There was no time for anyone to get between them. Not even Maluk, as fast as he was, could cross the room faster than that lunge. Even if he’d made it, Mira didn’t see how could he compare to the moving mountain bearing down on her.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to reach out for the heartstone’s power that saved her. Mira didn’t even realize she was doing it until after it was done. The power came to her anyway, without her even touching the heartstone, the demon was hurled backward, thrown by gale force currents of air that flattened everyone in the room. It struggled against the winds, but not even its monstrous strength was enough to push through them.
Mira narrowed her focus to the demon. The ribbons of wind ripping through the cell stilled everywhere except where they pushed the it back into the wall. It started to sink into the stone, which took on the consistency and texture of mud until it was submerged up to its neck. Only its head and hands remained exposed.
The mud turned back into rock, and Mira killed the wind. It left her hair tangled into knots and her clothing bound up into places she’d rather it wasn’t. After straightening herself out, she turned to Alyr for an explanation.
He saw the look on her face and shrugged. “Tahlana?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice worried. She approached the massive demon and examined it, ignoring the grasping hands and the low rumble coming from its mouth. “Something has changed recently. Patient Five has been more aggressive than normal, but even for him, this behavior isn’t typical.”
Mira took a step toward Alyr. That was all it took to set the demon off again. Her foot had barely touched stone before it unleashed a roar that shook stone. The sound of cracking rock echoed through the cell, and slowly it pushed one arm into open air. Flakes of rock cracked and crumbled away, revealing the entire limb and part of the demon’s chest.
“He doesn’t seem to like you,” Alyr said to Mira. “Perhaps we should leave and reconsider our options.”
More rock liquefied to recapture the demon even as it fought to free its other arm. Tahlana stepped squarely in front of it and reached both hands up to either side of its face. Mira could almost hear the quiet hum of power radiating from the woman, could feel it pressing against her skin.
Her heartbeat slowed. She felt languid, relaxed in a way she hadn’t known in years. It reminded her of warm summer days spent dozing in the yard. Her sister had always liked to tease her by tickling her nose with a blade of grass, always staying just out of reach to dodge Mira’s swats and coming back in for more. Mira would have given just about anything to have another day like that.
Alyr’s touch on her arm brought her back to reality. “Come on,” he said. “Patient Five will be easier to calm down if we’re not here.”
He guided Mira out of the room. They stopped on the stairs to wait for Maluk to exit behind them and close the cell door, though he was careful to leave an inch of open space so that it didn’t latch.
Alyr led the way up out of the Asylum, pausing only briefly at the door to Patient One’s cell. His fingertips brushed up against the metal door, but then, apparently changing his mind, he pulled his hand away and kept walking.
“How is he?” Mira asked from behind Alyr.
“The same, mostly.” Alyr paused. “He was lucid twice more yesterday, and for longer too. But he seems to be in a lot of pain now. Or maybe he always was and we just didn’t know.”
Alyr shook his head, but didn’t look back. “It’s not your fault. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
In silence, they finished their trek up the stairs.
* * *
Mira’s sleep was troubled, filled with nightmares of drowning in black waters while hungry fish circled at her. No matter how she thrashed, they were always there, always waiting for her to dip completely under the surface. They nipped at her clothes, pulling her until her head slipped under the water. She fought them off and struggled back up for air.
It wasn’t the sound of her door opening that woke her. She wasn’t even sure what it was, some change in the air maybe. But the door itself was completely silent, which was weird because it always squeaked a little bit for the first few inches. She sat up, one hand groping blindly behind her for the pouch containing her heartstone.
One of the Councilmen stepped into her room. It was the arrogant smirking one, the one who looked human. He blinked at seeing her already awake, then nodded. “Good,” he said, “Come with me. You’re needed.”
“I was asleep. You could have at least knocked.”
“I did.” The Councilman showed his teeth as he lied. There had been no knock. As bad as her dreams had been, as lightly as she’d been sleeping, there was no way she wouldn’t have heard it.
Maybe he was just a perv hoping to catch a free peek by barging in. Somehow, Mira doubted it was anything that innocent. The smile didn’t falter though. He took a step forward and held out a hand to her. “Time is a factor. We need to hurry.”
“Where are we going? And why are we going in the middle of the night?”
“Talk while you walk.”
The Councilman reached forward and grabbed her hand. He pulled Mira to him, practically dragging her out of the bed. She had just enough forethought to snake her hand through the heartstone pouch’s strap and bring it with her.
The Councilman cocked one eyebrow at her, daring her to do something about it. Mira was instantly pissed, and it was a struggle to remind herself that she needed these people. They probably wouldn’t take well to her assaulting one of their leaders, and that was assuming he didn’t just hand her her ass. She had no idea what kind of abilities he had, but if we was on the Council, she had to assume he was strong.
“You’re name… Hald, wasn’t it?” she asked. “I think I heard someone call you that at our meeting.”
He gave a half bow that she thought was meant to come off as courtly, but instead it just looked like he was mocking her. Then again, that might actually have been what he was going for. He was certainly enough of a dick that she wouldn’t put it past him.
“Yeah. Well, keep your hands to yourself from now on.”
