Author’s note: This wasn’t supposed to go up until tomorrow. Apparently I screwed up the scheduling again. So, uh… enjoy Monday’s update a day early, I guess. Next update as normally scheduled for Thursday at noon.
Kalkus didn’t say much for the first few days, but Mira noticed him scowling at her more and more often as time went by. She ignored it at first, but he stopped even trying to hide it and after a day of feeling his eyes on her all the time, she finally snapped.
“What the hell is your problem? You’ve been staring at me since we left,” she said to him.
He glowered back and flexed his wings open and closed. “You’re messing with the air currents. Everything is wrong because you won’t stop playing with a toy you don’t understand.”
“Kalkus-” Alyr began, but Mira cut him off.
“No, let him talk. He’s obviously got something to say. Let’s hear it.”
“You’re annoying, and I don’t care what Alyr says, there’s no way someone as weak as you could possibly unbind the Order. This is a waste of everybody’s time.”
“That’s it? I annoy you? That’s why you’ve been staring daggers at me all day? You’re acting like a child,” Mira said.
“And you are a child, one pretending to be an adult, sticking your nose in business you can’t even comprehend. It’s aggravating. I can’t wait for this job to be over so I never have to see your face again.”
“Tough luck for you then,” Mira said. “We’re stuck with each other for awhile. So why don’t you do your job and watch for threats instead of staring at the back of my head all day long.”
Kalkus grumbled something incomprehensible and started forward, but Alyr was between them instantly and placed a restraining hand on the four-armed demon’s upper shoulder. “You agreed to integrate yourself into our hierarchy,” he said softly. “I vouched for you. Do not make me regret that.”
The grumbling subsided and Kalkus sank back onto his haunches, one set of arms crossed over his chest and the other draped over his knees. His wings flexed out again and settled around him like a cloak. “You’re wrong about her, Alyr. She’s useless, and worse, she attracts trouble.”
“You can think whatever you like,” Alyr told Kalkus, “just as long as you do what I tell you to.”
There was a palpable tension in the air after that, and when they stopped for the night, Kalkus retreated into the shadows. He became nothing more than a blocky shadow himself, form hidden behind his wings and eyes nothing more than two pinpricks of red light that tracked Mira’s movements.
“Perhaps I made a mistake in bringing him,” Alyr said. “I hadn’t realized your heartstone would grate on him like it does.”
“Why does he even care?” Mira asked, staring back into the darkness at Kalkus.
“Wind magic is also his strength. There probably aren’t more than two or three demons in the entire Order who outclass him at it, and one of those sits on the Council. He sees your attempts as troublesome and annoying, which is a pity because he would have made a much better teacher than me if only he had the patience for it.”
“I guess I’ll just have to keep practicing until I’m as good as he is.”
A rumbling sound came from Kalkus. There were no words, just a general tone of disapproval. Mira pulled the vilraf heartstone out of the pouch, and the red pinpricks of Kalkus’s eyes narrowed to slits. He didn’t move though.
She sent little gusts of wind through the campsite, stirring up dead leaves and making the fire dance around. As an exercise in control, she split the winds into three streams filled with leaves and wove them around each other in a complicated knot. It wasn’t perfect, but she held the flows reasonably steady.
Alyr watched, his face an expressionless mask, as Mira added a fourth stream to the pattern of fluttering leaves. That was even harder, and it took all her concentration to keep two streams from crashing into each other and breaking the whole thing. Once she had it stable, she bit her lip and broke a fifth stream off the currents.
Abruptly, all her magic disappeared, broken, and the leaves rained down across the campsite. Kalkus rumbled and shifted in place, but didn’t stand. He just stared at her, his eyes narrowed.
“You do that?” she asked. “Nice trick, breaking up my magic. I guess since you’re so great, you can do five separate slip streams no problem.”
“Mira,” Alyr admonished. “Stop trying to bait him.”
“I just want to see what he’s capable of, since I’m such an annoyance that he can’t even stand to have me practice near him.”
“I said, enough.”
“He must have something he wants to prove.”
Kalkus’s wings flared open and he rose to his full height. All four of his arms were spread in different directions, and violent wind ripped through the campsite. The wood in the fire shot straight up into the air, becoming a whirling conflagration overhead. Leaves, broken branches, and other bits of plant matter were all sucked up over their heads.
The pattern was so complex that Mira couldn’t even count all the individual streams of air flowing through and around each other. Equally impressive was that each individual log from the fire was still burning, illuminating the pattern from within.
There were at least ten separate streams of air, probably more. Kalkus kept them all rotating for twenty seconds, then the wind cut out as abruptly as it had began and pieces of wood, suddenly lacking the air needed to feed it, poured down on them in a cloud of glowing cinders.
The campsite was left in darkness as Kalkus settled back into place. Only the soft green glow of Mira’s heartstone and the red pinpricks of Kalkus’s eyes were visible in the night. Alyr blew out a frustrated breath and said, “Are you both happy now? You’ve behaved like children.”
Mira slipped the heartstone into its pouch. “I’ll be happy when this is over and I can go home. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings any if I never saw any of you again.”
* * *
A soft glow lit the sky, waking Mira. At firs, she thought it was dawn already, but then she realized the colors were a scintillating pattern of blues, greens, and yellows set against velvet blackness. She jumped to her feet and joined Alyr and Maluk, who were also staring at the colors.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Trouble,” Maluk answered. “It looks like a shimmerwing, an old one to be that size.”
