Chapter 42

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.”

“Who’s that?”

“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.

Chapter 41

It was a long walk to what Alyr had dubbed the Asylum. The farther they went, the less people there were, and the more nervous Mira got. The hallways started to feel abandoned. While the rest of the fortress was alive, the route they took passed through areas choked with dust and cobwebs, places no one had been to in years.

It made her a little nervous. Someone from inside the Order had already taken a shot at her once, and this was looking like the perfect place for a second attempt. Only cold rationality kept a clamp on the anxiety she felt. If Alyr or Maluk had wanted to kill her, they’d both had plenty of opportunities already.

There was that nagging thought in the back of her head that they needed her to be in a certain place before they did something horrible. They were demons after all, and they wanted something from her. Some of that tension must have showed on her face, because Alyr glanced back her and said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere dangerous. It’s just uncomfortable for me to visit.”

“Doesn’t seem like this place gets a lot of traffic,” Mira said.

“No.” Alyr sighed. “We don’t like being reminded of our failures. There’s a reason we stopped trying to fix this a hundred years ago. Our numbers of finite. Occasionally, we recruit someone who was operating alone, but there are only so many of us left in the world. There are eighty two people in the Asylum, people who are no longer sane enough to be trusted outside their cells.”

Mira wasn’t really sure what to say to that, and Alyr didn’t seem to want to talk about it anyway, so they made the rest of the trip in silence. After a time, they came to a door made of metal and etched with some sort of geometric script that was all hard angles and familiar shapes bisected by lines.

“This is it,” Alyr said. “One second.”

He traced a hand over the script, doing something that Mira couldn’t quite make out. When his fingers passed over it though, it was different than it had been. After a few passes, a click sounded and the door unlatched. Alyr gave another sigh and pushed the door open.

“Watch your step,” he said.

Mira followed him through and found herself on a landing at the top of a giant hole. It was only dimly lit, and deep enough that the bottom was lost in darkness. Stairs circled the pit in seemingly never-ending loops until they too disappeared. There was no railing. Every thirty feet or so, a door similar to the one they’d just come through was set into the wall.

“How far down does it go?” she asked.

Alyr peered down into the darkness. “Too far,” he whispered.

Mira didn’t know what that meant, and Alyr didn’t offer any more information, so she just followed him in silence. She kept once hand against the wall and shied away from the open edge. Images of falling forever as stairs and doors whizzed by filled her mind.

They didn’t have far to walk. At the very first door, some thirty or so steps down, Alyr stopped. “This is Patient One’s room,” he said, one hand on the door. “He was the most successful attempt ever made to break apart a demon hunter and heartstone fusion.”

Alyr opened the door and stepped inside. Mira followed him, but Maluk remained out on the stairs. Inside was a plainly furnished room with a normal looking man in it. He sat in a rocking chair, completely immobile and by all appearances asleep. He had the face of a middle aged man who’d spent a life time drinking, with brown hair starting to go grey and dark bags under his eyes.

“I’ve got to admit, I was expecting something a bit scarier,” Mira said.

“As I said, Patient One is our greatest success. Physically, he looks just like he did the day his heartsone was fused into his chest. But make no mistake, he’s not human. He’s been sitting for over a century. He hasn’t moved, eaten or drunk, or relieved himself. Yet he still breathes. He is alive.”

“Sounds boring.”

Alyr shot her a cross look. “Have some respect. He is awake only briefly, for seconds at a time, with weeks in between. During those windows, he tells us that his mind has been traveling the endless night sky with the Gods, visiting other worlds and seeing things beyond our wildest dreams.”

Mira gave the man another look. He still didn’t look like anything special. “Is it true?”

“We’ll probably never know. But he says he’s happy, and he doesn’t mind us studying him. There’s been precious little of that lately. I guess we should get started, but go gently. I don’t like to prod him more than necessary.”

“I don’t really understand what you want me to do,” Mira said.

