Mira shivered and pulled her new cloak tighter around her. Autumn was coming in now, and the wind had a chill bite to it. Just watching Shy walk with her arms exposed gave Mira goosebumps. The demon didn’t feel the cold, however. It was only after Mira flatly refused to leave the last village without purchasing something to keep her warm that she’d even noticed it.
They’d been traveling for two weeks. Shy wouldn’t tell Mira their destination, only that they were getting closer. As enticement, she’d let slip one night that Jorath was supposed to meet them there.
The journey had been peaceful, if tiring, except for one chance encounter with a demon covered in spikes and spurs, so many that its body was barely visible. Its face had two ivory tusks jutting up out of its mouth, both so long that they curled up past its forehead. It had taken a single look at Shy, then disappeared back into the hole it had crawled out of.
They’d left the forested lands behind and traveled east. It had all gotten to be routine, so Mira was surprised when they settled down to sleep that night and Shy released a pair of ring tattoos from her wrist. Each expanded until it was about a foot in diameter. One floated away, while the other hovered at eye level.
“What are you doing?” Mira asked.
“Huervas is up tonight. The yith will be out hunting.”
“Ok, you’re going to have to explain that better.”
Shy didn’t look away from the ring in front of her. “Huervas, the red moon. It shows up for three nights every few months. Something about it affects the yith. Normally, they live in a slightly out-of-phase version of reality, but when Huervas is in the sky, they cross over.”
Mira looked up to see a small red orb in the sky, about a quarter the size of the normal moon she’d been seeing every night. “Huh. I wonder where it is the rest of the time,” she said aloud.
“Who cares?” Shy said. “The important thing is the moon is a warning. Yith are always hungry. You can’t reason with them or intimidate them. They don’t run away. It’s kill or be killed, and there’s no such thing as a single yith. If you see one, rest assured a hundred more are nearby.”
“Are they strong? Can we fight them?”
“Five or ten? Sure. It won’t be five or ten though. Best thing for us to do is not run into them. If I find any, we’ll be walking through the night. If they find us, we’ll be running instead of walking.”
With that comforting thought, Mira settled down to sleep. It wouldn’t come though. Every little noise jumped out at her, kept her heart rate up. A kind of nervous tension came over her, so much so that she almost wished this monster would just get it over with and jump out of the bushes.
It didn’t happen like that. Mira didn’t even realize she’d dozed off until Shy shook her awake. “Come on,” she whispered. “There’s a pack a few miles away from us heading in this direction. We need to go farther south.”
Wearily, Mira climbed to her feet and followed the demon into the dark. She never saw or heard anything, but more than once Shy abruptly changed direction. The ring floated along next to her, off to one side, and Shy spent as much time looking through it as she did watching where she was going.
They didn’t stop until daybreak. As the sun crested the horizon, Shy let out a relieved sigh. The second ring reappeared, interlocked with the first, and both shrunk down to a bare inch in diameter each as they were absorbed into her wrist. “Get some rest. We’re close enough to the meeting spot to make it before dusk tonight if we push.”
Mira was too keyed up to go back to sleep, but just sitting down for an hour was a huge improvement. They ate the last of their leftovers from the last village they’d passed through while they rested. While they were eating, Mira asked, “What is this place we’re going to?”
“An old city called Kaldaros,” Shy said. “It was broken by the demons during the First Breach hundreds of years ago. They say it’s cursed now, that anyone who enters will be driven insane.”
“Oh… Why are we going there again?”
Shy shrugged. “I didn’t ask. I don’t really care. All I have to do is get you there. Then my part is done. You and Jorath can do whatever you want to each other. Kill him, for all I care. Or get killed by him, more likely.”
“Cheery,” Mira muttered. The thought of finally facing the man who’d taken her from her life and abandoned her in some medieval fantasy world full of demons and fairies and who knew what else was more than enough motivation to get her moving. When they started up again, Mira had no problems keeping up.
They walked down a deserted road all that day, one that was barely more than a straight line of dirt patches and two parallel wheel ruts long overgrown with grass. It bisected the grasslands as far as she could see, deviating only to circle around the broad hills that dotted the landscape.
Late in the afternoon, the walls of the city came into view. They were grey and broken things. The first one had looped around a hill, and it was only standing in patches. The interior walls, higher up the slope of the hill, were in better shape, but still showed great charred patches and jagged rents.
“This place is huge,” Mira remarked. “Did Jorath tell you where exactly he’d be in it?”
“He’ll know when we get there,” Shy said, “and send out a guide to lead us to him.”
That was all the information Shy was willing to volunteer, no matter how many more questions Mira asked. Eventually, the demon grew sick of it and curtly told Mira to stop talking. The last few hours of the trip was made in silence tinged with open hostility. Mira decided she wouldn’t mind being rid of Shy either.
Shy led her to a gaping chasm in the walls a hundred feet wide. “Once, the gates of Kaldaros stood here,” she said. “ Humanity made its stand in the square just beyond it and was broken by the king of demons. The history books tell us that what followed was a generation of nightmares for your kind until one of your ancestors took the king’s heartstone from him and drove the demons back with its power.”
“That’s… uh… nice, I guess,” Mira said, trying not to roll her eyes. “How come it isn’t all overgrown like everything else?”
“Nothing grows here,” Shy said. “Not since the day the city fell.”
