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?”
“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?”