“You’ve figured out that you can sense other heartstones the same way you can feel yours, right? Look at Patient One and tell me what you see.”

It took less time than when she’d first started, but it was still a process of a few minutes for Mira find the man’s heartstone. She could vaguely sense Alyr’s and Maluk’s if she tried. That was a distraction she didn’t need though, because Patient One’s heartstone wasn’t like any of the other ones.

It reverberated against its own echoes. Mira wasn’t even sure how to articulate that thought out loud, except to say that it was wrong. If she’d yelled into a canyon and the echoes that came back were the wrong speed and pitch and volume all at once, that would be something like what she felt in Patient One.

“It feels wrong,” she said. “The echoes are… I don’t know… too slow for the heartstone?”

“Good,” Alyr said. “That’s exactly the case. The heartstone is separate, but Patient One’s own heart doesn’t beat at all, let alone in resonance with the heartstone. The feedback loop is distorted, leaving him trapped in this state.”

“Can we fix it?” Mira asked.

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out. I’d lost the ability to see what you see long before Patient One became what he is, but those who still have it described the condition as a series of cascading dissonant notes. The heartstone shouldn’t be beating at all since it has no heartbeat to echo off of. Somehow, it’s instead been echoing from our attempts to separate it from its host for over a century in a self-perpetuating loop.”

Mira frowned. “If that’s the case, then why does he wake up?”

“We think it’s a coincidence of timing. For rare, brief periods, everything accidentally lines up right before diverging again.”

“Oh, I see. It’s a stopped clock.”

Alyr blinked at her. “I don’t follow.”

“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” Mira said.

“Ah, yes. I suppose that would be true.”

“If I stop the echoes completely, will that merge the heartstone back into his body or break them apart though?” Mira asked. “It seems like one way would wake him up, and the other might kill him. Without the heartstone to sustain him, he could just die.”

“That is a risk,” Alyr agreed,” but it’s one we’ve studied. Other test subjects have given their lives to show us the mistakes we’ve made and help us correct our path. We believe that stopping the reverberations will break apart Patient One and his heartstone, destroying the heartstone in the process and saving the patient.”

Mira looked past Alyr to Maluk, who stood expressionless in the doorway. He gave no hint of what he was thinking one way or another, but that wasn’t anything new. Alyr was also unusually reserved. There was something personal in all of this for him, and not just for himself. Whoever Patient One had been back when he’d had a name, he’d been important to Alyr.

“How sure are you?” Mira asked, watching Alyr’s face. “I mean, if you’re wrong about this, I could be killing this guy.”

“We’re confident, and we believe it’s a risk worth taking. If it doesn’t work…” Alyr stopped, his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and continued, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll know you did your best, and that the fault lies with us. No one will hold Patient One’s death against you.”

“This is all so fucked,” Mira said to herself. She took a deep breath and reached out to touch Patient One’s chest. She could feel the heartstone through his skin, knew that she could reach in and pluck it out. That wouldn’t solve anything. It would be the same as removing a heartstone from any other demon. He would still be a demon.

She did need that contact to work with it though. She pushed her fingers forward, and her whole hand ghosted into the man’s chest cavity. It was easy to touch the heartstone, but she stopped at a single finger on it. That was all the connection she needed.

“What do I do to stop the dissonance?” she asked.

“Create artificial echoes to cancel out the reverberations. Bring everything to a stop. Hopefully, it will all reset.”

Mira thought it was more likely that bringing the heartstone to a halt would simply leave Patient One with no magical life support, but it was all obviously important to Alyr, so she did what he wanted. It was time consuming hunting down a dozen discordant notes, but she quieted them one by one.

“Last one,” she said. “What do I do after it’s done?”

“Pray that it works,” Alyr said, watching intently. He wasn’t even looking at Mira. Instead, his eyes were locked on Patient One’s face.

Just like that, it was done. The dissonance caused by the long-ago demons attempting to split the heartstone and its host quieted, and for the first time since they’d entered the room, the man took a deep breath.

