Chapter 36

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…”

Chapter 35

Mira lashed out with a stream of wind moving so fast that it shot the stone backwards. Alyr stretched his hand over his head and caught it as it flew by. “Good,” he said. “Now, two at once.”

He threw two at her, this time at different speeds. She only had a moment to calculate which would hit her first, to prioritize blocking that. Alyr had already shown her how to create a miniature tornado around her, but it was exhausting to do. The whole point of the exercise was to gain precision and control so that she could pick off incoming attacks without having to wrap herself in a cocoon of air moving fast enough to rip small trees out of the ground.

Her intuition told her that the one on her left was moving faster, but she had an idea. She’d gotten good enough to reliably stop one stone, but generating two blasts of wind in quick succession was still difficult to do. Making two at once might be easier.

Mira held up both hands and willed the vilraf heartstone to chain the air molecules in front of her to her will. Slipstreams of air jetted out of both hands and knocked one stone out of the air. The other sailed in unopposed, her blocking wind having completely missed it.

She tried to correct the slipstream, but that was essentially the same process as making a new one, and she was even slower from having successfully made two at once. The stone smacked into her arm and spun her a quarter turn. “God damn it,” she spat out. “That’s going to leave a bruise the size of a watermelon.”

With a scowl, she kicked the offending stone back toward Alyr. It wasn’t a strong enough kick to send it more than a few feet, but it rolled end over end across the room until it came to a rest at his feet. He held a hand out, and the stone shot upward into his waiting palm.

“Clever, trying to deflect both at the same time. It’s difficult to aim in two different directions at once though. Let’s take a few minutes to rest, then we’ll try again.”

Mira stomped over to the bench pushed up against the wall and flopped down. “Why the hell are we using rocks for this anyway?” she asked. “Something a bit softer would be better.”

“Because stone is my domain,” Alyr said, sitting down next to her. “I can control how fast they’re going. Anything else would just be me throwing things at you.”

“And I’m ok with that.”

“I’m not. You need to grow, and the best way to do that is to stretch the limits of your abilities. Pain is a good motivator keep you trying, even when you’re tired.”

Mira massaged the bruised muscle in her arm. The stones were about the size of baseballs, and she had no idea how fast Alyr was shooting them at her. She just knew it hurt like hell whenever she failed to block one. He wasn’t shy about targeting the same spot multiple times, for extra motivation, he’d said.

“We need to talk about your plans once you leave here,” Alyr said.

Mira looked over to see him staring at her. “Are you kicking me out?” she asked.

“Not yet. But you can’t stay here forever. You need to make some decisions, and soon.”

“My goal has always been to get back home. Jorath promised to send me back if I helped him.”

Alyr leaned forward, elbows on his legs, and laughed. “Jorath, huh? He’s a snake. We’ve done our best to document the abilities of every known powerful demon, including him. His powers let him pierce holes in reality and travel through the void between worlds. It’s fatal to humans, even human demon hunters.”

“You must be wrong,” Mira said. “He brought me here from Earth.”

“Maybe,” Alyr replied. “But I don’t think so. From what Maluk’s told me, you’ve been traveling by foot with that other demon, the one who calls herself Shy. If Jorath could move you quickly, I think he would have.”

Once he said it, Mira thought that Alyr was probably right. When they’d been in that city during the red moon, Jorath had said he needed Shodo to protect Mira. If he had been able to move her quickly, it would have made everything a lot easier.

“Maybe it takes something special to let him take a human through the void,” Mira said. “Something he couldn’t burn through whenever it was convenient.”

Alyr acknowledged the idea with a nod. “That’s certainly possible. If there was ever anyone who was hiding his capabilities, it’s Jorath. The man was bred for deceit and treachery. Still though, if ever there was a time for him to pull out the stops, it was when his sister attacked you.”

“So you think he’s been lying to me all along? That he never had any intention of sending me back?”

“If it suited his purpose,” Alyr said.

“Then I guess it’s back to my original plan. Find him, take his heartstone, and use it to find my own way home.”

“That’s one option. I told you that the Order is looking to reverse our condition, to have our bodies returned to human form. It’s a complicated process, and one we believe only you possess the ability to do. It would be an investment of time to teach you how to do this, but we’re willing to turn all our assets to help you with whatever you decide you want to do in return. If hunting down Jorath is that goal, we can help.”

“Do you know any other way for me to get back to Earth? I mean, there’s got to be a way, right? My ancestors were from this world, and they were banished to mine as humans.”

“Now that’s an idea,” Alyr mused. “I don’t personally know how it was done. I hadn’t been part of the family for a hundred years when that happened, but I’m sure it’s something we can look into.”

Mira had trouble reading Alyr. There was a sort of rigid inflexibility to his facial expressions that made it hard to get a glimpse into what he was thinking, and his voice was always level, calm. It had been reassuring at first, but as she’d regained her strength, she’d realized she had nothing to go on. The man was as hard to read as a rock, which probably wasn’t a coincidence.

Added to that his appearance as a teenager, and it was easy to find herself offbalance. He looked so close to a normal person that it was hard to think of him as a demon, but acted with so much maturity that at times he reminded her of her father. The disconnect between appearance and attitude threw her for a loop.

The consequence of all that was that she wanted to believe everything he said, and at the same time she was afraid to. He’d been upfront about his reasons for helping her, but those might not be his only motivations, if they were truthful at all. He was certainly the first and only demon she’d met who wasn’t happy with his current station in life. If Maluk or any of the other demons in the compound felt the same way as him, they hadn’t bothered to mention it.

“Well,” Alyr said, standing up. He held a hand out to Mira to help her to her feet. “Whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to be stronger. Let’s see how you do creating a wall of air quickly enough to block five stones at once.”

* * *

The infirmary wing of the compound, which was completely underground as far as Mira could tell, wasn’t a place of noise or high traffic. Because there were no doors though, there was always a quiet murmur of sound in the background. After awhile, she’d just tuned it out.

It took her a moment upon waking to realize why the quiet seemed wrong. She couldn’t hear anything at all, and after she figured that out, she realized the light was distorted too. It was like someone had put her inside a giant glass bubble and then dragged the glowing crystals that lit her room across its surface to smear them into long, diffused streaks.

“What the hell?” she mouthed, starting to sit up.

Something hit her across the chest and pressed her back down. A person came into view, cloaked and shrouded, his face masked and hands gloved. One arm was pressed against her chest, holding her down. The other hand lunged down to grab her by the throat and squeeze.

Mira felt strong fingers digging in around her windpipe and reached up with both hands to break her attacker’s grip. He didn’t loosen his grasp at all, no matter how hard she wrenched on his wrist. She opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out was a gasp of air.

The attacker stared down at her, silent and remorseless. The mask had no eye sockets, not even a slit for a nose. It was made out of some sort of hard material that had been smoothed into a blank slate that curved around the face behind it, hiding any and all details from view. If not for the angle of his head, Mira wouldn’t even have known where he was looking.

She couldn’t overpower him physically. He had a demon’s strength and no amount of struggling was going to outmuscle him. That left her with two options. She could either try to take his heartstone or she could use the one she already had. It was nearby, mere feet from her, and Alyr had told her that physical contact wasn’t needed.

