Mira woke up cold and shivering. Her back was a knot of pain, and it was a toss up whether it beat out her hangover. It wasn’t until she kicked the blanket off and went to get out of bed that she realized she’d been lying on the ground naked.
She gathered the blanket back up to cover herself even though there was no one there to see her. Muted green light and droplets of water filtered through a heavy bough of pine needles overhead, showing her a cold, wet world of trees and underbrush, one that she didn’t recognize and certainly wasn’t her apartment.
A leather bag hung by its straps from a tree branch at eye level. Mira hesitated for a second, but seeing no one else around and acutely aware of her lack of clothing or shoes, she opened it. Inside was a pair of plain homespun cotton trousers and a shirt straight out of a renaissance faire. Neither fit her, but they were better than being naked.
Once she’d taken the blanket off, she realized it was actually some sort of hooded cloak. Unlike the shirt and pants, it was silky smooth and somehow water sealed. Intricate stitching of blue and red popped out against the black material to form some sort of symbol like nothing Mira had ever seen. Either way, she was cold enough to put it back on and wrap it around herself.
As she pulled it over her head, she saw a cut on her wrist, three inches long and only a fraction of an inch from the vein. Something had happened, something about a broken glass. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember the details. Thankfully, whatever the accident was, it had resulted in a minor cut and not her bleeding out. Compared to the muscle ache from sleeping naked under some trees, it didn’t even hurt.
Dressed and relatively warm, Mira finally looked around. She had somehow wandered out of her apartment, right out of town apparently, and passed out in the woods, naked. It must have happened late enough that no one had seen a nude drunk woman walking down the streets. That did nothing to explain the clothes or the cloak she’d used as a blanket though.
The only thing she could think of was that someone had come across her and been unable to move her. That person had presumably left her the pack and cloak, and Mira felt she should probably wait for whoever it was to come check on her. Then she could find out where she was and figure out how to get home.
After the uncomfortable experience of peeing in the woods and then waiting for an hour to see who showed up, Mira decided to take a more proactive approach. Walking across the bed of pine needles without shoes was a slow, painful process, but she figured she could flag down some help once she found a road. Whoever had left her the clothes would hopefully not mind never getting them back.
She walked for an hour in more or less a straight line. Working with her limited knowledge of local geography, she figured her best bet was to head south until she got out of the woodlands. It didn’t take long for her to accumulate a dozen scrapes and bruises on her bare feet, and by the time she sat down for a break, she had to wonder how she’d walked all the way into the woods naked to begin with.
Soon after, Mira found a stream that she thought might lead to a spot where it had been bridged a few miles west of town. The more she tried to piece together where she was and how she got there, the more bewildered she got. Nothing seemed to fit together how it should, but lacking a better option, and finding it much easier to follow the water than trudge through the trees, she changed direction.
She wanted to drink the water, but she’d heard too many horror stories of people getting sick from bacteria and pollutants in streams and rivers to risk it. Instead, she gazed longingly at it and tried to ignore how dry her throat suddenly felt. At least the water felt good over her bruised and battered feet.
As she trudged along, she lost herself in day dreams of warm, soft beds and foot massages and a tall glass of iced tea. A low growl from behind her snapped her back to the present, and she froze in place. Slowly, expecting to find a bear ready to rip her to pieces, she looked over her shoulder.
What the thing was, she couldn’t say. It looked something like the unholy offspring of a wolf and a gorilla. Grey furred, it walked on four legs, but the front two were twice as thick as the back two, and its shoulders were nearly three feet wide. A smooth domed skull had a pair of beady black pinpricks for eyes in it under heavy brows, and an elongated, almost cartoonish muzzle jutted out its front end. Yellowed, jagged teeth poked out on either side.
The creature was standing, or maybe squatting, on a rock shelf that overlooked the stream. With an ungainly shuffling hop, it jumped down to land in the water and stalked around Mira in a slow circle. She turned with it, half watching it and half listening to see if there were any more. When it had reached the middle of the stream, which was only a foot deep, she turned and bolted for the trees.
The creature let out a bellow and splashed after her. Mira didn’t stop to look back though. As soon as she hit the tree line, she scrambled through the branches of the first decent sized tree she could find and climbed. She wasn’t more than five or six feet off the ground when the creature slammed into the truck, causing the whole tree to shake.
Mira screamed, but clung to the branches. She climbed higher, with visions of the creature’s teeth sinking into her leg to prod her on. Only when she was ten feet up did she risk looking back down at it. It had wedged itself between branches and was glaring up at her, hatred and hunger in its eyes. With a deliberate motion, it brought its front two paws up and pressed down on a branch until it gave way.
Mira saw with a shock that the paws had thumbs on them, that the creature was actually grabbing the branches and breaking them to give itself more room. Suddenly, her clever plan of waiting it out up a tree didn’t seem so smart. As the creature gave itself more and more space, it climbed up a few feet off the ground. Mira wiggled through the branches and climbed higher to stay out of its reach, but it was only a matter of time until she ran out of tree.
She worked a branch back and forth until it snapped; the gorilla-wolf creature had made them seem much easier to break. Then she leaned down and stabbed at the creature. It snarled and snapped back at her. With one of its strange paw-hands, it grabbed the branch and jerked it down. Mira let go, but it was too late. She tumbled off her perch and smacked into the creature, sending them both to the ground.
She landed on top, but it grabbed her before she could scramble away. With frightening ease, it hauled her around into a roll so that she was pinned under its bulk. Its muzzle dipped toward her face and she slapped at it. Undeterred, the creature’s jaw spread impossibly wide, as if it was going to engulf her head in a single bite. Mira kicked at it and tried to shove its mouth aside. The creature didn’t even seem to notice her struggling.