“Looks like?” Alyr echoed. “Are you suggesting it’s not?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“We’ll find out soon enough. Wake Krakus. This is going to fall primarily on him.”
“I’m already awake,” Krakus said.
The big demon hadn’t moved from his spot. His eyes weren’t even open. But Mira could see the air flowing around him, bent to his will and sent questing upwards toward the shimmerwing. She didn’t have the range to follow it all the way up, to see whatever those tendrils of air revealed to Krakus.
“Is it a shimmerwing?” Alyr asked.
“Shaped like one. Texture’s off. Might be a construct.”
“It’s coming straight at us,” Maluk pointed out. “This is an attack.”
Alyr took a deep breath, and the earth around him rippled. “Protect Mira. Try to figure out where this thing came from. We’ll take care of pulling it apart.”
Maluk drew Mira back into the shadows. They pressed up against the stone wall and watched the shimmerwing fly by overhead. As it got closer, Mira could see a segmented insect body inside the light. It almost reminded her of a giant luminescent moth, perhaps thirty feet long.
Its wings shifted colors with every flap, and it trailed sparking dust behind it as it circled over this campsite. It went around once, then again, then dropped into an abrupt dive. Alyr thrust his hands straight up, and spurs of stone shot into the air at it, fifteen feet tall and jagged at the end.
The shimmerwing glided past them, too high for them to reach its body, and coated the ground in dust. Alyr scurried out of the way, but Kalkus stood his ground. Winds whipped up around him, scattering the dust down the trail. Maluk and Mira pressed back against the wall as it went by.
“Hold your breath” Maluk said.
More and more dust streamed by, and Mira’s chest started feeling tight. She exhaled a bit through her nose, stopped herself, and let out a bit more. Maluk caught her eye and shook his head, but she knew she had only seconds of air left before she involuntarily inhaled the dust.
Fumbling with her belt pouch, she pulled her heartstone out and created a blast of wind that cleared the air around them of dust. Moments later, new clouds were rushing past them, but it gave her enough time to catch another lungful of clean air.
She heard Kalkus’s irrirated snort farther up the trail, but she ignored him and stared at the shimmerwing. It was pursuing Alyr, though Kalkus was doing his best to slow it down. Alyr was shooting stones up at it, each one creating a little puff of glittery dust when it struck the creature.
Mira cleared the air around herself again, sucked in a breath, and asked, “What does this dust do if you breathe it in?”
“Blindness, nausea, paralysis, unconsciousness. It depends on how much and which kind you get.”
If not for Kalkus, the shimmerwing would have descended on Alyr and coated him in its magical dust. But the demons worked in concert, their abilities complimenting each other. Kalkus corralled it while Alyr pummeled it, and the fight seemed all but over once Kalkus managed to shove it into the side of the mountain.
A hand grew out of the stone and closed around the shimmerwing, crushing it and releasing a huge cloud of roiling dust. Most of it went straight upward, probably thanks to Kalkus, and what little billowed toward Mira, she pushed away.
“What… what is that?” Mira asked, peering up at the hand. Streaks of blue, green, yellow, black, and even gold liquid ran through the fingers and gushed to the ground, where it splattered across the stone. It looked familiar.
“Oh hell,” she breathed out. “That’s ink. Maluk, I think… Maluk?”
Mira looked around, but the demon was gone. Muttering to herself, she started back up the trail toward Alyr. Both he and Kalkus were standing at the edge of a spreading pool of mixed-color ink.
“Construct,” Alyr said without looking up at Mira. “Someone sent this. The only question is whether it came looking for us or if we wandered too close to someone’s territory and encountered a guardian.”
“I think that the people I-”
“Where’s Maluk?” Alyr cut in, looking up and frowning. “I told him to keep you safe.”
“I don’t know, he disappeared sometime near the end of the fight. But listen-”
“Found him,” Krakus interrupted. “Up on the cliff southeast of us. There are other people there, two, I think.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you! I think the people I was traveling with attacked us because they think you kidnapped me.”
* * *
Shy bit her cheek to keep from crying out. The shimmerwing, the product of three days of frantic work and a massive expenditure of energy, had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. Jorath’s intelligence gathering had failed to realize that one of the other demons had specialized in air magic.
She was wiped out. What she’d made was a hackjob. She’d taken every shortcut she knew, made something that would hold up once, maybe twice, before falling apart. It was the exact opposite of how she liked to work, but it was the best she could do that quickly.
Sweat coated her body, both from the massively inefficient summoning and from the magical output she’d used to augment it, a futile effort. She sat there, chest heaving, and looked over at Jorath. He stood at the edge of the cliff, hands clasped behind his back, staring down at the scene below.
“What do we do now?” Shy asked.
“Come up with a new plan, one that we can execute in the next few days before they reach their destination.”
“I wonder just how much you know about that,” a new voice cut in from the side.
Shy froze in place and turned her head slowly. As exhausted as she was, the only way she was going to survive was if Jorath protected her. She wanted to believe she was still valuable enough that he wouldn’t abandon her, but she didn’t have any illusions that he’d sacrifice her if he thought he needed to.
One of the demons from the group they’d attacked stood on the cliff across from them. He was almost human-like, but too thin, with arms too long. Jorath turned to face him, an undisguised look of disgust on his face.
“Maluk,” he said. “Give me back the girl and this will go easier for everybody.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You know what I can do. There’s no need for you all to die.”
Maluk gave a dry laugh. “You have no idea how eager I am to see you try.”
Shy forced herself to her feet and tottered out of the way as the other two demons squared off. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but she was pretty sure she didn’t want to be in the middle of it.