It was harder without it, but Mira didn’t trust that she could find the attacker’s heartstone in time. She reached out to hers, felt its own pulse sync to her heartbeat, and funneled a gale force blast of wind directly into his chest. He was ripped away from her to slam into the far wall, where he landed on his feet and immediately sprang back toward her.

She took her first deep breath and lashed out again. Silent wind roared through the room, hurling small objects around and pinning her attacker against the wall. He struggled, even managed to resist the small tornado that was buffeting the room enough to pull his torso away from the stone, but in the end, the wind was too powerful.

It was unbelievably difficult to maintain. Mira had done it before, held the wind for about thirty seconds with the heartstone in her hand. Without it, she thought she might have a few seconds at most left. She used that time to scoop the heartstone up from the cupboards where it sat and, with a stronger tactile connection, renewed her winds.

It was a losing game though. She wasn’t hurting her attacker, just delaying him. She needed to get away, to get help. There still wasn’t any noise in the room, and it should have been deafening just from the wind alone, never mind all the little things flying around smashing into the walls and each other.

Mira slipped past the man, who made a clumsy grab for her. She wasn’t affected by her own winds like he was though, and it was easy to dodge it. As soon as she was in the hall, sound returned, and she immediately started screaming for help.

The attacker was on her within moments of her strength giving out, and the world went silent again as a new bubble unfolded around them. Mira blew him backwards with another stream of wind, but it was weak. He just stood up and stalked forward. A blade appeared in either hand, the metal painted matte black.

Mira shot more blasts of air at him and turned to run. Whether because she had weakened herself or through plain old poor aim, she didn’t make it ten feet before the attacker caught up to her. One hand closed on her hair and jerked her head back. She saw a knife come up out of her peripheral vision and gasped.

Then Maluk was there, hurtling past her like a cannon. By the time Mira turned around, he’d already carried the attacker out the other side of the distortion bubble. The fight was brief, with Maluk the clear winner. He was simply too fast, too agile, for his opponent to land a hit, and he matched the other demon’s strength easily.

Maluk had him pinned on the ground when Alyr arrived. Leaning down, the youthful-faced demon pulled the mask off and frowned. “Lortas?” he asked, clearly surprised. “What are you doing?”

Mira recognized him. It was one of the demons she’d seen in the compound, a member of the Order. Someone within their organization had just tried to kill her.

Chapter 34

Alyr walked over to a cupboard set against the wall and opened it, revealing a faded, washed out green light. “Here,” he said, gesturing to Mira to join him. “These are yours.”

The two heartstones sat on an otherwise empty shelf. The vilraf one looked normal enough, but the inferolisk heartstone was flickering weakly. Cracks had formed throughout its surface, which was an ashy gray instead of brilliant, burning hot white.

“What happened to it?” she asked, making no move to touch it.

“Heartstones decay naturally when removed from their hosts. The weaker the stone, the faster is breaks down. You can prevent that decay by bonding it, which is what you were in the process of doing. Of course, the stronger your bond, the larger the risk of ending up the newest member of the Order.”

Mira picked up the vilraf stone and examined it. “This one still looks the same.”

“Yes, you’ve only had it for a few days, I think. The inferolisk heartstone has been out of its host for over a month, and without your magic to protect it, it’s power has faded. You’ll find it much less useful now.”

Mira had a mental image of fire whirling all around her, and she shuddered. That wasn’t a power she was eager to hold. It was only her own focus that protected her from the heat of the flames she’d made. If she’d slipped, even for a moment, she’d have burned alive.

“What should I do with it then?” she asked.

“You can use it if you want, but I think you’d be better served by learning how to break a bond before you assimilate too much of the heartstone into your body. Since this one is worn out and practically worthless, it will make good practice for you.”

The thought of using either heartstone again made Mira queasy. It must have shown on her face, because Alyr laughed and said, “It doesn’t have to be today, but there is a lot to learn and I’m sure there are people looking for you, so sooner is better.”

“Speaking of that,” Mira said, glancing back at Maluk, “Do you know… um… what was happening, who that woman was that attacked me?”

“Sybill Valdrite,” Maluk said. “Ilrot’s chief torturer and favored servant. Her abilities specialize in blood manipulation, both her own and others. Manipulating someone else’s blood requires her to mix her own with that person.”

“Oh.” Mira blinked. “So you know her then. Is it, you know, safe, to be around me? I’m putting you guys in danger just by being here.”

Alyr shook his head. “If Sybill attacks us here, it’ll be the last thing she ever does. There are no less than three demons within five hundred feet who are just as strong as her, and at any given time, ten to twenty more who could overwhelm her with sheer numbers.”

“Oh,” Mira said again.

“So don’t worry. You’re safe right now. Maluk is going to take your back to your bed to rest. Tomorrow, we’ll start working with you to break the bond to this damaged heartstone and learn how to use your abilities.”

Mira put the vilraf heartstone back in the cupboard. “Thanks,” she said. It might have been Alyr’s calm confidence in saying it, but she found she believed him. “I think I’d like to go lay down now.”

* * *

Maluk showed up again the next morning to fetch Mira. When she protested that she was still tired and weak, he just stared at her until she sighed and hauled herself out of bed. Then he led her in a different direction than her last meeting, this time to a relatively open and empty room.

Alyr was standing there waiting, the inferolisk heartstone held in one hand. It had always been almost burning hot to the touch, yet he held if as if it were nothing more than an ordinary rock. Mira didn’t know if that was because the heat didn’t bother him or if it had just lost that much of its power. It looked even worse than it had the day before.

“Good morning,” he said. “Our first lesson is breaking the bond you’ve been forming with this heartstone. Now, there are a few ways to accomplish this, but we’re going to focus on the most time-efficient method.”

“Well gee, let’s jump right in,” Mira said. “Can I sit down for this at least?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. Alyr watched with amusement as she plopped down on the stone floor, waited for a second to let her get comfortable, and tossed her the heartstone. As soon as it touched her skin, Mira had her answer. It was barely even warm now, let alone burning hot.

“Letting a heartstone decay after you’ve bonded it can be damaging to you. It can make it harder to bond new heartstones in the future, since the more bonds you have going at once, the more difficult it becomes to access any single heartstone. It’s much better to sever the bond yourself.”

“Is that why I’ve had so much trouble getting the vilraf heartstone to work for me?” Mira asked, intrigued. She’d developed a few theories about her failure to pull any sort of magic from the heartstone, but hadn’t considered that the inferolisk heartstone had been blocking her.

“Yes and no. If you were stronger, you could have accessed both at once. Since you weren’t, you didn’t have the ability to draw on a second heartstone while still bonded to the first one.”

That didn’t track though. Mira had accessed the vilraf heartstone. She’d combined the two of them into a deadly firestorm that scorched everything around her for a few brief seconds before she’d collapsed. If Alyr was right about all the mechanics of this ability she had, that meant she was strong enough to use two at once.

When she explained what had happened to Alyr though, he just nodded and said, “It was a desperate situation. Your heart was pumping. You were terrified. That lends you a strength you do not normally possess. With practice and hard work, you’ll grow to be able to do that all the time. Right now though, I do not expect you to duplicate that event.”

