Mira paced back and forth, restless and anxious in the cell, while Maluk leaned against the wall next to the door and watched her. As soon as Alyr had realized that the would-be assassin had come from inside, he’d had Mira placed in a secure cell with a personal bodyguard. Her protests had been ignored as she was hustled down the hall.
Mira had been shaken up by the whole thing. She’d thought she was safe, but now that she knew she wasn’t, all the nervous tension that had been slowly draining away over the last week was back with a vengeance. Hours of waiting, of not knowing what was going to happen, had frayed her temper.
“How much longer am I going to be in here?” she asked.
“Until the Councilman decides what to do with you,” Maluk said.
“Well thanks, that’s helpful.”
Maluk’s head swung around to look at the door, and a moment later Mira heard the handle turning on the outside. Of course, it being a cell, there wasn’t a matching one on the interior. It swung open to reveal Alyr, his face troubled.
“We’ve decided to move you. This outpost has been compromised,” he said without preamble. “I’m sorry about the wait. I had to attend to a few things before leaving, and you couldn’t be left unguarded.”
“What if I don’t want to go with you?” Mira asked.
Alyr blinked at her. “Do… do you want to leave alone?”
Mira crossed her arms and looked around. “See, I’m not really sure if I’m a guest or a prisoner. If I decide not to cooperate willingly, what then? Do you kick me out the door, or do I stay locked in this room?”
“I want you to understand this, Mira. You are the only hope for accomplishing the Order’s one true goal. We want to be human again. We’ve all been stuck in these bodies for centuries. There’s not a one of us whose great grandchildren shouldn’t have been dust a hundred years ago. I’m asking you, please, help us.”
“I get that. What I’m asking you is this: what are you going to do if I say no?”
Alyr stared at her. She met his eyes and waited. Finally, he said, “If that’s your decision, you will hooded and escorted away from the outpost, for our own safety. Once you are away from us, you will be released.”
“We need each other too much right now. But this,” she said, gesturing to the cell, “This never happens again. If I’m not your prisoner, then I don’t want to be made to feel like one.”
“It was for your own protection!” Alyr protested.
“I don’t care. You don’t get to make those decisions for me. You ever try something like this again, I’ll never help you. Fact is, Alyr, your group needs me more than I need you. I’d like this arrangement to be agreeable to both of us, but I’m not your subordinate. I don’t take orders from you. I don’t care if you could crush me without even trying. I’ll take my chances.”
“I understand. In that case, I would like to move from this outpost to the Order’s fortress in the mountains. It will involve several days of travel in the open, but I can’t be sure how deep the infiltration has gone in our ranks here, and there aren’t enough people I’m confident of to guarantee your safety. Additionally, you need to meet with the rest of the Council to formalize your arrangement with the Order.”
She held his eyes for another long moment. Mira didn’t believe him, not for a second. What Alyr wanted from her, what the whole Order wanted, it was too important to him. She was too important to their goals to be let go, now that they had her. The only part she didn’t understand was why they’d waited so long to take her. There had been other opportunities, maybe not as good as the one that they’d used, but good enough.
It could have just been the first time they’d thought they could take her without Shy or Jorath noticing. That wasn’t true, but that didn’t necessarily mean Maluk had known that.
“Alright,” she said. “When do we leave?”
“Immediately, if you’re ready.”
“As soon as I can go to my room and get dressed.”
Alyr inclined his head. “Very well. Maluk will escort you there and take you to the entrance when you’re ready. I’ll meet you there. Vuh kora.”
Then he turned away and disappeared back out the door.
* * *
“You never did tell me what that means,” Mira said, pulling her hair through the shirt she’d just put on.
“What what means?” Maluk asked.
“Vuh kora, and that other thing.”
“You’ll understand when you’re ready to.”
Mira scowled at him. “That’s what you always say.”
Maluk didn’t answer. Mira finished getting ready in silence, and when she was done, he walked her through a section of the compound she’d never been in. Alyr was waiting for her in front of a door with four travel packs sitting on the floor. Next to him was a demon with four arms and a set of bat-like wings folded up behind his back. Heavy brows shadowed his eyes, and a mouth with triangular teeth poking out of it split the entire length of his face.
He wasn’t the ugliest demon Mira had seen in her week with the Order, but his proportions were so far off that even hidden under a cloak in the dark, she doubted anyone would mistake him for human. He was barely five feet tall, but close to three feet wide across the shoulders with a skull that was normal sized, but seemed small in comparison to the breadth of his chest and shoulders.
“This is Kalkus,” Alyr said. “He will be our guard for this trip.”
Kalkus inclined his head and folded one set of arms across his chest. The other came out of his sides, just below his ribs. The muscle structure was bizarre, but Mira assumed it had to work because the arms looks fully functional. Wide bracers studded with steel rivets adorned his forearms, complete with a solid piece of steel that rose up to his elbows.
“Ready to go?” he asked, his voice a low rumble.
“Yeah,” Mira said, eyeing up the packs. “Who’s the fourth? Maluk?”
“Yes,” Alyr said. “He has a very valuable skill set, and I trust him implicitly.”
Mira picked up a pack and put a hand over the belt pouch holding her heartstone. “Shall we then?”
Opening the door took longer than Mira felt it should have. Alyr had to do something that Mira didn’t fully understand that involved shifting the stone that the door was set into around, and he didn’t look happy about it. Once they were outside, she saw that the compound had actually been dug into the side of the mountain. The door’s exterior was camouflaged and near invisible once it had been closed.
“This place won’t be safe until I can return here,” Alyr said. He shot a glance at Mira and added, “Maybe not even then.”