Mira pulled her hand out and took a step back so Alyr could take her place in front of Patient One. “Come on, old man,” he muttered. “Wake up. Open your eyes.”

Patient One coughed. Slowly, his eyelids cracked open, and Mira saw Alyr’s face light up. “That you, son?” Patient One asked. “Everything is groggy.”

“It’s me,” Alyr said. “How do you feel?”

“Chest hurts. Lungs hurt. Got the mother of all leg cramps.” Patient One coughed again. “By the Dark Father, I feel like I haven’t used this body in ages. It’s so heavy.”

“Hah!” Alyr crowed. “It worked. You’re back with us, and human again.”

Patient One’s eyes flared open all the way and he grabbed at his chest. “Hurts,” he grunted, his breathing turning ragged.

“What? No. No! Don’t you dare die on me,” Alyr said. He spun to look at Mira. “Tell me what’s happening.”

“I don’t know,” she said, panicked. “The heartstone is still in him. It’s not separated like you thought it would. It’s starting back up again, but it’s still not lined up right.”

“Fix it again,” Alyr told her. “Hold it in place manually if you have to. Don’t let him go back to sleep.”

“I- I’ll try.”

Mira moved back into position, but Patient One wasn’t nearly the cooperative patient he’d been the first time. The old man flailed and gasped, blocking her attempts to reach his heartstone. Before she’d even made contact, his strength gave out and he sagged back down into his chair.

Alyr pushed her aside and checked on him. “Still alive,” he said with relief. “Back into his comatose state.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what I did wrong. Do you want me to try again?”

“No. It wasn’t anything you did. We just weren’t right yet, that’s all. We’re closer now. We’ll come up with a new theory to test. Maybe next time, it’ll stick. Go on now. Maluk will take you back out of the Asylum. I’ll catch up in a bit.”

Mira left the room, left Alyr alone with Patient One. There were no tears on his face, but Mira thought that was more because a demon made of stone couldn’t actually cry than because he didn’t want to. The last thing she saw before she left the room was Alyr standing in front of the chair, head bowed, with Patient One’s hands clasped in his own.

Chapter 40

As far as Mira was concerned, the most important feature of the room they’d given her was the bed. She’d slept outside on the cold ground too many times to take that particular piece of furniture for granted ever again. It was a real bed too, not a narrow, flat cot like she’d had in the infirmary.

Mira walked past Maluk and flopped face-first into the bed. “Ungh,” she said into the blankets, “my clothes are still wet.”

She rolled onto her back and sat up. Maluk regarded her silently from the door, his eyes unblinking. “We are still investigating the assassination attempt,” he said. “For now, you are not to leave this room without me. Hopefully, we’ll have this matter resolved in a few days, and you will be free to move around as you like and begin your work with the Order.”

“So you’re my babysitter?” Mira asked.

Maluk cocked his head to one side. “I’m not sure I understand. I am your bodyguard.”

Mira sighed and stood up. “Well, guard me from the hall. I need to get out of these wet clothes and finish drying… oh damn it. I left my heartstone with that guard at the council meeting.”

“It will remain safe until you reclaim it later.”

“Yeah, but…” Mira paused. It was a struggle to put it into words. “I feel… unarmed, I guess, without it. We should go get it.”

“You are safe enough in this room,” Maluk said. “You need rest right now, time to recover from the journey.”

“I’d rest easier if I had it back. Is it possible to talk you into getting it for me?”

“I am supposed to be safeguarding you,” he said.

“I promise I will lock the door behind you and not leave the room.”

Maluk looked like he wanted to object, but he just said, “Very well. I shall return in a few minutes. Do not open the door for anyone besides me. I will tap a two-short-one long beat into the door when I return.”

Then he was gone. Mira slid the lock into place and dropped heavily back onto the bed.