Alyr walked Mira through the process of breaking the bond he claimed existed between her and the heartstone. It was a series of revelations to her, from learning that she could sense where the heartstone was somehow, to using that new found sense to determine what condition the heartstone was in, to finally feeling out the invisible strings that tied it to her own heart.

Every beat of her heart made the heartstone pulse. It wasn’t something she could see with her eyes, but the echo between the stone and her own chest was tangible once she knew how to look for it. It took hours of patient coaching from Alyr, but she was finally able to feel it.

“Perfect,” Alyr said, studying her. Somehow, he was able to see when she finally figured each step out. Mira didn’t know how, but she didn’t spare the brain power to worry about it. Just keeping the focus required to find the reverberations between her heart and the inferolisk heartstone was more demanding than she would have believed possible.

“Now comes the tricky part. This is dangerous, but I’m here to guide you, and I’ll pull you out if I feel like you’re too far gone into it. You need to stop your own heart until the echoes fade away.”

“I need to what!” Mira yelped, her eyes flying open.

The echoes cut off, silenced when she lost her concentration. With an effort of will, she stretched out sore muscles and climbed to her feet. Hours and hours of sitting still, focusing on that dull glowing rock cradled in her lap had left her aching for her bed.

“You will slow your own heart until it stops, and once it no longer beats, it won’t feed new echoes to the heartstone. This is dangerous, for obvious reasons, but I am here to make sure you do this safely and successfully.”

“Ok, two things. First, how the hell am I supposed to stop my own heart? Second, and more importantly, if I actually do manage to pull that off, how do I start it back up again?”

“Your heart wants to beat,” Alyr said, a bitter note in his voice that Mira hadn’t noticed before. “Stopping it runs counter to its natural state. All you have to do is let it, and it will beat again on its own.”

“And that’s a relief, but I still don’t know how you expect me to stop it in the first place.”

“You’ve heard the echoes of your heart and the heartstone bouncing back and forth. They’re tied together. If you silence one, you silence both. Use your power to silence the heartstone, and your heart will reflect that back. Without that resonance, the heartstone’s bond will break. Then you simply let go, and your own heart starts again.”

When he put it that way, it sounded easy. Mira didn’t believe it was though. Alyr had stressed that he was there to oversee the process, to make sure she did it safely. That meant there was a way to do it not-safely, and the potential consequences of not-safely stopping her heart sounded bad.

“I don’t think I want to do this. Why can’t I just let this thing finish breaking down on its own?”

“If you don’t control the decay, it will affect your heart. You probably won’t even notice it the first time, or the second. It catches up eventually though. Your heart weakens with each break, and it never heals perfectly.

“That’s a long-term problem. Here, today, a more immediate one is Elerak. He’s roaming somewhere above ground, looking for something. We think it’s this heartstone. All fire demons are his children, and he has always been vengeful in seeking out the demon hunters who stole their heartstones. This bond needs to be broken and this stone taken away from here as soon as possible.”

“I thought you said I was safe here,” Mira said.

“From Sybill, yes. Elerak is a force of nature. I do not think even the King of Demons would dare to confront him in his current state.”

“Ok, ok.” Mira took a deep breath and sat back down. “Help me do this then.”

Alyr coached her back into the semi-lucid state of feeling the echoes of her own heartbeat reverberate through the heartstone. Mira was vaguely pleased that she managed it much quicker the second time, but that thought floated across the surface of her mind, a distraction to be brushed aside.

Once she’d achieved the state of mental equilibrium required to sense out the resonance, Mira reached out and to still the heartstone. It slowed down, at first just slightly out of sync. Then, as she bore down on it, it stopped completely. Pain flooded her chest and shocked her out of her trance.

Her heart thudding against her ribs, she shot a glance up at Alyr. “Try again,” he said. “Accept the pain. Own it. You can do this.”

The third time was harder than the second. Knowing what was waiting for her was a distraction she just couldn’t shake, but she refused to stop trying. When she did finally get back there, the echoes were distorted, uneven. They faded in and out, confusing her. At first she thought it was because of her failed attempt, but then she realized her own fear had her wavering in and out of the necessary state of mind to focus.

Alyr’s voice was smooth, hypnotic. She didn’t even know what he was saying, but the rhythm of his words somehow lined up perfectly with the echoes. He acted like a metronome, helping her keep track of the timing. Once she was sure she had it, Mira reached out again and started shutting down the heartstone.

The pain of her own heart stopping was intense, like a band of iron squeezing her chest. Her lungs were two lumps of lead in her chest, swollen to bursting. She was light-headed, losing focus. Only Alyr’s voice kept her on track. Mira fought through that pain, accepted it as she’d been told to. Finally, after a timeless moment, the echoes faded to complete silence.

She let go of the heartstone and took a deep, dizzying breath. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, rapid and strong. With a gasp, she fell over and landed flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling.

After a minute to recover, she sat up and looked at Alyr, who grinned back at her. “Look,” he said, pointing.

Mira followed his finger to see the dull lifeless stone on the floor. Even as she watched, it cracked and split in half, revealing a hallow core filled with ash. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “I actually did it.”

“You did,” Alyr agreed.

“I never want to do it again.”

He laughed and extended a hand to help her up. “It gets easier with practice. For now though, I think you’ve done enough.”

Chapter 33

Mira’s head was killing her. She’d been awake for all of five seconds, hadn’t even opened her eyes yet, and the pain was a sledgehammer driving her back to unconsciousness. She would have given in to it too, if she hadn’t heard someone moving around near her.

Instead, she forced herself to sit up. She was in a room lit by a soft green glow, laying in a bed with a threadbare and patched blanket covering her legs. Someone reacted to her movement, but that was as far as she got before her stomach revolted. She leaned over the bed, saw a convenient bucket placed there, and promptly hurled her guts out into it.

“Yes, yes. Take it easy now,” a voice said. “Don’t worry, this is a common reaction.”

“What’s a-” Mira cut off as she leaned over the bucket again.

“Here,” the voice said after she finished. “You’ve been sleeping for four days. Sip this slowly.”

A wide bowl was thrust into her face and tipped as she opened her mouth. The water was warm and tasted metallic, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. When the hand holding the bowl tried to pull it away, she grabbed its wrist and held it in place.

“Don’t be greedy. I said slowly. Give it a second.”

But she didn’t let go, and the bowl didn’t move away. Mira took another sip before releasing the arm and laying back. She looked over at the person then. He was short and spindly, with a wild fringe of green hair sticking out in every direction. He peered at her with eyes that were a mostly pupil, with only a sliver of green circling the black.

“Who are you?” Mira rasped out.

“Garnik,” he told her. “I am the chief healer for the Order of the Sealed Stone.”

There was always something new to add to the pile of things Mira didn’t understand. “Yeah, well, thanks for clearing that up.”

Garnik smirked at her. “I take it you’re feeling better.”

“She doesn’t look better,” a new voice said.

“She’s awake,” Garnik said. “That’s better.”

Maluk came into view. He studied Mira intently before shaking his head. “The Council will not be happy if she dies.”

“She’s not going to die! I told you she’s better. That means she’s better.”

Maluk ignored Garnik and said to Mira, “How do you feel?”

