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 29

Author’s note: I screwed up the scheduling on this one and somehow accidentally scheduled it for a month later than it was supposed to go up. Whoops. So here it is now, only 12 hours late.


 

Jorath tossed the book onto the pile and grabbed a new one, thoroughly disgusted. Every line in his notes was contradicted at least once, and he was only a third of the way through what he’d gathered. The demon hunters who’d crafted the seals around Ilrot’s heartstone had deliberately hidden information about it, and then they’d sewn false information in what records they had kept.

Considering that each clan had a single seal, barring the Montrose who’d been banished prior to the whole thing, there could only be five locations. His list included twenty six places to check out, and there’d be another nine if he hadn’t been able to cross the Relivar Reliquary off the list.

A tear opened in the air near him, just large enough to see Annidra’s face on the other side. “Jorath,” she said through the warped space.

“I’m busy,” he said without looking up from the book in front of him.

“We’ve got a problem.”

“If I have to handle your problems myself, why do I need you?”

“Jorath! Your sister found us.”

The book hit the table hard enough to tip the candle in the corner over. Jorath ignored it and turned his attention to Annidra. “Sybill caught you?”

“No, we got away, for now. But you know she’s not going to give up. Somehow, Ilrot found out what you’re up to.”

“Impossible. If he knew, he’d have killed me, or worse, when I went to check on the seal.”

“You think this is a coincidence?” Shy said. “That’s a long stretch.”

He considered that. “No, you’re right. They must have found something after I left.”

Jorath went over every conversation he’d held with his master, with his sister, with anyone else he’d talked to. Nothing should have incriminated him, and if it had, he wouldn’t have ever made it out of his clan’s ancestral home.

“There’s something else,” Shy said. “Mira told me that Shodo thought the Reliquary in Karados was the Toshi Clan’s. I searched that spot in the flats, at least as much as I could before your sister showed up, and I didn’t find anything. But, if it really was the Toshi Reliquary, I could have missed it. Now I’m not even sure if I was looking for the right things.”

Jorath looked down at the sheet of parchment covered in his cramped, angular hand. “Of course. Those brilliant bastards. It’s another layer of obfuscation. Even if we find a Reliquary site, there’s no reason for it to be the one we think it is, and every reason for the demon hunters from hundreds of years ago to lie about it.”

“What do you want me to do?” Shy asked.

“Keep heading for Aesir’s Throne. I’ve already confirmed that there’s a seal there. It may or may not be the Ashryke Clan’s, but we have to break them all either way. I’ll meet you there.”

“Are you sure Mira’s ready for this? The west side of the Venn Mountains is… not safe like it is here.”

“We don’t have much choice, Annidra,” Jorath said. “Keep her alive at any cost.”

“Alright.” Annidra didn’t sound happy. “We’ll be there in a few weeks as long as nothing goes wrong.”

The tear twisted in on itself and disappeared. Jorath reached over and straightened the candle, which had blackened a spot on the desk and dribbled liquid wax everywhere. He pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and, with a heavy sigh, reached into the first book of his already-finished pile to record all the references to the Relivar Reliquary he’d skipped the first time around.

* * *

“I hate when he calls me that,” Shy said. “Which he knows, which is why he does it. Dark Father curse him.”

There was a tattoo on the palm of her hand, one of a gargoyle made of red stone, the contours of its body highlighted with lines of silver. The gargoyle normally held a golden hoop the length of its body with all four of its limbs and with its teeth clamped down on the top. Now, the tattoo was raised half out of her hand into the air, hoop raised up over its head.

The interior of the hoop flickered and went dim, the image of Jorath disappearing from it and the featureless landscape of the flats coming into view. Shy willed the tattoo back into her skin, where it traveled up her arm and disappeared under her clothes.

“He was about as helpful as I’d expect him to be,” Shy told Mira, “which is to say not at all. We’re still going to the same place, with no help from him, but now we get to hurry.”

“What did you mean about it being not safe where we’re going?” Mira asked. “This whole world has felt pretty not safe since day one.”

Shy let out a short, ugly, bitter laugh. “Where you’ve been at, this corner of the world, it’s a reservation. Human civilization, such as it is, stands here and nowhere else. The Demon King kept them around for some reason he’s never felt the need to share. Food, maybe? Some demons do eat people. Entertainment, more likely.”

“So we’re just an ant farm for him to play with?” Mira asked.

Shy had no idea what an ant farm was, so she just glossed over it. “The point is that if you go a hundred or so miles north past where you went, or west through the passes in the Venn Mountains, you go off the reserve. And it’s all fair game out there. Lord Ilrot punishes demons who poach his reserve.”

“What? I’ve seen dozens of demons here,” Mira said.

Shy shrugged. “Sure. Some are small enough to be beneath notice. Some have permission. Some are just clever or quick. But it’s a whole different world on the other side of those mountains. The one thing you definitely won’t see is another person. Anybody out there who looks like a human is actually a demon like me.”

Mira just stared at her for a second. “Well that sounds wonderful. What are we doing standing around here then?”

“That’s a good point,” Shy said. “We shouldn’t be waiting for Sybill to walk up to us. Come on, let’s go.”

* * *

Every time Mira thought she had a handle on something, someone threw another curve ball at her. She’d lost track of the number of time she’d almost died, and that was in the supposedly safe part of the world. It hadn’t even been an hour ago she’d thought she was going to drown in a hole in the ground.

