Alyr walked over to a cupboard set against the wall and opened it, revealing a faded, washed out green light. “Here,” he said, gesturing to Mira to join him. “These are yours.”
The two heartstones sat on an otherwise empty shelf. The vilraf one looked normal enough, but the inferolisk heartstone was flickering weakly. Cracks had formed throughout its surface, which was an ashy gray instead of brilliant, burning hot white.
“What happened to it?” she asked, making no move to touch it.
“Heartstones decay naturally when removed from their hosts. The weaker the stone, the faster is breaks down. You can prevent that decay by bonding it, which is what you were in the process of doing. Of course, the stronger your bond, the larger the risk of ending up the newest member of the Order.”
Mira picked up the vilraf stone and examined it. “This one still looks the same.”
“Yes, you’ve only had it for a few days, I think. The inferolisk heartstone has been out of its host for over a month, and without your magic to protect it, it’s power has faded. You’ll find it much less useful now.”
Mira had a mental image of fire whirling all around her, and she shuddered. That wasn’t a power she was eager to hold. It was only her own focus that protected her from the heat of the flames she’d made. If she’d slipped, even for a moment, she’d have burned alive.
“What should I do with it then?” she asked.
“You can use it if you want, but I think you’d be better served by learning how to break a bond before you assimilate too much of the heartstone into your body. Since this one is worn out and practically worthless, it will make good practice for you.”
The thought of using either heartstone again made Mira queasy. It must have shown on her face, because Alyr laughed and said, “It doesn’t have to be today, but there is a lot to learn and I’m sure there are people looking for you, so sooner is better.”
“Speaking of that,” Mira said, glancing back at Maluk, “Do you know… um… what was happening, who that woman was that attacked me?”
“Sybill Valdrite,” Maluk said. “Ilrot’s chief torturer and favored servant. Her abilities specialize in blood manipulation, both her own and others. Manipulating someone else’s blood requires her to mix her own with that person.”
“Oh.” Mira blinked. “So you know her then. Is it, you know, safe, to be around me? I’m putting you guys in danger just by being here.”
Alyr shook his head. “If Sybill attacks us here, it’ll be the last thing she ever does. There are no less than three demons within five hundred feet who are just as strong as her, and at any given time, ten to twenty more who could overwhelm her with sheer numbers.”
“Oh,” Mira said again.
“So don’t worry. You’re safe right now. Maluk is going to take your back to your bed to rest. Tomorrow, we’ll start working with you to break the bond to this damaged heartstone and learn how to use your abilities.”
Mira put the vilraf heartstone back in the cupboard. “Thanks,” she said. It might have been Alyr’s calm confidence in saying it, but she found she believed him. “I think I’d like to go lay down now.”
* * *
Maluk showed up again the next morning to fetch Mira. When she protested that she was still tired and weak, he just stared at her until she sighed and hauled herself out of bed. Then he led her in a different direction than her last meeting, this time to a relatively open and empty room.
Alyr was standing there waiting, the inferolisk heartstone held in one hand. It had always been almost burning hot to the touch, yet he held if as if it were nothing more than an ordinary rock. Mira didn’t know if that was because the heat didn’t bother him or if it had just lost that much of its power. It looked even worse than it had the day before.
“Good morning,” he said. “Our first lesson is breaking the bond you’ve been forming with this heartstone. Now, there are a few ways to accomplish this, but we’re going to focus on the most time-efficient method.”
“Well gee, let’s jump right in,” Mira said. “Can I sit down for this at least?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. Alyr watched with amusement as she plopped down on the stone floor, waited for a second to let her get comfortable, and tossed her the heartstone. As soon as it touched her skin, Mira had her answer. It was barely even warm now, let alone burning hot.
“Letting a heartstone decay after you’ve bonded it can be damaging to you. It can make it harder to bond new heartstones in the future, since the more bonds you have going at once, the more difficult it becomes to access any single heartstone. It’s much better to sever the bond yourself.”
“Is that why I’ve had so much trouble getting the vilraf heartstone to work for me?” Mira asked, intrigued. She’d developed a few theories about her failure to pull any sort of magic from the heartstone, but hadn’t considered that the inferolisk heartstone had been blocking her.
“Yes and no. If you were stronger, you could have accessed both at once. Since you weren’t, you didn’t have the ability to draw on a second heartstone while still bonded to the first one.”
That didn’t track though. Mira had accessed the vilraf heartstone. She’d combined the two of them into a deadly firestorm that scorched everything around her for a few brief seconds before she’d collapsed. If Alyr was right about all the mechanics of this ability she had, that meant she was strong enough to use two at once.
When she explained what had happened to Alyr though, he just nodded and said, “It was a desperate situation. Your heart was pumping. You were terrified. That lends you a strength you do not normally possess. With practice and hard work, you’ll grow to be able to do that all the time. Right now though, I do not expect you to duplicate that event.”
Alyr walked Mira through the process of breaking the bond he claimed existed between her and the heartstone. It was a series of revelations to her, from learning that she could sense where the heartstone was somehow, to using that new found sense to determine what condition the heartstone was in, to finally feeling out the invisible strings that tied it to her own heart.