* * *

It had been years since Maluk had been in the main headquarters of the Order. He remembered the way well enough, but other members kept trying to stop him to talk. He explained, quickly, that he was on the job and didn’t have time to catch up, then moved on. If any of them took offense, they did it behind his back and out of his hearing.

He retraced the route from Mira’s new room back to the audience hall where the Council had received her. The door was closed, but he tested it and found it still unlocked. Maluk passed through the waiting room and knocked on the door leading into the audience hall before entering.

The Council’s guards were prone to acting first, asking questions after. Maluk wasn’t interested in being pummeled by surprising whoever was on the other side of the door. He waited a few seconds before cracking the door open, long enough to give the guard time to react so that he didn’t instinctively lash out.

Gorgomach stood in the connecting hallway, hands spread and ready to lunge. He straightened up when Maluk poked his head through the door and nodded at the shorter demon. Behind him, the murmur of conversation could be heard between Councilmen.

Maluk pointed at the pouch sitting on a shelf off to Gorgomach’s side. The ogre demon lifted it up and bounced it into the air with his hand. He titled his head and held it out toward Maluk.

Maluk nodded, and Gorgomach tossed him the pouch. Maluk lifted his hand in thanks and retreated back into the waiting room. He closed the door behind him and upended the pouch into his free hand. The green vilraf heartstone Mira has been using tumbled out.

Maluk nodded to himself and stuck the rock back into its pouch. Before he could leave though, a sentence caught his ear. From through the door, he distinctly heard Councilor Grove say, “We already know how Mira’s ancestors were banished. It’s not possible to do it again.”

It wasn’t that Maluk was trying to eavesdrop. His senses were simply so sharp that a few walls weren’t enough to block out the conversation. Learning to filter out all the details his enhanced senses piled on him had formed the bulk of his training when he had been human, but he’d mastered his heartstone and used it to such an extent that it had bonded permanently with his own heart.

Hearing Mira’s name had caught his attention though, and he paused in the empty room. “It will give us time to work with her if she thinks we’re looking into it,” Alyr said.

“We could just be honest with her,” Grove argued. “There are other avenues we can look into. She seems like a reasonable young woman.”

“No,” Tahlana said, her voice clipped. Maluk could practically see the expression on her face. He’d been on the receiving end far too many times. That tone meant they’d had the conversation already and she wasn’t going to humor them by going through the motions again. “We can look for alternative means to fulfill her request, but she will be much more cooperative if she doesn’t know we’ve already ruled out the one way she thinks is a sure thing.”

“This is a waste of time anyway. Our primary focus should be on breaking Ilrot’s stranglehold over the North Velora region. We need to deny him access to those resources.”

That was Hald. He had a very narrow-minded view of the world. Things that didn’t advance his agenda weren’t worth considering unless they were obstacles, and then they were to be removed as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

He was Maluk’s primary suspect as the Councilman who might be behind the attempted assassination. If he’d found out that Mira had broken one of the seals, Maluk had no doubt she would become an acceptable casualty in Hald’s mind to prevent even the risk that he might someday recover it.

“Enough,” the dual-toned voice of Haze cut through the rest of the Council. “The girl will not be informed that her request is impossible. Grove will search for a different way to send her back to her home, but she will not be released even if he finds it until she has finished her work with Alyr. Some of you may be content in your bodies, but there are those among us who long for human form again.”

Maluk shivered. Of all the Councilmen, Haze was the scariest. They were one of the very few survivors of the early attempts to separate demon hunter and heartstone, one that had resulted in two people being fused into one consciousness. Their dual identities had resulted in several instabilities in Haze’s personality, but the drastic increase in their power gave Haze the clout needed to defeat all challengers.

Haze might have been mad, but they were a brilliant madmen at least. Unpredictability aside, it was difficult to distinguish between madness and genius, and Haze had proved right too many times to be questioned. They had undoubtedly earned their position as head of the council.