“Like shit. Where am I?”

“An Order safe house,” Maluk said.

“Not so safe,” Garnik cut in. “There’s something big roaming around on the surface. I think it might be Elerak.”

“He shouldn’t bother us down here.”

The two bickered back and forth while Mira rested. She should have been worrying about where she was, how she’d gotten there, and what Maluk wanted. Rationally, those were all important questions. But she was drained, physically and emotionally. Even just thinking about it left her exhausted.

“Shut up,” she snapped. “It feels like my skull is going to split open and you two aren’t helping.”

Garnik clicked his tongue. “More water, then more rest.”

“But-” Maluk started.

“Out,” Garnik interrupted. He spun Maluk and pushed him out of the room. He turned to look at Mira, said again, “Rest. I’ll check on you soon.”

Then he was gone, leaving Mira alone with her thoughts. She reached over for the bowl Garnik had left near the bed, saw a second bucket opposite the one she’d thrown up in, and laughed. He was a thorough fellow, she’d give him that.

The laughter died and she laid back, the bowl held balanced on her chest with one hand while she sipped water from it. She was in trouble. Maluk hadn’t exactly been against her, but he definitely wasn’t on her side. She didn’t know if Shy was still alive, or whether she’d escaped from Sybill if she was. She had a vague memory of Jorath showing up, but nothing after that.

Something had happened. There was no way they’d just let Maluk carry her off, but Mira couldn’t imagine him waltzing in there, scooping her up, and leaving without them noticing. If Sybill had killed them, then she would have stopped Maluk, unless he’d killed all three of them.

Mira didn’t think he was that strong. Shy probably couldn’t have stopped him, not in her condition, but she’d restrained Maluk with her shadow, which was presumably Jorath’s magic. She’d never gotten a chance to ask about that, and it hadn’t ever done anything strange again after that night. It wasn’t something she wanted to risk relying on to escape wherever she was now.

The simple truth of it was that she was fucked. Her heartstones were gone, not that she wanted to use them again. She doubted Maluk was going to let her just walk out of here, and she was sure she couldn’t hobble that far even if she was free to go.

Mira emptied the bowl and let it slide off her to the floor. What she needed, more than anything else, was to rest and recover. Whatever those heartstones had done to her had nearly killed her. She was almost asleep with a cramp hit her stomach. She rolled over on her side and reached for the bucket.

* * *

Garnik was there when she woke back up, this time with a plate of food for her. Mira’s stomach rebelled at the thought of eating, but he insisted. She managed to get down half of it, tried not to think too closely about what it was while she ate it, and pushed the leftovers away when she was done.

“We’ll try again in a bit,” he said. “Now, it’s been a few hundred years since it’s been a problem for me, but I believe humans still need to relieve themselves, yes? Would you like some help getting out of the bed or would you prefer some privacy?”

Mira blinked at him. “Are you… did you used to be a human?”

He looked surprised. “Did Maluk not tell you?”

“No,” Maluk said from the door. “It’s not our place. The Council will decide what to tell her and what to keep to themselves. So shut your mouth and come with me.”

“Will you be alright by yourself?” Garnik asked Mira, not moving.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m feeling better than yesterday.”

“Good. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Getting out of bed was more work than Mira had expected, more work than she thought it should be, but she managed to stand up, one hand on the bed to support herself. The bathroom, such as it was, was a nook in the corner that resembled a port-a-potty with a bin that could be slid out the bottom. It wasn’t a very large bin, of course, but Mira had gotten used to similar setups over the months she’d been stranded on Aligoth.

They’d dressed her in some sort of nightgown. She didn’t want to think about who’d stripped her out of her old clothes. She also didn’t want to think about how long it’d been since she’d had access to a razor blade. Her legs had long since gone past cactus and turned into some kind of fuzzy shrub.

Business finished, Mira found herself out of bed with no supervision. She hobbled toward the doorway, which didn’t include an actual door, and peaked out. Her room was part of a set in a hallway that was vaguely reminiscent of a hospital set up, except with no nurse’s station or doors. She hadn’t been able to see out from her bed, and she couldn’t see anyone else in the other rooms for presumably the same reason.

“You must be feeling better,” Maluk said, making her jump. He was standing next to the open doorway, leaning against the wall. “Garnik is a good healer, but he is too cautious. You could use another week in bed, but there is work to be done. If you’re well enough to explore, then you’re well enough to meet a Councilman.”

“Do you think you might explain any of this to me at some point?” Mira asked.

“Only what I am ordered to tell you. You can ask your questions when you meet the Councilman. He may or may not answer them as he chooses.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” she muttered. Then, louder, she said to Maluk, “Let’s go then. We might as well get this over.”

Mira hobbled down the hall, supported on one side by Maluk and the other by a hand on the wall. It was slow progress, and halfway to the end, Garnik came out of another room. He saw them, gave Maluk a silent glare, and turned away. If Maluk was perturbed at all, he didn’t show it.

They left the infirmary behind, though Mira couldn’t have said exactly where they went. She was too focused on keeping upright and putting one front in front of the other to pay attention. Eventually though, after an agonizing few minutes of shuffling along, Maluk led her to a door set into the stone wall. The lights were clean white here, spaced evenly across the ceiling. Each was a stone rod with thick vein glowing brightly in the center.

Maluk rapped on the door, opened it and stuck his head through, and said something. Mira heard a muffled response, and he opened the door the rest of the way and gestured for Mira to enter. She did, and he followed her, closing the door behind him.

Of all the things that came to mind when she thought of a demonic Councilman, a teenaged boy was not one of them. There were some abnormalities, like the stony texture of his exposed skin or the metallic sheen on his finger nails. But mostly, he just looked like a highschool kid, albeit in better shape than most of the people she’d went to school with.

“Um… hello,” Mira said.

“Mira Tanner?” the boy asked.

“That’s me. Who are you?”

“Alyr Montrose. I’m your great-great-great-great-many-times-removed-grand cousin.”

“I… er… I don’t think that’s a thing,” Mira said, “And also, what? I thought all my ancestors were dead.”

“All the human ones, yes. Probably. You never can tell. I imagine there are still some of the offshoot bloodlines out there, but of course they don’t count.”

Mira thought about that for a second and shot a glance behind her at Maluk. “So if you’re from twenty generations back, but obviously still alive, and obviously not human, then you’re a demon?”

Alyr nodded. “Correct. Everyone in the Order was, once upon a time, a Montrose demon hunter. We weren’t careful enough with the heartstones we wielded, and ended up trapped in these forms.”

“Holy shit,” Mira said. “Is this going to happen to me? Is that why I passed out, why I’m so weak now?”

“No, no. To put it bluntly, you’re so far away from the necessary level of proficiency required for this to even be a risk that it’s laughable.”

Mira decided there was no point in taking offense to that. She hadn’t exactly put up a good show in her last fight, or any of them, really. Even her win against Maluk, if she could really count it as one, had been because of her shadow, not anything she’d done.

“Ok, that clears up some of who you guys are. Why am I here?”

“It isn’t enough that we might be concerned about the fate of the only living human descendent of our clan?” Alyr asked.

