore.”

Shy bristled at the comment. She was nobody’s minion. If that’s what their partnership looked like from the outside, then she and Jorath needed to redefine the relationship. That would be a discussion for another time. For now, survival took priority.

Sybill practically flew at Jorath. It gave Shy a moment of crystalline clarity exactly how outmatched she’d been. She’d known Sybill hadn’t been going all out, but it was only in that moment, watching the speed the other demon moved with, that Shy realized she’d never had a chance, no matter how slim.

Jorath, on the other hand, was not caught off-guard. His shadow flared up in front of him, a wide screen of insubstantial darkness that Sybill crashed through without hesitation. It gave him enough time to avoid her attack and launch his own.

Her shadow looped around her legs and pulled them together as it clawed its way up her body, fingers reaching for her neck. Sybill flexed, and new spikes ripped through her skin to pierce the shadow substance. The lower half of her shadow was shredded instantly, but its hands still reached her throat, where they wrapped around a thick band of blood-red metal that bubbled out of her skin.

“Same old tricks,” Sybill said. “After all these years, I’d have thought you’d have learned something new.”

Sybill’s shadow rose up and wrapped itself around her face, blinding her and blocking her nose and mouth. Jorath smiled and said, “A few, here and there.”

Blood spikes ripped through the shadow, just like they had when it had tangled her legs up. But in the second it took for her vision to clear, Jorath had stepped through one of his void portals and come out behind her. He grabbed her by two particularly long, thick spikes coming out of her back, lifted over his head, and slammed her face down into the ground.

Sybill grunted and spikes broke off all over the front of her body. They scattered across the ground like little round crystals, some of them even spinning away far enough to reach Shy. Then Jorath heaved up, lifting Sybill up to his chest, and slammed her down again.

She got her hands and feet under her this time, fast enough to prevent Jorath from smacking her face-first into the dirt, but he was quick to improvise. A kick caught her ribs hard enough to lift her back into the air and spin her around to land on her back.

Blood spikes shot out of her, flung through the air to stab Jorath in a hundred different spots, except that he’d already retreated into the void and reappeared elsewhere. Sybill climbed to her feet, her face bloody, and turned to face him. “Hit and run tactics? Really?”

Jorath shrugged. “It works for me.”

The blood on Sybill’s face crystallized and flaked off. “Not that well,” she said, but Shy thought she didn’t sound as confident as she had a minute ago. For some reason, Sybill had been expecting an easy win, and Jorath was putting up a better fight than she’d given him credit for.

New spikes grew out of her to replace the ones Jorath had broken. Sybill whipped her arm forward, sending a wave of them through the air to lead her next charge. Jorath slipped to one side, but Sybill hadn’t followed the spikes straight, and she was perfectly lined up to slam into him.

They went rolling together, her doing her best to cling to him while the body spikes flayed his skin. After a few rotations, he managed to kick her off and get his feet under him. Jorath was bleeding everywhere, that strange inky black blood. Shy tilted her head and watched it dribble into the dirt. She’d never considered it before, but that blood could be a potent base liquid for a new tattoo.

She shook her head. That was another conversation to be had later. What she needed to do was find some way to help Jorath, but she was barely standing. She might be able to form the ulusoc tattooed across her back, but she doubted she’d be able to maintain its shape for long, maybe not even long enough for it to fully manifest.

Hand to hand was out. Sybill had already proven she was stronger, faster, and more skilled than Shy. Magically, Sybill and Jorath were still going at each other full strength, where as the only person more wiped out than Shy was Kull, who, despite everything, was somehow still breathing.

Shy knew Jorath didn’t want to confront his sister, but she had hoped that once Sybill had forced the fight, he’d have no choice but to show up and protect Mira. And by that, she meant that Jorath killing Sybill would solve a lot of their immediate problems.

If it was going to happen though, it would be on Jorath. Shy wasn’t going to do much more than get in the way.

* * *

Jorath was keeping ahead of his sister, but only just barely. Sybill was controlling the battlefield by making him respond to her movements, and every attempt he made to limit her was broken simply by changing targets. Three times she’d gone after Mira, only to be stopped by Jorath. She’d only broken for Shy once, and as soon as she’d realized Jorath wasn’t going to give her an opening by stopping her, she’d abandoned the tactic.

He knew she wasn’t going to kill Mira, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t destroy the human’s usefulness. All Jorath was sure of was that Ilrot wanted Mira alive. If Sybill crippled her, it would make his plans impossible to carry out.

What he needed to do was get her pinned down. There were spots she couldn’t form spikes, or at least not without seriously injuring herself. Those were places of vulnerability, if he could hit them. At least, they had been years ago. The gorget armor around her throat was new. It was possible she could form more armor plates along her sides and thighs as well.