“Of course.” He smiled at her again, the same grin he’d given her before. “My apologies. But as I just said, we need to hurry. We have only a small window of opportunity.”
“For what?” Mira said, dressing herself quickly. She could feel Hald’s eyes on her, and a shiver ran down her spine.
“It’s my turn. We’re all using each other for our own ends here, and I don’t intend to waste my time with you on the insane and the comatose. I have real work to do. Your abilities should make this easy. I’ve been trying to crack this thing for months, but I hear you can do it in minutes.”
“Are you always this vague?” Mira asked, pulling her boots on with a bit more force than was strictly necessary.
“You don’t sound sorry,” she muttered to herself. If Hald heard her, he ignored the barb.
There was a man standing in the hall waiting for them. Hald walked past him, Mira following, and the man fell in behind them. His face hidden in the shadow of a hooded cloak, one that he’d pulled low. The cloak itself came down almost to his ankles and looked far too big for him.
“Who’s your friend?” Mira asked.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re being awful mysterious about this whole thing.”
“If you want our help, you’ll have to help us in return. If that’s not acceptable to you, I’ll take you to the front door and you can be on your way.”
Mira doubted that. Even if she decided to cut ties with the Order, she figured she knew too much to just be let go now. Maybe they had some memory eating demon that would make her forget it all. That almost sounded like the best-case scenario. Any other way she could imagine figured around her being kept prisoner, maybe even with her own little cell in the Asylum.
She wasn’t sure if it was pessimistic or just practical to expect things to go sideways every chance they got, but it had happened often enough that she always expected it anymore. The whole thing stunk. Hald was setting her up somehow, and if he didn’t want her to see the face under that hood, then it was probably in her best interest to check it out anyway.
She sent a puff of air at the man, not strong enough to do any damage, but enough to make his clothes billow out and his hood blow back. He made a grab to pull it back down, but he obviously hadn’t been expecting to be revealed and wasn’t even close to fast enough.
Mira’s eyes widened and she stumbled away from the man. “You,” she gasped. “You’re the demon who tried to kill me in the infirmary.”
Hald scowled at her. “Couldn’t do this the easy way, could you? I really didn’t want to have to carry you all the way there.”
Mira didn’t waste time responding. She took off down the hall at a dead sprint, blowing past the demon in the cloak before he could react. Terror-induced adrenaline pumped through her, giving Mira the strength to run for what felt like days. Unfortunately, she made it all of five steps before a heavy weight landed on her and flattened her against the floor.
She twisted and tried to scramble away, but whatever the weight was, she couldn’t dislodge it. Mira shot a glance over her shoulder to look at her legs, only to see nothing there. “What?” she asked, her eyes rising up to take in the smirking Hald and his companion.
Hald closed the distance in a few long steps and ripped the heartstone pouch off Mira’s waist. He threw it down the hall, where it landed without even a thump. The other demon had dampened the sound of their scuffle, brief as it had been. Somehow, she could hear everything within a few feet, but nothing was coming in from outside the demon’s power.
Hald had planned this, then. Mira wasn’t sure of the limits of Maluk’s ability, but she knew he heard everything. He wasn’t more than ten feet from her, just behind a closed door, but she couldn’t reach him and she couldn’t call for help. When Hald reached down and hauled her up over his shoulder, she couldn’t do anything to stop him.
* * *
Wherever they took her, Mira made the journey feeling like she was being crushed under an immense weight, staring at the heels of Hald’s boots as he walked, and hearing absolutely nothing. There were several flights of stairs to break up the monotony of leather boots and smooth stone floors, but it was soon dark enough that she had problems making out even those sparse details.
Then Hald dumped her on the floor. A torch flared to life, held high in Hald’s hand and creating a pool of light in the darkness. “Here, Lortas. Hold this for me.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Hald passed the torch off and squatted down next to Mira. “So here’s how it works. We’ve got something on lockdown beneath our fortress. For all I know, it might even be why the damn thing was built inside this chunk of frozen rock to begin with. The seals guarding it are impenetrable. I’ve been trying to break them, but nothing’s worked. And then I hear about you, about what you did in Kardaros. You busted one of the strongest seals in history in a matter of minutes. So now you’re going to do this one for me.”
“I… don’t think I can,” Mira said. “I don’t know how I did the other one.”
“Don’t play games with me. This is too important.”
“I’m not lying to you! I wasn’t even awake for it. I have no idea how I broke that seal, and from what I understand, I only did it because it was set to only be unraveled by a someone from a demon hunter clan.”
Hald reached out and jerked her to her feet. “Then I guess you’ll have to muddle through. You’re not leaving here until you get through it.”
“Is that why you went through all this? So you could keep me here as long as you need me for? Or is it just so that you can kill me when you’re done? I just disappear and no one knows where I went or how it happened?”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to kill you. You’re too valuable, even if I wanted to. And why would I? I don’t have anything against you. But I’m not wasting any more time while the rest of those idiots poke at their test subjects, trying to bring back their friends and family from the good old days. We’ve got problems going on now.”
Hald pointed down at the floor. It glinted in the torch light, a giant plane of obsidian with a thousand sparking pinpricks of white light scattered across it. Blue lines connected them, making the whole thing look like some sort of constellation map.
“This is it. Get to work.”