Every beat of her heart made the heartstone pulse. It wasn’t something she could see with her eyes, but the echo between the stone and her own chest was tangible once she knew how to look for it. It took hours of patient coaching from Alyr, but she was finally able to feel it.
“Perfect,” Alyr said, studying her. Somehow, he was able to see when she finally figured each step out. Mira didn’t know how, but she didn’t spare the brain power to worry about it. Just keeping the focus required to find the reverberations between her heart and the inferolisk heartstone was more demanding than she would have believed possible.
“Now comes the tricky part. This is dangerous, but I’m here to guide you, and I’ll pull you out if I feel like you’re too far gone into it. You need to stop your own heart until the echoes fade away.”
“I need to what!” Mira yelped, her eyes flying open.
The echoes cut off, silenced when she lost her concentration. With an effort of will, she stretched out sore muscles and climbed to her feet. Hours and hours of sitting still, focusing on that dull glowing rock cradled in her lap had left her aching for her bed.
“You will slow your own heart until it stops, and once it no longer beats, it won’t feed new echoes to the heartstone. This is dangerous, for obvious reasons, but I am here to make sure you do this safely and successfully.”
“Ok, two things. First, how the hell am I supposed to stop my own heart? Second, and more importantly, if I actually do manage to pull that off, how do I start it back up again?”
“Your heart wants to beat,” Alyr said, a bitter note in his voice that Mira hadn’t noticed before. “Stopping it runs counter to its natural state. All you have to do is let it, and it will beat again on its own.”
“And that’s a relief, but I still don’t know how you expect me to stop it in the first place.”
“You’ve heard the echoes of your heart and the heartstone bouncing back and forth. They’re tied together. If you silence one, you silence both. Use your power to silence the heartstone, and your heart will reflect that back. Without that resonance, the heartstone’s bond will break. Then you simply let go, and your own heart starts again.”
When he put it that way, it sounded easy. Mira didn’t believe it was though. Alyr had stressed that he was there to oversee the process, to make sure she did it safely. That meant there was a way to do it not-safely, and the potential consequences of not-safely stopping her heart sounded bad.
“I don’t think I want to do this. Why can’t I just let this thing finish breaking down on its own?”
“If you don’t control the decay, it will affect your heart. You probably won’t even notice it the first time, or the second. It catches up eventually though. Your heart weakens with each break, and it never heals perfectly.
“That’s a long-term problem. Here, today, a more immediate one is Elerak. He’s roaming somewhere above ground, looking for something. We think it’s this heartstone. All fire demons are his children, and he has always been vengeful in seeking out the demon hunters who stole their heartstones. This bond needs to be broken and this stone taken away from here as soon as possible.”
“I thought you said I was safe here,” Mira said.
“From Sybill, yes. Elerak is a force of nature. I do not think even the King of Demons would dare to confront him in his current state.”
“Ok, ok.” Mira took a deep breath and sat back down. “Help me do this then.”
Alyr coached her back into the semi-lucid state of feeling the echoes of her own heartbeat reverberate through the heartstone. Mira was vaguely pleased that she managed it much quicker the second time, but that thought floated across the surface of her mind, a distraction to be brushed aside.
Once she’d achieved the state of mental equilibrium required to sense out the resonance, Mira reached out and to still the heartstone. It slowed down, at first just slightly out of sync. Then, as she bore down on it, it stopped completely. Pain flooded her chest and shocked her out of her trance.
Her heart thudding against her ribs, she shot a glance up at Alyr. “Try again,” he said. “Accept the pain. Own it. You can do this.”
The third time was harder than the second. Knowing what was waiting for her was a distraction she just couldn’t shake, but she refused to stop trying. When she did finally get back there, the echoes were distorted, uneven. They faded in and out, confusing her. At first she thought it was because of her failed attempt, but then she realized her own fear had her wavering in and out of the necessary state of mind to focus.
Alyr’s voice was smooth, hypnotic. She didn’t even know what he was saying, but the rhythm of his words somehow lined up perfectly with the echoes. He acted like a metronome, helping her keep track of the timing. Once she was sure she had it, Mira reached out again and started shutting down the heartstone.
The pain of her own heart stopping was intense, like a band of iron squeezing her chest. Her lungs were two lumps of lead in her chest, swollen to bursting. She was light-headed, losing focus. Only Alyr’s voice kept her on track. Mira fought through that pain, accepted it as she’d been told to. Finally, after a timeless moment, the echoes faded to complete silence.
She let go of the heartstone and took a deep, dizzying breath. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, rapid and strong. With a gasp, she fell over and landed flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling.
After a minute to recover, she sat up and looked at Alyr, who grinned back at her. “Look,” he said, pointing.
Mira followed his finger to see the dull lifeless stone on the floor. Even as she watched, it cracked and split in half, revealing a hallow core filled with ash. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “I actually did it.”
“You did,” Alyr agreed.
“I never want to do it again.”
He laughed and extended a hand to help her up. “It gets easier with practice. For now though, I think you’ve done enough.”