“No,” Mira said. “Sorry, I’m not buying it. Everyone on this whole damn planet wants something from me. I just haven’t figured out what it is from you yet.”

“I was fifteen when I overreached my abilities and ended up turning myself into a demon,” Alyr said. “For over four hundred years, I’ve been trapped in this shape. Four hundred years since the last time my heart beat, since the last time I needed to fill my lungs with air. Do you know what I want, more than anything?”

“No.”

“I want to taste an apple again. Guess what I eat now. Rocks, preferably with mineral deposits in them. That’s what the demon whose heartstone I controlled lived on. For four hundred years, I’ve been eating rocks. I want what every single member of the Order wants. I want to be human again.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with me,” Mira said.

“It has everything to do with you,” Alyr told me. “You see, in my time, and in young Maluk’s time behind you, and in the time of every demon hunter who fell victim to his own power, we couldn’t ever figure out how to reverse the effect. We’ve had centuries to work on it, and we think we know how to now. The ironic part is that it requires a Montrose demon hunter to make it work, and they’ve all been gone for hundreds of years.”

“And here I am,” Mira said. “Lucky you.”

“Don’t misunderstand. We were demon hunters. Many of us would like to return to that life, especially considering the state the world is in now. I think I’ve pieced together enough of Jorath’s plan to guess what he has in mind, and the Order would be a powerful force to drive that plan to completion.”

A thought occurred to Mira. “And, if there were other Montrose demon hunters again, no one would need me. I could go home.”

She watched Alyr’s face when she said it. He hesitated, only for a fraction of a second, but enough to be telling. “I suppose that’s a possibility.”

“You don’t really believe that it is though, do you?”

“From what I understand of Jorath’s abilities, I’m not sure how he got you here without killing you,” Alyr said. “I don’t know any way to return you home. You would have to negotiate that with him, and he doesn’t have a reputation for doing anything out of the goodness of his heart.”

Mira’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Then I’m still trapped here.”

“Not necessarily. If you can free us from this curse, then we’d owe you a great deal. Convincing Jorath to send you home in exchange for us helping him instead might be an offer he’s open to.”

“Yeah… about that… what exactly do I need to do?”

Interlude 2

Ilrot was not happy. When he wasn’t happy, things around him started breaking. People around him started breaking. That was unfortunate, because the only people near him were Sybill and Shodo. Sybill was on her knees, her eyes blank but her face tight with pain.

Shodo stood behind her, his fingers dug deeply into her scalp. An image hung in the air before them, one of Sybill’s memories from her fight with Jorath. Ilrot watched it play out, watched Jorath trick her into the void, watched his own daughter hurl all three of them through the portal.

That marked her failure. As much as Ilrot wanted Jorath back, wanted to punish him for his audacity, for daring to believe he could triumph, it was the human girl he’d taken from Earth that Ilrot needed. Allowing herself to be pushed through Jorath’s portal was the tipping point where Syball had lost control of the situation.

Ilrot said nothing. Shodo shot him a quick, questioning glance, and he nodded for the illusion to continue. It showed the three of them pass through the living, hungering darkness of the void, a journey that appeared to have damaged Annidra, given how weak she was when they went through.

It was a brief passage though, merely a matter of moments before Jorath brought them back out into the mountain highlands that surrounded the Valdrite family’s home, now Ilrot’s, of course. It was a deliberate snub, bringing them there, mere miles from Ilrot’s seat of power. Then again, perhaps even after all the centuries that had passed, Jorath still instinctually sought out what he considered his home.

Either way, if he’d been thinking logically, he would have abandoned Sybill as far from Ilrot’s influence as possible. It had been all too easy to retrieve her, to determine exactly when and how she’d failed.

The battle picked up again in the illusion that Shodo projected into the air. But Jorath was no longer trying to fight, and Sybill wasn’t prepared to keep him pinned down. He scooped up Annidra and faded away in moments, leaving Sybill fuming amidst the towering trees that surrounded Valdrite Keep.

“So you lost the Montrose girl, failed to return my daughter, and let your traitorous brother escape, all in one spectacular round of incompetency.”

Ilrot gestured for Shodo to move aside. Without his hands there to hold Sybill upright, she prostrated herself on the floor. “My Lord, forgive me, please. Jorath was nowhere nearby. I am sure. I don’t know how he knew to interfere with my plans.”

“You didn’t think he might have contingencies in place to protect the girl?” Ilrot asked, his voice soft. It was always like that when he was truly angry. Some people let out their rage in bellows, great voices booming out. He wasn’t one of those people, and Sybill knew it. She trembled in place, no doubt expecting her punishment to be immediate and severe.

The base part of his nature wanted nothing more than to tear her to pieces and leave her as quivering lumps of meat splattered across the floor. He overruled that desire. Sybill was unwaveringly faithful, far too useful, and he had more personally invested in her than any other demon he’d ever created.

“It surprises me that you’ve failed,” Ilrot told her. “I’ve come to expect better from you.”

“Master, please-”

“I wasn’t finished,” Ilrot said, his voice clipped. Sybill fell silent, but her trembling only got worse.

“As I was saying, it surprises me, but perhaps it’s my own fault. Your brother is strong, almost as strong as you, and probably more clever by half.” He smirked as he said it. That it was the truth didn’t make it sting any less. Half of the reason Ilrot had kept Jorath around was because he enjoyed watching the siblings hate each other.

“If you can not be more clever than him though, then I will simply have to make you stronger. Stand up.”

Sybill scrambled to her feet, her eyes wild and her breathing shallow and rapid. Ilrot circled her once, then again, before placing a hand on her chest. His fingers dug into her flesh, pierced it, and sent tendrils of his magic into her. They touched the calcified, unbeating stone that had once been her heart, back when she’d been human.

She convulsed and jerked away. He’d been told the pain was unimaginable, something indescribable, so agonizing that his victims couldn’t even remember it afterwards. Ilrot didn’t blame her for flinching, but that didn’t stop him from sending another burst of magic into her heartstone.

Sybill screamed then, and Ilrot’s lips curled into a sadistic smile. The scream went on for long seconds before she passed out completely. It wasn’t as fun when she wasn’t awake to experience it, but he wasn’t torturing her for fun. There was work to be done.

He finished augmenting her heartstone while she was still unconscious and held upright only because he hadn’t let go. When he was done, he released her to collapse to the floor and beckoned Shodo over.

“Wake her up.”

“My Lord? You don’t want her to have time to recover?”

Ilrot raised an eyebrow. Shodo bowed low and, saying nothing, began the process of stimulating Sybill’s mind to wakening. It was a matter of half a minute before she was awake, and seizing from the pain her body had tried to flee by knocking her unconscious.

“You will go out after them again,” Ilrot told her, knowing she could hear him. “And Sybill, if you fail to capture your brother again, you’ll take his place in the Cloister.”

Chapter 32

Every movement shot new spikes of pain through her body, but Shy pushed through it to climb to her feet. With a mental call, she summoned the hoop-carrying gargoyle tattoo back to her from where she’d flung it during her battle with Kull. As soon as she’d realized he was a blood slave, she’d known Sybill was nearby, and that they’d need help.

