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.
“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.
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.”