Maluk padded along behind Mira, her silent shadow. She’d given up asking him questions. He just ignored them. Other demons had been more forthcoming though, and she’d eventually found out what she wanted to know.
“This must be the place,” she said, looking up at a door with a stylized tree made out of silver and gold on it. Maluk, of course, didn’t say anything.
Mira knocked on the door and waited. Nobody answered. She knocked again and waited some more. Finally, just as she was about to knock a third time, it creaked open and the weathered oak face of the Councilman they’d called Grove peered out at her.
“Er, yes? Can I help you?”
“I was told you were the person working on my request,” Mira said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, but I’m very busy right now. I don’t really have time to entertain visitors.”
He started to close the door, but Mira got a foot in the way. “Wait, please. I just want a few minutes to see how it’s coming along.”
“I really don’t-”
“Please,” she said again.
Grove’s face fell, a look that was almost comical given how stiff his expressions were. With a great, weary sigh, he stepped back and opened the door the rest of the way. “Very well. Come in, but only for a moment.”
The chamber was a grassy meadow, complete with trees, wild flowers, and a small stream that cut through one corner. Bookshelves stood between the trees, branches laced together into shelves. All of it looked grown more than made. Light, obviously artificial but doing a tolerable job of replicating the sun, shined down from three glowing orbs set into the stone ceiling.
“Wow,” Mira said, looking around. “This is incredible.”
“Do you like it?” Grove asked. He beamed at her. “I did the work myself. Being stuck underground for weeks or months gets dreary, and the landscape outside isn’t much better. Mountains and snow aren’t really my element.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I can’t even fathom why the Order decided to base their headquarters here of all places.”
“Oh, we had our reasons. But that’s not what you’re here to talk about. Follow me please.”
The room was a lot bigger than it had appeared at first glance. Walls made of living trees separated it into sections, and Grove led her through an archway bordered with flowering vines. He was taller than he’d seemed at the conference table, now that he was no longer hunched over. Every step was taken slowly, deliberately placed with care.
Grove approached a table comprised of a tree that had grown up several feet then made an abrupt turn to grow parallel to the ground for a few more before continuing on its way to the ceiling. Its trunk was flattened out horizontal to the ground, so much so that Mira didn’t think it would have been able to support its own weight if not for a second tree growing straight up next to it that had entangled their trunks together.
It was a little high for Mira to sit at, more of a bar than a table, but it was the perfect height for Grove. From the looks of it, he’d been working at it when she’d interrupted him. Books were scattered across its surface, some of them so large that Mira would have had trouble lifting them. Grove picked one of them up with one hand, marked the page it had been opened to, and placed it on a shelf behind him sized to handle objects that big.
The books that she would have considered to be normal sized looked like toys in Grove’s hands. It was one of those though that he flipped though, his wooden branch fingers awkwardly turning the pages until he found what he was looking for.
“This is where I’m searching,” he said, turning the book around and sliding it toward Mira. “I don’t want to promise anything, but I think it’s a good lead to figuring out exactly what happened so long ago.”
Mira blinked down at the open page. “Um, I can’t read this.”
“Hmm? Oh.’ Grove spun the book back around. “Of course. This language has been dead for almost a thousand years. I’m not even confident in my own translations.”
“What does it say?” Mira asked, cutting through Grove’s ramblings.
“It’s a treatise about the Five Sons of Zade and their half-siblings. Specifically, it talks about the different manifestations of magical talent each Son exhibited and how it was passed down through his family line. I’m particularly interested in the Relivar clan and their ability to manipulate time. It was an offshoot of their clan that exhibited dimensional warping, which I think formed the basis of your ancestors’ banishment.”
It took Mira a few seconds to sort through all of that. “So you know how to do it?” she asked.
Grove shook his head, a slow, ponderous movement that set the branches growing out of it to smacking against each other like a loose bundle of sticks. “It’s rather like in the old story when they say, ‘Dartoth crossed the desert’ but conveniently leave out how he managed to go twenty seven days without water or avoided the traps of the shigaro pygmy tribes. I think I have a rough idea of what was done, but I don’t know how.”
He kept talking, but Mira just got more and more lost in the conversation. The old tree demon referenced things she’d never heard of every few seconds, making his long-winded explanations even harder to sort through. Every attempt she made to steer him back to the crux of her question or get him to clarify was met with an even more confusing monologue.
Once he got going, it was hard to even get a word in. His face grew more animated as he talked, enough so that she thought she could see what his features might have looked like back when he was human. He wouldn’t have been an attractive man, but kindly, maybe. The wooden texture could only show so much detail.
“-which leads me to think that they managed to slip through the cracks, exploit a loophole, as it were, to build the platform that bridged the gap between the worlds.”
“Mmm.” Mira nodded, as if she understood a word of what he was saying. “Well, thank you for the information. I’m happy to have such a knowledgeable person working on the problem. I have to get going now though. Alyr is going to be looking for me soon to start today’s work.”