She’d thought she’d been on the path to acquire enough personal power to protect herself with the heartstone, but now she was starting to think there was no such thing as enough. And this new demon, Sybill, scared the hell out of her, if only because she scared the hell out of Shy. Mira had only seen her shaken a few times, and none as bad as their encounter with that group of people in the tunnels.

So they walked through the day and into the night. They walked so far that Mira thought her feet would fall off. And then they walked some more. With nothing but starlight and a sliver of the moon to guide them, they trudged across the flats toward distant shadows that Mira knew were mountains even though she could no longer discern individual shapes.

They stopped for a few minutes every now and then, but there was no sleeping that night. A few hours after dawn, the ground started sloping up. It became rockier, and if there still wasn’t any plant life to be found, any change in scenery was welcome.

They slept on grass that night, albeit sparse, prickly stuff. Their progress slowed considerably once they actually got into the mountains, which suited Mira fine. Shy sent out her scrying hoops to look ahead frequently, and if she hadn’t determined the correct path by the time they came to the next intersection, Mira got to rest.

That made it all the more confusing when they rounded a bend and came up against open sky. There was no path forward, or down, or anywhere. It was the first time that had happened, and Mira gave Shy a surprised glance.

“I had an idea,” Shy said. “We’re off the main path now.”

“Ok. Why are we here then?”

Shy pointed to a shadow cut into the cliff face opposite of them. “You see that? That’s a vilraf nest. They’re demons that can fly. If we can get a heartstone for you, then this becomes a journey of days instead of weeks. We’re going to capture one.”

Mira studied the shadowy spot on the cliff. “That’s got to be forty feet through open air on the other side of this ravine. How exactly are we going to get over there?”

“We’re not. We’re going to bait them over here.”

“Oh,” Mira said. “That makes sense. What are we using as bait?”

Shy grinned at her, and Mira’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Remember when I said that some demons like to eat people?”

“I hate you, Shy.”

* * *

“I don’t want to do this.”

“Shut up. Just remember the plan and don’t forget to jump.”

Mira rubbed a hand across the braided rope of spider silk wrapped around her waist and hidden under her shirt. The other end was anchored just over the edge of the cliff, where it would hopefully not break and drop her a hundred feet to her death splattered across the ravine.

“What if this line snaps and I fall?”

“Then I’ll have some explaining to do to Jorath. Now shut up.”

Shy was hidden around the corner, partially disguised behind a tan cloak. It wasn’t a very good disguise, but they were relying on the vilraf to approach from the proper direction. As long as it cooperated, the rock shelf would hide her from sight. Mira had expressed doubts about the probability of that happening, but Shy had assured her that its hunting grounds would be in that direction, and it was only logical that its return flight would take it up the ravine.

Tension and fear could only last so long though. Five minutes of anxiously scanning the skies turned into an hour of boredom. By the time the demon actually showed up, exactly along the route Shy had predicted, Mira had long since stopped looking for it.

That might have been why she completely missed her chance to jump out of its way when it plummeted down to scoop her up. It was shaped generally like a person, if any human was nine feet tall and had wings for arms. Its head resembled a bird of prey, with a cruelly hooked beak and fierce jet black eyes.

It was the clawed feet that had Mira’s attention though. The vilraf had glided in without a whisper of sound and only seeing the shadow it cast over her at the last moment gave her the slightest hint that it was there. Mira spun in place with a yelp and dove to the stone.

The maneuver saved her from being scooped into the air, but not from the vilraf’s claws raking across her back. Pain, red and hot, flared up where the claws ripped open her skin. Mira scrambled away from the demon, which beat its wings to gain more altitude for another dive.

“Stick with the plan, you idiot,” Shy hissed. “You have to be out of the way for this to work.”

“That would be a lot easier if the plan wasn’t for me to jump off a cliff!”

“Stop whining and do it.”

The vilraf dropped back down, fortunately coming in from a direction that not only left Mira a clear path to the edge of the cliff, but prevented it from getting a visual on Shy, who still waited around the corner.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Mira whispered. “God, if you’re up there, I know we don’t talk much, but please don’t let me die.”

Then she spun on her heel and took a running jump out into open space.

* * *

As soon as Mira was out of the way, Shy gave the command to her familiars. The grithulik spiders hurtled forward and landed on the vilraf. They trailed web lines behind them, the other sides already tangled around her ulusoc’s limbs. At her command, it surged away from the vilraf.

The spider lines, which her pets had looped several times around their victim, held against the pull, and the vilraf was jerked forward into the stone wall. It screeched and thrashed, but the grithuliks were quick about their work, and when the ulusoc lumbered over and body slammed it, the vilraf had very little fight left in it.

“Hmmm… even easier than I expected it to be,” Shy said as she studied the demon. It was bleeding all over, still conscious and obviously in pain. It was silent though as it stared at her.

“Not stupid, are you? Can you talk?”

If it could, it didn’t have anything to say. Shy shrugged and walked over to the edge. She poked her head over and looked down at Mira, who was clinging for dear life to the spider line as it spun her around in circles. Mira looked back up at her and said, “Get me off this thing before it snaps and I fall.”