Jorath stood perhaps ten feet from Sybill. They glared at each other, their faces full of undisguised hatred and, in her case, a tint of mad glee. Spikes had welled up from Sybill’s skin, covering her arms and back, her stomach and legs, even her face. Some were mere stubs, others almost a foot long.

Jorath watched them grow placidly, his shadow curled around his feet like a cat. “What gave me away?” he asked.

Sybill smirked. “You’re sloppy. You always were. The master is not pleased, Jorath. You’re going to the Cloister.”

“I can’t help but notice that you haven’t killed my associates. I’m assuming that you’re under orders to bring everyone back alive.”

“Alive, yes. But I was explicitly told that you didn’t have to be in good condition. And I’ve been wanting to do this for centuries.” Sybill licked her lips and glanced at Shy. “And your minions are on their last legs. There’s no one to help you, and you can’t hide behind Lord Ilrot anymore.”

Shy bristled at the comment. She was nobody’s minion. If that’s what their partnership looked like from the outside, then she and Jorath needed to redefine the relationship. That would be a discussion for another time. For now, survival took priority.

Sybill practically flew at Jorath. It gave Shy a moment of crystalline clarity exactly how outmatched she’d been. She’d known Sybill hadn’t been going all out, but it was only in that moment, watching the speed the other demon moved with, that Shy realized she’d never had a chance, no matter how slim.

Jorath, on the other hand, was not caught off-guard. His shadow flared up in front of him, a wide screen of insubstantial darkness that Sybill crashed through without hesitation. It gave him enough time to avoid her attack and launch his own.

Her shadow looped around her legs and pulled them together as it clawed its way up her body, fingers reaching for her neck. Sybill flexed, and new spikes ripped through her skin to pierce the shadow substance. The lower half of her shadow was shredded instantly, but its hands still reached her throat, where they wrapped around a thick band of blood-red metal that bubbled out of her skin.

“Same old tricks,” Sybill said. “After all these years, I’d have thought you’d have learned something new.”

Sybill’s shadow rose up and wrapped itself around her face, blinding her and blocking her nose and mouth. Jorath smiled and said, “A few, here and there.”

Blood spikes ripped through the shadow, just like they had when it had tangled her legs up. But in the second it took for her vision to clear, Jorath had stepped through one of his void portals and come out behind her. He grabbed her by two particularly long, thick spikes coming out of her back, lifted over his head, and slammed her face down into the ground.

Sybill grunted and spikes broke off all over the front of her body. They scattered across the ground like little round crystals, some of them even spinning away far enough to reach Shy. Then Jorath heaved up, lifting Sybill up to his chest, and slammed her down again.

She got her hands and feet under her this time, fast enough to prevent Jorath from smacking her face-first into the dirt, but he was quick to improvise. A kick caught her ribs hard enough to lift her back into the air and spin her around to land on her back.

Blood spikes shot out of her, flung through the air to stab Jorath in a hundred different spots, except that he’d already retreated into the void and reappeared elsewhere. Sybill climbed to her feet, her face bloody, and turned to face him. “Hit and run tactics? Really?”

Jorath shrugged. “It works for me.”

The blood on Sybill’s face crystallized and flaked off. “Not that well,” she said, but Shy thought she didn’t sound as confident as she had a minute ago. For some reason, Sybill had been expecting an easy win, and Jorath was putting up a better fight than she’d given him credit for.

New spikes grew out of her to replace the ones Jorath had broken. Sybill whipped her arm forward, sending a wave of them through the air to lead her next charge. Jorath slipped to one side, but Sybill hadn’t followed the spikes straight, and she was perfectly lined up to slam into him.

They went rolling together, her doing her best to cling to him while the body spikes flayed his skin. After a few rotations, he managed to kick her off and get his feet under him. Jorath was bleeding everywhere, that strange inky black blood. Shy tilted her head and watched it dribble into the dirt. She’d never considered it before, but that blood could be a potent base liquid for a new tattoo.

She shook her head. That was another conversation to be had later. What she needed to do was find some way to help Jorath, but she was barely standing. She might be able to form the ulusoc tattooed across her back, but she doubted she’d be able to maintain its shape for long, maybe not even long enough for it to fully manifest.

Hand to hand was out. Sybill had already proven she was stronger, faster, and more skilled than Shy. Magically, Sybill and Jorath were still going at each other full strength, where as the only person more wiped out than Shy was Kull, who, despite everything, was somehow still breathing.

Shy knew Jorath didn’t want to confront his sister, but she had hoped that once Sybill had forced the fight, he’d have no choice but to show up and protect Mira. And by that, she meant that Jorath killing Sybill would solve a lot of their immediate problems.

If it was going to happen though, it would be on Jorath. Shy wasn’t going to do much more than get in the way.

* * *

Jorath was keeping ahead of his sister, but only just barely. Sybill was controlling the battlefield by making him respond to her movements, and every attempt he made to limit her was broken simply by changing targets. Three times she’d gone after Mira, only to be stopped by Jorath. She’d only broken for Shy once, and as soon as she’d realized Jorath wasn’t going to give her an opening by stopping her, she’d abandoned the tactic.

He knew she wasn’t going to kill Mira, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t destroy the human’s usefulness. All Jorath was sure of was that Ilrot wanted Mira alive. If Sybill crippled her, it would make his plans impossible to carry out.

What he needed to do was get her pinned down. There were spots she couldn’t form spikes, or at least not without seriously injuring herself. Those were places of vulnerability, if he could hit them. At least, they had been years ago. The gorget armor around her throat was new. It was possible she could form more armor plates along her sides and thighs as well.

There was only way to find out. He sent his own shadow out to yoke Sybill’s and, while she was busy hurling hardened shards of her own blood at him, they formed into a hard knot that hammered into her leg. Pieces were sheared off from the body spikes, but the hit was solid. It didn’t slow her down, didn’t do more than make her laugh.

“You didn’t think that would still work?” Sybill sneered. “Two hundred years to improve, and you’re honestly still trying the same tricks?”

“Just exploring my options,” Jorath said.

Sybill always had liked to talk. He’d turned that against her more than once when they fought. She couldn’t resist taunting her opponent, and her condescension blinded her. It had been decades since the last battle though, and she’d obviously taken some lessons away from that loss. Jorath had been too busy hiding his hatred for his master to pay attention to what Sybill was up to.

But then, he didn’t have to kill her to win. Sybill’s goal was to capture all three of them, and Jorath couldn’t move Mira through the nether void without risking destroying her mind or even killing her. He could move Sybill though. It was a temporary solution, but it was his best option at the moment. He’d have to actively prepare for her return soon; there was no way she’d ever give up. But here, right now, he could stop her.

He just had to stop letting her control the battlefield. She was forcing his movements and he needed to flip that. Unfortunately, his abilities focused more on his own mobility, or even on hindering his enemies’ mobility. What it didn’t do was move people who didn’t want to be moved.

Sybill sprayed a hail of blood spikes at him. She was expecting him to shift out of the way, and she was betting she could guess which way he would go. Her stance told him she was aiming to the right, but he suspected a trap. With only an instant to decide which way her next attack would come, he cheated.

He stepped through the void and came out right behind her. She reacted instantly, of course, as he’s known she would. The spikes coming out of her back tripled in length as she flung herself backward, and he went with it. The tear hung open in the air, waiting for him. He grabbed the leading spikes and tugged as he fell backward.