There was only way to find out. He sent his own shadow out to yoke Sybill’s and, while she was busy hurling hardened shards of her own blood at him, they formed into a hard knot that hammered into her leg. Pieces were sheared off from the body spikes, but the hit was solid. It didn’t slow her down, didn’t do more than make her laugh.

“You didn’t think that would still work?” Sybill sneered. “Two hundred years to improve, and you’re honestly still trying the same tricks?”

“Just exploring my options,” Jorath said.

Sybill always had liked to talk. He’d turned that against her more than once when they fought. She couldn’t resist taunting her opponent, and her condescension blinded her. It had been decades since the last battle though, and she’d obviously taken some lessons away from that loss. Jorath had been too busy hiding his hatred for his master to pay attention to what Sybill was up to.

But then, he didn’t have to kill her to win. Sybill’s goal was to capture all three of them, and Jorath couldn’t move Mira through the nether void without risking destroying her mind or even killing her. He could move Sybill though. It was a temporary solution, but it was his best option at the moment. He’d have to actively prepare for her return soon; there was no way she’d ever give up. But here, right now, he could stop her.

He just had to stop letting her control the battlefield. She was forcing his movements and he needed to flip that. Unfortunately, his abilities focused more on his own mobility, or even on hindering his enemies’ mobility. What it didn’t do was move people who didn’t want to be moved.

Sybill sprayed a hail of blood spikes at him. She was expecting him to shift out of the way, and she was betting she could guess which way he would go. Her stance told him she was aiming to the right, but he suspected a trap. With only an instant to decide which way her next attack would come, he cheated.

He stepped through the void and came out right behind her. She reacted instantly, of course, as he’s known she would. The spikes coming out of her back tripled in length as she flung herself backward, and he went with it. The tear hung open in the air, waiting for him. He grabbed the leading spikes and tugged as he fell backward.

Sybill sensed it at the last instant and checked her step. She threw her weight forward, but it was too late. Jorath had her, and her struggles weren’t enough to stop him from pulling in. But he wasn’t the only one who could cheat. Spikes jutted out of the spikes he was holding. Jorath gritted his teeth as blood welled up around them, but he didn’t let go.

New spikes shot from the backs of her legs, thick and long, into the ground. It gave her the stability to resist Jorath’s strength. “No,” she growled. “I will not. You are not stronger than me.”

More spikes shot out, these ones long and curved. They hooked around Jorath’s ribs and dug into his back. Sybill leaned forward, a movement which dug the hooked ends in deeper. Worse, he could feel them still growing.  His only choices were to abandon the rift or let her puncture his internal organs. If his hands had been free, he might have tried to break them, but the spikes going through his palms had grown out the back side and curled to hold him in place.

“You’ve failed, little brother,” Sybill said. “Again. Just like so long ago.”

* * *

Shy watched Sybill pull Jorath out of his void rift. His plan was brilliant in is simplicity. If he couldn’t get Mira away from Sybill, he’d do it the other way around. Unfortunately for him, Sybill had either realized his intention or just plain knew that if he wanted her through that portal, she didn’t want to go.

And there it was, right in front of her. Shy could change the outcome of the fight. “Damn it, Jorath,” she said. “You’d better know what you’re doing.”

She charged forward as fast as her injuries would let her. Sybill saw her coming, of course, but she was too busy fighting to keep Jorath from pulling her in. There was no way she could stop Shy. Spikes shot forward, but it was a token gesture. Shy dodged them easily. Then she hit Sybill around the middle at full speed. All three of them flew into the portal and disappeared

* * *

The human girl was unconscious on the ground. She’d drawn too deeply on her power and burnt herself out in an instant. With time and a bit of help, she could recover. Thankfully, the battle had ended in the best possible way.

Maluk looked down and sighed. Then he hefted Mira’s unconscious body over his shoulder and walked away from the clearing. It was time to introduce her to the Order, to see if she really was the answer to all their prayers.

* * *

Kull woke up with a strangled gasp. Everything hurt, but the ache was dulled by the regenerative magic that had sustained him throughout his long and violent career. At first, he wasn’t sure what had woken him, but it was the work of a moment to spot the demon circling around him.

His hands closed on the axe and he leaped to his feet. The demon took that as its cue to lope in, hunched low and teeth bared. Kull wasn’t afraid. He’d seen this kind before. They were strong, and prone to unexpected bursts of speed, but they were stupid and had poor reflexes. It was the work of minutes for him to put it down, even as injured as he still was.

He needed to find a safe place to finish healing, and then there was a new demon on his list to kill.

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