“I told you it would hold,” Shy said. She lay down on her stomach and reached down for the line, which was anchored a few inches from the top of the cliff. With one hand, she hauled the line up far enough to give herself some play. Then she climbed back to her knees and, hand over hand, pulled Mira back up.

“So, you ready to learn how to fly?”

Mira glanced over at the vilraf, still pinned to the side of the mountain. “That actually does sound kind of cool,” she said. “Where is its heartstone at?”

“I don’t know. You’re the demon hunter. You find it.”

Shy stood there, arms crossed, and watched Mira pat the demon down. After a few minutes, her hand slipped through its lower back, just to the right of its spine. The demon screeched and bucked against the restraints, but it couldn’t break them.

Mira’s arm went in past the elbow and angled up. When she pulled it out, she held a lump of rock, light green with a groove of darker, glowing green spiraling around it. It was barely the size of Shy’s fist, and despite being made of stone, looked so light that a stiff breeze would send it flying away.

The vilraf slumped down, all of its weight being supported by the tethers holding it upright. It didn’t even make a pretense of fighting. Mira gave it a troubled frown, and Shy felt a flash of irritation. Somehow, the human girl still hadn’t learned not to feel sorry for her victims. She really was a terrible demon hunter.

“So how do I use this thing?” Mira asked.

Chapter 28

Kull’s master bled him to the point where he couldn’t even stand. It, or she, Kull still wasn’t sure, caught every drop in a wide, shallow bowl. “Normally I have to kill someone to get this much blood,” his master said. “You do have your uses, don’t you?”

Kull didn’t answer. He wasn’t supposed to. His master dismissed him then. He didn’t leave, of course. Such effort was beyond him. He merely shuffled a few steps over and fell down where he wouldn’t be in the way.

The bowl was directly in front of him on the ground, barely three feet away. His master hunched over it, hands moving like a puppeteer. The blood jumped in time with the movements, tugged by invisible strands of magic. Human shaped figures made entirely of Kull’s blood rose up from the middle to stand on the surface. Two more came up out of the blood on the far side of the bowl, but his master’s hands didn’t hover over them.

Instead, it manipulated the clump of people in the center. They marched forward in unison as new shapes emerged from the blood. Then the fight was on, with Kull’s master skillfully directing the blood people. Some of them dissolved and splashed back into the surface of the bowl, but the rest just closed ranks where they could and kept fighting.

Everything in the bowl paused at the same time, and blood bubbled up around the puppets’ feet. “What is this?” Kull’s master said, a hint of confusion in its voice.

“Ah, I see,” it said a moment later. “No help for it then. Can’t kill them.”

The blood puppets turned and ran. They stayed centered in the bowl, but the two figures they’d been trying to reach disappeared off the edge as they moved. With a click of its tongue, Kull’s master pulled its hands away from the bowl and let the blood splash back down to form a flat surface.

“Next time.”

* * *

“Where the hell are they going?” Mira asked.

“I don’t care right now. This whole place is going to be underwater in 5 minutes. Move.”

“We need more light, anything that glows. There isn’t enough time to check each wall for marks anymore.”

Shy stripped her top off and hunched over. Before Mira could ask what she was doing, the tattoos across Shy’s back had pushed themselves up onto her shoulders and arms to make room for a bear-shaped thing with obsidian plates and glowing joints. It clawed its way up off Shy’s flesh until it had grown to full size and straddled her.

It ambled forward and Shy climbed to her feet. Her breaths came in ragged gasps, but she didn’t stop to even put her shirt back on. The bear sped up, running the left side of the tunnel, while the salamander scurried to keep up opposite of it.

“Should be… two… no three more intersections to the next mark,” Mira said, trotting after Shy through water that was up past her ankles.

“I’ll watch this wall for the mark, you take the one that’s better lit,” Shy told her.

They almost missed it. The bear was already past it when Mira spotted the mark and called Shy back. The tunnel, fortunately, sloped upward, and all the water in it ran down in ever-thickening rivulets to join the tunnel they’d just come from.

“Any sign of those people who attacked us?” Mira asked as they rounded another corner.

“No.”

“How are they keeping ahead of us?” Mira wondered. “They didn’t even have a light to see by.”

“They’re probably not. Their owner abandoned them down here to drown.”

Part of Mira was horrified, but only a small part. The rest was too busy trying to navigate the way out and keep a lid on the rising panic she felt. Everything else would have to wait.

The tunnels gave way to an open cavern, but not the one that led back to the surface. Mira skidded to a stop on the slick, water-covered stone and looked around. “Shit,” she said. “I don’t remember which way, and I don’t think we have time to look.”

“Here,” Shy called out, not stopping. She darted across the cavern and disappeared into a tunnel, leaving Mira to scramble after her.

“I don’t see the marking,” Mira yelled from the mouth. “Are you sure-”

“Yes! Come on.”

The salamander was following Shy, which left Mira with no choice but to tag along, unless she wanted to be left with only the dim glow of the inferolisk heartstone for light. Swearing, she ran into the tunnel.

It sloped downward far enough that there was a foot of water in it, and it was still rising. The water had a current to it, one that Mira had to actively fight against. The walls were no help either. They were so slick that it was almost worse putting a hand against one than trying to keep her balance.

She was confident that she could have navigated through the tunnel except for one thing. The salamander lighting her way slipped off the ceiling and fell into the water, its light all but extinguished. Frantically, Mira groped in the dark for the little creature, but the current swept it away before she could catch it.