Sybill sensed it at the last instant and checked her step. She threw her weight forward, but it was too late. Jorath had her, and her struggles weren’t enough to stop him from pulling in. But he wasn’t the only one who could cheat. Spikes jutted out of the spikes he was holding. Jorath gritted his teeth as blood welled up around them, but he didn’t let go.

New spikes shot from the backs of her legs, thick and long, into the ground. It gave her the stability to resist Jorath’s strength. “No,” she growled. “I will not. You are not stronger than me.”

More spikes shot out, these ones long and curved. They hooked around Jorath’s ribs and dug into his back. Sybill leaned forward, a movement which dug the hooked ends in deeper. Worse, he could feel them still growing.  His only choices were to abandon the rift or let her puncture his internal organs. If his hands had been free, he might have tried to break them, but the spikes going through his palms had grown out the back side and curled to hold him in place.

“You’ve failed, little brother,” Sybill said. “Again. Just like so long ago.”

* * *

Shy watched Sybill pull Jorath out of his void rift. His plan was brilliant in is simplicity. If he couldn’t get Mira away from Sybill, he’d do it the other way around. Unfortunately for him, Sybill had either realized his intention or just plain knew that if he wanted her through that portal, she didn’t want to go.

And there it was, right in front of her. Shy could change the outcome of the fight. “Damn it, Jorath,” she said. “You’d better know what you’re doing.”

She charged forward as fast as her injuries would let her. Sybill saw her coming, of course, but she was too busy fighting to keep Jorath from pulling her in. There was no way she could stop Shy. Spikes shot forward, but it was a token gesture. Shy dodged them easily. Then she hit Sybill around the middle at full speed. All three of them flew into the portal and disappeared

* * *

The human girl was unconscious on the ground. She’d drawn too deeply on her power and burnt herself out in an instant. With time and a bit of help, she could recover. Thankfully, the battle had ended in the best possible way.

Maluk looked down and sighed. Then he hefted Mira’s unconscious body over his shoulder and walked away from the clearing. It was time to introduce her to the Order, to see if she really was the answer to all their prayers.

* * *

Kull woke up with a strangled gasp. Everything hurt, but the ache was dulled by the regenerative magic that had sustained him throughout his long and violent career. At first, he wasn’t sure what had woken him, but it was the work of a moment to spot the demon circling around him.

His hands closed on the axe and he leaped to his feet. The demon took that as its cue to lope in, hunched low and teeth bared. Kull wasn’t afraid. He’d seen this kind before. They were strong, and prone to unexpected bursts of speed, but they were stupid and had poor reflexes. It was the work of minutes for him to put it down, even as injured as he still was.

He needed to find a safe place to finish healing, and then there was a new demon on his list to kill.

Chapter 31

Kull rushed straight in. Shy stood her ground, one hand behind her back, where Mira could see metal plates growing across her skin. As Kull closed and brought the axe down, her hand swept up to catch the blade. She  jerked it to one side, trying to pry it out of Kull’s grip.

Instead, he willingly followed the pull and turned the momentum against her. As he stumbled past, he set his shoulder and checked her backwards. Then, with a full body twist, he wrenched the axe free and pulled into a spin that arced around to come at her from the other side.

Shy dropped to the ground as the axe whistled over her head. It wasn’t a graceful drop, just her legs collapsing underneath her and her ass hitting the dirt. That didn’t stop her from kicking a foot out to crunch against Kull’s knee, then cocking her leg back and kicking him again, this time a foot higher.

He didn’t stumble, didn’t wince. He took the punishment to his groin without so much as a grunt as he brought the axe around to cut into Shy’s skull. She rolled to the side and kicked again, this time snapping his wrist and forcing him to wield the heavy weapon one handed.

“He’s a blood slave,” Shy told Mira, who was hovering nearby, trying to find some way to help. “He’s not going to stop until we’re dead. No reasoning with him. Put him down.”

Mira reached for the inferolisk stone, but before she could grab it, something pierced her hand. She cried out and tried to jerk away, only to discover that a long, slick spike had shot through her hand and into the ground. As soon as she realized what was happening, the pain hit her in a wave and she fell to her knees.

“Let’s not have any of that now,” a woman said from behind her. “I rather like this one, and I’m not sure how well he’d heal from burns.”

Then something clouted her in the back of the head. The world flashed white and Mira slumped forward. The motion pulled her hand against the spike, which cranked up the pain from that so high that she almost blacked out. With tears streaming down her face, she reached over to pull the spike free.

It was a uniform thickness down to the dirt and for a foot past the back of her hand. Every jerking motion Mira made to slide her hand up caused fresh waves of pain to radiate through her. With a cry, she pulled her hand up the last half a foot in one motion and away from the spike.

She spun in place to see a thin, gaunt woman smirking at her. “Did it hurt?” the woman asked, laughing. She held up Mira’s pouch. “I borrowed these. Hope you don’t mind.”

Mira didn’t get a chance to reply. Something streaked past her, dark blue and full of sharp angles and jagged tips. It rushed the woman, followed by half a dozen other monstrous shapes. Mira shot a look over her shoulder to see Shy flinging ink away from her with every motion as she battled Kull. Not a single one of the newly formed monsters stayed to help her.

The fight shouldn’t have been a contest. Mira had watched Shy disembowel the man in a single, smooth motion. She herself had crushed his skull, or at least hit him hard enough to render him unconscious. But no matter what Shy hit Kull with, he kept coming. He was bleeding freely from too many shallow cuts to count, not even looking at his crushed knee and wrist.

That didn’t stop him from fighting without a limp or holding his weapon with both hands. The man simply wasn’t showing the kind of fatigue and exhaustion his injuries should have inflicted on him. Shy was more than holding her own, but her magic was being spent to defend Mira from their other attacker.

The other woman, Sybill, Mira assumed, was fending off everything Shy threw at her with ease. In the brief seconds Mira had taken to look back, the ground had already been covered in splattered ink. Even as Mira turned back to Sybill, the demon crushed another of Shy’s tattoos into nothing but a green dripping smear.

“Get away from her!” Shy screamed to Mira. “Run, you stupid girl!”

Mira stumbled and turned to run, but before she’d even taken her first step, Sybill grabbed hold of her hair and jerked her back so hard Mira felt the hair being pulled from her scalp. Sybill simply had too good a hold for her to escape.

The worst part was that she wasn’t even trying. She held Mira’s hair in her fist while battling six different creatures with her free hand. Even as Mira reached up to grab Sybill’s wrist and twist to break her grip, the demon spun in place. Mira was dragged along, thankfully with her hands still on Sybill’s wrist to relieve some of the pressure on her scalp.

When the world stopped spinning, she found herself on her knees facing toward Shy and Kull’s battle and covered in black, green, and blue ink. The last of Shy’s minions was gone, and the fact that Kull was a blood-soaked mess knocking on Death’s door didn’t do anything to alleviate the danger they were in.

Mira watched Shy bat Kull’s axe away rip him open. A minutes ago, he would have avoided the attack. Now he just grunted and, finally at the end of his strength, collapsed into a puddle of his own blood. Shy spared just enough time to make sure he wasn’t going to get back up before turning her attention to Mira and Sybill.