There were murmurs of assent from the rest of the council. Some, like Grove’s, were reluctant. Others were bored. The message was clear though, and politics aside, Maluk doubted any of them would openly cross Haze. Mira wouldn’t be informed that the Order already knew how her ancestors had been banished or that they couldn’t replicate the process.

That was interesting. Maluk wondered how long it would take her to figure it out for herself. He imagined that his job would become considerably harder once she did.

* * *

Mira answered Maluk’s knock wearing a blanket and nothing else. Her clothes were draped across the room’s meager furnishings, and while she’d hoped to find something dry to wear inside the wardrobe, she hadn’t been that lucky. So she’d made do with what she had and sat huddled on the bed.

It had barely taken Maluk ten minutes to return. Mira opened the door a few inches and looked out into the hall. “You have it?” she asked.

“Here,” he said, holding the pouch up.

Mira took it from him and opened it to find her heartstone inside. “Thank you,” she said, and started to close the door.

She stopped when she realized Maluk was staring at her. “Was there something else?” she asked, suddenly self conscious about her lack of clothes under the blanket.

“No,” he said, after a pause. “I will see you when you wake.”

Mira closed the door and climbed back into bed, the heartstone still in hand. “Well that was weird,” she muttered to herself.

* * *

Mira dressed herself in clothes that were dry, if not clean. She had no idea how long she’d slept, but no one had come to wake her up, and the only reason she’d gotten out of bed at all was because her bladder had driven her to.

She dressed in a hurry and opened the door to find Alyr standing there, Maluk behind him. He had one hand up to knock on the door, his mouth formed into an O of surprise. “What’s up?” she asked.

“It’s time to get to work,” Alyr said.

“Ok. Great. I need a bathroom first, then some food.”

“Ah. Of course. How thoughtless of me,” he said with a frown. “It’s been so long, I sometimes forget about human needs.”

They went off, the teenaged-looking demon in front, Mira in the middle, and tall and slender Maluk bringing up the back of the line. She suspected the formation wasn’t a coincidence. “Do you really still think I’m in danger?” she asked Alyr in a low voice.

“We can’t be sure,” he replied without looking back. “Until we know why you were attacked and if Lortas was acting alone or under instruction, we’re going to take steps to ensure your safety.”

“Fantastic. I thought the whole point of relocating was that I’d be safe here.”

“Safety is relative. You’re safer from outside threats, but there are different factions here, and you could be caught up in our politics very easily. I do not suspect you’ll wake up to assassins in the night again. The dangers here are more subtle.”

“Fantastic,” Mira repeated.

After finishing her business in the privy, Alyr showed Mira where to find food. Little of what was being passed out in the cafeteria was what Mira recognized as edible, but then again, very few of the people eating there looked even remotely human.

She settled for some thinly sliced meat and a chunk of cheese that she carved up to make pseudo-sandwiches out of. Maluk helped himself to a meat dish as well, though his was completely raw. Alyr just watched sadly and gave a wistful sigh every now and then.

“Now, we’re a little bit behind schedule, but I think we can make up for it,” Alyr said. “If you’ll follow me.”

“Where are we going, and what are we doing?” Mira asked.

“A place I’d rather avoid, were it not necessary,” Alyr told her. “When the Order was first founded, we made several serious attempts at reversing our condition. The results were unpredictable, but never came close to being successful. Some people died. Others lived but had to be put down. Some few lived but became… deranged.

“They’re reminders of our failures. Our best minds have studied them, tried to figure out where we went wrong, how to correct it for the next attempt. Even now, so many years later, we’ve still kept them alive. We think we have the solution, finally, but it came a century too late to be useful until we found you.

“We’re going to visit some of these people, and see if you can do what we hope that you can. It will be the first step in freeing us from this curse.”

Alyr took a deep breath and said, “We’re going to the asylum.”

Chapter 39

Mira didn’t really come to herself until she’d been placed in a room, stripped down, and piled up with blankets. It didn’t take long for her to start shivering, but all that accomplished was having another blanket thrown over her. The demon put in charge of her was a tall creature with rubbery, rough textured skin.  He was gentle enough, but didn’t seem to know what to do other than give her more blankets.