* * *

“What are they doing, the idiots?” Kull’s master said. It studied the bowl intently, watched the back one flail about. Only one of its slaves was nearby. Kull wondered if that limited the connection somehow, not having a dozen minions to send feedback to the bowl.

His master seemed agitated, worried even. Admittedly, Kull had only been bonded for a few days, but it was the first time he’d ever seen the shadowy figure that controlled his life not in complete control. It worked up some spark of… something… in him, defiance maybe. It was too feeble and small to examine. But it was something that hadn’t been there before.

* * *

Shy’s hand snapped out and caught the salamander as it swept past her. She lifted it up to cling to the back of her hair and kept walking. Mira closed the distance between them and said, “Damn. Nice catch.”

“Not now,” Shy said. “Something is following us.”

“How the hell can you tell? I can barely hear your voice over the water.”

It was true. There was so much noise from the water running past them, dripping down, and generally echoing through the tunnels that it was disorienting. Mira was doing her best to block it out, since it did nothing but feed the panic she was keeping pushed down in her chest.

Then she emerged into a wide open cavern with light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling. “Oh thank God,” Mira said. The water was already up to her waist and, if anything, was rising faster. The web line they’d come in was gone, but Shy threw two streaks of ink into the air that resolved into spider shapes and scaled the hole to the top.

They dropped web lines down to Shy, who didn’t even wait for them to be anchored before she started climbing. It was a matter of seconds before she reached the top. Mira waded over, using the obsidian-plated bear as a water break to keep the current from taking her off her feet.

In the time it took Shy’s pets to make the line and for her to scale it, the water had risen from Mira’s waist up to her armpits. By the time she had the line firmly in her hands, it was up to her shoulders. The current was so great that her feet no longer touched the stone.

Then the bear disappeared, willed by Shy back up into her skin.

The current hit Mira full force, swept her straight out and ripped the line out of her hands. She couldn’t quell the rising panic after that. The logical part of her mind that told her to swim, to fight, was overwhelmed as she thrashed in the water.

She bumped into something solid, still too close from the center of the room for it to be the wall. Hands grabbed her and shoved her forward. The line slapped against her face, and she scrambled to snag it out of water that was past her chin. As soon as she had it, Shy pulled. Mira rose half a foot out of the water, still clinging to the line.

She had enough presence of mind to loop it around her arms several times as Shy gave another tug. A third one pulled her completely free of the water and set her to spinning in place. Mira looked down to see a man, one of the ones who’d been in the group that had attacked them, staring up at her. He was tall, much taller than her. But the water level was going up inches every second, and between the third pull and the fourth, it rose over his head.

Once she was clear of the water, every heave of the line shot Mira up several feet. She had just enough time to see the man, completely underwater but still staring up at her, swept from his feet and carried into the darkness. Then Shy pulled her out of the hole and away from it. Ten seconds later, the water level shot up enough to be funneled into a geyser and burst into open air.

“Thought I was going to lose you for a second there,” Shy said. “Jorath would have killed me.”

“There was a man down there, one of the ones from the tunnels. He caught me and pushed me back to the rope, I mean to the… I mean… He got carried away in the water. If he’s not dead already he will be in the next minute. Why did he save me?”

Shy’s lips thinned into a line. “We’re in trouble. Jorath must not have been as clever as he thought. I know he’s still alive and free right now, but he’s slipped up somehow.”

“How do you know that?”

“His sister just saved your life, and I promise you that you’d rather be dead than let her catch you.”

* * *

Sybill kicked the bowl over, spilling blood across the cave. It splashed off her newest slave, the one with the strange regenerative abilities. The whole job had been a complete disaster. Failing to capture the Montrose girl or Lord Ilrot’s daughter was bad enough, but then to have to intervene to save the human brat’s life was just galling. It was no wonder Annidra had been another reject, if she couldn’t do a better job keeping the human alive.

Sybill had always thought Jorath had had a hand in her escape. More than that, she suspected he’d shielded the fledgling demon from being captured. No amount of pleading had moved her master on the subject though, and with no concrete evidence, Jorath continued to serve and Annidra was left to the world.

Sybill’s lip curled into a sneer. That was all over now though. She fully planned on torturing her brother to within an inch of his life before she delivered him to Lord Ilrot. Even if she hadn’t wanted to, and she really, really did, it would have been necessary to prevent him from escaping. His blood wasn’t suitable for her powers to affect, and his own magic made him almost impossible to contain.

The trick was catching up to him, but she was sure she could find the right bait to lure him in. Annidra wouldn’t be able to protect the girl, and as soon as Jorath realized that Sybill was on his trail, he’d have to show up personally to save the human. It would be so simple after that.

“Get up,” she told the blood slave. “We’re leaving. There’s still so much to do, and so little time to do it.”

Chapter 11

A jagged black tear split the air open near the door and a man stepped out of it. His clothes were torn and it looked like he’d been drenched by a bucket of black paint. Cuts covered his face, the same black seeping out of them as what covered his clothes.

He surveyed the room with eyes that looked like pools of his strange black blood, eyes that were almost hypnotic to look into. Mira took an unconscious step backward and jerked her gaze away. The movement drew his attention in the form of a stone-faced stare.