“We’re still alive,” Shy said. “So that must mean you want something.”

“Me? I want to kill you, the same as I wanted to kill you fifty years ago. And the only thing better than killing this girl would be to make Jorath watch, to make him see his planned betrayal fail. But he’s not here, and I have my orders, so the two of you will be coming back with me to Lord Ilrot. Alive.”

“I have no doubt that you can kill me,” Shy said. “But I don’t think you’re strong enough to take me alive.”

Sybill smirked and lifted Mira by her hair, just an inch, but enough to make her cry out in pain. “But if you’re uncooperative, your friend will suffer for it.”

“So? I’d rather let you kill her than let you take me back to my father.”

Something drizzled down Mira’s hands and solidified around her wrists. She tried to tilt her head up to see what it was, but her hair didn’t have the length to let her. Sybill shoved her face down into the ground though, and when she looked up, it was to see the blood-colored cuffs around her wrists.

“I guess we’ll do it the fun way then,” Sybill said, stepping past Mira and ignoring her.

* * *

There was no way Shy was winning a fight with Sybill. The other demon had a couple hundred years of experience on her, not to mention she’d been personally crafted by the King of Demons himself in a way that enhanced her own abilities as a member of the Valdrite demon hunter clan.

Plus, she was scary psychotic. Sybill would break ever bone in Shy’s body, laugh while she did it, and drag Shy back to her master by her hair, probably going out of her way to hit every rough patch of stones and brambles along the way. She was good enough at her job that Shy had no doubt she’d live through the whole thing too.

She thought she could fight Sybill to the point where she’d make the other demon kill her. It wasn’t the end she wanted, but it was preferable to being captured. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that though. That would all depend on Jorath, but she was confident he was motivated to intervene and protect his project. Since Mira wasn’t movable through his void portals, that meant defeating Sybill.

They closed the distance in an instant. Shy was strong, but she knew Sybill was stronger. She might have the edge in terms of speed, maybe. Her hand snaked out, only to be blocked when Sybill slapped her arm aside. Shy followed up with a kick from the opposite side, but Sybill blocked that to. Every blow was deflected with apparent ease.

Shy only had one pet left to her, the ulusoc. But summoning it was time-consuming, and painful. She’d be vulnerable, and Sybill would be quick to take advantage. Worse, she didn’t think for a second that even with the ulusoc she could beat Sybill. If it could buy her the time she needed for Jorath to get there, she’d trade it away in a heartbeat, not that she had one.

Sybill pressed the advantage. Her attacks were lightning fast, slipping through Shy’s defenses as often as they were blocked. The worst part was that it was all physical. Sybill hasn’t even started to use her power yet, while Shy had all but exhausted her own.

They went back and forth for seconds that turned into minutes. Shy was forced to admit that she wouldn’t be able to stop Sybill from capturing her unless she changed the game. She needed to get the heartstones back into Mira’s hands somehow. The bag was only tucked into a pocket, sitting so loose that Shy might be able to free it in the chaos of combat and toss it to Mira.

She faked a lunge forward, but Sybill didn’t take the bait, and when Shy reversed it, her opponent wasn’t caught offguard. That was alright though. The real feint within a feint was designed to push Sybill back to one side and display the pocket holding Mira’s pouch. The trick wouldn’t even be to get the heartstone out. It would be to do it without Sybill noticing.

Shy made her move. It cost her a knee across the face when she dropped for a leg sweep, which of course the other demon hopped over. But tripping her hadn’t been the goal. Shy managed to come up inside Sybill’s guard and lift the bag with one hand and toss it toward Mira while simultaneously slapping Sybill’s arm out wide to land an uppercut.

The movement was smooth. It was done within an actual attack. The bag landed at the precise moment Shy’s fist connected with Sybill’s jaw, blocking out the soft thump of leather hitting dirt. And Shy knew from the grin on the other demon’s face that she hadn’t fooled her one single bit.

The only option left then was to press the attack, to be so ferocious that Sybill couldn’t do anything with the knowledge that the human was armed again. It was a reckless strategy, one that would leave her wide open to a devastating counterattack if she couldn’t contain Sybill’s movements.

It paid off for about eight seconds. Blow after block rocked Sybill back, and Shy thought she might actually have a chance, even without Mira. Then blood spikes erupted from Sybill’s body. They tore holes in her clothes and spanned the gap between their bodies, piercing Shy’s torso and stomach.

The spikes retracted back into Sybill. Without their support to keep Shy upright, she staggered forward, directly into the same uppercut she’d delivered to Sybill seconds earlier. Only in her case, it lifted Shy off the ground and laid her out flat on her back. Sybill didn’t even watch her land. She was already walking to Mira before Shy hit the ground.

* * *

“Stay back,” Mira said as she fumbled the inferolisk heartstone out of the pouch. She held it in front of her, hands still bound, and the stone glowing white hot between her fingers.

Sybill laughed. “Or you’ll what, give me a sunburn? Do you even know how to use that thing?”

Mira sent a gout of flame through the air directly into Sybill’s face. When the fire cleared though, the demon wasn’t there. She’d somehow used the fire as a screen and was circling to Mira’s left. In the second it’d taken for the fire to die out, she’d not only dodged it, but she’d closed half the distance.

Mira panicked. She couldn’t beat this opponent. She couldn’t even hit her. But if her fear robbed her of reason, it didn’t stop her from acting. She poured everything she had left into the heartstone, and it answered her call.

Fire bloomed around her in every direction. It swept out like a wall, rushing across the ground in one unbroken line. Without even thinking about it, she could sense Sybill’s body heat beyond the conflagration. She knew the instant Sybill leaped into the air, and the fire rose up to meet the demon at the apex of her jump. Sybill took the hit directly, but fire didn’t have kinetic energy, and however badly it might have burned the demon, it didn’t stop her from landing inside the wall of flames.

Mira sent out another pulse of fire, and another one behind that. She had some vague hope that she’d somehow catch Sybill between walls, scorch her flesh to a crisp, crunchy black, and save herself. The heartstone’s heat sensing abilities couldn’t even distinguish Sybill between the walls of fire.

But it told her the moment Sybill passed through them, now behind Mira. Mira screamed, poured everything left into it, and the heartstone gave its all in return. It was too much energy for the heartstone, and the bleedover had to go somewhere. On the ground, freed from the pouch when Mira had pulled free the inferolisk heartstone, the other one started glowing.

Sudden wind kicked up, a miniature tornado centered around Mira. It caught the flames and whipped them around into a firestorm, one that was hungry. It sought out Sybill, chased her as she danced away from the heat. Mira could feel her retreating even as the winds scoured the ground bare and the fire baked it until it cracked.

Then her energy gave out. The winds died down, and the fire went up in a flash. She slumped forward and collapsed, face down into the dirt again.

“Well that was impressive,” Sybill said. “Sloppy, brief, and ineffective, but in terms of sheer power, impressive.”

Mira turned her head to look at Sybill’s approaching feet. That was the only reason she saw a black rent split the air, and Sybill freeze in place as a second set of feet appeared behind her.