“Do you have any clothes I can borrow?” she asked through chattering teeth.

The rubbery demon cocked his head to one side and shrugged. Then he reached into a closet and pulled out a thick blue blanket. When he went to hand it to her, she tried to push it away, but he shoved her hand down and draped it over her shoulders. Mira sighed and shrugged it back off.

“You’re not any help either,” she snapped at Maluk, who stood near the door, his face expressionless.

“Do you feel pain in your fingers and toes yet?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then you’re fine. You do not require my help. Focus on recovering while Alyr convenes the Council. I suspect they will want to meet with you immediately.”

“Do you think I might get some dry clothes to wear to this meeting, or should I start trying to remember how to tie a sheet into a toga?”

Mira’s clothes weren’t precisely wet, as they’d shaken most of the snow off and cleaned it up before it had a chance to melt. They were damp though, and she didn’t relish the idea of putting them back on, especially now that she was starting to really feel how cold she was. She didn’t care what Maluk said, it seemed inevitable that she had frostbite.

Despite the almost burning sensation of being frozen permeating her limbs, none of her extremities were turning black. All of them moved on command. Mira scowled down at them. They hurt bad enough that some of them at least ought to be damaged. In a weird, twisted sort of way, she almost felt cheated.

Someone knocked on the door, and Maluk tapped it open with his foot. An impish thing hovered in the air on wings that flapped so fast they blurred, some two feet long not including its tail and covered in coarse brown fur. Its face had the curled up look of a pug, except that it had teeth like a piranha.

“Is it time?” Maluk asked.

“Yes, sir. The Council is assembling now. You are to escort her to the meeting hall and wait for them to summon her.”

“Very well. Be gone from here.”

The thing disappeared in the blink an eye, the only evidence of its passing the faint humming sound its wings made as it flew. Maluk closed the door again and told Mira, “Time to get dressed. Take a blanket if you think it’ll help.”

Mira hesitated to crawl out from under the pile, both because she was finally starting to feel warm and because there were two men in the room with her. Just because they’d been there to strip her naked half an hour earlier didn’t mean she wanted to give them another show. Neither showed any interest in her though, beyond the rubbery one gathering up the excess blankets as she shed them.

Mira couldn’t suppress a shiver as she pulled the damp leggings back on. They clung in ways there were wholly uncomfortable, in places she would rather they didn’t. The shirt, slightly looser, wasn’t as bad. She wasn’t impressed with how the cold instantly hardened her nipples and made them poke out through the fabric though. That, of course, also clung in ways she’d rather it did not.

“It’s like being in a wet t-shirt contest,” she muttered, grabbing a loose blanket to wrap around herself as she did. “Fine, let’s go.”

She squelched with every step, and the wet clothes chafed before they’d gone even a hundred feet. Thoroughly miserable, she ignored the stares and didn’t make eye contact with the dozens of demons they passed on the trip. Maluk led her through a maze-like series of halls and eventually stopped at a non-descript door, one with no markings or ornamentation that she could see.

“You’ll wait in here,” he said. “This room connects to an audience hall, and when the Council is ready to receive you, you’ll be summoned there.”

“If they’re not ready, then why the hell couldn’t I have waited where I was?” she asked.

Maluk shrugged and gestured her into the room. Inside was nothing but a bench, wooden, hard, uncomfortable, and a second door that matched the one she’d just come in through. Mira sat down, shifted, and sighed. She shifted again.

Left alone in the room with her damp clothes still clinging uncomfortably, she hopped back to her feet and started pacing. If the bastards weren’t ready to talk to her, they could have left her alone to finish drying out at least. It wasn’t like she’d damn near killed herself to get to their stupid headquarters inside a frozen, snow-covered mountain.