“We have to retreat deeper into the ruins. The yith are starting to overrun the outer terrace,” he said.

“That could be a problem. Mira can’t pass through the nether with us,” Shy said with a frown. “We’d have to abandon her.”

“Hey!” Mira said.

“No. Leaving her to die would have unacceptable consequences. We’ll have to fight off the yith or sneak past them.”

“A tall order,” Shodo said. “I could probably hide myself from them, perhaps the girl as well. That’s assuming there aren’t too many?”

“I killed thirty, at least. That wasn’t even half of them.” Jorath frowned and looked over his shoulder at the door. “They’re closing in on us. If we don’t move soon, we’ll be trapped.”

“Leave Shodo to hide Mira with his magic. The two of us will travel through the nether to a safe location,” Shy suggested.

Jorath gave her a withering glare. “She’s more important to me than you are, Annidra.”

“Hate that name,” Shy muttered. “Fine, then what? We fight off a couple hundred yith? You look like you’re ready to fall over already.”

Jorath eyed the tattoos on Shy’s arms. “We don’t have to fight them. We just need to distract them. If we create a diversion and draw their attention away from this area of the city, Shodo can move Mira to a safer location. There’s a chamber under the castle that we can seal up from the inside.”

“Oh no, you don’t mean…” Shy trailed off. Jorath stared at her, unblinking, until she continued. “Is that why we’re here? You know your master will kill you if he finds out you’ve been in there.”

“A risk I’m willing to take.”

“Excuse me,” Mira said. “Could someone tell me what the fuck is going on?”

“You explain it,” Jorath told Shodo. “We’ve got work to do. See you there.”

Shy stepped past Jorath and into the rift. He followed behind her and it closed, leaving Mira alone with Shodo, who shook his head and sighed. “Damned unlucky timing,” he muttered. “ Huervas’s schedule has never been predictable. It would have been better to find a safe place to wait out the red moon before he attempted this.”

“Attempted what?”

Shodo ignored her and scratched as his chin while he stared at the door. With another sigh, he said, “We might as well get this over with then.”

“Get what over with?” Mira demanded, exasperated.

“The Toshi clan’s dominion was the mind. We made clever use of illusions, telepathy, even implanted memories, to outwit our prey. I’m going to make the two of us invisible to the yith while we walk to the Toshi Reliquary.”

Mira wasn’t sure about all of that. She vaguely remembered something in science class years ago about light reflecting off the pupil, and that if a person could actually become invisible, they’d also be blind since light would go right through them. If they were going that route, it seemed like it’d be a better idea to just sit tight.

“How far is this place… the Reliquary? And what is it, for that matter?”

“Not too far. Half an hour’s walk if we’re not interrupted,” Shodo said. “You’ll see when we get there. But it’s time to get started now. We need to take advantage of the distraction our companions have created for us.”

Mira waited for something to happen, split between curiosity and dread. Shodo started out the door, then stopped and gestured for Mira to follow. “Aren’t you going to-” she started, but Shodo cut her off with an upraised hand.

“Make as little noise as possible. The invisibility doesn’t extend to noise or smell, just sight. The yith have keen noses, so we’re relying on the confusion caused by them not being able to see us.”

“But I can see you!” Mira said.

“Yes, we can see each other. But no one else can see either of us. At least, not with their eyes.”

Mira didn’t feel any different. She looked down at her arm, which was as solid as ever. She even waved a hand in front of her face, but nothing looked strange to her. With no choice but to take Shodo’s word for it, she followed him up the stairs and out into the night.

The city was just as abandoned as it had been when Shy had led her through ten minutes earlier.  They walked down empty streets as quickly and quietly as they could, though her hard-soled boots and an entirely open city made for some strange acoustics. More than once, Mira thought she heard something nearby, but whatever Jorath and Shy were doing was working.

Shodo led her in anything but a straight line. More than once, they stopped and waited for no reason that she could see, and a few times they threw caution to the winds and sprinted several blocks before slowing back down again. Throughout all of it, Mira never once caught sight of the mysterious yith.

She wondered what the creatures looked like. They were small, supposedly, but ferocious. In her mind, they became something that looked like the giant spider tattoo of Shy’s, and Mira found herself watching the walls and second story windows more than the street.

Shodo grabbed her arm and pulled her into an empty house. She opened her mouth to say something, but his hand clamped over it with surprising strength. He looked her straight in the eye and slowly shook his head before releasing his grip.

The two of them stood at a window, the glass of which was so covered in dust it was difficult to see through. Something a little bit bigger than Mira’s cat and low to the ground scuttled down the street. She couldn’t make out more than its shape through the window, but it was easy enough to see when a second one joined it.

Mira tugged on Shodo’s sleeve to get his atention and mouthed, “Yith?” He nodded and went back to looking out the window. As they watched, a third, then a fourth joined it. They raised their heads in unison and sniffed at the air. Shodo’s mouth hardened into a line and he pulled Mira farther back into the house.

“Stay,” he whispered into her ear. He padded back to the door and waited, still as a statue, for something to cross the threshold.

When it finally did, Mira had to stifle a confused laugh. The creature, the yith, if that’s what it was, had four short stubby legs and a striped tail. Black patches circled its eyes. “A raccoon?” she said out loud.