With a heavy sigh, he turned away from the door. “Come on, we’ve got a ways to go before we can rest.”
He started down the slope, and the other fell in behind him. With a final look back, Alir said, “Vuh kora.”
“Vuh kora,” the other two demons echoed.
“Uh… vuh kora,” Mira added a beat later. Alyr laughed and shook his head. Maluk and Kalkus were unreadable.
* * *
“I want another heartstone,” Mira told Alyr several hours later. They were discussing the assassination attempt and what she’d done to fight her attacker until help had arrived. Mira’s main issue was that everything she’d done had been a stall. If she’d been on her own, she would have died.
“You still have a lot to learn about this one,” Alyr said. “And it will be much more effective out here than it was in a tiny room.”
“Something with some offensive capabilities,” she said, ignoring Alyr.
“You have offensive capabilities.”
“Maybe against an ordinary person,” Mira said. “But not against a demon, or at least not a strong one. And that’s what I’m up against, so I need something better than this thing.”
“This heartstone has more power than you’ve tapped into. You need to reach its maximum potential before you can start bonding another heartstone. Otherwise you’ll have the same kind of problems you had when you were using the inferolisk stone.”
“I don’t understand,” Mira said.
“I explained how the heartstones create a resonance with your own heartbeat, and that the more you’re able to control that, the more in sync you’ll be with it and the more of its power you can draw out. You can do this with two or even three heartstones at once, but you have to be perfect with the first one before you can attempt to add another. Otherwise you end up failing or releasing everything in an explosive burst and passing out, never to awaken without someone else’s intervention.”
That was a memory Mira wasn’t eager to relive. She wasn’t giving up though. “So I can just break the bond to this one and start over with a new heartstone then.”
“Certainly. You know how to stop your heart now. I would recommend you find a new heartstone before destroying your current one, otherwise you risk leaving yourself defenseless.”
Either way, that meant working on the vilraf heartstone until something new presented itself. Alyr wasn’t quite the slave driver Shy had been about the pace, but he wasn’t interested in making any detours, so unless they were attacked by a demon, the chances of her claiming a new heartstone were slim.
She kept at it, day after day, though her practice time was limited by their traveling. Alyr helped as he could, but because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, she was limited to small displays of power when she attempted anything. Most of the training consisted of just feeling out the heartstone and trying to match its echoes to her own heart beat.
As it turned out, that was trickier than she’d initially thought. It didn’t have to be perfect, but the closer she got it, the easier it was to pull more power from it. The problem was that her heartbeat wasn’t always steady. If they were running or climbing, or even after just long grueling hours of walking, it beat faster, and the heartstone had to be adjusted manually.
Alyr insisted that it was easier to control her own heart beat through the heartstone than it was to try to match the stone to whatever pace her heart was beating. Mira did not find that to be true, but if she was being honest, she hadn’t tried too hard to do it. There was a reason the heart beat faster when she was exerting herself, and slowing it down when it should have been pounding out of her chest seemed like a bad idea.
* * *
Shy jabbed the needle into her leg and pulled it back out. She adjusted the position a fraction and repeated it before dipping the tip back into the bowl of ink. It was painfully slow, but she was almost done now.
Jorath stepped out of a void rift behind her and walked over to the map he’d pinned up to the wall. They were in some trapper’s hut that had probably been abandoned years ago, based on the depilated state it was in. Then again, Shy had been unconscious when Jorath had brought her there, and he might just as easily have killed the original owners. She hadn’t cared enough to ask.
“Here,” he said, marking the map. “She’s here. I’ve been watching most of the day. She’s traveling north with three demons.”
Shy paused and looked at the mark Jorath had made. “Prisoner? Is she caged? Bound?”
“No. I think she’s cooperating of her own will.” He paused, then added, “I couldn’t get close enough to tell if any of them were using some sort of control abilities.”
“Why are you so sure then?”
“I recognized one of them. He’s a high ranking member of the Order of the Sealed Stone. It stands to reason that the other two are members. They wouldn’t risk hurting Mira.”
Shy went back to work on her tattoo. “Never heard of them.”
“They’re former demon hunters turned into demons, trying to get back to humans.”
Shy snorted and dipped the needle into the ink again. She started working on another leg for her new grithulik. “Stupid of them then. Humans are weak. Why do they think that Mira can undo my father’s corruption?”
“Lord Ilrot didn’t make them. They’re former Montrose demon hunters from before the clan was banished who became too dependent on their stolen heartstones.”
The needle froze in the air, an inch away from Shy’s skin. If Jorath respected their strength enough to spy on them instead of just overpowering them, then retrieving Mira was probably going to be a nasty fight. Shy would need all the strength she could get, and she was nowhere near full power.
She stabbed the needle in again. “Tell me everything you know about them. I’ll see if I can come up with a custom tattoo to help us take them on. I’ll probably need you to go on another material run.”
“I’ve got a shadow watching them right now, but from my own observations, there’s a four-armed gargoyle type demon. I suspect we’d need more physical strength than is practical to hurt him. Misdirection and speed will be our best weapons against him. Their leader is named Alyr. He’s a literal rock with a lot of long range attacks. His powers all run through the ground though, so anything airborne has a much better chance of working.”
“And the last one?”
“I don’t know yet. Human shaped, so probably not anything special in terms of strength or durability.”
Shy thought about that for a few minutes while she finished tattooing the spider leg on. The easiest way to beat an earth demon was to separate it from the earth. She could manage that with the right tools.
“Here’s what I’ll need…”