Then her hand slipped down its neck to its chest. Heat blossomed across her fingers and the creature flinched. It tried to jerk away, but somehow its flailing had transformed from animal strength to feeble thrashing. The heat pulsed up Mira’s hand to her elbow, and she felt something rough textured and solid under her fingertips.
The creature let out a pain-filled howl as her hand closed around the object. She looked down to see her arm inside the creature’s chest, but not through any sort of hole or tear. It had simply passed through the fur and skin like a ghost in a movie. When she pulled her hand back, a stone as long as her forearm and wide as her wrist came out of the creature’s chest. It was the same silver-grey as the creature’s fur, covered in pulsing red veins of light.
The creature convulsed and fell over, only to climb back to its feet and wander away. It took no notice of Mira or anything else. She watched as it shuffled into a tree, only to careen off to the side when it bounced off the trunk and disappear into the woods.
“What. The. Fuck.”
The stone didn’t exactly burn her hand, but heat continued to shoot up in time with the pulsing red veins. A distant part of Mira’s brain told her to drop the thing, but it was a tiny voice buried beneath confusion and shock and trauma. Instead of listening, she just stared down at the stone until the heat reached her chest.
The whole world contracted into a single painfully bright point of light, just for an instant. When Mira came back to herself, it was like coming out of a fog. Everything was bright and clear. She could pick out minute details in the forest a hundred feet away. She could hear the stream, a bird flying overhead, some animal behind her rooting around, and the scrape of the creature’s feet over stone, all at the same time, all in perfect clarity.
That was the least of it. Mira could handle that. It was something she could process, something that made sense to her. What overwhelmed her were the smells. A hundred scents hit her all at once, each one more intense than anything she’d ever experienced. She couldn’t recognize more than a handful of them, couldn’t process any of it.
There were more of those creatures, she realized. None were near her, not even the one she’d fought anymore, but they were out there. At least a dozen of them were converging on another scent, something unnatural to the forest in a different way. It smelled of leather and soap and paper and wax and a dozen other things Mira couldn’t identify. But her mind put the pieces together and came up with the conclusion that there was another person.
Before she’d even realized what she was doing, Mira was following that scent. She never could have kept up with it, but the person wasn’t moving in a straight line. Instead, it wove between the scents of the creatures, and somehow it did it well enough that none came near it. It didn’t take Mira long to reach the person-scent.
She hobbled through the trees, acutely aware of each leaf under her feet. The rocks were knife-edge sharp, a pinecone the sort of torture device devised by Lego. Soon, the sound of humming came to her ears, accompanied by the notes of some stringed instrument.
Mira found the person skirting a patch of underbrush that had grown tangled between a stand of trees. She was tall, close to six feet, with a thick mane of dark blond hair that fell half way down her back. She held something U-shaped in her hand, with a bar across the mouth that had strings running from it to the bottom of the U. She plucked at the strings while she hummed, her face set in concentration.
“Um, hello,” Mira said. The woman’s head snapped up to stare at her in horror, and the notes of music faded away. Immediately, the creature-scents around them started moving closer.
“By Zade, what are you doing out here?” the woman asked.
“By what?” Mira said. “Nevermind. Listen, there are things out there around us. I think they’re dangerous.”
“Well of course they’re dangerous! Here, get closer. I’ve got to get this Obscurement back up before they find us. Going to be hell to do two people, but it beats letting you die.”
The woman grabbed Mira’s arm and dragged her closer. “Ok, just be quiet and stay close. Don’t bump my arm. There, that’s good.” Then she started to play again, this time faster. An electric tingle sent a shiver through Mira and up her spine.
The creature-scents hesitated. Where they’d been coming straight in before, they wandered listlessly. The closer they were, the less they seemed to move. As Mira trailed after the woman, whose face was covered in sweat as she played at a frantic pace, she saw one of the creatures staring slack-jawed through the trees.
They walked for maybe ten minutes before the music faltered again and the woman collapsed. She pulled herself to a sitting position and leaned back against a tree trunk, where she sat with her chest heaving. “That’s all I’ve got. Hopefully the demons are too far away to find us now.”
“Demons?” Mira asked. “Those things with the grey fur?”
“Yes, hunter demons. There’s not usually any this close to Vinmarch, and I’ve never heard of them moving in such large groups.”
Mira looked out into the trees. “They’re still out there. I can smell them.”
“You can what?” The woman looked up.
“One of them attacked me,” Mira said. “I took this thing from it and it ran off. It was nauseating at first, but I can see and hear farther, and smell everything now. It’s kind of cool, actually.”
The woman raised fearful eyes from the stone to Mira’s face. “That,” she said, pointing a finger, “is a demon’s heart. What the hell are you?”
“Why do you keep saying ‘demon?’ Are you some fire-and-brimstone end-of-the-world religious type?” Mira asked.
“What? I’m not the one holding a heartstone in my hand!”
“This thing?” Mira looked down at it. She shrugged and tossed it to the ground. “There. Happy now?”
Whatever the other woman was going to say, Mira didn’t hear it. A wave of vertigo crashed over her. The next thing she knew, she was on the ground facing the stone, which had started crumbling. Pieces of it flecked off and broke down until there was nothing but a pile of dust there.
Mira tried to sit back up, but managed nothing more than rolling over and throwing up into the pine needles and dead leaves. Then a pair of hands grabbed her under her armpits and lifted her to a standing position.
“Come on. We can’t stay here,” the woman said. “Hey! Move, I said. Here, just lean on- wait. What’s this symbol on your cloak?”
The woman recoiled and hissed. “Stay away from me,” she said, her eyes wide. Mira looked up blearily as the woman backed away and raised the instrument up between them. “I mean it.”
The last thing Mira saw was the woman playing again. Then a fog washed over her mind, and everything was blank.