Instantly, the raccon’s head snapped up to stare in her direction. All the sudden, it didn’t look so innocent. Red light reflected off its eyes as it studied the interior of the house. Slowly, its nose in the air, it advanced into the room.

Shodo drove his foot down toward the raccoon’s skull. Instead of dashing it across the floor, the raccoon slipped aside and latched onto his leg. Blood blossomed from a dozen small cuts as its hands and feet shredded Shodo’s skin. Without hesitation, he spun around and kicked out to slam the raccoon into the wall. It let go of his leg and fell, dazed, to the floor.

This time, Shodo’s stomp found its skull. A sharp crack rang out through the house, then nothing. He picked the raccoon up by its scruff and limped away from the door while glaring at Mira. The body was thrown into a back room and the old man resumed his post.

It didn’t take long for the other three to show up. The fresh blood and the sound of violence drew them in quickly. This time, Mira kept her mouth shut. The raccoons followed their noses into the room that contained the body of their companion. Mira could hear them tearing strips of flesh off it all the way from the other side of the house.

Shodo caught her eye and gestured for her to follow him. Together, they crept out of the house and down the street. He had both hands clamped on his bleeding leg, but even so, a slow dribble of blood stained the streets behind him. Its fresh crimson made a stark contrast to the rust colored stones.

“The yith will follow the blood scent,” he whispered to her. “We have to be quick now. There’s no outrunning them. If they catch up to us, it’ll be all over.”

“I don’t understand,” Mira said. “Those are just raccoons.”

“Young lady, trust me when I say that those are not like any animal on your world. They’re smart, good trackers, pack hunters. And they’ll eat absolutely anything with meat on it. Now come on. We’ve got to reach the castle before they find us.”

“So let’s find a house that still has a door and lock ourselves in. For that matter, why didn’t we just stay together before?”

“They’ll tear through a wooden door in minutes, at most. If they can find a window or chimney to come through, they’ll do that. When the yith want inside something, it’s very difficult to keep them out.”

“I don’t get it,” Mira said. “How have these things not killed everybody if they’re that bad?”

“No time now,” Shodo said. “We’ll talk later.”

They ran then. At first, Mira was worried about Shodo’s ability to keep up with an injured leg, but he soon proved to be the faster of the two. It was all she could do to maintain the pace, and after a few blocks, she started to fall behind. Shodo slowed his pace just enough to accommodate her.

“There,” he huffed as they ran. “Through that gate and into the castle proper.”

They veered off the street and into an open run leading up to a castle, only to come to an abrupt halt when a dozen of the raccoon-looking yith appeared around them. They spread out into a loose circle around the two people and advanced slowly. Their positions made it clear that they didn’t know exactly where Mira and Shodo were, but they had a close enough guess that they were going to find their soon-to-be meal anyway.

Mira tried to keep her breathing as shallow as possible, but sprinting half a mile and with terror filling her gut, each breath came out as a ragged gasp. The yiths could hear it too. Though Shodo was the one bleeding, it was her they were closing in on.

She looked around for another house to duck into, something with a door she could lock and close. Unfortunately, the street leading up to the castle didn’t have anything like that. It was all open field for at least a hundred feet from the walls. Going back wasn’t an option either. Enough of the yith had come from behind them that they’d blocked off the street.

A black rent split the air and Jorath stepped through. He lifted his hands, and the yith’s shadows came to life. They sprang off the ground to leap upon their owners. Blood splattered across the stone as shadowy claws ripped through flesh. The pack of yith was caught offguard for only a second before they launched themselves at Jorath.

His shadow surged forward and up into a solid physical shape that blocked the first few yith from passing, but there were too many and he knew it. Jorath took off running into the open field, dozens of yith streaming after him and ignoring the shadows tearing into them. They ran far faster than any raccoon Mira had ever seen, and were on him in seconds.

Not all of them went, though. The ones whose shadows hadn’t animated were still focused on Mira and Shodo, who was standing with one foot in a small pool of his own blood. The two of them edged toward a gap in the new circle, newly formed when the majority of the yith had ran off.

An explosion lit the sky back in the city, followed by a roar so loud that it rocked Mira back on her heels. The yith all turned their attention from stalking Mira and Shodo to the noise. Chittering clicks passed back and forth between them, and the group split in two.

The time hadn’t been wasted. Mira was now almost through the castle gate, with Shodo walking backwards and keeping an eye on the remaining yith. With only four of them left instead of the original thirty or forty, she felt like they had a fighting chance.

The reached some sort of courtyard. Mira looked to Shodo for guidance, who nodded toward a shadowy patch on the far wall that she took for some sort of door. Upon reaching it, however, she discovered that it was actually the opening into some sort of hallway. Without a door, they couldn’t close it against the yith who were still following them.

Worse, she thought she could hear scrambling inside. It was too dark to make out any movement, and the thought of walking into pitch blackness that might hold flesh-eating raccoons wasn’t a pleasant one. Shodo didn’t hesitate though. He limped past Mira, looking far greyer than when they’d first met and moving much slower than he’d been a few minutes ago.

Without much of a choice, especially if she wanted her shot at Jorath, she followed him into the darkness.

Chapter 10

Mira shivered and pulled her new cloak tighter around her. Autumn was coming in now, and the wind had a chill bite to it. Just watching Shy walk with her arms exposed gave Mira goosebumps. The demon didn’t feel the cold, however. It was only after Mira flatly refused to leave the last village without purchasing something to keep her warm that she’d even noticed it.

