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.”
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.