“Oh. So soon?” Grove heaved a great sigh and climbed to his feet. “Very well. Shall I walk you out?”
“No, thank you. I remember the way. Good bye.”
* * *
The human girl and Alyr’s lapdog disappeared around a corner. Hald was careful not to step into the hallway until he was sure they were gone, though he wouldn’t have been even a little bit surprised to learn that Maluk knew he was there anyway.
Once it was clear, Hald crossed the hallway and opened the door to Grove’s chambers. The lump of bark was just standing there, looking lost and forlorn. He started when the door opened and his features drew down into a scowl.
“Hald,” he rumbled.
“Hello,” Hald said. “I heard you had some visitors, so I thought I’d best come check on you and see how it went.”
“How it went is none of your business.”
Hald sneered. “You do remember your instructions, don’t you?”
“Don’t patronize me. I didn’t tell the child anything we didn’t want her to know.”
“Good. I would hate for Haze to get hold of you. You know how well they tolerate their instructions being ignored.”
“I’m not concerned,” Grove said.
Grove was too simple and straightforward to be deceptive. No doubt he’d let slip many things he was supposed to be keeping quiet. No doubt he’d filed away each and every misstep in his head after he’d made it, but his tendency to overload any conversation with useless information would mask the mistakes.
“That’s good,” Hald said. “Just keep that up then. Have a nice day, Grove.”
Hald grinned and bowed at the waist. It didn’t really matter what Grove had or hadn’t told the girl. She’d be gone soon enough anyway. He just liked taking the opportunity to make Grove worry.
No doubt the old demon would spend the next several hours going over every word he’d said, trying to figure out how he should have said it differently and anxious over what meaning the girl would glean from it. If nothing else, it would make a good cover story for when she vanished without a trace. There would be someone to point a finger at, someone to direct Haze’s and Alyr’s attention to.
There was an undeniable bounce in Hald’s step as he left Grove’s quarters and walked toward his own.
* * *
Alyr found Mira about half an hour later. She was just finishing up practicing targeted wind strikes in an empty training room when the door opened. She released the knot of air she’d been directing and it dissipated into a miniaturized dust tornado that wore itself out after a few seconds.
“Ready to begin?” Alyr asked.
“Depends what we’re doing.”
“Same as yesterday, just with a different test subject. I’ve asked Tahlana to help us this time.”
“The woman who was seated next to me at the Council meeting.”
Mira thought back. “Tall? Green skin? Kinda… fishy looking.”
“Fishy?” Alyr laughed. “I suppose a little bit. She might be offended by the description though.”
“I’ll thank you not to repeat it to her then.”
Alyr smirked and shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The trip was much less creepy the second time, once Mira knew where they were going. Admittedly, when they got to the Asylum, that part was still nerve wracking. Worse was that they had to take the stairs through several loops before they reached the cell they wanted.
Alyr stopped at the fifth door down, which was ajar. A low rumble reverberated through the cell and out into the stairs. He frowned and looked over Mira’s shoulder to Maluk, who nodded and joined him at the door.
Alyr pushed it open with one hand and peered in. He straightened and the tension dropped out of his shoulders. “Tahlana,” he said. “Couldn’t wait for us to get here?”
A voice came from the room, one that Mira recognized from her meeting with the Council. “Good that I didn’t. I’ve been getting Patient Five calmed down for the last half an hour.”
Mira followed the men into the room. Seated against the far wall, encased up to his waist in stone, was a hulking brute of a demon. Its skin was a deep blue, stretched taut over heavy muscles. Its shoulders were almost as wide as Mira was tall, and if she had to guess, she’d put its height at ten feet or more.
The demon’s face was something out of a nightmare, like some deep water fish with milky white eyes and a mouth that she could have put her head in filled with long, curved teeth. Webbed fins grew where its ears should have been, which twitched every time someone spoke. Water misted the room, thicker around the back, glimmering on the demon’s skin and pooling on its arms and shoulders to run across its skin in tiny rivulets.
Alyr and the other Councilman were talking, but Mira had lost track of the conversation. She took a few experimental steps one way, then the other. The demon looked blind, but its head shifted, tracking her as she walked across the cell. Though its eyes didn’t focus on her, she had no doubt it knew exactly where she was.
The rumbling sound picked up in intensity, cutting off Alyr and Tahlana’s conversation. “Is that normal?” Alyr asked.
“No.” Tahlana frowned and followed the demon’s focus to Mira. “Perhaps this is a bad idea.”
“I can restrain him further if necessary.”
“I know. I’d rather not though,” Tahlana said. “The impulses aren’t his fault.”
An impossibly loud crack split the air and the demon roared as it rose to its feet. Shards of encasing rock fell away, revealing legs every bit as massive as its chest and arms. The cell wasn’t big enough to let it stand at its full height, but that didn’t stop it from hunching its shoulders and lunging forward, one hand outstretched to grab Mira.