She pulled out her vilraf heartstone and used it to stir up a breeze in the room. If she’d been thinking earlier, she’d have had the clothes strung up and dried out quickly, but now that she was back in them, even slow winds were enough to send a shiver through her. If it helped her get dry quicker though, she’d tolerate it.

Of course, it was at that exact moment that the inner door swung open. A spindly demon the size of a ten year old with a lizard’s pebbly green skin and a shock of brilliant orange hair running down its back stood in the doorway, jaw open and speechless at the sight of Mira, her clothes and hair billowing out around her.

“The Council is ready for me?” she asked, letting the wind die down.

“Um, yes.”

Mira followed the odd little creature through the door. There was a wall directly in front of her, screening her from the main audience hall, and some sort of guard stood at the corner. He was tall, eight feet or more, and probably four hundred pounds of chiseled muscle. Other than his immense size, he looked human.

He held up one hand to stop Mira from passing. “No one goes into the audience hall armed,” the lizard demon explained. “The guard will hold onto that heartstone for you.”

Mira hesitated, but it wasn’t like she was being given a choice. She handed the pouch over and waited while the guard gave her a once over. Apparently satisfied, he nodded her through. Mira rounded the corner to find a half circle table on a raised dais with a long, narrow stretch of carpet running from the table to a different door on the far side of the room.

Another guard, virtually twin to the one she’d just walked past, stood at that door. Unlike the one she’d met, he was very visibly armed with a pike of some sort. Cold eyes bored into her, but other than the uncomfortable sensation of being stared at, Mira didn’t feel threatened by him.

Of more interest were the people seated at the half circle table. The lights were set behind the table, casting the Councilmen in shadows while illuminating whoever was being brought before them. Since that meant Mira in this case, she wasn’t thrilled with the set up.

The ones sitting at the outside edge were easier to make out. Alyr was at one end, speaking to a woman who looked old enough to be his mother. Her skin was turquoise green and there was fine webbing between her fingers. Hard ridges followed her cheekbones and circled around her eyes in place of eyebrows. She was wearing a hood, but Mira got the impression that if she’d pulled it back, there would be no hair beneath it.

On the opposite side was a demon that looked like a thick and gnarled tree brought to life. His limbs were crooked branches covered in leafy growth, his crown a wild bush of bare branches that jutted out in every direction. He loomed over the rest of the table, even as hunched over as he was. His features, wooden and carved into the trunk of the tree itself, were full of sorrow. When he noticed Mira looking at him, he gave her a sad little smile.

Next to him was a waspish young man, perhaps Mira’s own age in looks, though no doubt several centuries older than that. He was ignoring the tree demon entirely to speak to one of the two people at the table’s center, both of whom were little more than outlines from Mira’s point of view. The young man was wearing armor and had a sword strapped across his back, and he jabbed a gloved hand angrily down at a piece of paper sitting on the table in front of him.

There was something off about those middle two. It was far harder to make out any distinguishing features than it should have been, even with the light directly behind them. They were both human-shaped, human-colored, and human-sized. Both had long hair that was white-blonde in the light. They wore dark colored robes, black maybe.

But it was all peripheral details. For all the little pieces on the outside edge she could see, Mira couldn’t say what their faces looked like, whether they were young or old, whether they were ugly or fair. Their voices were too soft to be distinguished from the murmur of conversation that surrounded them.

The spindly green demon escorted her to the chair and had her sit down, then retreated to stand near the wall, next to the giant man with the pike. Once Mira was seated and facing the Councilmen, it was even harder to see any of them clearly, especially since all of them turned to face her directly, throwing the harsh lights strategically placed behind them straight into her face.

“This is the descendent of the banished Montrose demon hunters?” the armored man demanded.

“The same,” Alyr replied.

The man sneered at Mira. “You think you can do what our entire Order has failed to accomplish for hundreds of years?”

“Enough,” one of the central figures said. “Your attitude does not reflect well on this Council. If you cannot conduct yourself in a manner becoming of a Councilmen, then I will remove you from the position.”