It was an eerie thing, walking through an empty city. Row after row of empty houses lined the streets, doors hanging open or gone altogether. All of it was perfectly preserved, including the damage from the invasion. Here and there, entire squares had been smashed into piles of debris. Streets terminated in huge pits with cracks a foot wide radiating out from them.
“I thought you said Jorath was going to know when we got here,” Mira said. “It’s been an hour of wandering around.”
“Yes.” Shy looked troubled. “Maybe we beat him here. We are ahead of schedule, thanks to the yith.”
Dusk fell as they walked, and the red moon rose up overhead. It cast the abandoned city in an odd, rust-colored light, almost like old blood stains. The only thing keeping Mira there was the chance of getting a shot at Jorath, not that it would matter if he never showed his face.
After another hour of exploring, Shy stopped and pointed. “There, that’s the sign.”
“I don’t see anything,” Mira said.
“On the wall. That shadow.”
Once Shy had pointed it out, Mira could see a man shaped silhouette against the stone, though there was nothing there to cast the shadow. It turned and walked away from them, stopping only to jump off the wall and splash against the next house in the line.
It reformed and took off, almost too fast for Mira to keep up with. Soon, both of the women were sprinting down the street chasing after it. Mira ducked her head and focused on her breathing, but Shy let loose a steady stream of swearing that increased in volume every time the shadow jumped buildings.
They turned a corner to see the shadow disappear into an open door three houses down. By the time they reached the door, it was nowhere to be seen. Mira hesitated, but Shy started in. When Mira didn’t follow, Shy turned around and grabbed her arm.
“What if it’s a trap?” Mira asked, still huffing from the run.
“Why would it be a trap?”
“I don’t know! But look, this doorway leads to stairs that go underground. It’s too dark to see down there, and who knows what’s waiting for us?”
Shy rolled her eyes and walked into the dark. “Do what you want,” she called back up. “I doubt Jorath is going to let you walk away, not when you’re this close.”
A light flared up on the stairs, just before they turned a corner. Hesitantly, Mira started down. The light never got closer, but it wasn’t so far away that she couldn’t make out the crumbling steps beneath her feet. They turned a few more times before ending outside a closed door. Shy stood next to it, a flickering orange light clinging to her hair.
Mira peered at it curiously. Whatever it was, it was alive. It crawled down Shy’s hair to perch on her shoulder, its skin glowing. Once Mira got close enough, she could see that it looked like some sort of lizard, maybe six inches long. Shy smirked at her and held a hand up for the lizard to hop into.
“A baby salamander,” she explained. “They’re not hot enough to burn when they’re this young. Of course, the real ones don’t stay small long enough to be useful, but this version is forever.”
She pulled open the door to reveal a long room that ran straight into the darkness. “There’s someone here,” Shy said, peering into the room.
“Well, yeah, there’s supposed to be.”
“Not Jorath.” Shy walked through the door and let the salamander down to scuttle across the floor. “Who’s there?”
“An associate of his,” a man’s voice called back from the shadows at the far end of the room. “He asked for my assistance, but was forced to leave to deal with the problems caused by Huervas.”
A tattoo writhed down Shy’s arm to drop from her hand to the floor, growing as it fell. When it landed, the spider from the Weeping Man was crouched on the floor next to her. Now that it wasn’t flying through the air, Mira got a good look at it, and it was terrifying. Its back was about 8 inches off the ground, and its legs could probably wrap completely around her head. Short, bristly black fur covered its body except for a dark green line running down its thorax.
Shy sent the spider and the baby salamander forward with a gesture. “Don’t take this personally, but until I’ve verified that, don’t make any sudden moves.”
“My dear, what makes you think your pet threatens me in the slightest?” the voice asked, amusement in his tone.
The salamander reached the voice then. Its light revealed an old man sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cane balanced across his knees. His hair, what remained of it, was pulled back into a long tail, and his face was a mass of wrinkles bisected by scar tissue. He wore a loose shirt with wide sleeves and pants that puddled around him on the floor.
“Toshi clansman!” Shy yelped. “How? Your kind should be dead.”
“All the ones who didn’t submit to the master are, of course,” the man said. “My name is Shodo. And you are the ink demon who calls herself Shy. That must make this other young woman the reason we’re all here.”
“Dark Father preserve me,” Shy uttered. For the first time since Mira had met her, she actually looked afraid. “I’m not going back. I’ll die first.”
“You’ll do as you’re told, because you don’t have a choice. But do not worry, I’m not here to return you home. My presence is purely as a favor for Jorath.”
“Um, not to be rude,” Mira put in, “but what the hell is going on and why do you look like a walking Chinese kung fu master stereotype?”
“That is a rather long story, but suffice to say that you do not represent the first interaction between this world and yours. My own family, several thousand years ago, colonized a part of your world. I suspect it would be more accurate to say that our styles and mannerisms were adopted by the humans of Earth rather than the other way around.”
“Demons live on Earth?” Mira asked, shooting a questioning glance at Shy.
“No, this was well before the Toshi clan became demons. Back then, we were the demon hunters, and a branch of the family grew tired of the life. They wished for a world without demons, and relocated to yours. In doing so, of course, they became residents of a world without magic.”
“It was the Toshi clan that recommended your own ancestors be banished to Earth,” Shy added. “I suspect the experience of their own family migrating there inspired the idea.”
“Too true,” Shodo said. “But I’m afraid we don’t have any more time for history lessons. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Jorath is returning to us.”