They’d been traveling for two weeks. Shy wouldn’t tell Mira their destination, only that they were getting closer. As enticement, she’d let slip one night that Jorath was supposed to meet them there.

The journey had been peaceful, if tiring, except for one chance encounter with a demon covered in spikes and spurs, so many that its body was barely visible. Its face had two ivory tusks jutting up out of its mouth, both so long that they curled up past its forehead. It had taken a single look at Shy, then disappeared back into the hole it had crawled out of.

They’d left the forested lands behind and traveled east. It had all gotten to be routine, so Mira was surprised when they settled down to sleep that night and Shy released a pair of ring tattoos from her wrist. Each expanded until it was about a foot in diameter. One floated away, while the other hovered at eye level.

“What are you doing?” Mira asked.

“Huervas is up tonight. The yith will be out hunting.”

“Ok, you’re going to have to explain that better.”

Shy didn’t look away from the ring in front of her. “Huervas, the red moon. It shows up for three nights every few months. Something about it affects the yith. Normally, they live in a slightly out-of-phase version of reality, but when Huervas is in the sky, they cross over.”

Mira looked up to see a small red orb in the sky, about a quarter the size of the normal moon she’d been seeing every night. “Huh. I wonder where it is the rest of the time,” she said aloud.

“Who cares?” Shy said. “The important thing is the moon is a warning. Yith are always hungry. You can’t reason with them or intimidate them. They don’t run away. It’s kill or be killed, and there’s no such thing as a single yith. If you see one, rest assured a hundred more are nearby.”

“Are they strong? Can we fight them?”

“Five or ten? Sure. It won’t be five or ten though. Best thing for us to do is not run into them. If I find any, we’ll be walking through the night. If they find us, we’ll be running instead of walking.”

With that comforting thought, Mira settled down to sleep. It wouldn’t come though. Every little noise jumped out at her, kept her heart rate up. A kind of nervous tension came over her, so much so that she almost wished this monster would just get it over with and jump out of the bushes.

It didn’t happen like that. Mira didn’t even realize she’d dozed off until Shy shook her awake. “Come on,” she whispered. “There’s a pack a few miles away from us heading in this direction. We need to go farther south.”

Wearily, Mira climbed to her feet and followed the demon into the dark. She never saw or heard anything, but more than once Shy abruptly changed direction. The ring floated along next to her, off to one side, and Shy spent as much time looking through it as she did watching where she was going.

They didn’t stop until daybreak. As the sun crested the horizon, Shy let out a relieved sigh. The second ring reappeared, interlocked with the first, and both shrunk down to a bare inch in diameter each as they were absorbed into her wrist. “Get some rest. We’re close enough to the meeting spot to make it before dusk tonight if we push.”

Mira was too keyed up to go back to sleep, but just sitting down for an hour was a huge improvement. They ate the last of their leftovers from the last village they’d passed through while they rested. While they were eating, Mira asked, “What is this place we’re going to?”

“An old city called Kaldaros,” Shy said. “It was broken by the demons during the First Breach hundreds of years ago. They say it’s cursed now, that anyone who enters will be driven insane.”

“Oh… Why are we going there again?”

Shy shrugged. “I didn’t ask. I don’t really care. All I have to do is get you there. Then my part is done. You and Jorath can do whatever you want to each other. Kill him, for all I care. Or get killed by him, more likely.”

“Cheery,” Mira muttered. The thought of finally facing the man who’d taken her from her life and abandoned her in some medieval fantasy world full of demons and fairies and who knew what else was more than enough motivation to get her moving. When they started up again, Mira had no problems keeping up.

They walked down a deserted road all that day, one that was barely more than a straight line of dirt patches and two parallel wheel ruts long overgrown with grass. It bisected the grasslands as far as she could see, deviating only to circle around the broad hills that dotted the landscape.

Late in the afternoon, the walls of the city came into view. They were grey and broken things. The first one had looped around a hill, and it was only standing in patches. The interior walls, higher up the slope of the hill, were in better shape, but still showed great charred patches and jagged rents.

“This place is huge,” Mira remarked. “Did Jorath tell you where exactly he’d be in it?”

“He’ll know when we get there,” Shy said, “and send out a guide to lead us to him.”

That was all the information Shy was willing to volunteer, no matter how many more questions Mira asked. Eventually, the demon grew sick of it and curtly told Mira to stop talking. The last few hours of the trip was made in silence tinged with open hostility. Mira decided she wouldn’t mind being rid of Shy either.

Shy led her to a gaping chasm in the walls a hundred feet wide. “Once, the gates of Kaldaros stood here,” she said. “ Humanity made its stand in the square just beyond it and was broken by the king of demons. The history books tell us that what followed was a generation of nightmares for your kind until one of your ancestors took the king’s heartstone from him and drove the demons back with its power.”

“That’s… uh… nice, I guess,” Mira said, trying not to roll her eyes. “How come it isn’t all overgrown like everything else?”

“Nothing grows here,” Shy said. “Not since the day the city fell.”

It was an eerie thing, walking through an empty city. Row after row of empty houses lined the streets, doors hanging open or gone altogether. All of it was perfectly preserved, including the damage from the invasion. Here and there, entire squares had been smashed into piles of debris. Streets terminated in huge pits with cracks a foot wide radiating out from them.