The man snorted, but fell silent, collapsed back into his chair, and turned a steely glare on Mira. If she’d been more awake, she no doubt would have had an angry retort ready before she could even think better of saying it, but she was too tired to fight.

“I am what I am,” she said. “I’m not claiming to be anything more. Alyr brought me here. He’s the one who thinks I can help, and he’s promised to help me in turn.”

“What assistance do you seek from the Order?” the tree man asked, his voice ponderous and creaking.

“I was taken from my home world, Earth, against my will. My ancestors might have been banished there hundreds of years ago, but it’s the only home I’ve ever known. Every person I’ve ever met prior to a few months ago is back there. My whole life is there. I just want to go back.”

“What makes you think we can help with that?” the green woman asked.

Mira frowned and looked at Alyr, who nodded back. “Alyr mentioned that you might be able to do for me what was done to my ancestors, banish me back to my home, I guess.”

The tree man chuckled, and his leafy branches rustled with the motion. The sour-faced man next to him turned his glare from Mira to his fellow Councilman. “What’s so funny, Grove?”

“Her phrasing. ‘Banish me back to my home,’ she said. That’s not how a banishment works.”

“We understand what she meant to say,” one of the shadowy central figures said. “It’s something we can look into. There are many old books stored in our libraries to consult.”

Grove’s wooden face creased, which made a sound like two pieces of bark being rubbed against each other. “But what about-”

“As I said, we can look into it. Now that we know what this young woman wants from us though, let’s talk about what she thinks the Order wants from her.”

“Alyr told me that you want to be human again, that you want to find a way to separate yourselves from the heartstones that have bonded with you.”

The entire table as one turned to look at Alyr, who looked distinctly uncomfortable with the attention. “It’s true,” he said, a note of protest in his voice.

“One of many goals,” the green skin woman said, patting his arm. “And not the most important, as you know.”

“You can’t blame him,” the sour-faced man said. “If I had to live off rocks, I’d make fixing that a priority too. What’s it been, four hundred years? Five? Do you even remember what it’s like to bite into a haunch of venison, to feel the juices run down your chin? Can you-”

“Hald,” one of the central figures said, “This is your last warning.”

The sour-faced man bit off whatever else he’d been about to say, but fixed a glare of pure murderous intent on Alyr. If he was the least bit intimidated, he didn’t show it. Instead, Alyr gestured toward the green-skinned woman next to him.

“Reverting back to our true forms is one of the goals of the Order, yes, but remember that we were, and are, first and foremost, demon hunters. Ilrot took the world by storm, slaughtered humanity’s defenders or converted them, and put all of Aligoth in a stranglehold. Finding a way to kill him is our top priority.”

“But we don’t expect her to help with that,” Alyr cut in. “She’s new to her abilities. It would be the work of a decade to train her, and there’s no reason she should succeed where everyone who came before her has failed. It would be a waste of her life and a waste of her value to the Order in fulfilling one of our goals.”

“Of course,” the woman said. “The question then is whether or not you are willing to assist us in this endeavor in exchange for our assistance getting you home?”

“Yes,” Mira said. “I already told Alyr I would.”

“Then I believe we have our answer.” The woman stopped to look at the rest of the Councilmen. When none objected, she continued, “For now, you shall be taken to a room to recover and given a guard. Alyr has informed us of the… incident, shall we say… that prompted your journey here. The Council will begin discussing what we need to do and what we need you to do, and when a course of action has been decided on, you will be informed.”

“Oh. Um… ok, I guess.”

The woman gestured to the lizard-like demon who’d brought Mira in. He hopped forward and took her by the arm, guiding her gently down the carpet toward the door. On the other side was a plain hallway with Maluk standing against the opposite wall waiting for her.

“All done?” he asked.

“I think so. They said I was going to be given a room to rest in and a guard.”

“Yes,” he said, his voice deadpan. “It seems you’re stuck with me for a while longer still. Come on, I’ll take you there.”