“I thought you said Jorath was going to know when we got here,” Mira said. “It’s been an hour of wandering around.”

“Yes.” Shy looked troubled. “Maybe we beat him here. We are ahead of schedule, thanks to the yith.”

Dusk fell as they walked, and the red moon rose up overhead. It cast the abandoned city in an odd, rust-colored light, almost like old blood stains. The only thing keeping Mira there was the chance of getting a shot at Jorath, not that it would matter if he never showed his face.

After another hour of exploring, Shy stopped and pointed. “There, that’s the sign.”

“I don’t see anything,” Mira said.

“On the wall. That shadow.”

Once Shy had pointed it out, Mira could see a man shaped silhouette against the stone, though there was nothing there to cast the shadow. It turned and walked away from them, stopping only to jump off the wall and splash against the next house in the line.

It reformed and took off, almost too fast for Mira to keep up with. Soon, both of the women were sprinting down the street chasing after it. Mira ducked her head and focused on her breathing, but Shy let loose a steady stream of swearing that increased in volume every time the shadow jumped buildings.

They turned a corner to see the shadow disappear into an open door three houses down. By the time they reached the door, it was nowhere to be seen. Mira hesitated, but Shy started in. When Mira didn’t follow, Shy turned around and grabbed her arm.

“What if it’s a trap?” Mira asked, still huffing from the run.

“Why would it be a trap?”

“I don’t know! But look, this doorway leads to stairs that go underground. It’s too dark to see down there, and who knows what’s waiting for us?”

Shy rolled her eyes and walked into the dark. “Do what you want,” she called back up. “I doubt Jorath is going to let you walk away, not when you’re this close.”

A light flared up on the stairs, just before they turned a corner. Hesitantly, Mira started down. The light never got closer, but it wasn’t so far away that she couldn’t make out the crumbling steps beneath her feet. They turned a few more times before ending outside a closed door. Shy stood next to it, a flickering orange light clinging to her hair.

Mira peered at it curiously. Whatever it was, it was alive. It crawled down Shy’s hair to perch on her shoulder, its skin glowing. Once Mira got close enough, she could see that it looked like some sort of lizard, maybe six inches long. Shy smirked at her and held a hand up for the lizard to hop into.

“A baby salamander,” she explained. “They’re not hot enough to burn when they’re this young. Of course, the real ones don’t stay small long enough to be useful, but this version is forever.”

She pulled open the door to reveal a long room that ran straight into the darkness. “There’s someone here,” Shy said, peering into the room.

“Well, yeah, there’s supposed to be.”

“Not Jorath.” Shy walked through the door and let the salamander down to scuttle across the floor. “Who’s there?”

“An associate of his,” a man’s voice called back from the shadows at the far end of the room. “He asked for my assistance, but was forced to leave to deal with the problems caused by Huervas.”

A tattoo writhed down Shy’s arm to drop from her hand to the floor, growing as it fell. When it landed, the spider from the Weeping Man was crouched on the floor next to her. Now that it wasn’t flying through the air, Mira got a good look at it, and it was terrifying. Its back was about 8 inches off the ground, and its legs could probably wrap completely around her head. Short, bristly black fur covered its body except for a dark green line running down its thorax.

Shy sent the spider and the baby salamander forward with a gesture. “Don’t take this personally, but until I’ve verified that, don’t make any sudden moves.”

“My dear, what makes you think your pet threatens me in the slightest?” the voice asked, amusement in his tone.

The salamander reached the voice then. Its light revealed an old man sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cane balanced across his knees. His hair, what remained of it, was pulled back into a long tail, and his face was a mass of wrinkles bisected by scar tissue. He wore a loose shirt with wide sleeves and pants that puddled around him on the floor.

“Toshi clansman!” Shy yelped. “How? Your kind should be dead.”

“All the ones who didn’t submit to the master are, of course,” the man said. “My name is Shodo. And you are the ink demon who calls herself Shy. That must make this other young woman the reason we’re all here.”

“Dark Father preserve me,” Shy uttered. For the first time since Mira had met her, she actually looked afraid. “I’m not going back. I’ll die first.”

“You’ll do as you’re told, because you don’t have a choice. But do not worry, I’m not here to return you home. My presence is purely as a favor for Jorath.”

“Um, not to be rude,” Mira put in, “but what the hell is going on and why do you look like a walking Chinese kung fu master stereotype?”

“That is a rather long story, but suffice to say that you do not represent the first interaction between this world and yours. My own family, several thousand years ago, colonized a part of your world. I suspect it would be more accurate to say that our styles and mannerisms were adopted by the humans of Earth rather than the other way around.”

“Demons live on Earth?” Mira asked, shooting a questioning glance at Shy.

“No, this was well before the Toshi clan became demons. Back then, we were the demon hunters, and a branch of the family grew tired of the life. They wished for a world without demons, and relocated to yours. In doing so, of course, they became residents of a world without magic.”

“It was the Toshi clan that recommended your own ancestors be banished to Earth,” Shy added. “I suspect the experience of their own family migrating there inspired the idea.”

“Too true,” Shodo said. “But I’m afraid we don’t have any more time for history lessons. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Jorath is returning to us.”